Quartzsite: Boondocking bonanza or land of broken dreams?

We first heard about Quartzsite from a couple of brothers we met while traveling through British Columbia last year. They spend their summers working for one of the provincial parks and their winters boondocking in southern Arizona. They appeared to be in their 60’s, in good health and good spirits; far from destitute or desperate.  Reading between the lines, it seemed that although they did not have a robust revenue stream, they had options and their ability to live and work outdoors was a healthy and desirable one.

We read a little more about Quartzsite and were curious to check it out for ourselves.  In and around Quartzsite there are thousands of acres of land belonging to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have been designated as Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTV).

Boondocking on BLM lands is common in the United States – there are no facilities and there is no charge.  To make the distinction, boondocking on LTV lands is set up in Quartzsite to allow for the demand. It requires a permit, charges a fee and offers minimal facilities such as a dump station, water fill-up, trash dumpsters and a few toilets.

Fees are ridiculously inexpensive; one can camp for seven months for $180; the land is open from September 15 to April 15.  Since we were there for just four nights, we paid the minimum charge of $40 (for a max. 2-week stay). It is a democratic system; there are no assigned spaces – you drive into the desert and pick a spot. As someone told us, “If you don’t like your  neighbour, you just move.”

Here, our cozy space, tucked in beside a dry creek.

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We arrived at Quartzite last week, just as the winter season was drawing to a close. At the height of the season (November, December, January, February), there are hundreds of thousands of RVs staked out in the desert. Estimates have reached as high as 500,000.  By mid-March, the desert clears out considerably, as normally the day-time temps would be getting uncomfortably hot. This year, with much of Arizona being colder and wetter than usual, we just experienced mid-80s, but such an intense sun.

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Cyclists, hikers and dog walkers are here to take advantage of the trails that circle the area. Off-roading is hugely popular – dozens of ATVs ride up into the mountains and are gone for hours. Surprisingly, we found it extremely quiet – the only noise was one generator in our area; and it ran for just two hours every afternoon. I’m sure it is a different scene in mid-January.

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So, while we enjoyed our space and privacy, we also did not get a true picture of the community of Quartzsite during its peak.

Tens of thousands of people are drawn to the area to attend numerous events such as the Gem and Mineral Show, the RV Show and the ongoing swap meet.  The swap meet is famous – vendors come from all over to sell everything from jewellery to socks to RV parts to antiques. It’s a five-month garage sale.  By the time we arrived in mid-March, many of the stalls had packed up; all that was left was the junk that nobody wanted. We could have picked up cookies for 50 cents, but their best-before date was September 2018.

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Buying things is a major pastime here, but if shopping is not your thing, every day offers activities from Spanish lessons to line dance to pickle ball. Although it is most definitely not our scene, we could see the attraction for snowbirds. Quartzite is affordable, warmer than wherever you live up north and has a built-in community.

This is also the place to find spare parts of your RV, or tend to those pesky housekeeping issues you’ve been putting off.

We were struck by this sign (a multi-generational business, no less), and wondered what essential maintenance we may be neglecting with our own rig.

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Quartzsite is not pretty; the entrance sign is the most attractive part of the town.

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Camels? Why yes. Back in 1855, Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy) hatched the idea of importing and dispatching camels to build a wagon road through the Southwest. After 77 camels were brought to Texas, they needed actual camel drivers. Philip Tedro, (who was born a Greek in Syria, and later converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali) was their main man. He became known as Hi Jolly since no-one could pronounce his name. By all accounts the camels were a great success. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out, the camel project was abandoned and some were sold, but the rest escaped into the wild.

This colourful tale is related on a plaque in the Hi Jolly cemetery, named in honour of the famed camel driver.

Hi Jolly’s tomb

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There is very little to do in town – a scattering of fast-food restaurants, some dollar stores,  and a little library. Off-season, it becomes a sleepy, dusty town.

Since there is not so much as a creek within many miles of town, we wondered about this restaurant (which now appears to be closed.)

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Back in the late ’70s, a local businessman decided that a little humour and business savvy was needed and revived an old bar, renaming it the Quartzsite Yacht Club. His motto was “long time, no sea.”  He worked around the obvious water challenges by offering a one-time membership fee of $49.99 (which would be reciprocal at other yacht clubs in the world), and it took off. Memberships sold like hot cakes (over 10,000 memberships), and his restaurant was a success.

