THE SANDS OF PIMA ARROYO

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Roads from the Sky—Sand—The Mysterious Pyramid—Stone Houses—Desert Varnish—Exfoliation—Teddy Bear Cholla—City Lights—The Mine—Relics—Mutt Mitts—Broken Glass—“Wonderlust”—The Water Tank—Petroglyphs—Rattlers—Hot Hikes—Birds—The Ring of Stones—Wash Walking—Ojo de Awa—Still Green Are My Memories

There is a mountain south of Phoenix, an exfoliating batholith in a horse latitude, rain shadow desert as hot as any one might find in the world. Its color is brownish and its hills roll off into the distance with little to recommend them to the casual eye. The name of the mountain is simply South Mountain, and it is the biggest city park in the nation.
In 1958, Tempe, Arizona, was bordered by desert, and to the southwest of that desert was the town of Guadalupe, a Yaqui community of contrasting austerity set as is was against the trim, modern city next door. People didn't starve there, but living with no front door on the house was not too far from the norm, and the roofs of many homes were just of chicken-coop tin. The town was a Mexican town, just as Mexican as any south of the border. My parents used to drive us through Guadalupe to go to South Mountain's Pima Canyon, and they used to do this often.

If you have ever flown in a plane over Mexico, you are immediately struck by the very different appearance of the cities from the air as compared to those north of the border, and if you look hard enough, you will know the reason: the roads below are unpaved. So it was with Guadalupe. The streets were made of sand. It wasn't a finely winnowed powder, but a thick-and-thin-grained granite sand devoid of the glittering mica you might find in other parts of the state. The sand flowed down the streets just as it flowed down the arroyos that ran through the hills. It was puffy and dusty and light in color like a sand that had given up the dream of ever really being white. It crunched under the station wagon tires. In the summer, the sand drank up any drop of water until every plant in the town was wilted and seared—or nearly every; here and there a house had a sprinkler going to water a bit of green Bermuda. And a few had the red-blooming bougainvillea, the one plant that would stand stubbornly even when strangled of water. But the rest of the place was sand.

It was through a different country and a different culture that we used to drive when we went down Avenida del Yaqui. At one crossroads, there on the avenue, someone had built a cement pyramid eight feet high. It was the same color as the sand. The pyramid always made its impression upon me as we drove by it, but this was not the place we would turn to drive to Pima Canyon. We made a turn where today no turn exists, and we went on a road that was then much longer than it is today. A new city covers much of the road now, but fifty years ago, you took some time to get to the end, where the roofless, mysterious stone houses stood and the arroyo made its turn through the canyon.
I was a child then, and I would look through the station wagon windows and take in the scenes that somehow shocked and haunted me as we moved deeper into the desert. More than any place I would ever see, South Mountain gave the impression of being very old. On its very face seemed to be painted the passing of time, and on it, too, I could imagine a kind of resignation to that passing. The still scenes of odd, table-shaped boulders and of gravelly stretches of colorless crystals were scenes of a land that had long since given up any resistance to the attrition of the years. The chips of granite were speckled like the retro living room curtains of the 1950s, and the boulders were covered with desert varnish, dark brownish, purplish.

Perhaps the exfoliation of the mountain's rounded boulders and giant slabs of granite further imparted the appearance of great age. It rains but rarely on South Mountain, and so the process was slow, but rainwater, when once it did come down, did what it still does there and everywhere else in the world: it combined with the ground's carbon dioxide and turned to carbonic acid. The acid leeched the feldspar out of the granite so that the crystals of quartz and ferro-magnesians fell about, and the feldspar, converted to clay, found itself blown in the wind to mix with the ever present sand. I didn't know the chemistry then, but I did know that the signs of ruin were everywhere I set my eyes.

And there were the teddy bear cholla too, bright blond on the extremities, but dirty brown under the arms and nearly black up the stalk. There is no dustier, older-looking cactus in the world—and none, by the way, more murderous. Just a brush against it will bring a punishment no careless walker deserves. It was the true jumping cholla. The spiny clumps of cactus, however, did not need the idle touch of some passerby to break away; beneath each plant were piles of them for the coyotes to sidestep, bristling clumps that had fallen on their own. Some glinted with yellow spines, and some were nearly black with a burnt and disintegrated look.
The teddy bear cholla was seen in bajadas, little forests that appeared to have grown in place by having been thrown all together at once down a hillside or across a level stretch of desert. Wherever they landed, they stuck, stopped in mid motion, frozen in place—the whole party of small, but anthropomorphic cacti a snapshot in time. Fifty years later, I would photograph a bajada there and type in the title field of iphoto: Dance of the Cholla.jpg.

