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.

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.)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Gambel’s Quail

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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:

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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.

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

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The splendid Tucson courthouse.

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

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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.)

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As business plans go, this one is hard to resist:

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another common bird in southwestern Arizona is the turkey vulture.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One of the churches:

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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.

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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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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.

 

 

En route to La Frontera

We had originally planned to be out of Mexico by the end of January and beginning our southwestern U.S. travels, but Mother Nature had other ideas. That most besieged of states, California, has been pummelled with three storms bringing heavy rain, mudslides, flooding and road closures in the south and heavy snow at higher elevations. The tail end of those storms has dumped buckets of rain in the northern end of Baja, so we made the decision to hunker down for a bit and enjoy the sun and warmth while we could.

We spent four days at Bahia de los Angeles, a community that is 66 km. from the highway to the Sea of Cortez.  While it is mainly a fishing and boating destination, we enjoyed it simply for its quiet beauty. This was the view from our campground.

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We went for a few desert walks and came upon this quintessential desert sight – a flock of turkey vultures, just waiting…

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Back on the beach, we met up with this little fellow that we believe to be a curlew. He was the only one we saw on any of the beaches in Baja.

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We arrived back to the campground to a rather frenetic scene. A couple of fellow campers had come back to shore and were cleaning their fish and tossing scraps to the birds. For a while the pelicans were batting 1000, but the gulls moved in and snatched the fish right out of their beaks. Amid the indignant screeching and flapping wings, it was looking like an avian smackdown.

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Our first morning there, we awoke to a beautiful 6:00 am sunrise. I got up to take some photos and sit on the beach to enjoy the changing sky.  Two of our neighbours were already there, readying their kayaks for a sunrise paddle.

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They returned a couple of hours later, with a few grouper for dinner.

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And that is the joy of Bahia de los Angeles – the water, the fishing, the quiet. Alas, the quiet was not to be, as a caravan of seven big rigs were camped out and ready to par-tay. A caravan is like being on a tour with a leader and other campers; travellers pay a good buck for that privilege. The caravan leader is the one who organizes border crossings, campgrounds, tours, restaurants, etc. and the rest follow behind. This was our first encounter with a caravan and if possible, it will be our last.  Probably they are all decent people and the leader bears a lot of responsibility for (not) setting the tone, but both nights 14 people began drinking around 4:00 pm and didn’t stop until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.  Dimwitted cacophony ensued. The rest of the campground had to listen to hours of shrieking laughter and loud inane conversation, punctuated by pointless war cries of “woo-hoo!”  I thought I might lose it, but was prevented by going over to them by Stephen, who quite rightly pointed out the fact that I would be trying to reason with 14 drunks; many of them belligerent.

Writing it off as being another chapter of “life on the road”, we took great comfort in meeting up again with Bob and Cindy from Christina Lake, British Columbia.  We had been hopscotching down and back up the Baja – meeting them a few times in different campgrounds. They were staying at a different campground, so we popped by for a visit and catch-up.

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The town of Bahia de los Angeles has campgrounds on one side and the marina and boat ramp on the other.  It has a bit of an end-of-the-road feel to it. There are boarded-up businesses and run-down buildings and sights like this one – a one-time grand home on the water that was abandoned and left to the elements. There was simply no-one to buy it and fix it up.

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I marvelled at the boat launch. Apparently as boat ramps go, this one is pretty fine, but if you look closely, you will see how far into the water the tow vehicles go. They must gauge where the ramp ends and the water begins and not get those two confused. As people still new to the efficient backing up of trailers, we were suitably impressed.

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We left Bahia de los Angeles and headed north with mixed feelings; our time in Baja was drawing to a close. We expected to have a couple of  nondescript overnight stops, then heave ourselves back into the reality show of the U.S.

As we headed north, we drove through a number of landscapes, including fields of giant boulders.

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I’ve probably mentioned the roads in Baja before. They are almost entirely narrow, with no shoulder and are in parts a pothole obstacle course. They require steely nerves and a steady eye; at times it all becomes a bit much. Again – all part of the Baja journey.

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We arrived at Don Eddy’s, near Lazaro Cardenas, about 200 km. south of the border, with the intention of getting up this morning and heading out, but it is so beautiful here we  decided to give ourselves another full day. Don Eddy’s is an RV park situated on a bay just in from the Pacific. The surrounding area is pastoral and calm – such a change from the desert landscape and it reminded us a bit of SE Asia.

