Tag Archives: Sonora Desert

Sweetwater trail, AZ

Mark, Julie and I on New Year’s Day, snow on the Tucson Mountains, seeing quail, coyote, deer. Taking these as tokens of the year ahead, even the dead tarantula curled up in the middle of the small wash. Working to ignore the unsustainable arrogance of wealth mushrooming across the desert in the form of giant block houses. I hope my year is full of wilds and family and love, some writing, some working to change the world.

Sonoran Desert Easter

Easter was one of my favourite days, a day to celebrate Spring and Handel on KCET and Easter baskets full of candy. I didn’t even mind church, it would smell like wax and masses of Easter lilies and the sermon would be about love and joyfulness and life and the hymns would be some of my favourites. Then home and an ever more challenging hunt for Easter Eggs and later a feast of a dinner…

But early Easter morning was mine and clear and bright and full of promise and I would wander out in my shabby old robe to pick flowers for the table and Spring in the Sonoran Desert is extraordinary though I think many people never see it. I love England’s banks of daffodils and masses of bulbs, but miss the more secret, delicate beauty of flowers that bloom amongst the rocks and gravel.

Penstemons:

Penstemons

And Phacelias, these do often grow in banks of glorious blue:

Phacelia

The queen of desert flowers because they are more rare and the colour of cobalt, larkspur:

Larkspur

Globemallows, these grow everywhere, especially in old lots throughout the city, thriving where nothing else seems to grow:

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Fiddleneck — but those little hairs along the stems hurt your hands, so I often left them out:

butterfly and fiddleneck

Desert Sage:

sage

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California poppies:

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There were other poppies, tall and pale yellow and also rare. Desert honeysuckle:

trumpet flowers

Eriatrum Difussum or miniature woolystar — these carpeted the hill behind my house along with monoptilon bellioides:

Eriastrum Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

monoptilon bellioides or Mojave Desertstar

Erigeron divergens:

Erigeron Divergens or Spreading Fleabane

Wild onion:

wild onion

Desert lupins (but is that what we called them or what they really are?)

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Fairydusters:

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Not all of these went into the bouquets of course, clutched in my little hands and lovingly arranged. And there are a number that are missing from those recovered in this March expedition, like desert chicory. I took all of these pictures in the Spring of 2009, I can’t remember why I was in Tucson but it was the last Spring spent with my dad.

Funny that I was born on Easter Sunday, so I remember we used to treat it as more of a birthday than the day I was actually born, though I think that stopped when I was quite little. My dad died on Easter Sunday the year after I took these. I can’t decide now if it is a day too overburdened by significance, or good that life and death should all be wrapped up like this. It is not my decision anyway.

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I am often sad, however, that I am not still running around the desert in my sandals and faded blue dress.

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The Superstitions, mining and mayhem

I thought of this twitching prospector and the chicken holding prospector and the dead, headless prospector and said, ‘it would seem to me that the solitude of working in the wild is not healthy for a man.’
–Patrick Dewitt, The Sisters Brothers

The incidental reading of Dewitt actually pales before the sordid reality experienced in Arizona with all of its killings over base metals. They have no grace or humor. Finding out about the history of the Superstitions though…I’m not sure I know of a more sustained story of greed and murder stretching across the years. Those old Wild West ‘antics’ just make you sad even when they have the same veneer as Victorian sepia prints, but they sure ain’t so palatable when taking place in the late 1950s.

All of it is set against the backdrop of the magnificent Sonoran Desert, and part of me just can’t understand how such beauty and its clean, if fierce, struggle for life didn’t straighten all these people out. It’s a particularly human madness, this lust for gold, it doesn’t make sense in the desert.

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Of course the greed and murder all started with the conquest of Arizona first by Spain, and then by the U.S. (stripping both Spanish land grants and ancestral tribal lands) — structural, expansionary greed backed by the geopolitics of nations, a mixture of armies and missionaries and people 1022290desperate to build a better life all come together to conquer and colonise. Any amount of violence occurring after that can hardly be surprising on this bedrock of force used to confer rights.  This is what is left out of most accounts of the west along with Jane Eppinga’s Apache Junction and the Superstition Mountains, upon which most of the following is based. Nothing about this death-dealing race to mineral wealth is natural, it is rather twisted around a sordid history of genocide and a larger seizure of land and resources.