We used to stop at the end of the road as there was no way to drive any further. Then we would climb the giant piles of boulders there. We had a name for every special rock and every tunneling crevice that coursed through the pile.

One long slab lying before the pile was eight feet high and fifty feet long. There was space beneath it and openings at both ends, so you could have crawled completely under the stone if not for the pack rats' having stuffed the hollow half full of cholla. Still, I would lie down to look completely under the stone to where I could see the sunlight at the other end. It was a frightening, claustrophobic scene, and I imagined myself for some reason having to make my way under the megalith to the opposite opening fifty feet away.

Sometimes my parents allowed night to fall before we went home. We could hear coyotes and we always listened for a wild cat or a mountain lion though I don't remember if we ever heard either of them. The stars shone bright with the shadow of the mountain upon them and the glow of the capital city on the other side too weak in those days to smudge them away. On the drive back, if you looked to the east anywhere south of Guadalupe, there were no lights at all.

On the days that we spent an afternoon there, we sometimes walked up the arroyo. Table-like slabs of stone jutted out from its banks, ready for any of us to set with silverware and place chair in front of. But we never did—and we didn't walk far up the wash either. A hundred yards along we knew there was an old mine blasted into the hill, but we only went there once or twice to see the evidence of copper: a thin green coating of malachite on the occasional stone, barely pretty enough to take home as a souvenir.

In our youth, although we were brimming with energy, that energy was not boundless; it had very strict restrictions that governed its use: to wit, it could only be used in play. A simple walk to the mine was looked upon by the puerile body and soul as drudgery no less painful than the almost physically incapacitating encumbrance of taking out the trash. We preferred climbing the rocks and running ourselves to exhaustion to the toil of walking up Pima Arroyo. We'd squeeze ourselves through the tunneling crevices in the mountain of stones or slide a thousand times over a favorite granite ridge into the arroyo. Once, I slid down the ridge so many times that I found that I had simply worn the seat from my pants, and I was sick with mortification with no change of clothes in the midst of the family's picnic guests.

Today I still go to the same place by the stone houses where I tore my pants. A few years ago, a park ranger on a horse showed me Indian petroglyphs there five feet from the pants-tearing ridge. The scene on the stone was carved through the manganese oxide desert varnish as are most such etchings—only this petroglyph depicted a group of dancing stick figures holding hands. It was a rock drawing much more light-hearted than the usual stoic themes one saw on the mountain: man, whorl, bighorn sheep, etc. I didn't tell the ranger that I surely would have remembered the figures if they had been there when I was a child. And I didn't tell him that I doubted that the ancient Native Americans were in the habit of dancing around holding hands because they never carved such scenes into rock as far as I knew. I did know that just below the carvings were a dozen coyote skulls—the remains of some sheepherder's ghastly slaughter—buried in the sand. We found them there decades ago while digging a barbecue pit—and we reinterred them.

The stone houses were the stopping place of many who came to Pima Canyon, and there by the pile of stones and the granite ridge were the signs of these visitors. Most everywhere you looked were the brown shards of broken beer bottles and the ground was scattered thick with spent .22 shells. The whole area glinted Budweiser brown. Even in the 1980s, bottle breaking and shooting were common at the end of the road, but sometime later, there was a drastic change. The park became more carefully managed, and if you found a piece of glass, it was a relic of the past—just as are the now rare, old rusted beer cans with the triangular church key punch holes. When I find one out in the desert, I look upon it with a kind of joy and treat it as an antique to leave in place as part of Arizona's legacy. I find such treasures still—the old miner's bean can with a peeled back top or a sardine can rusted for a hundred years lying under a bush with its lid rolled neatly around the key that has been carefully tucked inside. And occasionally I find a far more ancient item like a Hohokam chipping stone made of basalt.

