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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.


Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Love this post, Pamela,and I vote for a writer's retreat center for the motel! So fun to share in your discoveries and meditations!

Anonymous said...

Have not read all the way through your blog today, but before I forget, go buy yourself a cheap plastic comb and carry it with you whenever you have Sara. It is the BEST way to comb out the cholla cactus that she will probably pick up in her paws, etc... Saves your fingers, too.

BB-Idaho said...

I'm thinking Sarah Dog is having a good time, that species happy as long as its 'family' is around.
But I wonder from the canine point of view (their nose being
their best sensor) how the thin
dry air of the high desert compares with the humid and vegetation-rich place she calls
home? The ubiquitous dry gulch
country reminds me of a desert
base in Utah where I was stationed in the early 60s. The
road crossed a dry gulch on a
short bridge, to which some optimist had affixed a hand painted sign which read
"No Fishing".

Karen Casebeer said...

Such as interesting place you've described! I had to go to a map to see where you're located. Thanks for the wonderful travelogue. I've never been to the Southwest region of our country, mainly because I love water, but I see the Gulf of California isn't all that far away. Enjoy! Karen

P. J. Grath said...

Barbara, maybe both writers and painters? I have to say that it took me well over a week to get my head back into my own fiction, set in Michigan, immersed as I was here in exciting new surroundings.

Pam? Thanks for the tip! Sarah has been amazingly good about avoiding cholla and barbed wire so far. She sticks pretty close to me in this strange new environment, and if she gets out of sight for a minute (say, behind a mesquite bush), she appears as soon as I call or whistle.

BB, you might be surprised how much Sarah's nose finds to investigate. Every morning she attends carefully to every twig and branch along the way. Maybe javelinas pass by in the night! She had a great day on Monday, when we went to visit friends over on the other side of the Dragoon Mountains. She got to run around in a new place, explore a new house, and meet a new cat. She is very deferential to cats. Wise dog!

Karen, I am getting "birdier" than I've ever been in my life here. All the birds of Michigan and Florida, added to native Arizona and Mexican birds, make for a huge avian population. And their colors are probably all the more exciting against the dry, mostly monochromatic winter scenery. We found water at Whitewater Draw and nearer by at a little lake (more a pond, really) on the edge of Willcox, both welcoming to cranes, grebes, ducks, and many other birds. Loggerhead shrike is my favorite of the ones I saw at the Willcox lake. Wish I were as good as you are with a camera!

Karen Casebeer said...

Oh, thank you for the comment about being good with a camera. Actually, I think the difference is more in the camera vs. the skill. A dslr will always outperform a point and shoot, even with shooting on automatic.

Alexis Wittman said...

Thanks for a window into the Southwest. Of all the places traveled, and lived for me.... never been. I especially valued the commentary on gathering of sticks and stones... those pieces of world calling to us-pick me up. Like hitchhikers along the road, but asking for our pockets.

Have safe travels, and take more pictures, oh,... and sketches too!

Carla and Bruce said...

Your posts are amazing!
I have learned so much about the area, and about your willingness to explore and leave the comfort zone.

Our writers group has been reading your blog....
And we are all "hanging in there".

Glad Sarah is daring greatly with the two of you,.
By the way, if you haven't read "daring Greatly" by Brown, it is a learning experience any where at any time I think.
Let me know.

P. J. Grath said...

Alexis, Carla, and Bruce -- what fun to "see" you here! Carla, I don't know that book but will take a look for it. We visited a wonderful bookstore yesterday over in Benson. I'll tell about that sometime in the future....

Dawn said...

It's so much fun to travel along with you, see the SW...the old towns...the desert plants and birds. It's one of my favorite parts of the country, the this has been a real treat for me.