Recently I was digging around in some boxes of old photos my mother gave me before she died, and among copies of tintypes and really old pictures I found one of a woman and man standing in a stiff, late-1800s/early-1900s pose. Written in my mother’s hand were these words: Mary Ellen Riggs Morris and husband Porter (Half-sister).
The photo stopped me for a moment. I looked closely at this half sister and thought, half sister of whom? The two of them were young and handsome and I stared at them for a while to see if I could discern any family resemblance. I thought she faintly favored my mother’s clan and suddenly I recalled a conversation out of my childhood.
Let’s set the stage. My mother’s folks were/are LDS, or Mormons, and have been since the early days when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were leading Mormons across the American continent from upstate New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and on to Salt Lake City in a quest to find a place to practice their religion.
When I was a youngster, I recall that my grandmother, mother and sister took off for Tucson on a shopping trip. They were gone all day leaving me to watch Felix the Cat and Heckle and Jeckle on TV, play baseball, go swimming. When they returned I asked where they’d been. My sister blurted, “We went to see Aunt El in St. David.” (St. David is in Southeastern Arizona just north of Tombstone.)
“Who’s Aunt El?”
My mother glared at my sister and the subject was promptly changed to new clothes, new shoes and the drive back from Tucson.
“Who’s Aunt El?’
Grandmother turned off her hearing aids and Mother went into the kitchen to heat some water for Grandmother’s senna tea; and Sister looked guilty and finally whispered, “Grammy’s sister.”
I knew my grandmother’s sisters—May and Emily—but no El.
Sister whispered, “Polygamy.” She grinned and rolled her eyes and nodded her head so hard her brown curls bounced.
Evidently Aunt Ellen or El, my grandmother’s half sister, was the result of a polygamist marriage between my great grandfather and some woman I don’t believe I ever heard mentioned.
Family history was important to my mother for both personal and religious reasons. Genealogy was important, too, but when it came to taboo subjects like polygamy, it seems to me she (and other members of her large family–I’m talking cousins and aunts and uncles here) needed to hide any mention of them.
As time went on I’d capture tidbits of info on Aunt El. She went to the pen. That was a shock. “The penitentiary?” “For what?”
“But Mormons don’t drink booze.”
“It was really her daughter (name unknown to me). Aunt El took the rap.”
And that was the last I heard of Aunt El. I suspect she’s buried down there around St. David or Benson, Arizona, and has descendents living in the region, cousins of mine, a few times removed, but still cousins.
As I look at the old photo of Aunt El, she seems kind. She seems polite and neat and clean and frankly, she seems a little frightened.
I don’t know why she looks frightened. Maybe it’s because her expression tells me something bad has happened, or is about to happen. I think the photo is old enough that she wouldn’t have been involved in bootlegging yet. That wasn’t really prevalent in the 1920s.
As I look at the second family photo in this blog, the photo of the other side of this polygamist family, I see my grandmother sitting in the lower right-hand corner. My great-grandmother, Clarissa Ann, is sitting in the middle. Both seem to be looking out of the photo at something or someone. My grandmother wears a bemused look. Or is it a look of derision? Who is she looking at? I wonder if she is looking at Aunt El.
My most recent book of short stories, THE GODS OF ANGKOR WAT is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon HERE.
“The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”
Chicago is a muscled-up version of Denver or Phoenix. Brassy and confident, the streets alive with jive and new suits and Teslas and glassy buildings that scratch the edge of the sky.
Among other big league teams, Chicago’s Cubs play here and their fans are raucous and wear blue hats and shirts with big red Cs. The El loops around this brawny town and the rumble and crank of wheels on its seasoned tracks, the moan of its superstructures, roll on all night.
From the Art Institute the works of Van Gogh and Monet and El Greco and Chagall shout out for the home folks and the tourists to tread before the museum walls adorned by some of the finest art in the world. A location where museums reside, Chicago plays host to the sublime and other more mordant things, museums that record the art of war and the memory of war.
Down the canyons of Jackson and Monroe, the wind rises off Lake Michigan and buffets as you stop and gawk at the line queued up at Dunkin Donuts. Chicago native Lou Rawls sang about the winds of Chicago. He called the wind, “The Hawk,” and at dawn The Hawk swoops down and cools the seething streets.
