Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Last Day -- The Sky Cries and the Sea Complains

It is our last full day on Hawaii and it seems to be protesting our departure. Or trying to get rid of us. One or the other.

Yesterday as we made our most ambitious exploration of the coral encrusted lava pools that have been our front yard for over a week, complete with fins to make short work of any currents we might encounter near the outer reef, a gentle rain fell on our backs from time to time from a bright enough sky. I was watching a goat fish tease a meal out of a rare sandy bottom with his chin whiskers until I spotted the biggest puffer fish to date, about the size of a football. I tore after it over a shallow belly bumping shelf into the the best coral “bowl” on the reef, only to have him disappear under a shelf draped with lettuce leaf coral. Popping my head up to reorient myself and spot my husband’s snorkel, I saw a wall of black sweeping in from the open ocean. Concerned that there might be lightning to go with that storm, we put the fins to good use and shot back in to the inner pools at record speed and danced across the lava boulders, reaching our house just as the first lashings of hard rain hit. Grateful we’d had an exceptional few hours in the water we retreated to lunch and our books, and a good afternoon of watching the rain from the covered lanai.

In the evening it had cleared to the south and we decided to explore the coastal road, Highway 137, cutting over to the end of the road on Highway 130, terminated by a lava flow many years ago, and hike out to see the lava and steam where in entered the ocean. The road itself turned into the adventure of the evening. Paved, but narrow and twisting and unpainted, the black asphalt merged imperceptibly with the black lava soil, at places canopied by trees so dense you needed headlights. When we arrived at the entrance to the lava viewing area we were turned back by the park attendants -- the wind had shifted and the sulfurous steam clouds smothered the area, making it unsafe to be there. By bedtime there was quite a storm brewing, with rain lashing the windows and the ocean breaking hard on the reef.

This morning the storm was still with us. The gray and heaving sea was dotted with whitecaps. Waves rearing up over the reef were the color of aqua milk glass, skimming the tops off their sugar white foam, leaving it in the wind behind them as they rolled on. Coupled with an increasing tide, the sea pushed into the coral pools to the point that it seemed we were only on a rocky shore, not a chamber laced miracle.

It cleared a bit this afternoon and we were able to snorkel the coral pools one last time, visiting the fish to see how they were reacting to all this excitement. Between the cloudy skies and the turbulence, the visibility wasn’t quite up to par, but we could still see clearly for 20 feet or so. Plenty clear enough to see the large sea turtle we flushed out of the hanging coral shelf he was sheltering out of. He peered out, realized we weren’t going anywhere as long as he was lingering in the same small pool we were in, not five feet from him, and the last we saw of him was his tail end, booking over a shallow buckle of smooth coral, back towards the open sea. We realized it our time in the water wasn’t going to get better than that, and we let the current take us back to shore.

Tomorrow we’ll head back to our beautiful dry desert, just in time -- I feel odd growths on either side of my neck that could be developing gills. A 90% reduction in humidity and some time in the sun should sort me out. But I will not be surprised when I dream of floating, suspended over a watery world populated by fish well-named parrot, trumpet, and butterfly. Hawaii has not seen the last of us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coral Pools, Frog Choruses, and Returning to the Womb

Where do you go for a special occasion, such as a fifth wedding anniversary, when you live in the desert and spend weeks each year (soon to be months) in the Colorado Rockies? That’s right.

Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii. We are in “outlaw” territory, Puna, far from tourist shops, hotels, restaurants, and anything passing for a crowd, perched on the eastern tip of the most southernly and biggest island in the Hawaiian chain. I’m sitting on the third floor lanai of the house we’ve rented at the edge of an island looking out over the Pacific that is uninterrupted until it hits Mexico. The freshest air in the world is caressing my face. The house is named Kaheka Ko’a (Coral Pools) for it’s location a few feet away from the Wai’opae Marine Preserve of dozens of pools formed from lava spilled from flanks of the most active volcano in the world, Mauna Loa.

There’s oceanfront and then there’s oceanfront. I lived for 15 years in the Caribbean, all of it with a view of the sea, much of it on the edge of it, some of it over it, but this is an amazing spot. This unique little community sits on the edge of a lava flow that wiped out a whole town not 40 years ago. This tiny triangle with its collection of houses ranging from modern luxe renditions of Robinson Crusoe tree houses (like this one) to funky little beach shacks is sandwiched between two sizable lava flows, one from 1955 and one from 1960. It is impossible to ignore the geologic origin of this island. The lava formed pools on our ocean side are countless at low tide, but high tide marries them into just a handful. The view changes constantly, but is consistently stunning.

