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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Life Does Not Provide “Time Off”

A different sunrise
I don’t mean by today's headline that every day is workin’ in a coal mine. No doubt it is, in some parts of the world, but not for someone like me, fortunate enough to have five months’ seasonal retirement in southern Arizona. No, I mean only that life’s challenges and delights, the calm stretches and dramatic ups and downs, are all high-speed miles on a nonstop journey, as sunrises and sunsets and unexpected news bulletins, personal and national, constantly remind us. This morning, however, distracted as I am by news from friends and family (as well as by what comes to us over the radio waves), before too much time goes by with Tucson in my rear-view mirror I’ll sketch in something of our three days there last week. 

The sunrise at the top of today’s post is not my usual Dos Cabezas view but one a hundred miles away, in the Santa Catalina foothills north of Tucson, looking back to the east from the patio garden of a condo we were invited to use while our friends made a quick trip to Florida. We drove over from Cochise County to Pima County and up Sabino Canyon on Saturday afternoon, and the first order of business upon arrival was a patio hose bath for Sarah, who had become a very dusty ghost town dog in two short months. That always wears me out (bathing Sarah), and the Artist had done all the driving (I am navigator), so our evening’s adventure took us only as far as the nearest grocery store and deli. Also, remember, it is still winter, and the dark of night still comes early. 

Dark skies, twinkling city lights
Then comes morning again

But I am, as you know, una madrugadora, an early riser, and the quiet of morning is one of my most cherished luxuries, wherever it finds me, so imagine the sybaritic feelings of your seasonally retired bookseller in the mountain foothills, soaking in the morning sun, with nearby birds singing and humming, book and breakfast on the table beside me, dog at my feet — or dog popping up to look over the wall at the great world beyond! Bless that little Sarah! 

Curious dog girl!

After one night with the pack together in a new place, our dog was comfortable enough that we could leave her by herself for a while, sparing her hours in a parked car and sparing ourselves the worry. Our main Sunday destination was the Tucson Museum of Art downtown, which we found with no trouble at all. Traffic was surprisingly, delightfully light. I did not take my camera into the museum, but we toured all the galleries open that day and will return in the spring when the main gallery and its new exhibit can be viewed. A pause to refresh in the museum cafe followed.

Door to temptation!
We took a detour and then a different route for the return to the foothills, cruising the famous (or infamous) Speedway Boulevard for miles, much to the Artist’s satisfaction. He is convinced that anything one could possibly want can be found on Speedway Boulevard! One stop we did make on the boulevard Sunday was at a branch of Bookmans, a wonderful book of stores selling used books, music, musical instruments, and heaven knows what-all else, because — yes! — we do shop indie wherever we find ourselves. 

Books bought at Bookmans

Another day coming....
Another morning, another day, and further explorations. Monday took us to thrift shops and antique malls. Speedway Antique Mall was almost more excitement than we could bear! We wandered, dazed, through maybe a third of the store, by which time my arms were full of as many books as I could carry. Finally I told the Artist, “I can’t look any more!” and he replied, “Neither can I.” 

Only part of my haul from Speedway Antique Mall

I found only a single book to purchase at the Goodwill down the pike, but it was a nice one, and the cashier thought it was "cool" that I could read French. Wish I could read Spanish as well as I read French.... 

thrift shop find
Then — silly me! I neglected to check their days and hours! — we drove all the way down to Monument Camera, only to find that it is closed on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, but the good news is that by then we were acquiring a pretty good mental overview of the skeletal grid of Tucson city streets and finding our way around like old-timers. Somewhere along the line that day we had lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant, and somewhere else I found three more books, but we were ready to get back to Sarah and the relaxing patio well before dark. 

Santa Catalina Mountains in background
On the recommendation of several friends, we had thought to visit the 10-acre Ted deGrazia gallery and historic site on Tuesday morning before leaving town but ultimately decided to save it for another visit. There are so many things on our list for future visits — the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Golden Goose thrift shop, Mount Lemmon, St. Xavier, to name only a handful — and we’ll be wanting to revisit the art museum and Bookmans, as it probably goes without saying, but the big item for March, for me, will be the Tucson Festival of Books

Spring is coming in Tucson
Cities are exciting, full of energy. Tucson’s setting is beautiful. There is no end of things to see and do, and we are grateful to our friends for their invitations — friends who might be forgiven for thinking I’d be reluctant to return to our simple cabin in the wilderness. But the truth is that I really like life in the slow lane and am happy in the little nest I’ve been feathering during our winters here, adding to my Western library and batterie de cuisine. I value our neighbors here and am happy in my two volunteer mornings in Willcox. And that big city with all its myriad charms, as I have to keep reminding the Artist, is after all only 100 miles away.

nesting comforts

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.