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Los Alamos & the Reserva Monte Mojino, Mexico:
A Travel Journal, Written by Andrew Denman, 2016:
Ever since my participation in the Sea of Cortez exhibition in 2013, I have become increasingly involved with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) in Tucson, AZ. This unique institution is equal parts Botanical Gardens, Zoo, Conservation and Educational Organization, and Art Gallery. I was fortunate to have my solo touring exhibition, Andrew Denman: The Modern Wild, curated by Dr. David J. Wagner, author of American Wildlife Art, show at the ASDM in 2015, which was my first experience working closely with Holly Swangstu, Director of the Ironwood Gallery and Baldwin Art Institute. That exhibition was the beginning of a great friendship and very productive working relationship, both with Holly and with the Institution at large, that has since given me some truly remarkable opportunities, most particularly, Project Sonoran Desert Resurgence. This project, as yet organically evolving, proposes to take select groups of artists, researchers, and museum staff to unique and environmentally sensitive areas of Mexico and the greater Sonoran Desert Region to gather reference material for a series of cross-disciplinary museum quality art exhibitions. These shows will demonstrate the synthesis of art, science, and local communities in protecting and conserving wildlife, wild places, and our shared natural heritage. The first such trip took me to Cabo Pulmo, a coastal marine sanctuary on the very southern tip of the Baja Peninsula in 2015, and more recently to the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Los Alamos, Mexico in October of 2016. All of these trips, I should point out, are made possible by Priscilla and Michael Baldwin, who founded the ASDM’s Art Institute and who, with Holly’s leadership, are the driving force behind its continued evolution.
Our team for the Alamos Expedition consisted of Art Institute Director Holly Swangstu, ASDM Executive Director Craig Ivanyi, his wife, artist Rachel Ivanyi, Sergio Avilla, a conservation biologist at the ASDM, artist Martha Thompson, my partner and fellow artist Guy Combes, and I. For part of our trip, we were joined by Jennifer MacKay, the director of the Reserva Monte Mojino near Alamos, and four reserve Guardians, Felix, Miguel, Alejando, and Cuate, who despite some language barriers, proved themselves to be patient and helpful sources of local information as well as invaluable guides throughout the reserve. What follows is my daily journal, written in the field and edited later only for purposes of enhancing coherence and flow, not for content, which remains as true and accurate a representation of my immediate impressions as possible.
For more information on the Reserva Monte Mojino, please visit: MonteMojino.org
For more information on the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, please visit: DesertMuseum.org
A twelve-hour drive anywhere may sound horrendous, but somehow the trip down to Los Alamos, Mexico, seemed like a breeze. Sergio Avilla drove with Guy and I as passengers, and despite warnings from other members of our team about Sergio’s music choices, the vast majority of our car time was spent without the aid of the radio and completely absorbed in conversation. When we did listen to music, it was eighties nostalgia all the way, and who can argue that a good power ballad is anything other than the perfect accompaniment to a long and dusty road? Most of our conversation focused on conservation, wildlife, and art, and the hours melted away. Sergio is a conservation biologist at the ASDM, and possesses a wealth of knowledge and experience both as an academic and as a serious field researcher. He is also a warm and welcoming man with an infectious smile, a ready wit, and a big personality that is impossible not to like. After having spent a good deal of time with him in Cabo Pulmo, I am excited to be traveling with him again, and of course to have the opportunity for he and Guy to finally meet in person after much correspondence on Facebook.
Our border crossing is somewhat traumatic, taking an absurd amount of time due to some confusion over the weight of our vehicles, which are erroneously listed on the titles at a ridiculous 8,000 pounds each. Holly has to photograph the tags inside the doors of our SUV’s to prove that the actual weights are well under that figure. There is also much consternation over the fact that we are driving vehicles owned by the ASDM. Apparently commercial vehicles require different permitting. I feel fortunate that the sorting out of this mess is in more capable (and more bilingual) hands than mine, and I can only watch the comedy of errors as our capable leaders make trip after trip from one bureaucratic window to another. There is even some talk of heading up the road to another office where some eye-batting from the women in our group may speed things along, when suddenly the log jam frees and the waters are flowing again. There is almost no one at the crossing, and we are there for over ninety minutes; I can only imagine the wait had they actually been busy! As we finally head back to our cars and our destination, Sergio and Holly point several confused tourists in the right direction when we overhear that they are having the same problem we’ve just faced. No such problem occurred only two weeks earlier when Holly led a small reconnaissance team to Los Alamos to prepare the way for our current expedition, but now this inexplicable holdup seems to be the rule rather than the exception. What a difference two weeks and another layer of bureaucracy makes!
As we drive on, Sergio points out the gradual changes in landscape and plant life as we descended from the “Sky Islands” (rich, forested islands of green rising from the otherwise dry desert scrub of the Sonoran Desert) and into lower elevations. Only one individual jaguar has been observed in the Catalina Mountains in Arizona itself, and these mountains, Sergio tells us, are the northernmost range of the jaguar, though their populations here are very thin and scattered over a huge area. The landscape slowly but steadily becomes less lush, the vegetation sparser. Cacti began appearing again, and before long we are in true desert once more. First to appear are the Saguaro that dominate the landscape around Tucson like an army of green sentries offering spiny hugs, though not in as great a profusion here, then increasing numbers of Organ Pipe cacti which rise from the sunbaked desert floor like great green octopi holding their tentacles rigidly skyward. Soon the Saguaro are replaced by Hecho, which are similar to the Saguaro but larger, with more “arms,“ and a more erect posture. When we stop at a gas station and I view some of them up close, I realize they are the same type of cacti the ASDM’s Jesús García pointed out to us in Cabo Pulmo; they have a distinctive, spiny fruit like a yellow sea urchin which local Indians used to use as a hair comb, hence the common name “Aborigine’s Comb.” As we near the town of Los Alamos, the trees become larger, and we begin seeing epiphytes, especially wild grape vines, that drape shrubs, trees and cacti alike in great blankets of green (where fresh) and red-brown (where the unforgiving desert sun has baked them to a crisp).
As we drive through large towns and small villages alike, I notice the absurd profusion of signs advertising Carne Asada and jokingly ask Sergio if it is the national dish. “No,” he replies, “But it is the state dish of Sonora!” Sergio goes on to tell us that the high consumption of red meat is likely why Sonora has a higher incidence of colon cancer than any other state in Mexico. He also gives us a fascinating education on cattle and cowboy culture in Sonora. It becomes increasingly clear that the challenges for conservationists working in Mexico are almost exactly the same as in Africa. This realization leads to an in-depth discussion between Sergio and Guy, who is the US Development Director for Soysambu Conservancy, a forty-eight-thousand-acre conservancy in his Kenyan homeland that also operates as a cattle ranch. In both cases, the biggest threat to wildlife, in addition to habitat loss, is the resulting human wildlife conflict, especially when it comes to livestock predation. In Mexico and Kenya alike, one’s cows are not just a source of food and income, but a visible symbol of wealth and self-worth. Local farmers who lose valuable animals to native predators will find a way to resolve the issue, and that often means hunting, trapping, or poisoning the suspected offenders, unless of course someone can show them a better way. No attempt to protect jaguars in Mexico or cheetahs, lions, or leopards in Africa can be successful without taking into account the need to work directly with local herdsmen and ranchers to mitigate the inevitable conflict between wild animals and livestock.
Our first night’s stop is the Los Alamos home of important Tucson-based ASDM benefactors David and Sarah Smallhouse. We arrive at their beautiful Hacienda, and I am immediately off on the trail of birds. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with tropical plants, including great hanging balls of orchids and even a few large clumps of a Tillandsia I can’t positively identify but think might be T. capitata. Though there are plenty of large ornamental Frangipani and a few trees I’m not familiar with, most of the landscape is edible, with riotously healthy citrus around every corner. There are even ripe kumquats in profusion, and I can’t resist the temptation to pluck a few and eat them out of hand. They are as tart and delicious as I’d hoped. Within minutes I see Broad-billed Hummingbirds in the filmy branches of a high tree, flitting seductively amongst the shadowed branches like green and blue gems, their bright red bills flashing in and out of the rays of dappled sunlight. Not long after, I spy the large and impressive Violet-crowned Hummingbird, which I have been hoping to see since Holly’s reported sighting from her recon trip. There are so many tantalizing and alien bird calls that it is hard to even know in which direction to look. I can readily identify the harsh chattering of some kind of parrot or parakeet, though I can’t see them amidst the dense canopies overhead, and the noise vanishes before I can get a proper look at a single one. Finally, the call of dinner draws me away from the birds, and we enjoy a lovely meal of smoked meats provided by Holly’s husband, Andrew.
Before bed, I spend some time with the Ivanyis chasing after lizards and geckos with our flashlights. We must look quite silly to the casual observer, ducking in and around trees and wildly stabbing the darkness with spears of light until one of us calls out “Gecko!” and all beams converge on the same square of wall or tangle of branches, but I’m having far too much fun to care. Martha and Guy and I watch bats zipping in to drink from the hummingbird feeders, but they are so fast as to defy detection as anything other than vague impressions. After a few minutes of trying to anticipate their movements to snap a quick, flash-lit photograph, we give up and retire to bed. Guy’s and my room is lovely, reminding me of something out of a Stewart Granger adventure film, with plantation shutters, gently whirring ceiling fans, warmly glowing wrought iron fixtures, and a patchwork of dark wood, white plaster, and colorful tiles. The hot shower is restorative, though I keep a wary eye on the large Huntsman Spiders that cling, flat and crab-like to the bathroom walls. Despite a greater degree of comfort than I expected, the night is hot, sticky, and still, and sleep creeps over me with a slow and uncharitable reluctance.