This dawn is like being front row center for a Rorschach version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade -- a train of enormous cumulus clouds (oh look, that one’s exactly like an elephant -- see the trunk?) is drifting by just off-shore heading down the island, some with veils of rain dragging on the ocean’s surface. The sun has not yet made an appearance, but the backdrop of striped coral and aqua sky marks the spot of her entrance, all reflecting in the maze of pools like a freeform mosaic. The coqui frogs' night-long symphony has given over to the chatter of birds. The gentle surf rolls over the outer reef a few hundred feet offshore.

On morning #3 (out of nine) we are beginning to feel “belongers” here. We know that the man with the long white hair will appear with the sunrise, spread his yoga mat on a flat spot just off our lanai, and do his own version of a sun salute consisting of the same ritualistic stretch routines and meditation. We know the red haired mongoose will scamper onto the lava rocks for a few moments before running back into the tangle of hibiscus trees and coconut palms that he calls home. We pretty much know that every day will get into the low 80's with humidity to match and that there will be sun and shade and a gentle shower that lasts five minutes and then the cycle with start again. Having lived on an island for so much of my life, half a lifetime ago, this is like hearing an old song you haven’t heard for a long long while. You know all the words but can’t quite remember the way you used to dance to it. I’m remembering. It is as close to returning to the womb as you can get after being born. We are up before the show of the dawn starts and struggling to stay awake after 7:30, a battle we give up around 8 pm. The hushed roar of the ocean, the music of the frogs, and the soft onshore breezes billowing the gauzy curtains in our third floor bedroom with its view of the moonlit sea might have something to do with it. We don’t remember sleeping so long or so deeply.

After my initial (and ritualistic) meltdown during my first foray into an island grocery store -- I can almost understand the $5 gallon of milk, but bananas at over a dollar a pound???!!! -- we visited the Hilo farmers' market on Saturday morning and all is once again right with the world. We followed that by a visit to KTA, the Food City of Hawaii, where I scored thick ahi tuna steaks for $8 a pound and some local grass fed beef. Last night I made mahi-mahi, sauteed with butter and the fragrant local lemons and fresh spring onions. With it we had local pumpkin stewed with coconut milk, fresh ginger, a little Asian chili sauce, and cilantro and a salad of all local produce -- lettuces, green and red, arugula, an avocado the size of a grapefruit, and red and yellow tomatoes, dressed with that amazing lemon and macadamian nut oil. The nearest restaurant is over 10 miles of dark deserted road away -- certainly do-able -- but nowhere on this island could beat our ambiance, and there’s no worry about that extra glass of wine so long as you can navigate the stairs to the bedroom.

When we want to snorkel -- every day, often more than once -- we put on suits, swimming shoes, and grab our masks and our fins (though we often don’t bother with those in these pools of calm water). Down the stairs to the ground floor lanai and out across the lava for a hundred feet or so where we drop into the first lava pool. It is like finding yourself in a huge tropical aquarium. Fish are everywhere, and the pools are flocked with corals of every color and description. Large draping corals like castaway petticoats cover the sides, huge globular corals rest on the bottom, finger-like corals reach from lava shelves. Soft peach, every color of beige and taupe, bright pinks, tea-stained orange, deep lavender, periwinkle blue, acid greens and yellows. Giant multi-colored parrot fish munch on the coral with their beak-like mouths. Trigger fish who look like swimming paint-by-number artwork. Eels with green apple fins. Spotted trunkfish maneuvering their rigid box-like bodies with fins that move like hummingbird wings. Huge horned unicorn fish. Un-puffed puffer fish. Butterfly fish with raccoon masks, “eyes” on their backs, herringbone designs, and the elegant yellow, black and white Moorish Idols with their long trailing thread of a dorsal fin. There’s more than you can possibly take in -- each pool is more beautiful than the last -- but we’re going to try by spending hours in the sea every day.

The biggest problems we’ve encountered are keeping track of our flip-flops and remembering to put sunscreen on that little strip of forehead just above your snorkeling mask. Today we will motivate ourselves to get in the car and head to Volcano National Park where we will hike across a lava field that is hardened but still venting steam through its cracked surface, through a lava tube, and into a rain forest. I feel like I’ve waiting all my life to see molten lava, and today is the day I get to see it spilling into the sea.

