The Nature of Southern Arizona

Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Chapter 3

There’s no better way to usher in a long-distance thru-hike than by entering a National Park Service entity that leads directly into a designated Wilderness Area. Two very well preserved areas rising in a mountain wilderness above an undisturbed desert vastness extending into Mexico. A sky island secretly hiding forests, snow, wildlife, and many others treasures that wouldn’t survive at its base. A majestic wall of rock rising out of the desert floor thousands and thousands of feet into the air only a couple of dozen miles wide, but spanning many times that in length. The Huachuca Mountains are truly a breathtaking way to "ease" into the AZT.

Just beyond the first reliable water source though, the United States begins to leave its mark. High above the mountains a bright white blimp floats above. The unnatural landmark is visible from dozens of miles around, warning potential border crossers, we’re watching you.

It’s a heated debate in this area. Do we let illegal immigrants in? Do we need to limit their migration north? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? As America still has yet to learn, both are right. Too many immigrants and our cities will overrun our wilderness. And yet, everybody has the right to do what they think is necessary for a better life for their family. To blindly say one side is wrong is simple bigotry. This country was founded on differences and differences are what should unite us, not divide us.

That’s about as political as I like to get though. Instead of debating political topics that have no true resolution, I’d rather enjoy open wilderness, diverse and healthy wildlife, and let people live their lives as they see fit without hindering others’ comfort. When that happens, communicate. Preferably in person and not on social media.

My beautiful wilderness was soon interrupted by signs of civilization, sprawling Sierra Vista and the blimp aside. After rushing out of Sunnyside Canyon in the western Huachucas without taking any photos (for fear my electronics setup would fail me), I reached the end of Passage 1 at the end of my first full day on the AZT. Just below the hill I was perched atop of, a damned dammed lake reflected evening colors in the sky, the upcoming Canelo Hills creating a stunning backdrop in the fading light. Cars gathered around a campground below. A general store advertised its whereabouts to the campground via a light throughout the night, just in case anyone were to forget by morning.

Parker Canyon Lake at Dawn

A ranger at the camping area on the lake below had noticed the red light from my headlamp and had come to check it out. He had never heard of the Arizona Trail, but in hearing of it, became the first trail angel I would encounter. Trail angels are people you meet along the trail who do warm compassionate acts of kindness that encourage you to continue. In such acts, they also show you the best sides of humanity and inadvertently restore your faith in the human spirit. He dumped more fruit than I could carry on me before I turned in for the night. I ate what I could the next morning, then began on toward the Canelo Hills, a section of the trail I developed a love/hate relationship with due to the extraordinary beauty and pleasantness of the scenery, but also because of how ravaged the land had become from overgrazing.

I’m always amazed when I tell people that cattle aren’t from the United States and they react in their own amazement. Ironically, these are often the same people that consider bison to be an exotic animal. I don’t judge anyone for assuming so. Cattle are so ingrained in the culture and recent history of this country, why would anyone even think to question it? Bison on the other hand, who possibly roamed the country 100-million strong, were, and still should be, our native "cattle." The other animal, a destructive, devolved, inbred, idiot, instead consumes more grasses than many areas can support, drinks more water than is often sustainable, tramples soil that took eons to create, has its owner go to outstanding lengths and trouble to eliminate any other animals from the landscape, have their owners destroy native grasses in favor of more cow-friendly grasses, and pollutes the air from flatulence so bad it affects our global climate. They’re devolved from the mighty aurochs which once roamed all of Europe as the bison did in the United States. As agriculture took off in Europe however, many farmers found herding the enormous beasts challenging, and understandably so. They were larger than a one-ton bison. Over time, they found the solution was to continue breeding the smaller ones. They also eliminated the smarter ones. Gradually, we were left with the modern-day cow, an animal so dumb it flees ahead of its young when it feels threatened.

