Monday, February 1, 2010

Ocotillo in Winter

Because I'm in (mostly) sunny El Paso rather than snowy Metz, I'm making the best of the circumstances by taking walks from our house onto the lower slopes of Franklin Mountains. This rugged sedimentary uplift range, with spectacular volcanic intrusions, rises to over 7,000 feet within the city limits. My own rambles are on the lower western bluffs, at around 4,500-5,000 feet.

Walking in the desert differs radically from the forest hikes I took when I lived in Oregon. In the Cascades and the Olympics, you walked for a long, long time on conifer-needle paths among tall trees. Until you reached a lake or the treeline, your view was almost always limited to the 20 yards of path in front of you. In the desert of Trans-Pecos Texas and Southern New Mexico, you have continuous views as soon as you start on the trail. It's true that the desert's lack of trees, and thus shade, makes summer hiking problematic. But in the winter, the skies are sunny while the afternoon temperatures are moderate--a great time to go for a walk.

If the desert lacks conifers, it still has forests of a sort. On my walk this afternoon, heading south of the Thunderbird formation, I passed through what is, in effect, a forest of ocotillo. The ocotillo is an otherworldly deciduous plant that grows a bunch of spiny branches seven to ten feet high. In late spring, the tops of the will sport striking cones of orange flowers. And when weather gets warmer and the rains come, the ocotillo will, seemingly overnight, sprout deep green leaves all along their branches. But for now, in winter's sleep, the ocotillo's branches stand unadorned.

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