The ocotillo are antennas. They bloom from volcanic cinders. Near the horizon, a granite mountain range shimmers, submerged in an old lava flow. Ribcages of saguaros stand on black earth. The cholla were dancing. They’re standing still now. There is no sound. There is a feeling of drowning in the depths of sky.
The name of this place haunts the imagination of any desert lover. El Pinacate is a mirage, once discussed but seldom visited. That is changing now. Declared a national park by the Mexican government in 1993 after over a decade of lobbying by scientists and environmentalists, La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is together with Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument one of the most important protected areas of the expansive Sonoran desert.
El Pinacate is frequently called the heart of the Sonoran desert. The volcanic geology gives it an edge, a rawness that evokes the force of the earth, the push of blood. And as park director Federico Godines Leal points out, seen from a satellite, the area even takes the shape of a heart––not the Valentines’ kind, the muscle kind. “And it looks that way from either the south or the north,” he says, a shine in his eyes. There’s a heaviness about this place that makes a visitor feel like he or she is at the center of something.
One of the first known Europeans to see this place was the Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino at the end of the 17th century. What he saw from atop the Pinacate peak changed the world: the first proof that Baja California was actually a peninsula, not an island as was widely believed by the Europeans. Maps were never to be the same. Maps are portraits of the men who make them. It is healthy to redraw the maps every few generations.
After years of catering only to scientists and renegades, the park is now changing. Late last year a visitor center was opened. Years in the making, the center is touted as the largest public building in Latin America to be operated off the grid, powered completely by renewable energy. This is even more impressive considering the massive amounts of air conditioning required to make the place survivable in summer temperatures that can reach 125º F.
“The idea is to share,” says Godines Leal. “In a way, even the name ‘biological reserve’ is problematic, as if this place were reserved for only a few lucky guys, us. No, on the contrary, this reserve is open. [The visitor center] brings El Pinacate closer to the public.”
From the top of the sand dunes of the Great Altar Desert, it’s about 50 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Colorado River. Govines Leal makes a point of saying that this is the sand that once filled the Grand Canyon, carried down grain by grain over millions of years. This is the remixed hollow of the canyon.
Graceful cinder cones, sharp craters, broken black volcano bones. These are the beautiful scars torn across the earth by two million years of volcanic activity. Imagine if Sunset Crater were covered with creosote and saguaros.
The moon escapes from the granite horizon and slowly inhales, filling itself, smeared with the blood of sunset. The ocotillo are antennas, listening to something on the wind that we don’t have ears enough to hear.
The creosote bushes slowly gather sand, building their own altars. It is said that creosote bushes are among the oldest individual living organisms on Earth. Some have been found to be over 12,000 years old.
In the wind of the Rocky Point highway, plastic bags migrate. They can’t seem to remember where they came from. They’re caught up on ironwood trees, trying to ask for directions. Caught up on fences, no tongues, just a plasticine rattling, a friction played by rushing cars. That which was made nowhere has nowhere to return to.
Rainwater collects in slick stone basins, lasting most of the year without evaporating. These are called tinajas, each one a life-giving oasis in El Pinacate. Big horn sheep and mountain lions drink this water. Jets occasionally streak their trails across the water’s surface.
A road grader creeps along the visitor loop road, smoothing the damage done by the recent heavy storms. The average annual rainfall here is four inches. Earlier this year, two inches were recorded in just three days. While causing some inconvenience for park staff and visitors, the rain also means that this year will have one of the best wildflower seasons in recent memory. The river has whet its throat and is pronouncing its name. Río Sonoyta. The ghosts of floods are hanging everywhere.
UFOs glitter like cars that have driven up the sides of cinder cones and out into the sky. They wink in and out, some looking like stationary flares. Some looking like glitter. Some looking like something difficult to name. The coyotes screamlaugh among the black rock, then fall suddenly silent.
The mesquite smear along the edges of the highway like spined ink. Seen from the sand dunes, the Gulf of California makes a bright blur of the horizon. A swiftly moving silence.
“This place incites spirituality,” Godines Leal concludes, smiling. “This landscape imposes itself on you.”
La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is about 80 miles south of Ajo, AZ just off the highway to Rocky Point, Mexico. The staff is bilingual and very helpful. February through April is wildflower season and is by far the best time to visit the park. There is camping available, a small usage fee applies to all visits.