"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


We started seeing prickly pear cactus fairly early in the trip. Actually Walt and I saw an abundance of it on the shuttle ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff. We'd also seen squadrons of saguaros standing at attention on the side of the freeway. Because my blood runs with the forest moss fern green of the Pacific Northwest, all those cacti were an otherworldly delight to my eyes.

On day six of our float twenty-one of the twenty-four of us hiked up the Bright Angel Trail, and twenty-one new people hiked down to join the trip. Several of those new people had the age-old red rock of Arizona in their blood, and so cactus was every-day to them.

The farther west we floated, the more desert-like the beaches became so prickly pears were everywhere. Several varieties of rotund barrels dotted the slopes. On a calm flat stretch as we scanned the shores for signs of sheep, someone pointed out what looked like a giant bundle of incense sticks poking out of the rocky ground.

Ocotillo. And while not a true cactus, they are spiny and live in deserts and among cacti.

The Arizona natives seemed particularly happy to see these sticks. I was less than impressed. Erin, my new friend from Tucson, explained that ocotillo go dormant in the dry season, but once the monsoons start, and there's moisture, they turn bright green. And, she said, when they bloom, there is a single red blossom at the end of each branch.

Incense sticks turned into lighted Christmas tapers.

The monsoons had just begun, even though it was very early in July. We'd encountered rain off and on since the second day of the trip. Never for long, and always a welcome relief from the heat. So I was not surprised when just a bit farther downstream people started pointing out ocotillo in all its green glory.

The Arizona people would soften as they talked about ocotillo. There would always be a quiet thrill of excitement whenever we'd see patches of the green stick bouquets adorning the rocky shores or perched at the tops of canyon walls like guardians granting us permission to pass. They all had ocotillo stories, and many had ocotillos in their yards. One woman said it was her favorite plant from childhood because it played a significant role in her favorite picture book, Roxaboxen.

Hearing that, I felt like an old friend had just walked into the room. I've used Roxaboxen in my teaching often, and had rediscovered it just last year. Until that moment I'd never made a particular connection to the ocotillos that fill the pages of that book.

That was when I started seeing ocotillo differently than the other flora that are a part of the Inner Gorge ecosystems. Prickly pear was cool because it was in fruit and barrels were entertaining because they looked a bit like minions (or as one of the guides said, penis gardens). But ocotillo tugged at the same part of me the river and the colors and the song of the canyon wren did.

For the remainder of the trip, people would be heard quietly murmuring, "ocotillo," almost like a prayer. It was not at all unusual for someone to call out "ocotillo" as we passed, much in the same way they'd call, "sheep," (big horn sheep) or "GBH," (great blue heron ). Occasionally someone would point out a plant in bloom, flickers of red light dancing at the ends of long fuzzy green stems against a sapphire sky.

One evening in camp, when all the color of the day had followed the sun behind the canyon walls,  I looked up to see a single ocotillo standing over us, silhouetted against a fading Impressionist sky. It maintained its post all night, its shape defined by starlight later, offering comfort of a kind when I was up to pee in the small hours. Even as we broke camp and floated away the next morning, I watched it sit in solitary dignity and felt its whispers of sanctuary.

On the last day, as we traveled by school bus from the take-out at Diamond Creek along a road that was barely more than a rocky stream bed, one of the last sights my heart absorbed before we found ourselves on the pavement of civilization was a grove of ocotillos. The thickest stand any of us had seen so far. Someone in the back of the bus pointed it out, although I expect most of us had spotted it on our own. Several were blooming. Ocotillos can live to be a hundred, and judging from the size of many that we were seeing, this was a grandmother garden.

In the weeks since our return, our canyon experience has continued to expand the boundaries of my heart. The wonders we saw and felt grow brighter in memory. The river and the sand and the heat and the ancient rocks and the people I shared them with are all embedded, permanently I hope. And standing in the midst of it all, watching over,  is the miraculous, marvelous ocotillo.


Linda Myers said...

Lovely, Deb.

Barb said...

I like that the Ocotillo was your spirit guide on the Colorado. To defy adverse conditions, to grow skyward, and possibly to bloom - not a bad choice for a guide! My grandchildren return to school next week - I'm wondering if you're preparing, too, Deb? Wishing you all the best.

DJan said...

What a wonderful plant! I had never heard of it before, but now I feel it is a part of my history lesson for the day. I loved this post and need to read it once again to absorb the beauty in between the lines. :-)

Linda Reeder said...

I was very taken by Ocotillo when we visited Arizona some years ago now. It was in the early fall, following the August/September rains, and they were blooming. Hummingbirds loved them.

Deborah Barker said...

I have not heard the name before - "Ocotillo" - I shall remember it now.
Another delightful journey with you Deb. Beautifully told as always. ;-)

Teresa Powell Coltrin said...

It's seems an unassuming plant, but when it blooms I bet the ocotillo is awesome.

yaya said...

I've heard that the desert is lovely when it's all in bloom. As a child when we visited the Southwest I thought it was too hot and not pretty at all. It took seeing it again as an adult to appreciate the true beauty of this landscape. You experienced it in a fabulous way and have shared it so beautifully with us. I'd never heard of that plant before and so I've learned something new today..thanks to you, a wonderful teacher!

tricia said...

You have another career as a writer for National Geographic, I think. =D Thank you for sharing your vision with those of us who just see a plant. Love you, Deb.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I had never heard of the ocotillo until I read this. What a fascinating plant, and a wonderful way to remember your trip. You were brave to make that journey, and now you have fulfilled a dream. Excellent.

Retired English Teacher said...

Always the teacher, you have taught us of a new wonder. I'm now fascinated by this plant also.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, lovely. Thank you. Peace.