It’s always fun to visit the ‘new Wild West’

Published 7:34 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When I traveled to Phoenix, Ariz., this past year, it had been almost 40 years since my last visit to Arizona. It was the summer before my senior year in high school and my brother, sister, mother and I loaded up in our family’s motor home and headed out West.

We meandered across the lower 48 states before heading up the Pacific Coast. It was almost a month before my father flew to Portland, Ore., to join us for the return trip back to Alabama.

I was lucky enough to make the cross-country trip to southern California several times in my teen years. Almost all of those trips were on two-lane roads. You could see a small town’s lights in the distance, only to have to drive another hour to get there.

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We never missed seeing a historic site. Of course, that included Tombstone and the O.K. Corral. We wanted to “walk where they fell,” as the town’s brochure states. Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday were heroes in my book.

My brother, Ernest, and I were big fans of Westerns, as most boys were back then. Gunsmoke was part of our Saturday night ritual. Passing through the West we could envision the outlaws in the mountains we passed by. The Indians could not be very far behind.

In the six trips I have made to Arizona during the past two years, that Old West of my memory was nowhere to be found. Phoenix has been my recent destination and it is now like any massive city.

Scottsdale, the suburb I normally visit, is more like New York or Beverly Hills when it comes to shopping. The chuckwagon fare of my youth has been replaced by world-class restaurants and high-end steakhouses.

This past week, I had a change of scenery while visiting Tucson. The new Ritz-Carlton there is located on Dove Mountain. It is backed into a canyon almost two miles from the beginning of the development. The gate to the hotel is almost a half mile from the buildings.

Any dream I had remaining about sleeping in a bedroll on the desert floor was shattered by walking into the stunning hotel. A display of live rattlesnakes welcomed me in the hotel lobby. It turns out that more species of rattlesnakes live in the Sonora desert than anywhere else in the world; a total of 17 different rattlers.

It was hot; hotter than southwest Georgia, in fact. However, the humidity hovered around 6 or 7 percent. That made the days bearable and the nights delightful. With no city lights, the stars were brilliant. Even the International Space Station was briefly visible, if you were so inclined to be up at four o’clock in the morning.

It was an afternoon spent in the desert that made the trip special. The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum was totally unknown to me and I had low expectations about my visit. What I found was a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden, all in one place.

In the long drive out to the museum I finally saw the desert of my youth, passing through the Saguaro National Park. The Giant Saguaro cacti are almost universally known as the symbol of the Old West.

This enormous, towering cactus can grow to 50 feet tall. They sprout “arms” that give it its famous look. Standing like sentinels above the desert floor, they are spread out as far as the eye can see.

As barren as the desert appears, there are more than 300 species of animals and more than 1,200 species of plants living in the Sonora Desert. With a rare rainfall two days before my arrival, the desert was full of color as plants quickly bloomed with moisture present.

All of these plants and animals have developed incredible mechanisms for staying alive with little water. Plants, in particular, either go dormant with no moisture, or they have storage capabilities that allow them to survive. Once again, it was the Saguaro cacti that captured my attention.

This tall cactus can hold enormous amounts of water that allows it to bloom even in a year without rainfall. The bloom opens at night and is gone by noon the next day.

Saguaro must cross-pollinate with each other. Birds, something you don’t associate with a desert, seek the sweet nectar in the bloom and pollinate the flower. It then develops into a fruit which ferments in the sun.

Eaten by bats and birds, the seeds in the fruit are deposited in the shade of another plant, giving it protection from predators and heat. This is important because a young cactus only grows 1 inch per year.

That is when you realize that the Giant Saguaro all around you are all very old. A plant is between 30 and 70 years old before it develops its first trademark arm. Most of the bigger cacti were around at the time of the fight at the O.K. Corral. The tallest are around 200 years old.

The old Wild West of my youth provided hours of fantasy and fun. Those memories will always be with me. The new Wild West of today is more alive and beautiful than I ever imagined or remembered.

Dan Ponder can be reached at