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Monday, March 18, 2019

Happy Mountain Trails: I Passed the Test!

Reading, Beforehand the Challenge

Back in spring of 2015, my hiking guide from the Dragoon Mountains adventure and I set out to explore the old Fort Bowie road, planning to hike in from the road to the ruins of the fort. Sadly, a flat tire and a long wait for road service (a “donut” tire would not have gone far in the mountains!) ate up much of the morning, and as she was no longer confident on the unpaved, washboard road, full of sharp rocks, we went back to the highway and continued southeast to Chiricahua National Monument. The biggest error of that day, though, was taking Sarah along. Let me say only: dogs on leashes — not good for hiking in mountains! 

So this year, when my neighborhood dog-walking companion and I made a date to hike in Chiricahua, we agreed: no dogs! This was one adventure Therese and I would have without Buddy and Mollie and Sarah.

I was up before the sun on St. Patrick’s Day Sunday morning, with absolutely the perfect pre-hike reading, a copy of Range Roaming: A Birdwatcher’s 65-Plus Year Love Affair with the Chiricahua Mountains, by Betty Jones, published by the family after the authors death. I’d left off reading the night before at the end of the chapter just preceding the one on the Chiricahua National Monument, and so with my pre-dawn, pre-hike morning coffee I read about Betty’s camping and hiking and birding in the Monument itself (the Monument being only a small part of the entire mountain range), continuing after the sun had risen to the next chapter, on birding in Patagonia, where friends of ours wintered for years and where we visited them in their last year of life. That brought a few sighs, I must say, as I inspected the map closely to locate Jim and Linda’s house with respect to the creek we had forded to get there on our first visit back in the 1990s….

Range Roaming isn’t the easiest book to read or navigate, for a couple of reasons. One confusing feature is that the sketchy maps — and don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to have even sketchy maps — are not all presented in the conventional manner with North at the top of the page. In the various maps throughout the book, North can appear at the top, at the bottom, on the side; in other words, it might be anywhere. I kept turning the book around in my hands to put North at the top — but that meant trying to read the names of identified features (roads, paths, peaks, etc.) upside-down or sideways. As I say, not easy.

Another problem — for me — is that it’s obvious the manuscript preparation was not professionally done, and my inner editor and proofreader were working their fool heads off practically nonstop as I read. But that’s a personal comment, not a harsh complaint, because I am very happy to have this book, which is nothing like anything else I’ve seen on the area. It’s worth its cover price, even if the possessive its and the contraction it’s, among other little niceties of grammar and punctuation, failed to get sorted out before publication. 

Many of the hikes Jones took are no longer possible, and neither can people still camp everywhere she did, as land open to her in the 1960s and 1970s is now off-limits to the public, but other trails and campgrounds are still available, and her descriptions of the wildflowers, birds, and butterflies a visitor might hope to encounter are enough to whet the appetite of the least-educated amateur naturalist. (In fact, I can’t help regretting in advance that I will not be able to explore Chiricahua in the summer, during the exciting thunderstorms and when the bright red flowers and the various species of hummingbird that feed on them will be on full display.) I also appreciate the history of the Monument lands included with the author’s boots-on-the-ground adventures. Reading of work accomplished by the Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, I think proudly of our older Minnesota grandson and his summer work along those same lines. And while I knew the Buffalo Soldiers had played a large role in the history of southeast Arizona, I did not realize before reading it in this book that they “briefly occupied the grounds on what is now the Faraway Ranch Historic District.” This is the kind of history that means the most to me — very local history of specific individuals and groups, such that I can picture a place I know and imagine the people working there over the years.

One distracting but delightful surprise to interrupt my reading was a roadrunner on the railing outside the front door! That was a first! They come in the yard, but I’ve never seen one on a railing before. Of course, my camera was not near my reading chair, and the roadrunner fluttered down and ran down the driveway before I could try to capture the moment.

And Afterward!!!!!

Entering the Monument: Mule deer grazing
Words cannot do it justice, and photographs cannot hope to get across the wonder of Chiricahua, but words and photographs are all I have. 

