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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Adventuring Ourselves to a Frazzle


I have fallen behind in recounting our winter adventures — bookish, outdoor, and otherwise — either because the pace has picked up or we have slowed down. Or both. Either way, it’s been over a week since I posted about the curved-bill thrasher and associated thoughts, and my faraway northern Michigan readers have as yet seen nothing of our first visit to Bisbee this season, much less the past few exciting days in the big, bustling, beautiful but overstimulating city of Tucson. So I’ll begin by going back in time to a Friday in Bisbee, but please understand that you are not seeing the whole day, by any means — only the day’s most spectacular highlight.

Because we had a definite destination in mind that day: The Copper Queen Library, the oldest library in Arizona! How could we possibly have missed it on previous visits? I guess because a library is generally for residents, and we were only day-trippers. But now we were motivated to seek it out, because Cochise County has a new system whereby anyone with a card to any public library in the county can borrow books from any public library in the county! That’s not all, either. You can borrow from another town’s library by requesting books be sent to your own town’s library, and books can be returned the same way. In fact, a book I wanted was not available in either Willcox or Bisbee, but the Bisbee librarian requested it for me and had it sent to Willcox for me to pick up. That's real service, wouldn't you say?

Down the rabbit hole we went!

Where's the bookseller?
But first -- flashback! By a lucky chance, we stumbled on the new location of Meridian Books (saving ourselves a long uphill trudge), and I wish I’d taken more photographs inside the several rooms of this treasure trove, but I was too occupied with looking at books and finally carried off a couple I couldn’t leave behind, as did the Artist. The bookseller, as you see (do you see him hiding around that corner on the left?) was too shy to have his portrait snapped, but we enjoyed visiting with him, and it was amusing, to Michigan eyes, to see all the new children’s books about javelinas.

Javelina story books!

Then the library. I’ll just show you the pictures, and you can judge its beauty for yourself. Note (looking back up a couple paragraphs) that there are tables and chairs out on a gallery overlooking the street … comfortable Mission furniture in the periodical reading area … a whole room of old books … large children’s section … and more people enjoying the various spaces than I was comfortable capturing with my camera. I was especially happy to see so many children in the library. School was only a half-day, and many were playing outdoors, but quite a few were in the library, also.






The Friends of the Library group operates a small, crowded, but well-stocked bookstore downstairs, and we stopped there a while before leaving the building. Result: another couple of books each to stow away in the car. Then bowls of pho and curry at the little Vietnamese restaurant that is our usual lunch spot, and back by way of a new road, a lovely drive through the Mule Mountains. 

-- But now I find myself without sufficient energy to include three days in Tucson (we just got home!) in the same post with Bisbee, so I’ll save those adventures for another day. And you just have to imagine the mule deer we saw grazing in a ranch yard early in the morning as we drove south. Yes, it was pretty much a perfect day and deserves to stand alone here in the ongoing saga of our Arizona winter.


Bisbee additions to my Western private library

Monday, February 10, 2020

Song of the Curve-Billed Thrasher

(Photo from last spring)
Often, as the Artist and I are riding along in the car, a question arises that neither of us can immediately answer. The question may concern the geology of the passing scene, some plant or animal species, a question of history, or a writer or actor’s name temporarily just beyond our combined memories’ reach, to mention only a handful of examples out of the infinite number of inquiries that arise between us in conversation on the road. Either of us could, of course, “look it up” instantly (whatever “it” is) on one of our phones, and once in a while we do that — but more often we simply continue our conversation, speculating, critiquing each other’s speculations, and continuing to question each other and, when pertinent, our surroundings. Many would find these conversations of ours pointless and annoying. Well, that’s why we are with each other and neither of us with anyone else.

There are times when we are laughably wrong and only discover our error much, much later. I’m going to confess a truly idiotic belief we came to hold — and held for far too long — because it’s quite funny in retrospect. It has to do with the Kansas Settlement Gin Company, south of our winter home highway on the historically-and-oh-so-evocatively named Kansas Settlement Road.


During the early explorations of our first Cochise County winter, we were surprised to see the gin company there in the middle of the Sulphur Springs Valley. There didn’t seem to be much activity around it then, so we weren’t sure it was still in operation, but the question of operation was secondary. Gin? A company here in southeast Arizona distilling gin? When a visiting Michigan friend inquired, as we three were on our way down to Bisbee that day, we shrugged and told him, well, there are juniper trees in nearby mountains. Which is true….


