By Khevin Barnes


Long before I moved to Arizona with my wife in 2015 I was mesmerized by the sight of those monoliths of the desert—the majestic Saguaro cactus. I first saw them as a child at Disneyland in 1956 on “The Train through Nature’s Wonderland”, a narrow gauge railroad attraction that featured Audio-Animatronic animals and plants in a natural desert-themed environment.

Of course they were fabricated out of metal and plastic, but to a six year old kid they were as real as anything I had ever seen and they instilled in me a sense of magic, awe and a deep connection to the natural world.

After moving to Vail I became aware of a splendid dead Saguaro skeleton about 100 yards off a main road near my home. Long after the cactus dies (and they can easily live for a hundred years or more), the inner ribs remain as a stark reminder of its presence. For several years I drove past the spot while imagining the preserved skeleton as a work of art standing outside the entrance to my home. I had seen them in museums and felt that they were not only beautiful in their own right but that they stood as symbols of all that is great about Arizona. 


To remove living native plants from any land in Arizona permission must be granted by the landowner and a permit obtained from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. It is however, legal to harvest a dead Saguaro cactus or its parts in Arizona on private land, again with permission of the land owner.

From the road I estimated this cactus to be about 25 feet tall.  I had no idea of the weight or even how to cut it, let alone how to haul it out by myself, but I figured I would learn all of this soon enough if I could just find a way to get my hands on it. It stood on a large plot of fenced land not far from our Vail fire station, so I stopped by the facility one day to inquire about the owner.  I was given a name, and the minute I entered that information on the Internet, the screen exploded with references to the gentleman who owned that land—and the cactus.  As it turned out, he was a well-known developer and one of the wealthiest land owners in Arizona.  How on earth could I convince him to let me onto his property?


I figured that the best way to secure my own Saguaro was to be direct and honest and to simply ask. After all, what did I have to lose?  I obtained the address of his corporate headquarters and wrote him a letter.

In my letter I expressed three things:

1.  I told him about my desire to have the Saguaro bones as a piece of natural art.

2.  I promised that I would enter his property by squeezing through the barbed    wire fence; would only go in alone with a single hand saw and quietly, without fanfare, transport the cactus to my home.

3. I promised that I would leave no trace of my visit.

Three weeks later I received a letter in the mail.


A personal assistant for the mystery man in our story wrote to thank me for my inquiry. My heart raced as I read the words. “Mr. (name withheld) wants to thank you for your letter regarding the Saguaro cactus on his property.  For years people have cut his fences, driven off-road vehicles across his land and illegally stolen protected cactus plants from his ranches.  You are the first to ask for his permission to do so.  You may remove the aforementioned Saguaro if you abide by the conditions you proposed and do not divulge his name or the location of the land in question”.


I spent six hours over several days in the desert.  My first job was to topple the 25 foot skeleton; no easy task for a somewhat scrawny guy who was nearing his 70th birthday. So I spent a good deal of time rocking the huge form back and forth, and when it finally crashed to the ground in a great plume of dust, one if its four arms promptly broke off. I then began the arduous task of cutting it into pieces using my small hand saw with a nine foot segment marked as the final section for display. The days were hot and I was constantly concerned that someone driving along the road would assume I was a cactus robber and send a posse to arrest me. I fended off a Gila monster, bloodied my hands and consumed massive quantities of water.

That was the easy part.

After wrapping the entire form in plastic in order to camouflage my prize, keep a low profile and not be seen as a scandalous thief, I slowly dragged the heavy main section to the road, under the barbed wire fence and to my waiting car. Somewhere in my plans I had forgotten to consider the fact that I drive the smallest version of a Toyota Prius, so after heaving the massive piece into the back of my vehicle I realized that four feet of it were still protruding from the open hatch. Waiting until I could see no traffic on the road in either direction I finally mustered up the courage to make a mad dash home with my cactus dangling from the open tailgate of the car.

Over the next few days I retrieved the other three sections, and for three weeks I scraped off the tough outer bark, trimmed away burs and thorny bunches of husk, reamed out the decaying inner core; washed and sanded the individual ribs and varnished the entire piece inside and out.

And in the end, thanks to a kind benefactor whose name remains a mystery, an enigmatic piece of our Sonoran desert with its rich and varied history stands with welcoming, outstretched arms and in regal repose at my front door.

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