And the food: Italian, German, Asian…the list is long.
Say New York? Chicago yawns. Say LA, Chicago laughs. Say London, Chicago shrugs its industrial shoulders.
We shared meals and sightseeing with new friends and old: the writers and artists, Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan; our old Cowboy Poetry pal Michael Lawson all the way from the Monterey, California region; tenor Don Hovey, Betty’s four decade friend; my Jarhead mate Michael E. O’Hara.
Carl Sandburg, 20th Century Pultizer Prize winning author and Illinois native, called Chicago a hog butcher and a toolmaker and a stacker of wheat. And Chicago is still those things and a lot more. He’s a capitol city: Capitol of the Midwest. He’s an educator and an entertainer, he’s a high tech maven, he’s Chicago.
Let me end this paean to the Windy City with more Sandburg.
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
For those of you interested in reading fiction, I have begun posting short-short stories on this website. If you are interested in reading them, you can find them at http://kennethrodgers.com/flash-fiction/.
Mule teams and Dutch oven biscuits, doubletrees and a renegade Apache called the Apache Kid. These are some of the images that fire family history, family myth.
Betty and I spent some time in Arizona and New Mexico this year and as we wandered around between the deserts and the mountains, my mind journeyed to some of my family’s history in that part of the USA: My great-grandfather Riggs herding cattle into the Mogollon country in the 1870s, the Plumbs settling in the eastern part of the state, the decades down around Tombstone and then homesteading in the Sonoran Desert south of the Salt River.
I heard a lot of stories about these folks when I was young, these pioneers who pushed south out of Utah into a wild and desolate land.
One of the tales I heard was about an encounter my grandfather, William Lafayette Plumb, had with the Apache Kid. It came to mind as Betty and I were headed south from San Simon, Arizona, on Interstate 10, driving towards Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. I’d forgotten the story, but as we looked at the desert flats trapped between the Chiricahuas on our right and the Peloncillo Mountains on our left, the story came back to me.
The Apache Kid, or Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl as he was named in Apache, was a semi-mythical figure who lived in the border country of Arizona and New Mexico in the US, and Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico. The Kid was pretty much an orphaned child and was raised around Army posts in Arizona, and when he became old enough, the chief of Army scouts, Al Sieber, chose him for a scout.
In 1887 The Kid was involved in a murder of another Apache scout, was tried and convicted–more than once for the same murder–before finally being sent to the Arizona State Prison in Yuma in 1889. On the way, The Kid escaped and from that point on, became a phantom of sorts, accused of rape and rustling and theft and murder all the way into the 1930s.
My grandfather was a freighter around the turn of the 20th Century. He hauled freight in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico as well as northern Mexico.
The encounter with The Kid as told to me was that Lafe, as they called my grandfather, and two other freighters were camped out in the high desert south of San Simon. Let me set the scene.
The horses were hobbled in a meadow. Even though it’s a desert now, that country back then–in the 1890s–was lush. The freight wagons, or trucks as they were also known, were drawn up in a laager just in case; even though the Apaches had been on the reservation for ten-plus years, old fears refused to die gracefully. The sun was just cutting in over the Peloncillos and the meadowlarks were singing their liquid-gold tunes. A slight breeze bent the heads of the gramma grass and a mantle of snow shrouded the Chiricahuas.
Dutch ovens smoked on blue-red mesquite coals, a speckled coffee pot, too. Tin plates and cups and other gear spread in the bed of one of the wagons. Side meat sizzled in a Dutch oven and potatoes fried in a cast iron skillet. The scent of pinto beans and fresh tortillas lingered over the fire.
The freighters wore high-topped boots and colorful Mexican serapes, floppy felt hats. Big knives hung off their belts and long-barreled 44s in holsters. Winchester rifles leaned up against the spokes of wagon wheels.
No one heard The Kid arrive…just suddenly there, sitting horseback, sombrero brim pulled down over his forehead, right hand on the grip of one of his pistols.
