A Walk To A Distant Barn

What a dry winter we’ve had in Southeast Arizona! It hasn’t rained significantly since late November and the soil is parched and dusty.

Lately Bev and I have been building a small cabin out in the Chihuahuan desert scrub, surrounded by vast expanses of mesquite, tar-bush, and white-thorn acacia. The drought conditions are causing the area to be quite dusty, but the flawless cirrus-streaked sky and the surrounding mountains compensate.

Yesterday I drove the pickup out to the property with a load of Douglas fir rafters for the cabin. After stacking the boards in the shade of the north side of the structure, I looked out across the wash-dissected scrub. A tin roof visible towards the north-west has been intriguing me. It’s difficult to estimate distances out there, but the old barn looked to be two or three miles away. It was a beautiful morning so I set off walking.

It’s an easy landscape to walk across, as there are an infinite number of pebble-paved corridors between the low woody shrubs and small trees. The mountain ranges on the eastern and western edges of the valley helped me stay oriented. I was glad of that because within five minutes I had lost sight of both the cabin and my destination.

The shallow sandy washes meander everywhere. I must have crossed a dozen of them before I neared the barn. My route took me closer to the Mule Mountains and I began to see signs of higher-elevation plants such as ocotillo and yucca.

I saw no signs of animal life on this walk, but lately I’ve been puzzled by little heaps of peculiar turds which I surmise are the scat of some reptile. The small heaps of coiled poop are always in the shade of a mesquite or tar-bush, and they remind me of demonic Cheerios:


One of these days I’ll surprise and embarrass a reptile in the act of adding to one of these piles!

I walked on, occasionally passing a tire track left by a rancher who runs a few cattle in this part of the valley.

Here’s my first sight of the barn, which seemed to have doubled as a house at one time:


As I approached the dilapidated structure I noticed a water trough and what looked like a well-head and pressure tank. Cow-pies became more common.


Bees and small birds were visiting this water trough, which is probably the only source of open water within a mile. The structure behind the trough is partially made of adobe.


A rusty water tank is perched atop a steel trestle and can be seen in this view from inside the barn and former residence. The drought, which has been going on for twenty years, has killed a tree which once shaded the barn. A limb has fallen onto the tank and will doubtless remain there for decades before rotting away. Fungi have a very short growing season in this climate:


I examined an adobe wall, a collage of mud, stones, straw, chunks of embedded wood, and two anomalous cockleburs:


A view of a kitchen which was last cooked in decades ago:


The curling tiles still adhering to the kitchen counter reminded me of dried and warped tiles of mud in a dry river-bed:


Looking away from the barn I noticed a humped silhouette a hundred yards away. I walked over to see what it was and found this ancient automobile carcass. The roof was caved in, bullet-holes riddled the doors, and the undercarriage had been removed. The shell left behind reminded me of the cast-off carapace of a cicada:


Nestled in the smashed-down roof of the coupe was what looked like one of the original door handles. The elements have left a pleasingly-pitted patina on the lever, a product of the toil of some long-dead Detroit worker in another century:


While walking back I got lost for a while and finally came across the cabin by chance.


A Worried Hawk

Recently I stumbled across a batch of photos languishing in a digital thicket, way back in the hinterlands of a hard drive. I pulled them loose from drifts of pixel debris, wiped them off, and realized that I had meant to write a post about the circumstances surrounding those images.

One day last December Bev and I drove downtown to visit the library and the post office, ready for a fix of what Henry Thoreau called “an influx of novelty”. We parked in a large lot behind a coffee shop. This lot adjoins a sloping concrete retaining wall, a bulwark which discourages Highway 80 from sliding down and obliterating downtown Bisbee.

Just as we pulled into a parking slot something clumsily flew across our field of vision. It seemed to be a raptor carrying something heavy in its claws. The bird abruptly landed or collided with the ramped concrete wall. I’d forgotten to bring my camera, but Bev had hers with her. I rolled down my window and got some shots, but I needed to get closer. The bird and its prey, which seemed to be a common rock dove, an alien city pigeon, was about thirty feet away. As seen through the truck window:


I slowly exited the truck and crept closer. The bird, which turned out to be a Cooper’s Hawk, was having problems and paid no attention to me. The hawk had a large and succulent piece of prey in its clutches but the wall was too steep to perch upon, and the hawk kept sliding down. I squatted down behind a steel grid anchored into a low wall and shot some more photos:


I was about ten feet from the avian drama and I used the camera’s built-in zoom. The hawk managed to find some footing, glanced at me, and began to pluck down from the pigeon’s breast. I think that the impact when the hawk collided with the wall might have killed the pigeon, as it certainly looked dead by this time. Tufts of down floated in the air as the hawk impatiently flung them away:


The hawk’s head is blurred in this shot, but it shows the characteristic mantling behavior hawks use when they want to shield the fresh prey from sight. As if to say, “Don’t even think about stealing this, human!”

