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A blooming prickly pear cactus. This was taken awhile ago; they’re now fruiting! Can you say prickly pear lemonade?!

My name is Rachel Wehr and I am a CVA (Centennial Volunteer Ambassador) at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona. I have lived in Tucson for the past four years, during which time the Sonoran desert grasped my heart so tightly that I couldn’t leave. Part of the pull may be that the desert is a strange, eery place. Maybe I’m not made for snow. Doesn’t matter.

Saguaro National Park is composed of an east and a west district that lie in two mountain ranges. The mountain ranges have very different personalities; one soars to peaks around 9,000 feet with ponderosa pine forest, while the other is low, scrubby and dry. The districts themselves hug the city of Tucson, which is located in Southern Arizona, just about a half-hour from the Mexican border.

Our park is not flat by any means, but the spectacular “WOW” views you may get in Yosemite or Kings Canyon are not accessible by car. With that, not many visitors will find themselves high in the Rincon Mountains, soaring 7,000 feet above the city of Tucson. Rather, they will drive a loop in the warm bajadas or foothills of the Tucson or Rincon Mountains. There, saguaro cactuses tower over tiny incredible beings like jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats and tarantulas.

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The female tarantula that anxiously waited outside the Visitor Center bathroom the other day.

The beauty of the desert is held in small treasures, things that the eye would ordinarily pass over. There also is grandeur in abstract processes: Plants that are able to bloat to hold 2,000 pounds of water in their cells, monsoon rains that dump most of the year’s water in three months, and kangaroo rats that are able to use metabolic water (Look it up: It means they can basically recycle water in their bodies.).

Due to temperatures being above 100 degrees most days, it’s not quite safe to have volunteers out during the day. So I’ve been helping out with different divisions, shadowing and learning what the park is all about while things are slow! This included field work with Fire Ecology, making burn severity readings on wildfire plots in Coronado National Memorial, directly next to the border fence. This was an incredible experience, as I myself am both terrified and awestruck by the art of wildfires.

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The recent burn site in Coronado Memorial in super Southern Arizona.

In addition to exploring, I brushed one the park’s newest trails with volunteers on National Trails Day. I also helped out with the park’s first Youth Art Show, which was awesome! I’m looking forward to organizing it next year. We also got word that we will be hosting an artist-in-residence in fall! Yahoo!!!

Other random things I’ve done include tracking tagged Gila Monsters in the park, and finding a Night-blooming Cereus plant, which only blooms at night once a year (!!!). My partner CVA and I will be heading up to the Grand Canyon in about a week to participate in a week-long training for alternative break leaders focused on fostering appreciation for environment among young people.

I’m so thankful to be in a place I love, and to begin this position in the slow season, when at least the animals think that taking a mid-day siesta is totally acceptable. I’m also super psyched to be writing in my own voice again.

That’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned for when we get to go outside and not melt.

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A unique bloom on a purple cholla cactus.