Was it only this past December that we saw at last how wrong we’d been, or did light dawn in our addled brains the year before? Cotton is grown on land along the Kansas Settlement Road! The company is not distilling alcohol but ginning cotton! I think it was the name that led us astray: Kansas Settlement Cotton Gin would have been clearer. Please note, however, that we finally figured out the right answer all by our previously ignorant selves, chagrined over our earlier leap to a false conclusion but very satisfied to have landed, finally, on what is obviously the real story. And yes, we could have had the solution instantly, back in 2015 … but then we wouldn’t have had to think at all … and we certainly wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of solving the mystery ourselves … and I wouldn’t have any kind of story to tell you, either.

Here’s another example: Just the other day, in an interchange with a Mexican woman in a parking lot, my very rudimentary Spanish fled in the first moment of the encounter, leaving me blank and tongue-tied. The woman and a partner were selling tamales, and I wanted to ask how much they cost, but, as so often happens to me, the first language other than English that came to mind was French, and I grabbed at it desperately, trying to pronounce Combien with a Mexican accent. To me, it sounded good and made sense. But a blank, astonished look came over the woman’s face, and I knew I’d put my foot in my mouth. A language app on my phone would have eliminated any hesitation, but, except for weather and identifying plants, I don’t do apps. Then it came to me: Cuanto! I tried it, and it worked. All right! Embarrassing as my first attempt had been, I felt good about hitting on the right word on my second try. I think embarrassment can be part of a learning experience and does not have to be an occasion of shame. Next time I’m sure I will remember the right word immediately, prompted by my memory of the occasion of not remembering.

The first example, the gin company, is one of two people beginning in ignorance and thinking something through over time. The second has to do with my own memory. (I have a lot more Spanish words and phrases in memory than I can instantly recall, recognition being a much easier task than recall.) What the two  examples have in common is exercising brains instead of looking to a device for an instant answer. Many people prefer the instant answers. I prefer mental exercise.

Then there is the song of the curved-bill thrasher. Winter after winter we have been hearing a beautiful avian songster outside the cabin and trying to spot the bird to identify it. I kept wanting to say it must be a mockingbird. What else could sing so melodiously, produce that lovely, liquid song? And yet, complicated as the song was, it didn’t have the repetitions of a mockingbird. Finally, sitting out behind the cabin and watching birds in a scruffy little netleaf hackberry tree where I’ve hung a couple of suet feeders, I recognized once again the beautiful, mysterious song and could see the singer clearly. It was not the house finch and certainly not the ladderback woodpecker. It was the curved-bill thrasher! There he was, and the song was coming from him! 

Again, a birdsong app would have given me an instant answer, but, even with as long as it took me to connect bird and song, I have no regrets over lost time. What I gained, I feel, is the personal experience that will lock the identification much more solidly in my memory than the instant answer would have done. And time spent sitting and watching birds, like time spent sketching trees, is never “lost time.” It is all about being there, being taken out of myself and merging for a timeless while with bird or tree. And as I say, I do think I will remember the curved-bill thrasher’s song better and longer because I was sitting still, mountains off in peripheral vision, and seeing and hearing together so that everything around me formed a seamless and unitary context. 

The morning I began drafting this post, non-news came from the Iowa caucus: A reporting app had had issues, and the results that (some) people stayed up late to hear (glad we did not) were still not in the next morning. “We wanna know right away,” said one commentator, adding that the very desire for immediate results often drives failure or error. “We’d rather wait and have accurate results,” he said. 

Let me shift the scene here—

A mobility invention designed as an alternative, for some, to a wheelchair has been taken up by fully able-bodied persons using it for recreation. One stands on a platform and leans this way and that to propel oneself forward on a flat surface without having to walk. Why people who can walk want to avoid walking baffles me. They do not rejoice in their bodies’ movement? Don’t want to exercise physical independence and prolong it as long as possible? I don’t understand. But — sigh! — once again, “I am not the target audience.” 

There is a book on artificial intelligence (so-called) that I need to read. Human Compatible, by Stuart Russell (co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach), argues that AI and how (if?) we control it in the future may be the most important question facing the human race. The author is concerned that AI would give governments unlimited surveillance and control capability. (What about corporations? I ask, but maybe that’s in the book, too.) If AI can come to match or surpass human intelligence, what will become of human freedom? 

