Ari­zona has all walks of na­ture

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY GENE MUELLER

TUC­SON, Ariz. | On the way to the Sono­ran Desert, I found a dead coy­ote ly­ing crum­pled along­side In­ter­state 10, the ob­vi­ous vic­tim of truck­ing and au­to­mo­bile traf­fic that zips along at 75 and 80 mph.

Tum­ble­weeds were, well, tum­bling across the road­way when­ever the wind picked up speed. Ev­ery­where you looked, you could see gi­ant saguaros dot­ting the land­scape, their up­ward “arms” looking very much like a per­son be­ing held up by un­seen mis­cre­ants. Some of th­ese fa­mous mem­bers of the cac­tus fam­ily are dy­ing in­ex­pli­ca­bly, which surely is a cause of con­cern for tourism of­fi­cials. Who, af­ter all, wants to see a huge dead cac­tus?

But none of the first im­pres­sions de­liv­ered by south­ern Ari­zona pro­vide a fair pic­ture. For starters, most of the state is ruggedly beau­ti­ful, with craggy, even snow-capped moun­tains, forests, a desert that is big­ger than Mary­land and Delaware com­bined, and or­ange and lemon trees that grow in the back­yards of oc­ca­sion­ally even the poor­est peo­ple, whose roofs of­ten are cov­ered with red tiles, not run-of-the-mill as­bestos shin­gles.

My des­ti­na­tion west of Tuc­son was the im­pres­sive Ari­zon­aSonora Desert Mu­seum, which is an open-air zoo — yet it isn’t a zoo. Un­like wildlife parks that mostly dis­play caged an­i­mals, the Sonora lay­out looks like the ad­ja­cent desert that touches Mex­ico and Cal­i­for­nia with its un­told acres of iron­wood trees and mesquite, cre­osote and hill­top palo verde bushes and shrubs wedged be­tween rocks and 100 va­ri­eties of cac­tuses, in­clud­ing the huge saguaros.

Some­where amid this desert flora a pair of dark eyes watches ev­ery move you make as you qui­etly walk along a maze of foot­paths. It’s a moun­tain lion; no, sud­denly there are two of them, long-tailed and luxur iously furred, safe from hu­man con­tact, sep­a­rated by a barely no­tice­able moat tied into a nat­u­ral de­pres­sion in the land­scape.

Close by, more than one pair of eyes fol­low you from be­tween the trunks of old cot­ton­woods and thick palo verde shrubs. It’s a trio of Mex­i­can gray wolves. For all pur­poses they look like well-fed Ger­man shep­herds — only more mas­sive, with longer legs and far more aloof than any dog could ever be. The wolves ap­pear to be re­gally bored de­spite the adu­la­tion of the vis­i­tors.

Near the wolves’ en­vi­ron­ment, but safely out of the way, lives a small pack of javeli­nas, sharp­fanged, tiny cousins of pigs that can dis­play the courage of an­i­mals 10 times their size if their young are threat­ened. The lit­tle pork­ers are safe be­hind a thin, net­like fence. They go about their busi­ness, grub­bing and root­ing, or rest­ing un­der desert shrubs, safely hid­den from the rays of the sun, which even in win­ter can be sur­pris­ingly warm.

Park staffers ask that you not bother free-roam­ing wildlife. Al­though re­mote, there’s a chance of see­ing var­i­ous species of rat­tle snakes and spi­ders. You might also run into a few rov­ing coy­otes, deer, black bears, and an ab­so­lutely mind-bog­gling ar­ray of wild birds, in­clud­ing owls and kestrel hawks, small par­rots that are na­tive to Mex­ico and an all-Amer­i­can va­ri­ety of song­birds.

Af­ter see­ing the won­ders of the Sonora Desert Mu­seum in the com­pany of sooth­ing, warm sun­shine, a drive into the nearby moun­tains on Catalina High­way, east of Tuc­son, brought a stark awak­en­ing. The 8,000-foot climb to Mount Lem­mon on a wind­ing road made my eardrums pop. A thick, hooded sweat­shirt kept my up­per body warm while I drove past high piles of plowed snow, in­clud­ing some that fell the night be­fore. When I asked the Apache In­dian pro­pri­etor of a shop that sold turquoise-em- bed­ded sil­ver jew­elr y if my Wash­ing­ton Red­skins sweat­shirt of­fended him, he laughed and said: “No, it doesn’t. We leave that for you po­lit­i­cally cor­rect Eastern­ers to worry about.”

What a con­trast. From desert flora and fauna to a sen­si­ble Na­tive Amer­i­can, then on to bar­ren rocks, crooked pine and aspen trees sit­ting in snow drifts — all within a 50-mile drive.

E-mail: gmueller@wash­ing­ton­times.com

In the Sono­ran Desert, rat­tlesnakes are fairly com­mon; this cap­tive snake was held in a spe­cial en­clo­sure.

PHO­TOS BY GENE MUELLER / THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

This gi­ant saguaro cac­tus is one of thou­sands that dot the south­ern Ari­zona land­scape.

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