Prescott: Mile-high city with down-to-earth attitude

Prescott is where Arizonians (Arizonans?) head in the summer to escape the sweltering triple-digit heat of the south. We met a gentleman who is a snowbird within his own state. He spends his winters in Phoenix and his summers in Prescott. “I can deal with the high ’80s and even the low ’90s, but once it hits the ‘100s, it stays there for weeks. Prescott has the perfect climate.”

Prescott, which is pronounced “Preskitt”, has racked up a number of admirable accolades, among them: Cleanest Air in the Nation; Number One Place to Live in the Southwest; Top 22 Best Places to Retire; Best Destination for Nature Lovers; Five Must-See Small Towns in Arizona and One of the Coolest Downtowns in North America.

We drove to Prescott from Quartzsite; a three-hour drive that lifted us out of the Sonoran desert into the high-desert landscape. We passed a number of  lush and prosperous ranches along the way:

IMG_0024

Prescott is a city of just 45,000 people that was founded in 1864, and has the distinction of being known as The World’s Oldest Rodeo. It also has more than 800 buildings listed on the National Historic Register and the vast majority of them have been fully restored and carefully maintained.

Prescott is a very walkable city. We spent several hours following our self-guided walking map through the historic downtown.

IMG_0061
Prescott and surrounding area is cowboy country; the horse is king. Statues of horse and rider can be found in a number of spots around the downtown.  This one, Cowboy at Rest  by artist Solon Borglum was right in front of the Courthouse Plaza.

IMG_0029

In front of City Hall

IMG_0038
Just up the street, the Hassayampa Hotel, built in 1927,  was designed to serve those early adopters who chose four wheels over four hooves: travellers arriving by automobile. It is also reputed to be haunted on the 4th floor; the site of a tragic death.

IMG_0058

In its day, it was voted “the most beautiful hotel in the Southwest.” We peeked inside and had to agree – the hand-painted ceilings, the antique light fixtures, the discretion. We sank into plush sofas in the lobby and agreed it wouldn’t take much to pry ourselves out of the trailer for a night or two and enjoy a bit of luxury.

IMG_0057

A major and devastating fire took place in Prescott in July 1900; wiping out many of its downtown wooden structures. The old Palace Hotel and Bar was one of the buildings burned, but incredibly the ornate back-bar was saved. It is a fixture in the current Palace Restaurant and Bar, which is the oldest bar in Arizona.

IMG_0035
The Elks Opera House was built in 1905, and is currently still in use as a theatre/movie house, although we did think a fresh set of eyes might be needed for more up-to-date programming. Pretty Woman was one of the movies showing that week.

IMG_0060

We took a stroll up the street to “Nob Hill”, a line-up of stately homes built in the late 1800’s. Although Senator Barry Goldwater was from Prescott, we don’t know if he was related to Henry Goldwater, the wealthy merchant who had this home built in 1894 for $4000.

IMG_0074
The next-door neighbour:

IMG_0069
Prescott has gorgeous residential neighbourhoods, filled with one heritage home more beautiful than the last.

IMG_0034
IMG_0035

This old Motor Lodge has been in business since 1910, when it was first a series of small cabins. In 2008, new owners Joe Livingston and Brian Spear took over and turned the cottages into affordable retro-cool lodgings, right on the edge of the historic district.

IMG_0037
We had lunch one day at the Dinner Bell Cafe, an old diner from 1939, whose menu has not likely changed that much over the decades – pork chops and mashed potatoes are still on the menu. Huge portions, homey service, atmospheric interior – these diners endure and are distinctly American.

IMG_0046

We spoke to a local who has mixed feelings about her town. She is in her 20’s, Prescott born and bred and has watched her hometown change over the past few years. The combination of climate, natural setting, great amenities, health services, etc. and an inventory of charming affordable homes are drawing the crowds in from “California and back east”. With that growth comes increased real estate prices and new ideas of how Prescott might be improved. Naturally neither are welcome to a population who have been doing just fine.

From our perspective as tourists, our first impressions were one of a very conservative city. We noticed one or two Catholic, Anglican or United churches, but dozens and dozens of evangelical churches.