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Our friends had told us about this site and also about a nearby restaurant called Eucalipto. This sweet little place is proof that if you provide fabulous food in a culinary desert and you are not afraid to charge a reasonable sum for it, then the unlikely location  (5 km. off the highway) won’t matter one bit.

Chef Javier, (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gordon Ramsey) is from Mexico City, has cooked in a number of places around the world and three years ago, opened his small restaurant to great acclaim. Prices are in U.S. dollars, which is a good indication of the clientele.

We split a blue cheese salad, which arrived as a spiral of romaine tucked into a tomato cup, nestled in piles of pungent creamy cheese. We’d both been craving fresh salad so this was a ripping good start.   I ordered yellowtail tuna which was cooked exactly right (I didn’t need a knife) and Stephen had the pesto pasta with shrimp – every single ingredient fresh and popping with flavour.  We barely spoke – it was one of those primal food experiences.

On top of the memorable meal, we had fun watching the sous-chef’s 11-year-old son, (with that most Mexican name, Ryan), working the room. He calmly and confidently bussed tables, stopped to chat and stoked the fire. A true family business and a lovely way to end our trip.

Eucalipto’s crew:

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We popped into town to buy some groceries.  We saw huge puddles of water in the fields and on the side of the road that were the result of yesterday’s rain – that very rain storm we had wanted to avoid. Our timing was perfect.

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This is an important agricultural area, with tomatoes, strawberries and citrus being the primary crops. There are many roadside stands just like this one.

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I’ll leave you with an image that has burned into my brain. Mexico is not lacking for vehicles with questionable road-worthiness. We have seen cars without front hoods, driver’s doors, and windshields. We have seen vehicles that were 50% rust, with fenders hanging on with twine. But this one is the best yet – I wish we had taken a video of it in motion. The entire back end sways, with each side taking turns in a fascinating centrifugal motion. No doubt the driver will keep this baby on the road for a while yet.

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When we talk again it will be from somewhere in Arizona. We’ve never been to that state and have a year’s worth of potential places to visit. See you soon!

Muchos Ballenas

One of the biggest draws to Baja for us was the chance to see migrating grey whales. Every year around 12,000 grey whales migrate from the Arctic to give birth to their calves in three protected lagoon areas on Baja’s Pacific coast. These lagoons are the only places in the world where grey whales give birth; two lagoons, Ojo de Liebro and Laguna de San Ignacio are at the more northerly end of Baja Sur and since the whales arrive here first, our chances of seeing them were better than further south.   They begin arriving in December and the majority of the calves are born between February and April.

We are currently in Guerrero Negro, but our search for whales began at San Ignacio, a date palm oasis about two hours south of here. That town is a sweet slice of old Baja, with a sleepy centre plaza and colourful old buildings.

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The day we arrived the town was buzzing with activity. There was a pile of jeeps and drivers connected to the  Baja XL endurance rally out of the U.S.  This seemed to us to be both gruelling and exciting – 4000 km. in 10 days. We spoke to the couple who owned this vehicle; they were along for the ride as spectators and friends and didn’t have the stress of competing.

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The very next day, you might have seen tumbleweed blowing through town – scarcely a soul around. It may be languid, but the shopowners haven’t gone to sleep. We paid over $5 each for an ice-cream cone; probably making up for a slow start to the tourist season.

Right in front of the plaza is the San Ignacio Mision, which was originally built by the Jesuits, but rebuilt again in 1786 after they were expelled from Mexico.

The missions throughout Baja are so beautiful, but they all come with the same heavy price; indigenous populations wiped out by European disease introduced by the missionaries.

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So many small pueblos in Baja are dusty and somewhat unappealing, but the oasis towns are exactly the opposite; lush and colourful with water sources and groves of citrus and date palms. The entrance to San Ignacio is enchanting. First there is the drive past the lagoon which is part of Rio San Ignacio.

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Just past the lagoon, the road is lined with date palms.

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There are a number of appealing RV parks by the oasis, just before town, but unfortunately we were not able to stay there, as the larger spots were already taken and our trailer would not navigate some of the tight turns.  We ended up staying at an RV park, Rice and Beans,  just off the highway, which was fine for a couple of nights but not nearly as atmospheric.

Our main event was a trip out to Laguna de San Ignacio in search of whales, and we headed out with great anticipation.  We had been advised to arrive at the lagoon before 9:00 or 9:30 and hop on any of the waiting boats for a tour. The road out was over 50 km. from town to lagoon and at first, it was a marvel of fresh pavement and beautiful scenery.  We had the road to ourselves and we were on our way to see baby grey whales!

