Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wet Desert

Wet Desert
This has been a banner year for rain in the Tucson area, and the desert is misty green with tiny plants that have waited years for just this moment. The iconic saguaro cactus, which has to be 65 years old to grow its first arm (!), is fat with stored water, and the first of what promises to be a whopping year for desert blooms are already showing.

I parked in the driveway of friends from the North Rim, in a 1960’s subdivision on the northern side of Tucson. Every yard here looks as though it was carefully landscaped with cacti and agave and palo verde in proper xeriscape manner, but a walk down the right of way for the power lines shows that this is what was here before the houses. Anywhere there is a tiny bit of water, the Sonoran Desert produces this wonderful thick thorny, 7 foot high tangle of prickly pear, palo verde, saguaro, creosote bush and who know who the others are. You can walk along the dry washes, but you can’t see much.

One evening the dog and I were walking at dusk and the local coyotes began their evening sing. I love this wild sound, it reminds me that the wild is right there, hiding under a bush, watching us and hoping we will leave something yummy to eat. Since one favorite snack is small dog, Pepe and I made a retreat.

A day or so later, the pack of 10 or so came galloping down the middle of the road, chasing something. They are tawny and sleek and very fast. Some came back up the road, ran back down again, and it dawned on me that some lovely young thing must have come into heat. Thrilling to see them.

The great sight of Tucson, besides the excellent mountains (you can ski up there!) is the Desert Museum. This is actually a zoo of sorts, with great attention to building natural habitats for the desert creatures that let us see them up close, but with minimal bars. A cougar lies blinking in the warm sun, two bobcats sit side by side peering down from their cliff, a band of javelinas ( NOT pigs says everyone, but well if it looks like…) sleeping in a heap, and a coyote posing in a rock and ignoring the attempts of everyone to get him to turn around for a photo. As humming birds are everywhere in this desert, and Tucson is on their flyway, they are given their own net house where you can walk among them, see a nest sitting mom, and get dive bombed by them as they chirp. The paths and exhibits are along a hillside over looking the Avra Valley, with distant mountains beyond.

This is a do not miss. If you love the desert, you will love it, and if you don’t have time to just go meditate out in the desert, this will give you a taste.

Another local sight, Sabino Canyon, was a great treat with all the water. A CCC built road takes you up the canyon on a tram and back down, with the usual guide remarks. Very scenic anyway, but the road has been designed to become a spillway when there is lots of water, so the tram drives right through the water, and the creek is rushing and leaping while the saguaro look down from the rocky walls. I took the tram up and walked down, taking off my shoes and wading through the water rushing over the bridges, I think there are 7 of them. I took my time, stopping to visit with flowers, and just looking up at the stony headlands above me, like a little kid soaking up sunshine in no hurry.

I found a museum of doll houses and spend a happy time looking at every one. I once had a doll house set up in a lawyers’ bookcase, I made a lot of the pieces, and love tiny foods and flower arrangements. I even sold some in a store back in MA. I sort of miss them, wonder if they are still in the attic of my old house. But what would I do with them now?

Tucson is a vast sprawl of subdivisions, mile after mile of them and every two miles or so another Mall and shopping cluster to serve that area. So the folks who live there don’t have to go far, but when I went to visit friends across town, it took forever, and looked like reruns over and over. The mountains are terrific, and the weather in winter is terrific, but it’s still a city. I will come back, to see my friends and do some other things

The friend in Yuma has company, so I will see her next time, I just spent the night and next day drove to Campo, to the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum, where Don and I spend two wonderful winters. It seemed odd to set out without planning my route, but this is sort of home.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


North of Las Cruces is the Three Rivers Petroglyph site. It has been on my radar for a while, and finally I got my truck back after a lot of needed but expensive repairs. I was thinking of leaving that Saturday, but a fellow HFH volunteer has been there before and suggested a trip, and I needed to test drive the truck , so off we went.

Up over the spectacular Organ mountains, still snowy on top, and then into the vast basin of White Sands. Oh look ! We’re at the beach ! And then north.