The hawk and its prey began to slide again. As it neared the bottom I think the hawk may have realized that this was not an ideal setting for a meal.



Once the hawk was down at the parking lot level I think it became more aware of me. I wished I had been quick enough to get a shot of it flying overhead with the dead pigeon dangling limply, but the bird was gone within seconds.


It’s not often that such a scene presents itself!


Oak-leaf Funeral Procession

After a long day of driving last November we pulled into a campground at Twin Bridges State Park in northeast Oklahoma. The campground is on the shores of a man-made lake called The Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, a name which seems to be a slim compensation for the tribe’s forced removal back in Andrew Jackson’s time. The lake was formed after a branch of the Neosho River was dammed back in 1940.

The campground is shaded by post oaks, gnarled and not very tall trees which to me were a sign that we were on the verge of the Great Plains. Recent rains had brought down many of the distinctive stellate leaves of this species and they formed a crisp and rustling carpet on the ground.

Right next to the graveled parking lot I spotted a colony of delicate brown mushrooms, each one seeking a path to the open air through the loose layers of oak leaves. They seemed intent upon their spore-dispersal duties and barely noticed me at all as I knelt down with my camera.


In my usual fancifully anthropomorphic fashion I imagined that the erect fungi were supporting one particular leaf upon their caps and stems, slowly bearing it to its final resting place.


These are familiar colors and textures to me. Mushrooms which feed upon oak leaves often seem to have colors which harmonize with the hues of the leaves, and the slightly viscid texture of the fungal flesh contrasts nicely with the hard, crisp surfaces of the leaves. A closer view:


Visual encounters like this always cheer me up and feed my fancies!


A Private Gray Landscape

During November of last year Bev and I were on our way to Bisbee. We’re a bit picky about campgrounds, preferring remote spots without many camping “neighbors”.

As we approached Tucson a campground east of the city looked promising on the map. It was tucked into a canyon at the base of Mt. Lemmon and for some reason had been named Peppersauce Campground. The road to the campground meandered down from the interstate heights and wasn’t very well marked. We weren’t sure we were on the right road until we saw the campground entrance.

The campground wasn’t crowded, had potable water, and only cost ten bucks. Enormous sycamores shade the campsites, which are strung out along a rocky dry stream-bed.

A nice spot, but well-worn by legions of campers. I enjoy getting away from the evidence of other campers. The federal National Forest workers keep the obvious litter picked up, but any place visited by so many people has bits of paper, cigarette butts, bottle lids and such detritus worked into the dusty soil, so eventually I’ll venture out in search of places which have been neglected.

The morning we left I was up early; after brewing and drinking some coffee I walked away from the fire-rings and trash receptacles. The sky was overcast and there wasn’t a trace of a breeze. I climbed over a fence, crossed the access road, and made my way up a thorny steep slope.

I can’t say I really enjoy thorny and brushy barriers but they do serve to keep casual walkers out. I was just thirty feet from the road and found myself in a place with real character, one of those corners of the natural world which are rarely visited and thus have been allowed to develop a strong ecological identity. Gray boulders and outcrops were shaded and penetrated by gray-trunked trees. The gray sky and dim dawn light helped create a monochrome scene, subdued and quiet.

The trees weren’t large but seemed old, mostly a Southwest species related to the Eastern hackberry. I believe they were Celtis laevigata var. reticulata, the Netleaf Hackberry. The slope with its embedded boulders seemed to have discouraged cattle from their usual depredations


Some of the intertwined trees seemed to have sustained bark damage, probably due to rocks tumbling down the slope.


Fallen leaves, both from the hackberries and from the surrounding mesquites, had gathered in drifts among the rocky ledges. I could tell that they hadn’t been rained upon since they had fallen.