Into the Reserve
The next morning Guy and I wake with the birds and wander out into the garden. We are very excited to see the rare and endemic Mexican Parrotlet. I see a flock of them land in a tree behind the Hacienda, and Guy and I decide to climb up on the roof for a better look. The experience is somewhat frustrating as the camouflage of these little birds is masterful. Several small groups of Parrotlets arrive looking like a shower of green emeralds against the blue sky, but the second they hit the canopy of the tree, they completely and utterly vanish. We discover that the birds are eating some tiny yellow berries on this particular tree, so we watch carefully for the rustling of leaves at the ends of branches where the berries are clustered. Eventually Guy spots a bird not entirely obscured by foliage and we are able to get some good pictures and identify it. Having lived with a Pacific Parrotlet for about six years (a very similar looking bird) I can’t help but feel like I’m having a visit with an old friend. When I have some time to spend with the stack of field guides my fellow travelers have brought, I am delighted to discover that we have seen a rare endemic. Sadly, the population of these beautiful little birds is dwindling, and the greatest remaining concentration happens to be in the town of Los Alamos itself, rather than in the surrounding forests. My somewhat educated guess is that the use of irrigation and the planting of fruiting trees and shrubs in the town makes living alongside man more convenient than in the wild forests, where food supplies fluctuate wildly with the whims and uncertainties of rainfall.
For breakfast, we head to El Pedegral, a nature lodge and retreat center owned and operated by Jennifer and David MacKay. They also run Solipaso, a small tour company that offers birdwatching and natural history tours, often personally guided by David, throughout bird-rich environments in Mexico. Jennifer works for Nature and Cultural International (NCI) as the director of the Reserva Monte Mojino (ReMM), where we will be spending the majority of our time on this trip. She is in charge of the overall management of the reserve as well as their bi-national fundraising and outreach efforts. She and David are also currently in the process of building a vast public park in Alamos itself, which has enormously benefited the entire community. Amazingly, Jennifer still manages to fit part-time yoga instructor into her schedule! They are a busy and dynamic couple, yet both of them exude a sense of confident and comfortable ease that immediately wins me over. Over a lovely breakfast of huevos rancheros, we also have an opportunity to meet Lydia Lozano, a bright and passionate young woman who acts as coordinator between the ReMM and the larger Federal Reserve within which it is nestled. Though local people, including ranchers, do live inside the reserve, I should note that there is no public access. The Desert Museum had to obtain special permission for us to enter the ReMM (we even needed permits to take photographs for reference). It is quite possible we artists are among the first non-scientist foreigners allowed.
After eating, my fellow artists and I spend a few minutes wandering the beautiful grounds of El Pedegral, following luminous purple butterflies, watching dozens of small leopard frogs hopping about in the pond, and trying vainly to get good pictures of the very bad tempered Violet-crowned Hummingbirds (each of which seems to think the feeders belong to it and it alone). We also see a few lizards, including a lovely Spiny-tailed Iguana, still in its green phase.
We head back to the Hacineda and pack up, then hit the road for the reserve. When Sergio first turns off the main road, I think we are making a temporary detour, but soon learn that much of our “road” is actually a dry and dusty riverbed. When we do emerge onto a road, it is rough and rugged and continually crosses small streams and washes along our way. We spot a Grey Hawk, and later a Zone-Tailed hawk spiraling on the thermals amidst a half-dozen turkey vultures. A Crested Caracara, a wonderfully exotic-looking raptor, explodes from the road in front of us and flies out of sight before I’ve had anything but the briefest glimpse. I am delighted to see one of my favorite plants, the Caesalpinia or “Bird of Paradise Bush,” dotting the drier sunlit areas with offerings of vibrant, red-orange flowers borne above lacey green leaves. I’ve become so used to seeing this fanciful flower in cultivation that I immediately assume it has been deliberately planted here or accidentally reseeded from a nearby garden, but Sergio assures me it is a native plant; its local name is “Tubachin.” As we near the reserve, the landscape becomes increasingly dense. Where we cross the river, huge Montezuma Cypress shadow the banks, their contorted branches hung with debris from recent flooding. It’s easy to see from these matted knots of uprooted grasses and accumulated leaves and sticks how shockingly high the water level must have come; certainly, this road we are on, which crosses river and stream in multiple locations- and in some places is the river bed itself- would be completely impassable in the aftermath of even a normal rain, let alone this previous torrent. It becomes very clear to me how minimal the access to this area really is. Were we to encounter troublesome weather on this trip, it might very well be impossible for us to leave on schedule.
By the time we arrive at our camp, it is the full heat of the day, humid, and languorous. The camp is modest but lovely, a small collection of rustic buildings nestled at the base of forested hill a short distance from the river. There are two guest living quarters, (one of which Guy and I take while Martha and Holly take the other, and Craig and Rachel camp out in the garden), separate living quarters for the reserve Guardians, a small but well-equipped kitchen, two outdoor bathrooms, and outdoor showers, complete with hot and cold running water. As excited as I am to explore further, I am aware that birds are highly unlikely to be active at this time of day, and being thoroughly exhausted, I take our timing as a convenient opportunity for a nap. When Guy and I awake in our small twin beds under gauzy mosquito nets, we are happy to see two very fat leaf-toed geckos perched high on the wall of our room. Even if I didn’t adore lizards of all kinds as I do, I’ve spent enough time in places like this to be thankful for the insect control these lovely little creatures provide. We take a stroll down by the river, which is a scant hundred or so feet from camp. The evening is fast descending, blue, violet, and dark-green shadows rising from the river stones and creeping up the tangled tree branches to meet the ever-ascending orangey band of late afternoon light. The Cypress hang darkly over the swirling pools of shallow water that cut in and around jumbled boulders, fingers of sandy beach, and the rocky, pebbled shoreline. I immediately notice the profusion of extraordinary, chunky black dragon flies. They startle up from their perches on the jumbled rocks with almost every step I take. Symmetrical patches of their dark wings are completely transparent, breaking up their silhouettes and transforming them into surreal, unreadable shapes. A tiny grey frog, so camouflaged as to be almost invisible, hops across my path like an animated pebble. I alert Craig and Rachel, who immediately identify it as a Canyon Tree Frog. As I head back along the river towards camp, I notice one particularly large and twisted Montezuma Cypress leaning at a forty-five-degree angle and half swallowed by a massive strangler fig. The last light of the day shining through the Cypress’s pale, yellow-green leaves makes them look transcendently golden. I’m within sight of our room when I encounter a very excited Holly. She enthusiastically points out a beautiful bird which I quickly identify, with the help of our ample stack of field guides, as a Painted Whitestart. It is a living exclamation in red, black and white, piping joyfully from the trees in the immediate vicinity of our lodging. Guy and I follow it for a long while, snapping pictures until the light fades past all suitability.
Before dinner I give the outdoor showers a try. It’s still warm enough that I am sure I’ll be sticky with sweat again in no time, but the hot water feels wonderful as I wash away the layers of sun screen and bug spray. Angela Dominguez Escalante, who accompanied us from El Pedegral, cooks a wonderful dinner of mole with rice, tortillas, zucchini and cheese. She is a delightful woman with a ready smile and great patience for my appalling high school level Spanish, and her cooking is more than satisfying, especially at the end of a long and active day.
Night falls with a symphony of insect sounds and a surprising and welcomingly cooling breeze. The steady background drone of countless crickets and frogs supply the chorus, while the soloists make their presences known in a series of strident interjections: beeps, buzzes, chitterings, chatterings, and the high-pitched, monotonal piping of owls. Bats swoop in and out of lights, noiselessly snatching the great moths that gather around every available light source. Guy and I take a walk with my black light, hoping to encounter some scorpions. We find none, but we do find a great knot of fifteen or more dung beetles all making work of a clump of scat (from what we don’t know). The stars are amazingly bright and dense, the gauzy band of the milky way immediately visible like the crown about an invisible god-head. There is a richness to this place that is palpable, even in the inky darkness; the night air carries the heady scents of growth, decay, and the warm earth.
Guy turns in before me, and I sit for a few minutes typing up my inscrutable handwritten notes into the computer. I know that if I do not transcribe these notes every night and form them into at least a passably coherent narrative, this journal will never be as accurate a reflection of my immediate perceptions as I want it to be. As such, I am the last one up. Jennifer asks me to shut out the lights in the common area before I go to bed. Alamos wishes me goodnight with a large praying mantis, my favorite insect, which lands with a tiny but audible thump on my solar lantern as I prepare to turn in. it looks at me- or at least appears to look at me- for a long moment, appraising me with those ovoid, alien eyes in the way only an insect can. It is, I imagine, how I might look upon a lifeform from another galaxy, had I just landed at its elbow as it has at mine. I’m excited to see what tomorrow brings.
We awake, as I suspected we might, with bird song even before the first rays of sunlight. At breakfast, I officially meet the Guardians of the reserve. I saw several of them the afternoon before, but this will be our first outing with them into the Reserva Monte Mojino (ReMM). There is the aptly named Felix García Caballero, Head of Field Operations (who with his white cowboy hat looks every bit the horseman his namesake implies), Miguel Angel Zayas Barron, with his kind, round face and gentle manner, Alejandro Sauceda Fuentes, a mustachioed man who exudes quiet confidence and grace, and Jesus Alejandro Grajeda Hurtado (known as “Cuate” or twin) whose lean build, piercing eyes, fine features, and high cheekbones would make him well at home on the pages of GQ.