Tomorrow we’ll resumed our long snorkeling communion with the sea and its fishes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Counting Quail

Next to doves, Gambel’s quail are the most ubiquitous birds in and around our yard, unmistakable with their inquisitive question mark topknots. Their behaviors and social structures cycle dramatically with the seasons. Over the winter they form sizeable coveys, but in late winter and early spring the males begin crowing from prominent heights for mates. Paired up, the couples can be seen walking the garden walls, looking for promising nesting spots. Just about any somewhat sheltered spot will do, from under a dense shrub to a plant pot under my big gardenia in the barrio garden. The later complicates the near daily watering requirements as summer heats up since flushing the mother-to-be off her clutch of a dozen or more eggs too many times can make her abandon the nest. We’ve been known to let a plant or two die in such circumstances.

By late spring we’ve usually seen our first long strings of baby quail in the yard, fuzzy pompoms with legs, only hours or minutes from hatching, obediently following mom and dad’s instructions about vacating the nest in an organized fashion. Over the summer we watch the families’ strings of chicks dwindle. You do not want to be the slowest quail sibling. Still, it is a great victory for the parents to raise a quail chick or two to the juvenile stage. The parents are, after all, only trying to replace themselves in their lifetimes, and the chicks are (sadly) an important food source for other desert critters, from coyotes to snakes to raptors.

The quail have been a bit confused in this time of seasonal transition. In the desert the change from summer to winter mimics a second spring rather than fall. Many plants come into a strong second bloom this time of the year. During those inevitable spells of near 100 degree weather during our cool-down period, the heat spikes trigger a touch of the hormones of spring, and some feeble confused crowing ensues, but it is half-hearted and short lived.

Not known particularly for their flying abilities, quail forage on the ground by day for seeds and insects, flying short distances only when necessary. Shortly after sunset they do manage to fly up into their roosts, trees like paloverde and mesquite and even taller cholla cactus with all their thorns. In our back yard the favorite sleeping spot is in our olive tree, seen on the right in this sunset picture. It is a sterile olive and was here when we moved in, pretty enough and drought resistant, and we enjoy the shade it casts and tolerate it though we’d prefer a native tree in that spot. We think its size, about 20 feet tall, and density appeals to the quail, and there is always an interesting flurry of activity there at dusk.

Shortly after the sun drops behind the Tucson Mountains, we hear the congreating coveys just outside out wall start clucking and whooping, mustering the gang to retire to security off the ground. They chatter and call -- whut Whut, Whut WHUT, whut Whut -- and move more-or-less towards the olive tree, gliding like nuns in habits on an Easter egg hunt.

Tonight we decided to sit quietly where we could see them actually fly into the tree, counting their numbers. One, three, five, nine. Twenty three -- oops, that one fell out after a scuffle -- twenty two. There he goes back, twenty three. The roosting process is accompanied by a great squabbling and beating of wings. It is impossible not to anthropomorphize these birds -- “move over,” “I was here first,” “but I ALWAYS sleep there!” In the space of about ten minutes we counted 32 quail bedding down in our olive tree for the night. Eventually the fussing quieted down to a mumbling murmur. And then it was silent.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Friends Again

We arrived back from a week in the Colorado Rockies to two more days well into the triple digits, a real blow after a chilly week which included three days of snow. But yesterday there was clearly something changing with the weather. The sky looked like a meteorologist's cloud sampler. During our morning walk the dawn lit up the pebble paver clouds a bright coral against a robin's egg blue sky. By late morning there was a smorgasbord sky.
Some clouds appeared to have be scraped onto a brilliant blue canvas with a palette knife. Odd smeared lenticular clouds pocked the sky, while others could have prompted 911 calls about UFO's. Low strings of cumulus swept the far horizons.

By 9 PM when we went to bed it was 80 degrees and falling fast. We opened the house, turned off the A/C, and slept soundly, soothed by the fresh breeze and night sounds. Out walking before sunup, the temperatures were in the low 60s and it was blissfully cool. After 9 AM and the house is still open, though that will change soon as we'll hit 90 today, a near normal temperature for this time of the year. October is our big cool down month, dropping a good 10 degrees over the month.

