The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


Guerrilla Budgeting, Desert Dreaming, and Other Life Changes

Colcord Mountain - A. Sato

Colcord Mountain – A. Sato

If happiness is the absence of suffering, then the end of summer here in Phoenix means I am a slap happy fool.

The mornings are now in the high 60s-70 degree range. The birds are back to joyous morning arias. The oleander outside my window is heavy with white blossoms. And, here I am with all of my desert topographic maps spread across the floor, finally feeling like sweaty is no longer my daily adjective.

There are plans on the horizon to trek across some formidable volcanic landscapes, to befriend a few places unknown. I look forward to getting into solo backpacking and hiking again – both a tinge unnerving and blissfully unblemished by “company”.

Somewhere out there - A. Sato

Somewhere out there – A. Sato

I’ll admit to being a curmudgeon. I find it harder these days to find consistent company I enjoy when I am outdoors – and forget about hiking groups. Of course, being alone comes with its risks – a twisted ankle, a wacko on the trail, being dragged off by the Mogollon Monster (now, that would be a story). Still, I have made it this far, and there are precautions I always take.IMG_4698

But, when I am alone I notice things – things I might not notice otherwise. I am more aware, more alive in my senses.

I’ve learned to be content with my isolation, so that when I can share my time with others, it feels right, not forced.

I look forward to sharing some of these magical observations this winter.DSC_0192

Along with planning upcoming desert adventures, I have revived my voluntary simplicity group here in the Valley of the Sun. I’ve done this for a few reasons – first, I like idea-sharing, especially when it comes to cheap/free resources – and second, I need to be motivated on order to make next spring’s plans come to fruition.

Really, next spring is a carry-over from last spring’s dead-in-the-water plan to get out of Phoenix by way of some type of off-grid or nomadic lifestyle. This entails quite a bit of planning and the purchase of a truck. Ideally, I would like to find a group of other off-grid, low impact types to form a resource-sharing community of sorts.

Knowing others who share my approach to living is important. And, I recognize this and grapple with being a contrary isolationist (see above) versus someone who longs for a community and family.

I also have accepted that I need some initial seed money.

I mean, I could go live in a cave somewhere (and, I could – see below), but that wouldn’t allow me to participate in a land purchase, buy building materials, take care of my furry companions who count on me for food, vet care, etc., and gather together the resources to get out of here and reestablish elsewhere.

July13dump 007

Despite being fascinated with those who choose a cash-free existence, I also acknowledge that supreme sacrifice as being counterproductive to my objectives and responsibilities. I recognize some cash flow is necessary and also will help get me to the point of greater self-sufficiency.

So, I need to look at this time in Phoenix as an incubation period.

My options are to go back to corporate marketing (stabs self in neck) or I could split time between maintaining my freelancing workload and adding PT nonprofit hours.

The quandary I have been pondering is how to do what I would like to do as cheaply as possible while continuing to freelance and wander around (what I love).

I have lived on $12-15K before and without trying all that hard (I am my Depression era grandparents’ granddaughter, for sure).

Looking at my low impact life plans, I can see where my $ is going:

* Higher cost of living in a downtown urban center
* Convenience foods/specialty foods
* Entertainment/eating out
* Healthcare/insurance for self, cat, and dog
* Car maintenance and gas (no car payment, but an old car needs lots of TLC)

Given there is room for cost reduction in each of these, I’m hoping to get a solid group of low impact-minded individuals together to share those important ideas and resources, and perhaps even do a little bit of bartering.


Imagination is free – a child’s offering to the forest fey

All of this is to say, The Wild Muse will be a place where I will share my experiences going as low impact, off-grid, and feral-girl as possible, along with stories of my usual shenanigans in the wild.

If you are interested in tagging along for the ride, follow my blog or bookmark for future tales of joy and foibles.

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Strange Bedfellows: Grappling with the Private World and the Public Life of Creativity

A. Sato, 2014

A. Sato, 2014

It’s been a while since I have written anything. No poems. No essays. No short stories.