We also noticed many gun shops.  The argument that Guns Are Why America is Still Free was one I had not heard before.  We had no idea America’s freedom was at risk in 2019 and that civilians might be called upon to bear arms. Certainly they’re safe from us Canadians and all the Mexicans want to do is take the jobs Americans don’t want.

It is safe to say we have not had a calm reasoned discussion about guns with a pro-gun advocate; our positions are too far apart.

IMG_0017 (1)
Arizona is a Concealed Carry state, which means you do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon, if you are over the age of 21. We noticed this concealed carry purse in a shop window and went in to have a look. Please excuse the poor quality of this photo, but it will give you an idea. This bag costs $150 and this store sells “not many, about one a week.”  The zippers on either side hide a holster; presumably after a woman has been grabbed from behind and overpowered, she will still be able to unzip and extract her weapon.
IMG_0036
On a lighter note, the young man in this store (which predominantly sold hats) was lots of fun and did us a huge favour. Stephen has been wearing a bucket hat for the past several months, and I, rather unkindly,  have been comparing him to Walter Matthau. As Stephen began to try on different Tilley iterations, our young man told him that his bucket hat was a hip-hop favourite. Jay-Z has done a lot for the bucket hat. Now, Jay-Z  could make a sun visor look cool, but we began to look at Stephen’s hat with fresh appreciation. You be the judge.

IMG_0043
Lucky Prescott-ians – they are spoiled for choice with outdoor activities. There are miles and miles of hiking and biking trails and many lakes in the surrounding areas.

We spent a number of hours wandering around “the Dells” –  huge rock formations surrounding Watson Lake.  Since the trails are mainly a series of rock formations, they   are marked with large painted white dots – a quite ingenious idea to prevent people from getting lost.

The entrance  to the lake – the trailhead is just to the left.

IMG_0018

There has been so much rain in this area in recent weeks that several lakes and creeks are overflowing. You’ll notice the base of this tree is a bit underwater. We had a little extra clambering to do to begin our hike, as the path was submerged, but we were soon on our way.

IMG_0022
IMG_0020

Swimming is not permitted in the lake, as it is an important area for birds, but we did see a couple of kayaks.

IMG_0028
We could have stayed another day in Prescott – there was lots more to see and do. As had been the case with some of our other stops, rain prevented us from really exploring the outdoor trails.

The weather looks like it is beginning to turn. The trees have that beautiful green haze and the nights are getting a little less frigid. We are experiencing spring in Arizona!

See you again in a few days.

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.

img_0048
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.

IMG_0022

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.

IMG_0025
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.

IMG_0018

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.

img_3816

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

IMG_0024

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

IMG_0033
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.)

IMG_0019
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.

IMG_0035
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.

IMG_0022 (1)
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.

IMG_0021
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.

img_9929
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.

img_9942

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.

IMG_0030
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.

IMG_0032
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.

IMG_0045
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.

IMG_0086

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.

IMG_0039
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.

IMG_0071
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”.

IMG_0078

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.

IMG_0099

The creek below:

IMG_0096
For quite a while we drove alongside the river, fairly flat and so pretty.

IMG_0104
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.

IMG_0109
While we were there, we had the added excitement of watching a helicopter take off from the base of the dam.

img_0044

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.”

IMG_0119
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.

IMG_0120

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.

img_9901
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.

IMG_0056

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.”

IMG_0059

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?

IMG_0046
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.

IMG_0040
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:

img_9833
A lookout that gave us a glimpse to the snow-capped mountain range just beyond.
img_9851
One of the many balancing rocks in the area. Helen assured us these giants were not going anywhere.
IMG_0035
An area of the mountains called “The Grotto”

IMG_0018
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.

IMG_0005
Just outside the turnoff to our campground, we got our first clue:

IMG_0009
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.

Unknown

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.

IMG_0050
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!

IMG_0091
Followed by the bad guys – boo!

IMG_0085
After much posturing and yelling, the gunfight broke out.

IMG_0093
It didn’t end well.

IMG_0096

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.

IMG_0099
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:

IMG_0106

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

IMG_0068
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.

IMG_0060 (1)
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.

IMG_0066
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.

IMG_0023
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.

IMG_0060
Sandhill cranes have a distinctive appearance – downy grey feathers and a tuft of red around their eyes.

IMG_0107
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.

IMG_0008
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.