We're getting our second "spring" as the plants rebound from the hard work of surviving a desert summer. Our Mexican sage is in full bloom and the chuparosa is starting to show its hot orange tubular flowers that will sustain our hummingbirds all winter. The Gambel's quail, parental duties over, have returned to their gender segregated coveys; I had a large group of males wander through the backyard yesterday on their eternal quest for food. We saw a straggler turkey vulture atop a telephone pole on our walk out into the desert yesterday morning, an unusual sight around here as they are almost always on the wing. He reluctantly took off, heading south, as we walked under him, possibly disturbing a brief migratory rest.

Fall changes everything for desert dwellers. For we humans, the great summer "hibernation" in the A/C is mostly over. We can emerge and rejoin our outdoor lives for the next eight months and remember exactly why it is that we continue to live here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

There's a change in the air

Things change around this time in the desert, even though Fall is still over two weeks away. Our days are shortening as the sun's trajectory lowers. The high temperatures still flirt with the century mark, but that's way different from edging up on 110. As our seriously insufficient monsoon staggers to a close, the humidity will vaporize and cool will return to our nights, allowing for open windows and the symphony of sounds of the nocturnal desert will once again color our dreams.

The animals are behaving differently. It's been many days since quail parents have put their adolescents through their paces in our garden. The mated pairs are splitting up, reforming into coveys until spring drives them back into coupledom. The white winged doves have, for the most part, headed south though I did see one straggler barreling across the back yard yesterday, headed for the sheltering shade of a big mesquite. Tarantulas are out and about, looking for love. This male (you can tell by the black legs) was waiting for me on my front doormat when I headed to the mailbox. I assumed he was looking for some other blond (females are a dark blond color), but he hung around the courtyard for a few days and then we found him crumpled and dead. Older than many people's pets, male tarantulas breed at about eleven years old and die shortly thereafter. A day after he lay motionless, we found him pecked into bits -- a furry leg here, a carapace there -- the circle of life. A road runner on the hunt for lizards in our yard dropped into an odd crouch before walking up the leaning mesquite trunk and onto the wall, dropping to the other side. A collared lizard chilled in comfort on a cushion still in the shade in my barrio garden.

Plants are beginning to rally, ready for their second spring. While much of the rest of the country's vegetation is beginning to shut down for the Big Sleep, ours is getting its second wind!
Plants that hunkered down for mere survival over the summer are now finding the energy for a first or second bloom.

We took a hike up King Canyon this morning on the west side of the Tucson Mountains. Resurrection fern was green and limberbushes were leafed out. Ocotillos exploded from the ground like huge green pipe cleaners, leafed out from what rain we've had over the past few weeks. At 9 AM it was already quite warm and still humid from the remnant moisture from recent hurricane that hit Baja California, but there was plenty of shade in the canyon and we took it slow, enjoying being outside again in full daylight.
Not that the gorgeous walk up the canyon isn't its own reward, there are walls of petroglyphs along the way, images pecked in the desert varnish of the rocks over a thousand years ago by Native American Indians. The hike back to the trail head on an old mining road rimming the canyon, cooled by a nice breeze, was over all too soon.

Despite feeling that Mother Nature has been behaving a lot like Lucy with the football -- we've watched longingly as huge storms have drifted by us, leaving us dry but putting on a good light show -- we are becoming friends again with the desert and are impatient to be once again fully immersed in our love affair with this place.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Clearly I've become a bit schizophrenic in my passion regarding place. I love the Sonoran desert to the point of feeling a spiritual connection, but despite years of developing summer heat strategies I still feel too cooped up from June through at least August.

Or maybe in the years since I've had another option, namely our Colorado mountain property, the property we are now going to build a cabin on, I can't help thinking about snuggling under the covers and taking the chill off an August morning with a fire in the wood burning stove before spending the rest of the day outside, instead of sleeping without even a sheet and dashing out for a quick morning walk in the predawn heat that is Tucson in the summer.

Mind you, if I were forced to choose between my life here in the desert, snugged up against the Tucson Mountains, and a life in the Colorado Rockies, I'd choose the desert, hands down. Luckily I don't have to choose. And neither do you. I've created a new blog to document our mountain time and the past, present, and future of a high elevation cabin.

Join me at my other blog Rocky Mountain Cabin Redux for our adventure rebuilding the family cabin and our "high" life.