After a leisurely breakfast, Jennifer, Alejandro, and Felix take us on a morning hike up the mountain immediately behind our camp. The narrow, switch-backed hiking path is steep in places but not arduous, and our accent is peppered with interesting information about the local plant and animal life. We see Kapok Trees (Pachote locally), with their hard, woody spines, Yellow and Pink Amapa Trees (so called for the color of their flowers, not in evidence now), and Torote, a species of Bursera (or Elephant Tree) with papery, peeling bark and tiny fruit favored by the macaws. We see Chopo (a species of Mimosa tree), a dark-barked hardwood favored by locals for producing fenceposts and charcoal. Wispy tendrils of wild Morning Glory climb tree and shrub alike, their delicate, pale blue flowers subtler cousins of the bigger and bolder blooms so common in suburban landscapes back in my California home. There is even a tree form of morning glory, called Palo Santo, which Jennifer says produces flowers eaten by local deer. We see very little in the way of birds, but interesting calls filter in through the thick leaves and dense air. We hear the plaintive, almost mournful whistle of the Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and the short, metallic cheep of a Varied Bunting. Intermittently our guides make bird calls, either a raspy phew,phew,phew meant to sound generically like a baby bird in distress, or a series of high-pitched, monosyllabic, atonal hoots, meant to mimic the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I instantly recognize this as the bird call I heard last night. Both of these calls have the potential to bring in small birds whose instinct is to mob an owl, but none of the Guardians’ efforts are successful in producing a clear sighting. A few birds do come close enough for us to hear them hopping about in the underbrush, but nothing more. When we reach a break in the trees and can see out at the wide vista of forested mesas, Felix mimics the call of a Greater Pewee, and an answer, sharp, thin, and airy, echoes from across the vastness.
Higher up we catch the musical piping of the Pacific Slope Flycatcher and finally see it flitting back and forth amidst the green and yellow tapestry of the broadleaf canopy. It is one of the few birds I am actually able to photograph, though it requires persistent effort. Eventually I catch it on a branch from underneath, but it conveniently tilts its head to the side to look quizzically down at me with its large, white-ringed eye. On exposed, rocky outcrops, we see tiny clusters of diminutive mammillaria cactus, their flowers just visible as bright red buds. We encounter an interesting bush with downy, woody brown seed pods that look distinctly like tiny corkscrews. Jennifer asks Felix to identify it and laughs amusedly when his laconic response is “corkscrew plant.” Felix points out a beautiful yellow caterpillar which clings to a slender branch with a profusion of tiny, waxy legs. It looks like a puffy, banana-colored question mark in the lush green shade. The nests of Paper Wasps hang from tree limbs unnervingly close to our trail. Some are abandoned but most are swarming with impressively large, bright orange wasps, looking like winged soldiers clinging to mid-air battle stations. Jennifer says that at certain times of the year, these nests are far more active and more numerous, and that every one of the Guardians has had more painful stings than he would like.
At one point, Holly appears at my elbow and points out a rocky outcrop surrounded by thin, filmy branched trees dotted with clusters of tiny, grey-leaved Tillandsia. It is hard to communicate, except to another plant-geek, my excitement at seeing my favorite plants in the wild. Tillandsia is the largest genus of the Bromeliad family, a huge group of tropical or sub-tropical flowering plants, most of which grow their leaves in the form of a rosette that catches and stores rainwater. Many have beautifully colorful leaves, and most produce an inflorescence, a flowering scape comprised of colored leaves, or bracts, from which tiny but beautiful flowers emerge. Tillandsia are of special interest to me because of a very unique adaptation: nearly all of them are epiphytic (rather than parasitic), meaning that they grow on other plants, rocks, and even manmade structures using their roots only as holdfasts; this allows the gardener to be extremely creative when displaying them. They absorb water and nutrients from the air using tiny scales called trichomes that often lend the leaves a downy, silver-grey appearance. Tillandsia vary dramatically in size, shape, and color, and most will form large clumps or colonies over time as they offset or re-seed. They have long been my favorite plants, and I have quite a collection of them growing back home, some of which I’ve had for nearly twenty years. These particular plants Holly has just pointed out look similar to Florida’s famous “Ball Moss” or Tillandsia recurvata, which I currently grow in my atrium garden in Antioch. Nearly every clump is covered in what at first glance appear to be spent inflorescences, but which upon closer inspection are actually in full bloom. While most Tillandsia have brightly colored bracts, these have very demure and almost colorless flowering stalks and charmingly miniscule white flowers that are easy to overlook. Holly knows that one of my primary goals on this trip is to encounter wild Tillandsia and other bromeliads, and I know from her recent reconnaissance mission that they are plentiful in Alamos. I have been looking for Tillandsia around every corner since I arrived, but I confess to Holly that I could have marched straight past these little gems had she not pointed them out.
Finally, and with great reluctance, I let myself be pulled away from my Tillandsia, and I have to pick up my pace to catch up with the rest of the group. Felix directs our attention to an interesting snake-like mud track on a dead branch. The track is raised, about half the thickness of a pencil. He scratches it away from the bark with a fingernail, revealing it to be hollow, the abandoned effort of a termite colony. Still higher up we encounter clusters of a small, spiny plant that looks like it could be either a Puya or a Dyckia, both succulent, cold-hardy, terrestrial bromeliads. I’ve grown both in my garden, and even grew Puya berteroniana from seed, but admittedly my identification is hardly a scientific one, as I am basing my tentative conclusions on purely immediately visible characteristics, and without seeing the plant in flower. Neither Felix, Alejandro, nor Jennifer seem to know what they are, though their superficial resemblance to small agaves is mentioned, but I am at least certain that they are bromeliads and determined to identify them with the help of my network of bromeliad geeks back home. Not far from this spot we encounter the fascinating “Crackle butterfly” which makes a clacking sound in flight exactly like a startled grasshopper. It’s the first butterfly I have ever encountered that makes any sound at all, and for several minutes we seem to send up a clattering chorus every time we brush past a small tree or large shrub. We come across one tree that is literally covered in tiny, hairy caterpillars. They are so numerous that I initially mistook them for thorns as they cluster along every branch in neat, efficient rows.
Eventually our trail dead-ends, and we find ourselves looking out over the vastness of the tropical deciduous canyon. There is a dizzying drop below us and a sheer rock face (too steep to climb without serious equipment) behind us that is clotted with cacti, agaves, and even palms. They grow bravely from even the narrowest cervices and slimmest holdfasts, hanging out over empty air. Before us opens a vast panorama of steep slopes covered in luxuriant green, punctuated by protrusions of red rock like the exposed ribs of some great, fossilized beast. Below us the sparkling bend of the river, green and white in the sun, nearly black where it falls into shadow, cuts its serpent’s course through the yawning canyon.
At this point we turn around and head back the way we came. Jennifer offers that there is an alternate route for anyone who doesn’t want to retread the same ground, but it is apparently much longer and a bit arduous. I hear the description “death march” and am more intrigued than put off. Guy makes his opinion on the subject perfectly clear with a set of raised eyebrows and a vigorous head shake in the negative, but Sergio says he’s game. By the time we find the second trailhead a short way down from the vista where we took our break, Alejandro agrees to take Sergio and I back to camp by way of the longer route. This trail will lead us up and over to the other side of the mountain, down into the canyon, and back along the river. It’s about twice as long and more vigorous. We bid farewell to the rest of our party and head off on our “death march.” It doesn’t take long for me to feel certain I’ve made the right decision. The terrain is beautiful, and I’m glad I didn’t miss out in favor of a shorter trip and an earlier lunch.
Occasionally we stop along the trail and Alejandro points out locations where camera traps have captured images of jaguar. Sergio explains that places where a natural arroyo meets a trail are among the most promising locations to place such traps, as they afford the opportunity to be approached from multiple directions by predator and prey alike. Under one large Encio, or oak tree- with large, heavily serrated leaves quite unlike the oaks I am familiar with- our guide reports catching film of a particularly large male jaguar not long ago. Though Alejandro is certainly familiar with this terrain, the trail itself is obviously not well-used. Unlike during our gentler hike with the rest of our companions, as we hike this trail, Alejandro quite liberally employs his machete to cut back rank plant growth from our path. At one point, he makes us take a rather awkward, scrambling detour up a steep rock face to avoid a paper wasp nest. It looks no different to my untrained eyes from the wasp nests we encountered earlier, but Alejandro assures us that these are a smaller and much more aggressive species of wasp, and it is advisable to steer as clear of them as possible.
Eventually we emerge from the dense growth back down by the river. The sudden openness is a relief, and the scenery here is stunning. Though the portion of the river that winds just past our camp is lovely, this stretch of river is wider and more dramatic, bound by forest on one side and steep, high canyon walls on the other. The Sabino, or Montezuma Cypress, are larger here too, crowding the sandy banks of the river like great, wise sentries. Their huge, abstract root masses sprawl in every direction, sculpted smooth by the water, buffed and polished by the sediment load, and bleached pale and silvery by the subtropical sun. We don’t talk, but there seems to be an unspoken understanding that we are taking a break, and I take advantage of the pause in our journey to explore. I hear some bird song I recognize as a kingfisher and gradually pick my way over boulders and roots in the general direction of the sound. I am rewarded with a teasingly brief sighting of a Green Kingfisher, a dark, heavy-billed silhouette perched on a low branch over the water. My camera is only half-raised to my face before it flies off with an explosive and angry chatter. Fat red dragonflies and several other species whir through the air on nearly glass-like wings. Fishing Spiders, looking like flatter, larger versions of the Huntsman Spiders I’ve seen at camp, scuttle about on half-wet river stones like so many crabs. Best of all, I encounter yet another colony of Tillandsia. It is the same species I encountered earlier in the day, only here they are growing in shadier conditions, hanging in tiny clumps like grey hummingbird nests from the willowy, pendulous branches of the Cypress trees. Sergio and Alejandro work their way past me, and I realize it is time to move on.
