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Friday, January 30, 2015

Climbing Into the Sky

Within the fixed limits of its allotted hours the sun is supreme. It does not yield to passing clouds, for much of the time there are none. Nothing can deny the sun’s omnipotence or detract from its authority. Step into its presence and you are flooded with light. All the world around you is immersed in its radiance. 
- Walter Collins O’Kane, The Intimate Desert
In the morning, we went to town (Willcox, that is) to do errands, winding up with coffee on the front porch of our regular coffee spot before coming home for lunch, so it was nearly midafternoon before we set off on our first visit to nearby Chiricahua National Monument. Only 21 miles from Dos Cabezas, the trip took us east of home on 186 for the first time.

It was exciting to see snow-capped mountains ahead in the distance and to know that was our destination for the day. Clouds – yes, that day there were clouds -- made constantly shifting dark shadows on the mountains and intervening seas of grass, the grass tall and golden under a bright blue sky like the coat of an immense animal covering many square miles.

We hadn’t gone far into the park when a roadrunner suddenly appeared and ran crazily along the road, zig-zagging in our direction, before disappearing again into the vegetation. At the visitor center, I mentioned it to the ranger, prefacing my reportage, “This probably won’t sound thrilling to you...,” but she said it was thrilling, because “we don’t get a lot of roadrunners up here.” More luck! And it kept coming, too, because Chiricahua no longer charges an entry fee. I put the money saved toward part of the price of a state road atlas from the gift shop. I like maps with detail, with every dirt road shown.

But this day was all Chiricahua. And here, in large part, is the text from the first informational sign we encountered:
The Apache called this area “The Land of Standing-Up Rocks”....  
Chiricahua resembles an oceanic archipelago – a sea dotted with islands – only here the desert is a hot desert grassland. We call these isolated mountain ranges “sky islands.” The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, and the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Madre ranges all meet here. The convergence of these four homes makes the area unusually rich in biodiversity. 
Chiricahua National Monument was established in 1924 to protect the fantastic rock formations known as “the pinnacles.” In 1934 the Civilian Conservation orps began the job of improving the road and constructing the trails and many park structures, including the visitor center. 
In 1976 Congress decided to further preserve the land by designating 86% of the monument as Wilderness. This precludes any development and human intervention, thus ensuring the preservation of the geological formations for future generations. 
Another 6 miles along the Bonita Canyon Drive will transport you through oak, cypress and pine forests to the summit at Massai Point, where you will get a true sense of being atop a sky island.
And so we set off, up the mountain road. It was not at all easy to photograph the “standing-up rocks,” either with the light directly on them, so that they tended to be overexposed relative to surrounding sky and trees, or when they were plunged into deep shade and the sky behind them flooded with light. I thought Photoshop would save me, but success was elusive – limited, at best.

Also, as the road climbed more and more steeply, my anxiety got in the way of camera work, too. I kept asking David to slow down. He wasn’t driving fast, and he was driving very well; it just felt fast and scary to me. Lucky (again) that I hadn’t known ahead of time how terrifying the road up to Massai Point would be, with all those drop-off edges, or we might have missed some these heart-stopping long-distance views.

Again, sharp contrasts of light and dark made it impossible (for me, I should say; suggestions are welcome) to capture both nearby mountain rocks and lowlying background rangeland together. Try imaginatively to put together in your mind’s eye the two photographs above to see what we actually saw.

But we were really there, 6,870’ above sea level! Some peaks in the Chiricahuas, I should note, are higher than 9,000’, but almost 7,000 is as high as I feel the need to go!

Can you tell I was quaking in my boots? And doesn’t David look relaxed?

We met a couple from Louisiana, painters who now live in Benson, Arizona, not far from Willcox. David talked painting with them. Sharon and I compared geographical notes. Looking off in the direction I correctly identified as northeast, she told me we were looking toward the Gila range and New Mexico. The light in that direction was kind and gentle.