Fantasy Job

While we are still hung-over from our time in the Rockies and struggling with the triple digit reality of the desert summer, one constant high point of my week is my volunteer job. Growing up in San Diego I became enchanted with the idea of working at the zoo as a keeper, maybe in one of the huge walk-in aviaries or taking care of the baby animals at the Children's Zoo. It took me a few decades, but I finally made it, not at the San Diego Zoo but at another world renowned zoo, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

When I decided to retire late last year the first thing I did, before writing my letter of resignation, was to check the Desert Museum's website for when the next docent class would start. In the first fifteen minutes of my first visit to the Desert Museum in 2001, before moving to Tucson, I knew I wanted to be one of the docents dressed in their desert sand and white,walking around with an elegant barn own on their arm, explaining the mysteries and intricacies of Sonoran desert ecology from a seemingly bottomless well of knowledge. During my years of working a job that was often not nearly challenging enough I'd dream of the future when I could spend a day a week sharing my passion for the desert with others. And yes, with an owl on my gloved hand.

Alas, there was no docent training this year, not until the late summer of 2010. Not to be deterred, I decided to look into other volunteer opportunities at the Desert Museum, of which there are many. Tucson is a mecca for folks wanting to donate their time, energy, expertise, and enthusiasms. Within a month of arriving in Tucson late in 2001 I was a volunteer ranger at Saguaro National Park, and have been now for over seven years, and I love my work there as well, primarily leading moonlight hikes in the cooler months. But that is another story for another post.

As I looked at the list of volunteer opportunities at the Desert Museum (they maintain a volunteer staff of about 300, and a volunteer docent staff of about 200), a position with the Interpretive Animal Collection, those very animals you see docents sharing with the visitors, sparked my interest.

For about half a year I've been reporting early one day a week for a six to seven hour day of checking on the animals well-being (as in snake handling), cleaning enclosures, preparing daily diets (down to the gram), feeding hungry kestrel's on the glove, and helping with the Wild and on the Loose show in the theater. It's physical and exhausting, but more fun than any one person should be allowed. I spend one day a week getting up close and personal to kestrels, screech owls, barn owls, a Harris hawk, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, assorted rodents, salamanders, toads, tortoises, a military macaw, lilac crowned parrots, a pelican, a great blue heron, a porcupine, ring-tails, a coati, and a hooded skunk.

These animals all have personalities on top of their ingrained natural behaviors. Like us they have good days and temperamental days, and you quickly learn to read the cues and respect them. But it is fascinating and rewarding to get to know them, learn about them, and care for them.

It's a job that gives far more than any paycheck could.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Breadbox

Part One
[Written on June 29th]

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we still have half our summer vacation in the Colorado Rockies left. The bad news is that we only have half of our summer vacation in the Colorado Rockies left. Every day, every hour, is precious and we’re doing our utmost to make the most of our time here. Hiking for hours, planting trees and clearing snags, watching the birds, spending time on our swing at the highest point on the property watching a storm roll by -- all are equally essential. We’ve had great evenings with local friends, two sets of overnight weekend guests (good friends we haven’t seen in a while and loved sharing our mountain getaway with), and we’re excited about the family visit this coming 4th of July weekend, complete with grandkids.

My experience is less than a tenth of my husband’s on this five acre plot of land. As a teenager he helped his dad build an A-frame cabin here,

and for decades it was a frequent destination for wilderness weekends or the odd week until it burned in the Hayman fire in 2002, within a couple months of our getting together. For a few years he couldn’t bear to visit, but when we did five years ago it was clear how much it meant to him (he’d always maintained it was the most important place on earth to him) and we set about figuring out a way to be able to visit for a few weeks each year from our home in Tucson, a 14 hour drive away. The answer, at least for now, has been a 33 foot Airstream Argosy travel trailer parked permanently on the bluff where the cabin stood. Strangely, the outhouse did not burn, so life in the Breadbox (“cabin” just doesn’t seem to work) is similar to life in the old A-frame -- electricity, but no running water -- though a bit more cramped and more significantly, without a fireplace. We’ve built a deck alongside almost twice the size of the trailer so we have a good deal of living space, provided the weather allows. For now it works for us, though with our eventual intent of spending four to five months a year here once Bob has retired in a few years, we are tossing around the idea of a small cabin -- with a wood-burning stove and indoor plumbing (as code requires). Time will tell.