After driving around town for a bit, the inspiration for this ice cream parlour became a bit clearer.

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We wandered around some of the outdoor stalls. Rumour had it there is a naked bookseller in Quartzite, but we didn’t run across him.

We did see piles and piles of T-shirts. There are clever, funny and thought-provoking message T-shirts on the market, but there are just as many that are crude, vulgar and cretinous and they always makes me wonder: Who makes these shirts? Who buys these shirts? Who wears these shirts?

You remember the popularity of T-shirts with messages like, “Gas Tank for a Sex Machine” (to be stretched over a bulging male belly, with an arrow pointing southward, in case the meaning was lost). Another shirt that made the rounds was, “I’m with Stupid” (again with an arrow pointing sideways, which would require a little thoughtfulness –  “Stupid” would need to be walking on the appropriate side).

Well, in these  dark days when thoughtlessness is celebrated – even “The Stupids” have packed it in.

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We wished we had come to Quartzsite a month earlier to experience it properly. As it was, our time there was conflicted and nothing as we had imagined it to be.

We were not surprised to see Trump flags – this one flew on a jewellery store.

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But we were very surprised to see Trump flags flying on RVs, camped out in the desert.  As Canadians, it is not always easy to understand the American obsession with flying flags of any stripe – we don’t tend to be flag-wavers. But somehow flying a Trump flag at a campground feels like an aggressive act, ” He’s my Man. Make America Great Again. Build the Wall. YEAH!!!”  Stephen thinks I’m over-reacting.

But I was not over-reacting to seeing a Confederate flag flying. Now, it was only one flag, but it is such a controversial statement to make that it was hard to ignore.

And possibly, because the crowds had thinned out so much, we really noticed the poverty.  An older man had pitched a tent in the gully just down from us. He spent a lot of time sitting in his small car, and from time to time would make the slow shuffle down the road to the toilet. It was cold at night, he was alone and we wondered what he ate. We saw what his life looked like now – what would become of him in a few years, or when his health gave out? Would someone find him in his tent one day?

There were a number of old RVs that were barely road-worthy; someone’s home until the mold or the mechanics claimed them and left their owners homeless. We saw people sleeping in their cars, with makeshift shelters.

I had romanticized Quartzsite before we arrived. I appreciated the idea that a low-income person could live a life of greater choice and dignity here than in a room up north. To a point that may be true, but a 60-year-old travelling in an old camper is still just one health crisis away from being in a very dire situation.

There are tens of thousands of people who come to Quartzsite, enjoy the activities and the community and take the best of it away with them. At the height of the season, we can appreciate that attraction to the area.  That side of Quartzsite – people with mobility, financial comfort and choice –  is every bit as valid as the fact that there are nonetheless a good number of people who live here as a refuge. That disparity may have been more obvious to us at this time of year, with so many of the snowbirds gone.

Driving one of the world’s “dangerous roads.”

Driving the Apache Trail was high on our list of  must-do Arizona activities.  This twisty hairpin road, billed as “best scenic drive in Arizona” was originally a stagecoach route called the Tonto Wagon Trail.  You tend to think of things like stagecoaches when you’re in southern Arizona; it is a state that straddles the past and the present. I’m trying to imagine the fortitude required to be on a stagecoach under any circumstances, but bumping along over a narrow rutted mountain road, roasting in my muslin dress and bonnet, hanging on to a child or two and hoping those spindly wooden wagon wheels are up to the task is beyond my scope.

We were lucky to find a campsite at the very popular Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction; a last-minute cancellation of 4 nights that we gratefully snapped up. Our preferred method of travel – poke along as we like, with detours along the way – does not work well in most parts of the United States and probably not in Canada, either. Campsites in state and national parks are booked months in advance and unless you are willing to play the last-minute game, hoping for cancellations – you are out of luck.

We scored a beautiful spot, with a view of Superstition Mountain.

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Lost Dutchman State Park is filled with hiking trails, but unfortunately for us, weather was not on our side. We had a day and a half of significant rainfall and high winds, so we fit in short walks between rain and dug in with our books.

One night there was a forecast of thunderstorms, but aside from a few half-hearted claps, that never materialized. I LOVE a good thunderstorm; something that is quite rare on the west coast.

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Apache Junction has a number of  wild west tourist attractions, including a reconstructed ghost town, which did not appeal to us.

We saw this sign on a restaurant called The Hitching Post, not far from our campground. At first I thought it was a cheeky anti-Wall statement, but now I’m not so sure – it’s up to interpretation.

