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Visualizing the Pitayal Pt. 2 – The Long Way South

Thanks for visiting Wingtrip. This post is a part of a project called Visualizing the Pitayal. Click here for an explanation of the project. Click here for a complete listing of all the posts in the project so far, to start at the beginning. And if you are impressed by what you learn and see, consider supporting the Alamos Wildlands Alliance. Thanks again and enjoy!

Note: We start, as most stories do, at the beginning. However, as my internet access and limited time in the field allowed no real updates, I want to quickly say this. From my perspective, Visualizing the Pitayal was successful. There are always setbacks, the major of which was the salt water bath the quadrocopter received early on, putting it out of business. That said, in review of my imagery, I’m quite satisfied, vow to do even better next time, and am brimming with excitement and ideas. I’m at that wonderful creative stage where there’s much more sprouting than withering. The ultimate test is if my photos are truly useful for the Alamos Wildlands Alliance and if they help protect the unique habitat AWA works so hard to monitor and preserve. People here at home asked for immediate highlights when I returned, which I partially understand, but I also appreciate thoughtfulness before blurting out thoughts. So, sit back and take in my synthesis of the trip, as I tease out the line over the next few weeks. I promise it’ll be worth it.

We live in a world where semi-artificial concepts often manifest as reality. After successive generations have adopted these ideas, for many, they become the unquestionable truth. Crossing into Mexico from the United States was, a reality of sorts, but from the promontory of natural history, it was merely a line politicians drew in the hills.


These hills, once we left the clutter of Nogales, were lapped by surprisingly green lows. Tall cottonwoods, flush with chartreuse, veiled what surely were crisp desert rivers. Scrubby hillsides rose to a girdle of cacti. A red-tailed hawk cruised overhead, an American kestrel pumped its tail on a powerline. If you missed the poverty and the potholes, the haphazard taco shacks and the people watching the world go by, we could have convinced ourselves this was just down the road from the riparian pleasantry of Patagonia, Arizona. In terms of the ecological connectivity, it certainly was.

Trying to cut lines across the natural world doesn’t work so well on continental landmasses. We aren’t all so lucky as to deal in Wallace’s lines. Tall mountains and bodies of water do a fair job of demarcation, but generally a map of ecological boundaries, drawn with strict ecological transitions is only for our benefit. Such is the Sonoran Desert and it’s various habitats.

Breaking away from the hills we sped across a desert plain. Isolated, ancient volcanic plugs stood on all sides and the alluring Sierra Madre Occidental paced us on our left as we curved south. All I wanted to do was get out in explore them, but even if I didn’t believe Mexico is as dangerous as the media made it out, I knew better than to suggest random mountain roads. I had to be satisfied with dreaming of exploring them in the future. Besides, there were desert birds, doves and vultures in particular, to enlivened the drive.


A grossly untrained eye might strain to see beauty in the desert. However, with a briefest of coaching, like say, learning a few cacti, a day’s drive through arid ground can become infinitely more interesting. Vibrating between ecotones, I couldn’t help but ask unanswerable questions about why certain plants were growing where. Yes, yes, because of differences in soils, human disturbances, aspect, micro-climates, and other various contributing factors. But still, why?

So the passing cholla, prickly pear, and the saguaro, and soon pitaya, senita, and echo kept us company. We discussed the world, as any thoughtful people might. We gawked at the gaudy new Starbucks in Hermosillo, bringing on murmured thoughts about the globalized society we belonged to. Then in turn we gushed at the precious street dogs and the small town wonders of a place so close to our home country yet ever so different. We told stories.


Road weary, we finally made it to the turn off. After an initial first pass and circle back on the dark highway, the prius, our unlikely desert chariot, spryly bounded down the sudden drop of asphalt to the dirt. The lights of the highway disappeared and soon our retinas spilled over with stars. We were elated, not only because the driving was nearly done. The air was fresh as we rolled down the windows and took in the serene darkness and the celebratory beer was still frosty.

I was happy to have the cover of darkness, it avoided distressing views of the ongoing land clearing, but also it allowed glimpses of nocturnal inhabitants. A barn owl stared us down as we trundled the dirt road through agricultural lands to Navopatia. To me it seemed to be giving us a greeting, but between you and me, I tend to overemphasize these encounters. Really it just wanted a nice plump rodent and for us to pass it by.

However, the best thing about late night arrivals is rising the next morning. Sallie greeted us warmly and showed us our luxurious accommodations. Before long I was happily prone on a cot in a wall tent, the way one of the gods surely intended, surrounded by a lively nocturnal world, being lulled to sleep by the sounds of insects and night herons.


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