But for now we are enjoying the greenest year in recent memory. Growth has been rampant, obvious to us not only due to our nine month absence, but also just in the week+ we’ve been here. The wildflowers are glorious. Low purple blue penstemons cloak whole hillsides, mountain laurel emit clouds of anise scented perfume, wild roses bloom in a perfusion of simple single pink blossoms. Indian paintbrushes and scarlet gilia provide sharp hot orange contrast to the soft blue and ivory of the Colorado columbines which look too perfect to be real. The round leafed alum still hangs from the shaded rock face cliff we pass as we enter the meadow following Little Turkey Creek, its creamy flower spires reaching for light.

Having to watch where you put your feet, on the trail or rambling cross-country through the forest, reaps the rewards of spotting the smaller, more insignificant though fascinating, wildflowers like shooting stars or meadowrue. We hiked the old jeep road to Turkey Rock and found it was carpeted with wildflowers, so thick that at times you couldn’t walk without treading on them with every footfall. Parts of the trail were smothered with wild strawberries, tiny pea-sized explosions of intensely sweet berry essence, more like jam than fresh fruit. Kneeling down, my husband showed me the greedy two handed picking technique, moving the fruit with twice the speed from the ground-hugging plants to the mouth. Ladybugs were everywhere, often flying in clouds disrupted from our passing.

Wildlife viewing has also been abundant. A huge elk with a sizable rack greeted us on the 16 mile dirt road between Highway 24 and our land. A few miles on, four elk does, two standing in a lake up to their chests, moved into the hills as we passed by. Deer are sporting their velvet antlers. And a bald eagle was perched on a tall snag (and me without a camera!), watching a small lake where we’d earlier seen a family of Canadian geese with two goslings, now nowhere in evidence. As we walked slowly towards the eagle he took off like an overloaded jetliner, so huge and incongruous with his surroundings, eventually landing on a tree on the far side of the lake, no doubt irritated about having had to squander energy to avoid a couple of star-struck birders.

My husband worries that the outhouse will become an obstacle to enjoying our time at the Breadbox, especially those middle of the night trips, but for those there is almost always a reward. On clear nights the milky way hangs like a cloud overhead, and some stars and most planets shine with the intensity of beacons. In the quiet darkness you might hear the call of a distant coyote, or a conversation between two great horned owls across the valley. After a few nights you quit worrying much about bear (though that is a possibility), using the flashlight only to find your way down the fifty foot path, often wearing nothing more than your sneakers (it’s amazing how you don’t notice the chill 40’s nighttime temp during the journey). It’s a sweet relief to return to your warm nest under the comforter, knowing you’re good until morning.

Part 2

We’re back in Tucson now. The shock of leaving green and coming back to desert was tough. We’d aborted our day in Denver before flying back in favor of one last day alone in the mountains. While we missed seeing people we care about, it was a good call. We hiked to the bluff a half mile into Pike National Forest behind our place, a destination we’d never visited before. It looked so imposing from the front with its sheer rock face, but scouting around it the approach from behind was a shallow ramp of easy walking through dense wildflowers and between fascinating rock formations peppered with wild currants. The 360 degree view was spectacular – Turkey Rock, Pike’s Peak, Cedar Mountain with the Tarryall range behind. A good way to take it all in one last time this summer.

It was our fourth consecutive summer vacation at the trailer, and a benchmark trip for us. We realized that this was a place we’d like to spend a LOT of time as soon as we are free from work (probably within three years). A wonderful visit from Bob’s kids and grandkids and their dogs and their dog’s dog friend convinced us that we wanted more time like that, but that our beloved Breadbox probably wouldn’t fit the bill forever. We are dreaming of replacing the family cabin, lost seven years ago in the Hayman fire. Something small that sits on the footprint of the old place and reminiscent of it, though not a replica. One bedroom, one bath, a wood burning stove and a half loft with space for the many, many sleeping bags of family and friends. Oh, and running water and an indoor loo, though we’ll keep the outhouse just in case. It’s a dream now, but we hope it becomes a reality before too many more Breadbox summers pass.

We’re thinking that the best way to keep our love affair with the desert safe is to leave it in the cruelest months, from sometime in May to sometime in September. We’ll retreat to the Rockies where our days are filled with hiking in the cool thin air and our nights are spent under a comforter and a fire takes the chill away while we watch the first rays of sun hit Hackett Mountain every morning. Beats the heck out of holing up in the A/C for four months, restricted to being outside during the VERY early hours each day. Aside from a short attempt at getting snowed in each winter, we’ll spend the balance of the year in the perfection of the Tucson falls, winters, and springs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Annual Great Escape

After a hot May we've had a rare cool June to date. Cool being a relative term as it has been well into the 90's just about every day -- still a great relief from the triple digits that are our June normal. We are forcast to be approaching 110 this time next week, as excessively hot as we've been deliciously moderate through mid-June. It appears we are escaping just in time.

