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Below are photos and descriptions of the prairie dogs and terrain I saw when I visited Arizona to research my novel Yakimali’s Gift.
These are black-tailed prairie dogs, or grassland squirrels, I saw at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a fabulous 20-acre site that includes a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden. The prairie dogs create quite a few holes and mounds, as you can see here, which made traveling difficult for the colonists and animals. Father Font, one of the priests on the Anza expedition, noted in his diary: “The footing on today’s journey was somewhat bad because of the squirrel mounds which abound.”
The next picture shows the saguaro cacti that are common in the Sonoran Desert where Yakimali’s Gift takes place. The saguaro, the largest cactus in the U.S., can grow as tall as 60 feet and live as long as 200 years. In Yakimali’s Gift, late one night Fernanda and her brother sneak a pair of horses away from camp and ride out to the Casa Grande ruins. The moonlight shines on the tall saguaros, reminding Fernanda of “soldiers frozen in a stiff salute.”
Here are other cacti and plants of the Sonoran desert. The plant in the foreground with the yellow flowers is a creosote bush, or hediondilla, which translates from Spanish to “the little stinker” because of the plant’s pungent smell. On the colonization expedition, the horses and mules were discouraged from eating the plant because the resinous leaves would burn their mouths.
This is a picture showing the typical terrain that the colonists would have traveled through at the beginning of their journey. They left Tubac (at that time Mexico, New Spain and now Arizona) in October and endured extreme heat, wind, sandstorms and, later, severe snowstorms. Many of the colonists saw snow for the first time. In Yakimali’s Gift, after a snowstorm the night before, Fernanda ventures from her tent in the early morning to marvel at the silent snowy scene before her:
“Although the sky was overcast with a steel gray, she squinted against the glaring whiteness that covered the ground, rocks, and shrubs—as bright as an expanse of sand in the sunlight, but oh, so cold! And so quiet. Once, wishing for privacy away from her family, she snuck to the back room of their hut and covered her ears to seal out all noise. Still she heard something—her breathing, her heartbeat, her thoughts. But here, now, there was not a single sound.”