We went at night, without headlights, because camping there was illegal. The man called Guy had a permit to do what he did but the rest of us were only unauthorized accomplices. And anyway, the federales, cared little enough for Americans and their permits. They needed no provocation to stop us, tear the van apart and, finding nothing, plant some opiates under the hood then haul us into Mexican jail for drug running. We were not interested in crossing paths with the federales.
We were interested in the interspecies colonies that grew up in pockets in the volcanic desert environment of the Pinacates, a little known national park just north of Puerto Penasco. Elephant tree, senita cactus, brittlebush, cholla, creosote bush. A plant started out solo then gained friends as it drew the sparse rainfall to it, creating moisture and shade and eventually an intimate nursery at its feet. The elephant tree was named for its gray elephantine bark. When wounded it oozed a thick reddish sap like frankincense. It was smooth and patriarchal and while it never grew larger than bush size, its thick limbs—each one a trunk of its own—stretched out to create a welcoming shade. An invitation. The man called Guy studied that invitation and the guests that arrived because of it. We were there with tape measures and soil testers, stubby pencils and waterproof notebooks to help gather data and drink some excellent tequila and fall in love with that corner of the desert. Why the notebooks were waterproof I have no idea.
Our first night out in that splendid corner of the Sonora was not quiet. The desert birds and mammals come alive in the cool of night. I came alive too and walked away from camp to be in that greater energy. What I saw surprised me. I had missed it by daylight. The lava which covers most of the Pinacates shone bright black in the moonlight but here and there the marks of passage were clearly visible; old pathways across the lava; old human pathways. In the morning I asked Guy about it and he said the trails, invisible by day, needed only be visible at night for that was when the people traveled. Of course. The marks of many feet—I could almost hear them scuffing the lava—led people to where they wanted to go. Night walkers adapted to the desert. Night walkers walking as the animals in the cool darkness came alive.