Three Rivers Petroglyph site is a small ridge of basalt boulders at the juncture of three dry arroyos. The Jornada Mongollon were the folks who made them, between 700 and 1000 A.D. They were a semi-nomadic tribe, hence “jornada”, but beyond that, we know little. They lived in pit houses, hardly more than animal burrows, and did some crop raising. And, for reasons we will never know, they painstakingly pecked designs and figures on the boulders, chipping off the dark layer of “desert varnish” (an oxidized skin) to expose the lighter rock beneath.

We take the low road, a faint path along the base of the hill; we are hoping to find a certain petroglyph, a large face, that is not on the marked path, so we walk the lower slopes.

We see a carving, then another, and then denser and denser clusters of them, until we are almost giddy with the wonder of these ancient pictures.

There are animals, mountain sheep, roadrunners, quail, ducks, turtles, snakes, cranes, fish, mountain lions, and eagles. Although the bodies are sometimes filled with geometric shapes, these wonderful creatures are recognizable, lively, a realistic bestiary.

The human figures are generally smaller, less deft, and sometimes only part of the body is there. Masks glower at us, often set vertically wrapped over the sharp edge of a rock, sometimes they are realistic, some times more of a cartoon. Hands, life size, and feet, and the foot prints of bears and possibly big cats, wander among the other figures on the rocks.

The sun, or at least a circle surrounded by dots or rays, and what look like comets streak by, but there is no decoding the geometric designs. They are, to our eyes at least, pure abstracts, complex patterns that suggest the pottery, rug or basket designs of the tribes that will come later. Linked circles, boxed symbols, and occasionally a figure that might be a hallucination.

It would take hours to make these, and surely we are wandering among the efforts of years and years of work. It must have been very important to them to devote that time and effort, hunter gatherers don’t have any spare time for hobbies. But we have no idea what they mean, or why they did them. Well, we have lots of ideas. Some see the double circle google eyed figures as like Tlaloc, the Mexican rain god and suppose there was a connection of some sort. What were they saying, and to who? These were humans, like us, and maybe what we are seeing is just art, the need to decorate, to mark a place as our own, or to commemorate some event.

One particular design, on an upright rock, with the Sierra Blanca Mountains in the background, looks to me as though it has something to do with rain and thunderstorms over the mountain. Was there once an epic storm and floods, or was the effort to make this complex image a prayer of sorts that rain would come? Is it recorded history or a hoped for future?

I wondered if anyone has mapped them all, to see if there was a pattern in the location of certain signs. Maybe different family groups had their own particular signs, or had their own rocky area to work on. Maybe many tribes and families gathered here for a while to visit and feast and make these astonishing pictures.

They are to me endlessly fascinating. First is the fun of looking for them among the unmarked boulders, then that first sight of them. This initial look is often as powerful as coming around the corner of a museum and being struck by a “civilized” work of art. As I look longer, trying to decode, to understand, it is at once frustrating, humbling, and mystical. So much of the imagery is easy to recognize, and appreciate on a design level, but the pictures are clearly communications and we have no way of knowing what the message is for sure. Even more mysterious, the rock art world wide is disturbingly similar, providing fodder for all sorts of theories: hard-wired images in our DNA?, evidence of common ancestry? (in the Garden of Eden..) and of course rock carving visitors from outer space.

I want more of these cryptic messages and I want to know more about them, although they appear to defy any theories beyond hopeful speculation.

Read more here:

On Sunday, I sadly pull away from the Habitat for Humanity site in Las Cruces. It was worthwhile on many levels, and now I will fit more builds into my roving plans.

On I-10, whatever angels are on duty paid attention. Apparently, an18 wheeler had rolled on its side and was blocking both westbound lanes, plus spilling fuel. The truckers on the CB were complaining and grousing, and spread the news that we were likely to be here for several hours. The angels saw to it that I stopped right beside the only exit for 20 miles, and so guided by the Border Patrol’s advice I and the rest of the traffic behind me drove around the mess. Unless they backed up, there were at least 2 miles of stopped traffic ahead of me that were stuck.