I imagine alarm and awkwardness. Hemming and hawing. He was an Indian and they were white men.
But I also imagine these freighters having a notion of hospitality, and they would have known that if he was going to kill them, he probably would have already done so, and so they invited him to sit a spell and share their victuals.
They ate their beans and tortillas and side meat and spuds, the freighters talking about the route south, their families. The Kid sat on his haunches and packed all his grub inside tortillas and never said a word. That’s what my grandmother kept saying to me when she first told me this story. “He never said a word.”
When he finished eating, he set his utensils down on the end of one of the wagons, walked over to his horse, jumped into the saddle, turned to ride off, but then stopped. He looked at the freighters and tipped his hat and said, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.” That’s what she kept saying, my grandmother, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.”
One of the important aspects of family history is how it creates a rich tapestry that ties us to the past. Some folks reckon that what happened in the past doesn’t matter since it can’t be changed. Yet I can’t help but wonder if where we come from isn’t part of who we are.
I once heard a radio interview with the African American poet Rita Dove. She talked about family and the strengths that family history provides to the living. The past provides context, it presents a panoply of characters to admire, or not admire.
Rita Dove’s not-too-distant ancestors were slaves. Yet family was so important to her that since she couldn’t know who her ancestors were, she made them up. It was important for her to create a lineage, to visualize, to name them, to give herself a framework to understand who and what she had become.
Even though I can name a lot of my ancestors, family history is important to me for the same reasons it is important to Rita Dove. It’s important to me to know about Lafe Plumb’s encounter with the Apache Kid.
I don’t necessarily have to make up a family history. I have stories related to me over the years by my elders. I also have family rumors and myth–some true, some false–that I can draw upon so that the images I see in my mind are the kind I can hear and see and smell, the kind I can rub my hand over and when I look at my fingers, find a festered splinter that came out of one of Lafe’s freight wagons.
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.
Memory may be the only thing of value that we carry out of this world when we exit. Memory revealed its strength to me the last few weeks as Betty and I peregrinated around the southwest. After screening our documentary film BRAVO! in my old home town of Casa Grande, we took a drive up around the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson towards San Manuel on our way to Benson, Arizona.
A range of mountains to our north came into view and even though it had been over thirty years since I had last seen those mountains, my memories of journeys into and along that range sprang right into the forefront of my attention. Galiuros…that was the name of the mountains, the Galiuros.
I remembered camping trips in the fifties when we hiked up the rough run of Aravaipa Canyon, and hunting trips into the deep cut flanks of the Santa Catalina foothills in the seventies and eighties. These memories were gratifying on some level that I am not sure I understand. Was it memory itself that made me satisfied, or was it the memories of those moments?
Those thoughts simmered inside me as we drove off the main highway between Tucson and Superior and took on the corduroy washboard they call the San Pedro-Reddington-Cascabel Road around the back side of the Santa Catalinas and the Rincon Mountains. This road is carved by arroyos exposing the geology of the country, the aggregate and white rock that glares when the sun beats on it. What surprised me, besides the pilgrims who had moved into the country over the thirty years since my last visit, were the forests of saguaro, the forests of cholla and ocotillo and prickly pear. The country in southern Arizona has become so developed that the large groupings of desert flora have been diminished to one or two examples of each species so that the developers can show their customers they are maintaining the integrity of the land as it was before the rush of folks from back east or California.
But what I was seeing out on that washboard road was straight out of my recollection of what the Sonoran Desert around Tucson used to be, before Del Webb and Pulte and all the other big-name builders showed up to mow down what got in the way of golf courses and club houses and streets and homes.
We arrived in Benson and spent a day and a half chasing birds around the San Pedro Riparian Wildlife Conservation Area outside Sierra Vista and in Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains on the New Mexico/Arizona border. My previous excursions in the region had only been pass-throughs, but memories of them floated up as we watched redtail hawks, white-breasted nuthatches, pyrrhuloxias and loggerhead shrikes. The southeast area of Arizona was home to some of my ancestors and even though I have little evidence of what happened to them there, the knowledge that their graves are in the old St. David cemetery and neighboring locations conjured up images of draft horses and Apache raids, and I wondered if those were manufactured in my own mind or remnants of a racial memory.