Soon after we leave the river and billy-goat our way up a steep incline. Sergio tells me that Alejandro is taking us on a shortcut to avoid a long S-curve in the river. It is a hard climb, and precipitously steep in places. I am grateful that Guy did not accompany me; given his discomfort with heights, this part of our hike would have been impossible for him. Certainly, it is more than a little unnerving for me, especially in places where the rock surface is slippery with loose sand and there is nothing between me and a dangerous slide down a steep canyon wall but open air and few cacti, which hardly offer reassuring handholds. It is along this especially treacherous leg of our journey, however, that I encounter a large colony of my mysterious maybe-a-puya-or-dyckia, this time growing in a very exposed site in full sun. Several specimens have intact (however disappointingly spent) inflorescences, and I take ample photos for my reference and to aid in identification later on.
The climb takes us fairly high again, but we eventually start working our way back down. Up until now, Sergios’ term “death march” has not entered my head. It does now. The trail down is an exceptionally narrow rut of rock and compacted dirt, requiring one foot to be places directly in front of the other. I keep twisting my ankles and feel a bit like an exceptionally unskilled gymnast failing at the balance beam. Loose rock and soil underfoot leads to a few graceless slides and half falls, and the unforgiving underbrush peppers my legs with sharp little grass seeds. I would probably be bleeding by now were I not wearing long pants, but these vicious little seeds penetrate the material, and I can feel them pricking my skin every time the cloth brushes against my legs. I sigh inwardly, knowing that it will take hours to pluck all of them out.
Once more we rejoin the river, and for a while we take what feels like a meandering course in, over, and along the babbling waters. There are several places that require a little bit of a jump as we clamber from rock to rock. One of them, not even a particularly demanding leap, ends with one of my feet planted carelessly in the water, and I am forced to move on with my one sodden sock squishing irritatingly with ever step. We pause at one especially lovely spot in the canyon with a small but beautiful sandy beach. Alejandro points out a few jaguar tracks. The sand is dry, so they look like little more than round depressions to me, but it is still impressive to think that one of these powerful wild cats stalked along this beach so recently. Alejandro explains that a camera trap in this very spot captured two jaguars walking along this beach, one following the other not twenty-four minutes apart. Sergio suggests it was most likely a male in pursuit of a female in heat, though there is no way to be sure. There is further evidence of rising water levels in the surrounding trees, including several small boulders deposited artfully in the upper limbs of a noble Montezuma Cypress by a hurricane a few years back. Looking at these indications of flooding and the location Alejandro pointed out where the camera trap photographed the jaguars, it occurs to me that this entire beach, camera trap and all, must have been under water. Sergio chats with Alejandro for a moment and then explains that one of the main jobs of the Guardians is to move and manage these camera traps. They are rotated regularly, not only to record as many sightings as possible in different locales, but also as weather and other considerations require. The Guardians must take water levels and a host of other factors into consideration when placing and moving cameras.
Finally we arrive at the box canyon, a deep, steep sided cleft that Holly already alluded to. I know from her description that it is close to the camp and a place where people sometimes go to swim. The thought of being close to our lunch and a soft bed fills me with well-being. That well-being transforms into excitement when, while stepping over a narrow spot in the river along some conveniently placed stones, I discover a large Tillandsia caught on a fallen branch and half submerged in the water. Superficially it looks very similar to the plant I saw growing in the Smallhouse’s garden in Alamos. I drag it out of the water and show it to Alejandro and Sergio. We scan the trees but can’t see any similar plants growing anywhere in the area, so it seems unlikely that it fell from the branches above. Alejandro says he has seen bromeliads like this growing in Santa Barbara, a more northern portion of the ReMM. We surmise that it must have fallen into the river there and washed downstream in the last heavy rain.
Along our walk back, we hear, but never see an Elegant Trogon, a particularly exotic and beautiful bird that everyone has been hoping to encounter. Holly mentioned the Trogons in an e-mail to the team after her reconnaissance trip, but autocorrect changed the spelling to “Trojan,” leading to endless condom jokes that have hardly abated during this trip. I keep my eyes peeled and my ears open for any sounds that might indicate a bird, snake, or lizard, but the only other wildlife we encounter are the enormous grasshoppers which seem to be so plentiful in this area.
After scarfing down a late lunch, I immediately fall face first into bed for a long nap. I am already sore everywhere, certain I will wake up even sorer, and more than a little embarrassed to find myself so out of shape. I should start formulating an exercise program when I get home, I think, but thoughts, plans, and intentions are all drowned in an immediate and unavoidable wave of unconsciousness.
When I wake, Guy and I decide to take a leisurely stroll back down to the box canyon. I am busy organizing my notes from the morning’s hike, reapplying my sun screen and bug spray, and getting dressed, when Guy tells me he plans to go ahead. I finally get myself organized and wander on down to the canyon to meet Guy, again seeing no wildlife, but I do hear the crashing about of some large animal in the undergrowth to my right. I cross my fingers that it is a deer and not a Jaguar. When I emerge into the canyon, it is deserted. I call for Guy but there is obviously no one here, so I start heading back, figuring that he and I have crossed signals somehow. Sure enough, I almost immediately run into Guy as he heads down the path to the canyon. Apparently, I misunderstood, and he was only wandering down to the river directly opposite the camp while he waited for me. Now that we’re here, we take a gentle and unhurried walk, with Guy occasionally using his iBird App to make local bird sounds in hopes of attracting a good sighting.
There is plenty to discuss over a lovely dinner, including much show-and-tell with the Guardians. They share some of the amazing photos they’ve taken in the reserve, and we artists pull out our tablets and phones to show them what we do. Jennifer has equipped all of the Guardians with cameras that record the date, time, and GPS location of every photo, so these pictures are not only beautiful to us, but useful as a research tool. Now that the guys know my interest in plants, all of them, but especially Alejandro and Felix, have spectacular pictures to share of Tillandsia in bloom. Nearly all of them were shot in the Santa Barbara area, and I announce my desire to go there. There is an exchange of looks, the word “largo” (Spanish for long) repeated over and over, and much shaking of heads. Sergio explains that we can go there, but the trip is long and the road is very rough. Having just endured our little death march, I am undeterred, and it is agreed that Felix, Sergio, and I will go tomorrow.
After dinner, Guy and I find a Bark Scorpion in our room (one of more venomous species Craig tells us), and I manage to brush it off the wall and into a plastic bag to carry it outside. In the gathering dark, I shine my blacklight on it and am amazed by the fluorescence. Guy shoots a few seconds of video, which I immediately title “Disco Scorpion” as the creature scuttles back and forth hypnotically, electric blue against a background of sparkling violet. We sit in the common area, chatting well into the evening, occasionally stopping to examine a tree frog shimmying up the wall or to move aside and make way for the enormous black wolf spider ambling slowly across a cushion. Jennifer tells us a particularly humorous story about the park she and her husband are developing in the town of Alamos. There was quite a scandal recently when this very popular spot was marred by graffiti. The offending “artist” was proud enough of his work that he signed his name to it and posted pictures of himself on Facebook posing in front of his “installation.” In a small town like Alamos, it is hard to be anonymous, even more so when social media gets involved. The young man was so thoroughly shamed by his community, both online and offline, that he not only cleaned up his own graffiti, but posted the removal on Facebook to put an end to the furor. For all that social media today can be a source of stress, annoyance, and misinformation, not to mention a terrible time-drain, here is a great example of how it can be a force for good. As the conversation winds down, Craig and Rachel go for a night walk, but they come back moments later with a Blind Snake. It moves with incredible speed and jerky, panicked movements in Craig’s cupped hands, and I suggest we put it against a white piece of paper so we can get a better look at it. We watch it wiggle back and forth, remarkably like an earth worm in fast forward, only for a minute before Rachel takes pity on the poor thing and returns it to the wild.
I will have to get up fairly early if I am to head out for Santa Barbara with any efficiency, so I decide to turn in. Just before bed, I’m peeing against the rock wall that separates the back of the camp from the forest when I start following the plodding course of a black beetle with my flashlight. It makes its way ploddingly along the wall, looking something like an animated button that has broken free from a jacket or a couch cushion. Suddenly a large black tarantula explodes out of a crevice in the rock and launches itself at the beetle. It misgauges the attack and hits its prey with such force that it knocks the beetle out of its own reach. Looking even more like a button now, the beetle rolls and bounces down the rock wall with a tiny plink, plinking sound. I shriek an expletive in surprise, hurriedly zip up, and, recovering my composure, shine my light more directly on the impressive spider. I catch only a glimpse of her round, reddish abdomen before she retracts into her crevice. I am no spider expert, but I can tell from her size and abdomen shape that this is a female. I have always found big spiders unnerving, so I give our room a thorough sweep, first with the flashlight, then with my blacklight, before going to sleep. I am just drifting off to sleep, praying that our geckos do their job tonight, when the klutzy buzzing and bumbling of a dung beetle brings me back to full awareness. I listen to it battering against the walls of the room, the soft gauze of my insect net, and finally plunking down on the floor behind my bed before I finally close my eyes again, where visons of tarantulas dance in my head.
The Road to Santa Barbara
Sergio, Felix, and I get up early. As always, Angela is there to greet us for a much-needed infusion of coffee and an ample breakfast. We say our goodbyes to Jennifer, who is leaving for Oaxaca this morning. She assures us that we are welcome here any time, with the Desert Museum or on our own. I tell her about my tarantula sighting last night, and how grateful I am to have seen one out in the garden and not in our room; moments later and as if on cue, I duck into my room, pick up my camera bag, and discover another tarantula. Its lightning fast movements are even more disturbing in the context of a human space, and I let out a “Holly Shit!” that I’m certain the whole camp can hear. I’m just asking Jennifer for a container to trap it in when Holly comes to the rescue. She picks it up with her bare hands and carries it outside, cooing to it like it’s an injured bird. Guy and I both shudder. Everyone has his phobias; Guy hates heights and I’m petrified of water (we both share arachnophobia), but whatever phases Holly obviously does not include big hairy spiders. When she releases it in the grass, it is clearly a male due to its smaller overall size (much smaller than the giant I saw last night) and smaller, narrower abdomen. In the clear light of day, it seems much less scary than in the dim corner of my bedroom. Mesmerized, I watch its slow, methodical progress across the lawn and into the safety of the undergrowth.