IMG_0131
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?

IMG_0006
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.
IMG_0012
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.”

Gary Tenen
IMG_0005

Randy Tufts

IMG_0004

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.
IMG_0107
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.
IMG_0004
The view of Bisbee from the front of our campground:

IMG_0039
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.

IMG_0001
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:

IMG_0005
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.

IMG_0007
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.

IMG_0013
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.

IMG_0036
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.

IMG_0029
You won’t be in Arizona for long before you’re checking out cowboy boots and a decent custom-made hat.

IMG_0027
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.

IMG_0027
Parking in old Bisbee is at a premium, but really – who would park in someone else’s garage?

IMG_0046

A little irony?

IMG_0006
Even the Episcopalian preacher can get a bit touchy over parking.

IMG_0031
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.

IMG_0021
An old school that is re-purposed as an art center.

IMG_0032
One of the theatres in town – $5 movies, live performances and vegetarian chili.

IMG_0016
One of Bisbee’s main downtown streets.

IMG_0035
A Bisbee landmark

IMG_0025
Street art in the most literal sense. An entire wall is hung with paintings – most of them with questionable artistic merit.

IMG_0024
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.

IMG_0026
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.

IMG_0048
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.

IMG_0042
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.

IMG_0011
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:

IMG_0009
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?

IMG_0019
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.

Snow in Arizona – it’s a beautiful thing.

A week ago, we drove back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, seeking refuge from the snow and sub-zero temperatures that were forecast just about everywhere else in Arizona.  What we got instead was rain – torrential rain that poured for hours and hours and created flash floods and turned dry arroyos into treacherous creeks with a foot or more of water raging through. We made it to the high ground of our campground and waited for brief spells between storms to set up. It was incredibly cozy – we had lots of food to eat, plenty of books to read and I even had a 500-piece puzzle I had picked up at the campground book exchange. It was absolute luxury to tuck in and listen to the rain pound on our roof.

As much as this snow and rain is excessive, the locals are delighted. Arizona needs all the moisture it can get and as tourists, we need to learn not to complain.  The day after the big storm, we went out for a walk in the desert and everything had perked right up. I have no idea how much water was here before the storm, but we sat for about a half hour, watching the birds and hoping to spot wildlife. (no luck – those coyotes and javelinas are too smart to be out mid-day.)

IMG_0013
And then,  a huge helicopter flew right overhead, banked hard and flew down the wash.

IMG_0010
A half hour later, as we were hiking  back out again, someone pointed to where the chopper had landed.  We had seen lots of border patrol activity on our way to the hike.  I was so curious to go over and peer down and see what was going on, but thought that might be frowned upon, so left it alone.

This is the snow we wanted to avoid driving in and camping in and now we have the best of both – bright sunny days with snowcapped mountains and the remnants of the storm still in the fields.

This is just outside the town of Patagonia; about 10 miles from Patagonia Lake State Park, where we have camped out for the past four days.

IMG_0028
This area is abundant and more lush than we have experienced in Arizona so far. Still semi-arid, but ringed with mountain ranges that surround broad valleys. This is cattle country.

img_9702
We’re also in serious birding territory. We had no idea – this is a magnet for serious birders due to the huge variety of species and the area’s geological and ecological diversity.  Prime time for viewing is March to September; a moot point since we are neither birders nor in possession of binoculars – arriving in this area was purely by accident. We were the only people on the trails without being there for the express purpose of seeing birds. Of a type, birders travel singly or in small, quiet groups; outfitted with hats, comfortable shoes and field guides.  They whisper to one another and identify birdcalls. They don’t appear to frighten the birds, who  have seen them all before. This is a group I would love to join. “It’s addictive,” one serious birder told me, after she had expertly mimicked the difference between an owl and a white-winged dove.

In the town of Patagonia, we stopped by The Paton Center for Hummingbirds, which began in the 1970s when local residents Marion and Wally Paton created a garden and began attracting birds with specific plants and feeders. They attracted several varieties of hummingbirds and migrating birds, and the birders soon followed. The Patons set out chairs and invited strangers into their front garden. Before long, it became a world-famous destination and has since expanded into a trail behind the house. Now in alliance with Tucson Audubon and supported by private donors, this magical space belongs to everyone.