When I look at the newsfeeds of my prolific friends, I feel a little guilty. “Have you been writing,” one friend asks? Another inquires if I am at least submitting work for publication. Strangely, I have made scant progress on anything related to my own creative fiction and nonfiction.

This uncomfortable truth doesn’t take away the tinges of guilt and envy when I am surrounded by writers and artists who are producing circles around me. And, sure, enlightenment says this isn’t a race or competition… but, we all know it is. At least, the business of what we do compels us to be productive. To produce.

Most of us need the feedback, accolades, connection, and (although laughable at times) financial support we gain from taking our work to the streets. Some might argue the value of the creative process is moving through the creative process, as if just doing is enough.

For spiritualists and believers, the creative process is communication between self and Spirit or God. For others, and I would dare say the majority, writing, painting, music, etc. is our means of expression, communicating our deepest, most intimate selves (souls?) to the world (and, hey, maybe even the means to earn a living).

There are also many others whose work is the catalyst for social and political change – a meaningful vision, an ideal.

Mesquite Grove - A. Sato, 2015

Mesquite Grove – A. Sato, 2015

Back to Me

Through all of the definitions and pressures to produce for reasons both menial and purposeful, I seem to have lost my way. For several months I worried that I was simply bored with my writing. I was restless. I wandered around looking for something I couldn’t seem to find.

Sheepishly, I took all of those “what is your true calling” quizzes. I re-read the Enneagram (Tragic Romantic 4, no surprise). I took all of the career path tests and continued to draw the Writer card. Dammit. My other choices: Clergy or Psychologist.

Writers are akin to preachers, after all, channeling the message of the unseen, unexpressed, and under-appreciated.

“Writers are healers… words are balm,” one friend reminds. The narrative of our pain can conjure healing.

But, lately, I am neither wordsmith evangelist nor wounded healer. Even poetry seems flat to me, a personal chore, like pumicing dead skin. That old glass slipper that once fit perfectly doesn’t seem to encapsulate my big toe now. Bluntly, I am fucking terrified.

Still, in my terror, I refuse to produce for the sake of saying, “Hey, look, I made something!” (says every potty-training toddler).

Another friend lamented, and I will paraphrase, “There are too many photographers and not enough readers.” I argued against this notion of “too many,” but can understand his point.

People are writing and producing art more than ever before with the advent of print-on-demand and the vanity press. We’re all looking for a little appreciation, I guess. To be heard, seen, validated. Through the billions of Tweets and fragments, photos and paintings, the practice of the creative life has been shanghaied.

Let me say it again: the practice

I’m aghast at the grammatical errors found in professional articles and essays. If the pros can’t even manage the discipline to edit and hone skills, I really cannot rail against the amateur. In essence, we are in a creative frenzy, a race to stay ahead of the ADD public.

It’s as if, culturally speaking, we are still living the message of those 1990s Baby Einstein, Baby Monet, Baby Mozart cds … we believe talent just kinda makes itself. Everyone’s an artist, right?

Practice takes too long. Being unproductive means no attention. And, god forbid, the humble role of the student, of being willing to be taught.

Only the Ravens - A. Sato, 2015

Only the Ravens – A. Sato, 2015

The Muse is Dead… Long Live the Muse

None of this is exactly hot off the press news. And, I am not sure analyzing the state of the arts is going to alleviate my fucking terror at my own lack of motivation.

I’m driven by the same insecurity of silence. I want to have my muse back NOW and sell books that will actually be read. But, I am cursed with having to take my own mad advice.

So, maybe I will wait it out some more and see what shakes. Stay curious. Be zen about it.

Tomorrow I am going to one of my favorite mountains. She and I know I won’t share anything about it with you. Because, at least for now, the practice needs to be enough.

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Scheming and Dreaming

In case you haven’t noticed, I have decided to change the name of the blog to The Wild Muse. The decision for this was based on an active community I started on Facebook, which explores the themes of wildness, healing, and the arts. Since Jane Crow Journal was the original manifestation of these themes, it made sense to connect the two media outlets and focus more intently on writing about wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place here.

