December weather has been unusually cool. We bundle up each afternoon and sit outside to watch the sunset over the mountains. Our neighbours are not sure if we are crazy or just Canadian, or both! We experienced two days of rain where remarkable slate clouds wrapped the mountains. A gratifying series of rainbows followed. Even the locals were surprised to find snow on the cactus on New Year’s Day!
Three quarters of the RV Resort we are in is leased by members who park their Fifth Wheel, Trailer or Motorhome on the site and stay for the winter months. Landscaping and the addition of a casita for extra space, are created by each owner. Many of the casitas are charming, either painted in desert pastel tints, designed after the adobe home or decorated with western and mining town motifs. Some of the gardens are elaborate with a huge variety of cacti, rocks and sculptures. One train buff has built an entire model train complete with old western town, water tower and small live cactus in proportion to the mini track.
Boxing Glove Cactus
Dixie does not favour hot weather and long, dry desert walks but with the cooler temperatures, she has been able to go on longer hikes with us here. The owner of the range of land behind the park allows members to trek miles up into the hills and through the sandy washes of the flats. We have seen an antelope, rabbits, quail, roadrunner and many small songbirds as we pass the huge variety of spiked plants. One of the most common survival mechanisms for the desert vegetation is the thorn. We all know that cactus are protected by their spines but the variety of length, curve, dimension and colour are remarkable. The majority of small trees and bushes also bear thorns and if you are able to avoid direct contact you are apt to pick up a prickle on your shoe or clothing, or in Dixie’s case, your paw. Luckily in this area there are no Cholla cactus along the paths that are most infamous for their infliction of pain. We discovered a new thorned shrub this year aptly named the “Wait a Minute Bush”.
Small creatures dig burrows under the protection od spines.
At first glance, the desert may seem like an unfriendly maze of colourless monotony but frequent visits reveal a quiet, subtle beauty. Arizona has a wealth of minerals as its copper and silver mining heritage reveal. Hikers can observe rocks in a wide palette of colours: cerulean blue, aqua, sage, maroon, rose, salmon, rust, fawn, umber, oatmeal, pearl, violet and blush. Size and texture vary from smooth striated stones, jagged, shiny specimens, dimpled chalky lumps, opaque glowing chunks and sparkling, papery, layered wedges. On the upper hills where it is windy, the sand around each stone has been blown away and each stone remains perched on its own small pillar, as if they are museum display specimens.
The understated bursts of colour in the desert are a treat for the hiker. Although the cacti do not bloom until March and April, many hold on to their fruit and others display muted pigment variations. Even the dead skeletal cacti and scattered silvered tree branches spice up the desert vistas. There are some huge ant hills along the trails anywhere from four to six inches tall and the diameter of a pizza pan. The ants are dormant in the cold weather but their domain sure is impressive.
Day trips have included a visit to our Ontario friend’s East Rincon RV Park in Tucson. The landscape there is rich with Saguaro and Cholla Cacti and the rugged Rincon Mountains magnificently frame the valley. The park is unique for Arizona in that the owner planted scores of palm trees over thirty years ago and they really transform the setting.
Kartchner Caverns are a close drive from our park. We visited the State Park and toured “The Big Room” a protected section of the caves that is open to the public only a few months a year. The live limestone cave, hidden inside a mountain, is host to a wide variety of minerals and formations that have formed over 100,000 years. Our tour guide had a great dry wit as he took us past, dripping stalactites, columns and totems, stalagmites, bacon drapery, calcite soda straws, bat-dung deposits, brushite moon milk and cascades of flowstone. We learned a lot about the science of the cave and unlike out tour at Carlsbad Caverns, we were allowed to get extremely close to the formations. The guide relayed an interesting story of the discovery of Giant Sloth bones deep in the cave which confirmed that another entrance had existed long ago.
Images from state park collection
We located a day care for Dixie so that we could have a full day trip. We drove to Bisbee with Lorraine and Chris on a morning filled with deep shadows and blue skies. We were lucky to see a coyote near the road; it is common to hear their howling at night but rare to spot one. Bisbee is a mining town founded in 1880 when the discovery of copper brought hundreds of immigrants who worked the mines and settled in a makeshift town. The black and white photo from the museum shows the crammed camps and settlements in “Brewery Gulch”, known for its lively nature and supporting forty seven saloons. Fire brought down the first settlement in 1908 and the town was rebuilt. When the valley filled up, homes were constructed up into the Mule Mountains. Today, a sense of the old town remain and the artsy community who reside here now maintain the soul of “The Old Benson”. The town draws tourists to view the Queen Mine, the Mining and Historical Museum, its Victorian and Craftsman architecture, galleries, shops and bistros. After delving into the mining and cultural history of the area at the museum, we checked out the town and drove up to Tombstone.
I have written about the Historic Cowboy-Town of Tombstone on our two former visits. Best known for the OK Corral, the other attractions are its cowboy saloons like Big Nose Kate’s where we enjoyed live music and lunch; western-wear shops offering the usual turquoise jewelry, cowboy hats, boots; tourist shops where all the t-shirts and coffee mugs feature the 4 famous “OK Corral guys”, cactus or horses; original Tombstone Epitaph printing presses and office; shooting range; silver mine and town hall. We attended the Ok Corral performance where Doc Holliday, Wyatt, Vigil, and Morgan Earp gun down the Claiborne and McLaury brothers in a 30 second showdown. The gunfight was the most famous in the American Wild West where control by the outlaw cowboys was finally addressed by the Law. The Diorama-Film History of Tombstone presentation at the OK Corral Theatre was quaint and enjoyable.
Did somebody say they needed tobacco? Three inch White Lined Bird Grasshopper.
The Christmas holiday crowd made Tombstone feel much more like a tourist trap. It was disappointing that some young stand-in actors had replaced the originals at the OK Corral and the show really lacked authenticity. We had a short visit with the longhorns before stopping at Boot Hill to view the rustic graveyard where the notorious and the unknown of Tombstone are laid to rest.
Saguaro Cactus are the icon of the American South West and no western movie is complete without some. With the knowledge of their limited growing range, an area in Arizona and Mexico without freezing temperatures, we know now that many “Hollywood Saguaros” were nothing but props.
We hiked the West Saguaro National Park where there are literally thousands of the amazing cactus. We were remembering our Saguaro facts as we stood small, admiring their awesome beauty and variety: lifespan:150-200 years, 40-60 feet tall, 18-24 inch diameter, five foot tap root for water and shallow branch roots for support, arms do not grow until cacti are 60-70 years old, Arizona State flower (white blossoms at night), filled with water, they weigh 5-8 tons. The sheer numbers of tall cacti in close proximity to each other is compelling. Each Saguaro “tree” is so unique, one can discern distinct human personalities and befitting names. As the sun began to sink behind the Saguaro’s their tops glowed golden and their spines appeared fuzzy like a boy’s fresh brush cut.
As we drove out of the Park, a breathtaking view expanded as the Saguaro-filled peaks were framed by the icy blue shadows across the Rincon Mountains.