We journeyed on to Fort Davis, Texas, and two days of listening to cowboy poets and musicians ply their tunes and poems. Fort Davis and Alpine (where they had the cowboy poetry event) sit in wild country with cliffs and valleys and peaks that rear up like volcanoes we see in movies, like anvils and great monuments built in some kind of fantasy land where what is constructed is beyond the hand of man, created by a greater race of beings, now long gone with no signature but the rugged country that sings to our remembrance.
Then on to Big Bend and the wild jumble of Rio Grande country, the mix of Mexican and American heritage a permanent stamp on the culture. A culture still lodged in the memory of my youth.
The mountains at Big Bend look like they were shoved into mounds and blocks and pyramids and the land changes from grassy terrain to conifer heights. Bear, cougar and elk inhabit rugged topography not far from surroundings inhabited by desert denizens like diamondbacks and peccaries.
We spent a night in Terlingua, Texas, or more specifically, Terlingua Ghost Town which sits about five miles west of modern Terlingua. Terlingua Ghost Town is what remains of a once prosperous community whose citizens mostly worked in the mercury mines that were so important to the munitions industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of what remains of the ghost town’s glory is kept in the memories written down in books and portrayed in old photography.
Upon our arrival we were delivered a big surprise. We needed to go to the Terlingua Trading Company to check into our lodgings for the night in the ghost town and instead of goblins, ghosts and zombies, we found one of the most lively places we’d been in since arriving in the southwest part of Texas. The Trading Company is located in an old building with high and wide Texan porches. Gangs of people sat along walls and the edges of the porch, playing guitars, singing, palavering, drinking beer. They were a wild array of folks, old hippies, young hippies, Marines, cowboys, turistas, and then there were the dogs, mostly pit bulls and occasionally a mongrel of indefinable lineage.
Contrary to their reputations, these pit bulls were mellow, and it reminded me of my notion that dogs’ personalities reflect the personas of their masters. There were big signs along the wall of the Trading Company that read, “No Dogs on Porch,” but the dogs didn’t seem to mind the warnings and it was apparent they had yet to learn to read.
Terlingua Ghost Town has a “durn good” restaurant named The Starlight Theater and is housed in the same location as an old movie theater that showed films back in Terlingua’s mercury mining heyday. Now it serves margaritas, beer and some mighty fine green chile.
The next morning we discovered our biggest treat in the ghost town…the cemetery. Most of the folks buried in this cemetery died during the influenza epidemic of 1919-1920, but there are markers for earlier deaths and surprising to us, folks are still being buried there. The graveyard is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of an apparently well-attended Day of the Dead celebration held in early November.
The graveyard is a work of art, in its own way, with simple wooden-cross grave markers next to complex adobe monuments. The individual graves are crammed up against each other with lots of ornaments lying around on particular gravesites. Jars for money, beer cans, flowers, and other mementoes make this the most interesting cemetery I’ve been in, and that is quite a few.
The funny thing about my impressions of Terlingua Ghost Town is the memories the experience evokes: When I was a kid, of barbeques down on the washes that ran through the Arizona of my youth; a cow carcass, butchered and marinated in salts and peppers and oils, then buried with searing mesquite coals; and friends of my parents with cans of Coors and plates piled with spicy potato salad and garlic bread. Or later, when I was a young man, frying chicken in Dutch ovens out west of Casa Grande, or if not chickens, then calf fries. Playing softball and volleyball. Drinking wine and whiskey watching the kids play, hoping they didn’t find a rattlesnake. Listening to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix.
Besides the cemetery, the images around Terlingua are ghostly, the hard white and sun-faded hues of the peaks, the arroyos that have chopped the land in their haste to make a meeting with the Rio Grande. These images as they filter back into my mind are like goblins dressed in long white gossamer gowns that remind me of Halloween or the times when I was a child when my grandmother (who lived with us) used to cry out to her long dead mother. Memories.
Hola from sunny Arizona!