The map above comes from William Ascarza’s book, Chiricahua Mountains: History and Nature, an excellent general introduction to the mountains, though without the personal tone and on-the-ground detail of the Betty Jones book. As you no doubt are thinking, the Echo Loop trail (just to the left of Massai Point) as it appears on the map doesn’t look like much of a challenge. It seems to take in a very small area of the Monument, which is itself only a small portion of the Chiricahua Mountains. A mere three miles? That’s the official distance given for the trail. A walk in the park, you say? Ah, but the first half of the hike is all descent into the canyon, the second half a return up-mountain to the parking lot, with absolutely no possibility of cutting the mountain goat hike short once you have committed to its entirety by reaching the lowest elevation. There are no roads down there, and the only way back is up, on foot.

Hikers who have commented online occasionally dispute the 3-mile official distance. One measured the Echo Loop hike as 4.1 miles, another as 4.3, and Therese warned me it would feel like at least four miles. I thought it felt more like eight — but then, I am in my eighth decade of life, and that probably makes a difference. 

Ah, difference! Difference in elevation is what really makes the challenge, and that you don’t see on the trail map. Officially, again, the change in elevation from top to bottom is given as 554’, but again, at least one hiker’s family was sure they had descended and reascended 750’ on the Loop. But I should add that Echo Loop is the Monument’s most popular trail, and no one who left a comment online failed to note its beauty and grandeur, i.e., no one was complaining! And I’m not, either, just kind of bragging, I guess, though younger, sturdier, most experienced outdoor adventure people don’t see this hike as bragging material.

Horses were here...
Okay, here’s a bit of what it’s like. The trail is narrow for almost its entire length, with dizzying drop-offs to the side. A few stretches have stone steps built in, others are loose rock and scree, while occasionally dirt or mud (there was a lot of precipitation this past winter) registered prints of horses’ feet. The evidence of horses on the trail amazed me, all the more the farther we went. The horses had done the entire trail, stopping to refresh themselves at the creek near the end. I kept thinking of the horse named Whiskey in the movie “Lonely Are the Brave” and told Therese she has to see that movie.

...on this very narrow trail!
(What would it be like to travel Echo Loop on horseback? It is difficult enough to take in all the scenery. A hiker has to watch his or her footing pretty continually, for starters, but one wants to inspect closely the beautiful lichens and weathered dead trees close at hand, as well as — of course! — looking up at the magnificent hoodoos and out across the long vistas that are sometimes all rock, sometimes forested slopes, occasionally a glimpse back down into the Sulphur Springs Valley. If, in addition to these desires, were I on horseback I would also have the distraction of wanting to pay attention to and praising and encouraging my brave, wonderful horse. It might be too much for me.) 

The “standing-up” rocks defy comprehension -- but so do the ordinary lying-down rocks. Thoughts of their origins and great age, the erosion that has created their present form over millenia, and the knowledge that millions more years will change them utterly from what they are today — all these things deepen the appreciation of anyone viewing their magnificence. What stories the trees could tell! Little lizards scooting about and sunning themselves probably think nothing of earth’s history, only of what they will eat next and how good the sun’s warmth feels.

There were parts of the trail where the wind was cold and biting, other parts, later, farther on, where we shed our jackets and basked in the sun like lizards. We enjoyed our lunch, for instance, in sunshine, and I never did put my jacket back on, as carrying it on my backpack, while burdensome, was the lesser uncomfortable choice. When my camera battery gave out before the halfway mark, I had to resort to my phone for photographs but took fewer even of those as we neared the elusive end of the trail. Luckily, the camera was still working when we saw before us this adventurous young woman on top of a high perched rock.

I could never attempt such a feat! Could I even make it all the way around the Loop? There is no alternative! Therese and I gave each other sour looks as a young jogger passed us on the trail. Show-off! “He’s only in his twenties,” Therese said to comfort me, as I insisted on yet another stop to rest and take in water. My hiking guide and companion, who knows the trail very well from years of experience on it, was very patient with someone old enough to be her mother. She was very happy that my enthusiasm, if not my energy, matched her own.

The rocks!

"Balanced" rock

Obligatory classic goofy pose
There were also cool, dark places, very welcome once the sun had warmed up the day. 

I was glad we did go all the way to the bottom of the trail, even though it meant having to go all the way back up, because thanks to all the rain and snow this past winter the creeks were running cold and fresh. This section of stream with a series of pools and miniature waterfalls was worth all the effort it took to reach it. 

