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.
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.