But now— now I want to take all the ideas above and put them together, adding into the mix young people (not all, but too many) who exercise no muscles other than their thumbs (to text and post on social media). Will our body parts atrophy if we no longer need to use them? That’s one question, but I want to stretch to a further question: Will our very brains atrophy if we stop exercising them to think for ourselves, to sharpen and rely on memory? 

Recently I was trying to find (via online search) something about the split-second delay between any sensory impression and the brain’s receiving that impression, a margin that aids us in decision (or so I vaguely remember reading years ago), actually making choice and decision possible at all. I welcome anyone who can refer me to a helpful citation on the subject, but what alarmed me in my search was that, using the phrase “reaction time,” all I got were results calling fast reaction time good, slow reaction time bad, with lots of suggestions for improving, i.e., speeding up, reaction times. 

Of course, there are plenty of occasions where fast reaction time is crucial. Avoiding a road accident is an obvious example, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking gives many other examples. But quick reaction time plus lack of experience can lead to bad results, even in this simple case: To avoid a deer in the road, a driver quickly swerves and hits another vehicle, a tree, or turns over in a ditch. 

Take another example: A stranger knocks on a door, and the person opening the door and seeing a stranger, perhaps someone from a different ethnic group than his own, feels threatened and draws a weapon, killing the stranger — who, let’s say, only wanted directions. Fast reaction time leaves no time to think, to reflect, to question, or to examine a broader context. Experience helps, but what kinds of experience? Experience driving in different conditions is one thing; a human being living in a confusing, complex, and ever-changing world needs a much broader array of experiences to keep trigger-fast reactions from causing tragedy. 

What does reaction time have to do with thinking for ourselves, with working through problems and situations, with exercising memory? You tell me. Think about it. Or not. No one can force you.



Monday, February 3, 2020

On the Ground in Apache Pass

Seasonally retired Michigan bookseller at ruins of Tom Jeffords's Indian agency

You’ve been with me to Fort Bowie before, when my first day on the trail with my sister brought many unexpected delights. This year I joined three neighbors, and they doubled the challenge: we would hike in both directions, returning not on the low country trail we would take in but by way of a high ridge. I was assured that the mileage would be no greater — 1-1/2 miles each way, for a total of 3 miles — and that surely I could handle it. After all, I’ve routinely been doing a couple of miles back in the neighborhood once a week or so on dog-walk mornings. 

Shade tree at Butterfield Stage station ruins
Therese at Butterfield stop
Because the trail we took in from the parking lot trailhead to the ruins was, for the most part, a repeat of last year’s story, I won’t go over every detail. A few, however, will serve to introduce my fellow hikers from Dos Cabezas. First is Therese (above), the day’s driver and my regular dog-walking companion back in the ghost town. 

Apache Spring
Ah, but already I need to slow down here (as I did so often on the trial!). About three-quarters or more of our way to the fort, my energy level was dropping. Double-checking, I asked Therese if we would stop for a rest break when we got to the fort, and she assured me that we would but said we didn’t have to wait until then. We were coming at that very moment to Apache Spring, a lovely, shady spot with a trickle of flowing water and some nice, big rocks for seating. The other two hikers (to be introduced shortly) were agreeable, and we slipped out of backpacks and dug out comestibles. The water was low enough that I had a chance to explore back almost to the spring itself and to see much more of that cool grotto than I’d seen before from the trail, and that was as satisfying as the rest and refreshment.

And now you meet Dorothy and Sam. These intrepid hikers and birders own and operate the Dos Cabezas Retreat B&B (sorry, they are booked solid for the next 26 days!), and they still find time and energy to put in plenty of volunteer hours in Cochise County. Last month they volunteered for the second year with the Wings over Willcox festival, and they have put in a total of about 40 hours (spread out over many weeks) right here at Fort Bowie, where willing hands under the supervision of a fifth-generation mason from Mexico are using old methods to stabilize what remains of the fort. 

Sam, Therese, Dorothy at gun shed ruin
Sam and Dorothy have worked on many sections, but this particular little ruin, this old wall section of the old artillery gun shed from 1890, is one for which they feel particular fondness. 

Volunteer ranger standing, Sam seated in rocking chair

Therese rocks!
The inviting porch at the ranger station/visitor center seduced us with its beautiful rocking chairs, and our second short break stretched to a full half-hour, as we caught our breath and rocked and visited with volunteer rangers who live the non-winter months of the year in Bozeman, Montana.