I’ll be re-grouping and overhauling soon. So, thanks for your interest and for following The Wild Muse.

Death Valley Boots - A. Sato

Death Valley Boots – A. Sato


One Morning, A Stranger at Home

Sierra Estrella View - A. Sato

Not Yet There – A. Sato

The onyx hour of those forgotten
gods of the earth who haunt the fire.

It’s 6:55 a.m. and the first light of morning appears above the familiar hills and peaks of the South Mountains in Phoenix, Arizona. I have hiked into the western edge of the San Juan Valley, currently closed off to bike and car travel and thus creating a secret spot, an oasis of quiet for now. Many wild species have taken advantage of this unusual pause in humanity. Javelina run across the pavement, shitting on roads and under ramadas. Coyotes yawn, unmotivated, along rock walls.

My presence is neither startling nor appreciated. Wary gazes and increased movement attest to this.

From a granite boulder, I watch the light fall across a cluster of cholla and brittlebush whose blue-gray leaves are the color of calm to me, if color could be assigned to a state of mind. Six coyotes take their places along the opposite ridge, watching me as I watch them. Together we listen to the old morning song of a grandfather Great Horned… all owls seeming ancient, a forgotten species of gnarled bone and pale-faced time.

South Mountains - A. Sato

Ocotillo – A. Sato

Looking at the Sierra Estrellas, I consider my place here, or rather my lack of place. As the city swells itself into a greater beast, highways dig their tracks where stands of mesquite and creosote fall. We make way for more neighborhoods to plop their massive girth atop old habitat. The mountains, oh the mountains, wait patiently for human time to tumble, our animal selves to collapse and with it, all of our concepts and ideas.

Is this the mountains’ dream, or is it just the dream of a tired misanthrope?

IMG_0498 (2)

Cloud Hill – A. Sato

Coming here, I am a stranger. By saying home, do I make it so? Many people would say yes, but I have my doubts.

I grew up among tulip trees and farms, verdant hills of hay and soybean, ponds and cattle. I slept beneath the field’s wide skies and woke with dew on my sleeping bag. I rested with the song of whippoorwill and cricket. I never had to long for the smell of rain, the touch of moisture. I spoke to deer. I sang to yarrow. I wandered the woods, consumed with its treasures.

Given that watery upbringing, it might strike you as odd that I am now not only infatuated with the Sonoran desert, I am distinctly and inseparably tied to this arid place.

The rain I follow in small hollows of granite, fleshed into pockets against long washes, is water enough. These tinajas, now known to me as intimately as the smooth flesh of deer—the food of my people, the bane of every Midwestern driver. I rest here, against the cool stone, as the heat of the morning warms my skin.

The desert and I had an awkward introduction.

I rambled with the shopping cart wheels and asphalt of my first desert home, where my family spent a short year bargaining with the devils of pipelines and job-promise. My Las Vegas childhood… holding the prize of stuffed toys tight while the adults swam in their longed for loot and oppression.

When I think back on this time, I remember metal screen doors and blinding aqua pools with too much chlorine and chipping paint. Is this also my origin? Or can I claim a desert that has no history for me?

July13dump 2008

Search Light – A. Sato

I have friends who can trace their ancestry here for centuries—before the settlers, before the promise and betrayal.

I look out upon these foothills as the city spreads, filling everything with its plastic and concrete. Can I make peace with my body here—like the manicured palms, the asphalt, the ever-encroaching unrest that stitches the hymns of us together?

Animals of great distance—how I love their propensity for movement. We, too, are a moving species and our stories of creation, in turn, create us—give us place to our wandering, order to chaos. We may fall from the sky or sprout from the ground or be born in the image of… but in the end we are animals of movement.

No matter how much our minds long to connect us to place, we have—at some point in time—been the wanderer, the interloper, the dreaded other.

