Monday, May 18, 2015

Sky Islands and Hidden History

Leaving Mt. Graham and the Pinaleno Mountains, we headed southwest to another of our favorite stops, the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains and the small town of Portal.  A short, two hour drive took us back to I-10 then south on US 80 to Rusty’s RV Ranch, one of our favorite parks.  With 1/4 acre sites, friendly owners, and great views of the Chiricahuas, it’s a comfortable place to stay. Chiricauhuas from East We used Rusty’s as a base to explore the mountains, visit birding hotspots, and stop at the Portal store for one of their green-chili cheeseburgers.  Unlike the west side of the mountains, home to the Chiricahua National Monument and a number of campgrounds, the east side is remote, quiet, and unspoiled.
Portal StoreIn many ways, Portal is the western version of Mayberry RFD.  The store is the office for the small lodge, a grocery complete with wine and ice cream, and a small cafĂ©.  Outside is an open patio with bird feeders, for this is “birding” territory.  Sitting on the patio, you can watch folks with binoculars and cameras walking up and down the small street, pointing up into the trees, searching for an Elegant Trogon or other rare bird.  The main street ends just down the road at the post office, with it’s original solid wood door Portal Post Officeand metal roof.  Just up the road is Cave Creek Canyon, known for it’s population of Trogons, and a short ride into the mountains takes you to Paradise…..the town, that is.  With a population of 12 year-round residents, you wouldn’t think that this was once a vibrant mining town.  We always pay a visit to Jackie’s Garden, a wonderful area of feeders next to the George Walker House.  Jackie graciously invites people to sit on her porch with her two boxers and watch the amazing variety of birds that come to her garden, and we enjoyed visiting with her.

Sadly, In 2011 a huge wildfire swept through the Chiricahuas, burning over 200,000 acres.  Although some areas still resemble a lunar landscape, many areas of the mountains are still breathtaking:Chiricahuas from West
Fire Area
This is an area rich in history.  Skeleton Canyon, a few miles down the road is the site of Geronimo’s final surrender.  The history of the canyon is filled with ambushes and massacres, with names you’ll recognize if you watched the movie “Tombstone”.  The Clanton family, Johnny Ringo, and Curley Bill Brochius.  In fact, Johnny Ringo’s body was found high in the Chricahuas with a bullet in his temple, an apparent suicide. 
One of the areas we were interested in visiting was Rucker Canyon, where in 1869 the Calvary fought Cochise and his band resulting in the most ever Congressional Medals of Honor for an Indian battle.  In reading about the canyon, there were references to Camp Rucker, but there was no information on exactly where the camp was. camp rucker Knowing it was near Rucker canyon, I used Google Earth to search the area, and discovered what looked like ruins in an area southeast of the canyon.  Off we went, first to explore the canyon and then to find the camp.  The canyon turned out to be a beautiful riparian area with picnic areas and a small campground.  Afterwards, we drove up and down the roads leading to the canyon and saw…..nothing.  Camp Rucker GateFinally, I pulled up to an unmarked gate to once again check the map – and noticed one of those hiker pass-through gates in the fence.  Curious, I went through the gate and walked about a 1/4 mile into the trees…and there it was!  There were no signs prohibiting entry, so we continued on into the camp.  Strangely, once we entered the old camp there were paths mowed and interpretive signs, hard to understand since the Forest Service keeps the location secret. 
Camp Rucker Sign2The first interpretive sign  explained the history of the camp, (click on the picture to enlarge)  and how Lt John Rucker and a fellow calvary officer, Lt Austin Henely, drowned while trying to cross a rain-swollen creek.  The outpost, originally named Camp Supply, was changed to Camp Rucker in his honor.  (Lt Rucker’s father was a Major General at the time so poor Lt Henely’s name didn’t make the cut)   Camp Rucker Sign The next sign had a great picture of the Indian scouts and Lt Rucker.  The description of how the scout’s singing and chanting annoyed the American troops was interesting.  From this point we could look across the camp and see the remains of the old commissary and the still-standing bakery.Bakery & Commissary

What is believed to have been the Officer’s Quarters was also intact, and had been used in later years as a guest house when the property became a ranch.Officer's Quarters
This cistern was still standing, but had a definite lean to it.  The construction was pretty ingenious.Camp Rucker Cistern
Shortly after the camp closed in 1883, it became a ranch under a series of owners.  The last owner, a woman from New York, used it as a retreat.  The ranch house, which contains some of the adobe bricks from the commissary, is still standing and we were able to walk through the rooms.  It’s pretty much a wreck now, but must have been impressive in it’s day.  The property was turned over to the Forest Service by the owner in 1970.  Ranch House
It was truly interesting for us to walk these grounds where over 135 years ago soldiers were stationed.  So remote, dangerous, and yet beautiful.  We’re not sure why the Forest Service doesn’t publicize the location, perhaps because they don’t have the funding or manpower to maintain safety and security.  But the fact that it’s pretty much unspoiled was worth the search and visit – and now you know how to find it!
Stay tuned, more to come from New Mexico!

