I first start seeing cactus - and I mean real wild cactus dotting the land like trees - south of Phoenix. There’s something endearing and sometimes even humorous about the way saguaros are shaped. They seem to have personalities (in a way).
Saguaro National Park flanks both sides of Tucson. The western side was larger and more remote with more hiking trails, while the eastern side was pretty much just a nice short scenic drive popular with cyclists. There is a marked difference in the vegetation once you pass from other open lands into the park boundary. The plants don’t grow everywhere. It seems to be related to elevation. But when the conditions are right they blanket the hillsides, fighting for space. It almost looks like the whole national park has been landscaped. The varieties of cacti and other desert plants seem to space themselves out so that no two alike touch each other.
I hike to a lovely viewpoint at the top of a hill, seeing jackrabbits and snakes along the way. And afterward I stop by the visitor’s center. When I see a postcard of the crested cactus I have to say, “Oooo.” I’ve never seen anything like that. The ranger directs me to one. It’s not on a trail and I didn’t see it at first from the road, so I was just wandering around for awhile in the general location when I stumbled upon it. They are incredibly rare: about 1 in 200,000 saguaro have this type of shape. There was another more accessible one just down the road in front of the desert museum. It struck me as odd that there seemed to be more cars at the desert museum than there were in the actual desert.
Next I decided to visit a mission - the first one on this trip - called San Xavier just south of Tucson. I’ve always liked missions. Growing up in California I had easy access to them. This mission is still a very active place in the community. There was a truck selling treats in the parking lot and music coming from the market across the street. Inside the church is quiet, but the décor is loud. The building itself was quite beautiful and stuck out from miles away - shining white in the desert like a palace.