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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Where Teddy Bears Are Not Cuddly

Sarah had a bath, at last. She is clean and soft again, but she's never been an especially cuddly dog.

Originally, weeks ago, I began drafting a post I called “Not Barefoot Country,” having to do with the terrain around our winter ghost town cabin. In that draft I listed many reasons, with details, for not going barefoot here: thorns and spines and prickers; sharp stones (especially the little ones); cow pies (especially the fresh ones; sunning snakes; winter cold; dust and dirt; old rusty barbed wire; broken glass; old rusty nails; splinters from odd bits of old lumber; and abandoned well pits. I added the last item not only because there are abandoned well pits nearby but also because I figured that climbing out of one, should one stumble and fall in, would be easier with shoes than without. 

There was nothing particularly wrong with that draft post, and every once in a while I would look back and add or change something — for instance, inspired by cowboy lingo, I changed the tentative title from “Not Barefoot Country” to “Not Tenderfoot Country” — but somehow I kept finding more interesting things to write about for Books in Northport. And now so much has changed that “Not Tenderfoot Country” seems beside the point, like the first chapter of my dissertation, the old one I kept rewriting for two years until I set it aside and moved on to write the rest of the thesis, finally writing an entirely different first chapter when all the rest was done.

Boots on the ground are still a better idea than bare feet on the ground. That hasn’t changed. All the old hazards to unprotected skin remain. It’s just that things just look different to me now. My concerns and responses are different. For one thing, the high desert is now clothed in spring green, its look softened more every day, but even that, I realized the other day, doesn’t explain the deeper difference.


“Soaptree yucca doesn’t make me laugh any more,” I remarked to the Artist as we made our way east on Hwy. 186, home to the ghost town after a morning of exploration from Willcox to Benson to Pomerene and nearly to Cascabel. “It just looks normal to me now.” I hadn’t thought before about this change in my perceptions, but there it was. Three years ago when we first arrived, soaptree yucca brought to my mind the fantastic illustrations of Dr. Seuss, looking to my Michigan eyes more like a product of imagination than of nature. Now it just looks normal.

One book I read this winter, in describing Western plants, labeled the ocotillo as one of the “strangest,” and yes, ocotillo seemed pretty wild, too, when first I saw it. Now it is in bloom, and I see it as stunning and beautiful but not strange. Not at all. 

Soaptree yucca and ocotillo belong here. Strange — étrange — is another way of saying alien, and the plants native to the West are the complete opposite of alien. When the Artist and I were newly arrived, it was we who were the aliens. Now (as is true for me in Michigan, also, though not for him, Detroit-born), though we will never be native to this place, we are feeling a kind of sense of belonging. More attached, more rooted. This has been true for me for a while.

One of my Facebook friends was recently astounded by the way I thrilled to the rodeo. She didn’t know me when I was a girl on the Illinois prairie, looking out over fields of corn and soybeans across the road from my family home, looking west from our front porch, toward the setting sun, and yearning with all my heart to ride my pony (the one I never had, even after joining 4-H, but that’s another story) toward that red evening sky! My parents had bought our first black-and-white television set when I was in first or second grade, and cowboy shows — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and later the “Spin and Marty” series on the Mickey Mouse Club show — all fueled the dreams of a little girl whose first word for horse, ‘fersie,’ had been uttered in a thrilled shriek of delight whenever, out for drives in South Dakota 
with her parents in the family Oldsmobile, she spotted a horse. Finally the parents had to save their eardrums by threatening not to point out horses to her if the child didn’t stop shrieking. She learned to whisper her excitement: “Fersie!”

As for the Artist —

“You know,” he began thoughtfully the other day at the high school rodeo competitions at Quail Field in Willcox, “if I were young and thinking about starting a family, I’d want to do it here.” Quite a surprising statement, coming from a such a staunch Piscean! I think it was the rodeo that finally won him over. As a boy in Detroit, he haunted a local riding stable and would ride horses in the spring for urban owners who needed the winter cabin fever (stable fever?) hijinks ridden out of their mounts before they dared to ride them. When he was twelve years old, his parents drove cross-country for a ranch vacation, and he rode out every day with the cowboys. “Real cowboys,” he stresses, cowboys working cows. I love stories of that vacation, imagining myself into the scene. I tell him how lucky he was! I would have been in heaven, as he was.