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So, back to our reason for being here – The Apache Trail. On our last day, the rain had finally stopped and it dawned clear and bright. Since we were warned there were a number of washes and dips on the road that were subject to flash floods, we wondered if we might encounter difficulties. The ranger seemed concerned; with  a scrunched-up face and a worried comment about cars floating if there was more than four inches of water on the tires, we weren’t reassured. She also wondered about the state of the dirt road after so much rain, which “tends to turn to muck, and you might need a 4WD. It is up to your discretion.”

It hadn’t helped that in my research, I came upon a reference to The Apache Trail on dangerous roads.org  that described the road  as being: “a true test of your vehicle as the road abounds in twists and turns with wheels sometimes hanging above the precipice.”

What??? Wheels hanging over the precipice? Car floating away in four inches of water?

No, we chose to listen to this lofty description, written in Literary Digest, Nov. 18, 1916:

“No traveler to or from California should miss the marvellous trip over the Apache Trail. This magic pathway, which up to a few years ago could be explored only by the hardiest adventurer, now lies open to the casual visitor….

The beginning of The Apache Trail, also known as Hwy. 88. So far, so good.

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A little further along and we reach the first stop – Tortilla Flat. The manager of the restaurant (“we’re not open yet“) was also unhelpful about the state of the road after the rain. “I don’t know, I never go that way. ” 

Well, we were still on pavement and that water was no more than a couple of inches deep, so we carried on. If we had to turn around at some point, we would do that.

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A gorgeous day, hardly a soul on the road and once the dirt road began, we knew we had 22 miles before we hit pavement again. We decided to take it nice and slow – about 10mph and just enjoy the views.

The dirt road was hard-pack and easy to drive and the colours were so vivid because of the rain. There was grass everywhere in the desert; normally unheard of this time of year.

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This road really does live up to its reputation as one of Arizona’s most scenic rides. The mountain ranges unfold and we  pulled over frequently for photos and a better view.

There are three lakes on the Trail, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake.  We stopped first at Canyon Lake.

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One section of the road, called Fish Creek Hill, is probably the part that gives Apache Trail its reputation. The road is a narrow one-way, which might make for interesting maneuvering if you meet someone on the way up ( we didn’t.) The hard-pack on this stretch had more of a rutted and potholed surface, which required a very slow and careful descent.

If you notice the guardrail, it appears to made out of plastic and would be entirely ineffective in preventing a plunge to the valley floor below. You wouldn’t even find this in Mexico.

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Still descending to the lower level. The shiny patch on the rocks is a waterfall during the rainy season. We met up with two women who live in the area and had pulled over to the side at the bottom of the hill. We stopped to ask them if they were okay and they looked so surprised by our question. They drive this trail all the time and were disappointed that there was no waterfall to speak of. A little rain was no deterrent for them.

I’m not going to lie to you – I was not entirely comfortable on this stretch of the trail. But “not entirely comfortable” is not even close to being frightened or nervous. Although this road had plenty of hairpin turns, none of them came close to causing our wheels to  “hang above the precipice”.

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We talked to someone about the Apache Trail, and he seemed incredulous. “That road is not dangerous unless you’re an idiot. You’ve got to go slow.” Not being an idiot really does count as a notable life lesson, not just on twisty mountain roads.

There were a number of single-lane bridges, and this was the only place on the Trail where we encountered mucky conditions.

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The creek below:

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For quite a while we drove alongside the river, fairly flat and so pretty.

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And finally, we ended at Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam was started in 1903 and finished in 1911. It was the largest stone dam in the world at the time.

Between 1989 and 1996, the dam was raised by 77 feet to accommodate increased demand and prevent flooding.

Interesting fact – a family of four uses 325, 851 gallons of water in just one year.

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While we were there, we had the added excitement of watching a helicopter take off from the base of the dam.

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I’m adding this photo for no good reason other than I used to love seeing Smokey the Bear on TV when I was a kid. Steve was curious about my interest (and yours) in this hard-working bare-chested ranger, but all these decades later, this friendly mascot is still warning us that  “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

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We did not have the chance to drive over Roosevelt Lake Bridge, but it is notable for being the longest 2-lane, single-span steel arch bridge in North America. Plus, they painted it light blue to blend better with its background.

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We had the option of turning around here and driving back from whence we came, or  driving a loop on a divided paved highway back to Apache Junction. We chose the latter.