Many wanderers and scientists, story tellers and poets tread lightly on the topic of home. Untethered and centuries away from place, there remains an ache to find home, and so the sweeping topography of earth becomes that destination.

The problem therein is the problem of the wandering animal—the humanity that propels us across the next geographic barrier, the next country, the new.

When I was a girl, my family was too poor to own anything, but the countryside itself was ours, a place of unbridled adventure—a challenge to not be caught between one man’s field and the next. We swam in ponds owned by farmers, slept in the shadows of stone quarries, ventured beyond the boundaries of national forests, and walked the deer paths of unintentional wildlife preserves.

Places we call ours, places we call theirs. Among other animals, these fables matter little.

Cholla Morning - A. Sato

Cholla Morning – A. Sato

When I was a girl, I longed to be a woman of movement. I wanted to continue to climb over fences, to follow the call of the spellbound hawk, the night-silent owl, the mouse who made his bed wherever he desired.

My mythology is not to be replicated here. I have no claims to make, no flags to plant. Being in the desert is the closest I have come to feeling at home. A child of coal mines and forgotten lineage, I can only hope to know the stories, my place among these stones.

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Dead Lizards, 7-11, and How to Survive the West

I. Vegas

an excerpt

“Once again there was the desert, and that only.”
― Stephen King

My first memory was of Circus Circus, circa 1976.

Vegas was a place of velour-lined walls and faulty plumbing. Men with red faces and long tongues barked at the night. The itch to move never stopped.  The halls were filled with loud games, all colors to induce nausea, stuffed animals, and old ladies sitting at machines, a pool of cigarette ashes on their laps – a kind of symbolic death.

Vegas and a happy – so I think – 3 year old running down through the madness with a lion puppet in my clutches, calling my aunt’s name. It was in the madness I learned to move about unrestricted, unrestrained, and unsupervised. Those were the 70s… before occult child murder admonitions nightly belched out on TV channels, before molesters were in the schools, in malls, behind bushes, at the IHOP.

This was the Vegas of pools full of chlorine, the bodies of youth, dead lizards drowned by youth. The Vegas of weird women in the 2nd floor of apartment complexes, with too many birds and no family. The Vegas of old buildings, piss filled alleys, and 3rd generation crooners.

In this Vegas, I was the precocious child of ambitious Midwestern families with a bong in the living room and Iron Butterfly on the record player, prohibiting boredom. I was a vinyl child, a product of free and unprotected love that cries out for something beyond the White River of my birth town. We fell apart here. We went to the pits of mines, the long trenches of oil fields.

My second memory was of being pushed down an alley in a stolen Kmart shopping cart the teens in my apartment complex found in a vacant lot. I remember the sound of the wheels squeaking and catching on rocks before tumbling over and letting me out onto the asphalt. I remember trying hard not to cry because I wanted to hang with the big kids, not the babies. The big kids took me to 7-11 where we’d get some hapless adult to buy us sugary drinks and pop-rock candy.

“Nice fucking pants,” my third cousin shouted out at a hooker on the Strip, as we drove to her friend’s house to swim, a cop’s home, a home of chlorine and cinder-block walls. At age 16, I was stocked with Playgirls and booze. Age 16, a virgin in a town of debauchery. “What do you want to do, Aleah? Well, what?” My cousin was – and probably still is –one of the world’s most profane and obnoxious rednecks to escape Indiana. I slid down in the seat and pretended to not be there.

That was Las Vegas, you know – the kind of place that makes a person slide down in her vinyl seat and pretend to not be there.

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What Claims are Made – Observations in the Pinaleño Mountains

IMG_1410An excerpt

Up ahead is a small path that winds through a secret canyon. There I see the morning open up to sky. A cliff drops to the world below, some 2,000 feet to the belly of Sulfur Springs Valley. Plunging mercilessly, the creek follows stone, pulled by the heavy hand of the mountain’s descent. Water has cut through this lonely gorge for centuries, but my eyes are new here.

