Amazing Arizona

Desert plants keeping their distance from each other

    I used to pour over every article and photograph in the Arizona Highways magazines. It seemed wonderful to live in a land of sunshine and little rain, where every road led to adventure and romance. But my attempt to find a job in Arizona ended before I got there, when I discovered that my previous contract in Washington was still in effect. Then I met and married my husband and later followed him to Alaska.

    Now, in my later years, I’ve had many opportunities to visit my “dream state” and the daughter who lives there. I’ve told about the variety and adventure to be found in Arizona in previous Sun Breaks posts. The sunshine is wonderful in late winter-early spring, although daughter and son-in-law have a somewhat jaundiced outlook on the long, hot summers when they can only go outside in the evenings or early mornings.

A plant that pricks…a fishhook barrel cactus

    Arizona is an amazing state. Although it’s true that many of the plants and animals either bite, prick, or poison you, it’s also true that they’re marvelously adapted to the environments where they live.

   It’s true that there are wide, monotonous deserts where the few plants that grow keep their distance from each other. There are also mountains and forests, canyons and dry creeks that run so full in the sudden storms, the water sweeps ahead of it everything that doesn’t get out of the way.

  Animals can be strange, like the javelinas (peccaries) with oversize heads and no necks. They can be familiar and adaptive, like the coyotes that run through back yards.  Our kids, who live near the outskirts of town, opened their front door one morning to find a rattlesnake on their stoop. Some areas are birders’ paradises. If it’s been a wet winter, the first days of spring bring sweeps of wildflowers to the rocky hillsides. Some “belly flowers” are so tiny one must get down on hands and knees to examine them.

When threatened, the chuckwalla wedges itself into a crevice and inflates itself with air. Photo: Ed Mills

Owl family in a saquaro cactus. Photo: Ed Mills

    Arizona people are as varied as the landscape. There are 21 federally recognized native American tribes and over a quarter of the state is reservation land. Many folks trace their ancestors back to the indigenous people of Mexico and to the Spanish explorers who settled there. You can find almost any skin color or accent on the city streets. The population of Arizona swells with an influx of retirees from the colder states every winter. They bring their own homes on wheels or keep a winter home in places like Apache Junction or Yuma.

    Everywhere we go, we share the highways and the beauty spots with visitors like us, who have come to enjoy the sunny playground that is the state of Arizona. Thank you for sharing, Arizonans!

A Love Affair with Arizona

A desert sunrise
In the Saguaro National Monument

When I was young, the gorgeous desert and canyon photographs in Arizona Highways magazine enticed me. I was also fascinated by the lovely art of the indigenous peoples of the desert. If only I could leave behind the drab, wet Northwest winters to experience for myself the light and warmth of exotic Arizona!

God loves to give his children the desires of their hearts. When we’re young, we may find that hard to believe. Sometimes we want things badly. Not getting them leads to disappointment. We don’t realize that what we want may be bad for us, or that we must learn to wait for what we want.  Sometimes, getting what we think we want turns into disillusionment.  But often, God delights us by eventually giving us what we desire, and more.

An opportunity to fulfill my desert wish came after I had graduated from college and taught school for four years in Washington State. I sent resumes to various Southwest cities, eager to experience life in the land I dreamed about. My sister and I set out for Arizona, stopping for an interview in California. There I learned that, due to a misunderstanding, I had not been released from my previous job.

Major disappointment!  We turned around and drove back to Washington, never even seeing Arizona, and I went back to my former position. A few weeks after school started, I met Bob Biggar, a young man from Alaska. Six months later, we married. We moved to Alaska. I’d never thought of living there, but I loved it. While we raised our family, I started a writing career, and we made lifelong friends. (More heart’s desires fulfilled!)

When my husband’s health began to fail, doctors told him he needed a warmer climate. We returned to Washington, and one winter we decided to take our travel trailer to Arizona. We enjoyed a month of exploring fascinating places while I did research for a young adult book set in Arizona. Then our insurance company cancelled our auto coverage. The only way to resolve the problem was to return to Washington. I did finish my research, though I still wanted to experience more of the Grand Canyon State.

A while later, Bob died. After six years, I married Hank (a good gift from God which is another story.) My daughter, Lenora, received her heart’s desire when she married Steve.  Then she and Steve moved from Seattle to live in Arizona year-round.

I missed Lenora terribly, but now we had an excuse to travel to Arizona every winter. This year we’ve rented a vacation apartment, and we’re staying a month. I’ve come to realize through my daughter’s experience that I’m wimpy about hot weather. I really don’t want to live here year around. But God has given me the chance to enjoy the desert and its denizens up close and personal during the best time of year, and also to spend time with loved ones. All because God knows our heart’s desires and he loves to fulfill them.