All in all, a memorable drive and a good lesson not to believe everything you read.

Now, we’re in Quartzite and this is an entirely different experience. So much to tell you in a few days.

In the Magical Land of the Standing Up Rocks

Twenty-seven million years ago, eruptions from the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed ash over 3100 sq. km. in this area or the Chiricahua Mountains and created layers of grey rock called rhyolite. Weathering by ice and water erosion enlarged cracks and formed spires and balancing rocks.

The Chiricahua Apache called them “standing up rocks” – a perfectly apt description.

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This unique and stunningly beautiful landscape is also the result of four ecosystems meeting – the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains.

What is now called the Chiricahua National Monument was established in 1924 to protect the pinnacles.

We learned about the importance of the CCC in the creation and early preservation of many of the U.S.’s National Parks, including Chiricahua.

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As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was launched in 1933 and enlisted 3.4 million young men who were out of work and hit hard by The Great Depression. The CCC also offered classroom instruction for those who could not read or write. They were taught carpentry, plumbing and other important skills. They were housed, fed and given clothing, and were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to their families. The CCC was disbanded with the outbreak of World War II, which sent the workers into military service.

One young man said, “you cannot express in words how much the Three C’s meant to a bunch of boys out of work and with no jobs. To me, I will always have wonderful thoughts and memories.”

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We had the great fortune of running into a park ranger on one of our hikes. She could have had a pleasant chat with us and continued on her way, but to our delight, she  walked alongside us for a number of miles. We picked up a couple of other hikers along the way who were also very interested in her ongoing interpretation. How lucky for us – we had no idea of what we were seeing; how often do you get your very own Park Ranger along on a hike?

Our new friend Helen, who was out hiking on her day off. How many people do you know who go into the office on their free time – for fun?

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Helen is passionate about her life’s work, but ongoing funding challenges have slashed ranger jobs for years. She and her husband have worked at parks all over the country; moving about as suitable positions became available. 

It made me think about the contrast between the  CCC in the ’30s and the current state of the Parks system in both Canada and the U.S.  For so many years now, funding has been  an issue, and yet attendance and interest in our parks is at an all-time high.

We love our parks and we want them to be available for our grandchildren. We want to continue to book our campsites and go on hikes and attend interpretive talks. It seems only fair that we hire enough rangers and then compensate them with well-paid secure employment.

So…back to our hike with Helen. As we walked, she pointed out so many things. “Listen to that call – I love it – the canyon wren – they sound like they’re laughing.”   Now I know – I’ve heard the canyon wren a couple of times since then.

We began to notice evidence of a forest fire, and Helen told us it happened in 2011 – they believe it was human caused, possibly migrants who had built a fire for warmth and did not put it out properly.

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She told us about the importance of stemming the growth of invasive plants and how they upset the ecosystem – one of the many duties park rangers do in the course of a day.

Some images from our hike:

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A lookout that gave us a glimpse to the snow-capped mountain range just beyond.
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One of the many balancing rocks in the area. Helen assured us these giants were not going anywhere.
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An area of the mountains called “The Grotto”

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Just to back up a bit, the Chiricahua National Monument is in the far southeastern corner of Arizona – almost to the New Mexico border.  As we drove toward our campground, the landscape gave little clue as to what lay ahead.

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Just outside the turnoff to our campground, we got our first clue:

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The Bonita Canyon Campground was beautifully situated, with lots of space between campsites and a number of small trails leading right from the campground. For the first time since we’ve bene camping in Arizona, we were warned about wild animals (bears, mountain lions) and each campsite was equipped with a bear locker.

There are also coatimundi in the area. Nope, we had never heard of them either, but our very chatty little neighbour Olivia had apparently seen a whole family of them while out hiking with her family. They are a member of the raccoon family, or as Helen put it, “what happens when you cross a lemur with an anteater.”

We didn’t see the elusive coatimundi, but this stock photo will give you an idea of what they look like.

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What we did see were these delightful birds – the Mexican jay. Unlike their bossy, squawky cousins, these birds are pretty, graceful and relatively quiet. They welcomed us when we arrived; swooping and soaring around the trees and picnic table as we set up. I suspect they have been fed in the past.

