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Southwestern Winter Deserts

Joshua Tree

After two days and 500 miles of gliding on electrons, we finally made it to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. We overnighted only once in Palmdale to rest from the driving and the next day we landed in an arid desert world of magnificent trees. This is the exclusive home of the elusive Joshua Tree.

Once in the park these superb trees (izote de desierto, Spanish for "desert dagger") surrounded us and sprawled out in all directions. We were surprised to discover that these beautiful plants are only found in this relatively tiny pocket of biome in southern California. We had read about these amazing trees, but this was the first time either of us had set eyes on them. They are magnificently adapted for this dry desert area with thin frons rather than large leaves to minimize water loss. They can grow quite tall, some to 49 feet!

Saguaro National Park

Surfing on an electro-magnetic wave, almost free of carbon dioxide gas emissions, we travelled on for 1,000 miles into the southwestern deserts of these here United States of America. The landscape is stark and lonely, but strangely beautiful too. All around us were flat sandy plains covered by desert plants, broken only by the occasional tall sandstone mountain climbing straight out of the desert floor and stretching high into the cloudy sky.

So much driving can be very taxing, but our car's autopilot helped relieve the strain by assisting with simpler activities such as driving down straight unpopulated roads of which there are many in this part of the world. It is an odd sensation sitting back while your car drives you; but Tess is reasonably good at this and she improves after every software update.

Some 20 plus years ago, not long after I had moved to the USA, I worked for two years in Tucson Arizona. I commuted from Oakland every Sunday evening and returned every Friday night. It was an arduous time, but I got to know Tucson and more importantly I got to meet many of the residents of this big-little desert town. People here were extremely friendly and hospitable to me back then, and I'm glad to say that my experience was confirmed on this visit too.

Somewhat like Joshua Tree in California, Tucson has its own special plant: the amazing and spectacular Saguaro. This stupendous plant lives only in a small region of the southwestern deserts of America and Mexico. The Saguaro is an arborescent (tree-like) cactus species. These gorgeous plants can grow to 52 feet tall and like almost every other plant in this desert area they are covered with sharp and prickly spines.

Julia poses with a smaller domesticated Saguaro found in downtown Tucson.

We discovered that, just like in Australia and New Zealand, vegan restaurants are beginning to spring up everywhere, including in this remote town. We ate a terrific plant-based lunch at Urban Fresh, which I can highly recommend. We also had a fantastic dining experience at Tasteful Kitchen, which I recommend if you are seeking a plant-based fine dining experience. So yummy!

Out the back of our hotel (the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa) we discovered an amazing desert hike. The short trail took us through a forest of Saguaro, Prickly Pear, Ocotillos, and so many other unidentified spiky species that we were left with many questions and stunned by the biodiversity of this lovely place.

The other claim to fame that Tucson can boast of is the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitt Peak is responsible for many stupendous astronomical and cosmological discoveries. It is a mecca for science geeks like Julia and me, so we were pleased to be able to go on a nighttime tour of this incredible place. It included a walk around some of the telescopes, a spectacular sunset, stargazing through a 20-inch telescope, binoculars, and the naked eye.

The next day we visited the Saguaro National Park to view more fields of the magnificent cacti and see some 1,000-year-old petroglyphs. Just north of the Signal Hill picnic area is the largest petroglyph site in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. The Signal Hill Petroglyph Site occupies a small but very distinct rocky hill that is about 200 feet in diameter at its base and is 40 feet high. The site consists of over 200 Native American petroglyphs many of which can be viewed from the visitor trail that ascends the hill.

These petroglyphs were created from between about 550 to 1,550 years ago. Petroglyphs, which fall under the common, all-inclusive term “rock art”, are a global phenomenon. The oldest known rock art are cave paintings found in Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa that date from the Upper Paleolithic period, 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The next day we got up to continue our journey and found disaster had struck! Tess of the Drivervilles had a flat tire. Like so many modern cars she does not have a spare tire only an air-pumping system and a chemical tire sealant solution. Because the next leg of our trip takes us to El Paso Texas, which is some 320 miles away I figured it would be best to replace the punctured tire rather than try to push on through the remote deserts on a jerry-rigged one. And so, we had to suffer extending our stay at the luxury resort. Oh well, life's a bitch and then you die.


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