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During the weekend, I visited a new and fascinating wilderness area within a Native American reservation in southern Arizona. It was just two weeks ago, when I picked up a map of Arizona and found that one place in particular stood out to me. It was a wilderness area within an Tohono O’odham Nation reserve. In its mountains is a very prominent peak called Baboquivari Peak. Upon doing some research I learned that the wilderness area is considered a very sacred place to the Natives living near it.
Joining me was a friend whom I went to archaeology field school with. From Phoenix, we had a 3 hour drive ahead of us and we knew we would be setting up camp long after sunset. The drive took us on long roads along the whimsical Sonoran desert landscape, towards the setting sun. The silhouettes of the ancient Saguaros stood majestically tall and picturesque. The sight of a “Saguaro forest” against the setting sun’s light can only be described as magical. The Saguaro cactus gives such presence to the desert, when around them I feel as if I am truly in the presence of “the ancient ones”. There is no other feeling than that of being surrounded by your ancient natural ancestors. In their presence somehow, I feel safe and embraced. I thought long about this during the trip.
Later, we found ourselves in pitch darkness on a dirt road; our last 10 mile stretch before reaching the campsite. The entire dirt road had that sometimes fun but mostly annoying, washboard effect which meant driving extra slow. It was going to be a while. After sometime, we rolled down the windows and suddenly the sound of wild filled our ears! The night-time chorus of insects was uninhibitedly loud. The night air was pleasantly cool and a sense of fascination of what we might see took over, when suddenly we find we are approaching a figure in the middle of the road. It was a Great Horned Owl! I have been experiencing my share of Great Horned Owl encounters in which I feel especially fortunate. Ever since my first up-and-close encounter with a Great Horned Owl, I have felt like the Owl is my spirit animal.
The horned owl flies to a large shrub right next to the road and remains there a while. It was very hard to see and I tried my best adjust the settings on my camera to take a photo, but to no avail the owl eventually flies away. When taking pictures of owls I never use a flash, which is why so many of my nighttime owl photos are so unflattering. I always take a lot of care when taking photos of owls in the night. They rely so much on their night vision and a camera flash can really impair that vision. And though this topic is up for debate in photography, but still I’d rather not use the flash.
We continued our drive up to the campsite and occasionally I stuck my head out to see the stars. Oh the stars! They are such a big part of my spirit. It is so important for me to distance myself from city lights from time to time. Finally, we reach the campsite and just as we did, a Collard Peccary runs in front of us, zig-zags around for a bit before running away into the darkness. Already the place was filled with so much life. Tired, we went to sleep soon after I pitched the tent. Good-night my starry friends!
In the morning, we ate a quick breakfast and explored the area near camp. Water! A large creek flowed near the campsite and curiosity lead us to cross it to see what lied on the other side and there, we saw another Peccary who quickly ran away from us. Looking around we find we are at the base of several grandiose mountains clustered together. Some of the mountain slopes were covered in Saguaro cactus. After beginning our hike, we noticed how dynamic and very green the landscape was, thanks to the more-than-usual rains. Thick grasses, ocotillo, Western Coral Bean trees, chollas and agaves were thriving in great abundance. I was excited to finally be on the trail, Baboquivari Peak at this point, was completely hidden from view.
Most of the trail was overgrown with thick, wild and mostly undisturbed vegetation. My dog Dharma, kept trying to catch grasshoppers that would leap from and about the thick grasses. Some parts of the trail were so overgrown we had to push our way through using our shins and on nearly every switchback we marveled at the vast views of greened desert and at the occasional Saguaro that stood out from the rest. We turned upward on another switchback when my friend stops suddenly, we gasped at the sight of a large Desert Tortoise on the trail. I smile to think of how old he might be and how successful he has been and was impressed by his route which seemed most daring for a tortoise. He was on the trail next to a very steep edge and was un-phased by our presence, never retracting his head, even when I took a close up photo. I was so delighted to see a tortoise; the Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) is protected and has been listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act, their primary threat: habitat loss. Though glad to know this guy was safe out here, as the area is still very wild and undeveloped.
We continued our climb and reached a very grassy saddle which overlooked a large green valley. Continuing upward we wondered which direction the trail would take us as the peak was still out of our view. We knew we wouldn’t be able to reach the summit since it required climbing gear but we were determined to reach the peak’s base and go as far as we could. As I made my way through, out from the grasses fluttered two quail. These quail were different, they were not Gambel’s nor were they Scaled quail. I believe what I saw was a Montezuma Quail! Is this even possible? Just as the Scaled quail back home, too quickly do they flee before I can take a picture. I am fairly certain it was not a Scaled quail, and I am positive it wasn’t a Gambel’s quail. The Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) is a very, very secretive bird found in Mexico and southern Arizona, a “prized” game bird. They are known to nest in very tall grassy areas, just like this. And the vegetation was very thick indeed and it grew thicker and thicker as we continued. We went as far as we could make out the trail, but it eventually began faded away. At this point we could see the sacred peak, towering straight ahead of us, its prominence made clear. We continued a short ways beyond where the trail disappeared to see if we could spot a continuation but the trail was no where to be found. Clouds began rolling in and I enjoyed the shade on our descent. Somehow, the landscape looked even more green during our descent. Back at camp, I felt a great sense of contentment for being able to experience this wonderful wilderness. We went to the creek to soak our feet and discovered a nice larger sized spring with a small waterfall.
Later, as we were making dinner, a man wearing a purple shirt and a yellow and orange bandana with long dark hair approached our site. He was the camp host and introduced himself as James, a native member of the community. He was extremely friendly and we talked about wildlife and animal encounters. I told him about the owl and how I felt it was my spirit animal. He told me animals were considered very important to his people and that the Great Horned owl is a protector. I told him about how I often find feathers on my hikes which led to my trail name Wild Feather. And he continues to tell me about his connection to the eagle and how he acquired an eagle feather during a time in his life. He told me these mountains harbor lots of life, from the common raven to exotic coatis and Jaguars. I recalled my remote camera research and remembered siting sources of recorded Jaguar sightings in southern Arizona. Though he thinks they are mostly gone, he believes he heard one once while hiking alone in the area. It was great fun speaking with James, he even shared with us some secrets about the mountains. He kindly made us feel at peace telling us we can call on him if we needed any thing.
Later we watched as the sunset painted the mountains a brilliant orange-pink. Tired, my friend and I fell asleep as soon as darkness fell but I awoke at around 1:30 am and got up to look at the stars one last time. The Milky Way’s light splashed across the night sky as the nighttime chorus commenced.
The next morning, we packed our things, waved good-bye to James and drove the long dirt road away from Baboquivari. On the drive out we saw around fifteen feral horses and a Red-tailed Hawk atop a very large Saguaro. It was a lovely wilderness area I wish to be able to revisit. And although the native Tohono O’odham consider this a sacred place, they truly consider all land as sacred; as do I.
Tohono O’odham translates as the People of the Desert, and are one of many tribes that thrived thoroughout Arizona as self-sustaining peoples. The land was much different not more than 100 years ago, rivers flowed and there were lots of trees and life was good. However, when conquistadors came they dammed the rivers to try to push the tribal people away.
Every time a river is dammed and a territory is claimed, the land suffers. We must remember that sacred lands are not limited to reserved tribal nations. But that all wild places create and support life. All wild places are sacred.