Thursday, March 29, 2012

One of Those Things

Things defy the laws of physics when swept up in summer floods like the one that roared through Aravaipa Canyon after a monster monsoon. A "gauge" -- an 18" steel culvert containing delicate instruments bolted to solid bedrock -- that measures the amount of water flowing through the Aravaipa meander washed away, ripped from its anchors before the water crested. It is estimated, therefore, that the flow reached 80,000 to 100,000 cubic feet per minute, which is roughly the flow of the Colorado River.

Granite boulders – in an avalanche of partial suspension, freed from the effects of gravity – tumbled like marbles down the stream bed, clacking against each other in a thunderous free fall. Stately cottonwoods and thick-skinned walnuts bent down like hair combed into rows as neat as corduroy. 

The trees left standing in the streambed have no leaves, no branches, not even bark. Their trunks are all pointing to something that came from that way, upstream. Steel fence posts wrapped around trunks like spaghetti, and roots were woven into mats tighter than Navajo rugs. Trucks looked like aluminum cans pounded by pile drivers into rock banks. Corrugated roofing suggested tin foil, rolled and tucked neatly around the trunks of trees still standing. 

All of this mess was in a hurry somewhere and forgot what it used to be before the floodwaters awakened sleeping traits.

Back before the floods, David Rychener bought a ranch along the creek and set it up to be a retreat center, a place for people to rejuvenate themselves, to rediscover old passions and excitements. He had fixed the place up on a shoestring. David’s one extravagance was the metal patio furniture that he and Joyce bought so that visitors could sit and see the wash next to the big house. It was nice stuff. Iron. Stylish. Expensive. 

Then the first floodwater rose, entered the house, and carried the patio furniture into the orchard. David saw the table in a pile of debris and stood it upright, planning to come back later and move it up to the porch. The second flood came and tore out the tool shed, made tinker toys out of dumptruck, jeep, and tractors, undercut and then slapped down the suspension bridge, buried years of work, erased green, standing trees from the meander plain, and took the patio table away. 

It seemed that the table was lost forever, along with other prized possessions of those who live along the stream. Even if it were to be found, it would likely be good only as some tortured mangle of rusted sculpture.

One night, Jumbo, a friend and ranch hand, was out looking for his flood-stolen pick-up truck and his nickel-plated pistol under a full moon. (Some things can only be found at night, under the moon.) His flashlight played across a metal leg of something buried beneath tons of trees, silt, matted branches, prickly pear pads, roots, more sand, rocks – all it overlaid with a monstrous, hundred-year-old cottonwood tree trunk. Yes it was our iron-legged, reluctant wanderer, upside down. 

Two weeks later we were standing at the perimeter of the mess with every hope to exhume the itinerant mesa. With chainsaws, shovels, pry-bars, a front-end loader with a logging chain on the bucket, and pure doggedness, we began to dig. We worked our way from the outside, cutting away mesquite branches that had been dropped by the final wave of flood. Layer by layer, we undid what the flood had deposited. We tunneled into the congealed chaos, prying back the vines, the roots, the green branches – all fingers holding the table captive. Daedalus and his labyrinth held nothing over the maze we navigated. 

Then came the dusty work of yanking silt-impregnated willow whips, roots, and cacti off of the inner layer of the knot the floods had tied. Then more chain-sawing as the giant toothpick pile and stripped trees were extracted, one by one. Then came the dirt: several feet of it littered with more dismembered cottonwood boughs, rocks, and tree trunks. 

The legs began to emerge, one, then another, a fourth, a general shape. The table was down in there somewhere. We dug and swept and revealed. More trees. We cut out a box in the earth, reversing the purpose of a grave, leaving cross-sections of sycamore exposed in the sides of the excavation. Down. Down. Then Will hit the mesh with his shovel. The bottom. Or the top, depending on your perspective. Gradually we found the edges of the table’s mesh top. There it lay, revealed, undressed, born back into the light and air, in its entirety, still intact, flat as a Kansas horizon, unbent. 

When we lifted it out from beneath the last of the trunks, we could not believe it. It was as if the table had been placed in bed of the stream, then packed with protective padding, and tenderly wrapped with tons of debris and tree trunks before being left for us to find and open, a scavenger hunt surprise. 

