One Night in a Cave

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Goldfield Mountains, A. Sato

This was the first time I had backpacked in years, and I could feel it. These muscles haven’t been in use in some time and, while I consider myself to be a decent hiker with good stamina, one mile with 30 pounds strapped to my back felt like ten. It didn’t help much since I had been impatient and packed quickly, and, of course, hauled in the water I would need for the night. I felt terribly inept, but stubborn enough to press on.

The cave wasn’t too far from the truck, maybe a mile or so. Besides, I had included my day pack for canyon exploration and would have time to trek around the side washes and rock outcrops I have come to know. The Goldfields are surprisingly isolated for being so close to the city and adjacent to the popular western Superstitions.

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Still Life, A. Sato

I am a wilderness snob, preferring wilderness to actually be wilderness. The western Supes feel much like the National Park atrocity of eager hikers waiting to break in their REI accoutrements and the endless number of Subarus and souped up jeeps in the parking lots. In a way, I kind of prefer the miners and ranchers. It’s sad to know that wilderness areas must be regulated now. Great efforts to keep their wilderness criteria intact is all but lacking. I have a feeling we’ll see ticket purchases and cotton candy at the gates soon.

Enough of my curmudgeon speculations…I am here and the sun is a strange orb of orange behind a microwavey cloud. This light makes it feel hotter than the 82 degrees, but I press on down the wash, careful to not tumble over with this damned pack. Lizards dart across hilltops and rest their one-two, one-two positions on hot rocks. A single red-tailed hawk floats overhead and behind Blue Ridge. A lone ATV sits parked in the wash. This, unlike the Superstition Wilderness, is strictly public land and there are numerous old jeep trails and abandoned mines all around. I’ve found that the OHV riders tend to stick to the popular roads and ignore much of the rest of the range.

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Mesquites, A. Sato

The Goldfields span from Usery Pass to the west to the Apache Trail to the east, north to Canyon Lake and south to the city of Apache Junction. To traverse the Goldfields, it’s approximately 14 miles in distance, east to west, which you can hike in a full day if you’re motivated to do so. I prefer to take my time here.

Winds and rain have swept out great crevices in the rhyolite and conglomerate along the canyon walls. The walls also contain polished chalcedony that shines in the right light, making an ordinary sandy wash quite lovely. Once into the canyon, the only noise you can hear is the jets going over. It is quiet in terms of man-made noise, but the ever-present songbirds and occasional raptor give way to another music.

Here, I am most content. The mindless chatter of my own thoughts dissipates and I settle in to noticing everything around me: small traces of a snake’s journey, the patterns of a thistle plant in full bloom, the intricacy of ironwood roots. I could get lost in reverie here, but know that this is not my place. It has its own hardships.

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Home for the Night

The desire to live outdoors is often fairytale. Realistically, after a few nights sleeping on rock, I am all too happy to return to my cozy bed. The voyeur in me is short-lived and the romance of the simple, off grid life is too often laced in self-deception. We are animals used to dependency, and rightly so. We need each other and the help that a community provides against our ego bravado that says otherwise. We die on our own. Sometimes horrible deaths. And being simple isn’t going to change the course of this civilization’s rush to destruction. It’s illusory, at best.

I lean down to inspect a piece of rusted pipe from former gold mining efforts. They must have pumped water down the wash for their operations. I suppose you could learn more about the short boom here at that little tourist town, Goldfields, along the Apache Trail. You know I won’t go.

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The sun is starting to set so I make my way back to the cave. It’s not really a cave, in all respects, but an overhang with a considerable amount of room in its three distinct caverns. I choose the one that is most exposed because it is dry and because I can actually see the floor. Of course, I will be sleeping amid mouse turds and guano, but it appears dry and I have my ground cloth. I chose the lightest pad and can feel the stone beneath me as I crouch down to make my dinner. The evening wind picks up and I feel chilled and grab my flannel. Heating up my soup, I hear the low murmur of an owl and see antelope squirrels emerge and run alongside the cliffs above me. They use the small holes in the rock as refuge during the day and are now out comically inching along the vertical steppes. I wish I was so agile and swift.

