Sky Islands

Last year was a mad dash of effort. Time flew by and many things we imagined doing slipped off the list as time slipped out of our hands. It’s as if the accordion bellows of life were at full compression. It’s just a couple of weeks into 2015 and I already feel the accordion expanding out out out. These two weeks of driving around Southern Arizona seem like a month. It’s beautiful down here in ways I did not think to expect. It didn’t take long for me to guess correctly that this area was still part of the basin and range province. Wide valleys are dotted and even corralled by the tell-tell north/south trending mountain ranges. Down here they call these mountains “Sky Islands”. Much like an island the flora and fauna are cut off from the surrounding mountain ranges. While they might have similar climates and life forms many of these plants, birds and animals have no way of connecting with each other because the valleys are too wide and too warm. Others take advantage of the riparian streams and washes, using them like a kind of bird and animal highway. These streams allow for food and protective cover they just can’t get in the high desert valleys that provide not much more than grasses, yucca and cactus.
This wasn’t always the case. Roughly 8,000-4,000 years ago the climate used to be much cooler and wetter down in, what is now, the desert southwest. These valleys were once verdant meadows surrounded by pines and firs. As the climate warmed the plants and animals moved up to cooler elevations that matched their life needs. Trees and plants that have higher water needs tend to only grow on north facing slopes. Further back in time these mountains used to be neighbors. During a period where the west coast experienced subduction the land rippled together. There was volcanic activity and uplift. After the subduction was complete many years of water and wind weathering shaped the mountains to what we see now. The land, much like those accordion bellows, began to spread away from each other. You can actually read a pretty good synopsis on wikipedia about this here:

Alligator JuniperAlligator Juniper

Alligator Juniper

After several nights of enjoying the valleys and canyons of the area we made our way up to explore one of these sky islands, Chiricahua National Monument in eastern Arizona. We got to our campsite at 12:30, made a quick lunch and hit the trail. I’m not sure I meant to sign up for an eight mile hike but, it was worth it either way. Even at camp we are already away from the valley shrubs and grasses and into some real trees. There is juniper, oaks and for the first time in a long while I got to smell some pine. Seeing all these made me feel at home. It’s hard not to compare to my beloved California. As we walked and looked up at the rhyolite formations that the Chiricahua Apache called “standing up rocks” I said how I felt like I was at the crossroads of Yosemite and Bryce. After that I tried to really see the place for it’s own merit. Looking a little closer at some of the juniper trees I noticed their unique bark that gives them their name of alligator juniper since the bark looks much like the skin of an alligator. I also saw the yucca, agave and prickly pear mixed in with the manzanitas and sycamores. What Tim thought was a pinon jay was actually a gray breasted or “Mexican” jay. We’ve yet to see the javalina or elusive coatimundi, we’re not likely to see those in California outside of a zoo (we finally saw a javalina the next day!). The beautiful doe we saw when we started on the trail was an Arizona white-tailed deer and not ubiquitous black-tailed deer. I kept making a point to think this way, even as things felt and smelled familiar. As we crept up higher and started our way on the switchbacks that lead to the Heart of Rocks loop I stopped in my tracks. Even though I’d not only seen pictures but, had also been looking at them over the course of our walk I was struck by just how incredible these rock formations were up close. There is no question of why this is a special place worth protecting (and why the Apache fought so hard to keep it). The rocks are a reddish gray with covering of bright neon green lichen. They’ve weathered in such ways one can’t help seeing familiar shapes within the rocks. Like the pretty aptly named duck on a rock. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) did much work here and it’s easy to tell in the way the trail is built and even the naming of the formations. Small signs are posted near formations with names just as they were in the 1930’s. Thankfully it appears that some of the less than PC names are no longer posted.

As we move into New Mexico I hope to explore more into the strange yet familiar world of mountains that surround deserts. This time with fresh eyes ready to see what is unique and special. And leaving southern Arizona I have a new appreciation for the area I knew so little of. I suppose that’s the whole point of this effort.



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