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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mom and Pop and Horse Trailers

Mom and Pop were returning from a trip to town along a back road when suddenly Mom saw something that made her smile and sang out happily, “Horse trailer!” Then a question occurred to her about the working of her husband’s mind.

Mom: Do you notice horse trailers when you’re driving?

Pop: Sure. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?

Mom: I don’t know. I just wondered.

Pop: I’ve even thought of buying a horse trailer to carry paintings in. The paintings could stand up straight. It would work great. I’ve looked at a couple in the past year. One was a good price, but it was too rusty.


Mom [incredulous]: Did you ever think what that would do to me if you brought home a horse trailer? With no horse and no intention of getting a horse?

Pop [laughs]: What it would do to you? It isn’t about you!


Mom: A horse trailer? That is so about me!

Both laugh, at themselves and each other.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

South to Whitewater

Return to the West, VI: South to Whitewater 

When I consult the United States road atlas and see what a relatively small area, even of Arizona, is occupied by Cochise County, down in the southeast corner of the state, it astounds me to recall how much we found to explore within its boundaries. Our home base territory was basically Sulphur Springs Valley, extending south from the Dos Cabezas range between the Chiricahua Mountains to the east and the Dragoons to the west.

(On the other side of the Dragoons is the San Pedro Valley. Everywhere in Arizona, mountain ranges are the general landmarks by which one orients oneself in space, with specific formations and peaks serving to fine-tune location.)

We had reason early in our three-month stay to explore to the south, because every spring sandhill cranes fly north over the continent to Canada to nest and raise young, and in recent years a few pairs of the stately birds have begun spending their summers in Leelanau County, where we had learned to look for them each year. Now people told us that in Cochise County, Arizona, we might see as many as ten thousand at a time, down in the Whitewater Draw. If a thousand cranes mean good luck, what must ten thousand cranes portend?

“Where would you like to go first?”

“Could we go to Whitewater?”

Our most direct route was to backtrack halfway to Willcox from Dos Cabezas and take the Kansas Settlement Road south to Hwy 191.

Straight as a string, with a kink or a knot here and there, the Kansas Settlement Road drops south through the Sulphur Springs Valley, full of mystery and surprises. For instance, we drove by many times before realizing there was a parking area giving access to the Willcox Playa from the south. More obvious, with its big painted sign out front announcing the business, was the Kansas Settlement Gin Company, but we never saw any sign of activity around the buildings. Bonita Bean was a different story. (A kink in the road goes around the bean company.) Monsieur Jean, our neighbor, was one of many who bought his pinto beans in bulk down on the Kansas Settlement Road.

A recent modern development -- I know it to be recent and modern because an old-timer at the regional museum shook her head over such goings-on -- is an enormous dairy farm on the Kansas Settlement Road. To feed dairy cows and supplement grazing for beef cattle, huge green fields irrigated by irrigation systems line the road, looking almost like urban electric towers and lines. Sun makes rainbows in sprayed water, and wind blows a fine mist through the air, and it is beautiful – but painful, too, to think of sun and wind evaporating so much water, pumped from deep underground, before it does any growing thing any good at all.

While we were in residence in Dos Cabezas, results of a well survey were reported in the weekly newspaper, with figures for present water depth compared to that ten years previously. In Willcox, wells had typically lost less than five feet. Most alarming and dramatic losses were, not surprisingly, along the Kansas Settlement Road, where many wells had lost fifty, some as much as sixty feet, heavy losses attributed to “groundwater overdraft,” i.e., pumping too much water out of the ground. (To the north, between Willcox and Bonita, also heavily irrigated land, losses were reported between 30 and forty feet.) Besides cattle in the one large confinement operation (CFO), plantations of nut trees, also heavy drinkers, may be seen along the Kansas Settlement Road.

Another stretch of road indicated the presence of small residential holdings. Private road signs at regular intervals announced roads with Western names, such as Mule Deer Road, obviously intended to appeal to snowbird winter home-buyers. The name I liked best, though, wasn’t for a road but for geological landmarks named on our map of the valley as the Three Sisters. I always smiled to see the Three Sisters appear along our road south.

