For the Love of the Desert

Bill Broyles tours the 120,000 square miles of the Sonoran Desert with insight and passion.

Enjoying something is one thing. Loving it is another. Being passionate raises the bar even further.

Enter author Bill Broyles, the Prince of Passion when it comes to writing about the Sonoran Desert.

"I never wanted to be an author," says the retired high school teacher. But the most passionate of published prose is penned by those who write about what they know and love. Broyles knows and loves this desert.

"I moved here in 1951, and for a 7-year-old kid, that's a big adventure. You start asking questions with a child's curiosity about chollas and prickly pear--exotic items for a boy from Illinois. Fifty years later, I'm still doing the same thing, trying to help others understand and appreciate this land we live in."

Along the way, he's shared campground conversations with the likes of Edward Abbey, Chuck Bowden, David Yetman and a host of other top names from the Who's Who Among Desert Rats list. Those field experiences helped shape his book, along with photo art by stellar lensmen Jack Dykinga, Tom Vezo and others.

"All I'm trying to do in this book is give people the facts," says Broyles. His love for the land--and what's on it, over it and under it--is evident, but he hopes the larger message will get through.

"It's hard to make others love something like you do. You can help them appreciate it, but love is a personal thing, and some people may never come to love the desert. I think if you're going to visit a place or contemplate living there, you need to understand it before you form an opinion."

Broyles figured the best way to understand a subject was to become familiar with it, sometimes by challenging common sense. A case in point was the summer 2000 trek he took with Bowden and Dykinga across the sands of Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. It was August. Temperatures exceeded 120 degrees--in the shade. The trio of Tucsonans trekked to the Sea of Cortez on a march to promote the creation of the 10,000-square-mile Sonoran Desert National Park.

"This biologically diverse hunk of desert would be home to the largest national park in the American Southwest, on land nearly uninhabited and relatively pristine," he said. Their stunt succeeded in generating significant support for the park, which is now in the political stages of discussion and debate.

The three trekkers watched, listened and learned on that and other trips. The details made their way onto the 75 pages of this gem that belongs in any Arizona book collection.

Describing the Sonoran Desert as a vast ecological jewel, Broyles says, "There isn't a square mile of this geography that isn't fascinating." The contents of the book cover it all, from inhospitable desert topography and rocks welled up from the inner Earth to sun, sand and settlers.

Sonoran Desert boundaries cross the border and cover more miles than the state of Arizona, with the total area broken into six biological communities. Start with lush Arizona upland vegetation. Travel through creosote and bursage of the Lower Colorado River Valley. Kick up dirt around boojums and organ pipe cacti of the Central Gulf Coast. Pass by three species of palo verde trees and ironwood in the Plains of Sonora surrounding Hermosillo, Sonora. The diverse countryside supports ancient Greek philosophers who pontificated that you can't step in the same river twice. The Sonoran Desert continually changes, and its boundaries are constantly being redrawn.

"Some of our information comes from pack rats," says Broyles, "because they inherit their dens and use them for thousands of generations. We've found pollen, bones, seeds and leaves in middens that can be identified and dated, giving us a glimpse 40,000 years into the past."

The explorer-educator finds awe and wonder in the unusual and the ordinary--such as the creosote bush, the most widespread of all Sonoran Desert plants. "We can't imagine the desert without creosote," he writes. "It's a keystone species that can live to be several thousand years old, with roles in the ecology and ethnobotany of a desert that no other plants fill."

And you just thought it smelled funny after a monsoon rain? The scientist becomes a poet: "Whipped by rain from a thunderstorm or kissed by the dew of a winter's morning, that's the desert's most distinctive fragrance. It is clean and pure. It symbolizes persistence and endurance and it means water and flowers, renewal and tomorrow."

Read this book, and the scientist-scribe will take you on an educational journey through a desert he is intimately familiar with. Modestly he says, "It takes readers a bit further down the road to understanding this place we call Arizona."

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