It’s a strange bug, prospecting. One I know well because my dad was always out in the hills with Jim and Harold and Frank and Don, looking for copper and gold. I used to go with them sometimes, I’ve staked claims and filed them with the Bureau of Land Management. It is hard, dirty work. I loved those days, up early and into the truck and out for the whole day in a desert free of other human beings. Of course actually marking our claims once likely places were found always seemed to involve plowing through a whole lot of white-thorn acacias, so we definitely marked them in blood. At least it was always our own.

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For my dad and his friends, it was as much about camaraderie, heading out into the desert in the old 4X4 Ford, exploring old back roads and mining lore. Adventure ahead with every sparkle of epidote and every fault and fracture, and the glimmer of an escape from the toil of working-class life.  They worked damned hard, they deserved an escape. They knew this probably wouldn’t be it. That wasn’t the point.

This is what I have always loved about prospecting, and probably what draws the folks who continue to live in places like Apache Junction, Clifton, Tucson, Miami, Globe (and small towns across Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada), reworking old mines, seeking out new ones, panning for gold. There are still lots of them out there.

Jacob Waltz (probably), and several of those who followed him, were just a bit different. A German immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1846, he became yet another lone prospector in Arizona in 1861 in the face of Apaches bravely fighting to keep their lands, as well as other prospectors seeking instant wealth. Supposedly he and his partner Jacob Wieser found a rich vein of gold, Wieser died shortly thereafter. Waltz claimed Apaches killed him, but that sounds quite a convenient story to me. Rumour has it he killed up to eight others.

But then there’s another source states he was harmless, and lived the end of his life in poverty: ‘Contrary to stories of hoarded gold, he lived out his final years on his homestead at Henshaw Road (Buckeye Road) and 7th Street in poverty. He literally sold himself into peonage by deeding his property to a neighbor in exchange for that neighbor’s taking care of him for the rest of his natural life.’

Yet another source has Wieser escaping the Apache attack wounded, being taken care of by a Pima medicine man. Giving him a map to the treasure.

These conflicting accounts and more are from Jack San Felice’s rundown of accounts, which is very thorough indeed. There could be no better testament to the way that the mythical (and violent) west has been spun out over time.

Somewhere in the growth of this myth of the ‘Lost Dutchman Mine’, the German became a Dutchman (or Deutchman?).

Waltz never fully worked his claim or sold it, supposedly he simply lived off the gold. Eppinga follows one thread of the possible story in this, where Waltz was cared for in old age and sickness by Julia Thomas, a baker, who supposedly received a large sum of money from him to save her business and directions to his claim given her just before he died in 1891.

She was an African American woman out here on the frontier, she would have possibly been born during times of slavery, she owned a home, supported herself and cared for others. Yet there is no picture of her, no history. She is a footnote to a quest, and to me far more interesting than a lost mine. Another key storyteller of the Lost Dutchman is Tom Kollenborn, he writes this of her partnership with the Petrasches to find the gold:

Toward the end of the third week, the expedition collapsed from exhaustion and the lack of food and water. The search for the Waltz’s mine was abandoned and the three returned to Phoenix defeated and unsuccessful. A local newspaper, the Arizona Weekly Gazette, noted the expedition with the following excerpt on September 1, 1892, “A Queer Quest, Another Lost Mine Being Hunted By A Woman.”

This prospecting venture reduced Julia Thomas to financial ruin. She and the Petraschs were in a somewhat destitute situation with no source of income or a place to reside. Julia soon parted company with the Petraschs and married a farm laborer named Albert Schaffer on July 26, 1893.

At Schaffer’s encouragement, Julia produced maps with what information she could  remember. She became very resourceful and began producing excellent maps illustrating how to locate the lost gold mine of Jacob Waltz. These fraudulent sheets of paper were probably the first maps to the Dutchman’s Lost Mine.

I love that there is no known picture of Waltz, but a large collection of pictures that could be him. I love that there is not one map, but loads of them. Here they are collected in the Superstition Mountain Museum (so worth a visit if you are in the area, words can’t describe it, and there are even more maps on another wall):

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They are drawn on paper, and incised into clay with sections that are removable like so many mythical map halves to buried treasure.