There is a strategy to desert life for most of us. Some folks just plain LOVE the heat and stay here, uncomplainingly, year round. Then you have your snow birds, arriving in the fall from somewhere up north about the time they'd need to turn on their furnace, reveling in sending Christmas cards with photos of them in shorts and t-shirts on the golf course to their pals stuck in the deep freeze, packing up and heading home the first time it approaches 85 degrees. And then there are those of us who simply do our best to get a serious break from the heat come late June, that interminable period after the serious heat sets in with months since the last rain and before the relief of the monsoon arrives.

We head to Colorado where we have a place up at 8600 feet in the Rockies. It's family land on my husband's side, and up until seven years ago there was a cabin he'd helped his Dad build as a teenager forty years before. The Hayman fire took the cabin the first year we were together. I never got to see it, but it was clear how much the place meant to him. A few years later he took me on a Colorado road trip, the last stop being his five acres adjacent to Pike National Forest. The fire spared most of his trees -- ponderosas, spruce, Douglas firs, quaking aspens -- and the views were still spectacular. I could see he needed to be able to keep this, his favorite place on earth, active in his life. We bought a 33 foot Airstream and parked it permanently where the cabin had stood up against a wall of red decomposing granite. A 12x24 foot deck along side gives us wonderful outdoor living space. We have several choice spots to hang our hammock and read. Or nap. Thank goodness the fire didn't take the outhouse.

My husband's old Peace Corps pal comes every year from Cleveland to house and dog sit for us while we eek out the better part of three weeks in that cooler mountain pine-scented air. We bird watch different birds, keep our eyes peeled for deer and elk, do a little fishing in the stocked lake down the hill, try to identify the rampant wildflowers, and hike the surrounding wilderness. The stars are so bright and seem so low that you almost feel you need to duck your head on those middle of the night runs to the outhouse. It's a glorious time and a cool respite from the cruelest heat of the desert.

If I can "borrow" some WiFi somewhere (no Internet connection, no TV, no phone, cell or otherwise) I'll next post from the middle of nowhere, but somewhere wonderful, during our Colorado summer sojourn.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Banded Gneiss, Hoodoos, & Stoner Mummies

The landscape surrounding Tucson, those brackets of rugged mountains rearing out of this valley of stone and sand, is key to the essence of this part of the Sonoran Desert. We orient ourselves by them, learning early on their shapes and proximities -- the Catalinas to the north, the Tucsons to the west, the Santa Ritas to the south, and the Rincons to the east. We bid them a fond adios when we leave town, and they are the first to welcome us upon our return. We watch the light play over them, changing with the time of day and day of the year. We drive up into and over them, and test our legs and lungs by hiking them.

In the triple digit heat of the summer we retreat to the loftiest ones where the temperatures are guaranteed to be 20 degrees cooler, maybe more. Mt. Lemmon, soaring to over 9,000 feet in the Catalina Mountains, 6,500 feet above the Tucson Valley floor, is known as a "sky island", an ecosystem isolated by surrounding terrain, in this case a searing desert. You start your journey in classic Sonoran desert vegetation -- the iconic saguaro cactus, ocotillos, and palo verde trees -- and in less than thirty miles you you arrive in an Alpine landscape similar to that found in southern Canada. About half way up the mountain the windows in the car go down and the A/C gets switched off, and the car fills with cool air bearing the scent of pine.

Yesterday we joined a Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation outing, a trip up Mt. Lemmon with geologist Bob Scarborough. I've loved physical geography and earth science since junior high, and evenually earned a degree in geography and almost (all but paper) a masters in earth science. I was lucky enough to have taken classes with Bob Scarborough before during my two attendances at the Audubon Society's excellent Institute for Desert Ecology held annually at Catalina State Park. I knew we were in for a treat.

Fifteen of us caravanned up the mountain, making five stops along the way. Bob started out orienting us to geologic time with his "time stick", a fancifully painted representation of a big chunk of Planet Earth's existence. A consummate story teller, Bob spun the tale of the creation of our mountains in a way that had us making connections across topics ranging from geology to archeology to spirituality, with heavy doses of mystery and wonder.

Some favorite factoids:

The Tucson Mountains are the remnants of a huge volcano, one which spewed out about 800 times as much debris as the Mount Saint Helen's eruption.