These are the animals that have transformed the Canelo Hills from what could be an extraordinary eco preserve, into a natural trainwreck of a landscape. At first, this high desert prairie stretched across gorgeous rolling hills appears pristine and lovely. It’s not long though, before the landscape appears somewhat consumed and trampled. The grasses appear less healthy. The soil lies in small trampled mounds as if trying to wave someone down for help. There’s a void of any wildlife, by land or air. And then, large black animals are dotted over the hills, sticking out like a cow in the desert.

High Desert Grasslands and Hills

People want their meat though, so who am I to slam such a classic American tradition? Just someone with an idea. Bison could exist on this landscape. Ranchers can also ranch bison. Bison consume significantly less grass than cows, allowing both a healthier balance in the soil and grasses. They drink far less water than cattle, something pretty important in an arid environment. The meat is also healthier. They blend into the landscape better. On top of that, they also have a wild spirit that would add a sense of wildness to the trail as opposed to walking through a herd of devolved and domesticated animals.

A simple change in livestock would also make the area an ecotourism destination for people wanting to see our national mammal in their element. The ranchers could sell their meat to the local restaurants which would allow people to learn about sustainability over a local bison burger. They could also be educated on how the native grasses grew back. On how wildlife returned since there was so little competition for the grasses. On how the soil slowly began to recover.

Alas, it’s just an idea. Instead, I passed through gnarled grasses, deteriorating soil, and a void of wildlife through the Canelo Hills. The hills were beautiful, but the landscape was lifeless. Those not spoiled by what a more natural ecosystem is supposed to look like such as Jackson Hole may not notice the differences and the unhealthiness of the area, but anyone with a naturalist’s eye will see something’s not right.

Arizona Sky Island Sunset

And then I got to the Cott Tank Preserve. This small tract of land was a dot of preservation on the public land that the rancher was using. In this preserve were lush healthy grasses, tempting trickling creeks, birds singing, and an overall healthiness that transcended the other senses. Just being in it and seeing such a difference in the landscape was reinvigorating. It was a spectacular gift to see a slice of the Canelo Hills in their natural state.

But then it was over. The trail only used a mere quarter of a mile through the preserve, just enough to tease me with a gust of real nature, like my wilderness area at the start of the trail. Back to cattle. Back to unsightly marred grasses. Back to fences splitting the land into illogically unnatural patterns. Back to barking dogs. Back to blank stares from invasive species that have been the cause of so many native species to be killed off. Back to my trail, in search of answers to questions I hadn’t even asked yet.

After a classic Arizona desert sunset lit a fire across the sky, I tucked myself away for a cozy night’s sleep in the comfort of the mild desert temperatures. The next day I’d reach my first checkpoint and mail drop: Patagonia.

I made great time finishing the Canelo Hills the next day. Along the way the mark of the cattle had faded so the land appeared a bit healthier, or maybe they just hadn’t grazed there in a while. Regardless, that morning was a beautiful hike. That is until I hit the road leading into town.

The good news was that I felt comfortable stowing my camera away and pushing into town quickly. The bad news was that cheap beer cans shared the roadside with all kinds of litter. Fast food wrappers that were stuck on prickly plants shook in the breezes like a child trying to wiggle out of his parent’s grip. The cheap beer cans reflected the bright sun, giving the ground a sparkle that was difficult to admire for multiple reasons.

Southern Arizona Desert Hills

I’ve long had a theory that cheap beer is the only beer you see littered. Indeed, as I’ve driven and hiked around the country, I’ve yet to see any evidence to the contrary. This seems to say a lot about the people who prefer cheap beer. You never see a craft beer can or bottle littered on the roadside. I suspect that the people willing to pay an extra dollar or two for craft beer seem to respect the land more despite cheap beer drinkers claiming that they actually do. Unfortunately for the cheap beer drinkers, actions speak louder than words.

I thought about this as I rushed past the garbage on the side of the road, the recycling that would never get reused until nature works its magical forces on it for eons, so that some future civilization digs it up and either finds treasure, or drops dead from its toxicity. Here’s hoping for less litter in the miles to come.

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