Sky Islands Rise from Desert Seas

The basin and range geography that created all the deserts of North America, in the Sonoran created a chain of 10,000-foot-tall (3,048 m) mountains surrounded by low desert basins that help account for the extraordinary ecological diversity of the Sonoran Desert. One of the most striking mountains is the 7,730-foot-tall (2,356.10 m) Baboquivari in southern Arizona where the Tohono O’odham believe the Creator lives. This sky island provides sanctuary for plants and animals by capturing clouds, gathering rainwater, and providing such diverse habitats that it serves as an ecological island in a desert sea.

Baboquivari also looms in human myth and history, set in the vast Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation along the Arizona/Mexico border, which covers more ground than the state of Connecticut. The Tohono O’odham, whose name means “desert people who have emerged from the Earth,” are a quiet, friendly, reverential people with an ancient, but now besieged, culture. Most of the Baboquivari Mountains remain rugged wilderness, with no roads and only a few trails.

Native American storytellers tell different versions of the creation myth and the role of the peak itself. One story holds that the peak once formed the umbilical cord connecting Heaven and Earth, allowing people and spirits to pass freely back and forth. However, the cord eventually broke, leaving just the stump of its connection in the striking form of Baboquivari Peak. The Tohono O’odham call it Waw Kiwulik, which means “rock drawn in at the middle.”

Somewhere on the rugged slopes above the trailhead is the cave of I’itoi, who created humans, deer, fire, bald-headed buzzards, and much trouble before retiring into the Earth. Now he grants children good luck, provides medicine men with healing powers, and sends dreams. People still make solemn pilgrimages to the cave, bringing small gifts to leave at the entrance to I’itoi’s labyrinth. However, the location of the cave remains a secret. In the traditional Tohono O’odham culture, people undertake purifying journeys in the hope that they will be rewarded by a dream that imparts a song with spiritual power. The song will then give them something to offer others, perhaps the power to find lost things or heal snakebites or predict future events or run long distances without tiring. To gain these sacred visions and songs, these desert people would walk 1,000 miles (1,609 km) to the Gulf of California and gather up and return with blocks of salts from the shoreline.