We started out from Boise Monday morning in mist and snow, and roamed near Hagerman, Idaho, looking for cottonwood trees chock full of Bald Eagles. We found the tree, or the grove and yes, the limbs were festooned with Bald Eagles, looking to me like those Christmas cards painted with conifers decorated with candles. No, the eagles weren’t red and yellow—they were brown and white-headed—but the way they sat in those trees was ornamental.
The snow spit and the mist and fog shrouded everything south until we hit Jackpot on the Nevada-Idaho border and then the sun peeped out from behind sailing clouds and the farther south we drove under an ever more dazzling sun, the more snow we encountered on the ground. At Ely, the fresh snow was five or six inches deep.
From Ely we turned west over the edge of Great Basin National Park and then southeast through Baker and into Utah, across one valley after another, only three or four cars besides us in over eighty miles of big country. The wide, flat spaces between the mountain ranges reminded us of tundra and we must not have been too far wrong because on one road marker after another, the Rough-legged Hawks sat watching for prey, only to be alarmed by our coming, lifting off just before we arrived. Their escapes afforded glimpses of the black and white bands on their tails. We could see the white under-parts of the wings with the dark spots that reminded me of elbows. In winter, Rough-legged Hawks come south from the tundra of the north country.
The southwestern part of Utah has a lot of these big tundra-like flats and the snow cover made the sage look like it might collapse beneath the wet of the last storm. We passed juniper-dotted hills and line shacks and cattle, Ravens, Prairie Falcons and occasionally a Golden Eagle.
Yesterday we went through the southern part of Zion National Park on our way south from St. George to Phoenix. We hit the red cliffs as the sun came up and the colors were like tints pilfered from a painter’s palette.
Fresh snow was captured on the sheer cliffs of the cold sides. Once, we saw the winds sweep snow off a cliff, reminding me of gossamer garlands twisting in a breeze. It took us quite a while to drive the s-curves and tunnels of Utah Route 9 from the southwestern entrance to the eastern entrance of Zion. We snapped a lot of photos.
Up top, a bison herd filed by as we headed east. They rambled west below a pine-crested ridge foregrounded by a meadow full of fresh snow.
Just before Kanab on US Highway 89 we encountered a road closure so we had to turn a one-eighty north through the small communities of the upper Virgin River Valley, and at Glendale learned we could take a detour around that road closure. I had my doubts, but the folks at the local post office assured Betty that we could conquer whatever obstacles the road threw at us. It was rough and unpaved and luckily frozen or we’d have hauled a load of Utah red mud all the way to Arizona.
We motored by the Vermilion Cliffs in the Arizona Strip. We have been there many times before but “can’t not” come and stop if we are anywhere close. As Betty says, “They are majestic.” And yes they are vermilion, and red and rust and yellow and purple depending on light and the rocks’ mineral content. We also stopped at nearby Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon looking for California Condors, but the wind was feisty and nothing moved except the humans, what few passed by pulling livestock trailers. The Navajo ladies at the bridge selling painted gourds and turquoise bracelets braved the lusty lashes of the winds inside the cabs of their pickups, Led Zeppelin pulsing through the floorboards.
We then turned south towards Phoenix, and saguaro and ocotillo and jumping cactus. On Interstate 17 just north of Phoenix at New River, a familiar mountain reared up just to the west. I said to Betty, “I can remember looking at that mountain as a kid and thinking we had so far to go.”
That was when my mother and I went south from Flagstaff, where my older sister went to college, towards our home in Casa Grande, south of the Valley of the Sun.
But now the years have sped up and the trips have too, what was long and arduous and never ending passes by us almost before we can enjoy it.
Betty and I are getting ready to head south to the old home country to help screen our documentary film in Casa Grande, Arizona at the historic Paramount Theatre on February 13. I was born and went to school and lived in Casa Grande for a while after my return from the USMC. I have family there and we always look forward to the special time and the warm weather.
It’s been cold and foggy in Idaho with the inversion perched below the Boise Front like a wayfarer too weary to journey on. The hoarfrost has been a photographer’s delight, but I’m a desert rat and demand to see the sun every once in a while. To paraphrase the philosopher Francis Bacon, “If the sunshine will not come to Ken, Ken must go to the sunshine.”
