I sat down to write a long piece on the geography, flora and fauna of Arizona. Halfway through, I make a terrible mistake and erased everything I’d done. So, I’ll do it again, but from a slightly different angle.
Arizona is a big state, and of course, it was a big territory. One bill was introduced in 1860, trying to create an Arizona territory of the southern half of the then New Mexico territory. It failed to pass. Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor CSA, a Texan, declared himself governor of a de facto territory of Arizona in 1861. It would have occupied the current states of Arizona and New Mexico to the 34th north parallel. Baylor defeated Union troops in the Battle of Mesilla and a skirmish at Canada Alamosa. The Confederate States of America officially organized an Arizona territory, which was declared by President Jefferson Davis on February 14, 1862. Baylor issued an extermination order against Apaches, which got him fired as governor. The CSA then lost the Battle of Glorieta Pass and its forces withdrew from the territory. The capital of Arizona in exile during the remainder of the Civil War was in San Antonio, Texas.
The Arizona Organic Act passed Congress in February 1863 and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on February 24. The boundaries set are the same as the ones of the state today. Arizona’s border with New Mexico was set at 109°3’ West and its northern border with Utah at 37o North. The western border with California is the Colorado River, and the southernmost point of Arizona’s border with Mexico is 31°20’ North. The state covers 113,998 square miles and is the 6th largest state in the Union in terms of geographical area.
Governor John Noble Goodwin took his oath of office at the Navajo Springs stage station, the first stop in Arizona on the stage road west from Santa Fe, New Mexico. The capital of the territory was Fort Whipple just outside the current city of Prescott. There was no Prescott at the time, but after the town was founded, the capital moved there, where it remained until 1877. Tuscon was then capital for a few years, but the seat of government reverted to Prescott again in 1887 and thence to Phoenix, where it is today.
Geographically speaking, the lowest point in Arizona is at Yuma on the Colorado River, measured at a mere 70 feet above sea level. The highest point is Mt. Humphreys in the San Francisco Peaks, which are located between Flagstaff and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. In addition, the geographical provinces of the state are delineated by lines that run aslant of the state from the northwest corner to the southeast one, with a slight southward bulge in the center.
As mentioned, the Colorado River exits Arizona into Sonora, Mexico, at 70 feet about sea level. From that low point, the Basin and Range province fans out across the southwestern third of the state. Much of this area is part of the larger Mohave Desert, which by Saharan standards, is really no desert at all.
The Basin and Range province’s name stems from its inherent characteristics. Across the province, isolated mountain ranges poke their heads from the surrounding level plains, which are no more than basins between ranges that gradually filled with weakly cemented sand, gravel, and clay that washed down from the highlands. This province, some 200 miles wide at its base and more than 300 miles tall, running from the Sea of Cortez up the Colorado River to Hoover Dam, located where the river exits the Grand Canyon, is also home to 38 different mountain ranges with colorful names such as Tinnjas Altas, Growler, Sand Tank, Silver Bell, Castle Dome, Eagle Tail, Sierra Estrella, Buckskin, Harquala, and Big Horn.
This area was also home to the Yuman-speaking native Americans. Tribes included the Cocopa, Havasupai, Hopi (Mohave), Papago, Pima, Sobaipuri, Walapai, Yavapai, and Yuma. While most of the Arizona-based western stories we read that contain conflict with Indians name them as Apaches, we fail to learn that Hopi, Pima, and Yavapai warriors were instrumental in the Apache wars, fighting with white men against their hereditary enemies.
Actually, there’s an easy way to tell if you’re wandering around in the Basin and Ranges province. Joshua trees. In Arizona, if you see a Joshua tree, you’re in the Basin and Ranges province. Along with Joshuas, you’ll find mesquites, ironwood, and paloverdes, which I consider one of the most beautiful trees on God’s good earth. While the trees I’ve named at the larger species, smaller bush-like growths include catclaw, bursage, creosote, yucca, and jojoba. Actually, jojoba beans are prized as a chocolate substitute.
Remember that you’re travelling in the Mohave Desert (something like the heroes and heroine in the Story with No Name) where water is at a premium. But if you see towering cottonwood trees, you’ll know water is near. They only grow near permanent water. Willows also grow near water, but they are smaller and harder to see from a distance. By the way, willow bark tea will cure your headaches. Really.
