Saturday, February 26, 2011

Of pinnacles and dunes . . .

Pictures do not do justice to the Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. Apaches called this the "land of standing up rocks". We hiked 4.5 miles through this "sky island," meandering trails down into Echo Canyon, and appreciated the vista at every turn. Towering pinnacles and crevices reminded us both of the movie "127 Hours." We were not so adventurous in this land once dominated by fierce Apache fighters Cochise and Geronimo.

We next drove north to the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico on our way to Albuquerque. This beautiful national park is at the tip of the Chihuahuan Desert where we could explore white gypsum sand dunes, the largest in the world. Since we are so far from snow (for now), we were fascinated by the purity of the sand, pure white.

The sand dunes continually move and yet a few desert plants have adapted with deep root systems that actually grow deep into the dune. We might be looking at just the top of a desert cottonwood that may have three-quarters of the tree buried in the dune. My favorite was the soaptree yucca with its delicate blossoms and spiky base. These pictures may give you a flavor of our hike. Without very clear trail markers, we would have been lost quickly!

White Sands National Monument

We're resting up in Albuquerque tonight and tomorrow to avoid the snow that seems to be everywhere. May the sun shine where you are!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

South to Buenos Aires . . .

How close to the Mexican border is the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge? Our hike into this wildlife refuge was shaped by politics as the refuge (about 118,000 acres) actually runs adjacent to the US-Mexican border. Roughly three miles of the refuge closest to the border is closed to the public.

In our early morning drive down to park headquarters and then on to Arivaca, we could not avoid the issue of illegal immigration. Easily 150 Border patrol vans (white with a broad green stripe on their side) passed us and we went through two checkpoints, set up at random along the road.

I kept expecting a band of ragged immigrants or gun-waving drug runners to emerge from any of the numerous washes populated this morning by scruffy mesquite and cactus. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports, the number of immigrants has declined (300,000 crossed here in 2007, down to 20,700 in 2009). Humanitarian groups have (with fed approval) put in three 55-gallon tanks to minimize deaths from summer over-exposure. Over the last 8 years, some 25 people have died, but the number has dropped to 2 in 2009.

We walked the nature trail at Arivaca Cienega (meaning 100 waters), honing our beginnng birding skills to spot this Pyrrhuloxia and a Northern Flicker. Then on to Benson for the next day's hike along the San Pedro River.

I come away from this part of the trip with a sense of the desolation of the desert, a formidable natural barrier to those seeking a better life in the states, and an appreciation for the tenacity and courage of these immigrants. My family is a mix of English, Scots, and Native American, divisions too fine to be counted, but we have traveled in too many Spanish-speaking countries not to feel a sense of kinship.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On the road again . . .

Last night in the shower, I reached for the soap and screamed. There, nibbling on the soap was the biggest dark brown blob I have ever seen. I got out of the shower, put on my glasses, and looked at him. He looked at me. This American cockroach was so big, about 2 inches, he should have had a name.

But all is well. We're packed and ready to drive south to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Preserve, hopefully leaving Bubba behind.

Meanwhile, this week's grand accomplishment: we hiked 5 miles along the Bear Creek Trail in Sabino Canyon and were rewarded not only by actually reaching the seven falls (where water still flowed), but we saw this incredibly beautiful Northern Cardinal, perched on an ocotillo. May your week go well.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Hot and cold in Sabino Canyon . . .

Tuesday, we headed out to Sabino Canyon early for a nice hike on the Phoneline Trail, some 5 miles along the ridge line above the canyon floor. We weren't sure we could take on this big a hike, but we were ready to try.

Just by the visitor center we spotted this beautiful and unusual bird, a Pyrrhuloxia, a kind of cardinal, but red and gray, and unique to the Southwest and Mexico. I'm always thrilled when we can see, identify AND photo the bird! He seemed to know I really wanted to take the pic.

After shivering for three days without heat in the house, it seemed just right to shiver along the trail. Here the Saguaro cacti grow so tall against the mountains and sheltered from the wind, some must be nearly 200 years old. Each arm on the Saguaro may take up to 75 years to grow. Other cactii cling to the sides of rock walls, like this cholla (teddy bear) cactus. The trail was somewhat challenging but only to test our stamina, not our fear of heights. Note the white line behind the cholla -- that's the trail that winds along the ridge line, in and out canyons and down to the floor of Sabino Canyon.

At the end of the day, we returned home to a warm house, foot-weary, but far from snow. Today will be a quiet day in our desert retreat. This morning on the patio we saw a lovely pair of Gamble's Quail, a house finch brilliant red, and a curved-bill Thresher. Only two weeks and we're back on the road in the great Southwest.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

On hot and cold in Tucson . . .

Last week, I was innocently making breakfast in this mansion above the Tucson valley, happily scrambling eggs and burning toast. Yes, there was a little smidgen of bread stuck down in the toaster that I forgot about. I could smell it burning and was just about to get it out after the toast popped up when the klaxons went off.

I'm not talking about a smoke alarm. I'm talking about a three-klaxon-deafening blast. A fire alarm. Which went directly to the security company and (unbeknownst to us) the fire department. The security company called the owner. Meanwhile we are running around this multi-level house, trying to find the fire alarm which continued emitting its ear-piercing blasts when far away, we heard the tinkle of my cell phone.

"We'll get it after we stop the noise," said hubby. And so we did. A few, very few minutes later, he's on the cell talking to the owner, when the front door bell goes off. The firemen had arrived. There are no words for how embarrassed I felt. Rich people don't burn toast.

We go down the hill to help take care of my sister.

Record lows hit Tucson. Tuesday night dips into the teens, breaking low temperatures for 106 years here in Tucson and freezing the lovely desert plants just beginning to bloom.

Wednesday, again after breakfast, we're sitting in the little breakfast nook, when I hear rushing water. Not the sweet sound of rain, but the horrible the-side-of-the house-is-going-to-be-washed-out-by-a-torrent sound. Again, we frantically run around the outside of the house to discover where we shut off the water (after I grab the coffee pot and fill it with fresh water, 10 cups).

The water gushes. We can't find anything. Hubby is on the cell again with the owner. We finally find one shut off (but it's not the right one). While we're standing there studying how to turn the darn thing off, a foot long PCV pipe splits right next to us, full of popsicle ice. Meanwhile, the torrent on the side of the house continues, soaking under the house. The owner contacts the previous owner and finally, the water is shut off. We go down the hill to take care of my sister, unwashed but happy. Disaster has been avoided.

The next morning, I'm up early and starting to make breakfast when I can't turn the stove on. The gas is at a low ebb. We go online. Southwest Gas posts an alert. Record low temperatures everywhere in the country has affected the flow of gas to Arizona. Everyone is supposed to ration and our neighborhood (along with 14,000 other households, I kid you not), has no gas. That means no stove, no hot water, no heat. That was yesterday.

This morning, the sun is shining. It's a cool 51 degrees inside this beautiful home. The city has set up warming shelters, and the gas should be restored within the next 3-5 days. I'm thinking we'll go down the hill to my sister's after a nice hot breakfast at McDonald's. And Super Bowl Sunday, I don't care if the Packers or the Steelers win. My sister has heat.