Stingy Blue

By Linda Dugan, Cohort 5

The clement desert morning started out warm before I even arrived at Sabino Canyon. That was at 6:30 Tuesday morning, April 11, and I took note of a warm breeze passing over me just as I observed the yellow-white ball creeping up over the dark mountains. After many weeks of wet and cool weather, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the heat I knew was arriving in Tucson in the next few days. It hit 96 degrees the day before on my back porch, so I felt a sense of urgency to venture early onto the trail, because I knew in my gut hiking in 90 plus degree weather, which the National Weather Service was predicting, was a place mostly scorpions and lizards would find themselves. We all have varying degrees of tolerance to the heat in this part of the country, but I’ve learned, often the hard way, that my aging body doesn’t take kindly to desert heat. And I’ve also learned through the years that April sun in Tucson can be even hotter than June sun or July sun or even August sun in the northern climes where I’d spent long segments of my younger years; where winters are so cold and frigid you forget there even is a sun.

Not the case in Tucson. The winter days on occasion are cold, but nothing like Northern Cold. And the sun…well it’s always broadcasting reminders to us of its profusion with at least 350 sunny days per annum. In the Sonoran desert the sun assaults us like daily thunderstorms bombarding a tropical forest.

The parking lot was already filling up at Sabino, probably the last of the snowbirds or winter visitors, I thought to myself, as I pulled out a camel pack of cold water from the Ford Ranger and hitched it to my back, grabbed my walking stick and pushed my IPhone into my back pocket. The phone was the motivation behind my hike that day because I was determined to photograph the display of wildflowers I knew were showing their lovely faces along Esperero Trail. And show they did. It was an exhibition.

I walked eagerly along the trail, after exiting the main road which leads crowds of people along Sabino Canyon up over 3 ½ miles to the top, then dead ends into a turn-around spot for walkers, tram riders and bicyclists; where they then make their way back down to the visitor’s center. I hadn’t taken that path for several decades and today I shunned the hordes and made my way along Esperero Trail, a quiet and leisure traipsing through thick forests of creosote, saguaros, chollas, prickly pear, barrels, mesquite, agave and palo verde. Birds flitted noiselessly back and forth between saguaros as if they were guarding the desert from human activity. It was too early in the season for cactus and the indigenous trees to bloom. But the desert was awash with rainbow colors of wildflowers, which is usually one of the first signs of spring. I noted fairy dusters, poppies, plum seed, mallow, and brittlebush in dynamic bloom. It was stunning to see this profusion of color in the desert.

The desert displayed the dominant color of yellow painted across the landscape, but my eye and camera also caught swaths of red, orange, coral and white with speckles of blue and purple. One hiker stopped along the way as I bent down to photograph a blue desert larkspur (delphinium parishii). “A beautiful day,” he noted after I erected myself and looked up at him. It was. Not quite hot enough to make me want to seek out cooler domains, but warm enough to know the desert was only going to escalate into higher temps the longer I lingered on its playground. I turned to the man and pointed to the blue flowers brushing up against my calf. “It’s unusual to see the color blue out here in the desert,” I said casually as I smiled at him. He looked straight at me behind his sunglasses and large floppy hat. “There is plenty of yellow and green of course, after all the rain and some red, too. And scores of white plum seed. Even this coral color from the mallow is prominent, but how often do you see blue out here?” I asked him, happy to have a captive audience for a brief moment. I bent over and delicately touched the blue stemmed flowers. An Anna’s Hummingbird hovered fleetingly over the larkspur before skedaddling away in a hurry. I watched it dart sporadically around as if it were dancing to energetic music.

He nodded, “I hardly ever see blue in the desert now that you mention it. Mother Nature must be stingy with that color,” he laughed a little and moved on down the path. He was right about that. According to an article published by the Faculty of Sciences, Engineering and Technology at the University of Adelaide, the color blue is the rarest color found in nature. Only 10% of all flowers on the planet have the color blue.

Later, I detoured off the main trail and meandered onto a narrower path thinking I might see something new in the way of flowers. What I saw was a lethargic rattlesnake I came upon suddenly and startled him with the sound of my feet crunching against small pieces of gravel and rock. The body was camouflaged well, hiding in the brown earth, coiled up in the sun. But I heard the sound of the rattle loud and clear and saw it vibrating madly at me like an angry teacher shaking an index finger at noisy children. I instinctively backed away from the aggrieved snake, too quickly to snap a picture of it, as my brain moved me instinctively into flight mode. The snake wasn’t interested in being photographed and instead slithered off into the brush and was gone in an instant.

The desert is a stingy place. Stingy with its water, rain, and moisture mostly. Stingy with the color blue. And stingy with rattlesnakes who don’t favor being photographed by people. As I made my way back to the parking lot, my GPS watch indicated I had hiked five miles. I wondered how much longer these displays of wildflowers would offer their gift of color now the incessant heat of the desert would soon be encroaching on us. It wouldn’t be long before the desert would be inundated with 100 degree plus temperatures. Day after day of them. All those specks of desert blue would fade away in their own time, like clockwork, and die back from whence they came. The only blue left would be the azure color of the sky on endless cloudless days. I took one last panoramic view of the picturesque desert, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of its flora and fauna. This exquisite Sonoran Desert was my home. Stingy indeed, but also generous in its beauty and biodiversity of animal and plant life, who also call this unique and fragile terrain their home.


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