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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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Stories in Place: The Old Guard

 We pulled into our campsite and found them sitting at our picnic bench, the two of them with their backs turned to each other, gazing over opposite ends of the campground. As we got out of the truck they turned to face us with big grins.

"Hey, we were just making sure no one messed with the roadrunner nest. Where you guys been? Out sight seeing today?"

Neither Mark or I were new to camping on our first trip to Death Valley in 1995, but being the youngest couple in the campground was a new experience for us. Death Valley in the spring attracts the Snowbird population, those ubiquitous retired traveling couples roaming the US and Mexico in their gigantic "rigs". On our first visit to the Furnace Creek campground, the entire place was packed with large RVs and trailers, almost invariably maneuvered by the husband while the wives stayed squirreled away in the rig, presumably cooking up dinner, knitting, or otherwise occupied. It was hard to tell, we rarely saw the wives. This arrangement left the old guys free to futz around the RV, adjusting this, fixing that, and keeping an eye out for interesting activity in the campground. The minute we pulled into our site, their attention turned to us.

When we arrived, the campground host showed us to the spot and explained there was a roadrunner's nest in the tree behind our site. She asked us to please move carefully around the tree and to not let anyone harass the parents as they delivered special treats like lizard tails and bugs to their fledglings. It was an honor to be trusted and a thrill to see the birds so bold as to build their home in a bustling campground. Problem was, the old guys found out.

Every time we left to explore the valley, they would saunter over to our picnic table, shooting the breeze and watching the other campers. I'm sure there was a running commentary on what old George was doing with his rig or how Jerry was terrible at backing his trailer or how Bob seemed to be letting maintenance go on that generator. Some good natured ribbing seemed to be a requirement for these old birds. The tribe traveled the same roads, visited the same places, and they all seemed to either know each other or know someone who knew the others.

Our particular Old Guards consisted mainly of two codgers: Wendell and Berkeley. Wendell was camped right across the road from us in his huge fifth wheel trailer. He often spoke of his wife, but in the 7 days we were there we never actually saw her. His hobbies included weaving new webbing onto old camp chair frames, wiping dust off his shining impeccable trailer and telling bad jokes. Berkeley was sort of the odd man out. He was traveling in a homemade wooden camper affixed to the back of a decrepit Mazda truck. Each night when he prepared his can of Dinty Moore stew he'd fire up his one burner stove, huge flames shooting to the ceiling. It's a miracle he didn't burn his entire rig to the ground. He dressed like the old college professor that he was, leather elbow patches and all. His hobbies included complaining about his ex-wife and expounding on the virtues of the road. What most excited him though, was a really good deal. 

Since they spent their waking hours hanging around the campground, they seemed to be starved for news. Each day when we returned, we'd find them at our table hungry to talk about where we'd been and give us advice about where we should have gone. It was hard to tell if they had actually ever been themselves, the stories were at times...suspect.

It got so bad sometimes we'd drift past the campground on the main road and if we saw them at our spot we'd go into the village and park there for awhile, not ready to face another grilling yet. We felt a little bad about it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to keep your sanity.

By the end of the week we had heard all the stories (some of them twice) and as we packed to leave they hung out and made helpful suggestions about our route home. Berkeley thought it was about time to mosey too, and spent the better part of two hours trying to convince us to join him in Las Vegas. "Found a great deal at Fitzgeralds! Gonna catch me a girly show!" Sounds great Berkeley, maybe next time.

I think about those guys a lot nowadays. They were annoying, funny and helpful. They did have some good pointers about places in the valley to visit, and tips about camping spots. We provided entertainment and a new ear to listen to those stories.

Thinking back on those days it's hard to believe we are drifting into "old guard" territory ourselves now. We're not quite traditional retirement age, but we've decided to quit the working world and start checking off our bucket list a bit early. When we pull into a new campground we sometimes see those young couples in their small truck or tent and have to check ourselves. Let the young folks explore on their own, they'll figure it out. And only tell those stories once, but only if they ask.