Monday, May 04, 2015

Back on the Road

We truly enjoyed our stay in Southern Arizona.  Volunteering at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve was memorable, and it was great to spend time at the Saguaro SKP park with friends Don and Betty.  But as every full timer will tell you, after a while, no matter how much you enjoy a location, “hitch itch” strikes and you can’t wait to get back on the road.  And so it was finally time to hitch up the CRV, bring in the slides, and head out.  But before leaving, there was time for one more walk around the park to admire all of the flowering plants and cactus:Bird of Paradise
Cactus Flower
Cholla Flower
Mt Graham1

Our destination was 
Roper Lake State Park near Safford AZ, at the base of the Pinaleno Mountains and Southern Arizona’s highest peak, Mt Graham (10,700).   This was our favorite place to go camping when we were stationed in Tucson in the early 1970s.  Back then, it was a two hour drive to the base of the mountains, then 37 miles of winding, no-guardrail road to the campground at Riggs Flat LakeSafford ViewToday the road is paved up to the last seven miles or so, but the road is still challenging.  As we started up the mountain, clouds were beginning to form, but views of the valley and Mt Grahsm ViewSafford in the distance were clear and breathtaking.  After an hour of leisurely driving, we crossed over the mountains on to the west side, where a new set of vistas Distant Greenhousesgreeted us.  A little farther on, we could see what looked like a square lake in the far distance.  The “lake” is actually 300 acres of greenhouses employing over 700 people and producing tomatoes and cucumbers.  All this in a dry valley devoid of trees or grass, but with a substantial underground aquifer.
Elevation SignWe continued to climb through the pines and occasional aspen, and as the weather started to move in – or rather as we started to enter the clouds, this sign reminded us just how high we were.  A bit later, we ran into rain, which a little later turned to sleet, which just a bit later turned to snow.  With the outside air temperature dropping to 32, we decided that a trip to the lake not worth chancing being snowed in, and started back down the mountain.  The towering rocks along the road, shrouded in the clouds, reminded us why the Apache consider the mountain a portal to the spirit world.Rocks in Fog
Rocks in Fog2
Back at the park, we explored the many facilities – a swimming beach, fishing docks, and nicely-groomed trails, surrounded by flowering trees and plants.flowering Tree Flowering Tree2
We’ve been in so many places where gophers have left mounds of soft dirt from their burrows.  I’ve sunk up to my knees in a burrow after a rain made the ground soft, dulled lawnmower blades while moving over them, and cursed the little buggers – but never seen one.  Many times I considered my self lucky to see what looked like a head quickly disappear behind a spray of fresh dirt.  But here at the park I finally ran into a Pocket Gopher who was on the slow side.  Looking at the picture of this little buck-toothed guy I can understand why he hides underground:Pocket Gopher
On our last day, we decided to visit the Morenci Mine, one of the world’s largest copper mines.  Began in the 1870s, the mine just keeps getting larger and larger, taking over the countryside.  Company-built housing developments are clustered on the rare flat piece of ground in the area, but still some of the over 3000 workers live in RVs or are bused in from other locations.  It’s impossible to capture the scope of all the mining, but here’s an image of the main “pit”:Morenci Mine
On the way back from the mine, we detoured to visit Gila Box National Riparian Area, a tree and grass-studded area along the Gila and San Francisco rivers.  Gila Box ViewThe river creates a stark contrast from the surrounding desert.  In the “box”, there’s rushing water, green trees, wildlife, and swarms of mosquitoes.  Everywhere.  We couldn’t spend much time out of the vehicle without being bitten, so we drove through the area on the narrow, winding roads.  This sign was unusual, we’d never seen this high a percentage…..but 19?  Why not just round it up to 20?  Who’s going to know the difference?  Sheesh…..Incline Sign
That’s it for this trip, but we’ll have another update soon!