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A short, but very sweet side trip to a beautiful part of Arizona. We would have stayed longer, but once again had to flee a forecast of snow. At an elevation of 6800 feet in the Chiricahuas, we have been reminded that north, south, east and west in Arizona don’t really guarantee weather – it is the elevation that can turn rain into snow. It is making for an interesting hopscotch across the state.

From shoot-outs to sandhill cranes to spelunking

There are numerous tourist sites within an hour’s drive of Bisbee; all of them uniquely fascinating.

We began with Tombstone; a small town that has developed into a walloping tourist destination by  capitalizing on the infamous Shootout at the OK Corral.  This gunfight took place on October 26, 1881; a showdown over control of Tombstone between the “good guys”  –  The Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday and the “bad guys”  – the Clantons and the McLaurys. When the dust settled, and the dead and wounded were accounted for, only Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.

The re-enactment of this infamous duel is held three times a day and yes, it is hokey, but still lots of fun.

The crowd was warmed up by an actor who instructed us to  clap for the good guys and boo the bad guys. And then the fun began. Good guys entered – yay!

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Followed by the bad guys – boo!

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After much posturing and yelling, the gunfight broke out.

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It didn’t end well.

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After the show, we were encouraged to have photo ops with the actors. Since the lineup for the bad guys was far shorter than for Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, I chose the latter, including the actor who had miraculously risen from the dead.

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We were told at the Visitor Centre that there are more actors per capita in Tombstone than in L.A. With a 2019 census of 1, 380, that may well be true. The town is crawling with emoting thespians in period costume – prostitutes, gunslingers and stagecoach drivers.
This stagecoach is a replica:

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This stagecoach is one of the originals – less spacious and comfortable, but still road-worthy and drawn by burros.

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The main street of Tombstone is lined with shops selling cowboy boots, gaucho pants and all manner of western gear. The selection of saloons/restaurants offers interchangeable and mainly mediocre menus of beef and starch – tourists aren’t here for the food.

Off the main street are a number of pretty residential streets and elegant municipal buildings, including the court house.

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Tourism has revived this town and pumped up lots of peripheral businesses. We passed by this saloon that was populated by present-day characters who could well have been out of Central Casting.

Aging Outlaw Biker with impressive mutton-chops and nothing to prove.
Barbecue King who just smoked 30 pounds of ribs and enjoys his own cooking.

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All in all, a fun day in the Wild West.

On to the impressive sight of 20,000 migrating sandhill cranes. We would not have known about this phenomenon but for a fellow camper. This is where travelling without a (firm) plan works well. Our new friend Jan insisted we find our way to Whitewater Draw  Wildlife Area to have an up-close-and-personal encounter with sandhill cranes that have flown south from Siberia and Alaska for the winter.  Ideally, one would rise before dawn to watch  tens of thousands of birds rise from the shallow waters to fly north to Willcox (about 60 miles away) to feed. The sight and sounds of these birds flying en masse is a memorable one, but…we slept in.

We arrived at Whitewater Draw at about 11:00 a.m. – plenty of time to set ourselves up and watch the cranes as they returned again. We were part of a festive atmosphere as fellow birders joined our group, and then…the first few groups appeared on the horizon – squawking pterodactyls with charcoal wingspan and spindly extended legs.

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As more and more  cranes arrived and as they swooped and soared before landing, we wondered how they avoided calamitous mid-air crashes. These birds are about 3 feet tall, and weigh between seven and eleven pounds. At times, there were hundreds of birds in the air.

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Sandhill cranes have a distinctive appearance – downy grey feathers and a tuft of red around their eyes.

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Snow geese are another species of migratory bird that can be found in this marsh and they seem to co-exist with the cranes very peacefully.

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One reason why this area has become such an important migratory stop is the vast marsh. The birds spend the night in the water, to evade predators like coyotes. They fly to a nearby area each morning, which provides reliable feed in the harvested grain fields.

As thrilling as this experience was, it was another opportunity missed.  If we were serious birders and had binoculars, we would have picked off several other species, including pintails, quail, teals, heron, ibis, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers and blackbirds.

We did see this handsome Big-Horned Owl in the barn by the parking lot. He was positioned on one end of the barn,  keeping a very watchful gaze on his partner on the other end, her ears barely visible above her nest.

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And finally – spelunking. This is an activity I cannot imagine – willfully inserting your body into tiny passages underground and then inching forward, with no idea when or if your body-width tunnel will open up into a  room. You have a head lamp for light – otherwise you are in complete darkness. You may come face to face with rats. You have no guarantee you won’t get stuck in your tunnel. Why would you do this?

