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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Look Both Ways

 A bike very similar the one I rode to Grandma's house.

When I was 9 or 10 years old I decided I wanted to go visit my grandma. I hopped on my bike resplendent with banana seat, sissy bar and those colorful streamers on the ends of the handlebars and was on my way. I remember peddling as fast as I could down the long country highway as cars whizzed by making my streamers fly. I was tired by the time I cruised into the mobile home park where my grandparents lived. I remember the surprised look on my grandma's face when she opened the door to find me standing on the stoop, sweaty and all alone. She took me into the kitchen and gave me some juice and a snack, then subtly slipped into her bedroom to call my mom and let her know I was there. "Did you know she was coming? She's rode her bike here all by herself!"

My grandparents' place was a little over 6 miles from my house. At the time the trip there mostly followed two long rural roads that connected our larger town to their rural mobile home park located on Redwood Highway (the highway that preceded our current Highway 101 that runs north all the way to the Oregon border.) I had traveled there countless times with my parents in the car so I knew the way by heart.

After my mom was notified of my whereabouts Grandma asked if I wanted a ride home. Now, from an early age it was hammered into me and my brothers that we should never ask for things that weren't offered, and we should never inconvenience people, even if those people were our cherished grandparents who tended to spoil us with abandon. So I said no, I can ride home and thanks for the snack and juice! After another surreptitious phone call in which I'm sure my mom said "if she got herself there, she can get herself back home" I was sent on my way. I remember it was later in the afternoon and being worried I might be late for dinner, so I picked up the pace.

If this story makes you want to call child protective services on my parents, you are probably at least a generation younger than I am. This was the 1970s, when kids were kicked out of the house each summer day and told to come back before dinner; the news wasn't plastered with scary stories about child abduction; there were no cell phones to obsessively track loved ones and frankly, our town was only 1/4 the size it is now. Surrounding our brand new subdivision were streets that ran through cow fields, orchards and early 1900s farmhouses. Coupled with the fact that most families only had one car, it was expected that kids would get themselves where they wanted to go on their own, and if you didn't get back by dinner don't expect to eat.

I'm sure mom would have eventually noticed I was gone if I hadn't shown up by sundown, and as you probably guessed, I made it home in time for dinner. I also wouldn't be surprised if my Grandma had followed me home in her big 'ole Lincoln Continental just to make sure I made it safely. If she did, I didn't see her.

Image of a 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, aka my Grandma's baby. She washed it once a week by hand, inside and out.

I was thinking about this on my walk this morning. As I walked along one of the many paths following the creeks that intersect our city, I realized not for the first time that I was one of very few people walking, and of that small subset, even more rare was the solitary female walker. Mostly when I see other women, they are accompanied by a male companion. Nothing wrong with that, but why don't we feel safe walking alone?

I honestly don't think it's much more dangerous than it used to be. The increase in homelessness is a factor, and I do avoid a few of the more remote paths I know have a high occurrence of camps. It's actually not the homeless I'm avoiding, it's behavior brought on by drugs and mental illness. I live very near downtown and we have our share of homeless folks. I walk everywhere so naturally have seen many of the same people for years. Most of them are decent people brought down by terrible circumstances. The wandering vacant-eyed-arguing-with-invisible-opponent ones I avoid. Being stupid is different than being brave.

My biggest fear is actually traffic. I have looked drivers right in the eye before stepping off the curb, and they have still proceeded to turn right into the crosswalk. I've seen near-misses in crosswalks spanning four lanes, when one lane of traffic stops but the other just blows through. And there have been far more stories in the paper about pedestrians killed by inattentive drivers than abducted by crazed lunatics.

I might also just be my own biggest enemy. On a walk last November, I stepped on a branch and twisted my ankle, coming down hard on my face. A trip to the emergency room, 5 stitches, a broken nose. Now that's scary. Even scarier? The ER bill.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is, but I guess I wanted to put this out there: Don't be afraid to walk out the door. Visit your Grandma. Ride your bike. Be careful, be safe, be aware. But don't let it keep you from getting some exercise, some air, and meet new people that might not be in your demographic.

Just look both ways before you cross the street.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Old Mines and Cactus Spines: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Oh my god, they weren't kidding.

I found myself hunkered down in a sumo squat, naked and afraid of the water spraying out of the shower head. Hot! So hot! Searing, surface-of-the-sun hot. Why did I bother wearing sunscreen when the shower was threatening to give me worse burns than the Arizona sun could ever dish out?