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Eppinga’s book is quite an amazing collection of  photographs with detailed captions as are most of the ‘Images of America’ series, but there is less introduction here than in others and some of the captions a little repetitive. I wished it had been a little more chronological, instead it jumps around though the content is essentially all the same whether placed in chapters titled ‘Coronado’s Children’ or ‘Miners and Madmen’. There is page after page of weathered old men (and one or two women) who walked the Superstition mountains in search of gold.

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The second murder came in 1931, when another German immigrant went missing. The elderly Adolph Ruth was working off a map received from his son Erwin. According to the book Erwin had been fired from a car-dealership in Texas, worked for the Mexican President eradicating ticks, met a guy named Gonzalez in prison and helped his family across the border. All that resulting in possession of a treasure map. Everything about these stories is hard to believe. Still, an archaeological expedition found his father’s skull a good distance from the body, and the forensic expert stated the hole through it was caused by a bullet from a high-powered gun.

In the 1950s a feud broke out between rival claimants and treasure seekers: Eddie Piper and his army vs Celeste Jones and hers. Amazingly, Celeste Jones was a second African American woman braving the desert and some really crazy white guys to find the Lost Dutchman’s mine, resulting in a fairly brilliant article from Ebony that you can read here. It throws in another popular legend of the mine’s Spanish origins, whereby its initial discovery was by a young Mexican ‘lover’ (Peralta) fleeing his sweetheart’s father who stumbles upon the mine and then he and others returning with him to get the gold are murdered by Apaches. Two boys escaped from the massacre, and were in turn murdered by Waltz.

That’s ancient, and like all of it, quite dubious history. An alternative history from Celeste Jones holds that the gold they sought had been hidden by Jesuit priests in the late 1700s. Real and sordid history? Three more men were killed in 1959 as part of this continuing feud over the gold. The book contains a few pictures of the armies but doesn’t discuss the racial politics (three of Celeste’s soldiers are clearly Mexican (though unnamed), unlike Bill Pipers crew — their names are all known, a microcosm of western historiography). After the murders Eddie Piper died of cancer and Celeste Jones disappeared — perhaps back to L.A. to continue her stated career of opera singer.

I’m so curious to know more about Celeste.

Then there is Robert Simpson Jacob, aka Crazy Jake. His list of crimes include: fraudulent mining securities, prostition and white slavery, pornography, narcotics, extortion, animal cruelty, and income tax invasion’ (42). He was selling shares in a fake company after having claimed to have found the Lost Dutchman, in 1986 he was convicted of fraud.

pbkelyClearly the only fortunes to have been made in these mountains have been those emerging from myth-creation. There is a most impressive chronology/bibliography of the Lost Dutchman Mine to be found here of what must be several hundred titles. This also seems to explain the large number of dubious maps that have never shown the way to anything. It is a puzzling thing, this proliferation of drawings to nowhere. I have never seen anything like it.

LustforgoldposterThe most successful myth-maker was probably author John Clemson, aka Barry Storm, who filed claims in the mountains, took down oral histories, and also wrote Thunder Gods Gold in 1945 (among other books cashing in on these stories). It was made into the film Lust for Gold starring Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford. Obviously only very loosely  based on the story of the Lost Dutchman, but I’m looking forward to watching it.

Eppinga’s book has a section on the Dons founded by Oren Arnold in 1934. Another successful cashing in on the legend through the writing of pamphlets and the creation of a historical society created to keep alive the myths of the Lost Dutchman in which white couples dressed in traditional Spanish clothing, called themselves the Dons and Doñas, and went on a yearly picnic and treasure hunt.

Definitely a slappable offense.

There’s a chapter as well on building the Apache Trail (this title is also a slappable offense, given whites killed most of the Apaches and took this land) and Roosevelt Dam. A final chapter on the Superstition Mountain Historical Society and Museum. More on the Apache Trail later, but here are some final pictures of the beautiful Superstitions:

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For more on mining…

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Taliesin West: Architecture in the Desert 1

First the nuts and bolts: Frank Lloyd Wright began building Taliesin West in the Scottsdale desert east of Phoenix, AZ in 1937 after his doctor sent him to winter out west for his health. Like the Great Depression wasn’t happening. It was thus built as a seasonal complement to Taliesin East in Wisconsin, and Wright continued work on it every winter until his death in 1959.