And it is not just the sunshine; the journey from here to there is filled with visual delights: craggy peaks that needle up into scudding clouds flying off towards the Midwest and shadows of snow-covered sagebrush tattoo the land. Long vistas unfold from one mountain range to the next with the valleys in between often populated by a single line-shack shaded by the naked branches of a cottonwood tree, a corral sitting close with some bays and sorrels and a wayward Hereford cow that can’t find her crossbreed calf. And further south, like an outdoorsman’s rapture, lays the rugged red land of the great Colorado Basin, with Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs and Sedona. The majesty of it all dares your camera to cram all the import of each moment onto the computer chip inside that captures memory. Even if that isn’t possible, just having the privilege to see it and store it in your reminiscence will provide many luscious moments when you are trapped behind your desk, or lying there awake hours before the sun shows up to announce another day.
After Arizona, we are motoring down to Alpine, TX, for some cowboy poetry and Big Bend, Marfa, Terlingua. Betty and I lived half a day away from Big Bend in the eighties and always thought that the journey down there was too far, but now we travel all over this country, and what seemed too difficult then is now something we can get done with little sweat.
We are looking forward to those long vistas across high desert that snake between the lofty ranges. We want to gaze down into the gorges cut through the limestone of the Chisos Mountains. We want that hot Terlingua chile, the kind those Terlinguista chile gourmands mention with the following caveat, “Sorry, no beans in this spectacle.” Just chile and carne and homemade tortillas steaming off the comal.
We are meeting our friends Mary and Roger Engle when we arrive in Texas and will tour the land and its treasures, and not just the Marfa Lights and the observatory at Fort Davis, but also those little things that appear in a moment that, if you are not willing to stop and see right then, are gone. Kind of like the lives we choose to live.
If you, dear reader are on your way south, we hope to see you and spend some time over javvy and fresh toast, or chile verde, or just a handshake, or a hug and some shared recall of what made us friends to begin with.
As they say along the border, “Hasta pronto.”
Last weekend Betty and I motored down to Elmore and Owyhee Counties, Idaho, for a day of looking around at the snow (what remained), the birds, and the Columbia Basin landscape. The southwestern part of Idaho, upon initial encounters, appears to be harsh, ugly, boring and a lot of other pejorative adjectives, but in each season the sage brush plains and craggy mountains deliver up singular delights. One of our favorite times to get out into the region is the winter. Not to detract from both spring and fall, which deliver their own spectacular moments, the winter light that reaches low out of the southern sky casts a nostalgic glow on the snow and the land and the things that dwell in the harsh environment.
We stopped at Ted Trueblood Wildlife Management Area just north of Grandview and took a little saunter among the cattails and Russian olives. The song of Canada geese carried along on the breeze. We looked for owls but found none. A female belted kingfisher flew above us and stuttered its angry warnings, then flew off to kite like a kestrel over a slice of open water in an otherwise frozen pond. In the distance, the Owyhee Mountains jutted up from the flat horizon.
We traveled on to Bruneau Dunes and climbed to the spine of one of the big sandbanks. The gray sand was damp and frozen on the west side and dry and fine on the east. The ever present winds scaled over the rim of the dune and scattered a veil of sand off towards Wyoming. Down below, the small lakes were frozen with huge gaggles of Canada geese walking on the ice, cackling to each other, or who knows, maybe to us. Occasionally a dozen or so would rise with an alarmed riff of squawks and fly off to some undistinguishable destination, maybe grain stubble over towards Mountain Home or a fallow hay field along the highway to Hammett.
We traversed the spine of the dune, fighting to keep our balance as we stepped into a frozen spot that made us slip or a thawed place that acted like there was some not-so-benign intelligence down there intent on sucking us down. Down.
Often, when I talk about Idaho to folks domiciled in other locations, they think the state is all like the mighty Tetons or the photogenic Sawtooths, not a land of sage and sand. But like much of the American West, Idaho is a variety. Forested, mountainous, desert, swamp, lake and stream and river…and sand.
