It’s my last day in the Sonoran desert. I want one last beautiful scenic hike before I go, so I ask my favorite volunteer at the Visitor Center, the man who swore me in as a “Desert Ranger,” about his favorite hike. “You want scenic? Without a doubt…the Bull Pasture.”
This is another hike of Ajo Mountain Road, which means I must once again drive the 21 mile gravel gut buster to teach the trail head, which is 11 miles in. It is a one way road, so there is no shortcut to making the entire scenic drive, which is not quite as scenic the second day in a row, so I hope my Visitor Center friend is right.
I choose to combine the Bull Pasture hike with the Estes Canyon trail for a 4 mile loop with a 1,000 ft elevation gain. It is just about as close to a perfect hike as I have seen in a while. The path starts out on a gradual slope, climbing up to a ridgeline overlooking Estes Canyon below, where the views across the canyon are worthy of the effort. At the junction with Estes Canyon Trail, there is a spur that leads up a series of steep switchbacks toward a saddle first, then on up to an elevated viewpoint where it is possible to see across the Sonoyta Valley south into Mexico, with the Puerto Blanco Mountains to the west.
Unlike the Arch Canyon Trail, there is an actual trail marker and register at the top to let me know I have arrived at the Bull Pasture, so this time I don’t keep going all the way to the summit of Mount Ajo looking for the end of the trail. Haha!
Although there were once cattle grazing in the Bull Pasture, it is the Ajo Mountain view that gives the hike its name. Can you see the “bull?” A longhorn steer looking a whole lot like my UT alma mater mascot, “Bevo.”
Back down the steep spur, the trail descends into Estes Canyon, where the remaining 1.5 miles meanders along a wash through a cactus garden. The Palo Verde trees are all blooming, as are the cholla. But the most impressive part of this walk is the “forest” of tall chain fruit cholla, many of them towering over my head. I have never seen this cactus taller than 4 feet before, so to walk beneath them is an unusual experience.
As I near the end, I realize this is my last hike through the desert landscape for a good long while. I am still not ready to leave this harsh environment where everything seems to exist in extreme contrasts, defying the odds and thumbing its nose at my least favorite word, “mediocrity.” From the vast temperature swings between the brain-baking sun of midday to the thirty degree drop that descends with the setting sun. Or the intoxicating fragrance of the creosote bush that only exists in that rarest of moments of desert rain. Or the contrast of the beautiful soft, feathery red, pink, orange and yellow flowers that perch precariously on the end of a prickly cholla limb.
I have learned so much about the desert this year, from how to distinguish between a Senita and an Organ Pipe, to how to tell a Lupine from a Larkspur. In an odd way, these plants, especially the big goofy saguaros with their many waving arms and facial expressions, have become like silent, supportive friends. I don’t know what it is about the desert that captured my heart. Maybe it is the heat that causes me to slow down a little and observe more. I have even grown to love the distant cry of the Gambel Quail each morning that seems to be saying “C’mon!” urging me to get up before the cool of the early morning has vanished faster than the night blooms on the cactus.
And so it is with a bit of melancholy as I cross the wash and head back through my last field of Organ Pipe and Saquaro cactus. I have one last desert event to look forward to before it is time to leave. A rendezvous with some border crossers!
I first met Contessa and Colin and their two Doxie girls Caeli and Carmeh in 2013 when I stopped in Mazatlan on my way down the Copper Canyon to meet my brother Don in Oaxaca for New Years. I had followed Contessa’s blog for a while, and was eager to see the idyllic Isla de Piedra from where she blogged daily about beautiful beach scenes and spectacular sunsets. We formed an instant friendship which only got stronger in the form of supportive emails as we both went through difficult challenges throughout the winter when both our fathers health began to fail. Unfortunately, Contessa lost her dad in February.
We vowed many times if our paths were to come remotely close to crossing, we would meet up in the desert and drink vino blanco all night under the desert skies. So when I got the email saying she and Colin would be passing through Ajo, what better reason to detour on my way from Tuscon to San Diego?
To describe this scene in the desert is going to sound like I am embellishing….but I am not. The weather was perfect. It was one night short of a full moon. The sunset was the best I have seen the entire time I have been in the desert, as if Contessa’s spectacular sunsets from the Isla had followed her here.
Colin is an accomplished guitarist. After driving all day through a challenging border crossing, he set up an entire patio under the awning complete with gas fireplace in a matter of minutes. Then he popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, and kept the wine flowing and mesmerized us with his melodic guitar while Contessa and I caught up. At 10:00pm, we finally stopped talking long enough for dinner.
As the clock turned toward 2am, I finally said goodnight and returned to the Winnie under moonlight so bright I didn’t need a flashlight. I could not have scripted a more perfect night, or a better way to say adios to mi amiga, and farewell to the Sonoran Desert. Hasta Luego! I miss you both already…