Many times in wild places I find myself staring at books to locate the botanical name of an unknown plant or identify a set of tracks, but on this morning I put the books away and set out for wonder. Wonder is of course the root of knowledge, but how often do we pause at wonder alone? Do we move so quickly from a state of awe to information that we miss something, a primal yearning and appreciation for that, which, unspoken by man, undocumented by the hand of scientist or layperson, slips our grasp of respect?

Wonder… is it missing?Pinaleno Pine

Wading through waist-high sorrels and ferns, I crept deeper into the places where morning had not reached its hand. I imagined fairies dipping down to drink from a curled leaf. It seems possible here, where the verdant life of the forest has not yet been dimmed. And why not think of fairies?

The dripdripdrip of new rain on cold stone created a soundscape and I was mesmerized again by the passive yet strong pull of forces moving us, the trees, the water, the stones to the last leap of sky.

The Pinaleño Mountains, the Grahams, Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Si An (Big Seated Mountain, Western Apache), is a remote “Sky Island” in Southeastern Arizona, offering more than 7,000 feet of vertical relief – a true wonder among Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert low lands. This range has many names, many claims, even in modernity. Pinaleño, meaning many deer, seems an appropriate name – the area is rich with mule deer and white-tailed deer, suitably designed for the steep ridges and cliffs, angles no biped can maneuver with such grace.

This September, however, no deer were to be found in the obvious landscape of sight. The once lively meadows of fawns, does, and the occasional aloof buck were even bereft of the usual scat pellets I might expect on such an inviting landscape of open parks with brooks lapping against the wild blue bells and yarrow. The Pinaleños are a dreamy place, to be sure, a place where all are drawn by watersong and starry views.


As the silence was broken by an ATV, I realized why the deer were in hiding. A bow hunter and his monster of mud and plastic came through the forest. He stopped long enough to shout a question at me, lamenting that he hadn’t seen a single deer all morning, as his ATV engine pierced the air and echoed down through the gorges. Deer are wiser than we credit them. Their behaviors often change with the seasons, with our malevolence, with the pressing weight of sound and intent.

The Pinaleño Mountains have had their share of embittered discussions. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Vatican – among other astronomers and financial backers – decided to help fund the University of Arizona/Mount Graham International Observatory.   Mount Graham, with its low humidity and light pollution, was deemed ideal for such an observatory, and the efforts to build were pushed ferociously into motion.

Bluebell KnollAmong these peaks, in the conifer and spruce-fir forests, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel resides – a species only found on this range and surely impacted by the controversial observatory and the continued mixed use and management practices of a federal forest.

Opposition to developing an observatory should have held some weight since the Pinaleños were, in fact, nominated by the United States Forest Service for designation as a Traditional Cultural Property and considered sacred to many, especially to the Western Apache tribes. As the battle raged, involving the leaders of most of the Indian Nations in the United States and Europe, indigenous rights groups, environmentalists, biologists, and anthropologists, the mountain’s chief harbinger of impact, the Mount Graham red squirrel became the fight’s pinnacle mascot.

Ironically, some of these Mount Graham red squirrels are now being housed at the Phoenix Zoo, kept in a controlled climate exhibit designed to mimic their former Montane forest home. The imperiled squirrels are apparently a part of a conservation program, where, if successful, they will be released “… back into the wild…”

A wild of our imagination, I fear.

Treasure Park MeadowAnd, how can the red squirrel ever win? How can the fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An and other sacred mountains ever be recognized? Among cell towers, telescopes, developed campgrounds along the Swift Trail, the ongoing efforts of wildfire and wildlife “management”, and the continued paving of roadways leading to Mount Graham’s recreational offerings… it’s all too clear.

Whatever Spirit of Wildness kept safe the dense population of black bears, the important prehistoric shrines and stories of ancestors, and the troops of that elusive red squirrel may not be powerful enough to hold back the inevitable future, a future that seems to have forgotten its equally sacrosanct call to wonder, to the sacred, to what is most precious on earth.