Sergio, Felix, and I climb into the dew damp car which immediately fogs up with our exhalations. We head down the road towards the box canyon, and I keep my eyes peeled for the Trogons (or “Trojans” if you prefer) we heard but did not see the afternoon before. We cross the river at a shallow spot and head up a winding, narrow road bordered by thick plant life and punctuated by the occasional Hecho cactus, peering massively over the tops of high bushes and low trees. Moments later we emerge at what Sergio calls “Vulture Beach.” Two dozen or more Black Vultures, on the ground when we first see them, retreat to overhanging trees. Settled on their new perches, the vultures are dark, velvety exclamation marks at the arm-ends of huge, vine mantled Hecho cactus. Others hop and fluff, squabble and preen in the epic, twisting branches of a noble Tepeguaje, or Feather Tree, a Mesquite relative with shaggy, red-brown bark and deep green, ferny foliage.
Shortly thereafter we come to another spot where the Guardians have recorded jaguar activity. It is a muddy little arroyo bordered by a dense tangle of vegetation and shadowed by large palms and cacti in the bright, glary light. I am excited to see fresh coati tracks in the mud. I ask if the jaguar eat coati, and Sergio says he presumes so. It has been reliably observed and recorded that mountain lions eat coati, and the assumption is that a large opportunistic predator like a jaguar would do the same. But official scientific confirmation would require a careful study of jaguar scat. The coati would be such a small snack for a jaguar, there would be nothing left, and jaguar don’t typically cache their prey the way mountain lions often do, so bone evidence would be hard to find. I am aware that this area has cougars as well as jaguars, and I ask about the overlap of their ranges. Sergio says and Felix confirms that in this area, jaguar tend to favor slightly higher elevations and especially the high mountain passes and ridges, while the mountain lions are more likely to favor lower elevations.
As our journey continues, the roads become increasingly rough and steep. I know we’re playing a whole new ball game when even Felix needs to grab hold of the “Oh Shit” handle as we are mercilessly jostled back and forth like ball bearings in a pinball machine. I am not inclined to complain-and I don’t- but the pounding is so severe that I am occasionally hit by a sharp back spasm that makes me grimace in pain. Finally we come to rest at a beautiful, shaded arroyo where Felix immediately points out a profusion of Tillandsia in the trees. We are in the intermediate zone just below the start of the oak and pine forests. Felix says this elevation gets a lot of low hanging clouds which makes it perfect for plants that absorb moisture from the air, such as epiphytic bromeliads and orchids. There are huge clusters of orchids everywhere, especially one with a sharply pointed, dark green psuedobulb that looks something like a young spear of asparagus. Felix says it produces beautiful yellow flowers. We see the small grey Tillandsias I saw on our first hike, as well as small, smoother leaved, bright green specimens that look like they could be younger examples of the large, T. captitata-like plant I found in the river the day before. There is another species which is just coming into bloom that has a similar type of leaf, but the rosette is more upright and the inflorescence is tall and lanceolate, similar to the T. Juncea in my California garden. I don’t get much in the way of pictures, but we see a Sinaloa Wren and another Painted Whitestart and Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Felix is full of information about the local plants, including one that is used medicinally to treat toothache. We see several attractive specimens of the locally endemic Agave bovicornuta or Cow’s Horn Agave, short, tidy, round rosettes of medium green with attractive red-spined margins. Felix says that this plant is used to make a tequila-like drink called Lechugilla. I am intrigued to examine more closely a plant I’d noticed growing by the side of the road in profusion on our drive up. It bears huge clusters of reddish seed pods that look exactly like Japanese Maple samaras, only these are borne by an otherwise unremarkable vine that twists its way around shrubs and trees. When I first saw them, I was convinced they were small trees or shrubs, but this closer observation proves me wrong. The leaf is simple as well, which makes me question its relation to true maples. Unfortunately, it’s not a plant Felix or Sergio know. We spend a good deal of time clambering over the rocks and ascending into the luxuriant verdure of the arroyo, but it’s eventually time to head out and drive on.
Up the road a few more bruising miles we emerge into a dry, grassy, sunlit meadow and park the car. We head off towards an overlook where Felix says Alexandro has recommended we go to find bromeliads. Our walk to the edge of the cliff is short but made difficult by the tall bunch grasses which obscure loose, rocky soil. Especially as we edge down an embankment to the lip of a dizzying drop, this unstable ground is less than reassuring. Our efforts, however, are soon rewarded by several large specimens of the same plant I found in the river the other day, only these are in full bloom, their inflorescences bright pink, and the centers of the rosettes flushed with pale rose. One clump perches in the dense twist of a stunted oak tree hanging out over a vast drop. The view here is absolutely spectacular. It is one of those rare places from which one can look out and see absolutely no evidence of man, and it is deceptively easy to believe that you are the first one to ever see it. The rolling hills and steep mountain slopes wear robes of luxurious green, and the mesas and cliff faces rise from the green ocean like islands of red and orange. The nearest cliff face stands sheer and noble over the atmosphere-blued vastness, with palms and agaves leaning precipitously over the void. We take a break for a moment and enjoy the vista. Felix is on his cell phone chatting casually while perched on a ridiculously narrow ledge, wearing sandals no less. The ledge is so narrow that his toes hang out over the edge of what must be a thousand-foot drop, and I am assaulted by nightmare visions of this lovely man losing his balance, teetering for a sickening instant, and then, claimed by the inexorable hand of gravity, disappearing into the yawning maw of open space before us. Fortunately, no such calamity occurs, and I can return my focus to the beauty around us. All of the rocks here are dotted with lichens of bright orange and chartreuse, and the scrubby trees are covered in the same small grey Tillandsia I saw on my first hike. Near the edge of the drop-off, there are several clusters of my maybe-a-puya-or-dyckia plants as well, and some are blushing slightly pinkish bronze in the strong light. Sergio points out a cluster of large, blooming Tillandsia on an adjacent cliff; in full sun, each rosette takes on a deep maroon color, blushing to fuchsia red at the center, from which the luminous inflorescences project like blooming fireworks frozen in time. They hang out over the endless void, colorful and fearless mountaineers. I, in turn, lean out as far as I dare into the arms of the stunted, cliff-side Encino to photograph these beautiful specimens.
We pile back into the car and climb still higher. The roadside is thick with beautiful native bunch-grasses, fresh greens topped with nodding plumes of tawny rose where new and champagne pink or silver where mature and bleached by the sun. We pass one oak-dotted meadow that is otherwise a sea of silvery pink, backlit by the gradually climbing sun. Suddenly the landscape is more treed and dappled in green shadows. We encounter Nolina (Sotol or Palmita locally), a rare, thin-leaved agave that grows atop a thick, fleshy trunk, reminiscent to me of a more succulent New Zealand Grass Tree. The steep roadside is punctuated by clumps of colorful Indian Paintbrush, shining from the shade like tiny red scepters, and bright red and violet Bat-faced Cuphea. I have grown these in my own garden as an annual, and it warms my heart to see them here, their easily anthropomorphized “faces” peering at me in clownish colors from the mud-crusted banks. We stop for a moment to track a small covey of Montezuma Quail, but they are gone almost as soon as they are seen with a streaking impression of brown, buff, and white, and an explosive whirring of wings.
I am still hoping to find one specific Tillandsia, T. caput-medusae, which reportedly grows in these parts. Apparently, there is a specific form endemic to the Sonoran Desert Region which is called “Sonoran Snow” in cultivation. Plants here grow larger than the typical species, inflorescences tend to be green rather than the more common red, and the entire plant has a distinctly white appearance due to an especially dense covering of trichomes, the tiny scales that allow these remarkable plants to absorb water from the air. According to my research, the oak and pine forests of Alamos, which is exactly what Santa Barbara promises, are my best bet. I ask Felix to find a place where there are lots of pines but where there is more likely to be moist air (such as in a narrow arroyo like the first place he took me) for us to stop and hike. Before long, we find a lovely, moist canyon and get out to explore. I make a fairly arduous climb to the very peak of a spine of rock but find nothing new in the way of Tillandsia, though there is one unusual Encino (oak) with large, leathery, glaucous leaves-reminiscent of a magnolia-that is clotted with the small grey Tillandsia I’ve seen everywhere. More impressive are the barrel cacti which festoon this jumble of colorfully lichen graffitied rocks. Some emerge from cracks in the rock in understandable clusters while others virtually look as though they have been glued to sheer and otherwise featureless rock faces. The hike would not be nearly so challenging were it not for the layer of exceptionally thick litter of pine and oak leaves. There are areas that look entirely stable where one’s foot sinks in impossibly deep, others where a sharp rock emerges unexpectedly from an area one mistakenly deemed soft and yielding. Working my way back down is even more of a problem; downward momentum is hardly a welcome assistant when rocks and even small boulders that look perfectly stable shift surprisingly underfoot, and a poorly planted footstep in loose leaf litter threatens to send one sliding down a steep embankment. I see no wildlife with the exception of an Acorn Woodpecker that shoots past me like a red, black, and white dart, chattering in protest. Most of the forest sounds are dominated by the cicadas. One in particular makes a long, monotonal and insistently repeated beeping, gradually ascending in tone and volume until it finally concludes in a frantic, rattling buzz.