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In November 1974, 19-year-old Gary Tenens and 20-year-old Randy Tufts discovered an “exhale”  (gas) through a grapefruit-sized opening in the limestone hills of Whetstone Mountain. The hill to the right is where they made their discovery.
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After a couple of explorations into the cave, they finally crawled into what is known today as “The Big Room.” They were so stunned by their discovery they just “sat and giggled.”

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Randy Tufts

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As young as they were, they understood the importance of this living cave and the critical nature of protecting it.

They kept it secret for another four years, as they continued to explore and finally they contacted the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner.  Everything conspired to work in their (and the cavern’s) favour. The Kartchners were keen to protect the cave and the governor of the day, Bruce Babbit, was a geologist. He pushed for appropriate and protected exploration.

On November 5, 1999, Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public. It is carefully managed, with just 500 people allowed in daily. Since we had been in a cave or mine in the past month, Stephen and I had to have our shoes sprayed to guard against White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that kills bats.

We were not allowed to bring in bags, phones, devices, cameras, food or drink. Photos were not permitted, as in the past eager tourists had pushed each other for a good photo, and had done damage to the formations.

We were instructed not to touch any of the walls or formations and if we did, to let the guide know. She would mark the area with tape and the cave crew would come by later to disinfect it.

We were warned that the caverns would be humid and hot and after about a half hour (we were in for one hour), both Stephen and I began to feel quite uncomfortable. We did not want to be the ones to have to be evacuated, but we were both very happy to be out and breathing fresh air again.

The caverns are remarkable because of the story of their discovery and the tremendous effort to keep them pristine, but we were underwhelmed by these caverns.  We had been in caverns in Mexico and in Vietnam that were five times the size and and scope and colour of Kartchner  and we came with the wrong expectations. We thought we would be seeing similar formations.

Still, Kartchner is a remarkable cavern, set in a beautiful state park and is well worth a visit.

Weather is turning again – we are heading east for some mountain hiking, but will keep a keen eye on the forecast – snow by Monday or Tuesday!

See you when we have cell service and wifi once again.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping 900 feet above a copper mine

This open pit copper mine is one of the first things you see as you drive into Bisbee and this is the exact view from our trailer. We do have a 6-foot fence that prevents us from rolling down the hill into the bottom.
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We are camped out at Queen Mine RV Park for a week; this is the only campground in the area that is within walking distance to Bisbee.   It is by far the most unique campground we have found ourselves in so far. The mine operated from 1915 until 1975, when the richest deposits of copper were mined out. What remains is a gigantic multi-coloured gash in the earth – 4000 feet wide, 5000 feet long and 850 feet deep. Each “step” is 50 feet high.
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The view of Bisbee from the front of our campground:

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Bisbee had one of the richest mineral deposits in the world, with eight billion pounds of copper extracted, as well as three million ounces of gold and significant deposits of silver, lead and zinc. We decided it was best to begin our exploration of Bisbee with a tour of the underground mine.

The entrance to the mine is just at the foot of our campground, so we hopped down the hill to put on our “protective” gear before jumping on the train that took us 750 feet underground.

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We were lucky enough to be at the front of the line, so I got the front seat and had a bird’s-eye view.
The entrance to the mine:

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Our 80-year-old guide Benny worked in the mine for over 20 years. He was a knowledgable and humorous guide who told us that at one point he was making $45 a day and at his peak up to $2000 a week with bonuses – big money for the time. “Do I have anything to show for it?,” he asked us. “I’ve been married twice.” Alcohol, as they say, may have been a factor – a coy reference to the hard-working, hard-playing lives of the miners.

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The tour took about an hour as Benny talked about the challenges, dangers and huge discomforts of mining; including the rats that swarmed underground, but were allowed to live as they were the veritable canaries in the coal mine. They would sense tremors and if they started running, it was a clue for the miners to follow suit.

In case you have ever wondered how bathroom needs were handled in an underground mine, Benny and his assistant demonstrated. The two-seater (no men ever sat on the throne at the same time!) was on a short rail and the miner could just crank it down a distance for privacy, then bring it back again for the next person.

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Back up on terra firma, it was time to explore the town. Bisbee is an unusually lovely mining town; there was so much money flowing for so many years that the main buildings were quite ornate and for the most part have been well maintained. Most businesses are set in the flat of the canyon and the houses rise up on the hills. In its heyday, there were over 50 saloons and numerous brothels. We assume the brothels are gone, but there are still a few saloons left from that era.