What a thing. 

We lifted it from its temporary resting place. It was a table reborn, a treasure recovered, a prodigal patio accessory come home. I thought David would burst from delight and gratitude. We carefully carried it to the tractor, where we bungee corded it to the bucket for its trip back upstream. David took it slow. He was in no hurry now. The table would be restored to its place with ceremony. Will and I rode alongside in the Mule, an informal procession. The hunters returned with the spoils and bounty of the river. We waved at the passing pecan trees, the croaking ravens, the chuckling stream, the clouds bowing overhead. 

That night we sat beneath the half moon and ate together at the wrought iron table none of us believed we would ever see again. We toasted the second life of a friend thought lost forever, swept away by the floods of time and change, a refugee from irrepressible impermanence of all things, from oblivion mercurial as the whispering waters.

Skunks, Rattlesnakes, and Sour Cherry Pie

I pull out of our driveway onto Swan Road just as the sun lights a sky milky with monsoon mists. It is only 5:30, but the air is already warm, supercharged with humidity. Although it is still June, the month of skies that ring with clarity, that bake the desert with 110 degree days, it feels more like August, the days of thunderstorms and thick haze.

I pedal hard against the hill and then turn east. I am climbing the mountain today – Mount Lemmon - the big one around here. Not that I feel I can. I slept only a few hours last night, and those short hours were filled with nightmares. But being tired is only part of the problem. I am not in great shape, and the climb is a big one: twenty five miles of six to eight percent grade rising from 2500 feet to 8500. It is not easy under the best of circumstances, but heat, humidity and poor conditioning promise to make it a real bear. Oh well, there’s always something.

It will take me an hour to reach the base of the mountain, twenty miles of cross town traffic and then the long straight shot to the base. Those early miles are very long, unforgiving. My legs resist warming to the long task ahead. Once at the base, the highway steepens, and I shift into climbing gears. 

Grind, slog, grunt -- all words that describe this undertaking. It is not sexy or thrilling. There is no drama of attacks on the peloton, at least for me, and there will be times when I want to just bail for the pain of it, the slowness. But there are some rewards for just sticking it out. 

The low Sonoran Desert of saguaro, prickly pear, and cholla, gradually gives way to oak and pine forest and then Douglas fir. It’s like driving from southern Arizona to Canada in the space of thirty miles. For every thousand feet I ascend, I will travel the equivalent of about three hundred miles north.

As I reach the base I pass saguaro whose fruit have already ripened, a result of the warm year, a year that forms another link in a 15 + year long chain of drought years. The desert Southwest sits in the cross-hairs of climate change, a direct hit of dry, hot, weather patterns. Nobody knows for sure what the effects will be, but likely as not, the Sonoran Desert will lose much its plant and animal diversity as the weather warms. The northern range, too, of tropical species is spreading into Arizona. We already have been colonized by Africanized bees, and denge fever carrying mosquitoes will likely arrive soon. Bigger species, such as jaguar, are returning, and newcomers like ocelots have been captured on motion-sensing game cameras. The climate and biological sands are moving beneath our feet, and what I see today is a flora and fauna snapshot of changing ranges of critters and plants.

Some say that the saguaro this year bloomed so profusely because they were dying. They have used the last of their life energy to produce seeds. They have drawn precious water from their cores, water that sustains them until the rains come. Many may die if the rains are late. The poignancy of the thought slows me even more than my present crawl. A few bike racers pass, with no mention of the saguaro, but they do wish me a good climb. I reciprocate. We are on the mountain together and some of the usual hierarchy of cycling breaks down.

The opening curves of the climb cross contours in a steady, traversing ramp along the front range of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Mount Lemmon, the English name, contrary to what some think, is not named after a lemon, the shape or the color of a lemon, but after the first Anglo woman to summit the peak, Sarah Plummer Lemmon. She was a botanist and ascended the 9200' mountain with Native American guides. Her route took nearly a week; the new road cuts the ascent to a little over an hour for cars.

