Up one level
Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona (May 2005)
Spencer Stirling

Toward the end of Spring semester Astrid's parents invited us to join them in Arizona for a long weekend. They had been invited by their longtime friends John and Marilou Tanton to stay with them in the national forest surrounding Chiricahua National Park.

Since we are only about 13 hours away we decided to take a couple of extra days off and go for it. This park sits in the corner of Arizona bounded by New Mexico and old Mexico on either side. I rarely find myself in southern Arizona, hence this was quite a treat.

We planned on getting there late at night, however (and this is true) a truck carrying FIREWORKS had exploded on the interstate in New Mexico, forcing us to take a huge detour following a more northerly route. As usual, we pulled off in the middle of nowhere and layed the bags down to catch a couple of hours of sleep. Unfortunately we managed to lay the thermarests down in a bunch of thorns, each of which blessed us with a wonderful puncture. I didn't sleep worth a damn that night, but as usual we started out before dawn trying to reach camp by late morning (there is nothing worse than wasting part of a hiking day).

When we arrived we were not greeted with camp but instead a small resort filled with birdwatchers. Not being one to complain about a warm bed and 3 square meals per day, I destroyed breakfast and we prepared for a small hike. Since the Tantons know the place rather well, we figured that it would be useful to just follow their lead. Here is a picture of the Southwestern Research Station (where we stayed):

We took a small hike for a couple of hours and just enjoyed the nice May weather. After a warm lunch (this is starting to sound more and more pampered as I write) we caught up on some beauty sleep and then I went shopping at the Dolce Gabbana store planted strategically in the middle of an important ecosystem. Then we decided to spend the rest of the day at the spa. I took a mud bath, had my nails done, received a sensuous massage, and had a little botox injected. By the time we were done it was dark, and I didn't even give a damn that they had built the highrise over the most important watershed in the valley. I mean, seriously, there is no place that looks as beautiful as Houston.

This is how it WOULD have been if the shortsighted uncultured idiots who comprise 90% of our population could have their way. Fortunately there are still places where a man can go and experience nature. In between the botox injections I forgot to mention that we took a little walk with some birdwatchers. To my HORROR I saw that the entire groundcover was composed of poison ivy (with a giant sign at the beginning of the trail warning of such). Normally I'm not such a wimp, but I had just had TERRIBLE POISON IVY which became infected - blowing my arm up into a tree trunk. In fact I had just finished my regimen of medication the day we left, and the itching itself had not gone away for over a month. I walked anyway (by the way that infection came back about a month later and spread again - I still have the mental and physical scars).

Being pampered and not accustomed to hardship, we decided to drive to the nearby little village and have an ice cream. Near there we happened to catch these wild pigs (javelinas, which aren't really pigs at all I guess, but whatever - they're pigs) - they are really interesting:

Actually, in a way I was glad to have a room because the nights still clung a little to the winter behind us. Obviously I usually camp in much colder conditions, but why would I forfeit warmth? We got an early start the next day for the biggest hike of the trip - to the top of Silver Peak.

It was a hike of moderate difficulty (only 9 miles round trip to the top of the peak), but I was still tired by the end. The elevation gain was decent, but now I've forgotten it. Both Astrid and I along with her parents Daan and Eveline started it, but Daan was forced to turn around halfway because of an important conference call that he was having back at the research station (business never ends, even the business of ecology). Of course it took us a good 45 minutes just to find the stupid trailhead, probably because of budget cuts to fund George Bush's anti-environmental agendas. Here I am making a phallic comparison with this cactus - a common joke that I perform because I really have no imagination:

The trail was quite nice, with beautiful vistas.


I could not believe the blooms on some of the cacti down there - spring is really an excellent time to visit the desert.

At the top of the peak we were greeted with actual development up there. It turns out that this peak had served as a firewatch tower since it is the tallest peak in the region. Here is a view from the top (the research station is somewhere down at the bottom).

Only the foundation of the tower survives:

The wind was SO STRONG up there that I actually didn't want to stay very long. I felt like we were going to blow off of the side when we were climbing up and down the steep stairs drilled into the rock. Eveline looked pretty strong hiking up that mountain - I was impressed. I think she's been secretly working out knowing that this would come.

Here is a wonderful view from whence we came:

At the top we found something really interesting - a metal box which contained a journal of all of those who had hiked to the top. It was fun to read some of the material, and of course we scratched out some of our stuff in there as well. If you get up there and read my comments then don't hold it against me.

Astrid used the facilities, or at least she did in spirit.

On the way down we came across a fantastic sight - a blacktail RATTLE SNAKE!!! He was bright yellow with black diamonds on his back. He popped right out of the bushes and Astrid (rightfully so) jumped back about 10 feet! He had only a small rattle, and he seemed like a really cool customer because he didn't use it (I have heard that the blacktail is calmer than the diamondback). Nevertheless we respected its space and took a detour.

I called this cactus the Medusa - I don't know what it is actually called.

But these yellow parts of the cactus were REALLY neat!

Here Eveline heads down using the walking staff (for some reason everybody seemed to be using a walking staff this trip - I even tried one out).