Somewhere along the way – was it on the Kansas Settlement Road or beyond it, where we had already joined the highway? – a little gas station and convenience store appeared at the side of the road, announcing


out in the very middle of nowhere. I can’t speak for the “pastries” (my skepticism always kicks in when I see that word, which usually indicates the availability of fried donuts), but the store offered plenty of cowboy boots and hats and shirts.

And then we were sailing through empty land again.

To reach the Whitewater Draw, it is necessary to leave the main road and travel by washboard, but the slow-down is well worthwhile. It is also necessary, for the fullest viewing pleasure, to leave the parking lot and walk the path around various ponds. 

Yes, ponds! At least, that’s what they look like. I’m not sure what creates and holds the water in the Draw, but to my lake-starved Michigan eyes it seemed nothing short of a miracle. Beautiful water, the surface stirred by wind, edges soft with plant life and frogs and water birds of various kinds, all of it stretching out deep and wide, a tractor working far in the background and hazy mountains beyond the farmed land. (I tried not to see the irrigation framework.) It was transporting to be near so much water in southeast Arizona. That was the first miracle of the day.

Then came the second miracle. On that first visit we made to the Draw, the January wind was fierce, cutting through clothes and attempting nonstop to tear hats from heads and scarves from throats, and yet everyone in the relatively large crowd of human visitors was smiling as if at a choir of heavenly hosts. People were hunched over against the cold, holding onto their hats, clutching their coats to keep them closed, but beaming beatifically, faces upturned to the sky and glancing now and then at other passing humans to exchange thrilled smiles of amazement. Because there were, literally, thousands of sandhill cranes, soaring and circling and calling, coming gradually lower and lower until, a few at a time, they let themselves join us on earth..

Leaving the draw, dazed with visions, we continued toward Bisbee, a town David remembered from a visit over two decades before. The vegetation changed somewhat that close to la frontera, the border with Mexico. But I will leave memories of Bisbee for another post.

The cranes, the tens and thousands of cranes....

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Back to the Ghost Town

Return to the West, VI: Back to the Ghost Town

How often this past winter I have returned in memory and imagination to last winter in Dos Cabezas! It would not be everyone’s dream getaway, as it was, quite literally, a ghost town: we had to drive fourteen miles (to a real town) to find so much as a cup of coffee, let alone library, post office, and stores; we only met four neighbors during our entire three months’ residence; we had no cell phone signal; and traffic on the two-lane highway past the cabin was limited to other inhabitants of ghost town and neighboring ranches; travelers between Willcox and the Chiricahua National Monument; U.S. Border Patrol vehicles; and cows.

“Cows,” the generic Western label for adult cattle, regardless of sex, and whether natural or “fixed.” Cows and calves. Beyond the area of scattered houses and adobe ruins the land was fenced to keep cattle in, but Dos Cabezas itself, paradoxically, was open range, with cattle guards across the highway at both ends of town. Anyone who wanted to keep cows out of their yards or gardens had to put up their own fences.

The cabin we rented sat high off the highway. It looked down on the highway in front and off through the wash to the mountains in back. In front were two big metal livestock gates, painted green, but no fence surrounding the property. Cows could, and therefore did, come right up to the door. Cow patties could, and did, appear anywhere the cows went.

Javelinas, locally known as “pigs,” were a different matter. Classified as a game animal, javelinas could not be killed except by hunters with a proper license, and permitted numbers were limited, which was a problem because the pigs were notorious garden raiders and despoilers. Coyotes, on the other hand, not classified as game, could be killed without a license in unlimited numbers by various means. No doubt there was a logic to the distinction, but it escaped me.

Our neighbors had gardens and so were pestered by javelinas. We never saw evidence of them around the cabin. Coyotes we heard in the distance regularly, but we were used to that from northern Michigan. Birds, lizards, once a rock squirrel – those were the wildlife we saw. Since we were there in winter, we were not troubled by rattlesnakes or scorpions.

The ghost town, at any rate, was open range to animals wild and domestic.

