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April 1998

Desert Rat’s Delight In Arizona

The East Cactus Plain Wilderness brims with life and solitude. Just don't forget the water.

As sand fills my hiking boots and wind pastes my teeth with grit, Ed Abbey, desert rat extraordinaire, comes to mind. I don’t know if the late philosopher/author visited this place, but he would have reveled in the harsh beauty of the Cactus Plain.

Although wind, sand, and sun rule in this remote corner of western Arizona, the Cactus Plain isn’t your average dune field. Instead of a barren, Saharan landscape, you’re greeted with steep-sided sandhills draped in ocotillo, cholla, dune grass, white bursage, creosote, palo verde, and an occasional saguaro. It’s a combination of desert plants that make this dune field different from any in the world.

Every square yard of sandy ground is pocked with baseball-sized holes, testimony to the amazing number of wildlife species adapted to the arid environment. The Cactus Plain is the domain of reptiles like the fringe-toed lizard and sidewinder rattlesnake, but mule deer, coyotes, jack rabbits, foxes, and all manner of rodents and raptors make a go of it as well. As you would image, the nightlife really hops here.

In the summer, this would be a deadly place for warm-blooded, two-legged types, but in winter and spring it enchants. My husband and I visit in January to take advantage of the comfortable temperatures. (Any time of year you must pack in all water; there are no water sources of any kind.) Map and compass in hand and not another human in sight, we trek across the rolling hills of sand toward a distant, solitary butte. We move slowly, partly due to our feet being sucked into the pink sand, but mostly because there’s so much to look at. In the glow of golden afternoon light, the view from the tops of the steep, 120-foot rises is spectacular-like looking out on a giant beach where no ocean exists.

On our hike out the next morning, we make plans to return in March when the ocotillo and wildflowers are in bloom. I think I’ll pack a copy of Desert Solitaire. If Abbey never had the good fortune to visit the Cactus Plain, at least he can be here in spirit.

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