Hand’s up, I admit it, I’ve been procrastinating these past two weeks. Well, at least as far as writing goes. I’ve been as busy as a bee when it comes to my transcription and sewing work.
I’ve managed to complete my first ever, one hour long transcription file (that equates to 7.5 hours of typing and a payment of $33. For the non-mathematicians among us, that’s $4.40 per hour and a really sore back and butt. Yup, I’m living the American dream baby…) AND I’ve made my very first flatty dog, sewn by hand.
But yes, of writing there has been none. I guess I’ve just been in slack brain mode, sorry.
Since last we met, Belle, Loops and I have clocked up another 350 miles, taken in some tourist action and now find ourselves settled in for a couple weeks (unplanned and unexpected) at an Army base just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. I say unplanned as we have found ourselves limping along with still unidentified ‘fume in the bedroom’ issue when driving (despite having undertaken almost $2000 in parts and repairs at three separate garages), and we are once again paused to try another round of ‘fixing and testing everything in sight’ to try and work out just what on earth the problem actually is.
I am starting to slowly come around the idea that maybe some divine force out there just really doesn’t want me to visit the big mountains on the west coast of this country, that I am destined to always wonder what it is like.
Anyway, let’s rewind and get away from my glumness and back to where we were before – getting ready to pull out of White Sands (the place with the missiles, remember) – and tell you about the fun we’ve had on the way through the middle of Arizona.
We ended up staying an extra day down at White Sands and used to the time to pop in and see the White Sands Missile Range Museum on site where we were staying. I have to say, I quite enjoy our stays on the military bases. I like seeing the difference between the installations, the activity that goes on and especially when they have these little ‘extras’ like the museums to visit.
We took a turn around the museum, set up to show the history and functions of White Sands – learning about its beginnings as a working ranch, the missile testing procedures and the equipment used in the process (including a program of using dogs trained to retrieve exploded rockets parts, after the parts had been soaked in scented oil for them to track), NASA landings at White Sands National Monument and bomb testing (the world’s first atomic bomb was tested on the now monument land, just south of Route 380, and apparently is still a little radioactive).
Outside the museum building, in the scorching hot sun, we meandered through the example exhibits of rockets, missiles and bombs; including this offering from NASA….
It’s really no wonder people out in the desert keep thinking they see UFO’s with all this stuff flying about!
Fully briefed, we load up and begin our long desert drive towards Tucson, to finally undertake our much needed bus repairs. We are booked it at WW Williams, a truck garage in the city, to carry out repairs on our leaking engine manifold gasket.
It’s a long old trek to Tucson though, so we break our journey up with a boondocking camp in the town of Lordsburg. I discovered, using the FreeCampsites.net website, that there are no overnight parking restrictions in the Veterans Park in the town, and so we spend a hot, but quiet, night in the park, visiting the local Kranberry’s Family Restaurant for dinner (food was average for the price, don’t go out of your way for a stop there). The best thing about the night in the park – the massive jackrabbits we saw – they looked like huge hares and they were scattered all over the place.
The desert scenery contains all the way to the city, with the most entertainment coming from the road signs I spot….
And just before we reach Tucson – we see our first real saguaro cactus!
Loops has spent the past 3,000 miles since the Florida Keys telling me that we will well and truly be ‘Out West’ when we see a Sombrero Cactus. And yes, you read that right….
I spotted one back when we were in Texas, outside the Roy Bean museum, but I was told it didn’t count because it was planted, not native. And so I’ve been waiting rather a long time to see this particular species of cactus and to have a frolic around in the wilderness with them. And I’ll tell you, they do not disappoint.
Before we get to enjoy our silliness with the saguaro (pronounced sue-wah-ro, as I later learned) – we have to get Belle booked in for repairs, and us booked into a hotel room. It was a rather disconcerting experience to load up our goods into a bag, leave Belle on her own with a bunch of strangers and spend an evening in a building; having been evicted while repairs were taking place at the garage. However, it did come with the upside of enjoying a wider space, a shower with unlimited hot water and the opportunity to sit and watch White Collar on Netflix all day while sewing. It oddly felt like being on holiday somehow…
The following day we reclaim Belle, repairs complete and decide to spend the day at the Saguaro National Park. Interestingly, the park is split into two halves, with one section to the west of the city and the other to the east. After giving the park a quick call, we head west, having been told that more cacti can be found in that section.
Within 10 minutes we are out of the city proper and have driven into a forest of cacti. Before you even reach the national park, you begin to have a taste of the landscape by driving through the Tucson Mountain Park. Here, the hillsides are quite simply littered with thousands of saguaro, silent standing sentinels of the desert.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? It’s a spiky plant. What’s so great about that?
Well, my first reply would be that you have to physically experience standing amongst these giants. They evoke a feeling that is difficult to put into words. Quite simply, they are unique.
Saguaro cacti are a very particular species; they live within a tightly defined range based on their specific environmental requirements. They are found naturally only in the Sonoran Desert and, even then, not in all parts of it. This desert covers parts of Arizona, Mexico and a smidgeon of California; but you will only find this cactus at lower elevations – go too high and the temperature become too cold and the plants will literally freeze to death. So if you want to see a wild saguaro, there are only a few places to look.