IMG_0005

We saw many, many birds (which is like saying we went to a botanical garden and saw many, many flowers), but without a decent camera or binoculars or even a passing grasp of bird species, this is the best we could do:

The ladder-backed woodpecker

IMG_0007
Gambel’s Quail

IMG_0014
The town of Patagonia is so interesting; a town that is both rough-hewn and in the words of a local, “hippie-dippie.” An artistic community that is managing in spite of a depressed economy. From a couple of quick walks around town, Patagonia revealed an eclectic crowd.

The car and the gent, possibly of a similar vintage (1928 Ford).

IMG_0041
Many of the houses in Patagonia are modest; others have a more cared-for appearance and Spanish influence in design.

IMG_0043
We were lucky to find the Patagonia Museum open. It is run by volunteers and usually open only a few hours three days a week. It is housed in what was the Grammar School that ran from 1914 until 2014.

IMG_0040

The docent was a teacher there for number of years and she even allowed Stephen to pull the rope and ring the bell, ” a great privilege for my Grade Twos,” as she pointed out. It was fun to wander through the four classrooms, now filled with local artifacts and display boards.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…  Patagonia Lake State Park is set on a man-made lake which is stocked with fish, primarily bass.

IMG_0015
It is also a lovely spot to rent a boat and row your sweetie around until you are exhausted. The young woman was curled up on the bow, laughing; the young man was grimly rowing. We caught up with them again as they cleared the bridge, heading for the dock.

IMG_0020
The park is also surrounded by more prime birding opportunities. We walked to this trail from our campsite, where we easily identified white-winged doves.

IMG_0004
The trail led through forests of mesquite – low-ish trees that look dead right now, but are slowly developing that lovely green haze we all wait for that tells us winter is almost over.

IMG_0009
Incongruously, there is a herd of cattle that grazes in this state park and this little crew gave us the hard stare as we approached.   We encountered cows on a number of our hikes, miles and miles away from anywhere; in Arizona, cattle are allowed to  graze free range on public land.

IMG_0022

Yesterday we took on a 3-mile hike through the Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve that should have been easy – a slight elevation and a loop trail leading though cottonwoods and ocotillo, with grand views of a number of mountain ranges.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. The ranger advised us that the creek running through the upper end of the hike was flooded due to the snow, and the normally wet rock crossing was now submerged under 2-3 inches of water. We can do that!

A beautiful walk – everything just on the verge of greening up and springing into blossom. “If only we were here two weeks from now”, we said.

IMG_0011
We reached the halfway point, and walked for a while on an old railway line.

IMG_0008
When we reached the rock crossing, it was not two or three inches, it was over a foot of water over the rocks, which meant the water on either side of the rock crossing might be two to three feet deep.  (forgot to take a photo of the creek, sorry).

We walked back and forth and saw one part of the creek that we thought we might be able to cross by getting our feet a bit wet, then hopping up onto a fallen tree and shimmying over it to the other side. If we had to save our very lives, we would have attempted it, but I had visions of plunging off the tree into the water, ruining my camera, and possibly doing harm to myself.  We had no choice but to retrace our steps and add another mile or so to our hike. We had fun in spite of ourselves, and our lone truck in the parking lot shone like a beacon.

We’re off to Bisbee area tomorrow for a week – see you again soon.

 

 

 

The Snowbirds are freezing in Tucson

First of all, I strongly dislike the term “snowbird” and the image it portrays.  Older folks fleeing snow and cold and then huddling in groups for safety and comfort. There is little diversity in campgrounds and RV parks – this is the playground of senior retired white people in protective hats and three-season activewear. And yes, this describes Stephen and me as we travel about, but I’m not happy about it.

So you can imagine our chagrin that our snowbird payoff (sun and warmth) is nowhere to be found here in Arizona. If British Columbia’s winter was behaving normally, we would be experiencing this exact weather back home.

We are in Tucson, staying at a scenic campground about 20 minutes out of town, up in Tucson Mountain Park with the coyotes and the cactus, and we’re freezing.  The past two nights have dropped to below zero; this morning we woke up to frost on the truck. This is the coldest and wettest February that locals can remember – at least 10-15 degrees cooler than normal. They are calling for yet another storm system to pass through over the next week; most places will have snow and nighttime lows of minus three to minus six. We have changed plans to ride out the next week – we will head back south to Organ Pipe Cactus Monument for a few days. It is the only place we can find that does not have snow on the horizon.

