It would be easy to get off the road, walk for awhile, duck beneath a knoll in the shade of a huge saguaro cactus plant and imagine oneself on a prickly side of the moon.
The Sonoran Desert may appear lifeless on its surface, dry of vital juices, silent as a distant cloud of dust. That is why so much wilderness in this country has been organized into national parks, so experts may correct our mistaken first impressions and explain to us that, yes, the glaciers are moving, the volcanoes are stirring, the wolves are thriving again and, no, the desert is not a dead thing.
Experts do that at Saguaro National Park, two sections of desert filled with cactus and other living things that clamp against greater Tucson like a pair of highly uncomfortable earmuffs. Saguaro East and Saguaro West stand about 30 miles apart and cover some 45,000 acres each -- with a lot of car dealers, fast-food outlets and condos in between.
Desert crops up abruptly at the city limits, as if to emphasize the inappropriate nature of human settlement. The saguaro further underlines the point. Forests of them in the park stand tall, a few as tall as 50 feet, a sure sign that they have been there for 100 years or more. The eldest may have as many as 200 candles on the birthday cake, meaning they were born 114 years before Arizona became a state; meaning they were born as Mexicans.
Saguaros begin as tiny black seeds, shed by the tens of thousands every year by each mature cactus. The lucky ones begin life under the protective shade of mesquite or palo verde, shielded from the winter cold and intense summer heat, hidden from the birds and other creatures that would eat them.
They develop slowly, but they thrive most often on the softly sloping plains at the foot of desert mountains, which describes these national park lowlands precisely. A year-old saguaro seedling is a mere wisp of green. Teenagers may reach a foot tall. At 30, their fruit appears and flowers begin to blossom. At 50, the trunk may be as tall as Luc Longley. The first branches, or arms, begin to grow at age 75, and then the saguaro is qualified at last to appear as background in Road Runner cartoons.
So one might surmise that Saguaro National Park is about survival and patience. The fully grown adult may weigh eight tons, its bulk supported by a woody framework. Roots spread out close to the surface and may extend as far as the cactus is tall. During one of those rare desert rainstorms, the roots easily take in 200 gallons of water, which then rises up into the spongy trunk. The saguaro could live on that one drink for a year.
People learn this sort of thing by dropping into the visitor centers, talking with the rangers and studying the available books, maps and brochures.
The rangers might mention, for example, as chief interpreter Tom Danton did one day, that the Saguaro West visitor center "is standing in the midst of what's considered to be one of the thickest stands of saguaros anywhere in the world. There are just more mature saguaros per acre there than you can find just about anywhere."
Many people see little more than that impressive regiment of cactus and the forests of cactuses that are even more visible from the short loop roads that accommodate vehicles. The sight is fascinating and should satisfy anyone that they made a wise choice when they decided to get off the interstate for an hour or two.
Most other pleasures of Saguaros East and West are more subtle, more hidden and require more effort. Superintendent Frank Walker has been at Saguaro only four months after a transfer from Nez Perce National Historical Park. "I guess what I've enjoyed as much as anything here is taking some of the hikes and some of the varied trails," Walker told me. "There's a lot of opportunity for people to get out and walk and learn more about the park."
One thing they may learn, he said, is that the land rises far beyond where cactuses can grow (ground-level elevation is 2,400 above sea level). "Up on the Ricons over on the east side, you've got big pine forests. You have to hike up to it. We have no roads up there. But it's very intriguing."
Saguaro has been protected as a national monument since 1933. It became a full-fledged national park four years ago -- in recognition of its nearly 3 million visitors a year, the relative fragility of its main attraction and its unique status as an arid environment.
"We've got a greater diversity of wildlife and plant life than any desert in the world," chief interpreter Danton noted.
A bit deeper into the forest, visitors on foot will observe other kinds of cactuses in the shadows of the big ones: the tentacled hedgehog cactus, barbed fishhook cactus, bloated barrel cactus, round and flat prickly pear, bushy and tough teddybear cholla. Most of them produce pretty blooms in springtime if they received enough rain in the preceding months. Other plants bloom, too, and tough western customers such as mesquite and palo verde add more greenery.
