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Tucson BioBlitz Transect: Walking Across the Desert

Some scientific expeditions require travel to faraway lands, large teams, and hundreds of pounds of supplies. This is not one of those expeditions. Equipped with little more than the sandals on his feet, the pack on his back, a notebook and some pencils, Mike Fay went on a week-long, 70-mile trek recording plants and animals...

Some scientific expeditions require travel to faraway lands, large teams, and hundreds of pounds of supplies. This is not one of those expeditions.

Equipped with little more than the sandals on his feet, the pack on his back, a notebook and some pencils, Mike Fay went on a week-long, 70-mile trek recording plants and animals in and around Tucson, Arizona. Proving that exploration and adventure are possible in any location, he never strayed more than 20 miles from a city of half a million people. Following Mike’s lead, if you’ve ever wanted to be an explorer, the best thing you can do is to simply start walking, wherever you are.


Welcome to Arizona

Saguaro National Park consists of two large parks on either side of Tucson, Arizona. The east is very different from the west, and both are obviously different than the city between them. Still, the same birds, bugs, pollen, wind, and water are swirling about them all. They are all part of the same story.

As part of the 2011 BioBlitz in Saguaro, NG Explorer-in-Residence (and University of Arizona alum) J. Michael Fay walked some 70 miles over the course of seven days on a transect across both parts of the park and the city between them, noting the first time he saw each plant species in an area, and identifying and tallying every bird he saw or heard along the way.

The photo gallery above takes you along moment by moment through open landscapes and close-up details. It shows many of the park rangers and local scientists who accompanied Mike for a few miles or days at a time, and reveals highlights of the experiences and knowledge they shared. You can also view the route in Google Earth and see Mike Fay’s photos exactly where they were taken (download the Google Earth .kmz file). By going through these features, you’ll be able to develop a sense of what it is to experience Saguaro National Park or any place in this unique and exciting way.


But Why Walk?

Mike walks towards an aspen grove, head down, taking notes. Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS

A few mintues of walking with Mike Fay and it’s clear that he is not out here as a feat of strength or to set a record or conquer a desert or a mountain. He’s here to collect data. He picks an area that people think they know, draws a line across it on a map, and follows that line recording what he sees along the way. Taking this approach, the only way you’re going to see everything and have time to write it all down is if you’re walking. Any other mode of transport funnels you into existing pathways, gets you moving too fast, and keeps you too far away.


There is a price to be paid though. One night when we met up with some bat-watchers in town, a woman looked at Mike’s feet and asked, “You do all this in sandals? Are you trained a certain way so your feet don’t hurt?” “No,” Mike replied matter-of-factly, “my feet hurt.”


More Than Just a Hike

Still, one thing is certain: Transecting is not hiking. It’s as demanding intellectually as it is physically–more so even. Especially crossing Tucson itself, our bodies had it relatively easy. We were met regularly with water refills, had access to food and other drinks everywhere, and could even drop some of our weight during the day and have it brought back to us before bedding down for the night.

Intellectually though, there was no break. Your eyes and ears were constantly engaged, taking in information, searching your memory for names of plants and animals, scanning the landscape for species we’d not yet seen, looking for signs of animals likes tracks, scat, burrows, and potential hiding places. The faintest chirp caught every ear, and brains ran through call identifications as eyes scanned the sky, trees, shrubs, and grasses for any sign of the sound’s maker.


Technology vs. Simplicity

There are a lot of tools and technology that can be used to collect data, and at times Mike Fay is happy to use them, but generally simpler is better in his book. Instead of a smartphone, he’d rather take notes in a notebook. And instead of an infuriatingly temperamental ballpoint pen, he’d rather use an old reliable pencil. Beyond that, ultimately his way of doing things is intimately tied to using the observational equipment he was born with. He’s actively looking, listening, walking.

Sunrise in Saguaro was a feast of subtle color changes, twittering birds, and impressions of the animals who had passed by in the night. Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS


He has his GPS taking points constantly, and in the end, he’ll take the hard data and chart it and analyze it and anyone can look at those graphs and see which plants appear where. But having walked step by step through 70 miles of the landscape, there are also impressions he has internalized but cannot convey in statistics.


When you walk slowly, consciously noting so many details, all your senses are working, taking in far more than you consciously process at the time. You come to know the place, or at least one path through it, and in doing so, it changes in your perception from just an “environment” with a quantifiable array of plants and animals, and becomes alive and unique, more a someone than a something. And this kind of connection comes with a passion to continue to experience and protect what it is you’ve come to know.


More Than Just Research

"Fences," Mike said in disgust. "You can walk all the way across Africa and never see a fence…" Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS

That’s why transecting is also more than just a research trip. It’s a first huge step in conservation. Mike’s African MegaTransect resulted in the president of Gabon naming 10% of the country as national parks. Since then Mike has been instrumental in the organization and implementation of these parks and the defense of their wildness. On his Redwoods Transect he met with local leaders, logging companies, and others to help encourage smarter forestry to allow some of the redwood forests to return to a more natural state—currently 97% of the historic range of these magnificent trees has been logged.

And currently, in the lands that he unofficially transects constantly near his small log cabin home in Alaska, Mike has been spreading word through local ads, meetings, and a website, of the dangers of proposed mining in nearby British Columbia that would create a massive quantity of toxic sludge threatening the health and proper functioning of the whole ecosystem.


Even the Tucson Transect was designed in part to draw attention to the impact of human industry and development on the natural landscape and relationships between land, plants, and animals in the area.


More Than Just Conservation

But even then, transecting is more than just conservation. On one of the final days, Robert Villa, the young Vice President of the Tucson Herpetological Society said in regards to the African MegaTransect, “You’ve seen stuff no one will see again.” Mike replied, “That’s kind of why I do these walks.”

When you walk slowly, consciously noting so many details, all your senses are working, taking in far more than you consciously process at the time. Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS


Part of it is to be able to show people what we’re losing, but it’s also simply to pick up, head out, and experience the world. Growing up in southern California, Mike was less than thrilled to move to New Jersey as a kid. He was always eager to get away from the rat race of human civilization and get out to the wilderness. His early jobs included catching lizards, teaching fly fishing, and guiding bird-watching tours. And at an early age, he read all the way through the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

There’s a passage from Thoreau’s essay on “Walking” that came up several times over the course of the Tucson Transect, and it gets at that hard-to-pin-down part of what it means to Mike Fay to make a transect:

“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about … and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre“—to the holy land … Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

“For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river.”


Read the Complete “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

Download the .kmz File and View the Tucson Transect in Google Earth

Follow Mike Fay’s Efforts to Expose the Downside of Mining in British Columbia

Read Mike Fay’s Essay About Stewardship of the Redwoods


[updated 12/14/11]

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at