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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Arizona, a Dream Deferred

Desert Dunes near Bouse, Arizona

   It seems a lifetime ago when I dreamed of moving to Arizona. Somewhere I’d come across the magazine, Arizona Highways. Full-page photographs showed glorious blue skies, vast untrammeled vistas of mountains and wildflowers and Indian ruins, cacti and wild animals and beautiful Southwest art. 

     After teaching for three years in rainy Washington State, I thought the time had come to follow my heart to Arizona. So I handed in my resignation and applied to teach in several Arizona towns. When school let out for the summer, my sister and I set out on a road trip. I planned to interview for teaching positions while we explored California and Arizona.

     But at my first interview, I was told, “We cannot hire you. You are still employed at your old school.” It turned out that my resignation had never reached the right officials. Without even seeing Arizona, we turned around and headed back to Washington.

    That September, I met Bob, a young engineer from Alaska. We married in March and went to Alaska, about as far away from Arizona as we could have gone and still be in the USA. We raised our family in Alaska and I came to love the state. I continued to drool over the photos in Arizona Highways, but God had given me many of the desires of my heart and I was happy.
   Our children grew up. When my husband got sick, we returned to Washington. Before he died, we spent a winter traveling in Arizona. I even wrote a mystery-adventure book for young people and set the story in the state. By then there were elderly parents to care for and lots of friends and loved ones I didn’t want to leave behind.
    Hank and I found each other and married. Then my daughter married a young man from Arizona. He loved Arizona as much as she loved Washington. They moved to Tucson. Some of Hank’s relatives lived in Arizona and we both had friends there. We began to spend several weeks each early spring visiting loved ones and exploring the state. We’ve been doing it for ten years now.

    It’s true that Arizona’s skies are a glorious blue…usually. You can still find untrammeled vistas, in some places. There are cacti, everywhere. There are artists and Indian ruins and lots and lots of mountains, completely unlike their counterparts in Washington. We come to Arizona at the choicest time of year, between winter’s chill and summer’s unbearable heat. In between, we read stories by J.A. Jance, Tony Hillerman, and other Arizona-based authors and experience vicariously what we are missing in person.

   It’s the best of many worlds, and a dream fulfilled. I’m not complaining at how long it took to see it realized!

Pebbles and People

The desert near Bouse, Arizona

If you visited our home, you’d see a basket of stones on the bathroom floor, a flat dish with variegated pebbles on the kitchen counter, and another container of rock specimens among the plants by the window. Rocks carry tales of their creation. Hank and I love to notice them as we travel. We like to speculate on what geologic processes shaped the scenery we’re passing.

Recently we visited cousins Darlene and Vernon at their winter home in tiny Bouse, Arizona. A dry riverbed, Bouse Wash, courses behind their RV campsite. On a map, we traced the wash from its beginning in a mountain range to where it emptied into the Colorado River. Sometimes during rainstorms, it fills to a depth of ten feet or more with raging water and has even been known to flood their RV park.

Darlene and Vernon led us across the sandy wash and up the other side, where dry tributaries snaked through low desert depressions. I was amazed at the variety of pebbles beneath our feet; their differing colors and textures. Once they were part of the eroding mountains that encircled the desert in every direction. Yet here they were, individual and beautiful, shaped by weather and water and brought together in a new place, part of a new landscape.

They remind me of the people we met as we journeyed homeward through Nevada, eastern California, and central Oregon. In one Western town, too small to support a restaurant, we found a deli-general store. The proprietor was a tall, dark-skinned young man of Arabic ancestry. He spoke only a few words of English. Although the deli was closed on Sunday, we purchased sandwiches from the refrigerated case. He smiled and gestured toward the tables, inviting us to sit there to eat our sandwiches.

Along Highway 95 in Nevada, we drove through crumbling mining towns such as Goldfield, once the largest community in the state. A few people still live there in mobile homes or small frame buildings, though the streets are studded with the ruins of stately buildings. With only cactus and Joshua trees for vegetation, every discard that anyone has ever thrown away is still visible. Another tiny town, Mina, also seems to struggle for existence, but an oddity in that desert land caught our eye. A large cabin cruiser, with an entry cut through its sides, opened into a restaurant enterprise, so new that the kitchen wasn’t completely set up. We sat down while a wizened little lady took our orders. The only other people in the room were a short, curly-haired Army retiree from South Carolina and his new wife, a tatooed, very friendly buxom blond. In soft Southern drawls, with many “Yes, sirs” and “No, ma’ams”, they told us they lived in a nearby ghost town with a population of five and a grand view of the mountains. They’d come to town to do their laundry, since they had no electricity at home.

In eastern California’s ranching country, we stopped at a remodeled drive-through diner operated by a young couple from Thailand. The man spoke fractured English. His wife had a better command of the language and told us she’d cooked for six years in France before going to San Diego. We wondered but didn’t ask how they’d come to be probably the only Thai people in that vast cattle country.

I carried home some desert pebbles from Bouse Wash to add to my collection. The people we met, representatives of the world’s humanity, I carried home only in memory. Pebbles and people, all of them remind me of what a wide and wonderful world we live in.