How the city could have rid the area of all of those bullet shells and broken bottles is a mystery to me. I think of Darwin's study on earthworms and how long it took them to bury the flints in his field. Even without any earthworms in the desert to cover the pieces of broken bottle, the entire park is today surprisingly glass free, and the trails, though walked by people in the hundreds, show almost no sign of litter. In recent years, there has been a change of mindset and culture; the hikers of today simply pack out what they pack in. The only occasional exception is the fault of the dog owners. The city provides bags for dog dew called "Mutt Mitts," and people pack these bags in. Unfortunately, once used for their intended purpose, they are not especially pleasing to pack out, and so you will sometimes see one lying plump on the side of a road or trail where it has been left by an insufficiently principled and less than stalwart walker.

Let me tell you of a littering incident. I was making a cross-country expedition in a remote area of the park when I saw that someone had left a movie ticket on the ground. As most people would, I reflected that the person should have been more careful with such trash. I looked at the ticket and it said, "Fahrenheit 911, June 26, 2004." When I got home, on a hunch I searched Pima Canyon in my bird database. There, I found a page for the same date with a note about the matinee I had gone to just before the hike. It was I who had been the litterer.

It goes to show why I have the database. Consider my visit to the dentist the other day. The technician tried to convince me that I was having my sixth crown. "But I only have two right now," I protested." She got out a mirror and we looked in my mouth and counted five. There is no way for the human mind to track all of these crowns or hikes—or trips even just to one place like Pima Canyon. Yet the human soul (or at least mine) yearns to know how many hikes there have been and when they were. Paper records are good, but they don't compare to the database—as it can be searched in a wink—and as far as the bird list goes, I, myself, can sort any specific finch from all of the flocks of sparrows and finches I have ever seen at Pima Canyon, anywhere else, or everywhere else.

The computer age that I scoffed at as a twenty-year-old has changed life for the better. For me, a large part of life used to be a dreary journey of what I call "unrequited wonder lust." In the past, you might wish to check where and when you went and be stymied by a yard-high stack of moldy notebooks. Coming home from a hike when the wonder lust hit you, you would not perhaps have the energy to leaf through them all to check for what you wanted to know unless your reference system was particularly well thought-out. And with regard to other facts, you may have wished to learn, there was much you would have trouble finding even in a library. Remember those old rocket radios? They were simple crystal radios you could buy for a dollar fifty. You pulled the nose cone up to change channels, and there was an alligator clip to hook to a window screen or other piece of metal as an antennae. In the 80s I could only imagine what they used to look like and wished I could see one again. Today, not only can I see a picture of one, I can buy one in its original box on Ebay. In 1968, the Smothers Brothers read a poem on their show, and for years I wanted to have a copy, but I would have had to ask the librarian if she remembered it—which was unlikely, and they wouldn't have a copy anyway. Now I Google it.

Life is abundant.

But my trips to Pima Canyon are not on the internet; they're on my intranet and I wonder no more about anything that has happened. A few years ago, I was surfing my intranet and found that I had no record for a trip to Pima Canyon in the year 2000. I remembered that I had hurt my leg bird watching on Kentucky Derby Day around the year 2000 at Elliot and Cooper Roads. I knew that it took a year to heal, and so for a while, my reality was that my missed trips to the canyon were because of my leg. In subsequent surfing, I found that I hurt my leg in 2001. Later, when I integrated my journal and bird database, I happened to find a year 2000 trip that was not in the bird database, so I took the opportunity to put it in there where it belonged with no bird sighting associated with it. There seems to be just one trip in 2000. I don't know why that is, but I do know it isn't because of my leg.

In the spring of 2004, I stepped down from my eight-year position as the Associate Director of the program for which I worked at Arizona State University. I had longed for a summer vacation for many years and was able to get six weeks off before I returned to the teaching faculty. I did not waste the vacation. Every day for that time, I would get up and work on a grammar book and software project of mine. And after the morning's work, I would head to South Mountain and hike up the arroyo. A click or two in my database shows that I went twenty-eight times to the canyon in June, July, and August:


