Death by cactus in Phoenix, Arizona

Our Apache tour guide, Grey Fox – six foot two in his snakeskin boots – knows how to capture the attention of a bunch of city slickers.

After a quick warning about the rattlesnakes, tarantulas, black widow spiders and 33 different types of scorpion lurking in the desert scrub beyond, he announces, “And now for the really bad news – all the plants are killers too”.

The ‘oh-shit-wait-a-minute’ tree? Seriously?

There’s the ‘oh-shit-wait-a-minute’ tree, for example, a spreading tangle of devilish thorns that has snared many an unsuspecting traveller – unable to extricate yourself from the jabbing barbs, it’s basically a toss-up whether you bleed to death or die of thirst.

Or there’s the cholla cactus, which spits out detachable razor-sharp puffballs at anyone careless enough to brush past it. To drive home the point, Grey Fox gently kicks one with his toe – the spines stab straight through the leather of his boot.

A century or more ago the Apache outfought the US Cavalry in the ridges, dales and caves of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Forget bow-and-arrow ambushes of circling wagon trains: in real battles, when Grey Fox’s ancestors fought they used their local knowledge to devastating effect. With only the merest of grins he tells of blankets full of cactus puffballs tipped from on high over platoons of soldiers.

You can get seriously lost just thirty minutes from downtown Phoenix

There are 125,000 square miles of the Sonoran, stretching from California to Mexico, and even just thirty minutes from downtown Phoenix you can get seriously lost. Everyone sticks close together on the short, single-file walk. The Sonoran is the world’s most fertile desert and what appear to be trails are often dried-up seasonal rivers; when even the vegetation is venomous, you want to be with someone who knows where they are going.

It’s a relief to fetch up against something recognisable. Roadrunner cartoon aficionados know what a saguaro looks like – a towering green cactus that resembles an oversized mug tree. Dotting the desert hills, they grow up to fifty feet high and, according to the Apache, live for a thousand years. They’re thirsty critters too – after a drought (which, in the desert, may last 7 years), a saguaro absorbs 1,000 gallons of water in just 24 hours.

The spirits are present in all things natural

In the Native American belief system, the spirits are present in all things in the natural world, including the spikiest of cacti. Nature, goes the lesson, is not to be feared but respected. Young girls in the Hopi tribe are given carved wooden ‘kachina’ dolls which they hang on the wall to remind them of the omnipresence of the natural spirits.

Hundreds of these dolls are on display in Phoenix’s Heard Museum, the world authority on Native American arts and crafts. The museum displays cover every aspect of local life, starting with the first settlers, 1,500 years ago, who built canals to irrigate the desert.

The canals are back in business in Phoenix again today, watering the lawns and golf courses of the rapidly expanding city. But a century or so ago Phoenix was little more than a cow town, whose largest building was a brewery, and you get the impression that some would have liked it to stay that way. The Apache decry the urban encroachment, which nibbles further away at the desert each year, while the punters at the recreated town of Rawhide, just on the outskirts, relive the Wild West days with undisguised glee.

Feed the hogs, drop by the blacksmith’s forge, and bribe the sheriff to throw one of your friends in the town jail and then you’re set for dinner in the saloon. If you wanted to turn the tables on the desert, this is the place to do it – order a plate of fried rattlesnake and chomp away.

That’s one fewer to worry about next time you’re out in the desert.

Want to read more about my travels in the USA?

On foot in Boston – sightseeing in America’s most walkable city
Fighting season in Virginia – Civil War re-enactments and a night on Walton Mountain
Dodging the lava in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii
An urban hiking adventure in Portland, Oregon


Sonoran Desert by Jeff Shewan, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Desert mountain rain by Doug Aghassi, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Sonoran Desert by Trond Wuellner, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Sonoran Desert by Flavio Ensiki, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Saguaro by Miguel Vieira, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0


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