The fact is, there were many people on the trail that day. It was a Sunday and spring break, and the weather could not have been more beautiful, so we let many parties of younger people go around us. One unexpected encounter with a couple from Quebec (while I was resting yet again) gave me a chance to speak French, always a spirit-lifter. But really, the scenery was spirit-lifting the entire time we were on the trail. We heard someone telling another person that the trail could be done in two hours. That annoyed Therese, who thought the estimate short of reality — and reality for us, because she had me with her, slowing her down, was that we were on the trail over four hours on Sunday.

Oh, the combinations of trees and rocks, each one more enchanting than the one before!

The farther along the trail, however, the more frequent my need to stop and rest, drink water and inspect every miniature landscape within sight, along with taking the long views outward. The last two-tenths of a mile, for me, seemed endless — or, at least I thought that was the longest, most difficult stretch, climbing ever upward (or should I say trudging?), until we were within sight of the parking lot again — and then I thought the last 200 yards were the longest distance I had traveled in my lifetime. 

Miniature landscape
But this old lady made it! She was not voted off the mountain but staggered on until the very end!

Of all the glorious and truly awesome views I took in that day, one that speaks volumes to me is this simple image of a manzanita sprawling and blooming on a large flat rock on the edge of the mountain. Its aesthetic Japanese, it is an entire landscape in itself and illustrates beautifully the plant’s tenacious perseverance, dogged survival, and adaptation to environment. 

One more thing I have to say. I kept thinking of Cochise and the other Chiricahua Apaches and how their homeland was stolen from them and they banished to, of all places, Florida. How could any people who called this place home ever be happy anywhere else? 

But also -- one more thing -- my hat is off to Betty Jones and all her miles and years of hiking and learning in the Chiricahua Mountains. Good job, Betty! I have a tiny idea now of the great lifetime you accomplished.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

You’re Not Getting a Complete Picture

The other morning I had an e-mail from a reader of this blog that read, “Pamela, I have just read yesterday's blog. Your dedication to loving life inspires the same in me!”

I do love life. Indeed, what else is there? Everything else for the human species — love, honor, integrity, good deeds, art literature, our very appreciation of beauty in the natural world — depends on our being alive and receptive and responsive. At the same time, we all need reminders of the wonder of life, such as this one I found in the words of a Western painter:

...You’re a little biological entity that has some very miraculous sensory organs, and you have a brain so you can organize it and understand it partially. And you’re fragile. You live a very short time in a hostile, and yet friendly, universe because you evolved in the ecology in which you live. And you can either shrink from the world in fright and try to avoid the reality of your perishability and sense of being no more, or you can throw yourself into it and say it’s an adventure. And I’m going to drink it to the full and experience what I can and record what I can, and distill and understand what I can. 
Wilson Hurley, painter, in an interview, in WILSON HURLEY: A RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION

Reader, thank you for your message and for the subject heading you gave it: “Grateful.” I am grateful for your words of encouragement! It helps to know that anything I’ve written was able to help someone else! 

Look for the singing bird
The truth is, though, that I do not put my whole life online in this blog (or anywhere else), and if you think I don’t have dark nights of the soul, you would be very mistaken. Sometimes (though these have been uncommon lately, I’m happy to say) I even have dark days of the soul. Thinking that warm spring days had arrived, for example, I found it difficult to be plunged back once more into freezing nights and winter-cold days filled with bitter, relentless wind — and the coincidence of learning, as another overcast morning dawned, seeming to dawn with grudging reluctance, learning that same morning that someone I had believed was dedicated to the betterment of the world and the downtrodden is working instead with very different aims than those he states publicly — well, that coincidence brought me very low, very low indeed. And even on the best of days, a dark current often runs intermittently beneath and behind the brightness, because the general direction of our government these days and of world governments and societies in general is not one I can see as “bending toward justice” or likely to create a better life for future generations. 

It is not disagreement, as such, that weighs heavily on my heart but the hatred and vitriol that too often accompany it. Why should other Americans brand me an enemy because our beliefs about the country’s good differ? Was one bloody Civil War not enough? This hatred makes my heart heavy. The wise counsel dialogue, and I have tried to initiate dialogue — on violence and on partisan politics, attempting to allow myself to be vulnerable in hopes that those who see me wrong would not see me as an enemy but as someone with whom they could share not only their views and beliefs but also their reasons and feelings. What I got back, other than encouragement from friends already in agreement with me, was a resounding silence.

