- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

TUCSON, Ariz.

On the way to the Sonoran Desert, I found a dead coyote lying crumpled alongside Interstate 10, the obvious victim of trucking and automobile traffic that zips along at 75 and 80 mph.

Tumbleweeds were, well, tumbling across the roadway whenever the wind picked up speed. Everywhere you looked, you could see giant saguaros dotting the landscape, their upward “arms” looking very much like a person being held up by unseen miscreants. Some of these famous members of the cactus family are dying inexplicably, which surely is a cause of concern for tourism officials. Who, after all, wants to see a huge dead cactus?

But none of the first impressions delivered by southern Arizona provide a fair picture. For starters, most of the state is ruggedly beautiful, with craggy, even snow-capped mountains, forests, a desert that is bigger than Maryland and Delaware combined, and orange and lemon trees that grow in the backyards of occasionally even the poorest people, whose roofs often are covered with red tiles, not run-of-the-mill asbestos shingles.

My destination west of Tucson was the impressive Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is an open-air zoo - yet it isn’t a zoo. Unlike wildlife parks that mostly display caged animals, the Sonora layout looks like the adjacent desert that touches Mexico and California with its untold acres of ironwood trees and mesquite, creosote and hilltop palo verde bushes and shrubs wedged between rocks and 100 varieties of cactuses, including the huge saguaros.

Somewhere amid this desert flora a pair of dark eyes watches every move you make as you quietly walk along a maze of footpaths. It’s a mountain lion; no, suddenly there are two of them, long-tailed and luxuriously furred, safe from human contact, separated by a barely noticeable moat tied into a natural depression in the landscape.

Close by, more than one pair of eyes follow you from between the trunks of old cottonwoods and thick palo verde shrubs. It’s a trio of Mexican gray wolves. For all purposes they look like well-fed German shepherds - only more massive, with longer legs and far more aloof than any dog could ever be. The wolves appear to be regally bored despite the adulation of the visitors.

Near the wolves’ environment, but safely out of the way, lives a small pack of javelinas, sharp-fanged, tiny cousins of pigs that can display the courage of animals 10 times their size if their young are threatened. The little porkers are safe behind a thin, netlike fence. They go about their business, grubbing and rooting, or resting under desert shrubs, safely hidden from the rays of the sun, which even in winter can be surprisingly warm.

Park staffers ask that you not bother free-roaming wildlife. Although remote, there’s a chance of seeing various species of rattle snakes and spiders. You might also run into a few roving coyotes, deer, black bears, and an absolutely mind-boggling array of wild birds, including owls and kestrel hawks, small parrots that are native to Mexico and an all-American variety of songbirds.

After seeing the wonders of the Sonora Desert Museum in the company of soothing, warm sunshine, a drive into the nearby mountains on Catalina Highway, east of Tucson, brought a stark awakening. The 8,000-foot climb to Mount Lemmon on a winding road made my eardrums pop. A thick, hooded sweatshirt kept my upper body warm while I drove past high piles of plowed snow, including some that fell the night before. When I asked the Apache Indian proprietor of a shop that sold turquoise-embedded silver jewelry if my Washington Redskins sweatshirt offended him, he laughed and said: “No, it doesn’t. We leave that for you politically correct Easterners to worry about.”

What a contrast. From desert flora and fauna to a sensible Native American, then on to barren rocks, crooked pine and aspen trees sitting in snow drifts - all within a 50-mile drive.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected] Visit Mueller’s Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.


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