Then, the road turned to dirt (still okay) and then to washboard (horrible). We bumped and jolted along for about 15 km., listening to our truck make unusual noises and bangs and cursing mightily all the way.

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We stopped to take photos of the salt flats and brackish water; a rather eerie moonscape, made more eerie by the fact there was not another soul on the road.

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A little further along we began to see osprey nests, first one, then a couple, then a whole slew of them. Ospreys are very prevalent in this area and in Guerrero Negro.

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A few signs of life began to materialize. Life is not luxurious out here – this building is typical of the few homes scattered by the lagoon.

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After more than an hour of driving, we arrived in the little town to discover that there were no lineups of boats clamouring for our business.  No-one was willing to take us out to see the whales. We had arrived a couple of weeks too early to guarantee sightings and understandably, it was not worth their time and gas to take out just two people.

So we began the long drive back and stopped to take this photo. One lone vehicle on a really bad road in the middle of nowhere. A certain desolate beauty.

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Okay, now we were pinning all our  hopes on Guerrero Negro, about two hours north, as our last chance to see grey whales before we left Baja.

We pulled into the Malarrimo Hotel with space at the back for RVs. Not exactly parkland, but clean and well-kept and secure. The people here are lovely and they offer whale-watching tours, so we signed up for an 8:00 am departure this morning.

We woke up to fog and cold, which is pretty much the climate here at Guerrero Negro, but dressed in layers and within an hour the fog had lifted. In fact, it made for better conditions, as the water was calm and the light was soft.

We drove to the lagoon with a party of seven; two Germans, two French, one Californian and us. After about 10 minutes on the water, the captain pulled up beside a large structure, filled with sea lions sunning themselves. They are pretty darn cute – I’ve never seen them so close up.

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The trip started slowly, as whale-watching trips tend to do. The first sighting brought us all to our feet, with cameras aimed:

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The captain steered quietly and slowly toward the whale and then cut the motor. The operators here are extremely respectful of the whales. Boats are small and keep a discreet distance from the whales. They are never chased but the operators allow them to approach the boat, if they choose. We  were out for two hours and only saw two other boats, in part because the season has only just started.

More whales began to appear; at times we were surrounded on all sides by dozens of whales. Our captain thought there were about 100 whales in the lagoon right now – there are up to 1000 in peak season. Guerrero Negro has the largest collection of cetaceans in the world during the grey whale birthing and migratory period.

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There are challenges with trying to photograph whales on a rocky boat without a tripod.  There is that split second between the money shot and this:

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Who knows what I missed while I was taking dozens of fascinating shots of the sky:

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We did not get any dramatic breaches, but a number of straight up head shots.

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And a number of whale tails:

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And then our whales began to get closer and closer. Our captain was so excited – this was the first day he was out this season where there were so many whales – lucky us.

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Incredibly, a big grey went right under our boat and emerging on the other side.

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She was so close to the side of the boat, I almost touched her fin. A little later in the season, once the mamas are more comfortable, they will bring their babies right up to the boat to be touched and petted. We are so sorry to have missed out on that incredible privilege to have such an intimate encounter with these whales, but feel fortunate to have spent this much time with them.

On our way back to shore, we were treated to one last little marine treat. A dolphin played around our boat for a while and then our captain said, “Adios, ballenas” and it was time to go.

I will never forget this incredible experience – a highlight of our time in Baja.

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Tomorrow the highway veers back over to Sea of Cortez and Bahia de los Angeles, or Bay of LA, as it is known among the tourists. More beach camping and with any luck, more swimming for a few days before we make our way to the border.

Musings from the road

Just before Christmas, we stopped at Santispac Beach for a few days, just south of Mulege. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, although the water was cold and the wind relentless, so we decided to return on the way back to enjoy some real swimming and beach time.

View of Santispac Beach from the highway.

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We’re parked here for a few days and enjoying the ebb and flow of life on an “almost-boondocking” beach. While there are no hookups, there is water delivery and a sani-dump at one end of the beach. There is a restaurant when we don’t feel like cooking and a daily delivery of fresh shrimp, fish and vegetables when we do.

We discovered this path above the beach – an old road that is no longer passable by vehicles, but ideal for long walks and chatting about the meaning of life.

I thought this might be a good time to share some of our thoughts about this life of ours, now that we are two and-a-half-years into being “unhoused.”

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When we were shopping for a trailer, we had a great chat with a very funny salesman who warned us that this life would mean, “you’ll be having breakfast with the same person every morning.” More to the point, we would also be together for lunch, dinner and all the time in between. 