So we were both “horse-crazy” kids, and we both had the West in our blood, one of us by virtue of actual experience, the other only in her dreams.

I say we drove “nearly to Cascabel” the other day. Actually, we drove as far as the Cascabel Road was paved, turning back just past the intersection with Three Links Road, both roads unpaved from there on, which was exactly what I expected we would do, tempering the road to our 20-year-old van. It was for that reason, as Trail Boss, that I had chosen the Pomerene and Cascabel roads in the first place, though the route did not reach all the way to the intriguing hot springs I knew we would never reach them, anyway.




Remote! We were in in the San Pedro River Valley and could see the deeper green to our west, indicating the course of the river, and every few miles the terrain would change rather dramatically, one stretch filled with teddy-bear cholla and varieties of barrel cactus common around Tucson but not in Cochise County, certainly not in our own Sulphur Springs Valley. At the intersection where we reversed direction, I was surprised to turn the pages of the Arizona atlas and realize we were not at all far from Tucson. Not far, and yet a world away: Tucson was on the other side of the mountains to our west, and only rough trails lead across the mountains.



On the way back south to Benson, I had to stop to photograph the teddy-bear cholla. Though excited about being on foot in this very different kind of desert fauna, I thought I was maneuvering carefully around the plants until I felt stabbing pains and found myself limping, trying not to put full weight down on either foot. Well, that is hard to do! Pain did not deter me from my object, and I was pleased with the shots I got; however, when I realized the source of the pain, I was glad Sarah wasn’t out there exploring with me. This particular cholla, you see, so tall and stately in maturity, begins closer to the ground, much less obvious to a walker, and the long spines pierce leather like it’s silk.


Look like spurs? Maybe the inspiration for?
As for pulling out those spines? Thank heaven for the toolbox in the van and especially for the needle-nose pliers! And so, another desert lesson learned. Even shod feet need to be careful where they step. Bottom line, though? It was worth it. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. 

I started this little essay without a tidy conclusion in mind. Maybe, though, it’s that a place doesn’t have to be “cuddly” or even completely welcoming to call forth love. People lived here in the West before they had running water or air conditioning or internal combustion engines. The country is challenging. If you’re going to live here, the country itself sets the terms of engagement. 

Here’s one paragraph from the discarded draft post: 

“So there you have it -- a walk in a high desert ghost town is not a walk on the Lake Michigan beach. But whoever thought it would be? One similarity is the sense of vastness -- the faraway, receding horizon by day, dazzling stars against a black night sky. Both Great Lakes and Southwest high desert offer those marvels. One big difference, other than flora and geology, is the stillness of the desert: there are no waves, and unless the wind is particularly strong there is almost no background sound, only occasional nearby sounds of fluttering, chirping birds or a bawling cow or calf off in the distance.” 



Last night the cattle were very vocal around the cabin, and this morning they are still calling to each other out in the mesquite. Their presence pleases us both, the Artist and me. We like seeing and hearing them and having them for neighbors. (Watching our step seems a small price to pay.) Birds too are vocal this morning, calling and singing all around the cabin and yard and down in the wash. Desert spring symphony, all of it pleasing. 

Yep, I like it fine. I am very happy here.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Hungry for More

Another Arizona mountain sunrise
On his television travel show, chef/author/traveler Anthony Bourdain’s introduction ends with these words: “and I’m hungry for more!” That about sums it up for me, too. The only time in my life I recall being homesick was during my graduate school years on the Illinois prairie, where — although I had grown up on the prairie — I longed for the Michigan lakes and woodlands I had adopted as home at age eighteen. But graduate school was not travel. It was more like a job.