So if you see me as flying above political tumult and dwelling in another, simpler, more lighthearted reality than anyone else, you see a partial picture at best! Should I correct my presentation of self by including pessimistic gloom, despair, and nightmares in these posts? And if I’m not going to do that, why even mention the bleak side of my mind and heart today?

Little tree of thorns

Thorns, yes

But it is also full of life

I asked a friend, a writer and artist, how she managed to maintain her sunny, upbeat attitude in today’s difficult national climate. I wish I could remember precisely her response, but it went something like this: “I’m trying to lead with my strength.” Happiness was not her only emotional state, you see, but the one she chose to share with others. She chooses, continually, to share her strength, rather than her weakness.

Painter Wilson Hurley was not unaware of his own “perishability” but chose not to dwell on that and live in fear. Neither am I unaware nor unaffected by the ills of the world and the horrors perpetrated by mankind, but I refuse to let that aspect of reality blind me to the wonders of life and the world, which are equally real. (Besides, as I say, my attempts to invite dialogue on the sorrow and anger infecting us all went nowhere, and beating a dead horse is the last ploy of the defeated.)

Il faut lutter,” my friend Hélène wrote to me long ago. “Il faut se blinder contra la vie.” She had lived through war, had lost her husband to other women (not one but many), had no children or any other living relatives, and her old age was spent in poverty, every day a struggle — but she never, even while retaining a sharp mind and keen awareness of world events, never lost her charming, childlike joy in pleasures that required no expenditure of money: the song of a bird, a letter from a friend, sunshine through her window falling on her “little garden” of potted herbs. These were her armor, talismans in the struggle not to lose her love of life. She was really not barricading herself against life, you see, but only against life’s sorrows, and she used life’s joys for her barricade. Even that doesn’t fully capture it. Rather, the joy in a bird’s song for a while took precedence over any other thought or sensation. My friend was not hiding from reality behind a barricade of birdsong, because the singing of the bird was as real as anything else and worthy of attention. 

What brings us joy is as worthy of attention as the flaws of the world we would mend if we could. Is that better? We will be here only a short time, and each of us has a different way we can help others. Sharing joy can be one of those ways, as my American artist-writer friend and my Parisian friend Hélène showed me. 

So I am not going to delve publicly into my fears and sorrows here on “Books in Northport” and only bring them up at all to say to anyone else who feels sad or fearful or pessimistic or hopeless, today or any other day or night: You probably feel alone, but you are not the only one. To be alive, to be human, is to struggle.

But where do you, where might you, find joy? What do you, might you, love? This winter I find my bliss in the sublime indifference of mountains and desert I love more each day, as well as in the companionship of my husband and our dog and our neighbors. Also in the peaceful nearness of cattle and horses. The occasional butterfly on a warm day. And all these are real aspects of the real world.

Passing through
What the future holds, none of us knows. We are passing through life, and all we have is today. For now I am here. And so, if I can share even the smallest quotient of my happiness or maybe “inspire” someone else to find it wherever he or she may, please consider these seasonal retirement postings as my “mite” for the collection plate. For now, it is what I have to give. On my good days. And if you want something cheerier from me today, go back to March 28, 2015. The sun sets, the sun rises. 


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Day’s Contents: Sunshine, Flowing Water, Mountains, Blossoms, Primitive Road, Dust, Rain

I admit it: I was impatient to get out into the world on Monday morning. According to the forecast we could expect a couple days of rain (possibly snow in the mountains), beginning Monday evening, but Monday morning the sun was giving the clouds a run for their money. So the Artist’s suggestion that we drive up to Safford via the Stockton Pass answered my longings perfectly. It is a measure of how much we both love this trip that we are willing to endure miles of banging over tar strips on Fort Grant Road until we finally reach the county line and a smoother road surface, but the magic really begins with our approach to Bonita Junction. Trees! Big trees! Running water! Below are about half of my Monday photographs taken near Bonita. Further down in this post you’ll see why I put them in two different groups. 

Then, the Pinaleño Mountains, which still take my breath away, as if I’d never seen them before. I think I could drive through the Stockton Pass in the Coronado National Forest every day and marvel anew at its beauty each and every time. With the Artist at the wheel, it is part of the Navigator’s job (that’s me) to peer down into all the washes and creeks and report on the presence or absence of water, and I am very conscientious about performing my duty. 