I had  plans to write tonight, but pick up a well worn copy of Plants of the Sonoran Desert field guide instead. I settle in as the wind picks up and moves around the contours of the cave. The thermals bring warmth from the sun-touched stones below. Could I live here? It seems like a viable option. I have little money and no plans, which is a combination that can lead to great adventure, or a deeper level of despair.

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I once gambled my life on bottles of whiskey and beer. A life that seemed well spent at the time, but now that I have emerged from that…I am chagrined to accept that I like a hot shower and a nice bed.

The night is a calm force. The bats resonate as they come into the cave and back out, devouring mosquitoes. I hear the soft hoof-steps of deer.

Oh, and crickets.

What do I know of sleeping in caves? It’s an easy venture when you know a truck awaits. I can dream of danger. Danger like a whisper, a concept I am not afraid of. In a few hours, after restless sleep, I will boil my coffee and head out. A night of quiet solitude, I can say, is as soothing as the touch of a lover, and just as fleeting.

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The author’s feet

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Ghosts in the Camera and Lion Caves

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I wanted to show you photos and videos of today’s exploratory journey into the Goldfield Mountains – and specifically to Sunrise Arch. Alas, I came home and attempted to transfer my images off of the photo card to have something curious occur. They were wiped. Nada.

After having a small cry fit, I will tell you about my amazing morning in the rough-riding reaches of miner’s country.
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I got to the Bulldog Canyon OHV Trailhead about 7am, and meandered down the forest road, past RVers enjoying their primitive sites and fresh cups of coffee (or, in some cases, beer).

It was a brisk 52 degrees but sunny, and the flowers started to pop every which way, bejeweling the hills with the brightest golds and amethysts. It was quiet, without any ATVs along the way. I knew they’d be coming later that morning, but it was still too early for all of that nonsense. Gambel’s quails darted to and from palo verdes and five hungry coyotes were out on the prowl, looking for the cottontails who were also out in droves.

Spring in the desert is a good time for all. The cactus wrens warbled their songs and the distinct metallic chirps of thrashers resounded. Can there possibly be anything more welcoming than birdsong?

I was on my way to Dome Mountain, which appears in the distance from every direction. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, since I didn’t have a topo or my phone, and was relying heavily on memory of the maps I perused before leaving. One thing about the Goldfield Range is that it is hospitable for anyone who has the basics of navigating by compass and landmarks.

Overall, my recollection was pretty good, so I didn’t bother much with old mining roads or the few trails. Instead, I decided to wing-it. I had been walking for a few miles when I noticed some cairns off to a wash and along the side of a hill. To my surprise, it led to Sunrise Arch. A window to the world, or rather Saguaro Lake and the distant Mazatzals.

There were so many wildflowers…lupine, scorpionweed, blue dicks, poppies, woollystar, clover, salvia, various asters, and AYDLFs (another yellow daisy-like flower). I scrambled up to the peak above the arch and pirouetted around the 360 degree view of the Goldfields. I think I sang some Eagles while I was up there, and probably offended the local rodents. Why is it I get Eagles songs stuck in my head while hiking? I need a new soundtrack.

From there, I dropped down from the Arch and through a wash with deep pools of water from recent rains. Loads of flies, honeybees, dragonflies, and butterflies of all varieties floated alongside me as I hiked into a deeper cavern of polished rhyolite. That’s when I spied a possible cave in an adjoining canyon, hidden behind the ghost of a former stately saguaro.

Oooo, a cave. Should I explore? Of course!

The blasted out tuff formed an overhang, which was larger than I thought. Bat guano and owl pellets lined the floor and to the side, a bigger, deeper cave with a bed of dirt and debris that was obviously well used… Yes, home to a mountain lion (or two), its entrance covered in lion scat, some old and others disconcertingly recent. From another ledge under the cave, I sat and had my lunch and pondered lions, who also must look across the valley below the Orohai.

