WHEN CACTUS AND CIVILIZATION COLLIDETRIFLING WITH SAGUAROS CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO ONE'S HEALTH
It is not difficult, during the time of day normally categorized as "Happy Hour," to view a stand of saguaros silhouetted by the setting sun and assign those plants supernatural features.
Saguaros are naturally spooky--tall, thorny, touchdown-signaling water tanks. The plant's lore is accordingly rich, and its symbolic power is capable of corrupting the good sense of its admirers. That's why there are saguaros living in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, where they wouldn't normally grow. That's why saguaros are all over Hollywood Westerns set in Texas, where they also don't grow. That's why there's a saguaro kept in a glass enclosure at Euro Disney, encapsulated for French gawking purposes. There is magic in the saguaro's profile.
Though there are still lots of thriving saguaros around the Sonoran Desert, humanity has for more than a century been encroaching on the plant's turf. And though there is hard evidence to the contrary, it's only human to surmise that the magic saguaro is endangered or vanishing. Which is why tales of saguaro revenge against stupid or unlucky or misbehaving humans are so satisfying. Here are a few: @rule:
@body:Do drugs. Do tine.
The sisters of Tucson's Immaculate Heart dormitory for nuns awoke early one morning to shrieks coming from their cactus garden. It was 2 a.m., and a man dressed only in shorts and one shoe was howling at the moon while running and dancing through the garden. Police were called, according to a story in the Tucson Citizen, but didn't arrive for 45 minutes, during which time the man continued to dance with the cactus. At one point, a nun said, the man "ran up to a saguaro and hugged it." Then he hugged two more, she said, before rolling around in prickly pear and cholla plants. When the authorities finally arrived, the man, age 21 but otherwise not identified by police, was covered with cuts, bruises and cactus thorns. The Citizen wrote that he was from Tucson and "apparently under the influence of drugs" at the time of his cactus encounter. He wasn't arrested for his behavior, just hospitalized for a week and released. @rule:
@body:Long arm of the law
Wintering in Quartzsite, Roy and Rosslee Crockett regularly visited the splendid crested saguaro known as Old Granddad. The cactus, located about 20 miles outside of town and well-known to locals, was a one-in-200,000 shot--the otherwise normal plant was topped not by arms, but by a fan-shaped growth. Old Granddad's crest measured six feet across by four feet tall and stood almost 20 feet off the ground. Nobody knows for sure why five in every million saguaros develop this way, but they do, and they're oddly beautiful.
One year (1986) the Crocketts returned to Old Granddad from their Baker, Oregon, home to find him gone. "We didn't know what to do or what to think," Rosslee Crockett later told Associated Press reporter Jules Loh. "The more I thought about it, the madder I got. Finally, I called the sheriff." The sheriff called an official of the Arizona Agricultural and Horticultural Commission, a cactus cop who met the Crocketts at the scene of the crime, then issued what amounted to an all-points bulletin. An official of the Nevada Division of Forestry in Las Vegas saw the bulletin (actually one of the many photos of Old Granddad in Mrs. Crockett's collection) and recognized the cactus as one that was being newly displayed at a local nursery called Cactus King.
The crime of Old Granddad's rustling was eventually traced to Arizonans Glen and Karen Clontz, who at first claimed that they had taken him, legally, from the planned path of an oil pipeline. They even produced a permit to back up their story, but the Crocketts' camera again came to the aid of the law: When one of the snowbird couple's photos proved that Old Granddad grew up more than a mile from the pipeline's path, the Clontzes were caught. Old Granddad had been taken from federal land, making the couple's crime a felony. They were fined $250 each, and Glen Clontz served six months of a two-year jail sentence; the Clontzes were the first cactus rustlers to be successfully prosecuted in Arizona. The Crocketts got a $2,000 reward for their amateur crime-busting. Old Granddad lived to see the Clontzes punished, but not much longer. He was transplanted to Desert Botanical Garden, but eventually died from the stress of his initial, crude uprooting. @rule:
@body:A bad brake
Two Cave Creek men were out for a glider ride one summer afternoon in 1986 when a light rain began to fall. The pilot, described by a friend later as a "conservative" flier, brought his sailplane in for a landing at the Pleasant Valley Airport north of Scottsdale. After touchdown the craft veered off the runway into the desert, pushed probably by a gust of wind, the Arizona Republic reported. The pilot lost control of the glider. Its left wing struck a tree, which spun the nose around and into the base of a 20-foot-tall saguaro. Witnesses claimed that both pilot and passenger appeared to survive the landing, but only one of them walked away from the crash. As the glider came to uneasy rest against the cactus, the 2,000-pound plant fell onto the cockpit and crushed the pilot, killing him.
@body:Duel in the sun
There was no way roommates David Grundman and James Joseph Suchochi could have known, on that winter morning in 1982, that their desert cactus-plugging expedition would one day be turned into an anthem by an Austin, Texas, rock band called the Lounge Lizards. They also could not have known that their outing would eventually be documented for the world by urban-legend sleuth Jan Harold Brunvand. And they certainly had no way of foretelling that Grundman would meet his ignominious end that day, literally at the hands of a giant saguaro. Had they known all that, they might have gone, anyway. Such is the world view of cactus-pluggers--dumb shits who make sport out of blasting desert plants with firearms. The facts of the case, according to Brunvand (who copped an account for his book Curses! Broiled Again! The Hottest Urban Legends Going from stories in the Phoenix newspapers), are simple: Grundman shoots saguaro limb. Saguaro limb falls and hits Grundman. Grundman dies. The cactus was approximately 25 feet tall, and likely well over 100 years old. Grundman--in his mid-20s at the time--was described by the Lounge Lizards in their song "Saguaro" as a "noxious little twerp."
An added wrinkle in this tale was some early confusion over Grundman's last words. The first news reports of the happy accident claimed that Grundman was yelling "Tim-ber!" at the time of impact, and had actually only managed to spout the first syllable, "Tim . . .", when the fatal blow came. Follow-up stories in the papers later speculated that the deceased more likely used his last breath to call out to his roommate, Jim.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.