A truly new and spectacular vision, a seasonal wonder, awaited us this trip as we neared the end of the road through the pass and neared the intersection with the main north-south highway. Mexican poppies were blooming gloriously in carpets of gold, sometimes in isolated sweeps but in many other places as far as the eye could see, a dizzying, breathtaking sight, both along the last of our mountain road and up the larger highway to Safford.

Gold was not the only floral hue to be seen, either, although this otherwise lovely moradilla (Western pink vervain) was rather outshone — and outnumbered — by its brighter, showier neighbors.

What more could a day bring, after such sights as floods both of water and of flowers? Sometimes beauty is almost exhausting! But driving that far from home means driving the same distance back again, no matter how tired you are, and while the return trip is made from Safford is easier and faster by taking 191 right to Willcox and skipping the mountains, that’s hard to do. Sometimes we do it, but not on Monday, even knowing those pesky tar strips lay ahead….

We realized that Sarah hadn’t been out of the car all day, a situation that would have to be remedied, and we had a stopping place in mind, but before we got to it another road beckoned. A road we hadn’t noticed before, a primitive road but with an open gate, clearly open in a welcoming way because a sign asked us to be diligent about drowning our campfire. No worries. We weren’t going to make a fire, only get out of the car and stretch our legs a bit, ours and Sarah’s.

Sarah was so excited to have a chance to explore new ground that she and I wandered quite a way up the road from the car. It’s a good thing we didn’t try deploring up this primitive road with the car, and my photos of it do not begin to capture the reality. There were stretches of it where the right tire track looked a good foot deeper than the left, with a monster hump between them. Hairpin turns and switchbacks were constant. Farther in, enormous boulders protruded from and lay about in the roadway. An ATV could probably manage somehow (it would be a bone-jarring ride), and mountain bikes could do it, I suppose (again, not in any comfort), but an ordinary little car? Even with 4WD, that would be asking for ruin. Better on foot!

Oh, but the wildness, that delicious feeling of being somewhere remote from civilization, was just intoxicating! And not only the long and high, rocky views, because, looking down at the ground, I saw one of my favorite wildflowers of the region, the tiny, modest little bajada lupine. I do hope we can return to this area when the flowers appear, because they will be nearly carpeting the ground! (Yes, I am greedy for wildflower displays.) You may think there isn’t much to see in them this early in the season, but look closely. Do you discern the drops of dew or rain held by their leaves? Like transparent pearls!

The cup of my day was overflowing so fast I could have filled three more cups with it. If we hadn’t taken the mountain road for our return trip, we might never have noticed that particular primitive road at all, so it was complete serendipity. Beyond the high point of the pass and on down, our first glimpse of the plains to come was rather a shock. Another dust storm? We hadn’t expected that — maybe rain, but not dust — and yet, what else could it be? And yes, down in the valley, we found the mountains on all sides completely obscured, hidden from our sight. Everything looked strange. Eerie. Near Bonita Junction, distant trees stood out like spectres, as if in fog, and even nearby trees and the flooding creek took on an appearance completely different from what they had presented a couple of hours earlier. 

It was almost as if we were transported back to the Illinois prairie, with trees and telephone poles appearing out of a haze.

To see how much difference a dust storm makes, below are a couple of images that show its edge. Amazing, n’est-ce pas?

It was so windy (as well as dusty) in Willcox that we were practically blown from our car into the grocery store and back again, but on our way out of town, heading home to the cabin in Dos Cabezas, the rain began. 

As we gained elevation, we left the dust behind but not the wind or rain, and now on Tuesday morning, the cabin being pounded by rain and shaken by wind, after a night of much of the same, I am immensely grateful for our Monday expedition. We can hole up now and be cozy for a couple of days.

And indeed this morning we are being battered by wind and rain. Pounded. Hammered. The rain falls so close and so thickly that the mountains are again hidden from sight, as they would be by fog or dust.Will we see snow? It’s possible, but I suspect at this altitude it will just be rain. But it is all good as it is. Rain or snow, either one is good for the land. Either one brings water to the thirsty earth.

Meanwhile, we are curtained off from the world, and we have plenty to read....