Climbing path
But soon it was time to take up the challenge! The trail up to and along the ridge! Our path up (new to me, remember) climbed and climbed and kept climbing, and the higher we climbed, the more spectacular the views. The layout of the fort ruins, spread out before our eyes so far below, looked tinier and tinier in the immensity of the surrounding mountains as we rose above it. 


Fort Bowie below us

Fort Bowie farther below
Looking San Simon way
View north
To our northeast lay the San Simon Valley, straddling the Arizona/New Mexico border, and to the northwest towered Government Peak, a mountain in our own Dos Cabezas range. In fact, from where we were, Government Peak was hiding the distinctive, more familiar, and, by us, much-beloved twin peaks from which our range takes its name. Apache Pass divides the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua mountain ranges, and it's clear how welcome that mountain opening with its freshwater spring must have been to everyone traveling from East to West.

And oh, the vegetation! We made our way over hard rock and loose stones through a veritable forest of ocotillo wands. “Ocotillo likes limestone,” Sam remarked. And sure enough, on our way down, when we reached the fault line on the path — identified by a sign pointing to the line where sedimentary limestone is left behind and a subregion of igneous granite entered — ocotillo immediately gave way to beargrass, the two different plants keeping each to its own bedrock territory, with areas as distinctly marked off as Midwestern fields of corn and soybeans separated by a fence or hedgerow.

Beargrass region
Dorothy on trail
While I was almost invariably bringing up the rear, sometimes Dorothy lagged behind with me, and that was fun, because Dorothy has an eagle eye for spotting tiny natural wonders, such as an old praying mantis egg case on a branch or a baby cactus hiding under a larger, sheltering plant. 

Dorothy called our attention to this darling little baby cactus
Other times it was Therese who slowed her pace to be companionable. “I just love plants!” she exclaimed once, after the two of us had paused to delight in bright green ferns and patches of fruiting moss in moist cracks of rock shaded from sun, while Dorothy and Sam led the way ahead.

Therese spotted moisture-loving ferns in cool, shady spot
Sometimes, though, I stopped long enough with my camera that the other three grew small in the near distance ahead, and if a mountain lion had been stalking us, I would have been its dinner. But somehow that dire possibility seemed remote, and I enjoyed my quiet moments, too. I smiled gratefully and happily to myself, looking at my hiking companions farther up the trail and knowing with confidence that they were keeping tabs on me, too, and would miss me were I to slip on a loose rock and plunge off the side of the mountain!




The weather forecast for the day had foretold cloudy skies and temperatures in the 50-degree range. The longer we were out, however, the brighter the sun and the more layers of clothing we shed, and by the time we were on the road back to our ghost town the outdoor temperature had reached almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So will we have rain tomorrow? Will we have, perhaps, even snow? What will be, will be. Whatever the future, our happy quartet was brimming with contentment, even as we began excitedly planning our next outdoor adventure.
More rocks!

More mountain flora!
More open spaces!

When Therese dropped me off back at the cabin, the front door was wide open to let the sun stream in, and David and Sarah greeted me eagerly. “Did you two go anywhere?” I asked the Artist. No, he and our dog had stayed home, enjoying the day at the cabin. All three of us were happy with the day we had had.

But I do have one final doubt, because I find it hard to believe my friends and I walked only three miles. With all the ups and downs and steep climbs and big steps, it felt like at least five to me.






Thursday, January 30, 2020

Turkey Creek Deep

Where are we? Where are we going?
TURKEY CREEK
El.: c. 5000’ 
From 1880 to 1884 a man named Morse had a sawmill on turkey Creek where he prepared lumber for use in the Copper Queen Mine at Bisbee. The timbers measured one foot in diameter, and Turkey Creek was the only place where timbers of such size could be found. Morse is said to have named Turkey Creek for the wild turkeys found along it.  
- Will C. Barnes, Arizona Place Names, revised and enlarged by Byrd H. Granger

When I look at a map of the state of Arizona, the more so a map of the entire United States — all of North America, a map of the entire world — I realize how small is the majestic expanse of Cochise County that I call my winter home. Though two valleys, the Sulphur Springs Valley and the San Pedro, stretch through it from north to south, and along the easternmost side of the former lie the Dos Cabezas, Chiricahua, and Peloncillo mountain ranges, most Americans have never heard of the Chiricahua Mountains and never visited the Chiricahua National Monument. Those who make the visit usually drive down from I-10, venture up Massai Point, and then leave. It’s understandable. Ours is a big country, and even a vacation of several months is insufficient to cover the West.