Those who walk around also might catch glimpses of other life forms that make the desert home. The inhabitants get used to the conditions. The jackrabbit dissipates heat through its long ears. The kangaroo rat quenches its thirst exclusively from the moisture in the seeds it eats. Wrens, owls and hawks brave the sharp stickers to build nests on the saguaros, or they bore holes in the barrel to serve as living quarters.
Of course, those visitors who sleep late in the hotel or head back to town before dusk witness very little. "In the middle of the day, in the heat, no, they won't see much," Danton said, "because the wildlife is smarter than a lot of people, and they stay underground, or in the shade of trees.
"But if you're here camping or here in the early morning, when the sun is just coming up, you can see herds of javelina (something like wild boars), deer. . . . And lately people have been seeing mountain lions. There are lots of road runners, lots of coyotes, tons of lizards -- including the Gila monster, the only poisonous lizard in the United States."
It was becoming apparent that Danton no longer was making a strong case for leaving the Winnebago. "Snakes? We haven't had a poisonous snake bite in about eight years. We did recently have one elderly gentleman bitten by a rattlesnake right here (east side) by the visitor center, but it didn't inject any poison. Except for the two little tooth holes, he had no pain or discomfort."
Danton stressed that humans rarely get attacked by creatures of the desert. But they do need to protect themselves from the heat. "People should realize that this is a desert and they have to take plenty of water and protection from the sun. We have a few emergencies every year, more often in the summer, but even in the winter.
"It even happened to me once. I carried three quarts of water with me on a 9-mile hike, all downhill. A helicopter took me up. I was coming down from the 8,000-foot mark in the (east side of) the park. Out in the sun, where I was, it was probably 120 degrees. It was August, and about halfway down I realized that my body was using up moisture a lot faster than I could supply it. I thought I was going to die, I was so dehydrated. I got to the car and got some water, sat for awhile and I was OK, although I was very weak for hours."
And yet Danton still could extol the place he was coming from, Manning Camp, a little bit of paradise in the Rincon Mountains. "It's a wonderful, scenic place with ponderosa pines and some aspen trees and a spring and a lake. . . . It's hard to believe you're in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. When you're up in Manning Camp, you feel like you're in Canada, up in the Rockies."
A lot of western parks contain enchanting areas like that, but no others feature huge stands of saguaro cactus, the park's major drawing card. The cactuses have become Arizona's most familiar symbol; the blossom is the state flower. An old one with arms in front of the house confers status. A few have been stolen for that purpose. Some are legally sold -- for thousands of dollars -- by legitimate landscapers. Of course, those were not obtained from the park.
"The real little ones you can pick up for a couple of bucks," Danton said. "The big ones would probably cost up in the thousands, and the bigger they are, the less chance they're going to have of surviving after being picked up and transplanted. They have to cut off all the roots to move them, so the cactuses have to totally re-establish a root system for that big body, and a lot of times they just can't do it.
"Or people will put a small one in potting soil that holds in the moisture and makes their roots rot. They need a gravelly kind of ground that drains quickly, so they'll grab the moisture as it drains, but so they don't have to sit in it. Too much water at once will kill them. They can't handle it. You don't even have to spray them with water. They live sometimes up to 200 years without anybody spraying them. They're amazingly hardy if the conditions are right."
So that strength is the theme of Saguaro National Park. It has something unusual to see, as so many do, but it also has that story to tell. The mountains in the east were born of shifting continental plates and uplift 20 million years ago. In the west, the range developed from sedimentary and volcanic rock. Humans arrived almost 12,000 years ago. The first hunted the bison and mammoths that roamed the area -- which was then much more humid and temperate. Later cultures were hunter-gatherers. The Hohokam, who derived from the earlier settlers about 1,700 years ago, left the deepest impression. Their petroglyphs remain, although the people who created them have not been around for 500 years.
Those who visit today see pretty much what the Hohokam saw. Some merely gasp at the magnificent stands of saguaro and pass through. Others drink more deeply. But they, too, move on. The cactuses stay there and do what they do best -- survive in a place that is hospitable only to them and a very few other living things in one of the most interesting communities on the planet.