Compelled by the Desert, Again

Tracy and I were driving due south from Tucson to find a campsite almost on the border with Mexico, when I realized something important.

We’ve been letting the idea of where we spend next winter percolate in our plans (as well as actively brainstorming, searching, wracking our resources and hearts) but—no dice. We have no idea where we’ll be next winter.

Suddenly, on this drive I was sure of one thing: I don’t want to spend next winter in the desert. Please, no. We’ve been camping in the southwest since mid-October, and I’ve about had it with brown. And sharp. Plus, dry. Brown, sharp, and dry: I do not need to see any of you again for a good long while.

I think I said that same thing right before we camped at Joshua Tree. And maybe before Organ Pipe. Okay, and I said I was done with the desert right before we stopped in Ajo. You’d think Death Valley would have given me enough, but each time we walk through a part of the southwest we haven’t been to before, I learn something new, and my brain … expands. I know, that’s the way learning works. But I’m still getting used to traveling-style learning.

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

We’re camped directly in a wildlife refuge, which may be a first (I need to check my tags here), and it’s so much more than brown and sharp and dry. I know these photos don’t show that, but come along with me here.

For one thing, it’s not dry. Wetlands that once were transformed for cattle and horse ranches are being restored—cienega is the Spanish word for the springs that surface here—and the restoration is recreating unique habitats for minnows, wetlands birds, and a special frog (that I didn’t see or else I would be describing it).

We’ve been here only one full day and have simply walked around our campsite and driven to the visitors center, but we saw a huge herd of mule deer congregating at what remains of a small lake, then “stotting” across our hiking path to fields in the distance. That’s a real word: it’s how people describe mule deer springing above high grasses on all four legs at once so they can keep moving forward but also keep an eye on predators.

And that’s just mule deer that have me so excited. We saw three (Tracy says four) javelinas at another spring. And Tracy has his eyes peeled for the endangered masked bobwhite quail, which is the primary reason this refuge exists: to restore habitat for these birds. And for the desert pronghorn. And for several imperiled species of bats. Who’d have thunk.

Our Campsite

The refuge allows camping at specified, numbered sites along dirt roads that criss-cross the 118,000 acres here. We found one with a view of the volcanic-remnant mountain, Baboquivari, which looks so small in all my photos but truly dominates your vision here.

It’s the pointy one you can see from my reading spot this afternoon:

And the pointy one above Banjo’s ear.

Our area of this refuge has the feel of an orchard, which is very cool. Still leafless but promising mesquite trees must grow in a regular layout in the grasslands, and they’re punctuated with these chain cholla, plus prickly pear cacti (that javelinas like to eat), and occasional barrel cacti. It’s basically what we’ve been seeing since October, but knowing that there’s water here, and that desert pronghorn might run in the grasslands below you anytime you look—and my interest in the desert is revived.

Banjo is practically beside herself on walks, smelling jack rabbits and kit foxes and coyotes, and flushing out quail and generally getting sharp things stuck in her fur and lots of dirt in her nose. Aka, dog happiness.

Tomorrow we’re heading east to the town of Arivaca, where there may be interesting hiking along a creek, and surely there’s a restaurant we read about with good outdoor dining. We have to forgo hiking here and try for this town because wind will pick up (AGAIN) and the temperature will drop for the rest of the time we’re here, so we’re making the most of the promised pretty days.

I’m not saying, “bury me in the desert, oh my lord.” but I am reminded that travel surprises you.

6 thoughts to “Compelled by the Desert, Again”

    1. The wind has been so strong here that Tracy’s struggled seeing birds. I know he added to his list though – I’ll find out what.

  1. Dave says early in his career when he was on a trip in the southwest he was offered a job there, with a sizeable raise. He thought about it a bit, looked around, and said to himself, “No, I like green!”