I navigated my way to friends’ house in Tucson, and will be parked in their driveway for a week or so.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Reruns at Campo

It was both odd and nice to leave Yuma and not have to look at a map, for I know the way to the RR museum. Roaming around as I do, this is rare.

I got lots of warm welcoming emails when I said I was coming back, and lots of hugs from those who are up here so far. It seems I am a member of the family, and that getting things done and having some laughs are looked forward to. Very gratifying to be appreciated.

I had wondered if coming here was going to make me really miss Don, and I have had a few moments where I expected him to come around the corner in his striped RR man overalls, and some moments when there was something I really wanted to tell him. But pretty much it’s OK about that.

However, I have returned just about at the time when we left last year, in the middle of the preparations for the dreaded Bunny Train. This is an attempt to build riders on the train, by giving some added value. This consists of an Easter Egg Hunt for plastic eggs (which must be re-hidden twice a day) and then some crafty time (all of which has to be set up twice a day), and all of this cleaned up at the end of the day. This only happens on Saturdays, and Sundays but it is a LOT of work, and then there are the rather half hearted attempts to decorate the big train display building.

Until this year, the riders paid no extra, and quite a bit of money was spent on candy and etc, which we hardly have enough of in any case, and this year especially.

It has been a really hard year for PSRM.

They set some small fires, and put them out, but CalFire decided that the entire way had to be cleared of all vegetation for 25 feet on both sides. This included 40 year old trees and was way more than needed (we suspect someone made a political faux pas to get them so mad at us). The entire broiling summer was spent doing this clearing, exhausting and discouraging the volunteers, and as we could not run any trains, no income came in. The trains began to run again in Sept.

Our monthly trip down into Mexico, which has always been a good money maker, is stopped due to a fire in one of the tunnels. The Mexican gummet says they intend to fix it, but no one knows when.

Right now, we have very few riders, and so on alternate weekends run a small railbus, taking riders to a truck museum and to another history museum. This requires less personnel to run and less fuel. And on top of that, we have fewer and fewer folks who are qualified and willing to run the trains, and a general sense that those who do know how don’t want to train new ones.

My personal problem is with the woman who is president. She has a noisy and unpleasant personality, and generally bad mouths everyone, often to their face. She has run off three very useful workampers with her tactless behavior, and I suspect she is making it less and less fun to be at the museum for all the volunteers. She comes with her 4 children who shriek and smack each other just as she shrieks and smacks them. I can hardly keep my mouth shut. Last year I didn’t after she was complaining about something I did ( some asshole….) and told her off but good. I’m now, after an afternoon with them of decorating for the Bunny Train, feeling much the same way: tired of working too hard, and tired of listening to her, and all for nothing.

Today, Sunday, I had no assigned duties, so I stayed away. And watched as our guests had to walk from the depot to the display building, instead of getting even a railbus ride. The railbus is too balky to use, our small engine is up on blocks until the wheels are unsharpened and replaced, and the big diesel is needing its maintenance. These are all very elderly vintage beasts, so it’s a little to be expected. But it all adds to a general feeling that my beloved museum is at a very low point.

During the week, I will continue to do projects on the rehab of the little depot. So far, I’m priming and painting 40 + sheets of t-111 siding. It is picky, thirsty stuff, so it goes very slow, but it feels useful and mostly I get to do it in peace and quiet.

I drove up to Julian to meet my friends from Tucson, where we shopped and ate lunch, and then wandered and shopped to make room for the famous Julian Apple Pie. (Although I actually had strawberry rhubarb). It is a nifty drive there with mountain views around every curve, and I came back another way that follows the edge of the Anza Borrego desert far below. I have to get there soon, the wildflowers will be amazing after all this rain.

Mostly it is very peaceful here, and the weather is good. I can look out over the big grassy field with the cows and their calves, watch the local feral cats and coyotes hunt in the sage brush. It will be good to stay put for a while, where I know where the bank and the stores are, and where to get a hair cut, and generally what to expect day by day. Although I have referred to this place as our museum, I feel less and less attached to it, and less inclined to worry about its problems. I can’t really do much about them, just paint and fix and clean a little while I’m here. Kind of like a part of my family that has to make its own way.