Wild Dog Trail: Saguaro National Park ~ Doug Carlson

Wild dogs, song dogs, pad and sniff and shit. Humans trudge through ocotillo and creosote bush, prickly pear and mesquite. We climb to a field of outcropping and boulders: some of what geologists call the Tucson Mountain Chaos. Major volcanic eruptions beginning at about the time of the Triassic extinction (ca. 200 million years ago) scattered “chaos” over an expanse that had also once been inland sea and swamp and grassland, a setting that has pretty much seen it all. Boots today crunch over all that time and terrain, and hikers sweat into their socks and seek out thin lines of shade cast by saguaros.

A rock and tortoise are racing in the dry wash. Endlessly seeping water becoming turquoise. Horned lizards harvesting ants.


Startle a desert tortoise (Gopherus morofkai), and it will make “hisses, pops, and poink sounds” or “pops, whoops, huhs, echs, bips.” Those lucky few who have heard such music can’t seem to agree. Also an alarmed tortoise may empty its bladder to repulse a predator, ultimately a foolish move; that’s where it keeps its precious water supply for reabsorption into its body. This fear-response/bladder business questions how we trust evolution to make adaptations that improve a species; in fact, there is no ideal tortoise waiting at the end of an evolutionary trail. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. 

The trail is out and back. We cross the dry wash twice. We cross the dry wash twice.


A regal horned lizard (Phyrnosoma solace) protects itself by cryptic behavior: sitting motionless and looking like the desert floor. If a coyote grabs a horned lizard, the lizard will squirt blood. From its eyes. Into the coyote’s mouth. 

When it rains, desert tortoises dig depressions to catch and retain water. When it rains, horned lizards raise their backs to create an incline for water to flow down into their mouths. When it rains, the dry wash on the Wild Dog Trail fills brown and crackles and sizzles with clastic rock and desiccated sticks that have broken away from ocotillo and mesquite. 

Horned lizards—twenty million years of eating ants and conserving water. 


One understanding of deep time came out of northern California, the Sierra foothills. Out of Gary Snyder’s home and a rambling poet-conversation between Snyder and Lew Welch. The poem is quoted quite a lot, but it has earned the right. It’s one of Snyder’s “Little Songs to Gaia” from Axe Handles.  

 As the crickets’ soft autumn hum 

 is to us, 

 so are we to the trees

as are they 

to the rocks and the hills.

The sentiment was apparently Welch’s, but the perspective offered him cold comfort.  He ultimately walked out of Snyder’s house after leaving a suicide note. And yet—the note ended with directions: “I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.” Why, unless you wanted to be found? Welch’s long poem, “Song of the Turkey Buzzard,” closes with instructions for his sky burial. “On a marked rock. . . / place my meat. / With proper ceremony disembowel what I / no longer need, that it might more quickly / rot and tempt // My new form”

Deep time is abysmal. In the eighteenth century, geologist James Hutton, wrote about that flash of recognition and fear: “We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

And that bloody eyeball evolution: The math is terrifying. Twenty million years of horned lizard eggs. Fifteen eggs in every clutch, every year. One eye-bleeder survived; its blood repulsed a coyote. Then another. 

Hutton again. “Little causes, long continued” bring about the greatest changes. Studying the great unconformity in Scotland, a break in the geological record between two strata that signified 80 million years of erosion, gave Hutton an awful sense of what “long continued” could mean. Contemplating it, he and his colleagues became “giddy.”

The wash runs alongside the trail. Simultaneously and sequentially, rock and wash live different lifetimes.


Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko connects a non-linear understanding of time to a quantum understanding. “The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real.” Time is relative to the observer. Time doesn’t pass; it’s simply there. 

In time, the ancient Hohokam society irrigated their crops with water from the Santa Cruz River.  In time, the Santa Cruz ran dry. In time, the wash that bisects the Wild Dog trail, like the wash near Silko’s Tucson home, channeled water into the Santa Cruz and finally the sea, completing a primal cycle. In The Turquoise Ledge she writes, “The boulders and rocks of limestone and quartzite originated in the Great Sea. As the stones from millions of years reckon it, man and machine are no more than a shadow of a mote of dust.”

Sun slows the blood. There is no song without a maker. A hiker is tortoise, is rock.


To make room for humans, horned lizards have to give up ants. Ants vanish when humans pave over the soil containing their colonies while aerosol-ing them out of existence. But somewhere a horned lizard changes coloration to resemble pavement, develops a taste for trash. Desert tortoises wander the streets and driveways looking for soft dirt to push their faces into for the night. But habitat loss isn’t their worst problem. Ravens are. Over a period of four years, one researcher found 250 punctured tortoise shells under one raven nest. Ravens follow human sprawl into the desert, thriving on litter, garbage, and roadkill. They have quickly evolved from a symbol of thin-air wildness to a trash bird of desert truck stops. The desert tortoise hasn’t kept pace; it still takes ten years to develop a shell strong enough to withstand a raven’s beak. One mitigation experiment involves lifelike tortoise bots containing an irritant that squirts a raven when the shell is attacked. If technology can’t evolve a better tortoise, maybe it can evolve a skittish raven. Or, in time, a live desert tortoise with an actual booby-trapped shell. Or a parking lot lizard. Small changes, long continued.

In time, nothing last. A rock blinks, blinks again, becomes clast, migrates to the sea.


At its northwest end, Wild Dog Trail extends another mile or so on a sand entranceway to the Signal Hill picnic area. On a boulder pile that overlooks the surrounding saguaro forest is an impressive accumulation of petroglyphs dating from the Hohokam period, which peaked from 1100-1450. Among the various designs and animal forms, a large spiral dominates the hilltop.  No consensus on a spiral’s symbolic intent exists, and quite possibly the meaning is none of our business. But absent a scholarly or private understanding, the pattern conveys motion. Inward or outward, descending or ascending. Whether reaching back to the Hohokam artisan who incised the design or spinning out to a time waiting, the spiral path provides no resting place.

The desert burns, saguaros migrate. A tortoise dreams of cool earth and rain. Waiting. The dry wash contains its history: a grassland, a swamp, an inland sea.