I don’t encounter my “medusae,” and if I wanted to be a pain, I could probably coerce my patient and supportive companions into going further, but there is really no guarantee that I will see any more than I have already seen, and we all agree to head back for camp. After lunch and on our way back down the road, we stop in a meadow fringed with orange and lavender wildflowers, literally besieged by butterflies. Sergio has been working quite passionately on a project to monitor and help encourage threatened populations of Monarch Butterflies, and he is a wealth of knowledge on the subject. There are Skippers, tiny butterflies with long tales and intricate, lacey patterns of brown and other neutrals, Sulphurs, with their clear yellow wings, Queens, mid-sized orange, white and black butterflies similar to Monarchs, Orange Fritillaries, a big black and yellow Tiger Swallowtail, a similar and equally dramatic Zebra Swallowtail, and a small butterfly marked with a vibrant turquoise and black which none of us can identify offhand. Felix finds two large praying mantises clinging to flower stems nearby, one of which mercilessly munches on the abdomen of a still twitching butterfly. Its prey is, sadly, a butterfly we’ve not seen in better condition; it’s wings are a lovely network of pale, semi-transparent, sea-foam-green and black. Nearby we stop at another vista where we can see the most recognizable landmark around, Cero Redondo, or Round Hill. It is the largest and most prominent mesa in these parts, its sheer, red rock faces rising from steep, green-robed slopes and capped with its own mound of verdure. I ask if there is access to this spot, and Sergio tells me there is, but it is a very long hike. “Muy larga?” I ask jokingly, thinking of the Guardians’ reactions to my desire to come up to Santa Barbara. Fortunately for all of us, we have all had our fill of very long hikes- and drives- for a while yet.
Further down, we stop at an intriguing spot that Felix pointed out on the way up. There is a shallow cave overhung by a massive rock ledge that houses, among other things, a small shrine to the Virgin Mary. Sergio shakes his head angrily at the accumulation of abandoned bottles, cans, and other human refuse. Human activity aside, the spot is beautiful. The soft, dry sand floor of the cave is peppered with the inverted funnels of ant lions. Overhead, tiny bats squeak and burble delightedly from narrow crevices in the ceiling. Deep in the shadows, a few stunted, epiphytic vines cling upside down from the roof, their swollen caudexes emerging almost obscenely from the tiniest cracks and holdfasts, while scattered maidenhair ferns spring from moister recesses on the cave floor. In protected areas, small mud-wasp nests stripe the rock like a child’s finger painting. On the more exposed rock face, larger wasp nests the size of melons hang like grey paper shells. Their subtle, coiling shapes are as sculptural and elegant as anything I’ve seen in a white-wall art gallery in San Francisco. According to Felix, these larger nests are actually made by very tiny wasps. Sergio thinks the structures are made from a combination of mud, digested material, and saliva. There is a natural seep in this area, so we survey the damper areas looking for the Tiger Salamanders that Felix says can sometimes be found under stones, but we see nothing.
Nearing the camp, we splash through a large puddle, sending up a huge cloud of sulphur-yellow butterflies. Sergio says this behavior is actually known as “puddling.” The butterflies gather in natural declivities or even the water-filled ruts from tire tracks to drink the water and to consume minerals from the mud. They look like a beautiful shower of yellow confetti tossed into the air by an invisible hand. Though we certainly passed them before, the light is now coming in from a different angle, backlighting the forest to my right, and I notice the beautifully peeling bark of the Torote (Bursera) Trees. Their trunks are intermittently smooth and green where bare, but otherwise clothed in peeling sheets of papery bark. When backlit, the effect is of an artful application of orange crepe paper. A few minutes later we are crossing the river and encounter a Grey Hawk, perched in a tree above the arroyo and scrutinizing us with beady black eyes.
We emerge back on the road, and for a while we follow a bad-tempered mule that runs ahead of us, stomping, bucking and tossing its head in displeasure. Felix keeps winding it up by letting out loud, hissing exhalations that are similar to the sounds of annoyance mules apparently utter. Finally, it moves off the road and we can pass, by which time all of us are laughing at the poor animal’s indignant exasperation. Moments later we arrive yet again on Vulture Beach. Now there are a staggering sixty or more vultures here, many atop the Hecho cacti with their wings spread to absorb the warmth of the sun. Other are jostling for roosting space in the arms of the two massive Tepeguaje trees. By the time we arrive home, it is the heat of the day and, after thanking Sergio and Felix for their company and expertise, I once again retire for a quick power nap.
When I wake, I am conscious of how creaky and achy I feel and am very aware of just how little of my day was spent hiking and how much sitting on my ass in a car. Deciding that I need some physical activity, I resolve to take a vigorous jog up the trail we climbed on our first morning, at least to the point where Holly first pointed out my favorite plants. Long before I reach the top, I realize this was a stupid idea. I am so drenched in sweat that it is running into my eyes, bringing stinging sunscreen and bug spray residue with it, and making it hard to see. As the light fades into early evening greyness, I see, appropriately enough, an Evening Grosbeak, a beautiful orange, black, and white bird with a chunky, parrot-like bill. I take it as my signal to head back to camp where I immediately jump into a much-needed shower.
That evening Guy and I take a walk with Craig and Rachel. I’m still hoping to see a Brown Vine Snake, one of many things on my “I’d like to see that” list. No Vine Snakes present themselves, but Guy almost immediately finds a lovely Lyre Snake. Craig assures us that it is only rear-fang venomous, making it safe to handle, so we take it back to camp to show to the rest of the team. All of the truly dangerous snakes have fangs at the front of the mouth that deliver poison immediately with a bite in order to incapacitate a potential meal. Rear-fanged snakes have their fangs at the back of the mouth, and they typically only deliver venom to a prey item as it is being consumed. A quick, defensive bite does not deliver venom. A rear-fang venomous snake would have to engage in a prolonged bite (almost a chew) to actually deliver venom to a human being, and that is unlikely unless the snake is severely molested. We, of course, have no intention of angering this specimen, so after a few minutes with our beautiful and elegant quarry, we release it where we found it and continue our walk. We see adorable red-spotted toads in profusion. Guy tires out his new head torch and is horrified by the visible eye shine of spiders all around us. These bright emerald glints in the darkness are so omnipresent it looks as if a fairy has sprinkled green glitter throughout the jungle. All one has to do is approach one of these tell-tale spots of green and shine a light to discover what eight-legged horror awaits. After shining his light on a dozen, silver-dollar-sized wolf spiders, poor Guy decides he’d rather not investigate further. We don’t come across any more snakes, but we do encounter a rare Golden Rhino Dung Beetle, which, despite a covering of the excrement it was eating, looks like an exotic jewel accidentally dropped on the trail. We encounter no mammals except for a cute little mouse scampering along a mud bank, and we make our way back to camp. Guy turns in, but Craig, Rachel and I go a little further down the road in the opposite direction. We find a big male tarantula slowly ambling across the road. The luminous white, trumpet-shaped flowers of Datura gleam softly in the darkness, and their pale green, spiny seed pods are equally interesting on closer inspection. Craig and I are denied our Vine Snake, but one can hardly complain. Back in our room, Guy and I have a new roommate, an utterly massive black Sphinx Moth that would put Buffalo Bills Death’s Head Moths in The Silence of the Lambs to shame.
The Last Day
Nothing that I can account for disturbs my sleep, but I wake three times during the night, each time weirdly disoriented and trying to make the half-lit shapes of the room resolve into Guy’s and my bedroom at home. It takes a long minute each time for me to remember where I am. I dream vividly that I am shopping for a pet lizard; in my dream, I am desperate to own one or more of these large, plump, skink-like creatures of creamy white with pale pink longitudinal stripes. I actually wake momentarily convinced it was an actual experience, dumbstruck and horrified that I’ve taken on the responsibility of a new pet and wondering how I am going to fit the large terrarium into our tiny house. The mosquito net around my bed comes into focus, and with it, a return to reality and a logical sense of time and place. I am greeted by a stick insect crawling along the outside of the net, moving with shaky, halting steps on six gawky legs. It is beautiful and fascinatingly alien, and I carry it outside before our geckos can feast on it. Angela is busily making coffee and sees me release my new friend. She says they see plenty of stick insects at El Pedegral where she usually works, but that this is a different kind. I suddenly re-evaluate my mantra upon first entering our room, my immediate and ill-considered assumption that two fat geckos must mean a room free of insects. On second thought, there are two fat geckos because our room is insect central!
Guy and I are still having breakfast and discussing our plans for another stroll down by the river, when Martha rushes past us, all business, her sights set on photographing a Trogon this last morning in the ReMM. She carries her camera with all the laser-like intent of an international assassin late for a hit, and seconds later she is out of sight. I can’t help but smile, knowing full well how many times I have pursued this bird or that (and more recently my elusive Tillandsias) with the same intensity. I am just finishing my coffee and gathering up my camera gear as Martha is heading back, her look of concentration replaced by a subtle glint of satisfaction, and I know even before she says it that she found her Elegant Trogon. I consider congratulating her on finding evidence of those elusive wild Mexican Condoms, but I let the moment pass. Guy and I have no such luck in the Trogon department, but we do see two Chachalacas, a large, turkey-like bird, way up on the hillside, and we can hear their chattering voices echoing against the rocky cliffs like a chorus of clacking metallic castanets. In fact, we hear a lot of bird song this morning but see very little, though we do catch furtive glimpses of a Streak-backed Oriole, a Slate-throated Whitestart, and a Blue-grey Mockingbird.