This makes me think of the sand in the southwest, the dunes outside of Yuma, Arizona, and the several dunes around my old home town. There was one dune in particular, on the Tohono O’odham Nation between my town, Casa Grande, and the Mexican border. Tohono O’odham means “desert people” or something close to that and is an apt description of the folks that live on the vast nation (or reservation), the second largest in the 48 states. When I was a kid growing up, we called them Papago Indians. Papago, I believe, comes from a Spanish language distortion of the Tohono O’odham word for “bean people.” I think the “beans” referred to in that moniker are probably mesquite beans which the Tohono O’odham people utilized in the form of flour, porridge, cake and drinks.
Mesquite, along with palo verde and ironwood, are the dominant trees of the Sonoran Desert and are members of the pea family. They nitrify the soil, provide beans that feed mourning dove and Gambel’s quail, desert big horn sheep, coyotes, wolves, rabbits, desert pronghorns and the indigenous people of the desert. Mesquite also makes excellent coals for cooking.
The particular dune I am writing about is positioned in what we local Anglos called White Horse Pass south of the Tohono O’odham village of Chuichu. White Horse Pass sits in among the Silver Reef Mountains and when I was a kid and a young man, it was a stop on the way further south to Arizona’s own version of the Sawtooth Mountains. We used to rattle down the dirt tracks into those rugged granitic fingers and points and teeth in search of agate to cut and polish and to make into jewelry. I relished the hunting and the finding of the raw agate and the bothering of the old core drillers who used to sleep on cots in the open air next to their well rigs as they prospected for gold and silver. Now the area is designated as part of the BLM-managed Ironwood National Monument.
In the old days, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, we used to go down there and spend a day rock hounding and maybe stop at the dune at White Horse Pass and climb up the dune which had been trapped by the wind against the south face of one of the Silver Bell massifs. Then we would tumble to the bottom, or we would climb up the dune and onto the top of the granite mountain and look south towards the Baboquivari Mountains and Kitt Peak National Observatory. Baboquivari Peak rears up out of the desert like a human male’s member and is what the Tohono O’odham call the “navel of the world.”
Some of the roughest country I have ever traversed on foot lies at the foot of Baboquivari Peak. Jaguars have been sighted there and in the fall, winter and spring it is a great place to visit if you want to climb rugged cap rock and hunt mule deer and quail among the spikey slopes loaded with ocotillo and prickly pear. And when I say hunt, I don’t necessarily mean with a weapon. You might have a camera, a set of binoculars, or both.
The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is part of the larger basin and range terrain that makes up much of the intermountain west where jutting, rugged mountain ranges rear off the desert floor with relatively narrow valleys in between; the Baboquivari Mountains and Picacho Peak and Newman Peak and the Sierra Estrellas and San Tan Mountains and the Vekol Mountains and the Silver Reefs and the Silver Bells and the Tucson Mountains where the movie site, Old Tucson, sits evoking memories of John Wayne shooting Christopher George in El Dorado. Moving east toward New Mexico the terrain lifts into the higher ranges, the Santa Ritas and the Santa Catalinas, the Galiuros and the Rincons, the Dragoons, the Pinaleños and the Chiricahuas.
When I was younger, besides rolling in the sand of the dunes at White Horse Pass or hunting agate in the Sawtooths, I hunted quail on the valley flats and if I was lucky to find a place where gone-by mesquite trees rotted in the ground, I’d wait until a wet spell in the weather and then take a four-wheel-drive truck and rip the roots of the dead mesquites right out of the ground with a big chain. We’d split the wood with sledge and wedge and maul and ax and load it into our pickups and haul it home to use in our homemade grills to cook lamb chops and prime rib and chicken. How I loved the sounds of those tools, the clink and clank, the chunk and later the hiss and sizzle of meat over red-orange coals.
When taking breaks from splitting into the red heart of hard mesquite, we could watch the drug runners in their Beach Barons and Cessna 172s flying low down the valleys from Mexico to deliver their loads of marijuana to the Phoenix area. Now the BLM warns you about going into the country south of White Horse Pass because of the migration of aliens out of Mexico. I suspect the folks from Mexico and El Salvador and Honduras who want to work are not the big problem, but the men who “manage” the migration; those coyotes are what should be avoided. Having lived in the desert for over thirty years, many times I ran into aliens (sans their managing coyotes) going north for work. Never once did I feel threatened.