Once laid out in a grid, with streets and house plats, the ghost town had once had its own school and post office and stores. In its early days, it was on the stage line; later a railroad served the area. Mining was responsible for the boom years, but no great amounts of gold or silver or copper were ever taken, and at last hopeful prospectors went elsewhere, leaving the town to wither and die. Old railroad ties used as fenceposts were one sign of the past, coils of barbed wire another, but the most obvious and picturesque were the ruins of adobe houses and stores. Crumbling adobe walls we looked to as a landmark stood at the bottom of our driveway. Elsewhere nearby, rotted wooden sills marked places where buildings had stood, craters (some fenced to keep cattle from falling in, others unfenced) all that was left of old dug wells. Antique automobile carcasses begged to be photographed, so as not to be forgotten.

Across the road from our cabin was a B&B, but that house, like our cabin, was set far back from the road, and we never saw anyone we could identify positively as B&B guests. Next door to the B&B, also a long way off the highway, was the home of a young couple; the husband was a mechanic, but his shop was in the town of Willcox. As it happened, our 2000 Toyota needed work more than once, and that mechanic was a lifesaver. Once I walked across the highway and up the drive to their house, hoping to meet the mechanic’s wife, but no one came to the gate when I called. Oddly, their dog, lying silently in the shade of the house, did not bark once at my presence. I call that odd because that dog barked every morning about 5 a.m. and at other irregular intervals through the day and night. He barked long before the rooster crowed the sun up. But when a stranger came to the gate? Silence.

Not far past the B&B and the mechanic’s house was the home of the French-Canadian handyman and his wife. Monsieur Jean, as we called him, was another of our Arizona lifesavers. It was Monsieur Jean who replaced the nonworking refrigerator in the cabin for us and loaned us a television and hooked up the antenna to bring in, without cable or dish, as many as twenty stations, including PBS. We owed much of our knowledge of the neighborhood to Monsieur Jean and his wife, a very cordial couple.

Another neighbor, who had inherited from his father property that met, at the corners, the property where our rented cabin sat, was SeƱor Dan. Some days I would be outdoors talking with Dan while David was deep in conversation indoors with Jean, and later we would compare notes and share what we had learned. It was all “Dan says” and “Jean says,” and I tried to make notes so as not to forget it all.

Those were the neighbors we knew to greet by name, neighbors with whom we conversed: Jean and Cheryl, Dan, and Jared. Others we knew only through stories those four shared with us.

Dan told me people in Dos Cabezas pretty much left each other alone except for the annual cemetery cleanup, an event that included a potluck meal. The cemetery and annual cleanup and potluck seemed to be the community life, from what we gathered, but maybe the ranchers had their own social life. We heard there were some arts and crafts people, and perhaps they got together now and then. But there was no gathering place in the ghost town – no church, no community center, no fire hall.

Still, it was a place, with an identity distinct from Willcox and the rest of Cochise County. People with history in the ghost town felt the ties keenly, particularly those with relatives buried in the old cemetery.

It was a mile from our cabin to the cemetery. One day I suggested to a friend visiting from Michigan that we walk that mile and back. The wind was strong and piercing, and by the time we got back to the cabin the air was filled with horizontal snow, the only snow we saw in Arizona except for what remained high on mountain peaks.

From either direction, approaching either from the north-northwest, from Willcox, or from the Chiricahuas to the south-southwest, entry into Dos Cabezas was clearly delineated by a cattle guard across the highway, a sign announcing Dos Cabezas, and another sign saying “Go Slow – Save a Cow.” From Willcox, the road climbed, and from Chiricahua one wound down into lower elevations, but either way, the cattle guard and signs clearly marked the edge of the ghost town. Whether ascending or descending, from wherever else we had spent the day, when we reached the signs and the cattle guard I felt, happily, that we were home again, but the feeling was most intense when we came from the Chiricahuas, late in the evening, and the scattered lights of houses and ranches sparkled quietly on the darkling desert below us while the stars twinkled in the blackness above. Dear little ghost town!