Guy has decided that a part of his contribution to Project Sonoran Desert Resurgence will be to paint portraits of the reserve Guardians, and he has scheduled an informal photo shoot for this morning. The morning is getting away from us, so he heads briskly back to the camp while I linger behind. I have taken enough trips like this to know that wildlife does not appear at the whim of anyone wanting to see it, so I cannot be disappointed about those things I didn’t see. I am sorry not to have seen a Brown Vine Snake in the wild, but I decide to photograph the beautifully abstract tangles of vines by the side of the path as possible background reference. I am aware that the ASDM has Vine Snakes in their collection, and Holly has already arranged a photo shoot for me with the Herpetology Department when I return to Tucson. If that goes well enough to inspire a painting, I will be glad to have taken time out to shoot some habitat reference. I admit to fantasizing that a snake will suddenly poke its head into the frame as I am snapping away at the tracery of twigs, vines, roots, and branches, but the Universe has other plans. I see no wildlife at all except for the giant grasshoppers. I realize, alone in the stillness, how annoying these things are; they are just big enough and loud enough that their stumblings and swervings in the undergrowth are quite loud enough to be mistaken for birds, snakes, frogs, or lizards, so each one immediately draws my eye. I hear a snap here, a thud there, the crack or plonk of an impact against twig or leaf, only to see yet another fat grasshopper bouncing off a leaf or struggling awkwardly to hold onto a stem. They seem to be the drunken frat boys of Los Alamos, blundering about aimlessly and making noise for noise’s sake. They are slow enough that one can easily pluck them from the ground or the leaves. Were I collecting them, I’m certain I could fill a good-sized duffel bag with little effort in a single morning’s ramble. They seem such easy prey that I am a bit thunderstruck there are so many of them, but then many animals rely on exponential reproduction, rather than brilliant strategy, to survive. I imagine, perhaps uncharitably, that these clumsy grasshoppers are in that category.
Back at the camp we pack up, take group pictures, and pile into the vehicles. On the drive out we see a Blackhawk, a Caracara, and finally a Grey Hawk in the crotch of a Tepeguaje Tree plucking at a small prey item, likely an iguana or a snake, according to Alejandro. As I stare wistfully out the window at the passing landscape, I notice a profusion of trees and shrubs bent in awkward, arch-like structures, with the highest branches touching the ground. I’ve noticed this weird phenomenon here and there throughout the forest but have forgotten to ask about it until now. Sergio and Alejandro indicate that this is frost damage. Apparently, there was a really hard freeze some years back, bad enough to kill many plants and scar all of the cacti. These plants, bent over in weirdly intentional-looking bowers, blackened, softened and collapsed in this manner during the freeze, then became brittle and dry in the sun, retaining the unusual shapes.
We stop for a break at a particularly scenic river crossing. The air is hot and the direct sun is stingingly so. The Guardians tell us that this is a good place for birds, and we spread out to explore. One of the guys mentions a pond a short distance away where they have recently spotted a resident Tiger Heron, and Martha and I go to investigate. We do see the Tiger Heron, but we only succeed in startling it from its perch and sending it back towards the road where those who have stayed behind by the vehicles watch it fly overhead. Despite my best efforts, I encounter no birds, while back at the car Guy snaps a brilliant photo of a Vermillion Flycatcher. Even after the departure of our heron, I spend a bit of time enjoying the pond. An overhanging cliff creates a pool of deep, cool shade, a welcome refuge from the blistering heat. Water sparkles over rounded, polished rocks, then spills into a series of interconnected, tranquil pools bordered by narrow sandy beaches. I watch small fish dart back and forth under tea-stained waters that carry the shifting reflections of the overhanging Cypress trees. Their gorgeous, abstract roots test the waters like alien toes while dangling tangles of debris-clotted branches and graceful vines lilt back and forth slowly in the occasional breath of a breeze. Luminous, half-floating mats of viridian green algae clothe the shallower pools, and I wonder how many frog and tadpoles take refuge in their shade.
Our next stop is a little village just outside the actual town of Alamos, where the wives and children of many of the ReMM Guardians live. The local women run a small craft collective here and have put together a lovely display of embroidery. With the help of their husbands’ photographs, field guides and their own observations, they have used their unique skills to interpret the local wildlife. Their attention to detail is wonderful. Guy and I buy Holly a bag emblazoned with her favorite Painted Whitestart and (appropriately) Holly leaves with berries. I buy myself a hat with a beautifully depicted vine snake wound around it. When we’re done shopping, I amuse myself watching and photographing the chickens that busily peck about in the nearest yard. I pet a friendly but rough-looking dog with a mangled ear (an old injury long ago healed), then wonder if I’m going to give myself fleas.
We drive down the wide, dry wash of the river bed and turn onto the cobbled road and into town. We were so busy (and chatting so absorbedly) coming into town that I hardly noticed how beautiful Alamos is, but I do now. Sergio navigates the narrow, cobblestone streets past quaint stucco shop fronts, many with arched doorways bordered by narrow columns and capped with lintels, some with elaborate wrought iron gates and scroll work, but all in a riot of colors: sea foam green, sky blue, scarlet red, shocking aquamarine, creamsickle, cobalt blue, vivid purple, carrot orange, lipstick pink, parrot green, luscious red-violet, gleaming white, and much natural brick. Filmy-leaved trees with glowing, clear yellow flowers punctuate corners and peer out of patios, while Bougainvillea vines in a riot of white, red, purple, and magenta spill over walls, climb across rooftops, and drape luxuriantly and unashamedly over less showy plants. Kids bounce along the streets, some in crisp school uniforms (coming or going I have no idea) others carefree and half-clothed. Locals pop in and out of shops under the painted signs that lean out from the store fronts on old fashioned posts, advertising everything from groceries and pharmacies, to internet cafes and mortuaries. The tourists, Sergio confides, can easily be distinguished from the locals by their overwhelming propensity for wearing shorts. Dogs lounge lazily in the shade or bake themselves in the sun warmed, dusty streets. It is thoroughly enchanting. Sergio tells me that Alamos reminds him of a much smaller version of his historic hometown of Zacatecas.
We finally arrive back at the Hacienda where we stayed on our first night in Alamos. I ask Armando, who manages the house and extensive garden, if he knows the name of the Tillandsia in the yard, which I’m pretty well-convinced is the same species I saw growing on those dizzying cliff faces up in Santa Barbara. He is clearly very knowledgeable about the property, but the second I point to the plant in question, he shakes his head. “You got me” he says with a smile, and I promise to let him know if I can identify it back home with the help of the botany department at the ASDM. We have little on our plate for the rest of today except a farewell dinner at a restaurant in town, so I busy myself wandering about the yard, where I am fortunate to finally get some photographs of Magpie Jays. Their raucous cries are as unmistakable as their long, racket-like tails or their heavy-winged, labored flight patterns. I watch four of them flying back and forth amongst the palms, croaking and squawking at each other like arguing children. To me they are an exotic beauty, but their loud chatter is apparently an annoyance to a groundskeeper (not Armando) who, unaware or unconcerned with my photographic mission, claps his hands and barks at them to fly away.
After some relaxing around the Hacienda, we head to dinner to meet Lorna Acosta, a great friend of Sarah and David Smallhouse whose Hacienda we are using. On the way to dinner, Sergio drives us past the beautiful old church around which the town square is built. The white and tan stone edifice is impressive by itself, but even more so at night when the well-designed up-lighting paints the walls with ethereal yellow, and warm, orangey light spills liquidly from the interior spaces. It looks, quite literally, like Christmas. I don’t know if an actual service is in progress, but the front doors are open wide, and I catch a glimpse of penitents on their knees between the row upon row of dark wooden pews. Some cross themselves as they kneel, while others sit as still as statues, heads bowed, hands clutched together in quiet supplication.
Our restaurant is at the top of a hill overlooking the city. We’ve been told in advance that this place does not serve alcohol, but guests are welcome to bring their own. I prepared earlier in the day with a shopping trip with Sergio and Guy, and once we have pulled into the parking lot, I pull out the cooler and start playing bartender. I have made a hasty but successful concoction of mango, strawberry and banana mixed with sparkling grapefruit juice and a healthy slug of Tequila Blanco. When drinks are poured for everyone, we toast to a successful trip and enjoy looking out over the vast space, twinkling with welcoming lights. I’m not at all certain of its intended purpose, but above and behind the restaurant is a large circular courtyard with powerful blue search-lights shining up into the heavens. Nighthawks fly overhead and glow an unearthly blue as they pass in and out of the beams; I am fondly reminded of our disco scorpion. By the time Guy and I wander back down to the parking lot, Lorna has joined us. I pour her a drink and we head to our table. Dinner is a fabulous buffet with barbacoa, chili relleno, green chili chicken enchiladas, rice and beans, tortillas, and a variety of fresh salsas. I instantly like Lorna, who strikes me a generous, friendly, and intelligent woman with absolutely no patience whatsoever for bullshit of any kind. She tells us about an amazing scholarship program she and her husband started for local kids, about her unconventional life south of the border, and her three boys, of whom she is obviously enormously proud. She tells one especially vivid story that has us all in hysterics and tells you everything you need to know about Lorna. Her kids, then pre-teens, came to her one hot summer determined to convince their parents to put in a pool. She and her husband told them they’d consider it, went out and bought shovels and wheel barrows, then told the boys they would be happy to consent to their wishes…on the condition that the boys dig the pool themselves. Being smart kids, they began spreading word that they were getting a pool, and before long all of their friends were asking to come over and use it. “Sure,” the kids told them, “You can use it if you come over and help us dig.” The scheme worked so well that the resulting hole actually had to be partially backfilled it was so large and so deep. “I had nearly every boy in Alamos hanging out at my house that summer,” Lorna tells us, “And I made more hotdogs and lemonade than you can imagine.” By the end of the summer, they had completed a pool unlike any in the town of Alamos, and one that remained a social hub for years to come!
We bid Lorna farewell and return to the Hacienda. Most everyone heads straight to bed, but somehow Holly, Martha, and I get a late-night Zumba lesson from Rachel Ivanyi. I have to admit it’s a much more entertaining way to get exercise than the typical boring work-out routines I used to do at the gym, and I find myself wishing I could take her class back in Tucson. By the time we conclude with a rousing routine set to Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say,” I am laughing hard enough to be in pain, and sweating enough I need to take a second shower.
The Journey Home
Our last morning begins with a beautiful sunrise of shell pink, dove grey, and powder blue shifting to the palest robin’s egg at the fragile and eager horizon. Innumerable roosters crow back and forth in a raucous dawn chorus while the native birds pipe, cheep, and burble, some sweetly, others stridently, amidst the din. We pile into the cars and make it out by Six AM, all of us regretfully watching the gate to the Hacienda closing behind us.