The Basin and Ranges province also hosts the famous saguaro cactus. Found only in Arizona in the United States, saguaros grow throughout the Sonora desert area in Mexico and I saw them at the tip of the Baja California peninsula when visiting La Paz. Barrel cactuses also inhabit the area, and have saved more than one thirsty traveller (see The Three Godfathers for an example). Hedgehog and pincushion cactuses are mostly nuisances, but the fruit of the prickly pear is edible when ripe (it tastes quite good, actually).
Cholla cactuses come in several sizes and kinds – teddybear, buckhorn, staghorn, cane, chain-fruit, and diamond. Some, like the teddybear, look soft and fuzzy, but don’t let them touch you. Cholla (chain-fruit) are not called jumping cactuses for nothing.
Life in the Basin and Range province is multiple and varied. Insects, reptiles, mammals, avians – take your pick.
If you’re dying of thirst in the desert and a honey bee flies by, watch its direction. Bees don’t like to get far away from water.
Other insects include grasshoppers and crickets, termites, wasps, beetles, spiders – including both the non-poisonous tarantula and the deadly black widow and brown recluse.
The area harbors its share of reptiles, of course. Lizards, toads, frogs (where there is water), and a few snakes, the most famous of which are the sidewinder and western diamondback rattlesnakes. The horned toad is really a horned lizard, which we called horny toads when I was growing up. The only poisonous lizard is the Gila Monster, which is only rarely seen. And, wherever there is greenery to harvest, the desert tortoise may be sighted.
Mammals in the area can be divided into two major groups – those that eat aiplants and those that eat the plant-eaters.
Plant eaters begin with rodents – mice, rats, squirrels, gophers, porcupines. The famous ones are the packrats and kangaroo rats. In Vulture Gold, a packrat plays a bit role.
In the desert you often see jackrabbits, less often cottontails, even less often desert mule deer and whitetail deer. But they are there, along with desert sheep in the mountains and javelina wild pigs in the convoluted area near the Mexican border. All of these animals are plant eaters, though the ferocity of the javelina belies that fact.
The meat eaters start at the bottom with skunks and coati, ringtail cats and badgers, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and the graceful, bashful mountain lion, which is sometimes called puma or cougar. None of these animals attack man, although coyotes have become bolder in recent years.
Arizona’s state bird inhabits the Basin and Range province – the cactus wren. Quail are numerous, and good eating. Perhaps they could provide a desert wanderer with a needed meal. Mourning doves, ditto. When I was a lad, my uncle regularly took his .410 shotgun out to get doves for the dinner table. More seed and insect-eating birds include woodpeckers, flycatchers, thrashers, flickers, kingbirds, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, swallows, and cardinals.
Raptors are a different story. Again, in Vulture Gold, an owl cut the life of a packrat short, waking the protagonist. Other desert birds of prey include hawks and eagles. Roadrunners prey on reptiles and insects, and crows, ravens, and vultures tend to prefer animals (or humans) that are already dead. How many western stories have you read where vultures signal a dead or dying animal (human or otherwise)?
The Mountain province parallels the eastern border of the Basin and Range province, wider in the south than the north. Most of Arizona’s mining and mineral wealth is found in the Mountain province. The area is immensely convoluted, consisting of large mountain masses, separated by canyons and valleys formed by the streams that traverse the province. The magnificent Salt River Canyon is in this province as are the huge copper mines of the Globe-Miami and Superior areas.
The province houses 24 mountain ranges. The famous ones are the Weavers, the Superstitions (where the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine is supposed to be), the White Mountains, where I lived as a youngster, the Dragoons, the Mule Mountains, and Dos Cabezas, where Mangas Colorados, Cochise, Geronimo, and the wily Nana had their Rancherias. The region is marked by a wide variety of plant communities, such as Chaparral, pinyon-juniper, Ponderosa pine, pine-fir, oak woodland, and desert grassland.
You might be interested to know that chaparral is not the name of a plant, but of a condition where most plants are low, brushy, shrubby, and broadleaved. The trees living in Arizona’s Mountain province chaparral communities include shrub live oak, squawbush, hackberry, hollygrape, mansanita, sotol, agave (from which tequila and mescal are made), and desert willow, among others.
Moving upland into the pinyon-juniper community, we find Utah junipers, one-seed junipers, alligator junipers, pinyon pine (the source of delicious pine nuts, which Arizonans call pinyon nuts), cliffrose, Arizona cypress.
In the southeastern part of Arizona, desert grasslands and oak woodlands predominate.
The animals of the Mountain province include nearly all of those found in the Basin and Range province. However there are many more animals because there is both more water and more cover. Deer, elk, and antelope are often seen in the Mountain provinces. Coming back from a White Mountain ski run in the early 1990s, we had to stop the car for a small herd of mule deer to cross the road ahead of us. Three or four bucks and twice as many does. It was not the season for fawns. The area is also known for black bears (one has a walk-on role in Hell Fire in Paradise, which will come out in the fall of 2010.