I thought to myself, “I am so lucky to have found this place, to be alive, eating peanut butter sandwiches while looking at mountain lion scat!” Really, this is my heaven.

The way back to the car was long and rocky. I found Deer Creek Tank, the result of efforts to encourage desert bighorn to stick around. No sightings of these much adored creatures, but I always look for them when I gaze up at the ridges and spires. I suspect they ventured into the Superstitions, displeased with all of the OHV use that cuts through this range. I would love for the Forest Service to shut down the off-roading access and leave it to hikers and horses. It’s such a special place, full of history, prehistoric and historic, and offers an array of geologic features and desert flora. ❤

On the way back, a kindly old man on an ATV made sure this Little Missy knew where I was and had enough water. He was a chagrined that I had been off trail and had a good knowledge of the layout after looking long and hard at topographic maps each night. Still, kindness goes a long way, and I was happy to chat with him about our mutual adventures.

What a day! What a life. There is nothing better than a spring day in the desert, complete with scat, tracks, and a whole lot of flowers. Too bad about the lost images, but at least I have all of the memories, and it just gives me more reason to go back and explore!

Happy tails and trails.

xo
Aleah

 

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Familiar Landscapes

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“We are a landscape of all we have seen.”
– Isamu Noguchi

There are particular landscapes that stand out in the recesses of memory. Driving down the I17 for the first time and seeing the Sonoran desert come into view…the saguaros, the palo verdes, and brittlebush, and realizing I would live there some day. The wide fields and hollows of soybeans, horses, and oaks are the places of my youth. The steep granite cliffs lining river gorges and pine bring to mind my days in the north woods. And now, I walk among volcanic rock, crumbling welded tuff and ash, a blaze of sunlight lining the cliffs at first light.

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Place is the indicator of safety, and that familiarity of place soothes the fearful animal.

I’ve always felt the flora and geology to be family, places I could gather and listen to ancient stories about how to live in a manner this culture contradicts. To this day, I take my knowledge from the elder trees and the mentor species. There is never a moment I feel isolated from being a part of, because I am so intricately a part of them.

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Friends, too, share this passion for landscape. Their backyards consist not just of green grass to mow or a small garden plot to tend but the unruly weeds and beetles. Many have the privilege of living in a wilder terrain where they can hike at will and never see the same path. Fellow explorers spend their time wandering the Southwest, uncovering their unknown history, writing up bones of forgotten days.

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When I walk a new landscape, I prefer to walk it alone. Like meeting a new friend, I must respect this space and listen intently. The phainopepla reminds me to honor the new day. A quick “qui-qui” shout from a familiar friend, the thrasher, tells me to watch my footing. It’s nearing spring, and after heavy rains the wildflowers abound – the most obvious call to renew, readjust, and most importantly, stop being so serious.

The most meaningful lesson is that the earth is not here to provide lessons, or to owe me a thing. It is not an object of worship, a peak to “bag”, my mother, or my playground.

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While I may glean from place deep lessons and gifts, it is my duty to know my place as an animal among animals, and to live life as not to disrupt this reality. I am called to be a fierce daughter of one loyalty. It is to the saguaro I bow, the lion, the rock, the soil. I am called to be a protector of place, when called, but not the instigator of outcome.

To know one’s place in the most meaningful sense is to be humble. My nameless journey, I am here to serve.

 

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White Canyon Wilderness Wander

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Canyon Mouth, A. Sato

I spent a lazy Sunday wandering through White Canyon Wilderness, a hidden heaven not too far from Phoenix. No goal. No fitness hike. Just a lot of puffy clouds, silence, and the chance to soak in another beautiful view.

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White Cliffs, A. Sato

The best part of slowing down is taking the time to notice what you don’t when you are keeping pace on a long hike.

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A. Sato

Small flowers, delicate blades of native grass, unusual markings etched among rock, moss, and lichen, a hidden petroglyph…these are the findings that can only emerge into vision in idleness.