The first three years Wright spent the winter living in a tent on the site. His many apprentices as part of the Taliesin Fellowship lived in their own tents, and constructed the building under Wright’s direction. The massive volcanic rocks found on the site and used in constructing the walls were labeled depending on size as one-apprentice, two-apprentice, three-apprentice, four.

Sometimes five.

It could not have been easy to be an apprentice. The two primary impressions I carried away with me: an amazing moulding (if not micromanaging) of space, and arrogance.

Above all is its horizontality, emphasized through building shape and the use of lines running at the same elevation throughout. They are best seen on the vault — an archive room for all of Wright’s work and built to mirror the mountains — but you can see them appear in almost every picture.

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This is one of the unifying features, a second comes from one of the petroglyphs found on the property (moved to become decorational of course, as white people did in those days). What Wright saw as two hands interlocked in friendship:

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This can be seen at the entrance, and branded throughout, particularly in the fairly splendid gift shop:

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What I liked: the mastery over space. The low ceilings of anterooms that carried you through them quickly, allowed you to feel a great opening up as you entered the main room. The way that he created walls and corners that invited you to explore, hid the full expanse of a room then channeled you through space to experience it fully.

The counter to this? His management of your experience. Inconsiderateness too, as one of those compressed spaces designed to be uncomfortable as it leads you to the office where he worked to impress clients was also the workspace of his secretary. I suppose the effect changes if you are seated?

The height of everything was also absurdly low, I can’t imagine my brother getting through this place unscathed at 6’6″. I am enjoying imagining him seated on the low chairs resting his chin on his knees. Wright claimed he was 5’8″ but was probably 5’6″, and this might explain it all.

Every year the apprentices had to move all of the furniture into the ‘kiva’ (god I hate appropriations of native culture), including at least one piano. Playful twisting entries must have become genuine nightmares.

I loved what he did with light, diffusing it through the room, infusing the space evenly so as not cast shadows on blueprints and drawings. He achieved this through the use of canvas as a ceiling, clerestory windows, recessed lights, floor lights (supposedly invented as Wright loved films and hated ushers using flashlights to help late patrons find their seats). The light was perfect.

Those canvas ceilings however? Every year the apprentices had to take them down and store them after removing absolutely everything from the rooms. Upon their return the following winter, the canvas had to be soaked and restretched. They leaked in the winter rains.

The walls…I didn’t like them initially and on a large scale I am still not too much of a fan. After studying them from within the rooms, however, I did grow to like them more. They were placed with care and artistry. Dark and rounded stones from the bed of a nearby wash complement the large volcanic rocks in shades of ochre, grey and black.

Still, they must have been awash with scorpions and other insect and reptile life. I’d love to have gone over them with a black light back in the first six to seven years of the buildings’ life when the third wife had not yet won her epic battle for the installation of glass windows. The rocks cemented in place with multiple nooks and crannies were perfect for them. I grew up in a never-finished home in the Sonoran desert with little separation between inside and outside. I loved the lizards, liked the snakes, groaned every time we had to chase the tarantulas outside with a broom (or if they were being insistent catch them in the little trash can and take them for a longer walk), and hated the scorpions (I was stung twice and it hurts) and the wide array of other stinging biting things. Especially verdugo bugs that suck your blood and raise welts.  Every morning we fished various large insects from the bath tub. The amazing insectile life attracted to even a single light in the evenings are almost certainly not things you’d want to live with.

Inside/outside is no joke, and screened porches the best of inventions. Still, I like some playfulness with that idea, and love that you can see the mountains through the buildings:

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The cold is no joke either. We had no heat growing up, just a little wall heater about a foot high in the bathroom that would warm you one section at a time. Nights regularly get down to freezing in the winter and I know it’s not Minnesota but still, no windows? The most enormous fireplaces I have ever seen in my life (and that includes a hell of a lot of medieval castles)…where did the wood come from?

Apprentices I guess. It’s no surprise his widow installed heating just after he died.