That feeling lasted three months, until the morning came for us to say good-by to the high desert and make our way across the Great Plains and the Midwest and around the Great Lakes to our home in northern Michigan, there to take up, once again, our well-established life, rich in friends and meaningful work. For months, the ghost town felt almost unreal. And then our Michigan winter came upon us, and my heart began to look back West.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Cow Town Itself

Return to the West, IV: The Cow Town Itself

Our cabin in the ghost town of Dos Cabezas was fourteen miles from the town of Willcox, an almost daily destination because all the amenities of life were there: post office, library, laundromat, restaurants, a small bookshop run by the local Friends of the Library (the bookshop also sold local honey and jam), and a handful of little museums -- the Sulphur Valley Historical Museum, Chiricahua Regional Museum, a train museum at the old depot building (now City Hall), and two cowboy star museums, one for Rex Allen, the other Marty Robbins.

At the library I was able to send and receive e-mail daily, but the post office was equally important. I loved having our own p.o. box, our own keys, and since I sent nearly as much mail as we received, mailing letters to friends back in Michigan (and elsewhere) on a regular basis, the employees at the counter came to know me by name, as well as by sight. While our exchanges were never long or intimate, their friendly greetings gave me a sense of belonging to the area. Also, when I first arranged for the p.o. box I had to show our rental agreement, so the postal employees knew we were staying out in Dos Cabezas, not right in Willcox, and I liked that, too, especially the Mexican way they pronounced “Dos Cabezas.” Everywhere in town, it seemed, people flipped back and forth easily between English and Spanish, and that was another delight of the cow town for me.

So we visited library, post office, and bookstore every day but Sunday, when all were closed, and if we were returning to the cabin afterward, rather than setting off to explore farther afield, our last regular stop in town was Beverly’s. If we’d gone up to Safford or over to Benson, we might stop at Beverly’s on the way home, too. The business wasn’t called Beverly’s. A sign on the front of the building read “Motherlode Espresso,” and signs painted on the side seemed to call it something else -- maybe two somethings else -- it was always a little confusing, to tell the truth. But Beverly was in charge, it was her place, and if she didn’t get there (as happened once or twice), the place might not open at all. Beverly offered coffee, ice cream, magazines, books, and souvenirs. She had a cat named Sarah, and she always remembered that our dog’s name was Sarah, too. We usually took our coffee outside and sat at one of the shaded tables facing City Hall, with our Sarah at our feet.

It was exciting when a train came speeding through on the tracks the other side of City Hall (formerly the train depot), its whistle and rushing clatter deafening. Even better -- because this didn’t happen every day – was when a big pickup truck pulling a livestock trailer would park either directly in front of the shaded porch or across the street. Sometimes the trailer held cattle, sometimes saddled horses. On the best day there would be both cows and horses and a couple of cow dogs, to boot. I considered every inhaled breath a gift from the gods.

Even the obituaries in the weekly newspaper were different from those at home. Of one Arizona man it was written, tenderly, that he had “ridden trains all over the country” and “worked wherever he was needed.” Read between the lines on that one! A woman who had lived to a ripe old age had loved “quilting and working cows.”

Willcox boasts a weekly livestock auction, and it’s no small affair. Hour after hour, cowboys and cowgirls on horseback move cattle through pens and chutes into the auction ring to be bid up and sold by the hundredweight. It’s a serious, workaday scene. Big business. Ranchers and cowboys and families with little children cluster around the doorways or take seats on wooden bleachers that rise up from the auction floor so everyone has a good sight line. And the livestock pours through, in one side, out the other.

We were looking over the calf pens one morning, David in originally expensive but somewhat dusty and slightly scuffed old boots he’d found at a thrift store in Benson. He was wearing one of his most handsome cowboy hats. An older man holding a little grandson by the hand asked us, “You folks buyin’ today?” We were happy to feel we didn’t stand out conspicuously in the crowd as the outsiders we were.

Had my life been different, I could have loved running cattle (“working cows”). As it is, I have loved horses since babyhood. Two or three horses in roomy, shaded pens, saddled and ready for their turn to work, called me to them with their irresistible perfume. If a horse is shy, the trick is not to approach it, so I turned away and leaned my back against the fence. Sure enough, the horse stepped curiously over to nibble my shoulder. I was in heaven.