The biology and ecology of this cactus is also fascinating. The plants grow from seeds which are dispersed after the flowers on the parent plant are pollinated. They grow on the desert floor, protected by other bushier ‘nurse’ species such as the palo verde (green stick tree) and here they sit, taking their time to grow – a saguaro cactus does not become a mature adult until around 125 years of age, beginning to produce flowers around 35 years and not starting to grow arms until 50-70 years of age.
In addition to taking its time to grow, it also likes to grow tall and heavy. Some saguaro can reach up to 50 feet in height and weigh over 6 tonnes (made up of a woody inner structure with the rest being water weight). They certainly fit their scientific name well – Carnegiea gigantean – for they are gigantic.
I also love the fact that each cactus is an individual, no two saguaro are alike. They differ in height, circumference, number and placement of limbs, flower growth.
And for that reason it is easy to invoke your imagination and see each plant as an individual, with its own personality. As if after dark, when everyone has left the park, they all wake up and start hanging out together, discussing the events of their day, laughing about silly things the public have done or complaining about the birds and animals pecking or chewing on them. They are probably about as personable as a plant could be.
Finally, the sheer number of cacti adds to the experience of meeting them. Usually you might not notice the how many cacti might be in your surroundings out in the desert, they are mostly small plants dominating the ground surface, therefore are easy to scan over and ignore. Saguaro’s are as tall, if not taller, than some trees. They stand out. You cannot fail to notice them. So when you have thousands of them swarming over the landscape, they really do form a forest.
For me, a person not habitually living in the desert, this makes the experience of being surrounded by such a numerous, unusual looking and huge plants that aren’t trees, a magical and moving experience.
Once we reach the national park and begin walking among the cacti, I feel giddy. A silliness comes over me and I make Loops take video footage of me mimicking the stances of each individual cactus – here’s a straight standing general, a boxer with his fists ready for a bout, one with his arms out poised to twirl in the rain. I spend a good deal of time amusing myself, feeling joyful and exuberant as I run around posing with my new friends in a state of merriment. I even manage to get Loops to give it a try.
We spend a couple hours wandering around, taking The Beast on an ‘off-road’ excursion over a rough rock road in the park and visiting the education centre on site. They have a realistic glass enclosure in the building simulating the environment outside and examples of plants and animals you would find in the park.
They also have a neat technological gadget I haven’t seen before – a handheld pen implement that you touch to a metal disc attached to an artifact, and then the pen talks to you and tells you what it is and some information about it. I like it for the fact that sometimes it is easier to take in information audibly rather than visually, from reading a sign.
It’s also here that I discovered, after reading the park newspaper provided, that while I’d been having a ball skipping through the desert, I was in fact sharing the space with six different species of rattlesnake and Africanised ‘killer’ bees. Great. I’m actually glad I was clueless of this fact or might never have gotten out of the car.
It is worth noting that the Saguaro National Park is fairly pricey compared to other parks we have visited, if you are visiting as a single person or couple in a car. They charge $15 for a passenger vehicle, covering all the people inside; great if you are packed, but not if you are solo. The upshot is that this is a week long pass, so if you are in the area and want to visit several times, you can.
However, it’s also worth noting that the Tucson Mountain Park that you drive through to get to the national park has roughly the same environment and plenty of saguaro, and I didn’t see any signs regarding fees to visit. You can drive in and walk the trails there for free, I suppose, if you’re not too bothered about visiting a national park.
We topped off our day by having a late lunch at JJ Cooper’s Diner on South Kinney Road just south of the park – it’s a lovely 50’s inspired hole in the wall, with music of the same era, run by an absolutely lovely lady. Food was really good and I can highly recommend trying the banana split!
On that high note, we pull out of Tucson the following day, city hopping north to the outskirts of Phoenix. It is on this drive that we discover that Belle, despite the change of parts and the efficient work of the staff at WW Williams, is still not well. The fumes emanating from the bedroom go unchanged. Words cannot express how demoralising and upsetting this is. It seems while we have fixed problems that were present (the exhaust leaks and ripped insulation were certainly issues that needed to be rectified); we have not fixed whatever THE problem is.
We rock into the Tempe Elks Lodge on the outskirts of Phoenix with a view to visiting some new Bluebird friends, some of Loops’ family folks, and to have another branch of WW Williams fix one or two minor leaks that weren’t able to be done back in Tucson, due to lack of parts.
Our new Bluebird buddy is Van, he owns a M380 Bluebird, a slightly smaller and differently designed bus to ours. His could be seen as the smaller, faster cousin to Belle; the sportster model of the Bluebird Wanderlodge range.
Not only are we excited to meet a new Birder, Van has a wonderfully large and chatty personality, but also because he is the first person we’ve met who has installed solar panels on his roof; something I know Loops is secretly itching to do.