I did like his attempt to avoid framing space to create a structural distinction between inside and outside when the glass was finally installed. On reflection I imagine it was the desert wildlife and rain rather than his wife that probably won that battle. He seemed a very stubborn man.

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I almost admired his tenacity over views. When he returned one winter to find that powerlines had gone up between Taliesin and the mountains to the southwest, he wrote to absolutely everyone to get rid of them — and not these big modern powerlines of the picture below, but the little dinky old-school ones stretching from the wooden posts.

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He wrote letters to the governor and to President Truman. When they didn’t come through he changed the orientation of the whole complex to focus on the mountains immediately behind them to the north and east, moving the kitchen, closing off an open area with a wall that shielded his guests from the horrors of modernity.

His guests were of the best, of course. Every Sunday he and his wife held formal black-tie affairs, catering to as many of the elite as they could entice to make the long drive.

He also refused to let his wife plant citrus trees. Again, he cared more for the views.

I think what troubled me most was that despite Wright’s insistence on natural materials found in the area, despite this house being designed for the desert, it fails to be an ecological house in a number of ways. I was a little troubled by his rejection of European architecture while embracing a strange orientalism to transplant here — both in the Chinese porcelain theatre scenes scattered at transition points throughout:

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As well as in a number of other elements:

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Despite this, it still feels to me like the midwest transplanted. Adobe walls work so much better than stone and concrete to insulate rooms, both for summer and for winter. There was some talk of passive solar using concrete floors and such, but with so many completely open spaces (particularly before the glass was put in), and these walls, the inefficiency of giant fireplaces and no wood stoves…cold. That place must have been so cold.

He also built this house thinking there was no water on the property. They brought it all in on a flatbed truck making weekly trips. Both crazy and unsustainable. They’re lucky they drilled and actually found plentiful water, but they created a landscape that hardly blends with the environment, though I’ll admit its usefulness in case of fire and to soak the canvas ceilings. The grass might have been a nod to the families with young children, but this isn’t precisely a good area for playing in:

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I do really love this door, the use of this splendid boulder. In every Wright house I’ve visited there are always places and views I truly love.The interiors especially, and the large living room and office and workspace for the apprentices were no exceptions to this (though I couldn’t take pictures).

I loved the performance spaces as well, the large theatre and the cabaret. I enjoyed his mastery of accoustics and the amazing sound of a tiny music box when amplified by the recess containing the piano. It was probably his favourite parlour trick.

I was horrified that all of his apprentices had to perform.

I kept thinking this house must have been impossible to keep up, kept remembering that with his apprentices Wright had a small army to do so. While my heart consistently bled for the apprentices, this brings me to the final thing I really did like about this place — its role as both a workplace and living space, a laboratory, a community. A place to learn by doing. It must have been an amazing experience, although a very difficult one that I doubt my temperament would have allowed me to participate in. Still, it must have been most rewarding for those who did, and many have stayed on. They certainly earned their places.

A few more views of the things I did really like, despite all the critiques:

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Other Architecture in the Desert posts:
ArcosantiBefore ‘Architects’ | Mining Zombies, Cadavers and Ghosts

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Picacho Peak, Rinches and the Civil War

This is one of the places I have always driven past, never actually been too, yet has always been a marker so eagerly looked for.  The distinctive peak can be seen heading both ways on the I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, but my favourite sights of it have always been when it’s telling us we’re almost home.

It was cool to see it from the desert instead, across the biggest saguaro ocean I have seen:

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I never realised how this same peak had marked space for so many others through the past centuries…must have been so much more important through past centuries. Imagine the relief traveling cross-country when it finally came into view and you knew you were on the right trail through these thousands of miles of desert.

This lovely little resume is from Arizona State Parks: The Beginning by Charles B. Eatherly:

The unique shape of the 1,500-foot Picacho Peak has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times. One of the first recordings was in the 1700’s by the Anza Expedition as it passed through the area.

In 1848, the Mormon Battalion constructed a wagon road through Picacho Pass. The forty-niners on their way to California used this road. In the late 1850’s the Butterfield Overland Stage was carrying passengers through this area. Picacho Peak’s most noted historic event occurred on April 15, 1862, when Confederate and Union scouting parties met in the Battle of Picacho Pass during the Civil War. This was the largest Civil War clash to take place in Arizona.