That is not a concept one can fully understand until it is put into practice – we don’t have jobs, friends, family or hobbies to separate us so with a few exceptions, we go through our days and nights in tandem. Our trailer is 7’ x 17’, so even our bathroom moments are not that private. But so far, it has not been a problem – we enjoy similar things and have similar warped humour. Most of our days are spent outside. We walk, swim, sightsee, read, socialize with other people and it all seems to work.

All that togetherness means we have had a few snappish moments along the way. We are both bossy first-borns who don’t like to be told and those less-than-endearing traits are magnified on the road. We’ve sorted out what needs “work.” I’m trying not to jump in with my version of the story when Stephen takes his time talking, and Stephen is trying not to correct what he refers to as my “inaccuracies” in front of others.

Here we are, getting along well, even though I appear to be clutching at Stephen’s shirt.

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We cannot say enough good things about the Escape. It operates smoothly and follows behind us, no matter how twisty and bumpy the road.  It is comfortable and cosy and all we need.  However, we occasionally wonder if rather than “leaving ourselves behind”, we are “dragging ourselves behind.”  

When we unhitch and drive around with just our truck, our mood lightens – we’re free!  We can go anywhere!

It is too soon in our journey to come to any conclusions. We finish this trip in May and then after our summer trip to  Alaska and the Yukon, we’ll be in a better position to know how we want to proceed. Sometimes we wonder if a 4×4 truck camper or a rig like this one would suit us better.

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One of the biggest attractions to this life is having freedom to do what we want and when we want to do it. Once the outline of our trip is planned and we have done the groundwork (research, necessary shots and/or visas) our life unfolds as it should, with room left for changes or detours.

While we are not without any responsibilities, our main concerns from day to day are planning what to eat for dinner, where we’ll be a week from now, and finding ways to stay in touch when wifi and cell service are spotty or non-existent.

Being on the road means we run across a huge swath of people and hear their stories; we would have no way of meeting them otherwise.

We love t
he mystery of the open road – trying to anticipate what is next. We are far more engaged in order to deal with the constant change. It slows time down when the tyranny of the week and its routines is gone. When we talk about buying a house again and changing the way we travel, we both react the same way – “Not yet!”

We never know where the bend in the road will take us and that is highly addictive.

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Of course there are downsides to our way of life.  We go through periods where we miss our family and friends so much it feels like a sharp ache. Our friends will still be our friends when we see them again, but we’re no longer part of their lives. I’m more or less off Facebook, but when I dip in from time to time, I discover the changes, big and small, that have happened.

We don’t see our parents or our extended families as much as we would if we were in one place.  We don’t see our kids more than a couple of times a year and now we have big news – along with two other excited sets of grandparents, we are expecting our first grandchild the end of May. In fact, we recently learned we are expecting our first grandson. Aside from a couple of photos of our pregnant daughter-in-law, we feel so removed.

Another downside of nonstop travel is the challenge of maintaining continuity in physical exercise and in pursuing hobbies. Even cooking becomes rudimentary in a small trailer. 

Every way of life has its trade-offs.

After meeting so many young people on the road, we were struck by opportunities we may have missed when we were their age and raising our own family.

This is what our 60-something selves would say to our 30-something selves.

Don’t wait until you are retired – do this now. If you can find a way to put your lives on pause and just go – do it! There are many young people and young families who are on the road for a year, two years and indefinitely. Their backgrounds are varied. Some have left advanced degrees, well-paying jobs and homes to pursue lives that are giving them greater satisfaction. Others have cobbled remote work – writing, farm work, seasonal work, teaching, etc. – to bankroll ongoing travel. We met a couple who travel every winter then return to BC in March to begin their garden for their farm-to-table restaurant. Another young couple from Oregon travel in the winter and return to their seasonal businesses back home – she is a gardener and he has a tile and stone business. A young family from Marin County have rented out their home for a year and hit the road with their seven-year-old son. They home-school him, but he is also learning Spanish and spending his days kayaking. At this point they are not sure if they will go back to their old lives – this may be the beginning of something different.

We had insightful philosophical discussions with these young people about how they are choosing to live their lives. They all share similar traits – they are happy and unstressed and fully engaged. They know that following the well-trod path does not guarantee that your marriage will stay intact, or you will remain healthy, or you will keep your job. With that in mind, it feels far less risky to step off the cliff and see what else might be out there.

We would say – step off that cliff!  If we had it to do over, we would have taken our young sons and lived in another country for a year. We have our children with us for such a short time – maybe we would have done that a couple of times.

We leave you with a question:

What would your 60-something self say to your 30-something self?”