Look closely!
Although, to be clear, my kind of travel is not done on a cruise ship or bicycle or on foot with a backpack and would not be any kind of travel where each day presents a different scene, each brief, beautiful glimpse then quickly disappearing into a mental if not physical rear-view mirror — although that kind of travel is sometimes what takes me to my preferred kind, and I enjoy it, too, in its place. For example, I would not have missed my five-day tour of the Yucatan with friend Leonore for the world! But my favorite travel, if you can even call is that, is where I journey to and enter into a new world and settle there for a while, learning the names of the flora and fauna and the history of buildings and families. In my new world, I explore endlessly within a restricted area -- here it is mainly Cochise County -- drinking in the terrain, both closeup and to the horizon, and in the early mornings and late nights, before and after days of exploration, devouring books about the territory I’m getting to know. 

Beautiful highway!
That is the way I spent my first, month-long time in Paris, France. For several years I had used only a portion of my paid vacation leave, and finally I had an entire month saved to fulfill a lifelong dream. I got my first passport and book an Icelandair flight to Luxembourg, where I would continue by train to Paris. I had never before traveled alone, never crossed the Atlantic, never been to any foreign country other than Canada. I would have landed without any accommodations arranged, except that a friend, alarmed by my lack of planning, connected me to a woman in Paris from whom he had rented a room, and it just so happened that the room, though reserved for the remainder of the eleven months of that year, was available for May, when I would be there. And that was the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship with my dear friend Hélene [cannot find the other needed accent mark on new keyboard], but that is another story, one (or two) I’ve already told.

My point in remembering that tome now, in the context of this post, is that not once during that month in Paris did I venture outside the city. A friend had asked me to deliver a book to a friend of his in Versailles, but when it rained I said to myself, It would be a shame to go to Versailles in the rain! and when another morning dawned sunny and beautiful I would think, It would be a shame not to spend this lovely day in Paris! And so on a rainy days I would visit a museum, staying for hours, taking breaks to sit quietly and write letters and postcards but not leaving the building because then I would have had to pay another entrance fee to get back in, and I was frugal not only by nature but also from necessity. When the weather invited strolling, I would spend the entire day outdoors, walking and walking, taking my rest breaks in the city’s many parks, where I could sit and read and write and watch life around me and feel like part of it. Occasionally there would be an espresso or draft beer at a sidewalk cafe. Whether coffee or beer, I could make it last as long as a museum visit. (Tip to travelers: whatever you eat or drink costs more outdoors than inside (and more at a table inside than at the bar) because essentially paying short-term rent on the table and chair — and it’s worth it!) And when tired of walking and not in the mood to sit still, I would board a city bus — any bus — and take in the sights that way, resting my tired feet.

Bringing Arizona indoors
In the evenings, my landlady and I would sit at her dining table with books and newspapers and stationery piled around us, and I would write letters, and she might watch tennis on television, but we would have a lot of conversation, too, resorting to dictionaries only when mutual incomprehension stopped us cold. She did not provide my meals but allowed me the use of her kitchen. I was living in Paris. It was heaven. I could have stayed on forever….

Following that spring, I spent two years in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I couldn’t help approaching my life there as life in a foreign country. Cincinnati is neither North nor South nor Midwest but an old river town with a flavor of all of the above and then some. Coming off my first trip to Europe, I saw in Cincinnati — its hills and red brick buildings, churches and schools build by European immigrants, a stunning art gallery in a beautiful park, stone walls, stained glass, and wrought-iron fences around ordinary homes — echoes of delights I had discovered on the other side of the ocean. Unlike Paris, however, Cincinnati is not a centralized city but more like a cluster of towns, each with a name, each with its own shopping district and unique demographic characteristics. Again, I walked endlessly and took advantage of cheap public transport to explore a fascinating part of my country that was entirely new to me. I was always somewhat amazed that I could cross the beautiful Roebling Bridge into Kentucky and not have to show my passport. Wherever I went in or beyond the city, though, my little apartment was waiting for me at the end of the day.

Sarah off-leash in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Over the years the Artist and I have practically made a second home for ourselves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, without owning a bit of property there, all by making extended visits to the same place, Grand Marais, and treating Grand Marais as a combination of “base camp” and home, albeit temporary. From there we may venture out on foot, to walk beaches and streets and lovely hollyhock-lined alleys or set out in car or truck to explore two-tracks or make an expedition to Sault Ste. Marie or Munising or Escanaba — or merely to wander, but my point, again, is that each night we would come home to the welcome faces of friends made over the years and to our familiar hotel room. And on our trip to France together, we spent the first two weeks in a hotel in Paris, our home base, exploring the city together from that quiet, cozy room.