In the meantime, as they say down east, this is where we’re to.

IMG_0032
Our campground is just around the corner from this twisty mountain road; a hugely popular campground that is first-come, first-served and competition for a spot is fierce. You must line up as early in the morning as possible to wait for campsites to empty out; being granted a spot is like winning a lottery – they are usually gone before noon. We are here for seven days (our maximum allowable stay) and trying to see as much of the area as possible in spite of the weather.

Tucson is a sprawling city with a stunning University of Arizona campus and an historic downtown well worth exploring.  There are a number of museums, theatres and galleries on campus, including Arizona State Museum.

IMG_0012
This museum is largely devoted to the history and culture of the 21 Indian tribes in Arizona. Basket weaving has always been an important indigenous art form – these baskets were exquisite:

img_9553

I have never seen shoes woven from reed or straw before; these were probably created more for the artistic challenge than for the practicality of actually wearing them.

img_9555
We were befuddled by this sign, and wonder if it was posted as a result of an over-zealous and missing-the-point-entirely complaint.

IMG_0014
There is a section devoted to each tribe and a photo section that was particularly striking.  I loved this photo:

IMG_0023
Also on campus is the Center  for Creative Photography; a research and archive facility with exhibitions by Richard Avedon and Ansel Adams, among others.

IMG_0006

Avedon’s current exhibition is entitled” Relationships”, showing a series of photos in which he captured the chemistry between people.
This couple from Nova Scotia tells quite the story:

robert_frank_photographer_june_leaf_sculptress_mabou_mines_nova_scotia_july_17_1975_web_0-1
Tucson’s historic downtown is very walkable, and we had the excellent Turquoise Trail map to guide us. We followed a turquoise line painted on the sidewalks and consulted the brochure, which listed points of interest along the way.

Every city should do this – it is such an easy, helpful and informative way to explore a new destination.

Barrio Viejo streetscape – typical brightly painted adobe homes.

IMG_0020

IMG_0018
Homes in Tucson are almost entirely one-storey and many have deeply recessed porches to help cope with the summer heat.

IMG_0024
The splendid Tucson courthouse.

IMG_0051

Tucson is filled with interesting old signs and neon. This  apartment building appears to be undergoing a renovation; the lower stucco was being refaced.

IMG_0030
While this hotel and swimming pool is no longer in business, the sign and building remain, waiting perhaps for someone else’s great idea. You can see the turquoise line on the sidewalk (with Stephen in the distance.)

IMG_0032 (1)
As business plans go, this one is hard to resist:

IMG_0021
Not all downtown is historic, of course. Modern steel and glass fits right into the streetscape.

IMG_0053

We visited the beautiful double-domed San Agustin Cathedral, went inside and took a pew.

IMG_0049
We are not religious, but there is something reassuring about being in the quiet and calm of a church and we often take time while travelling just to sit and reflect.  We witnessed a deeply moving sight. A frail man who was leaning heavily on two canes and appeared to be blind made his way slowly past us. He set down his canes, dropped to his knees and inched painfully and slowly, up the tile floor. When he reached the top, he turned and made his way back, again on his knees. He appeared to be in such pain, so unwell and alone – was this penance, asking for strength?

Not far from the cathedral, we came upon another poignant site – El Tiradito, or The Castaway.

img_9640
This Tucson Historic Site is a shrine dedicated to the souls of sinners buried in unconsecrated ground. There are burned-out candle stubs, flowers, small notes tucked into small holes in the adobe wall. I wondered about one photo – three young men with their arms around each other, full of life and energy. Two of the men were born in 1971; one in 1977. Two died in 2006, one in 2014. Clearly they had all been friends and now were all dead. How did they die? What was their story – why did they all die so young?

With no clear answers to unknowable questions, our next stop with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The 98-acre museum, which is largely outdoors, is comprised of several botanical gardens, aviary, aquarium, zoo and natural history museum. This is a huge favourite with visitors and locals alike; we made the mistake of going on a Saturday and it became very crowded at times. Since the museum is so spread out, the crowds did tend to alternately clump up and thin out.   It is a well-interpreted museum and for the most part, we thoroughly enjoyed our 3-mile walk.