The name for the geology of this SE corner of Arizona is range and basin (yes, as in John McPhee’s book title), and I admit I’m more comfortable in the basins or in the foothill regions between basin and peaks. Coming back down from the dizzying heights, when I was able to look up at the rocks again and feel more comfortable, we found a picnic spot and caught our breath and ate apples and drank water and spotted an acorn woodpecker high in a tree. The acorn woodpecker is “common,” but it’s the first one I’ve ever seen, so it was thrilling to me, and I’m including its picture, despite the poor quality of the image.

The light was gentle as we left the mountains behind. We will return often to the Chiricahuas, I’m sure. It is very close and very beautiful. Also, there is a lot to explore at my preferred lower altitudes.

(Looking back)

On our way back west, I wanted to stop to get a better look at some grazing “cows,” as all cattle (mostly steers) are called out here. When I got out of the car, the animals ambled over to the fence, seemingly curious.

All are curious and want to get in on the action!

Blue sky with clouds, golden grasses, a lovely new stretch of road with almost no traffic, a roadrunner, fantastic mountains, terror, delight, beauty, an acorn woodpecker, and cattle up close -- what more could such a beautiful, thrilling day offer, if not a spectacular sunset from our front door in Dos Cabezas?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dreamers, Wherever We Go

Peak hidden in clouds

The desert invites meditation or communing with God. It invites visions. Since the same is true of mountains, it is hardly surprising that the Dos Cabezas Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert set me to dreaming the first day I saw them, long before we reached our ultimate destination, stopped moving, turned off the car ignition, and put our feet down at last on solid ground. Very solid. Rock solid.

Because of the three-day holiday weekend commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was Tuesday before we were able to visit the community library in Willcox and establish ourselves with a temporary borrowing card. While David was signing us up, I went straight to the Arizona shelves and made my first selections from the subsection on nature: The Mountains Next Door, by Janice Emily Bowers; A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona, by Anne Orth Epple (photography by Lewis E. Epple); and Geology of Arizona, by Dale Nations & Edmund Stump. Already I’d found at the Friend Bookstore an old copy of Cactus, by Laura Adams Armer (illustrations by Sidney Armer).

One of my desert dreams is to make at least a rudimentary beginning at learning the plants of this high, arid region, all the more challenging in January when almost nothing has leaves and absolutely nothing at all is flowering. Most tree guides show me leaves; wildflower guides flowers. That doesn’t help much in the winter desert. I was able to identify prickly pear (pretty easy) before looking in the books. I’m still sorting out varieties of Yucca and other members of the Agave family. For Whipple cholla (which I think should be Whipple’s cholla), a specimen found out back of the cabin, books were necessary. And here below is – ta-da! --the first cactus I have “learned” this winter:

The Bowers book is marvelous for dreaming and learning and finding inspiration. “This is the perfect book!” I exclaimed to David after I’d read only the first few pages. “Another perfect book?” he asked, adding somewhat dubiously, “How many perfect books can there be?” I explained that The Mountains Next Door is the perfect book for me, for where we are, for here and now. (And there’s another wonderful thing about books in general: so many can come to hand at just the right moment and be the “perfect” book for a reader at that time. They don’t have to come by sheer luck, either. We’re allowed to search them out.) The author of The Mountains Next Door is a botanist, and her “mountains next door” are the Rincons east of Tucson, not all that far from “my” (or “our”) mountains, the Dos Cabezas, here in our ghost town backyard. She begins by describing the Olympic Mountains in the Pacific Northwest, which to her, for a long time, were the “Delectable Mountains” of Pilgrim’s Progress. They were “real” mountains, she felt, and because she could only visit them from time to time,
Their remoteness let me romanticize them as I could not romanticize the mountains I saw from my own front yard. 
 ...Because the Rincons have never felt the sculpturing hand of glaciers, they have no looming, snowy peaks, no bowl-shaped tarns, no knife-edge ridges. Dryness is their characteristic. Clouds skim high overhead, untouchable, unknowable. Most days, rainfall is a mere rumor, a phenomenon read of in books.
The Dos Cabezas, like the Rincons, are not magnificent enough to be famous far from home, and if I can romanticize the modest mountains in my winter backyard, no doubt it is because I do not have a lifetime familiarity with them, only a scant few days’ sketchy acquaintance. But the truth is that as soon as our winter plans began to take shape, back in Michigan, the words “high desert” were dream words for me, words I could hardly pronounce without a shiver, and the same was true of the place name Dos Cabezas. How can a ghost town with adobe ruins not invite dreams?