The highway winds through high desert scrub as it climbs from the base. Prickly pear pads, desiccated from the drought, have fallen onto the road from stricken specimens clinging to road-cut cliffs. Within a few miles I can see most of the city spreading off into the distance. It will go this way for the first four miles or so. The road is marked by pullouts for trailheads and overlooks and for slow vehicles. I pass one for Soldier’s Trail, and others for some unsigned canyons. I see the overlook for Babad Do'ag, the Tohono O’odam word for Mount Lemmon, or Frog Mountain. Then the road turns north and follows Molino Canyon. I can see the canyon's free fall through granite boulders and plunge pools and over dry water falls below me. The view ahead reveals the depth of the range, with generations of ridge after ridge going north. It has been 45 minutes of steady climbing already. I won’t get to Summerhaven until late morning at this rate. 

At Molino Basin I take a short break. A wrangler leads mules from a trailer for a trail ride. A pair of mountain bikers unload bikes for the rugged stair steps of the Arizona Trail. They will likely climb up over the saddle toward Bellota Ranch and then onto Reddington Pass. Different kinds of epics I think to myself. I know those trails and they will ask much of the mules and the dogs, both four legged and two.

After a swig of warm water and a crunch on some salted almonds I resume the climb, this time behind a couple wearing matching kits of a racing team. He takes off and she loses ground on him while gaining it on me. The slopes to the south used to be covered with scrub oak, but are now bare, having been hit by some of the worst of the Aspen Fire two years ago. I pass a dead skunk and a dead rattlesnake very near each other. I have to wonder if the skunk was making a meal out the snake when it was hit by a passing car. Their silent poses suggest dramas that I play on the screen of my mind as I pass them. It is a welcome distraction from the nagging thoughts of how far I have to travel before sitting down to some sour cherry pie in Summerhaven.

Wildlife on the mountain has been taking a beating between the droughts and the development, the twin death knells of the desert. Black bears, ursus americanus, have been coming into Tucson and Summerhaven because of the lack of forage. One even visited my front yard. Mountain lions too have come down following the deer only to find house pets as forage, and the humans who care for them carrying traps and guns. Ringtail cats range beyond familiar territories, crossing roads, getting hit by cars. Wildlife, like wild lands, has few defenders, but many pressures. When will we learn that our well-being is tied to theirs? 

These melancholy thoughts linger until I arrive at the answer that change begins with me. Let a love of this place lead to actions. The poignancy gives way to attending to the lovely living mountain that remains. 


I soon pass the plunge pools of Seven Cataracts. They are strung like beads along a string of runoff, glittering silver. I hear a canyon wren and a flicker, see a red-tailed hawk whose screech rings out over the canyon and follows me up the road. He cries again and again, making some point about this being his place. Life sustaining moisture hides deep in the canyon shadows. 


I climb over another ridge, pass through a narrow stone portal, and enter Bear Canyon. Here the road levels a bit, so I can upshift and sit up. Another group of racers passes me, complimenting me on my bike. As if the bike were all that carries me up this grade, I think, but I thank them anyway. The road steepens again as I shift back into my lowest gear. Here I pass beneath the first real shade of big trees. Maple, walnut, ponderosa pine, and oak fill the canyon and line the road. I hear birds and see squirrels. 

There is life in these canyons, now combined with a taste of the high country. I pass the picnic areas and the Hitchcock Trailhead. Now the road steepens again as it begins the climb out of Bear Canyon and up toward Windy Point. This used to be one of the steepest sections before the road widening. Now it holds an even grade as it winds along manzanita, oak, and even a few pines, but is back out in the open sun. The west-facing slope is scarred by recent burns. Spidery, charred skeletons of manzanita testify to the fires’ devastation. Columns of rock rise on either side of the road. The granite hoodoos of windy point loom in the distance. This is the second true switchback of the climb and it hairpins above Bear Canyon. I can see the road I just traveled falling away below me and I can see the stretch I have still to travel far above me. The view is spectacular here as Tucson sprawls in front of me. Grind and grind. 


I feel I can’t take any more. My legs are burning as I pass 6000 feet, now 3500 feet above my starting elevation. Defeat whispers around the edges of my pain, but I don’t much listen. I am dogged and monomaniacal at times. This is one of those times. I won’t turn around unless rain or exhaustion drive me off the mountain. The wind has cooled some, but the sun increases intensity. We’re in the high country. I make Windy Point and pull off for a break. 