We stop in town for gas and to stock the coolers with ice. Guy and I are checking out with some snacks at the counter while Sergio and Craig pump gas outside, when we see a white truck come flying into the station with a screech of tires, then make a wild U-turn and pass out of our sight. We don’t think much of it until we emerge from the store and immediately feel a palpable change in the atmosphere. Apparently, it was a very young guy who tore into the station, nearly backed into a pedestrian, then swung in behind Craig and clipped his bumper. The damage is noticeable but not severe. Apparently after the fender bender, he said he was going to park his car, but instead he sped off a moment later. As we’re driving out of town, Sergio tell Guy and I that the young driver was almost certainly working for one of the Cartels. “Only Cartel kids act that crazy and entitled at the same time!” he exclaims. It certainly explains the weird shift in mood. Sergio notes that no one at the gas station commented or reacted much at all to the scene; they simply turned away because they didn’t want to get involved, and who can blame them?! I recall for the first time in this entire trip that Holly had mentioned- months back when this trip was still in its planning stages- that there is a lot of drug activity around Alamos. Sergio suggests that, with Alamos being a tourist town, there is probably little danger in the immediate area, though he acknowledges that there are very likely many illegal drug farms tucked away in the remote mountain forests.
We leave Alamos under a soaring, white double arch that looks the color of apricot sorbet in the raking, early morning light. The rising sun makes a luminous show of the reddish cliff faces and green-cloaked hills. A Caracara perched regally on a bare-limbed tree sees us off, looking kingly and almost pink in the low sunlight that pours over the valley.
We stop for a bathroom break and to fill one of the tires on Craig’s vehicle (which has been looking low). Poor Guy gets trapped in the steel cage surrounding the bathroom. The sign telling him in Spanish to push a buzzer for exit is of little help to either of us, but Sergio comes to the rescue and gets an attendant to buzz the door open for us. The air pump at this station is not functional, so we make yet another stop at the next town down the road, where we are more cautious in approaching the restrooms. Soon after we pass by the turnoff for Guyamas, where Martha grew up, then stop for lunch at a little roadside kitchen that Martha is familiar with. Our packs of four small homemade burritos are more than satisfying, especially since most of us skipped breakfast in favor of hitting the road sooner rather than later.
We reach the first inspection point as we prepare to leave Mexico. Craig, Holly, Martha, and Rachel make it through without incident, but Sergio, Guy, and I are forced to pull off the highway and put our entire mountain of bags through an x-ray machine one at a time. It’s annoying to have to unpack and repack a car, but we do it with smiles on our faces. Mine is the only bag hand-searched, and much as I feared, the Federale is suspicious of my powdered vitamin C. Fortunately, I am able to convince him that it is, in fact, just a vitamin supplement, and we are allowed to depart with everything, vitamin C included. Shortly thereafter we stop at the same place where we had such trouble before with the vehicles, only now we are turning in our Visas, not applying for them, and the wait is very brief.
Our arrival at the actual border crossing is delayed by a long line of cars. Sergio tells us to settle in for at least forty minutes, and within seconds, he and Guy are both entirely absorbed in their phones. I take the opportunity to people watch. Vendors weave between the cars like brightly colored crabs navigating a reef, each decorated with an accumulation of corals and barnacles. There is a plump man with ten sombreros stacked on his head, his hands filled with tiny, brightly colored guitars. A woman drifts by carrying a disjunctive mix of religious icons, stuffed dolls that look a bit like Dora the Explorer, and plush Pokémon. Another woman moves past us with a collection of similarly mass-produced Chinese junk, but also carrying a board festooned with garish key chains. An aged man with a beautiful face, as old and care-worn as a piece of shoe leather, hobbles by selling newspapers. There is even an ice cream vendor, pushing his cart ahead of him like a weapon while stridently shouting “Helado, Helado, Helado aqui!” There is, of course, an assortment of junk food on offer, mostly brightly colored peanuts, candy, and popcorn. One lone woman sells little cups of freshly chopped fruit and seems to be doing good business. I have to admit that the very ripe papaya I see her prepare requires a true act of will to avoid!
The border wall looms dark and foreboding on the hillsides to either side of the highway, a long line of rusted metal, visible above the thick gabion rock walls separating the various lanes approaching the inspection point. I am shocked to see a sculptural motif set into the walls of the guard booths and outlying buildings that looks distinctly like a child’s footprints winding aimlessly up, down, and around. I have no patience for political correctness, but basic human sensitivity is another matter, and this design strikes me as being in very poor taste. In our current political climate, I’m a bit amazed the wandering footprints made it past a committee, and you know no government building is ever built without a committee. We inch toward the gates for a while, and I find the LED signs strangely hypnotic as they shift from Abierto/Open in green to Cerrado/Closed in red. Finally it’s our turn, and the fresh-faced young agent who greets us seems pleasant enough. He mostly chats with Sergio in what seems to me an easy, conversational manner. He is familiar with ASDM, and for a moment I think that is a point in our favor, until he starts quizzing us about the prohibitions against bringing in foreign plants or animals. We assure him we are very aware of the law and that this trip was for the purposes of photography and research alone, not specimen collection, but to no avail. He walks us over to an agricultural inspection point, where we start off badly with a guard who thinks there should be four people riding in the vehicle rather than three. It takes him a moment to realize that the Green Card and passport he has been handed belong to one person, Guy, and not two individuals (one of whom has mysteriously absconded!). We are asked to remove the coolers from the back of the car, which we do promptly. I can only assume they are looking for smuggled parrots, drugs, or both amidst the melting ice, bottled water, leftover tortillas, and half-empty bottles of Tequila. A gruff, older guard barks at me when I failed to understand that he meant to remove everything from the car yet again. It’s not what he asked me, and I don’t read minds, but I nonetheless give him what my Dad always called a “Yes, Sir, Yes Sir, Three Bags Full!” response (which is to say a painfully cheerful, and privately ironic, affirmative). Finally we’re given the go ahead to repack the car, and we head back into the United States where Craig and company have pulled over to wait for us to join them. I ask Sergio why we were so thoroughly searched and the other car was not. He smiles and raises his eyebrows. “Because we’re three guys in a dirty SUV, with a Mexican driving! They’re one white guy and three women.” I have the distinct feeling he’s probably right. There is one final checkpoint, where handlers with dogs wind their way between cars, presumably sniffing for drugs. A young guard in military dress walking a German Shepherd waives us through without pause, and we are on our way home.
The landscape grows increasingly familiar as we head back into Tucson. Low, golden afternoon light paints the desert with a glistening and sensitive brush as we head through Tucson Mountain Park and into the parking lot behind the Art Institute at the ASDM. Martha’s husband, Glenn, pulls up within seconds of our arrival to collect, Martha, Guy and I, and we say our farewells (only temporary as we will be back at the museum the next morning) as the sky shifts to oranges, pinks, and violets. It is amazing to me how quickly and dramatically this landscape changes, moving from stark austerity, to gentle warmth, to purple and blue mystery in just a few short moments. It is a landscape that I know I will not tire of, and I find myself already scheming about our next trip…
In the three days following our return from Alamos, Guy was busy teaching an artist workshop while I dove into the ASDM’s reference library to confirm the identities of some of the plants I encountered on our trip. I tentatively identified most of the specimens that I took note of in my journal, then met with John Wiens of the Botany Department to have that information confirmed by a professional. The maybe-a-puya-or-dyckia that so perplexed me turned out to be neither. It was, as I suspected, a terrestrial bromeliad, but it was not a species of either of the genera to which I tried to assign it. It is actually Hechtia montana, also known as Mezcalito, Aguamita, or False Agave. It is a local endemic. The large Tillandsia I saw growing in the Smallhouse’s garden and on the cliffs in Santa Barbara were indeed T. capitata, and the small, grey-leaved plants were, in fact, the same species, T. recurvata, that I grow in my garden back home. The small, green-leaved Tillandsia with the rigid bloom spikes that Felix showed me in the first arroyo we stopped at on our long car ride, were T. elizabethae, sometimes called T. sonorensis, a species found only to Sonora and Sinaloa. John was good enough to let me examine the museum’s accession records as well. Whenever a specimen comes into the museum, its origin is scrupulously recorded. For those plants collected in the wild by researchers and museum staff, this includes a description of the location and growing conditions, and in some cases, actual coordinates. I was especially keen to note the locations of T. caput-medusae, in the hope that I can use that information to track it down when we return to Alamos and the ReMM in the future. I also had a great visit with Howard Byrne of the Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrate Zoology Department. Though I was denied my sighting of a wild Brown Vine Snake, Howard gave me a more than intimate encounter. I spent a good hour photographing this beautiful and charismatic snake while Howard deftly corralled it into suitably interesting positions.
Before leaving for home, we also had a lovely evening with Michael and Priscilla Baldwin, whose generosity and vision built the Baldwin Art Institute at the ASDM. Though Holly has been the driving force behind the exciting series of field trips and the up-and-coming art exhibitions that are Project Sonoran Desert Resurgence, it is this dynamic couple whose funding has made it all possible. This journal would not be complete without sincere thanks to The Baldwins for their support, Holly Swangstu for her vision and hard work (and for arranging my invaluable behind-the-scenes access at the museum), Craig Ivanyi for his enthusiasm and willingness to help, Sergio for his expertise (and mad driving skills), Glenn and Martha Thompson for their hospitality during Guy’s and my stay in Tucson, the Smallhouses for the use of their Hacienda, Jennifer and David MacKay for facilitating our work within the Reserva Monte Mojino, and the Guardians, Felix, Alejandro, Miguel, and Cuate for their patience, hard work, and dedication to the natural world.
-Andrew Denman, 2016