On the road to somewhere else
So is this travel? Would you call it travel? I don’t rule out the different-place-every-night kind of travel. It has its own charms. But it’s settling in to a home away from home that I truly love. The hard part, of course, is leaving. 

As I said before, I am not generally afflicted by homesickness. In fact, now I can’t help wondering, is a home away from home any less a home than one’s primary residence? Maybe it would be for someone whose family had lived somewhere for generations, or for someone who had stayed in her birthplace for a lifetime, but my family and personal history are not of that order.

These thoughts will not leave me alone as our time in the high desert ghost town of Dos Cabezas grows ever shorter with each passing day. I loved it three years ago and found leaving difficult, and this year  my temporary roots have gone much deeper, so that pulling them up will be that much more of a wrench. This time it is not only cows and horses, mountains and dry washes, winter birds and spring wildflowers I will be leaving but neighbors who have taken us into their midst and made us feel so welcome in the community that now when we drive over to Benson or Tombstone or up to Safford or any other place nearby, and people ask where we are from, my first instinct is to say, “Dos Cabezas.”

Here, cows are neighbors, too.

How strange it will be to turn in our Willcox post office box keys and set out on the road again with a van jammed full of books and clothes! When we drive into the driveway and over the hill and see our old farmhouse again, will it look like home? Well, yes, I think so. I can see it in my mind’s eye. Will the orioles appear this year? Nesting bluebirds? When will cherry blossom be at its lovely height? Sarah will be so happy to be off her leash again!

One end of our farmyard porch in Michigan
The Artist once wrote a piece for Automobile magazine called something like “87 Cars” (this was in 1987, and the editors introduced the article with an observation that went something like “There must be something wrong with a man who can fall in love so many times.” Well, the two of us also fell in love with Leelanau, with the U.P., and with Paris. As for me (it is growing on him more slowly), I am definitely in love with Cochise County, Arizona. 

Is there something wrong with me? Am I “romanticizing” all these places? I have been accused before this of romanticizing not only my own life but those of others, lives I have not had a chance to live except in dreams. I say, if loving is romanticizing, I am guilty and have no intention of reforming. 

Dear little Dos Cabezas! In the three years between our first winter and these past few months, I never forgot you. I only hope it won’t be another three years before I call you home again!






Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Revisiting Old Days, Making New Memories



To live “in each other’s pockets,” as the Artist and I have done since late January, two people have to manage with a minimum of privacy and a maximum of love and good nature. We’ve done very well, even entertaining guests from Michigan during and shortly following a mild heart attack and 2-1/2 day hospitalization in Tucson. We’ve also gotten out and about in Cochise County quite a bit and up into Graham County (though the trips to Pima County were only the mandatory ones), and we’ve socialized here in the ghost town to an unexpected degree. All of this we’ve done together.

The other day, however, we did something completely different. We spent over eight hours apart!

My adventure, weeks in the planning, was a solo trip over to Benson for a rendez-vous with a friend who lives in Tucson. We two worked and socialized together years ago in Kalamazoo, before we were married to our beloved husbands (and back before either one of us could rightfully be called “Doctor”). When my friend suggested we meet roughly halfway between the southeast side of Tucson and my Cochise County ghost town, she also looked online and found a couple of interesting places we could investigate in Benson, so thanks to her we put the Quarles Gallery and Endeavor Gallery on our agenda for the day, while my contributions were Singing Wind Bookshop, the Horse Shoe Cafe, and the monastery in St. David. I had a few other ideas for us, had we more time at our disposal, but the basic list filled the hours pleasantly — and only too quickly.

We met at the public library and walked from there to the galleries. It turned out that the Quarleses, husband and wife, were the couple David and I had meet in 2015 atop Massai Point in the Chiricahua National Monument and then again at a show of miniature paintings at the visitors center on the edge of Willcox, so I was delighted to find them again and to visit their beautiful gallery on Benson’s main street. Don’t quite understand how David and I had missed it on our other trips to Benson. 


