Cruising on a dark, desert highway across the width of California, I entered the outskirts of Phoenix on a balmy summer night. Long before the city lights approached, the weak beams of my 1995 Nissan began picking out stupefied giants scattered across a bare Arizonian landscape.
As I pulled up outside my host’s, I saw, properly, for the first time, a saguaro (pronounced sa-waa-ro)—the tallest cactus in the world. Towering over the red sandstone town home, this saguaro had just started sprouting arms. “It’s about 60 years old, still young in saguaro years,” said Karen Wonders, my friend and host for the night. “It’s only 17ft, no more than a dwarf!”
The saguaro, whose blossom Arizona has appointed as its state flower, is stamped vividly in our imaginations—less as a cactus, more as the subject for scenic sunsets.
Surreal beauty: (Clockwise from top left) The saguaro cactus (photograph by Pulkit Vasudha); there are 24 other cacti varieties (photograph by Alex Diomidov/Thinkstock); a vineyard in Tucson (photograph by Pulkit Vasudha); and a Convair 240 in the Arizona Boneyard (photograph by Phillip Capper/Flickr.com/Photos/Flissphil).
The giant cacti live up to 150 years, growing as tall as 50ft, their arms shooting out when they turn 50. People like having saguaros in their front or back yards, and sometimes steal or kill for them.
Karen’s home is full of saguaros, the framed kind. “I left the thick ponderosa pines of Pennsylvania 18 years ago and fell in love with the barren beauty of the desert,” she said.
Also See : Trip Planner | Arizona (PDF)
As we walked around her home looking at photos of many-armed massive cacti, Karen told me of Native American legends that have become mere memory in these uber urban times—of people lost in the back country, without food or water, who transform into saguaros and stand sentinel, warning people of the dangers of the desert.
She told me of other, more recent legends—less fantastical ones about Mexican drug lords who paid thousands of dollars to dig up and deliver house-high cacti to mansions across the border. It is illegal to harm a saguaro in Arizona, but the law has never deterred the mafia from indulging in a little cross-border trafficking, prickly as it may be.
I had come to Arizona in search of Spanish stucco homes, arid deserts and fiery fajitas, but the saguaros had me bewitched. I was so taken that Karen suggested a visit to the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, a 2-hour drive away.
I took the bait. To avoid the dehydrating heat of the desert sun, I took off at the crack of dawn. The early morning light thickened with saguaro silhouettes as I got closer to Tucson.
After an hour and a half on the road, a breakfast of burrito and horchata (an icy rice powder and milk drink), I made my way into the park. A $10 (around Rs450) vehicle entrance fee later, I was officially in prime saguaro territory, and fittingly, there was a conclave of saguaros, standing upright in their welcome, right outside the visitor centre.
I craned my neck to marvel at the sheer size of the cacti. Ignoring other morning hikers heading into the visitor centre, I got my binoculars out and began to scan the height of a giant saguaro. The tiny black spots, no larger than a beetle, turned out to be woodpeckers perched high, pecking out homes for themselves.
The Saguaro National Park covers an astounding 57,930 acres, and before you say “desert”, think again. The area has six diverse ecosystems teeming with life, ranging from desert scrubs to pine forests that are covered with snow in winter. And apart from saguaros, there are 24 other cacti varieties here, creating a desert so lush you’ll hesitate to call it one. In the lowlands, the only wildlife you’ll come across is squirrels, coyotes and skunks, but higher up in the pine forests, there are mountain lions and black bears.
The half-mile, self-guided trail at the park’s entrance gives hikers a taste of the wilderness ahead, with information boards and plenty of benches should one tire. The trail runs close to a dry creek bed, where I spotted a shy coyote rubbing itself against the ribs of a dead saguaro.
There is a scenic 8-mile drive through the park with turnouts to stop and take in the breathtaking scenery. But to get up close and personal with the tallest cacti in the world, you have to abandon the luxuries of your car (difficult to do if the sun is rising high in the sky) and hike into the forest.
I got off the trail to explore some of the more interesting saguaro contortions. Sensitive as the saguaros are, the slightest winter frost can shrivel their growing arms and result in delightful sculptures. And this is why collectors cough up good moolah for strangely sculpted saguaros.
Karen had told me a story about saguaros taking sweet revenge. The hulky arms of the giant cacti have a penchant for falling on and killing poachers who try digging them up—a thorny and painful way to go.
Stepping around prickly pears, organ pipes and barrel cacti, I followed the trail deeper into the desert. For every saguaro I found, there was one taller, more spectacular in the distance. After an hour of hiking, I sat down at a picnic table to take in the surreal beauty surrounding me. The whiff of food made me some friends. The wrens living in a saguaro nearby were probably used to hungry hikers leaving them some titbits. Perhaps because they were Sonoran, they quite enjoyed my spicy poha. The Californian birds would have surely turned up their beaks.
Forest squawks and squeals broke the eerie silence of this desert. In this Arizonian Brobdingnag, I felt a strange serenity, as if the saguaros were watching my back.
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