After a long hike in the hot desert sun, the campground showers sounded like heaven. I had fantasized about this moment the last two miles of the hike as the ravens cawed and the cactus loomed, stubbornly refusing to offer shade. A nice cool shower was just the ticket, I thought. The empty campground guaranteed I'd be the only one in the restroom, a luxury during our two week camping trip. It's gonna be great!

A sign posted on the bathroom door noted the shower water was warmed by a solar device on the roof and to use with care, it could be very hot. It was fairly early in the morning so I figured the water wouldn't have had THAT much time to heat. Besides, I could always mix it with cold, right?

Nope. The water was on or it was off, no hot/cold mixing available. And apparently the pipes were plumbed straight through hell before leading to the shower head. The only saving grace: the shower head shot out a misty spray. You know, the normally annoying sputtering flow you find in the cheapest hotels. With the finesse of a Marine crossing under barbed wire with a dash of coyote stalking unsuspecting prey, I squatted on the periphery of the spray, quickly ducking in and out of the flow trying to rinse the shampoo and soap without losing any skin, staying as far as possible from the source of the scorching inferno coming out of the wall. Good thing we were the only ones in the campground. My screaming obscenities would have been a little disturbing for fellow campers. I'm pretty sure the ravens were used to it.

A look through the Victoria Mine Store window, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

If you visit different desert regions often enough you start to notice they are not all built the same. After visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument I have to say the Sonoran desert is my favorite by far. It's lush by desert standards - so many different strains of cactus mixed with Palo Verde trees, mesquite and creosote bushes, some grasses and scores of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. The park is named for the Organ Pipe cactus which grows here, one of the only places in the U.S. it grows this far north.

Organ Pipe cactus, for which the park was named.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located in Arizona, so far south you can literally see the border with Mexico from the campground. It wasn't always this way. Sure, the border has been there all along, but there wasn't a wall built when we first visited 25 years ago. Back then it was a rickety barbed wire fence, just three strings of wire marking the international border. It was (and still is) a pretty desolate area, hot and dry as deserts are known to be, so not an attractive spot to cross in those days. With the increase in border patrol at the popular crossing spots near cities, migrants have been forced to go further and further out to cross over. As a result, many people were dying in their quest to get in to the U.S. The wall was erected in the last few years despite the protests, lawsuits and warnings of archaeologists, biologists, ecologists, and many of the parks devoted fans (you can read more about this here). 

This park is actually part of a larger international park, it's sister lying on the Mexican side of the border. Wildlife used to cross unhindered, moving with the seasons and food sources up and down the mountains. Studies are still ongoing to determine just how the wall is affecting the many endangered species that share this area.

The wall can be seen slicing the park in half, the black line to the left on the mountain side.

We visited this year in late May 2023, off season for this park (high season is January-March). It was a warm 94 degrees when we arrived, but nothing like what we have experienced in Death Valley in May. Being used to California's brutal 6-months-in-advance, highly competitive campground usage we had made reservations ahead of our arrival. Lo and behold when we showed up we were one of two parties occupying the place. Two out of 208 campsites. 

It was a luxury, and well worth the heat to enjoy our own slice of beautiful desert. We had our own campground loop, with our own toilets and showers. We even had our own personal pack of coyotes serenading us each evening. It was heaven, especially after spending the previous four nights packed in with 3000 other campers at Overland Expo in Flagstaff.

We decided to get up early the next morning and take a hike to Victoria Mine, taking advantage of the early morning light (not to mention the cooler temperatures). 

Victoria Mine has quite a history: it's one of the oldest silver mines in southern Arizona. I couldn't find a reference to the year it was established, but it was taken over in 1880 by an unsavory character named Cipriano Ortega. This guy sounded (and by all accounts acted) like a bad mafia dude. Shady dealings and unexplained murders happened around "La Americana" during his ownership, but it pulled in $80,000 worth of silver ore making him one of the richest unsavory characters. Around 1899 it was sold to an American businessman who renamed it Victoria Mine after the storekeeper's wife. 

The remains of the stone store building are still there, along with several mine shafts that have been carefully covered and locked to keep the curious from killing themselves. It's a fun place to poke around, with lots of old mine remnants along with the usual glass shards and old tin cans laying around.

The trail starts right out of the campground and dips in and out of several washes among the huge saguaro cactus and sage brush. We saw small animals scurry away from us and hide under the scrubby bushes as we crunched through the gravel in the washes. Early morning is the best time to see the mostly nocturnal and diurnal animals here.

A raven alerts his cousins there are invaders on the trail this morning.