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I am taking the time to find God in small things. Her beauty is in the intricacies and eloquence of the understated and unnoticed.

 

 

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Solitude in the Goldfields

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Exploring new terrain is always exciting, but sometimes you only have a few hours to kill. The Superstitions seemed like a good bet, but I still shy away from the crowds and on Veterans Day, there was sure to be a crowd.

The Goldfield range, near Usery Pass and Saguaro Lake, is something I have always wanted to explore. Not as glamorous as the Supes, the Goldfields offer many of the same wonders of the volcanic complex to its east, but with less of an allure. It’s unusual for people to know the range, unless they’re outdoor enthusiasts from Apache Junction, or those who prefer solitude, even in the city.

Since the terrain is easy to explore with a topo, I decided to jump out around Willow Springs Wash and cross country my way southwest to the middle of the range, just north of Dome Mountain.

Here is what I experienced…

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I arrived just as the sun was starting to crest over the ridge, and – of course – it was insanely cold. I’ve never felt so cold in my life as I have in the desert in the fall and winter months. There is a quality to the cold unlike any of the humid places I’ve been during the winter. It’s like touching frozen metal.

Thankfully, I was quick to warm up by hiking up a steep ridge to gaze into the eye of the sun. Its warmth was immediate.

I looked around at the awaiting cacti, jojoba, and creosote. Everyone seemed to be waiting for this precise moment of sunlight splendor.

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It was a windy day and it seemed to drown out the few ATVs I could hear, probably over in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area. There are many jeep roads that transect much of the range. Relics of old mining roads, mines, pits, and former camps and equipment are what you can expect here. The sort of place you’d see burros and a rusted out Model T. I sadly saw neither.

As a matter of fact, I wondered why I hadn’t seen a soul, even a coyote, in over 3-4 miles. All I had for company was the wind.

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And more wind… and the eerie sense of knowing there were plenty of critters all around, but I couldn’t see them. I was able to spot a Cooper’s Hawk flying high above the tuff pinnacles. Seeing him added to the absolute hush of the morning. Even my footsteps were silent.

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Nearing the end of the jeep road, I decided to scramble down a side canyon. I had to bushwhack a bit to get down into the wash where former rains pooled in the deep sand and the grasses gave the path a rare delicacy that no desert ever really offers.

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Farther into the canyon, the walls began to narrow. I came across some old wildlife caches that have long since dried up. Moisture from the shade and rains produced unknown ferns, mosses, and lichens along the ground and canyon walls. Bobcat, coyote, and javelina tracks were visible, as well as skunk.

Dropping onto the canyon floor and over a large pool of murky water, I realized I probably wouldn’t be going any farther without technical gear to assist. The vertical drops were more than I could manage and more water to deal with. A good problem.

I already had a long trek of boulder hopping and butt sliding, so I was ready to climb back up to the ridge. (It’s interesting, if you are a rock nerd, to note that the canyon walls were smooth with chalcedony. Very pretty in the morning light.)

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Before making my way back to the car, I had a chance to take it all in. From Gonzales Needle to Golden Dome to Razorback Ridge. What a view. What beauty.

And NO PEOPLE.

My kind of hiking.

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So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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It Began Here…

It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.

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Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.

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Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.

To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.

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To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.

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I choose to erase

the details of

my desire for this place.

Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.

Canyon Meandering: Pondering the Fool’s Journey

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill

To be foolish…00-the-fool
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.

Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.

Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.

But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.

Stay.
Try again.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.

They whisper to us through fear and doubt.

My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.

Where? the goblins demand.
What will it be?

And what if there is pain?

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I awake again to a midnight moon – a fool’s half-moon – in Pivot Rock Canyon.

There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).

To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.

Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.

Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.

It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.

The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.

Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.

At least, no human others.

Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.

WildCat_trail2 (1 of 1)But now it is only the campfire that hisses.

Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.

The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.

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The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.

But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.

Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.

To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.

Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.

Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.

It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.

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.

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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.

Red Fire Days: Autumn in Pivot Rock Canyon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.