Circling Dragonflies

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Such is life. Detours must be made and straight lines lead nowhere. My friend and I decided we would find a waterfall. That was on the itinerary, but like most itineraries, they are subject to change and the change can be anyone’s guess. Change just is.

This was a planned trip to look for a specific waterfall in Rim country with my friend, T. We were both ready to escape the city and the bullshit of “the human world” and all of its trappings – including our fixation on work and *shoulds*. Off to the hills and mountains, away with the paperwork! I could almost hear myself internally breaking into bloom as we ascended to junipers, then pine, after leaving the paradise of the upland Sonoran ecotone.

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Loaded up with gummy bears and deep thoughts, we grabbed our packs and began walking along a long forest road (up Colcord Mountain, near Payson, AZ). After a few minutes, my friend brought up the strange crackling from above. We were amazed to find many cicadas lined up the arms of pine, oak, and underbrush, shedding their skins, as they were, to emerge and reproduce. Such a cacophony, the armored symphony of these Hemiptera.

There is nothing of absolute silence, even when you think there is. Underground and on land reverberations occur – life moves in the small measurement of time and space. It may be undetected by the human ear, as we are woefully unable to hear the inconspicuous acoustics of all that is.

 

What did we do when we couldn’t find this waterfall? First, we walked, trusting the journey would be what it would be. By staying alert, aware, and receptive, we saw what was glimpse-moments, and appreciated. After all, the subtleties are true gifts and we were grateful for them.

And so we walked again, as two friends who are capable of the spontaneity of not knowing. As two friends who appreciate the peace of silence, as not to disrupt the flow of whatever it is we were doing at the time.

Finally, we wandered to a new build site along the forest road and asked a local. He gave us detailed directions. Locals have a way of being receptive to just “shooting the shit.” It’s nice to have this relaxed way of engaging with strangers. Sometimes small talk can be big talk full of joy, curiosity, and wisdom, if a person allows it. The slow chit-chat of a rural place. I miss that syrup-speed on a hot day, along a random road.

Did we ever find this waterway? No. How can a single green gate be so elusive, especially when everyone else seemed to find it off of the main road. It was laughable. We did three attempts, and decided that this waterfall was not meant to be seen by us, at least not that day. What was awaiting us?

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Haigler Creek is one of my favorite go-to day dreaming, loafing around places. I can spend hours listening to the birds and the creek, and the occasional kid with their fisher dad at one of the bridges upstream. The day was warm enough to walk down the creek and away from other people and cars (although, to our delight, it was pretty low key). We crossed the creek and made our way through dappled cottonwoods, water-worn rocks with their patterned ripples and smooth curves, and canyon walls.

A wonderful species of dragonfly – Antillean Saddlebags, Tramea insularis – danced around us as we waded along the overgrown banks. This fiery-purple species was new to me and had me wondering why the hell I haven’t ever learned more about dragonflies and damselflies and their whimsical ilk. I’m always fascinated by anything winged and ancient looking, and this fantastic species had me tripping and slipping over the rocks to get a closer look, before they zipped away, circling their peers.

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Golden Columbine, Rocky Mountain Iris, Sand Verbena, Lupine, and various daisies and asters lined the water in lush bouquets. Painted Lady and Empress Leilia butterflies delighted in them. The steep banks of red quartzite and limestone offer several steps and ledges to the juniper hills above the canyon, should you decide that wading wasn’t probable.

For me, I love to splash and swim, and meander clumsily in water. The watery world continues to leave me wanting more, to wade into the understory of riparian trees and grasses and find the faeries. Instead, I come back to earth and the human world.

My companion and I spent our last hour sitting on the bank, examining wood and crayfish skeletons, moon-like drops of water on sedge. I thought of Emerson:

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same fields, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

Never finding the falls was a gift. Being detoured is the delight of the patient and openhearted. There is always something to experience and be delighted by to the trained eye and attuned ear.

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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Christmas in the North Maricopa Mountains

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Margie’s Cove, A.Sato

Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.

My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.

This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.

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After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.

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Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.

Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.

In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.

As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.

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Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been  glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.

Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.

Next morning, I set out on the trail  with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.

Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.

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Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.

Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.

Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.

 

 

Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.

If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.

I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.

In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.

Nothing speaks this truth more than the desert.

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