In a car, one has the illusion of the road leveling after Windy Point. Not so on a bike. In fact, although the road is now primarily passing through pines, it continues to climb, with some of the steepest grades of the ride a mile-and-a-half above the viewpoint. Several other riders turn around now, out of water, afraid they won’t be able to make Palisades, about six miles up the road, at about 8,000 feet. I keep at it, spinning the pedals just fast enough to keep from falling over. My legs have cooled and stiffened during the rest, but settle in to the work with only minor complaint. Soon I am over the saddle and into the woods winding again up to Rose Canyon Reservoir. I pass a caution sign with outlines of a mother black bear and cub. I’ve arrived at the sky island of Mount Lemmon, the high pine forest. The breeze now is cool, almost cold and I wonder if I should have brought a jacket. It is not supposed to rain, but it is a good idea to be prepared for it. I am not. I’ve been riding for about two and a half hours. 

I pass Green Mountain, San Pedro overlook, and climb toward Palisades Ranger Station. I roll in and out of large patches of shade given by the Ponderosa pines still living and green. But evidence of the big fires is everywhere. Blackened hulks of trees, naked ridgelines, erosion along the shoulder of the road, bare, white granite where before there was thick tree cover. Here on the road, though, it is cool. I have to stand because my butt is so sore, but my legs feel wasted. I don’t have any snap left. So far, though, no cramps. 

The miles grind away. Three more to go, two, one, and then I am there: Palisades. Water, bathroom, another needed stretch. It has taken me almost three hours from the base to get here. Three hours to cover 20 miles... I have another mile or two of climbing before closing in on Summerhaven. With a break here, it should pose no problem. I have made it. I remount and churn out the last of the big climb to the Bigelow ridge. I can see the observatory above me. This is the high point, about 8500 feet above sea level. 

Hemingway claimed that riding a bike through a place is the best way to know it, know it in the aches of the climb, the thrill of the descent. He said that the body remembers and internalizes exertion in a way that simple viewing from a car window cannot. If that is true, I am becoming more and more this mountain.  


The road suddenly and surprisingly descends. I tuck in for a fast set of curves and drop like a stone down into Bear Wallow before hitting the final climb. My legs burn again with the initial steepness, but I dig deep and keep spinning. No cramps but plenty of ache, plenty of screaming from the legs that there is nothing left in the tank. The hill slackens and then levels out before the final drop into Summerhaven. The austere nakedness of the north slope dropping steeply down to Oracle and the San Pedro is too brilliant to contemplate – all rock and lifeless, sharp-pointed skeletons of trees. That was the Bullock Fire, three years ago. In only four years, the mountain has gone from lush oasis to exposed rock face. Summerhaven dodged that bullet the year of the Bullock Fire, in spite of the odds, but then was a direct hit the following year when the Aspen Fire roared through the heart of the village. But Summerhaven survives. I have survived. That should be reward enough, but sour cherry pie fills my empty mind, plays to my survivor’s hunger.

The sun does not relent, but gains in strength. I see the Mount Lemmon Cafe down the hill off to left and pull in. I have done it. The prize is delivered on a gleaming white, ceramic plate. It is oozing beauty and perfection.

What does this teach me, if anything? 

Show up and just keep going, as long as you can, for one thing. The skunk and the rattlesnake are done with that, as I will be soon enough. But there is more. This pie, this piece of sour cherry pie, right here in front of me, the one with flaky crust hanging over a precipice of cherry filling made from real fruit right here at the Mount Lemmon Cafe, is bewitching me. I want to rush to it, inhale it, hastily harvest my reward for this long journey. But as much as I feel the joy and relief of finishing, and the desire to consummate this perfect epic, this beloved pie, I hold back.  This appetite for my favorite of all Earthly delights, this sweet and slightly sour delicacy contains a paradox. As much as I am pulled forward to taste and swoon at this life, I feel an equal shiver of cold fear that it will all be

over too soon. I want the sweet consummation as much as anything in this long life, but in almost equal measure I want the wanting, the desire, the unconsummated longing, to never end.