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I never knew there was a Civil War battle fought here. The Arizona Rangers were on the side of the Confederacy I believe, given the flag flying above the monument they raised.

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A good reminder of history and the role the frontier areas played in the racial oppressions of slavery…and apparently proud of it. Of course in old corridos, Rangers are los rinches, and always bad guys. They were part of the anglo land grab, enforcing the transfer of claims from Mexicans and Native Americans, and rinches were used to break up the cowboy strike of 1883. It’s hardly surprising they’d chose the side they did.

Here’s more on the Confederate Rangers and the godforsaken idea of the ‘ocean-to-ocean’ Confederacy:

In February 1862, a band of Confederate Rangers under Capt. Sherod Hunter raised the Stars and Bars of Tucson, Arizona, part of an effort to create an ocean-to-ocean Confederacy.  In order to thwart this move, a Union “Column from California” under Col. James H. Carleton set out across the lonely desert toward Tucson.  On April 15, Union cavalry under Lt. James Barrett met with Confederate Rangers near Picacho Peak, a rocky spire 50 miles northwest of Tucson.  Barrett was killed almost immediately and fierce combat continued for more than an hour before the Federals retreated.  Although the Rangers’ victory at Picacho Pass delayed the Union force, the following month Carleton’s Californian’s eventually took Tucson without firing a shot.

They do a reenactment now every year I am told. Luckily we missed that.

We got in just at sunset — a bad time of day to capture the massive face of Picacho Peak itself sitting in deep shadow, but very beautiful climbing up and looking out over the desert:
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Picacho Peak remains in my memory for one other reason, as the first place I ever saw a porn magazine. They were just sitting stacked up on a shelf at the perfect kid eye level in the little store there we’d stopped at to get water or something once. It was a funny little fake-tudor place that is now just a heap of beams and rubble though the sign is still there (you can see it on the far right, I didn’t manage a shot of the ruin). The tradition of smut continues however:  IMG_0709
The Ostrich Ranch has been a fixture for years as well (1999). I love that it’s the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch — don’t know how happy John Wayne would have been of course…  IMG_0710

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Ironwood Forest National Monument

Round and about Ragged Top:

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Seven Falls

Seven Falls, oasis in the desert.

IMG_0088You can see a person in the picture for scale if you look hard enough. There were a lot of people on the trail sadly, probably walking off immense dinners like us.

We escaped to Sabino Canyon all the time when I was little, a long drive and then a short enough walk you could (well, my mum and dad could) carry an ice chest, we’d bring food to barbecue and swim in the stream. We knew all the deepest holes, the best places to slide down rocks. I don’t think we made it up Bear Canyon until I was older, high school maybe. Plenty of hiking to do around our own house, though no waterfalls.

Still, it’s one of those places I have layers of memories for. Some aren’t even mine, like my brother’s friend getting airlifted out after casually reaching for a football they’d been throwing around in one of the pools and getting caught in the undertow and sucked over one of the falls.

My own fiercest memory is of hiking it after getting bitten on the thigh by something I never saw (never be lazy and leave your jeans on the floor, never, I know this). I hiked up here about three days after, when my leg was aching and the bruised area around the bite still expanding. With my flesh turning black and liquifying, it was definitely a spider. Not as bad as many I’ve seen, so I was lucky.  Still, I have memories of that ache, remembered a stretch or two where I had been sure I wouldn’t make it. I made it. I was a lot prouder and stupider in those days.

My favourite memory is walking along the banks beneath the mesquites, the air full of the smell of sage, my mum and dad hand in hand somewhere behind me.

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This last trip was just beautiful, though so cold — snow on the Rincons, and ice on the puddles. The water was higher than I ever remember it, and I forgot just how many times the trail crosses it (seven), balanced precariously on stones. There was a bit of jumping. I loved it, loved seeing the desert so lush and knowing the wildflowers will be probably be absolutely gorgeous this spring, though I won’t be there to see them.

My partner had a hard time calling this desert.

There was a sliver of silver moon above us the whole afternoon, and my camera mostly loved the contrasts between light and shadow. But for the falls themselves it made the pictures less than what I was hoping for…
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