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Red Fire Days: Autumn in Pivot Rock Canyon


As an October baby, I have always loved autumn.  Growing up in Southern Indiana, with its poplar, redbud, walnut, and dogwood tree-covered hills, I naturally seek out places in Arizona similarly rich with plant diversity, and especially this time of year.

For those of us living in the desert, it’s necessary to adjust the senses for less garish autumnal finery. Those gilded colors I came to expect in October are hidden in washes and dry creek beds… with the remnant deaths of monsoon wildflowers, strewn against sand and cobble. The drift of fallen sunflowers and wine-hued amaranth fills the roadside ditches. And, the unexpected glance out toward the Estrella Mountains, where the wide Gila flood plains curve under the trunks of gold-trimmed Cottonwoods, conjures up nostalgia.

But, yesterday I needed the symbolic autumn of my youth, the overt heralding of change. Yesterday, I needed canyons.


So, a friend and I set out to explore one of myriad canyons of the Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment of limestone and sandstone that defines the southernmost edge of the Colorado Plateau. This is an area rife with deep canyons that spider out and create enormous gorges. The views are so easily lost to bewilderment. With its maze of ponderosa pine and rock, the imagination ponders how easy it would be to descend into one of those unnamed canyons and never be found again.

Our hike, however, led us to one canyon in particular… small in scope and challenge, Pivot Rock Canyon was the perfect choice.

Not really in the mood for thrills and chills, I sought a hike that would allow time for contemplating, tree-gazing, adorning the hair in yellowing oak and scarlet wild geranium leaves and burnt orange fern tendrils. The pace of this hike: easy-going… I’d find its description online, “…good for kids and dogs.” It is a daydreamer’s place, a small, wet capillary in the pulse of an otherwise dry pine body.

Starting out on an old jeep trail, we meandered through a natural park… there, some of the oaks and walnuts had begun to change their hues and a few hallowed aspens danced in pale yellow. The ground was wet from the evening’s rainstorm… the air smelled of fungi, decaying leaves, pine resin… and it was HEAVENLY.

Wildcat Spring

With my eyes fixed on the canopy above, I could have remained – lost for hours, just lying on a blanket spread on the musty, rich earth, breathing in the leaf-rot as if it could be the finest, most sensory-stimulating perfume.

Felled trees arched trunks and broken branches, downward… everything moved in the direction of slope and cliff, boulder and ridge. I, too, felt as though I had succumbed to the fall. A fall.

It is true. I had taken a rather hard fall recently, one that shook the roots and left me feeling like the only direction would be down with the drift, the torrent of summer storms, bashed and bruised – as any living thing – an instrument of greater change.

In autumn, the earth wears its mask of jewels. The harvest is a time of celebration, but only because we know what is around the forest bend – the dark nights that are closed to growth, the severe “Do not disturb,” the fin of the final reel. It doesn’t matter what yesterday’s intention was. It matters not what was felt. Now is the time we near ourselves to the ticking of choice. Accept or not. That is the inevitability of ends.

Looking out across a meadow park, my friend and I come upon a stand of massive oaks and the last of the season’s mullein. The quickening wind moves between thoughts and occasional words. It’s important to hike with those whose need for silence matches your own.

At the end of the canyon, the remnants of an old concrete cistern attest to a once active spring. Above us, the faint hum of motorists along Highway 87 snake their way between destinations. This was not to be a long journey. The canyon, though tangled and wild, ends abruptly after a few miles, joining up with its sister canyons along the splintered map of the plateau’s vast rise.


Canyons have a way of leading us along one adventure, only to dash our hopes with a sudden wall of tumbled rocks, then forcing us along on a different course. The dictates of its severe angles, weather patterns, movement of water…  There is a beginning and end. There are lost trails, twisted ankles, water too deep to avoid.

But, this journey was forgiving and I made peace with the hopeful wishes of being human, of falling against those hard edges and angles I was not prepared to meet. I breathed it all in. I took a last look at the shivering leaves, still beautiful beneath the afternoon sun.


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