The little courtyard entry was so charming that my friend and I stopped for a photo session but once inside, I refrained from pulling out the camera to concentrate on taking in the art. Sharon Quarles has her work on the left wall as one enters, and Doug’s is on the right, and farther back are a couple of featured guest artists. There is a lot to see and much worth lingering over. Doug Quarles, by the way, is the artist responsible for the murals all over Benson, one of the most attractive aspects of the town. 

Second stop of the day was the Endeavor Gallery, a co-op run by and featuring works by members of the local arts association. It too was well worth the visit, with a variety of work in a variety of media, plus a small gift shop area. 

— I’ll cheat here and skip ahead. On Tuesday the Artist and I made a trip to Benson, as I’d learned that Endeavor would be having its official ribbon-cutting “opening.” At the opening on Tuesday I learned that the co-op gallery space had formerly been a gun shop and had required many months of cleaning and renovation by volunteer labor. They really did a magnificent job! I also spoke to one of the volunteers whose grandparents had run the old post office in Dos Cabezas — and I say “her grandparents” because while her grandfather was the official postmaster, she told me, women not considered eligible for the position then, it was her grandmother who really did the work — which was very interesting to me. And of course on Tuesday we went to the Quarles Gallery, too, so the Artist (my Artist, that is, hence the capital A) could reconnect with our acquaintances from the mountaintop meeting three years before.

— Back to Monday: I came away from the galleries on Monday with some beautiful cards, and my friend found the ideal gift to take home for her husband, and altogether we were well pleased with this auspicious beginning to our Girlfriends’ Day. We walked through wind and sun back to the library to retrieve her truck for a drive out to Singing Wind Bookshop. We were greeted as soon as we turned into the long driveway. A bookstore on a ranch -- what a concept!



My friend did not have a chance to meet Winn in person, as the bookshop owner was recovering from cataract surgery, but bookshop dog Missy and a human helper made us welcome, and we browsed to our hearts’ content, showing each other particularly exciting finds. I came away with a beautiful little volume, David Mas Masumoto’s Letters to the Valley: A Harvest of Memories. His Epitaph for a Peach is one of my favorite books (though it almost broke my heart), so I couldn’t resist this one, made all the more irresistible by Doug Hansen’s lovely watercolor illustrations. And now, looking at the back of the book, I see a quote from Alice Waters, sister of another good friend from home. So, the perfect purchase!

But I admit we were almost as taken by the donkeys as by the books. My friend took this picture of me with a couple of them.



Then — 

“What should we do next?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Well, I’m not starving — but now that you ask, I guess I am hungry!”

It was about noon, maybe a little after, so we agreed to see if we could get a table at the Horse Shoe Cafe. Bingo! That worked out perfectly, too.


I’d visited Holy Trinity Monastery several times before, but my friend, though intrigued by the idea, had never been there. (Her doctorate is in the teaching of religion, hence her interest. As for the monastery, I need to get clearer on its history and present organization, but that will keep for another time.) We parked at the first building, the office and bookstore, and walked down to the meditation garden. On my first time there this year, you may recall, many of the peacocks were strutting about, screeching, and I either didn’t have my camera or its battery had run out (I forget which). Then on subsequent visits, the peacocks were nowhere in sight. Well, this time I was ready for them, and a bird with a fabulous tail practically came out to greet us as we approached the garden. Very satisfying!




In the meditation garden, the big orange and white carp were far from the bridge. We could see them in the distance, though they didn’t come begging for crumbs, as they had the last time I was there. But what do you make of this little crowned frog? Is that a Christian symbol? Or what?



The garden was so much greener that, despite the carp keeping their distance, there was no way for us to be disappointed, and we enjoyed conversation on one of the conveniently placed benches and strolled around the ponds before moving on to explore the shelves of the little “Always Open” used bookshop and finally returning to the office and new bookstore, where my friend purchased pecans and I found more lovely notecards. A volunteer kindly took pictures of us together outdoors before we started back to Benson.



