Favorite Places : A Simple Gate

As a way to engage and listen to our supporters, we are soliciting contributions for our “Favorite Places in the Sonoran Desert” project. The following essay was contributed by Donna Blake and describes the beauty and solace that can be found in the Sonoran Desert. Thank you, Donna, for you wonderful submission!


By Donna Blake

In the expanse of desert and carved river between the ancient pit house on the eastern edges of the old Fort Lowell Calvary grounds and the burnt adobe estates of the Tucson Country Club, lies one of the richest riparian wildlife communities in Tucson and one of my favorite places to be.

Walking beyond the little man-made stream and down the path heading east from the last ramada is a rusted pipe gate once part of a pre-statehood ranch cattle pasture.  Stepping through is like stepping back in time, when the river flowed, and Indians lived and thrived off the land at the edge of plenty.  A time and place in history that carried Western civilization forward and west to calvary posts, Indian Wars, homesteads, and settlement.  The gate is the West, and today it signifies a giant leap back in time when you cross its barrier.  From public park, soccer fields, and picnic tables, one step over and we are back  in the realm of the animals and  the land, and  into the true nature of things.

Continuing past the gate, a short walk brings you out onto the thick silty basin just south of the big bend of the little river.  The Rillito (“little river”) to the north is joined in an embrace by the bigger wash coming ’round the bend from the south,  the wide swath of double dry river beds of the sweeping Pantano.  It is paradise to me.  A respite of quiet and calm, seemingly far, far away from that proverbial maddening crowd we are all part of in our daily lives. Out there, on a great desert day, the skies above are deep blue, the high Catalina Mountains show off their bones and majesty in perpetually changing colors, and the richly foliated earth of the river exudes a strong potion of scents, profoundly stirring to the senses.

For many decades, climbing through this particular gate for a solitary trudge down in this particular wash, has trumped the stressors and worries of daily life, easily coaxing my consciousness back into oneness with nature. With a lively curious dog at my side, my human eyes see things differently, simply, as everything becomes an object of new interest, even if we just saw it a week ago. It is a washing of the soul to walk such ancient waterways and along new animal tracks, with nothing more to think or do than be present, at one with it all.

Sadly, yet significant, more and more often, such cherished walks are being interrupted by the presence of un-natural distractions, an uber reality of nether-world life more related to a scene from Dune, than to one of our magnificent riparian sanctuaries.   Clusters of trash and litter, an old tattered sleeping bag, and an empty grocery store shopping cart, turned upside down and twisted by raging winter floods, jut out from their lodgings in the sand to reveal the pitiful living inventory of the river-dwelling homeless at their abject worst.

An enclave of such disturbance is a bleak and startling contrast to the random growth of bright green dry-season plants and trees, the tippy-toed paw prints of coyotes, and the sweetness of darting cottontails playing hide and seek in the flora.   There is never anyone home as we approach a campsite, just the stuff, collected or discarded as they go. Vastly beautiful as the wash is, these encampments are no home-sweet-home escape. Rather, they have become a desperate place to crash or escape for those down on their luck or in big trouble.  These scenes expose the trappings of temporary residents, like a riverbed hotel-notel, who are here today or two, and gone tomorrow.

In their vagrancy, such souls are a reality-check for a mere afternoon hiker just out for a breath of fresh air and a few hours of escape from the daily routine. Nameless, faceless, secreted away behind brush and tarpaulins, they are a gripping reminder of the frailties of humankind as they seek refuge amidst the life cycles and backgound of raw nature. In its very harshness, a homeless camp in the wash is a snapshot of us all, a tell-tale oneness of the instinct of survival we share as a species, and with all animals. We are treading the same path together, albeit in our various unique shapes and forms and life conditions, just  trying to get by.

Perhaps that is the very reality that binds me to this favorite place – that all of nature is temporal, and whether it is a shopping cart or a cougar, a human being in a sleeping bag, or a hiker with her dog, the common denominator is life.  Simply, basic, everchanging and awesome life. To see it, to feel it, to smell and know it, is to be alive and part of the whole.  It all seems to fit together perfectly in my special favorite scene out there in that great wash.  Each piece of that puzzle makes sense to me in the order of things, and when I enter that world, through a simple cattle gate, alas, I too am just that simple.  At least, for a while.


Interested in submitting your own piece for the “Favorite Places in the Sonoran Desert” project? Contact Kathleen at kathleen (DOT) kennedy (AT) sonorandesert (DOT) org for submission guidelines and more information.