Soon we will be down in that Sonoran Desert country screening our film and photographing saguaro cacti and adobe walls and looking at the Silver Reefs and Baboquivari. It will be fun to compare and contrast the sands from White Horse Pass with the sands of Bruneau Dunes.
On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.
The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.
Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.
I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?
Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.
When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.
In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!
Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.
When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.
Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.
One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.
When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.
When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.
And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.
Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.
These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.
As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.
Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.
Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.
In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.
As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.
I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.
I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.
Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.
In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.
Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.
I was reared in the deserts of southern Arizona and the fall of the year was like most of the year. Dry and dusty. And it could be hot, too. So when I heard people gasp and praise the colors of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Wasatch chain, it did little to stir my innards. I looked at photos and yes, the reds and oranges, yellows and golds, russets all were pretty but little did I understand how those colors in real life could rivet your eyes to the serrated edges of leaves, the black of ash tree branches hiding behind the bright gold of the leaves, the shimmer of the blood red aspen leaves ringing high New Mexican meadows.
And yes, I did live in New Mexico and there I became aware of the acres and acres of aspen that grew in the cold spots of the Sacramento Mountains. Some years the autumn reds and golds blazed, and some years not. Some Septembers the rains came in phalanxes of black and gray and tormented the leaf peepers from the desert climes of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Those years the leaves immediately went from green to a wan yellow pocked with dark spots and quickly to dull black. A wet mess that instead of drifting in a brisk breeze like flags on top of an alpine bed and breakfast, fell splat in damp blankets that pasted the ground beneath the trees.
I’ve lived almost all of my life in the west and I’ve seen the best the west has to offer in terms of fall color, so when people say that Ruidoso or Taos or Heber City or Squaw Valley rival the colors of New England I am here to tell you that generally speaking, those folks are hyping real estate or some other reason to get you to come to their country. The hills of Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire are without a doubt one of the most outstanding places to be when the maples show their flashy—yes, I think I can say—their brazen petticoats of autumn. When I say outstanding, I mean in the world, the planet, the universe as we know it from our tiny point of view.
But…but, there is often a but…this year, 2013 in the western United States, from my vantage point, has to be one of the most amazing years for color that I’ve ever seen…maybe the most amazing, and this includes the autumns of New England.
Betty and I were in Garden Valley, Idaho, for the initial turn of the aspen, and then in the Wood River Valley, and the Stanley Basin of Idaho. And the colors rose up off the leaves and glared at me as if I was being inspected by the trees and I must say, it made me feel small, made me feel wanting, and that feeling was followed by an exhilaration that was mindful of balloons rising in the fall of the year over Albuquerque.
By way of a caveat, I will say that one of the things that made the 2013 colors of autumn in Idaho so outstanding was the contrast between the blaze of tints and the harsh sage brush and cheat grass land surrounding the rivers and creeks and seeps that snake down the mountains, hills and valleys of Idaho. And it wasn’t just aspen and cottonwoods and maples and ash trees that seemed to glow in the brisk, sunny light, it was the riparian willows turned to red and gold as they defined where water runs in this arid land.
But of course, the colors of autumn are ephemeral and leave us too soon, and leave us, too, with the sad knowledge that winter lurks in the near future.
But as Idaho’s autumn tints began to dim, Betty and I went south and found the colors just starting to show in Nevada, like huge surprises, the cottonwoods on the Truckee River as it meandered off the Sierra Nevada into the sinkholes of Central Nevada, and up and up over the top at Donner and down into the Sacramento River Valley, the colors less aggressive, still with a benign green that promised an autumn to arrive real soon, in the week, the weeks coming…and just for a moment I hoped for an endless autumn.
But there are no endless autumns. Autumn to me parallels the period of my life that I now inhabit. An autumn where the colors are so vibrant they leave me searching for the meaning of beauty, where the days are brisk and drive energy into tired bones. And the sadness that comes as you understand that what is to come will be more like the rubbed-raw blast of winter.