And my friend kindly stopped at the entrance to the monastery grounds so I could photograph beautiful prickly poppies in bloom. We had had a wonderful, memorable day! What more could I ask? And yet there was more to come after my friend and I parted to find our separate ways home, because back in Willcox I found letters from two friends waiting for me in the p.o. box, and when I got to the cabin in the ghost town I learned that the Artist had also had a wonderful day on his own. He had visited a new friend and then come home to walk the dog and paint. 

One of the best things about spending time apart is having things to tell each other when we come back together again, and in this instance, we were also able to rejoice in each other’s happily spent hours as well as our own. That was the icing on the cake.




Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Other Side's Gateway




We never did get over to Portal three years ago when we were here, and this year the Artist very much wanted to see it, having heard so many alluring tales of the place. Whichever way you go, unless you’re a hawk, it’s a long way to Portal from Dos Cabezas. The options are to (1) retreat to Willcox, get on I-10, cross the state line into New Mexico, and take a paved road south and back west; (2) head straight for the mountains and then brave a winding unpaved road full of switchbacks to the other side; and (3) drive south to Douglas and then backtrack northeast, eventually entering by the same road west you would have reached in option (1). 



As trail boss, it was my call to make, and I called the New Mexico route. As I said already, it's a long way around. But it's also a beautiful drive, and we had no schedule to keep. 




Other than birding, the main action in Portal is the Portal Cafe and Lodge. We were there in what was still jacket weather in the mountains, but we could see that there would be a lively outdoor scene in weeks ahead, apparently including live music. The Lodge has been around for 90 years, and the setting could not be more lovely, filled with trees and nestled below towering rock faces. 




There isn't a lot more, but we liked what we saw -- in addition to the cafe and lodge and a few houses, a post office, a little library, and even a bookstore! Amazing! Sadly, we were there on a day when neither library nor bookstore was open. 




Contemplating the road leading back by way of the mountains, this sign about mileage gave us pause. Only 36 miles back to our side if we braved the challenging road? Was there still snow that high up? Would we be able to negotiate the road without 4WD? After questioning locals, we decided to return the same way we'd come, but we were encouraged to follow the mountain road for as far as it was paved before turning around for our return: that way we would be able to visit the ranger station, enjoy the views along Cave Creek, and also see parts of the Southwest Research Station, operated by the Museum of Natural History on land formerly owned by Sky Island author Weldon Heald and his wife. I was especially keen to see where the Healds had lived, having read Weldon's book three years ago and again this year.





The road along Cave Creek was magnificent! Mountains were breathtaking at every turn, cool shade refreshing, running water in the creek bed a pure delight! We were smitten! The Artist was particularly smitten, thinking it the most beautiful place he had seen anywhere in Arizona, and he began fantasizing about spending a winter in Portal. Those who know us will not be surprised, realizing that we have a rich fantasy life...






A few days later, I happened to be in line at the grocery store in Willcox behind a woman who had traveled over from Portal to do her food shopping. Did she say it was a 100-mile trip -- one way? I asked about the mountain road, and she said that, while the distance was shorter through the mountains, the time it took was the same as the longer way around via New Mexico and the expressway. I felt vindicated in the decision I'd made as to our route the day we made the trip, and I also wondered how long the Artist could possibly be contented in the isolation of Portal, given that he thinks our ghost town cabin is already in the "middle of nowhere," and here we are only 14 miles from a town with a big grocery store, a movie theatre, and numerous gas stations. Though they do have the charming little cafe and library and post office, there is no gas station anywhere near Portal. No grocery store. It's a one-hundred-mile, one-way trip to doctors' or dentists' offices or pharmacy, too. 

I like living out in the quiet of our ghost town, but even I would be difficult to spend the winter months in Portal's much more extreme isolation, despite the beauty of the area. A more appealing alternative, to my way of thinking, would be to spend a few days in rental accommodations on the Southwest Research Station grounds. Three meals a day are included with housing (so the trail boss wouldn’t have to be cookie, too), and it would be a lark to spend between-meal time hiking along Cave Creek looking for birds, without a care in the world. 



Or, we could simply do again as we did that one time -- go over for a day and come back home again. Really, that worked out just fine, as far as I'm concerned.