SUMMER 2004 TRIPS TO PIMA CANYON

1. Pima Canyon,06/05/2004,Birds: 7,Total ever: 471
2. Pima Canyon,06/06/2004,Birds: 10,Total ever: 481
3. Pima Canyon,06/13/2004,Birds: 7,Total ever: 488
4. Pima Canyon,06/19/2004,Birds: 8,Total ever: 496
5. Pima Canyon,06/20/2004,Birds: 16,Total ever: 512
6. Pima Canyon,06/26/2004,Birds: 6,Total ever: 518
7. Pima Canyon,06/27/2004,Birds: 17,Total ever: 535
8. Pima Canyon,07/01/2004,Birds: 9,Total ever: 544
9. Pima Canyon,07/02/2004,Birds: 10,Total ever: 554
10. Pima Canyon,07/03/2004,Birds: 6,Total ever: 560
11. Pima Canyon,07/04/2004,Birds: 7,Total ever: 567
12. Pima Canyon,07/05/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 572
13. Pima Canyon,07/06/2004,Birds: 8,Total ever: 580
14. Pima Canyon,07/08/2004,Birds: 6,Total ever: 586
15. Pima Canyon,07/15/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 591
16. Pima Canyon,07/19/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 596
17. Pima Canyon,07/21/2004,Birds: 6,Total ever: 602
18. Pima Canyon,07/22/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 607
19. Pima Canyon,07/27/2004,Birds: 4,Total ever: 611
20. Pima Canyon,07/28/2004,Birds: 4,Total ever: 615
21. Pima Canyon,07/30/2004,Birds: 3,Total ever: 618
22. Pima Canyon,07/31/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 623
23. Pima Canyon,08/01/2004,Birds: 2,Total ever: 625
24. Pima Canyon,08/02/2004,Birds: 2,Total ever: 627
25. Pima Canyon,08/03/2004,Birds: 3,Total ever: 630
26. Pima Canyon,08/11/2004,Birds: 3,Total ever: 633
27. Pima Canyon,08/13/2004,Birds: 3,Total ever: 636
28. Pima Canyon,08/29/2004,Birds: 5,Total ever: 641


On most of these days, I would walk up to the water tank and back on the stone road. The water tank drained into a small, square cement reservoir that held water for thirsty javelinas, coyotes, and other desert animals. I call the top stone that overlooks the arroyo there "Windy Rock" as there always seems to be a cool, welcome breeze when you climb up and stand on it. Below, the arroyo is wired off, and signs are posted that read "Wildlife Area"—but the real reason I expect is to protect the petroglyphs and corn grinding holes on the rock below. One petroglyph, a humanoid stick figure, is said to be cut across by a ray of sunlight at the winter solstice. The figure seems to be saluting, but my brother gave a better interpretation of the figure. "He's shading his eyes from the winter sun," he said.

Occasionally, a coyote would walk by and look at me bored and unsociable. He would walk out of the wash and up into the desert to avoid me. But there were dangerous animals there too; to be specific: rattlesnakes. In the heat of the summer, they are not likely out and about, unless they are in a cool patch of shade under a bush, but when spring comes and they come out of hibernation, they can be anywhere. Of the four kinds that I have seen there, the most common is especially dangerous: the tiger rattler. It has a mixture of a cobra-like neurotoxin and the standard rattler's flesh-eating enzyme. This cocktail of poisons is something I want no part of.

The weather on these summer hikes was exceedingly hot, but that was the reason I went. In the summer, the park is deserted before noon; it just gets too hot for the average hiker. There are, however, hot hikers, and I am one of them.

My college roommate, some years ago had taken up hiking because he had grown rather overweight and needed to exercise, so I took to joining him on various desert hikes. When the season turned cooler, we both agreed that we missed the hot weather's challenge, the sweaty workout, and the cool, sparkling drinks we brought along. Afterwards, I noticed that when I hiked in the blazing heat of an Arizona summer day, I would find, say, a middle-aged woman sitting on the sand in Pima Arroyo when it was 114 in the shade. Or I would climb into "the tunnel," a natural rock formation three miles in, and find that a happy hiker had beat me there and was already more versed than I in the practice of hot hiking. "Everybody's gone by eleven o'clock in the summer, and you've got the place to yourself." he said.

I had to agree with him. Who wants to go anywhere in nature when there are a lot of people around—especially in a place where you are so grandfathered in that sometimes you can't help but feel that the rest of the world is trespassing?

The idea of hot hiking is not to suffer but to beat the heat. I carry bottles of fizzy, flavored water and a platypus bottle filled with ice water. They say that in times of crisis, one must never waste water by doing anything with it other than drinking it, but on my hikes I have plenty of fizzy water, and if I feel hot, I take the icy platypus water and pour it over my head. When you're super hydrated from the fizzy water and practically freezing to death at the same time, you're in more danger of catching a cold than dying of heatstroke. I admit to having come close to danger when I decided to climb a steep trail in the heat. Working up a sweat and overheating from strenuous exercise is not a good idea, and I'm extra careful today; on February 11, 2006, I took a group of Korean scholars to Old Tucson Studios, and one of them got heat stroke watching the gunfights in the street. It was only 85 degrees, and I thought she would die.