Even streams and rivers in this part of the country are ghostly most of the year. I was amused, at first, to learn that the dry washes have names, but quickly I realized that it is no stranger than our little Leelanau County creeks having names. The difference is that our northern Michigan creeks hold water (or ice) year-round, while here the washes contain only sand and gravel and rocks (and a few plants and birds and lizards and javelina and ranging cattle and such) until the rains come. (If they come.) Then, briefly, the washes are roaring creeks.

It seems, according to my reading of Bowers, that the flowering of desert wildflowers is uncertain in somewhat the way of the cherry orchard bloom in northern Michigan.
To be aware of wildflowers is to be keenly aware of time’s passing. Every January photographer friends in Illinois call to ask whether the desert will bloom this spring. Not being God, I have no absolute knowledge....
If the desert is going to bloom, when will the bloom begin, when will it be at its peak, and when should visitors time their arrival in the desert? We have similar questions at home, with everyone wanting to be on hand for peak cherry bloom, which varies from one year to the next. It’s rare year when we don’t have any blossoms, though. The desert is different. In a year of no rainfall or too little for dormant seeds to germinate (if need be, desert seeds can wait decades for enough rain to assure the continuation of their species), there may be no spring blooming other than cactus (which it seems never disappoints), and in that way the flowering of the desert is more like Michigan snowfall: some years are spectacular and memorable, record years; most are average; while a horrid few are pallid, brown, and muddy.

The natural world and visible traces of history are obvious dream sources, but David and I also dream alternative realities in – and for -- more contemporary urban scenes. Willcox shares the fate of many small towns across the country, that of vacant buildings and boarded-up windows along a stretch that was obviously once the liveliest part of the town. Nowadays an expressway bypasses the town, so most of the heavy traffic is out by the main expressway interchange, where new motels and fast food chain restaurants and gas stations give tourists and travelers a chance to stop for the night and never see the town at all. It’s too bad, I think.

The charming Old Town stretch along Railroad Street houses several businesses, as does a row of sweet little bungalows facing Railroad Street from the other side of the tracks, but even here there are vacancies. Other parts of downtown hold other handsome buildings, some with prospering businesses, others vacant.

Willcox is a friendly town, easy to get around in. I like it a lot. Uncrowded and easy to navigate, on foot or by vehicle, for my sake it doesn’t have to change at all, but since I have had a business for many years in a village that has only recently begun climbing out of a long decline, I can’t help wishing for residents and business people in Willcox a little new development, some new investment. Not too much! Not enough to turn it into a gaudy tourist trap! Just enough to make use of existing buildings and provide a few more jobs.

Chief among vacant buildings (this was true in the bypassed towns on old Route 66, also) are old motels, and one of them in particular set us to dreaming. What would be the best, highest use of this old sweetie? Low-cost studio apartments? Seasonal condos? An artist colony? Retail “picker” businesses, with an open-air flea market in the central courtyard? Assisted living units? Does a place like this ignite dreams in you? What would you do with it?

As for Dos Cabezas, I wish no change whatsoever, no development at all. It’s just fine as a ghost town. Fourteen miles to Willcox for library, post office, and groceries is a fair trade for black velvet night skies and still, quiet days.