But… and this is a perspective I know many of you will not share, but… we both struggle with most zoos and aquariums. I know there are a number of excellent zoos in the world (Toronto’s zoo, for one), and animal sanctuaries and refuges do important work. The museum had several areas, none of them large, to showcase the area animals. We saw an ocelot in a cage the size of a bathroom, running in circles; demented behaviour that was deeply upsetting. This poor roadrunner also showed distress – it ran the length of a cage that measured about 20 feet.

IMG_0071

The rest of the desert animals were housed either in fenced compounds or in a large cage designed to look like its natural environment.

IMG_0164
We have heard coyotes howling and yipping in our campgrounds, but still haven’t seen one in the wild. This is what I hope to encounter one day in his own turf.

IMG_0075
We were both so hoping to see javelinas in the wild – these peccaries are quite the local fixture and as one gentleman told us, we would be more likely to see them in town looking for garbage than out in the desert. He also advised us they could be aggressive and to keep our distance.

These characters were not one bit interested in photo ops, but this will give you an idea of their size and appearance.

IMG_0086
We finished our tour of the museum with a “raptor in flight” show. Five Harris hawks that had been rehabbed and could not return to the wild have been trained to fly close to spectators. They have been trained with food and their handlers put small pieces of meat on branches to allow us all a closer viewing.

IMG_0125
They are beautiful creatures – it was a thrill to see them so close. We had been warned ahead of the show to keep our arms down – to take photos at eye level only and not to hoist small children on shoulders for a better look. The hawks frequently flew right over us, literally a foot or two above our heads.

They would then return to the same area, squabbling over territory.

IMG_0135
Another common bird in southwestern Arizona is the turkey vulture.

img_9634

More to come – we have another couple of days in Tucson, and weather permitting, we have a lot yet to see.

Defending the border in southern Arizona

Sometimes certain realities take longer to sink in than others. With the exception of distinct regional accents, I never thought of Americans and Canadians as being that different from one another. Most Americans comment on the fact that we don’t sound “Canadian”, so I guess we blend in.

We’ve been to the U.S countless times but this was the first time it really struck us that America is a military nation. While the role of the United States as “the world’s police” does not come as a surprise, seeing it in action is new to us.

Southern Arizona is home to a number of military installations, including the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and eight border security stations. In our first week here, we have heard the roar of fighter jets, seen planes fly in formation over the desert and heard bombs drop (not on citizens, there is a practice area not far from here) .

The 262-mile Arizona border has become increasingly militarized, with over 4200 agents covering eight stations. The white and green Border Patrol trucks are ubiquitous and this morning a helicopter flew low over the desert in front of our campground.

We are currently 10 miles from the Mexican/U.S. border and this is a common sight:

IMG_0009
While truck patrol is the first line of defence, the region is also covered by agents who ride out into the desert on ATV’s.

Signs like this one are posted throughout the desert.

IMG_0047

Seriously, if you managed to flee your country, travel hundreds or thousands of miles and cross the border, only to have to cross a mountain range like this one, you should be given automatic entry. Your perseverance, bravery and strength of character could only be considered assets to the country.

There are hundreds of migrants who die each year in the desert, from exposure and dehydration; in 2017 there were 294 recorded deaths, but actual numbers are much higher. There had been a lot of controversy in the past couple of years over the treatment of humanitarian workers who had been leaving water in the desert, to try and prevent more deaths.

There was huge outrage after a video showed border patrol agents deliberately kicking over gallon jugs of water left behind by aid workers and harassing them about leaving “garbage” in a pristine area.  A number of workers were arrested and posters like this one began popping up:

IMG_0019
Interestingly, in Republican Arizona there appears to be a shift in mood in some quarters. People mention “the wall” with an eye-roll and a shrug – apparently many border patrol agents believe the money could be better spent in improved technology. We can’t know the behind-the-scenes machinations of border security, but this was a heartening sight. There are several of these bright blue water stations, marked with a flag. The border officers know about them and they have remained in place.

img_9511

We ran into a couple from B.C. who were boondocking in the desert.  They work actively in the desert – picking up garbage and clothing left behind by migrants and helping migrants with food and water if they see them. They told us that there are boxes of unclaimed human remains in Tucson; heartbreaking in that their journey ended with such suffering and their families have no way of identifying them.