Built in 1902, St. Elmo is the oldest bar in Arizona. Although patrons are now required to stand outside to smoke and a sign advises that firearms are not permitted, there is a huge whiff of the wild west that lingers. It might have been fun to pop in and soak up the atmosphere, but the stools were filled with bikers (not the respectable kind) who were already partying – we kept walking.

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After the mine closed in Bisbee in the ’70s, the town went into significant decline, but was saved by the influx of artists who were attracted to the beauty of the surroundings, the cheap real estate and the wonderful climate. The population shifted to a more bohemian crowd and has become a magnet for free spirits and independent thinkers.
Businesses are as eclectic as the inhabitants.

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You won’t be in Arizona for long before you’re checking out cowboy boots and a decent custom-made hat.

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While every Bisbee resident we’ve met has been very friendly, there are a number of signs around town that remind you the frontier spirit runs strong – they are not to be messed with.

Duly noted – we will not be climbing over razor wire onto your rooftop.

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Parking in old Bisbee is at a premium, but really – who would park in someone else’s garage?

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A little irony?

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Even the Episcopalian preacher can get a bit touchy over parking.

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Walking in Bisbee is a feast for the eyes – every corner gives you plenty to think about. Gorgeous copper sculptures leading up to a private home.

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An old school that is re-purposed as an art center.

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One of the theatres in town – $5 movies, live performances and vegetarian chili.

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One of Bisbee’s main downtown streets.

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A Bisbee landmark

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Street art in the most literal sense. An entire wall is hung with paintings – most of them with questionable artistic merit.

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There were also a few photographs, including this haunting image. I had heard that the teardrop tattoo speaks of death (either accidental family member or intentional murder).

I really wondered what this complicated tattoo means and what on earth this tortured man had been through.

The more we travel about the U.S. in our trailer, the more I realize how little I know about this world. That may be a sanity-saver.

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Besides seeing delightful scenery and thought-provoking art, a walk in Bisbee will challenge your lungs and legs. As soon as you leave the canyon floor, it is all uphill and most of the winding streets have numerous steep staircases to access from one level to another.

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Every October, Bisbee hosts the Bisbee 1000 – a 4.5 mile event that involves climbing nine staircases up the many twisty roads. We can’t imagine – we were winded after one staircase.

The view is worth it though and the roads take you past some pretty homes.

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We are in Bisbee for another three days; it is a handy location for a number of day trips, which I will tell you about in an upcoming blog posting.

We are very close to the Mexican border here; the tiny town of Naco was subjected to the building of a controversial wall that seemingly no-one wanted. We were curious to see it for ourselves.

Before I begin, let me tell you that we have spoken to numerous Arizonians about The Wall and their feelings about it and, to a person, they are adamantly against it. They understand the need for security – but they feel erecting a wall is like killing a flea with a hammer, only way less effective.

If anyone should be concerned about the influx of “bad hombres” that are clamouring at the border gates, it should be people living in border towns.  Nothing could be further from the truth. As one woman in Nogales told us, ” We are completely integrated – we are friends with each other, we marry each other,  we are bosses and employees together, our kids go to school and play ball together.”

Back in 2011, it was proposed to build a 7.5 mile wall at  the border crossing between Naco AZ and Naco Mexico to replace the existing fence. When Arizona government officials pushed through for this wall, they assured everyone they would raise $50 million from private donors. In fact, they raised only $270,000. In 2017, the building of the wall went ahead – with a price tag of $35 million that was absorbed by taxpayers – for just 7.5 miles.  Naco residents were not notified – and homeowners woke up one morning to concrete trucks and dust… and eventually this – an 18-foot high wall running along their back yards.

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It destroyed the communities of Naco on both sides. In Arizona, the traffic that formerly ran right down Main Street was now diverted to the edge of town. A number of businesses have since closed their doors and the town has a desolate, ghost-town feel.

This is what a modern border wall looks like:

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An inside view. No question it will keep people out – not even a gopher could make it though this line of defense.

The border between the United States and Mexico is 1,954 miles. Since 7.5 miles of wall have already been completed at a cost of $35 million, how much will the rest cost?

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Being in Arizona has blown my preconceptions right out of the water. The people we have met so far (no matter what state they are from) have been charming, warm, interesting and forthrightly American! We continue to learn a lot.