The eastern hackberries with which I’m most familiar have gray bark like this species, but the trunks are crowded with canyon-like terraced furrows. In contrast, these trees have warty excrescences surrounded by smooth bark. The warty areas sometimes look like corky breaking waves, while others resemble some sort of ancient calligraphy:




I enjoyed this ephemeral scene, a tiny strand of dried grass, with a bit of green still apparent, lodged in a warty crevice:


Here’s a hackberry which blew over, perhaps because its roots had been undermined by some burrowing creature. A shoot sprouted from the prostrate trunk and headed for the light. Perhaps after a few more decades the fallen trunk will sink beneath the surface and the origin of the new trunk will be concealed from view:


A rain-shower or two will dim the luster and colors of these fallen leaves which have found a refuge in the root-instep of a hackberry:


After spending some time soaking up the ambience of the place I ventured into an area dominated by old and gnarled mesquite trees. The focus is a bit off, but this shot shows an expanse of contorted mesquite bark. The mesquite leaflets caught in the furrows of the bark reminded me of frail boats struggling to stay afloat in a choppy sea:


Before I descended to the road I had an encounter with a javelina. The animal burst out of a thicket just as I emerged from another clump of mesquite. We stood facing each other for about ten seconds. We were about fifteen feet apart. I was downwind and I don’t think the javelina knew what I was. I made a small movement but that was enough to spook the creature and it plunged back into the mesquite bosque. I enjoyed this brief encounter!

By the time I had returned to the campground the sun had appeared. I walked down the dry river-bed to re-visit a remarkable sycamore tree I had seen the evening before. It’s one the largest Arizona sycamores I’ve ever seen. The trunk is short but stout, perhaps five feet in diameter.


I squatted near the trunk and noticed that a chunk of river rock had been gradually surrounded by the tree. Maybe in a few more decades the rock will be completely immersed in woody tissue!


The branches of these sycamores often extend horizontally to a remarkable extent:


By this time I was ready for some breakfast!


Sulphur Springs Valley

January was dry and warm here in Cochise County, way down in the southeast corner of Arizona, and the skies have been clear. This time of year the moisture of the fall monsoon rains is just a memory and the blue of the skies deepens. The weather has been ideal for walking and I’ve made several forays up the canyon slopes.

Many of the canyon slopes are just too steep to ascend without using my hands, and there are numerous areas of loose scree. I’ve found that the paths used by javelinas and deer are always a help, as generations of the creatures seem to have found the best trails between the washes and ravines. A neighbor rides her horse along one path and has helped keep it clear.

Recently I walked up to the ridge, where the trail connects with a longer one which overlooks Bisbee from one end to the other. There was one spot which offered a splendid prospect of the Sulphur Springs Valley, a flat expanse of rock and sand over one thousand feet deep, the accumulated detritus of eons of erosion from the surrounding mountains. A thin film of human occupation and cultivation on the surface will be around for a short time, geologically speaking, before new upheavals reshape the landscape.

From the ridge-top the valley seems serene and only a few structures and roads can be made out. A decades old clump of cane cholla displays yellow fruit in the foreground:


Coming back down to the canyon bottom I somehow managed to lose the trail. I wandered back and forth and finally gave up looking for it. The way forward was obvious, if thickety: down, down, down!

A flash of color caught my eye in a glade surrounded by alligator junipers and and contorted Emory oaks. A weathered nylon backpack lay discarded in the scanty dead grass. Next to it was a worn cap with a rooster embroidered on the front.


It’s very likely these items were discarded by an illegal immigrant some years ago. Under a nearby acacia I noticed a rusty food can. I picked it up and was surprised to find that the can had never been opened. It had a pop-top lid and by the weight I guessed that it might contain fruit:


I didn’t open it.

A few days later I drove up to Juniper Flats, a granite mass on the north side of town. There are some beautiful prospects visible from the very rough and switch-backed road leading up to the flat area at the top. One turn-off is one of the best places to see Bisbee from above, a small town nestled in a canyon:


From another turn-off the Sulphur Springs Valley can be seen from different angle. In this shot a Buddhist temple can be seen perched on a rock outcrop. A local architect built the pagoda-like structure; he lives nearby, one of the few people living up on the flats.


Across the valley several mountain ranges can be seen. The largest and highest range is the Chiricuahas. This corner of Arizona was once granted to the Apaches when Cochise was the chief of the tribe. Once the European settlers discovered that money could be made here of the course the land was taken back.