ATA Ambassador Program: The Beginning

October 4th, 2020 was the inauguration of the Arizona Trail Association’s Ambassador Program. The ATA Ambassador Program is an 8-month internship for High School Seniors who are interested in becoming Environmental Educators and advocates for the Arizona Trail. Our first trip began at the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead, Passage 7. This was the first time the group of 10 met in person. We began with introductions, a small game, and partner activities so each other could get to know one another. Connection is key to learning, and a group’s connection is as important a quality as any other in a learning environment. Laughter, nods of understanding, and vulnerable shares flowed around the circle. After some time, it was clear the group was connecting. With that understanding, we collected our backpacks and began our march south along the AZT.


A major intention of this trip was to provide a general understanding of Sonoran Desert ecology and climate, and an introduction to environmental education methodologies. To do this, the lesson was told through a story about water and the Cienega Creeks watershed. We began with a sensory awareness exercise referred to as “The Practice of Arrival.” The group spent some time still and quiet, one by one absorbing their surroundings by isolating their sensory experiences one sense at a time. When we began moving, the group acknowledged feeling tuned in and much more aware. “Look around you. Where is the water?” I asked them. They peered across the valley, and most seemed confused. There was no visible water anywhere. I left the question unanswered. 


We moved further along the trail until we found a clearing. Here, using a stick and soft sand, I drew a map of the world and its continents, horse latitudes, and atmospheric currents that spread around the globe. “Why do deserts exist?” The group has many good answers, and their pieces fit together like a puzzle. What pieces they didn’t have we answered together. To understand the Sonoran Desert, we needed to transcend time and space, and view the world and its climate differently. Soon it became clear to them deserts were formed from very complicated and delicate global relationships. The group seemed surprised to learn it was not just about a lack of water but involved so much more. To bring the focus back to earth, we approached a Saguaro nestled under the canopy of a shrubby Mesquite tree. The Saguaro has much to teach us about desert adaptations, and I relayed its information to the group. They seemed to understand the Saguaro’s life and adaptations intuitively because they easily answered questions and connected important points together without much effort. Together we walked through the Saguaro’s lifestyle, their relationships, and how they thrive in the Sonoran Desert. Most importantly, the group understood the Saguaro’s relationship to water. “Where is the water?” The question was starting to make sense.


After we left the nursery pair, we arrived at an important topic during our trip, adventure. What is adventure education? We dissected the term “adventure” and its problematic context while extracting its benefits. The opportunity to push internal boundaries, bond with a landscape through adversity, and the challenge of bringing mindfulness to difficult situations. Our next segment included off-trail hiking, which in the Sonoran Desert, meant walking on top of sensitive soil and organisms. To do this, we discussed the ethics of off-trail movement, LNT guidelines and practices, and the specific impacts such actions have on our local environment. Together, we fanned out across the landscape like a desert flood. The watershed sloped downward and we followed it to the edge of a steep arroyo bank. When I told the group our path was this decent, the hair on their arms stood up.


One by one we moved like rushing water down the slope. The process was not as bad as it appeared, and that was the learning opportunity I wanted for the Ambassadors. When can an intimidating experience provide growth and learning, without it being dangerous? This was that experience. The group traversed the obstacle down into the arroyo, and suddenly they found themselves in an entirely new biome. Again I asked the question, “Where is the water?” The group found evidence of water in the erosion and the greener and lush environment. Some of them hypothesized that the water must be underground and closer to the surface in this deep arroyo. Here in Davidson Canyon, exposed limestone and mudstone show clues about this area’s watershed millions of years ago, when the entire area was submerged under oceans and saline lakes. Water’s movement through this landscape follows tectonic plate shifts, glacial periods, and the natural warming of our planets over the last 40,000 years. The importance of time and our region’s water could not be left out, as ancient oceans filled aquifers creating stable and habitable living conditions for all peoples of the Tucson region. 


The arroyo was like a whole new world for the group. Walking freely across sand and gravel, the group started at the Bear Grass blooming, the Mesquite Bosques scattered here and there, the grass lawns which seemed to appear out of nowhere, the Coyote Gordes and Arizona Grape vines crawling up the ash trees, and above us, all the cacti staring down. It was a whole different world. Eventually, we found ourselves at Cienega Creek and its Riparian Gallery Forest. The group was awed and shocked by the scene in front of them. Massive cottonwood trees rose tall above running water. Under their canopies was a diverse array of vegetation, most of which was brand new to the group.The wind smashed cottonwood canopies created a cacophony of sound, mingling with the chorus of bird sounds, running water, and groaning tree trunks. The Ambassadors spent the hottest part of the day in the shade of the forest canopy, and together we talked about perennial water systems and the unique ecosystems they create. “Where is the water?” Water exists in all life forms. It is seen and felt through weather and climate. It is present as natural history in the landscape’s geology and shows itself through erosion and watershed topography. It appears as arroyos and its phantom presences can be perceived as it flows underground. Water is everywhere in the most biologically diverse desert on our planet. By the time the Ambassadors had their feet in the creek, they understood this concept very well.