The birds also resemble those of the Basin and Range province. However, as one who lived in the province, the White Mountains host numerous robins, bluejays, woodpeckers, meadow larks, and killdeer plovers. The prevalent hawks were redtails and sparrow hawks. I don’t remember seeing an eagle. One night just above the Mogollon Rim, a mountain lion scampered across the road in front of us, brightly lit by our headlights. The one and only time I have seen that animal.
The Mountain province is crisscrossed with rivers and streams, and in them live several fish that can provide the intrepid fisherman with a good meal. In the lakes and ponds, bass, pike, crappie, bluegill, trout, and catfish. As a boy, I loved to fish in Show Low Creek, which ran through our town. I caught both perch and bullhead catfish. For trout, we had to go up on the mountain to Big Diamond creek, Paradise creek, White River, or some of the other streams stocked with rainbow trout from the hatchery in Pinetop. Still, even then, if I was lucky, I was able to catch an Arizona Native trout. Smaller than Rainbows and Browns, they still seemed to taste better somehow, because they weren’t hatchery fish.
The rim, which we call the Mogollon Rim in our part of Arizona, is the exposed edge of the great Colorado Plateau. In places it rises as much as 500 feet above the jumble at its feet. This jumble of hills and valleys is called the Transition province. It’s a wedge of a province that exists between the Mountain province and the Colorado Plateau. Jumbled is not enough to describe the area.
Now-famous Sedona red-rock country is part of the Transition province, as are the well-known army camps at Camp Verde (plays a small part in Vulture Gold) and Fort Apache. You can also read about Montezuma’s Caster and Montezuma’s Well in Vulture Gold, though I don’t use the names.
This province also houses agriculturally important valleys – Chino, Verde, the Tonto Basin, and the Gila River Valley. I have yet to locate a story in any of those valleys as I am not thoroughly familiar with the area.
Again, the rugged nature of the terrain and the large area covered by national forests today provide excellent food and shelter for the province’s wild animals. Here we begin to see non-poisonous snakes such as gopher snakes and Western hognozed snakes, blue racers, garter snakes, and the occasional diamondback.
The Colorado Plateau province is about the same size as the Basin and Range province, occupying about one-third of Arizona’s land and running from the Grand Canyon in the north to a point just more than halfway down the eastern border with New Mexico. The Colorado Plateau province was home to Arizona’s largest cattle and sheep domains. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company, better known as the Hashknife Outfit, ran some 33,000 head of cattle and 2,000 horses across the plateau from the 1884 until 1901. The Texan cowboys that brought the cows from Texas into Arizona, became an unruly, lawless element, and sided with the Grahams against the Tewksbury sheep faction in the Pleasant Valley War.
Arizona’s highest mountain, Mt. Humphreys in the San Francisco Peaks, sits on the northeast corner of the Colorado Plateau. Its second highest peak, Mt. Baldy, occupies a spot at the southwest edge of the plateau. In between, flat land broken up by gullies and canyons and the occasional cinder cone, such as Woodruff Butte, which pokes up from the surrounding plain about 15 miles south of Holbrook. The town of Woodruff now seems to be almost a ghost town. I spend much of my third-grade year at Woodruff, as my father was employed as a teacher there. The last I heard, there were 177 inhabitants. Never heard of a gunfight in Woodruff.
The Colorado Plateau contains Monument Valley, where so many John Ford westerns were filmed. Also the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and the Navajo Indian reservation, all north of the Little Colorado River. Moving sound, the land gradually turns into juniper country, with thick stands of Utah and one-seed juniper choking out the grass. According to my father, who was born in 1906 when Arizona was still a territory, junipers were not so thick then and there was a lot more running water. He often pointed at a dry wash and said, “When I was a boy, water ran in that wash year round.
The plateau gradually slopes upward toward the south. The White Mountains, part of the Transition province, mark its southern extremity. In my home territory, just north of the White Mountains, cinder cones are prevalent, and the top soil is only inches deep before hitting a layer of lava. My uncle Orson had a field just south of Show Low Creek in which he swore he grew malpais rocks. Our pasture, 640 acres bought from the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, seemed to have more malpais than grass.
So there you have a quick glimpse of the tremendous variety in Arizona. If you locate your fictional town in Arizona, maybe some of these factoids can find their way into your writing and make things that much more convincing.