In the context of Trump’s government shutdown, this manufactured fear of desperate migrants seems pitiful. We have to assume the real criminals have easier channels to the U.S. than having to crawl through the desert.

Also in the context of the shutdown, we spoke to a number of National Park rangers who were discreet but clear in their views about this administration. I have learned (I think) to allow others to lead the conversation if it takes a political turn. When the talk turns to Trump, we smile ruefully and nod in agreement and say little and that seems to work.

And so…on to the beauty of the Sonoran desert. We began our time in Arizona in the small town of Ajo (Ah-jo). a sweet little place that became prosperous with the copper mine that operated from the 1890s to its closure in 1985.

We were able to see the vast open-pit mine from a fenced-off viewing area. There is a greenish lake at the bottom, about 100 feet in depth.

IMG_0030

With the mine closure came a reversal in fortune; the town has seen better days.  The central plaza is beautifully preserved though and the buildings around the downtown are worth a look.

IMG_0013

One of the churches:

IMG_0020

This old school has been converted to an artist’s community, with thirty low-income apartments. There was a quilt show on while we were there; the organizer told me the artists take turns setting up events.

IMG_0036
These homes are typical of the miner’s cottages that line the streets of Ajo.

IMG_0034
As we headed south from Ajo, we passed through the tiny crossroads called Why, pop.2. The name came about because it is situated at a Y-intersection. Since places are required to have a proper name (not a letter) and no-one appeared to be too inspired,  Why was born.

We stopped for gas at the Why Not:

IMG_0003 (1)
We camped for four nights at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, at the Twin Peaks Campground. The Park is named for the Organ Pipe Cactus, (which resembles the pipes of an organ) and is found in Mexico, but only in this area in Arizona.

These cacti are about 6-10 feet tall.

IMG_0008
The campground is set high on a hill, with gorgeous views of the mountain ranges. We have not witnessed one of those technicolour Arizona sunsets yet as the weather has been a little unsettled. Our first night here was lovely – the sunset cast a pink glow over the mountains.
The view from our trailer:

IMG_0061

IMG_0001
There are a number of hikes and scenic drives from the park; here are some images of this landscape.

IMG_0006

IMG_0011

IMG_0054
The desert flowers are not quite out yet in their full splendour, but we walked past many poppies – the first of the season.

IMG_0040

We go to sleep at night listening to the owls and wake up in the morning to a wild chorus of birdsong. This little cactus wren has the most beautiful voice.

IMG_0015

Tomorrow we drive three hours to Tucson, where we will camp at a county campground about 20 minutes outside the city. We have a few things to take care of – oil change for the truck, haircuts, repair a broken latch for the trailer, etc. We plan on being in the Tucson area for about a week – so much to see in Old Tucson as well as the surrounding areas.

La Mordida – the Bribe

Well, sooner or later, it had to happen. We have driven throughout Mexico three different times, for a total of nine months and for more than 25,000 km. We have been pulled over for speeding and waved off with a warning. We have had a police officer in Michoacan (a cartel state) shake our hands and thank us for visiting Mexico – this during a time when tourism had dropped drastically due to cartel violence. We have had police officers help us when we were hopelessly lost. And in spite of our positive encounters with the law, we were both very conscious of widespread police corruption and of the infamous mordida – the “bite” put on tourists for bogus traffic violations. We didn’t think the police were our friends, but we somehow felt immune to them. Still, when every Mexican blew through stop signs and red lights, we dutifully came to complete stops.

Before I tell you our sad story, let me assure you we were well aware of the crooked practice and thought we were prepared for being pulled over. We had read the forums and knew the drill. Don’t hand over your licence, just deny the charge, stay calm and polite and insist on going to the station to pay the “fine” directly. Since the cop has no intention of going to the station, invariably he gets fed up and waves you on. But…other circumstances prevailed.