But even laundry days were pleasantly different in Arizona. The woman who ran the laundromat had grown up in Willcox, gone to live in either Tucson or Phoenix, and came back to raise her kids in her hometown. She was friendly and helpful. The place was clean and well run and never crowded. Out front next to a giant pot of cactus was a bench in the sun, and off to the side, between parking lot and sidewalk, was a food truck selling Sonoran hot dogs – not a Mexican thing but a border thing – piled high with beans and peppers.

A Michigan friend who works in real estate came to visit us in the high desert but remained immune to the allure of the cow town and the ghost town. I tried to impress her with what bargains were to be had, how many houses and other buildings were for sale. “But people would have to want to be here,” she objected, as if there were no attraction whatsoever. We experienced, she and I, mutual incomprehension. In town, I saw all the necessities of life: library, post office, restaurants (not a wide variety, it’s true), school, churches, community center, medical offices, museums, hardware store, feed store, and two large grocery stores. Outside town, not faraway at all, there were horses, cows, rangeland, open spaces, and mountains. No crowds, no heavy traffic. “And it’s the gateway to the Chiricahuas!” I said to clinch my argument. She remained unconvinced, and once again I realized (why does this continue to surprise me, after a lifetime of similar experiences?) that many of the things and places I love seem to lack appeal for most of my fellow Americans, who want what they see as “more.”

It’s true, no one would come to Willcox to shop for clothes or furniture. Most of the various wine-tasting rooms were not open during the time we were there. The old movie theatre only pulled in half a dozen audience members for a showing of a Paris opera, although it pretty nearly filled the house for a concert by the high school jazz band, and we had a fine time at both events. A huge, expansive feed store, the kind of thing I find wonderfully gratifying, is not high on most tourists’ lists of what they’re looking for in a winter getaway.

“It’s just a little cow town,” David would say with a shrug, when I sang the praises of Willcox. He understood how our visiting friend was seeing it.

But that – the “little cow town” -- was what I loved. Willcox is itself, not trying to be a center of fashion or high culture. There are plenty of cities and towns across the U.S. with upscale pretensions, and I would not trade the Willcox Livestock Auction for a Dior showroom or the Junior Rodeo for a dozen Starbucks or sushi restaurants.

Another friend of ours, years before and in another context altogether, commented that in the U.S. today, every place is like every other place. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. Willcox isn’t even like Benson, the next town west on the expressway. Benson doesn’t have a livestock auction or junior rodeo! Benson doesn’t have KT’s Market! Sure, Benson’s library is bigger, as is their library bookstore, but the library and bookstore in Willcox were plenty big enough for me. One day on the porch at Beverly’s we met a woman from Portal, Arizona, over the other side of the Chiricahuas, who bragged of the number of doctorate degrees clustered in that little mountain town in the winter. What do I care? I’ve lived in university towns and have plenty of degreed friends --and I love my friends! -- but do I need that everywhere I go? I don’t.

For the people of Willcox, I could wish for improvement in their local economy, but for myself I would hate to see its essential nature changed. “Cattle Capital of the World” is not a title to trade in for something easily found elsewhere.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Road to the Cow Town

Return to the West, III: The Road to the Cow Town

No matter where else a day might take us, how far afield, morning in southeast Arizona in early 2015 always led first from Dos Cabezas, our little ghost town hideaway, to Willcox, the cow town fourteen miles up Highway 186, often with a stop on the way, maybe five miles from the cabin, where we had good cell phone reception (lacking in the ghost town). The first trips felt long, but as time went by the distance grew ever shorter.

Moving or standing still, there was a lot to see along the way, and all of it, every square inch, entirely different from Michigan. One of the first things I taught myself was how to distinguish yucca from agave from sotol. Gradually we accumulated subtle landmarks invisible to us on the first few trips – certain striking plants; traces of an old railroad bed; a dry wash here or a dirt road there; a death memorial near a barbed wire fence; finally, most notably, the edge of the playa. If there were clouds in the sky, they never held their shapes or formations for long but could be seen for miles and explored visually, like the mountains. Regarding mountains, as navigator and reader of maps it was up to me to learn the names of the ranges in our larger neighborhood -- Chiricahuas, Dos Cabezas, Pinalenos, Dragoons -- and to keep us oriented according to where we were in relation to the different ranges, the way we keep oriented here at home in Michigan by our relationship to lakes.