Mt. Lemmon is capped with sedimentary shale that is a million years older than the granite it now sits on, and was formed when the continents nested together and a shallow sea covered the area that is now Tucson.

The U-shape of Ski Valley on Mt. Lemmon (yes, you can drive from Tucson to a ski area in less than an hour) is evidence that there was probably a glacier on Mt. Lemmon at one point.

Our trip included a picnic stop at the San Pedro Vista

and a hike on the Oracle Ridge Trail.

And it was about more than rocks. The discussions ranged, quite logically mind you, from types of rocks, such as the banded gneiss so representative of the start up Mt. Lemmon, to the eroded granite hoodoos, to the Clovis people and the stomach contents (refined cocaine) of 8,000 year old mummies on two continents. It made sense. Trust me. And do yourself a favor -- if you get a chance to attend a class or participate in a field trip with Bob Scarborough (he leads trips for the Desert Museum among many others), take it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Desert Diversions -- Daughter Trip

Note: During my visit with my savvy daughter and her high-tech husband I was "coached" on the art of blogging -- more posts and don't try so hard. I'm giving it a go.

There is something a little bit strange and lot wonderful about going to visit your daughter, a grown daughter with a husband, career, and home of her own. The enthusiastic welcome, the obvious preparations, the plans. I'm tempted to say it's come full circle, but she was never a guest growing up in our home as I am now in hers. And that's as it should be. Our visit was extra lovely since she lives in San Carlos, a charming town on the peninsula in the San Francisco Bay area. I'd happily visit her in Gary, Indiana, but the central California coast is better.

First order of business was lunch at Mack's Smoked Barbecue, a favorite from a previous visit. The pulled pork there is unmatched; this from two people with over a decade of eating experiences in North Carolina, and everything else they serve is equally delicious. We sat so long on their cozy and comfortable back patio, chowing on pulled pork sandwiches and ribs and catching up, that we surprised them on the way out.

Early that evening we walked down to San Carlos's Thursday night Farmers' Market where dozens of stalls sold the most gorgeous produce, flowers, bread and pastries, and prepared foods. Every other of the many friendly dogs was a golden retriever, strollers abounded, and there were amusements and activities laid in for the kids. We scored with the best rotisserie chicken EVER, slathered in fresh herbs and grilled right on the street, accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes baked below the spinning poultry, basted by the drippings of the herby birds. We were provided with limes to squeeze over the succulent hen, a surprisingly perfect spritz, and carried our dinner home in the perfect evening air to eat with the potatoes a salad of the most tender butter lettuce and incredibly sweet tomatoes. Breakfast the next morning was organic strawberries and a dangerously delicious pastry bought from a handsome French baker.

It wasn't all about food. Over the next few days we wandered the classic old-school neighborhoods in San Carlos and Menlo Park where every home is different and each yard a botanical garden. After almost eight years of gardening in the desert, all those big, green, flowering plants, huge twisted oaks, and soaring eucalyptus looked miraculous. All that walking gave us an appetite, and my daughter made Kofta from the Jamie Oliver at Home cookbook I'd given her for her birthday (what a good investment). Okay, maybe it's a bit about the food.

I put the amazing mass transit system to good use, getting myself easily from the San Jose airport to within a mile of my daughter's home without hailing a taxi. We took the train into the city to see the Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keefe show at MoMA. The show itself was amazing, but I loved the building and sitting on the rooftop garden and people-watching most of all.

The best day was the last day. We headed to Half Moon Bay for a little mother/daughter beach time. A little history here -- my daughter was born on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and most of our play time together was spent in, on, or around the crystalline waters of the Caribbean for the first ten years of her life. Walking along that magical line where the earth, sea, and atmosphere all intersect feels like home to us.

We parked a bit back from the beach on the access road, and were glad we did as the stroll through the seaside neighborhood was enchanting with it's whimsical beach houses, the fields of flowers, and the distant hills cloaked in golden grasses and studded with deep green oaks. Here's one resident who clearly has it made in the shade, living the good life in sunny California.

We walked a large arc of Half Moon Bay, enjoying the perfect bright day with cool onshore breezes, avoiding the jellyfish washed up on the beach, peering into the tangles of beached kelp. We sat for a long while on the high tide berm, watching the battalions of pelicans cruising the waveline. Talking. Not talking. Equally good as the connection was there either way. Precious times.