In the heat of the summer, the walk up Pima Arroyo is quiet and still. Mourning doves, seemingly unaffected by the temperature, walk quietly in the shade under the creosote bushes. When you approach too close, they take to flight, but even the usual whistling sound of their wings on takeoff seems to have been almost silenced. I hesitate to say this is because of the superheated air.

Passenger jets pass, but they are still at good altitude and rarely heard. Only birds regularly break the silence of the hot hike. You will occasionally hear the chish! chish! chish! chish! of the giant cactus wren. Around one of the bends in the wash is "Cactus Wren Alley." Whenever I hike with a guest, I tell them what bird we will expect to see there by the turn in the arroyo with the steep cliffs on one side—and we see exactly that. Not just one, but rarely fewer than three at once.

The scolding cry of the black-tailed gnatcatcher, a tiny, intrepid bird of the desert and the bell-like call of the black-throated sparrow are also heard. Because of their names and their presence there, I named one area of the arroyo "the BT Cliffs." I always make a silent approach when I seen the cliffs, as not only the two BTs like the cool, shady, brushy bluffs there but also the gilded flicker and a half dozen other species. And you may see all of them there at once.

The road back to the car is downhill. One doesn't notice the slight uphill climb up the wash, but this combined with the heavy, tiring sand makes the first half of the hike harder. There's more cooling wind on the road too, although there is no shade at all.

A quarter mile from the parking lot is a ring of stones in the middle of the road. Fifty years ago, I would look ahead of the car to see it, and today I do much the same as I walk—only it is barely visible now. The stones are buried, and their tops are flush with the surface of the road. As do all rings of stone, they foster in me a sense of mysticism. Who put the ring of stones there? What was it? A campfire? Just for fun, I have taken to doing a kind of war dance on the stones before I go any farther. Sometimes I stuff a bottle of Boston Lager at the bottom of the pack in an ice-filled ziplock bag, and I drink it on the ring of stones as part of the ritual.

The trip to the water tank doesn't even get you as far as the stone houses, but there are endless miles of trails that lead you away from the more populated, scarred areas near the road: Mormon Trail, National Trail, and others that take you to Fat Man's Pass, Hidden Valley, the Tunnel, and other places. On days when my friends and I plan a miles-long hike, we often skip the trails for the first half of the walk and continue up Pima Arroyo and come back on the trails. Few people do this wash walking, so you've got it to yourself even early in the day. And it is as wild and pristine as you could imagine a place so close to the city. The saguaros are tall and stately there, and there is almost no sign of man. Painted letters on one cliff used to read: Ojo de Awa, misspelled Spanish for "well." An arrow pointed to a depression in the sandy ground below. A few years ago, that part of the cliff fell off, and the words can no longer be read. I'm sure I have a picture somewhere of it—but the picture was not digital, and so I will have to rumble through some old boxes if I ever get the urge to see it again.

When I go up the arroyo, I always climb the dry falls where the granite is fluted as though carved by a sculptor to make way for the occasional rush of a flash flood's water. And then I walk a little farther and find myself in Hidden Valley not far from Fat Man's Pass and the Tunnel. Sometimes I skip the arroyo entirely and take a trail clear to the top and walk along the long ridges on the crest of the mountain with the cheerful view of Phoenix below.

There are other places that I know as well: Estero de Morua, Mexico, for example, or our hacienda at the foot of Mount Humphrey's. Many, too, were the days that I spent on the shores of Minnesota's pristine Lake Itasca, and still green are the memories of my summers there. But more often now I find myself thinking about South Mountain and the sands of Pima Arroyo. I see the mountain when I walk out of my front gate, when I go to the store, and when I drive home from work.

I've paid off my house now, and there is little reason to relocate when I retire; I could hardly expect to find a place to live where I could find anything with the uniqueness of the Sonoran Desert so close at hand or a place that captured my imagination in the way it does. I still travel back to Mexico and Minnesota and even more often drive up to stay at our acres at the foot of Mount Humphrey's. But my everyday life is likely to be forever based in this placid, convenient Valley suburb, and South Mountain is a good thing to always have so close-by.
   




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