We were using Google maps on our phone to lead us out of Tecate and to the U.S. border. Unfortunately that map had not been updated since the road changed to “pedestrian only” three years ago and we found ourselves in a narrow area with virtually no space to turn around. Thankfully a kind man stopped to direct Stephen how to back up with almost no wiggle room. He proudly banged on his chest, “truck driver” and within minutes we were on our way again. We had to drive several blocks before we could make a U-turn and then head back for another try for the border. We took the turn and then the road split into three, with absolutely no signage directing us. We took a chance and made the wrong turn. By now we were both in a state.  I spotted a cop car coming in our direction, flagged him down and sure enough, he wheeled around, put his siren on and pulled in behind us. By some mystery of magical thinking, I believed this man was wanting to help us, so I hopped out of the car and walked back toward him.

That was my mistake. He became very agitated and aggressive and ordered me back to the car. He then proceeded to tell us that we had driven through a stop sign, past an emergency building and I had also broken the law by getting out of the car. All of those infractions carried a heavy price – 2400 pesos (about CA $170.00). We had two choices – we could go to the judge and plead our case and that might take a couple of days, or he could pay the  fine in the office on our behalf.  He also informed me he wanted to speak to the driver only (Stephen) as I was flapping indignantly in front of him. Stephen told him he wanted to do the most efficient thing, as we just wanted to get out of the country.

We both had plenty of money in various hiding places, but I had US$100 freshly cashed in from our remaining pesos and stashed in my pocket. Stephen helpfully pointed out that we had that sum at our disposal and that was his mistake.

These guys usually score about $10 or $20, if they score anything at all. This cop lit up like a Christmas tree and thought that sum might just help us out of our difficulties.  We followed him down around the corner and pulled in behind him. He produced a “violation book” and pointed out where our transgressions were listed. Since it was written in Spanish and we had already established our knowledge of the language was slight, it could have been a washing machine repair manual for all we knew. He instructed me to put the “fine” in the book,  he closed it up and stuck it in his jacket – as if it had never happened. He made his way back to his car, then instructed us to follow him to the border.

Then came the “If only’s.” If only we had gone straight instead of left.  If only I hadn’t flagged the cop down. If only Stephen hadn’t mentioned a sum of money. If only we had remembered to stay cool. If only we had remembered we were in the right and the cop was in the wrong.  We were caught out when we were vulnerable and frustrated and lost and we paid for it. It took us a while to get over our fury (at the cop and at ourselves) and embarrassment and self-flagellation, but as the late, great Nora Ephron would say, “everything is copy.

If it can become a story, it can become a lesson, and suffice to say, lesson learned.

This has not turned us off Mexico one little bit, but it is a good reminder – as much as we feel comfortable and familiar in Mexico, it is a foreign country and they play by a different rulebook.

Thankfully, our previous day and night in Baja was so delightful that those sweet memories far outweigh the sour taste left from the crooked cop.

Our friends Cindy and Bob are members of Harvest Hosts – https://harvesthosts.com – an organization that allows people to camp on farms and in wineries at no charge, usually for one night. The hope is that you will buy wine or produce from the hosts – an agreeable arrangement for all.

They were staying at L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest winery for their last night in Baja and suggested we do the same. We arrived and pulled in to this dreamy spot.

IMG_0004
We set up and went into the winery for a tasting of their reserve wines – three white and three red. This young man Adrian, gave an excellent tasting and was knowledgable and passionate. He is 27 years old and working toward his dream of having his own vineyard one day. He discovered wine while earning his culinary papers and has switched fields. He and his girlfriend (a biologist) want to travel to the Okanagan in Canada and to New Zealand to learn as much as they can about wine production in other parts of the world. We bought two bottles of wine, a Nebbiolo and a Terra ( made from four grape varietals in the area).

IMG_0003
We then went for a walk around the vineyard – it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and the light was pure magic.

IMG_0001
IMG_0011
Our very last night in Baja was idyllic. We have managed to have a few laughs over our border mishap, or as Stephen chooses to call it, “our special escort out of Mexico.”

We are now in Arizona, in the small town of Ajo and enroute to our first National Park (trying to fit as many in as we can while they are still open) – Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  We’re having fun, but after our contact with all the young’uns in Baja with their old camper vans and surfboards and rescue dogs, this is a serious change of pace.

We are in Snowbird Country, or as we like to say, “No Country for Young Men.” Lots to report – see you again in a few days.