Lenora, Steve and Bella with Hank, after an evening walk in the desert

Moving Mountains in Arizona

The Abandoned Lavender Pit

  When we visited the old Arizona copper mining city of Bisbee recently, we marveled at a vast hole in the ground called Lavender Pit. It was named not for the color of the rocks but for Harrison Lavender, the man responsible for the mine’s development in the mid-‘50s. Terraces spiraled downward to rust-colored waste water nine hundred feet below. Where had all the missing rock gone? A whimsical thought struck. Did the miners know about Jesus’ comment that if his followers had faith, they could remove mountains?

We’d toured Bisbee’s underground Copper Queen Mine on a previous trip, but hadn’t seen this example of Arizona’s open pit copper mines. When we stared into the pit, which covers an area of some 300 acres, we noticed that its sides were much steeper than others we’d seen in the Southwest. That’s because the rock was less crumbly than in other mines. Then we drove past remnants of structures where the ore was recovered and past oddly smooth hills of broken, barren rock. In the distance we saw the town of Douglas, where trains had taken the ore for final smelting.

We returned to explore the part of old Bisbee that clings to the walls of Tombstone Canyon. A deep concrete ditch runs along the canyon to contain the frequent flash floods that used to wash away buildings every year. Some of the channel is hidden beneath the paving. Where the channel is open, narrow bridges connect picturesque small dwellings to the street.
                                                                                     The Writing Room
A sign pointed up a steep driveway: Schoolhouse B & B. We investigated and found a red-brick schoolhouse perched on a ledge just big enough for the building and a few cars. What a serendipity! It was built in 1913 as a four-classroom elementary school. Its rooms had been divided and turned into charming, high-ceilinged bedrooms with schoolhouse themes. When we saw the one labeled “The Writing Room,” we couldn’t resist and decided that’s where we’d spend the night. Besides the usual amenities, our room had antique books and typewriter, toys, and framed samples of a long-ago student’s penmanship. High-ceilinged windows     and old-fashioned transom over the door were curtained in lace. We also had comfortable armchairs where we sat to read from some of the old books and where I wrote this blog.

While waiting for breakfast the next morning, we found a compilation of stories from an old Bisbee newspaper, the Brewery Gulch Gazette, accompanied by early-day photos.

One picture, taken in the early 1900s, showed Sacramento Hill–a huge pile of low-grade copper ore–looming above the town and mine buildings. In 1917, Phelps Dodge began to develop the first pit, Sacramento, atop the peak. William C. Epler, the newspaper’s editor, wrote: “Many tons of explosives were placed in hundreds of drill holes in the top of the mountain and set off with a bang that shook old Bisbee from one end to the other. The entire top of the mountain rose into the air with a mighty heave, then settled back into place–broken into millions of tons of mineable ore. In later years the Lavender Pit and then the extension to that pit took away much more of the hill. Today there’s only a nubbin left.”

So, a mountain had once stood where the pit now gaped.

The arrival of our gourmet french toast interrupted my reading. Two other couples invited us to join them at their table, another serendipity. One man told us he’d grown up in Bisbee. Like boys everywhere in those years, he and his friends made the whole community their playground. They hung around the mines and knew all about the mine operations.

He told us that at 3:05 every school day, all students had to be in their classroom seats because that was when the blast of dynamite went off in the mine, shaking the whole town and loosening ore for the next day’s digging.

Until mining ended in the Lavender pit in 1974, shovels loaded ore onto massive trucks. The trucks carried the ore to a crusher building on the lip of the crater. After the initial crushing, the ore passed by conveyor belt up and over the highway to the concentrator.

There, according to our new friend, the ore was dumped into tanks and mixed with a solution of acid, which caused the copper to float to the top. We’d seen the remains of the tanks still perched beside the highway. Huge wipers skimmed the liquid copper. The concentrate, containing about 13 percent copper, was loaded into railroad cars and hauled to the smelter in Douglas where gold, silver, and other metals were separated from the concentrate. The gold paid for the operation of the mine. Workers also found some of the world’s finest turquoise in the broken rock.

                              Hill on the right is composed of waste rock from the mine.     

The waste rock was conveyed to the  mountain-like dumps we’d seen looming against the sky. Now we knew where the insides of Sacramento Hill had gone.

As I photographed one massive pile of waste rock, and again stared into the crater of Lavender Pit Mine, I could hardly imagine the creativity and hard work needed to conceive such a project. I’m not sure this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but it seemed to me it took a lot of faith to move that mountain from one place to another.                                                                          

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