Just as there are two schools of thought about life experience in general, so there are two schools of travel thought. Basically, the question is whether to go deep or wide. Whether to sample as many experiences as possible, though it means each sample will be, of necessity, strictly limited — or to stay with one mate, in one line of work, through thick and thin, to settle down in one place (or a few chosen places), to sink roots, to go ever deeper. I propound no single, universal decision here for all human beings. The decision can only be made by each individual.

Long before I made my first trip to France, though, I knew what I wanted from being there. I wanted to live, in Paris, for the four weeks I had. That meant I would not see the chateaux along the Loire (I still have not and perhaps never will) or the Normandy coast or the glitz of the French Riviera. When it came right down to it, I did not even see Chartres Cathedral that year, reasoning on rainy days that it would be a shame to visit Chartres without sun coming through the famous stained glass windows — and, on sunny days, feeling it would be a shame to give up a single sunlit day in Paris! When the sun was shining, I could make a cup of espresso on the sidewalk last two hours, and when the weather was cold and wet I could milk a single museum entrance fee for an entire day. Shopping? On my income? Please! Being there was all I asked. 

Just so, now, I find a great deal of contentment in my quiet Arizona ghost town, building a personal Southwest home library and making small increases to the comforts of seasonal retirement housekeeping with additions to our simple kitchen — one day a beautiful used stock pot from a thrift shop, another, a fresh jar of mesquite flower honey for the table. Expeditions from the cabin to the greater world outside are not always grand adventures, either. Sometimes only mundane errands. And that’s all right, because we are not on a cruise — we are living here. 

But oh, those glorious adventures! 

A year ago we turned one day onto Turkey Creek Road, but the jarring washboard surface quickly convinced the Artist, who was driving, to turn around. This year our first venture took us as far as the first creek crossing, and that was a thrill. So when the Artist proposed on Wednesday that we should explore farther up the road, he got no argument from me. 

The dry wash behind and alongside our rental cabin only runs with floodwater during summer monsoons, when we are back in Michigan, so the very sight of a small stream of flowing water within the largely dry banks of the San Pedro River is a rare treat. Imagine, then, our delight over a roaring, rushing, tumbling, foaming creek! We could not stop grabbing for our cameras — and yet, I realize that no photograph will convey a fraction of our excitement, just as photographs of Paris from the Seine did nothing to prepare me for standing on a bridge, being thereWe had been exclaiming with wonder at the beauty of our surroundings long before we came to a sign alerting us to prepare for a “scenic road” along the next five miles. The sign struck us as very funny, as if the road commission thought we might have been unaware of beauty ahead without the sign. And what of the beauty we had already enjoyed that had not been noted with signage? 




Our wonder did increase as we penetrated farther into the forest, however, I must admit. It didn’t feel as if we were climbing, and yet we must have been gaining elevation, because there were more and taller and different species of trees as we went along, with mountain rocks much closer to our ever-narrowing road. 





Only many miles in did we reach public land of the Coronado National Forest, which, like the Marquette National Forest in Michigan, consists of discontinuous pieces of land in the Pinaleño, Chiricahua, and Dragoon mountain ranges. Beware of bear, and watch out for water and fire debris and rock slides, signs warned. 

What ruins lurk behind this alligator juniper?
Ruins of stone cabin lost in forest fire

There were other cabins in the forest land, obviously still rentable, and yet we saw no signs that anyone was staying in any of them. There were deer here and there, but no other human beings. Well, fine! When the rocky road reached a campground, it seemed incredible that there was not a single tent in sight and no picnickers at the tables, either. We left our car and settled down long enough to eat a simple late lunch and enjoy the creek (at our very feet!) before deciding that the air was already very cold and would quickly grow colder as dappled sunlight retreated up the mountainside. Short winter days are even shorter in the mountains, nothing at all like prairie evenings or the late afternoon light on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Reluctantly leaving Turkey Creek, we sped east to the Mustang Mall and returned to the ghost town by way of the Kansas Settlement Road, looking across the valley to what looked like a big, dark storm over the very mountains where we had spent our afternoon. We arrived home before sunset (as splendid in the east as it was in the west) and were delighted to have visitors before darkness fell. It was another deeply satisfying day in our little corner of the world. We did not drive all that many miles, but most of them were deliciously slow.


Looking west

Looking east

Enjoying evening visitors