That night we headed back around the village for more repose. I had heard that somebody built a strawbale house somewhere around there, so we went in search of it (at one time I was obsessed with strawbale houses - just another one of my little oddities). I came across something that looked like it could be, and a tough old lady came out to greet us. Alas, it was adobe, but it was interesting to talk with that ancient seer. She was as hard as granite living out there by herself, and her house was very nice and modest as well. She related some stories of her life in Africa - of wilderness that was possible 60 years ago but has been chewed up by humanity since.

She pointed us in the direction of the strawbale (which was fairly close). Getting a closer look, I wasn't really impressed. This seemed to lack the earthy detail which lends the strawbale an attractive cottage appearance.

The next day we decided to join John and Marilou on another set of (relatively short) hikes around the region. Since John and Marilou had invited several of their friends to the research station, I had a chance to talk with a few of them. I have forgotten their names now, but one was an interesting guy who had been a famous architect. Tired of selling out and designing mansions so that selfish assholes can rape the land of its beauty and resources, he had become an environmentalist of sorts (although I'm not really sure what he does). He seemed like a cantankerous and stubborn hermit - just the kind of guy I can admire.

There were also a couple of others who told us a great deal about the dire water issues in south Florida. Essentially, humans have raped and abused the water system, and now its failing. The ecosystem in south Florida is collapsing, the population is increasing without limit, and the high amounts of pollution are causing large algae blooms off the coast.

Finally, one woman was a biologist who specializes in mushrooms. She had a great deal of interesting things to say about fungi, including some bizarre species that she has encountered across the globe. One interesting thing is that the regular button mushrooms are actually carcinogenic if they are uncooked (woops, I eat raw mushrooms constantly). Anyway, a few of them had been to Antarctica a couple of times and were relaying interesting stories - none of which I can remember of course.

Here is a picture of the Tantons hiking up behind us.

The scenery was awesome, and I was extremely surprised to see the variation of the vegetation (temperate desert to ponderosa pine to lush low forest with large amounts of ground cover).

We found a horned lizard and took many photos. I shouldn't touch the wildlife, but this little guy was a real sweetheart:

This picture is staged.

Apparently these are called Monkey flowers, and they are somewhat rare.

These flowers, only a few feet away, are also a rare species, although I cannot remember the name now (nor could I 30 seconds after it was mentioned to me).

This was a really interesting and beautiful dam that we found in the developed part near the research station. Built in the 1930s, it has completely FILLED with debris (so now it is more like a waterfall). The dam was built out of rock using REAL stonemasonry, and it was really quite attractive.

This is a ponderosa pine. If you smell it then you will detect a strong sweet odor of vanilla/butterscotch. These are really beautiful trees as well.

At the top of the second hike we had some very nice vistas...

... and we found this cool little (natural) rock garden, just holding onto life up there in the cracks.

Now few things are more despicable than a grown man who cannot control himself for more THAN FIVE MINUTES. I am truly ashamed to be a part of this crew:


The next (and last) day we decided to actually go into Chiricahua National Park itself. The only thing that I can say is: chef recommends. The volcanic rocks had been sculpted into hoodoos, but this time they were a chocolate brown rather than the oranges, reds, or pinks as seen in Utah. I really enjoyed the variety, and the vegetation was really quite nice as well. This is called the "organ formation".

As with most things, to REALLY see the park you need to get off and go down in the rock gardens. We decided to hike down into an area called "Devil's Garden" - I now know several places of that same name - and this was going to be a whole day affair. I think that the hike was about 9 miles, with some elevation gain. Here is a view of where we are going:

I inspected the formations from the top

and this rock - balanced rock - can be seen only a few hundred yards into the trail.

We worked our way down into the canyon, and we were greeted with beauty everywhere:

Here is a twisted and gnarled juniper. Although it is very small, this juniper may be hundreds of years old (so please RESPECT IT).

Thankfully Astrid had enough foresight to get underneath and prop this rock up!

We stopped here for lunch, just outside of Devil's Garden.

Possibly some of the most hilarious things that I have encountered are these photos of Daan striking up a hero's pose. He had several themes - one just looking out across the virgin territory. Another with binoculars, carefully plotting out the course of the expedition. Another with the stately manhood of a General, casting his eyes upon this unexplored wilderness for the first time.

He also has an unusual method of keeping the rocks out. I can appreciate this because it is simultaneously CHEAP AND GEEKY! That's the best part. Sorry, but there is a patent pending on this. REI probably has some gortex leggings for $30 which do the same thing...

Here we are getting into the garden

and Astrid and I take a photo from atop a sturdy rock (I would never even CONSIDER climbing on the sensitive formations - that's just abuse of the geology. Some assholes think that such things are their toys, as though they don't take 200 million years to form).

I was really impressed with the chocolate hoodoos:

The elders give their commentary as well - what are they saying?

Now that balancing rock IS impressive!

Here Daan abuses his body to continue up the trail

and we are rewarded with rocks eroded into art.

This formation is called "Old Maid". Which one?

This is called "Kissing Rock", so everybody thought that it would just BE DARLING if we kissed here. What a cute and clever IDEA!!!

The hike around and back took until the evening. This is, incidentally, the land of the Chiricahua Apache - tribe of the famous Chief Cochise and Geronimo. It is easy to see why Geronimo chose to fight rather than surrender this unbelievable region.

This page has been visited   times since May 20, 2005