It took about an hour to get to the mine (2.2 miles). We poked around, threw rocks in the mine shafts (because that's what you do, right?) and took photos of the old store and rusty equipment left behind by the mine's owners. Warning signs were posted alerting us the area is used by smugglers and other desperate people, and to call 911 if any strange activity was observed. Of course, there is no cell service out there so not sure how that would help. In any case, we did not detect any weirdness other than the creepy history surrounding the notorious owner of 1880.

Victoria Mine area

Bits and pieces of the Victoria Mine lay around the site.

Mark makes his way through the giant saguaro groves, Victoria Mine trail.

We contemplated continuing on to the connecting trails to Lost Cabin and points beyond, but it was already getting into the 80s at 8am, not a promising outlook for another two hours on the trail. 

Back at camp, we ate some nice cool yogurt and granola sitting in the shade of the truck, washing it down with jugs of water. It's always a good idea to hydrate, but especially so in the desert. Dehydration is no fun, and it only has to happen once before you start chugging water at every opportunity (yes, I was the stupid one who didn't think I needed to carry so much water on one of our first hikes in Anza Borrego. Never again!) It was during breakfast we first noticed the little hairy circle around Mark's ankle. "That's strange," Mark brushed at them. "crap! It's cactus spines!" Out came the reading glasses and tweezers as I slowly pulled each little spine out as Mark winced. They were so fine he hadn't even noticed when he brushed into them. They most likely came from the low growing beavertail cactus that tend to grow under other bushes lining the trails.

During the hike I had noticed one of my feet had an occasional stabbing pain. I brushed it off at the time, figuring it was a little rock caught in my boot. After pulling Mark's spines, I took my boot off to empty it only to find a long cactus spine had pierced through the leather, gone through my heavy wool sock and was embedded in the side of my foot. Mark's turn with the tweezers as I winced. This place is brutal.

Considering the temperature, we decided the Ajo Mountain drive in our air conditioned truck sounded like a great idea.

Ajo Mountain Drive is 21 miles of dirt road, looping up and through the Ajo Mountains on the east side of the park. The road is one way with plenty of pull outs which makes it a pleasant, relaxed drive. Not that we saw anyone else, but I can imagine it gets a little crowded in high season. The road is graded for normal passenger cars, so you don't need 4WD and high clearance, but I wouldn't recommend a low slung sports car or long RV/trailer.

We received a trail guide at the Visitor's Center with numbered stops and comprehensive information regarding the area's flora and fauna. It even included a handy pronunciation table that succeeded in training me out of pronouncing the "g" in saguaro (it's sa-WAR-row not sa-GWAR-oh). Make sure to take note of your mileage when you start the drive: the guide stops have the incremental mileage noted. We didn't, and ended up estimating each stop. It didn't really matter though, the entire drive was beautiful with plenty of blooming cactus and notable canyons along the way (click here to access the online guide).

An agave in bloom
Closeup of the blossoms

We did the short hike into Arch Canyon, located about 9 miles into the drive. It's about a mile one way, and climbs into a surprisingly narrow canyon lush with cactus, lizards and bandits. Well, we didn't see any bandits, but we could imagine it would make a great hideout. The canyon is named for the two arches on the ridge above. It was a nice little hike, cooler in the higher altitude of the Ajo mountains.

The start of the Arch Canyon trail. Mark is looking at the arches, up on the ridge above.

Closeup of the arches. See the tiny one on top of the larger opening?

Further up the canyon

Looking back at the truck from the trail

Bees buzz on saguaro blossoms

There are a few picnic areas along the road, with covered tables and restrooms if you need a nice place to rest. We enjoyed the drive, and all the info the booklet offered. 

We stopped in at the Visitor's Center and took advantage of the air conditioned building to check out the displays and do a little browsing in the store. The rangers were nice, and eager to answer any questions we had. Honestly, I think they were glad for some company, the park was that empty. 

The park is huge. The last time we had visited we were allowed to drive the whole perimeter. Currently, the western and southern roads (South Puerto Blanco Road) is closed due to border activity, effectively cutting off half the park from the public. It's too bad, there are some beautiful views and nice hikes in that area. Hopefully in the near future this area will be open again. 

Back at camp, we poured ourselves an icy drink and had a snack, pulling our chairs around the truck to follow the shade. It really was a grand view, the sun was setting making the entire desert glow in a warm amber color. We were glowing too, it had been a wonderful day full of nice hikes, surprising discoveries, and surreal vistas. 

Or maybe it was our skin, still raw from those scorching showers. 

In any case, we would do it again in a heartbeat.

