Monday, March 28, 2016

On the Beaten, Bumpy Path

Each spring during the University of Arizona's spring break, the campus is taken over by the incredible and ever-growing Tucson Festival of Books.  Anything and everything book-related is represented, including an impressive array (see the list) of authors giving talks and signing their books.

One of the panels I attended featured three Arizona travel writers, including one of my favorites, Roger Naylor.  He just makes you want to get outside, lace up your boots and hit the trails.  One of the questions posed to the panel was about the most unique place they had come across in their Arizona travels.  The other two authors gave thoughtful responses of places they had found that had almost spiritual qualities.  Then it was Roger's turn.  And he proceeded to wax poetic about .  .  .  the Desert Bar!

I almost laughed out loud, as not a week before, while camping along the Colorado River, we had made our annual pilgrimage to this odd and crazy place.  Literally out in the middle of nowhere, after miles on a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling, rocky road, you are greeted with an almost surreal sight.  Hundreds of parked cars (where did they all come from??) and a collection of structures that can only be described as bizarre.  In the parking lot you encounter the facade of a church, with nothing behind it.

Crossing a covered bridge into an open-air bar, tables are packed with happy people, a band playing the sounds of the 60's and 70's, colorful umbrellas keeping the desert sun at bay, and the bartenders hard at work trying to keep up with the crowd.  Burgers and hot dogs are on the grill, but don't ask for cheese!  There's an inside saloon too, and a popular shop for the shirts and hats, and many levels of seating areas.  Downstairs a new kitchen has added many food items to the menu.

Everything is run on solar power, and, how's this for a business model - they're only open on the weekends, 11am to dark, for a few months a year.

Officially the Nellie E Saloon, the Desert Bar is located in the Buckskin Mountains, just north of Parker, Arizona.  The name comes from the original mining claim on which the bar now stands.  Everywhere you look is some little quirky, kitschy, interesting relic - an old, rusty fire truck, old glass refrigerator doors for windows in the saloon, open-air restrooms that give a view across the desert.  Between the people-watching, the music, and looking at the details of construction, you'll stay totally entertained.

If you want a truly unique Arizona experience, make your way out to the Desert Bar.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Beavertail on the Colorado

Opuntia basilaris
The rocky, almost barren desert of the lower Colorado River valley comes alive in March after winter rains and warm temperatures.  Yellow creosote bush blooms, brittlebush and yellow cups, and purple phacelia shout that spring has arrived.  But, nothing prepared me for the explosion of color that was the blooming of the beavertail prickly pear cactus.  Our annual trip to the river was just a week later this year than usual, and what a difference it made.  Normally I'm happy to see ten or so of these bright pink beauties.  Imagine my surprise and joy to be met with hundreds of the humble little cactus sporting big, bold flowers, everywhere the eye could see.

The flat, jointed pads of the beavertail give rise to its name.  A low-growing prickly pear with gray-green stems and no large spines, the pads are covered with tiny brown bristles called glochids.  These are far more irritating and bothersome to the human body than the big spines.  Note to admirers of the flowers, don't get too close to the plant!

Growing on the rockiest slopes, these plants seem to need little in the way of soil or water.  The flowers range in color from bold magenta to delicate pink, and I understand, there are even yellow and white varieties.  In this section of the Sonoran Desert along the Colorado River, I saw none of the yellow or white.

The flowers are followed by fruits, magenta to pale green, maturing to dry brown-gray, barrel shaped and usually spineless. Cactus bees are the pollinators.

A drive along Cienega Springs Road, and later a hike up Buckskin Trail literally took my breath away with the stunning glory of these flowers. The Death Valley superbloom had nothing on this display!