Published: September 2006
Douglas H. Chadwick

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

ere my favorite, as the cool air left over from starry nights began to fill with birdcalls. The first rays of dawn would catch on the petals of desert flowers and make even the fringe of tough spines on the cactuses glow, outlining a thousand strange branching shapes with pure light. The Sonoran ecosystem supports a surprisingly rich variety of life forms, and in the mornings, you can sense that you are in a desert that is almost lush.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

By mid-morning in summer, the heat has broiled the beauty out of the day and made the hours until evening a test of survival. Nearly all the animals, having natural good sense, retire into holes or the thorny shade of a bush, leaving only the odd insect—and sunstruck journalist—wandering about. The good news is that while photographer George Steinmetz and I were exploring the portion of the Sonoran ecosystem made up of islands in the Gulf of California, we could dive into the sea to cool down. The bad news is that currents welling up from depths of more than a mile make the northern Gulf so chilly that we'd end up with an ice cream headache.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

As I hiked through Mexico's desert mountains, following dry washes uphill into canyons high among the parched cliffs, everything changed. Suddenly, I would be in among humid, palm-shaded grottoes laced with vines. There were tall ferns and carpets of mosses, deep dark pools with frogs hopping at their edges, dragonflies winging over the reeds, and the tracks of deer and ringtails in the mud. This was more than coming upon an oasis. It felt as if I had passed through an invisible barrier and found myself in a subtropical jungle.