A RIVER RUN
Bruce F. Barber
I was relaxing in a favorite chair… when the thought struck me. “Let’s have a wiener roast,” I suggested. “The weather’s nice enough and it’ll give us an excuse for an outing.”
“How do you get an outing out of a wiener roast?” Freda inquired.
“All we need is wiener sticks and the best wood for them is “Cardón.”
Sure enough, the present winter weather was perfect for an outing. The days had been sunny and warm, the wind had stopped, and this was a perfect excusefor an outing..
“Cardón?” she murmured. “Then let’s pick a forest we haven’t been to.”
Whereas Cardon (pachycerius Pringlei) spread the vast majority of their seeds naturally (they fall to the ground in seedpods), birds spread many of them by virtue of eating the plant’s fruit. For those who don’t know this plant, it is the largest of all desert cacti, is “columnar” (frequently mistaken for Sonora’s and Arizona’s “Saguaro” cactus), and grows naturally only in Baja California, Mexico.
The sun rises between 6:30 and 7:00 in January so we planned our departure for 9. It would be warm enough by then to drive through the desert in a Sandrail with plenty of time to explore and return by mid-afternoon. Besides, a 9 a.m. takeoff allowed all the time we needed to complete our morning chores, pack a lunch, and prepare our Sandrail.
As it turned out, we were making dust by 8:55. Seemed like so long since we’d been out and now we were heading south on “Sulfur Mines Road”. We passed “Las Minitas”, the sewage plant, and “Smoke Tree Lane”. We stopped along the north rim of Rio Huatamote where I pointed to a lava outcrop I’d wanted to examine and where I knew we’d find wiener (and marshmallow) roasting sticks.
After coffee, and a still-warm Danish, we started again but this time there was no road. We drove into a riverbed where we could search for the things we enjoy. While Freda searched for rocks with natural holes in them (which she uses as planters), I walked in another direction …where I came upon a cougar’s tracks.
Cougar in our desert are not as rare as one might think. Over the years we’ve seen at least a dozen and, perhaps, a half-dozen bob cats. They’re both “meat eaters” and subsist on coyote, goat and any other desert animal they can catch. What’s more, judging by the size of its paw print, this fellow must have been at least a year old. The spacing between his tracks told us he’d been walking and that suggested a full stomach. Information like that is part of the desert we enjoy: Reading signs that tell us how alive this magnificent place really is.
We walked to the mound I’d pointed out earlier. The most interesting thing about it, we discovered, was that it’s northern face had been cut away …by a river. We were standing in a riverbed carved an estimated 3,000,000 years ago by waters escaping from a landlocked lake. We were looking at a granitic wall those ancient waters had sliced through like a knife through butter.
The power of water is amazing; moreso in a place that rarely sees any. The gullies we’d driven over told us of the downpour from 100 different storms. In some, we knew we were seeing the results of a flash flood with water racing across a sandy floor, digging, carving, creating new channels as it found its way to the sea from whence it had come. In others, we saw the results of a soft rain and pools an inch or two in depth from which animals had drunk before the water disappeared in the sand. After it disappeared, the surface dried and cracked and curled, leaving an all too-familiar pattern.
We discovered a plant nursery as interesting as we’d seen anywhere. We found baby Ocotillo growing out of rock and baby Cardón in the protection of a half-grown Mesquite. We saw Palo Verde, Palo Chino, Palo Triste and Torote (Elephant Tree) in their infancy; unique in so small a space.
We also saw an animal trail passing near the nursery. While cattle are the most common sight in the San Felipe, coyotes are second, and snakes, I believe, are third. We saw signs of an animal with a two inch long foot approximating man’s. It was, I believe, the print of a golden desert badger. Other marks described the antics of large footed lizards and the twisting, turning passage of a snake or two. Birds were represented by the hummingbird, a bluebird, and a sparrow with a surprisingly loud song.
Turning west, we followed the south rim of the bed. The ground we crossed was so soft I envisioned it collapsing and my Sandrail coming to rest in the parlor of some resident rodent sitting in a favored chair. By themselves, the tunnels suggest a prolific birthrate in a land dominated by the cougar, the coyote and the snake. We had, once again, come upon the magnificence of Nature and these “tunnels” bore witness to how she provides for the animal community as a whole. It is a barren desert to some while, to us, it is an open book and on this page a dramatic part of the food chain lives and dies according to an established plan.
We entered a Cardón forest where I was expected to find wiener roasting sticks. And, sure enough, as if placed especially for us, we came upon a 20-foot skeleton standing like a monument, it’s arms tall and proud in death as it must have been in life. Selecting carefully—we had no desire to damage this beauty from which, at another time, and with proper tools, attractive lamps might be made.
“Think you can find this place again?” she asked.
“Like the back of my hand, Amiga. I know precisely where we are.” Earlier, we had come upon ironwood stumps I’d committed to memory, for ironwood in our local desert is almost “a thing of the past”.
There is a special technique to knowing where you are in the desert. You cannot memorize plants for as different as they are, they all look alike when you’re lost. No, it is a matter of taking bearings on permanently fixed landmarks and knowing how to use those bearings later. Admittedly, it helps if, as I do, you have a compass in your head or are at peace with the land you love. But there is no real mystery; it’s a matter of paying attention.
We explored the south rim of the Huatamote, a place of incomparable appeal. Approaching the western mountains, we found ourselves in a rocky cul-de-sac with the surrounding terrain a system of rugged hills and valleys. We were in sediments deposited at the floor of an ancient sea, rambling over terrain exposed by the fury of an escaping lake. We were 30 miles from town, under the watchful eyes of the animals whose tracks had made our day so interesting.
As the sun leaned heavily to the west, we realized it was time to turn around. So, reversing our heading, we reviewed the scenery we’d enjoyed so much. We were reminded of water that had poured over this land from how many storms in the past million years? Whether trickle or deluge, the ways in which it modifies the earth are many.
We had been on a search for some mundane tool and found ourselves in a land of natural balance …where all things are born, blossom and turn, eventually, to dust. Looking around as we departed, I knew we were a part of that same scheme and felt fortunate to be here and to be able to comprehend …on a river run, in a bone-dry desert.