In the Arizona landscape, basically open to the sky and far from lush with vegetation, my vision became more acute once acclimated. I developed the ability to discern detail and movement over long distances and was gradually able to see horses far away before lifting binoculars to my eyes to verify the sighting. Other presences and movements were more obvious: a pickup truck speeding along a dirt road would raise a cloud of dust visible for miles; large livestock gates across private roads, usually closed and locked, drew our eyes if swung open. Without knowing our neighbors, we watched them and knew they were watching us, too. People left each other alone, but there was no place to hide. We kept a lookout for the clean, bright white trucks driven by Border Patrol officers, and after only a few days one officer, recognizing our car, started waving to us each morning as we went by. That’s the little, casual, Western lift-of-an-index-finger wave, of course.

There were certain points along the road where we could often expect to see livestock grazing. If they were not there, we wondered who had been moving cows, and why? One morning it was clear that cows and calves had been separated for the first time, a significant day on the ranching calendar. Mothers were on one side of the fence, bawling babies on the other. How many square miles of dry, inhospitable scrub must be needed to raise a single animal? One modest home place was noteworthy for its stacks of hay bales, a sizable investment with hay running as high that year as $21 a bale.

Roadrunner! Always droll and delightful....

(Another time, returning from a day trip down to Douglas and Agua Prieta, Sonora, with a visiting friend, she and I saw mule deer running parallel to the road, followed shortly afterward by coyote.)

Then, approaching Willcox, the vast, empty playa opened out in mystery. Always so tantalizingly near and yet so impossibly far from the road, the playa simultaneously called to us and denied us access. Every time we passed we strained to see farther, more than once teased by what appeared to be water in the distance, the old lake reasserting its identity in modern time. Mirage? Much later, on another road, on the other side of the playa, we found a bird-viewing area that showed, yes, water on the other side, a modern remnant of lake. But that is another story.

A great, white, dry, ancient lakebed, the playa seemed to have its own weather systems. Clouds over the playa were different from clouds over surrounding land. Once or twice winds whipped up a dust storm, turning the playa into a Saharan hell and then carrying that hell out past the lakebed, across the roads and into the town of Willcox. When that happened, the clouds of airborne dust could be seen from fifty miles away on the expressway. The playa had other aspects of hell, too, having been used for bombing practice and still containing unexploded ordnance. And yet it held fascination for us that was never dispelled.

On the edge of Willcox, past a straggling line of deserted buildings, others with only questionable signs of occupancy, and the first outlying businesses of the town, a road off the highway promised both golf course and bird viewing area. Turn left, and along the right side of the side road was high, strong, serious fence topped with razor wire. Inside the fenced compound stood modern buildings, surrounded by extensive parking lots and many shiny white vehicles. This was the U.S. Border Patrol’s very physical presence. (They might be the town’s largest employer.) Farther down the same road, on the other side, smaller, more meanly fenced areas guarded dilapidated rusty trucks and trailers and campers until finally the road ended in a large, open, dusty loop around Willcox Lake, a local paradise for birds and birders.

Cattle grazed nearby, the Dos Cabezas peaks rose in the distance, and regularly on winter afternoons platoons of sandhill cranes came in to land and feed and rest and socialize. The number of birds was not as overwhelming as at the much larger Whitewater Draw to the south but impressive nonetheless. First came their calls. Impatiently scanning the sky, one for a long time saw nothing, then at last small, dark shapes. Very high in the sky. It seemed to take forever for the birds to appear as themselves, circling and calling and wheeling gradually lower and lower and lower until they finally landed. There were other birds, too, varieties of ducks and grebes, my (as I thought of him) loggerhead shrike, and once, thrillingly, a vermilion flycatcher.

But we did not usually stop to view birds on our way into town. That was for later.

Houses. Certain favorites among them each of us had, chosen for a porch or roof style or trees in the yard, but all were modest in the extreme. The railroad tracks. Feed store to the left, wine-tasting rooms in attractive small bungalows to the right, and on the other side of the tracks, the depot, the park, and the old buildings of the original downtown. Whether or not we had to wait for a train, reaching the railroad tracks and seeing Willcox on the other side always made me smile.