Postscript: My book recommendation for this week, in case you couldn’t tell, is The Mountains Next Door, by Janice Emily Bowers, not only for its scientific information and the local interest (for me, here, now), but because it is beautifully written. The second chapter (or essay), “Collections,” reminded me very much of Gaston Bachelard:
We collect in order to possess: Seashells, pine cones, minerals, butterflies.... We can never have enough ...; in fact, the more we have, the more we need. They anchor us, somehow – connect us to the past or fill the empty spaces in our lives.  
We collect in order to prolong the present, as though by saving this particular leopard-spotted cowry we could hang on forever to that day on the beach....  
We collect in order to partake of something larger than ourselves....
As I wander the parched ground around the cabin here in Dos Cabezas, I pick up rocks of all kinds and sizes, dry animal bones, and worn pieces of colored glass, very much in an attempt to feel part of the vast surrounding landscape and to prolong the present moments I am enjoying here. I am reading The Mountains Next Door in the same way that I walk out into the desert – eagerly, greedily and with a deep sense of happiness.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Whitewater and Bisbee: Off to See the Cranes

First, the morning

This is how the day begins. First the sky lightens in every direction. On Wednesday there were clouds to the northwest. The sky is lightest in the southeast, where the sun will appear. A couple of wispy clouds caught the sun ahead of its rise over the mountain gap.

The sky in the northwest also began to catch the sun before it appeared, purple and rose a backdrop for the still-dark mountains.

Higher now, the clouds catch the light. Oh, it is glorious!

And the single cabeza we see from the back porch has caught it too now. The mountain greets the day.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge

I’m afraid I cannot select too carefully a series of perfect photographs of our first visit to Whitewater. Without a tripod, and in an unbelievably strong wind, I had trouble focusing at all. The ducks were not all that cooperative, either. They hide underwater, or in the grasses and sedges, or they all have their heads in the water, feeding.

There are many birds in this refuge – water birds, hawks, owls – but the stars at this time of year are the sandhill cranes. Twenty thousand (20,000) of them winter in the area.

The cranes were constantly wheeling in great flocks, like schools of glorious fish in the sky, and they were calling constantly, too, with a more musical sound than I am used to hearing when a single sandhill crane flies over our Michigan farmhouse in the spring. And the wind was blowing, also constantly. And everyone – everyone – was smiling. Faces turned upward, lips parted, eyes dancing – I have never seen so many happy faces in a gathering of strangers. One woman said, clutching her hat so the wind would not blow it off, “I’ll be hearing this sound in my sleep tonight!”

Bisbee, Another Old Mining Town

We hadn’t planned to go to Bisbee, but it was not much farther than Whitewater, and we’d already gone that far, so on we went. David had friends and a little history in Bisbee and really wanted me to see it. Wow! It was so much bigger than I’d imagined! (Helen, I’d imagined it like Jerome, and it’s much, much larger.) The streets are narrow and pitch up and down, and you have to watch your step on the sidewalks, because at any step the pavement may suddenly change level. Parking seems a general nightmare. The town has grown a lot, too, since David was last there, and the layout is confusing, to say the least. 

We were fortunate to find a shady spot for Sarah before David began his search for the son of an old friend. Everyone he asked sent him somewhere else, until finally in a very old, funky bar one of the regulars (it was obvious he was a regular) said that the man we sought now lives in Tombstone. 

Bisbee seems very dog-friendly, and I appreciated that. Here's a sign on the front of the old Silver King Hotel, where David's old friend used to live as the manager. 

Overall, though, I found Bisbee overwhelming....

... and had to focus on small details and corners and pockets to keep my head on straight.

We will go back to Bisbee another day and explore it more thoroughly. I contented myself during this quick, unplanned trip with taking a few photographs of sights large and small. There was no time to assimilate any of it thoroughly. The pit was particularly frightening, although I was intrigued by the idea of over 400 different minerals present there.

I must say, I am much more comfortable in easy-going Willcox and sleepy little Dos Cabezas.