Friday, September 30, 2022

The Dangers of Internet Dating: A Love Story

It all started back in 2008. While cruising the internet, Mark came across her picture and was smitten. He didn't make a move for a few months, but checked to see if her picture was still posted once in a while. He couldn't get her off his mind.

Our hometown has a parade every May, and every May we walk downtown with our lawn chairs and dutifully line up to watch the floats and marching bands and cheer the firetrucks and hometown heroes as they pass by. That year as we waved at our favorites and cheered for the local veterans, Mark suddenly stood up and yelled "There she is! There's that girl I saw online!"

After the parade we packed up and met some friends for lunch. I could tell Mark was distracted, and it takes a lot to distract this man from a meal. "Is it her again?" I asked. He just nodded with a slight smile. I could tell I was in trouble. 

Walking out of the restaurant fate would be sealed: there she was, right across the street. "You should go say hi!" our no good, rotten friends urged Mark. "You should just see what she's like, you know you want to." He watched her shyly from across the street then we walked home. I thought I had dodged a bullet.

It didn't take long after arriving home that day before Mark was pacing around the house. "Let's go downtown again. I just want to meet her, that's all. I just want to meet her and maybe take a walk with her."

After eighteen years of marriage, I thought I knew when to indulge my husband and when to draw the line. Apparently, I was only fooling myself. "I'm not sure we're ready for this commitment but fine, we can go talk to her."

Against my better judgement, we talked to her, walked with her, then brought her home to live with us. That's when the excitement began.

She was completely wild. A terrible houseguest, she would spread her possessions around the house, spill food without cleaning it up and verbally attack us if we didn't do her bidding. Her bathroom habits were too horrible to describe and her people skills were just a step above those. It was almost as if she had never shared a house with roommates before.

Incredibly, Mark and I kept trying to make something of this relationship. It seemed wrong to cast her back out on the street with all the other homeless and after a few years things settled down a bit. It was still like living with the Tasmanian Devil, but we learned a few tricks to get her to act like a lady. She was a complete nut for peanut butter, so we kept that on hand at all times in case we needed a bribe. We bought her toys, took long walks with her, bought her fancy treats. We changed our lives to fit her schedule and everyone was happier for it.

With all the special attention you'd think she'd be grateful. Instead, she acted like an unwilling hostage. True, we wouldn't allow her to leave the house by herself, we didn't trust her to go out unescorted. She resented that and plotted her escapes carefully. Leave the door unlocked and expect to spend the rest of the afternoon searching the streets and alleys around the neighborhood. Open the gate to take out the garbage can and she'd bolt straight down the street in the blink of an eye. She was a keen listener, but only to alert her to our presence so she could run faster in the opposite direction. 

She did have her redeeming features. She loved to have visitors and ruthlessly reminded us she'd gladly go home with them if only we'd let her. She loved to run and play, and once tired out liked to spend time with us on the couch in the evenings. She was ever watchful and didn't hesitate to confront strangers that wandered into our yard.

What finally slowed her down was a horrific accident during one of her escapes. Hip dislocated, legs torn and bleeding, she finally allowed me to catch up to her and carry her home. I called Mark at work and he rushed home to take her to the ER. She spent a week in the hospital, refusing to eat or pee until we showed up to help her. She was grateful after all, but only on her own terms.

We roomed with her for fourteen years until this week. Arthritis from her old hip injury severely limiting her activities over the last year, she contracted a kidney infection she couldn't beat. We tried several rounds of antibiotics and pain medications to no avail. It came time for her to make a choice, and we helped her make it. She died a dignified death, an independent old lady finally ready to rest.

It's really quiet around here now. The toys are in the basket where they belong, the bed is empty, the floor is clean where the crumbs always gathered. A green leash is hanging unused on the back of the closet door, swinging out every time we open it to grab a coat. 

I was an unwilling partner in this threesome at first, but eventually I came to respect this other woman in my life. She had a mind of her own and was never unwilling to share her thoughts with us. She did as she pleased and occasionally let us know she appreciated our service. She was neither loyal or polite, but she was ours and we miss her terribly. I'm pretty sure she is now terrorizing another family somewhere out there, first luring them with her good looks then forcing them to bend to her will. 

Rest in peace Tiga. You taught me the benefits of deep breathing and puzzle toys with peanut butter and how to deal with unimaginable annoyance. You also showed me how to age gracefully with few complaints and how I should never, ever let anyone stand in the way of what I really want.

Tiga: May 2007(?) - September 2022

NOTE: If you are thinking of adopting an animal, please check with your local shelter first. They are a wonderful resource for not only finding the right animal to fit your lifestyle, but helping to make the transition from a wild stray to a loving companion for life.