Van welcomes us and gives us a tour of his brand new home (brand spanking new in all ways – just finished being built, just moved in and still living with boxes). Van’s house is notable to me for two reasons – first, you could fit my 1 bedroom-normal sized British flat inside his master bathroom and walk-in closet, and second, because his house has been built with an attached bus barn to it.
This is something we have come across a couple of times now, and not something you would ever see at home, but there are housing developments built here in the USA (usually in warmer climates for overwintering reasons, I suspect) that are specifically for people with motor homes or 5th wheels; comprising of a house, normal car garage and then a massive bus barn attached as well.
Van’s property especially tickles me because he tells us that he purposefully waited for this particular house to be available due to the road placement – almost directly in front of his barn is a straight-running road, meaning that backing into his barn in a cinch, just a straight back up, no turns involved. I thought that was very forward thinking of him.
Van provides a tour of his barn, complete with bus.
We have a look at the panels on his roof which are hidden from the roadside view by clever design, his roof is far freer of clutter than ours so he has been able to fix them directly onto the roof surface, rather than having to mount them on tall brackets to be laid over any AC units, fans or the like. He also shows us the massive bank of batteries he now carries under his bus in order to store any electricity he generates from the panels. It is all very neatly done to say the least. Like the majority of Birders, Van appears to be quite the perfectionist when it comes to working on his bus.
We finish off our afternoon with our new friend by having lunch and swapping tales of life in general and life on the road. Van is a story teller for sure, and enjoys regaling us with the ups and downs of meeting and marrying his wife, a process played out over 25 years. He enjoys the fact Loops and I also seem to have quite a convoluted story of meeting and living together.
As we leave, Van tells us of a mini rally that will be happening up in the Flagstaff area the following week; he encourages us to think about coming along and meeting some other west coast Birders. As we possibly might be in the area around that time, we agree to ponder it. On one hand, I’ve started to enjoy the rallies more, especially when I’ve been deprived of human contact for a while; on the other hand, we are well behind schedule at this point, we should really have already been in northern California or southern Oregon by now, had we not been stopping for all of the bus repairs.
We have one more social engagement before we are due to leave Tempe, and that is to meet with a western branch of the Loops clan. I get a little confused by the very large family that Loops has, uncles and cousins and 2nd cousins once removed type of thing; but what always amazes me about his family is that no matter how distant, in relation or space, they are all close enough to share companionable time together and the ability to swap family news or talk back and forth about aspects of each other’s lives.
And you might think that’s weird of me to say but, honestly, for the whole of my 37 years on the planet, if you’d asked me who my family are – my immediate answer would be my mum, dad and sister. Three people. That’s it.
Of course, like most people, I do have extended family. I have grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, further flung branches of both my mum and dad’s family. But having lived an ocean apart my whole life, at a time before the internet, emails and Skype; the majority of those family members are complete strangers to me. I never really thought too much about it growing up, but now that I am older and realising the value of family more and more, it has begun to dawn on me that actually it might be nice to have family who could be seen as friends as well. I’m just not sure how you make that happen with people who you never see nor ever had a history with. I am lucky that I have been able to make a start and have had so much contact over the past year with my grandparents, getting to know them both a little better as an adult.
Anyway, that’s why I like Loops’ family. I like the connections they work hard to maintain.
So today we are meeting cousins of a sort – Karen, Destiny, Danny, Tom, Elaina and Lily. We all meet at a restaurant and over dinner discuss what each other are up to, Destiny gives us some suggestions for places to visit and hike (for she is an avid hiker and even runs races up and down mountains, I feel a little bit of a fake hiker in her presence) and I would like to say that her two daughters are just as sweet as sugar.
As time goes on I seem to get more pessimistic about the youth of today, a lot of it coming from six years teaching people who just didn’t give a monkeys about anything other than being on their mobile phone, how much they were going to be drinking that night or what their friends were up to at the weekend. However, Destiny’s daughters were just a picture perfect example of very polite and well behaved children, sitting through a 2 hour meal with not a mobile phone in sight, listening and taking part in conversations and not a sign of obnoxiousness to be seen.
Anyway, once again, it was nice to mingle with a larger family.
We find ourselves at 6am the next day sitting in the customer lounge of WW Williams in Phoenix, and it is here we remain for the next 6 hours while yet more tightening and cementing of clamps takes place, another change of some hose; and then the eventual discovery on the road to our next adventure that we still have a fume smell in the bus.
I really just don’t want to talk about it now.
Belle is pointed towards Payson, in the Tonto National Forest, where we are booked to spend two days with yet some more Birders at their house in the hills.
Loops has been invited along to see a solar installation taking place at the house of Ken and Tammy; it appears the western Bluebirding world is all about the solar.
The house we arrive at is really stuff of dreams, a beautiful 2-storey log cabin type house on probably an acre or so of land complete with a huge bus barn and attached granny annexe (again, bigger than my flat!) and the 360o view is nothing but pine forested hills.
And it is here that I will leave you until tomorrow, when we will finish our travels to Flagstaff.
Here’s a preview from our travels to come….see you soon!