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A Year in Arizona, Of Love and Loss in the Desert

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    A Year in Arizona, Of Love and Loss in the Desert

    A heads up that this post mentions the death of a beloved pet, Ellie had a long and wonderful life but I don't want to surprise anyone in case it's something you don't want to read right now.

    After two decades in Oregon, a job change forced a move and we've spent the past year in Arizona. We rented the first year to get a feel for the area and to make sure we liked it, which we did, so in January we started house hunting in earnest. We bought the house my wife and I both liked the best, it was also close to my favorite hiking trails although a bit further to work than the others we liked. I lived out of my Aeronaut for a week while we moved, just as I had during the move to Arizona. I took this picture a week after we moved into the new house in March with the intention of it being a light-hearted post about how, like many in Arizona, my ID was living a semi-retired life. I drive to work and don’t need my laptop there so I no longer sling the bag over my shoulder each day as I used to in Portland when I walked to the train. Instead it keeps my stuff organized beside my couch during the week and on the weekends joined Ellie and I as we went out on the porch after my morning hike. The bag holds my 15" MacBook Pro, my iPad, my hiking journal, my pens, my headphones, and some field guides as I learn about Arizona's plants & animals. I held off on posting it, partially because I was so busy and partially because Ellie's health was declining. At fifteen she had lived longer than we had any right to expect but we were no longer going to be able to keep her from suffering and the time came in April to say goodbye. The picture is a nice reminder of our good times in the new house, even though she was only here for six weeks. We adopted her at five so we had ten wonderful years together, she was such a sweet pup and is deeply missed.

    We developed a ritual during our year in Arizona, the pup and I, after I got back from hiking in the morning I'd heat up a breakfast sandwich, grab the ID, and we'd go out onto the porch for a little rest & relaxation as I wrote in my hiking journal about my experiences that morning. Ellie would eagerly watch me eat as I always gave her a little bit of cheese and egg and bacon/sausage at the end. Only a sliver as her kidneys couldn't take too much protein but she always appreciated the gesture. After she died it became hard to continue the ritual, I forced myself out onto the porch at first but it took longer before I could eat a breakfast sandwich, even now it is a little difficult sometimes. Because she was deaf in her senior years I could sometimes sneak past her when I got home from the hike so I could wake her when my hands were free and I could help her up, for I knew as soon as I started heating the sandwich she'd wake as nothing got past that nose.

    Also, as you can see from this picture and the previous one, though we got her these shoes to help her get up and move about the house as her back legs began to give out, the pup was pretty good about getting out of them so you'd find them scattered about the house once she woke up.

    One of the charms of the new house is that a handful of trailheads at my favorite local park (it's over 30,000 acres so there are lots of trails) are within a 10 or 15 minute drive, a lovely feature for a night owl like me at this time of year when you want to be on the trails at 4:45 am. If my ID is living a semi-retired life, my Guide's Pack has gotten much more of a workout. In Portland I often visited a refuge with an auto tour so the backpack sat in the car with me, and went on my back for trips to the Columba River Gorge or the mountains or the coast. Here though it's all hiking and I've been out over 100 times since we moved here, I'm sure the pack misses the days when it was soaked from rain rather than sweat, but if so it hasn't complained. Here it joins my camera bag as I was photographing a mockingbird doing its territorial dance at sunrise on a lovely spring morning. I love that you don't have to set the pack on its back (the part that goes against your back) to get inside, in the desert it only takes once to learn not to set the back on the ground as when you put it on your back you'll get stabbed by a thousand prickly bits the pack picked up in an instant. If you lay it on the front the parapack only picks up dust and even that quickly brushes off. For the picture I leaned it against my tripod after making sure it wouldn't cause an expensive tumble.

    This is the mockingbird I was photographing from the location above, I watched it on three successive mornings as it would fly up a short distance then pivot around and land back on the rock and break into a lengthy song, over and over again. It's aerobatics reminded me more of a flycatcher than a mocker. Like me, it had found a place in the desert to call home. It's less of a quiet neighbor than we are but with such a lovely voice who can complain?

    The two pictures above were taken on the Marcus Landslide Trail in the Tom's Thumb area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve, this trailhead is one that is 10 minutes from our house. The tallest part of the McDowell Mountains fell in a massive landslide here 500,000 years ago, bringing with it this massive granite boulder known as Submarine Rock. It's at the end of the trail and normally I can't get out there in the soft red light right of sunrise, even if I'm hoofing it, but smoke from fires in the distant Superstitions kept the light soft and red for much longer than normal that morning. Nothing stays the same. Change can bring disruption, even destruction, but if you're lucky also a newfound beauty. We've been very lucky.

    Some have wondered how I could possibly have so deeply loved the Northwest (I would have happily spent the rest of my life there) and the desert of Arizona, given how different they are. Different to be sure, but both sensationally beautiful, both with lots of easily accessible hiking, both with amazing views of wildlife. One does have a lot less water. But it overflows with a beauty of its own, such as this nearby spot on the Marcus Landslide Trail while the poppies and lupines were in bloom early this spring. I didn't have much time to get out then between buying the house and Ellie needing so much care towards the end of her life, but thankfully I had time to slip out early that morning. I call the big rock on the right on the Guardian, it reminds me of the maoi of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) except this one was not carved by human hands. Most of the plants here do not bloom in such numbers but are beautiful in their own right.

    My favorite trailhead is Brown's Ranch, also 10 minutes from the house. There are a wide variety of trails heading off in multiple directions, allowing for a different experience in a relatively small space. This helpful soaptree yucca, its flower stalk weighted down with fruit, points not only towards the Latigo Trail but the massive saguaros you walk past. After a year hiking with saguaros feels normal yet still special. Although this spot is a short walk from the trailhead, if you hike here you have to carry a lot of water, between the heat and low humidity, and the side pockets on the Guide's Pack work great for this. I keep one bottle attached to my camera bag for quick access, two more in a side pocket in the Guide's Pack, and one or two or three more in Stuff Sacks in the main compartment, depending on the length of the hike. Snacks go in the top pocket, emergency kit in the other side pocket, trekking poles also go in the main area and get swapped for the tripod when the light gets too bright, the tripod then getting attached to the loops at the bottom of the pack. During the winter I start shedding layers as the sun rises and the desert warms but in the summer even before sunrise one layer is plenty.

    What do you see on those saguaros? You might see Harris's hawks, such as this nest that I discovered on my first hike after Ellie died. On that first hike I couldn't stand still so I only took a quick picture of an adult on the nest and then had to keep moving. But with each day, each hike, the healing commenced, and I began to slow down. Over the next couple of months I got to see two furry heads suddenly poke up out of that nest, then turn into two scraggly looking nestlings. Then one day an adult flew in and perched on one of the arms of the saguaro, keeping its wings half outstretched, encouraging the youngsters to learn to fly. While one nestling watched on the right, the other flapped its wings and awkwardly landed on the large flowers of the saguaro. The next week that nestling had fledged and was flying about the desert floor nearby while the second nestling was actively jumping from arm to arm of the saguaro, preparing to join its sibling.

    Of the many things I've learned in the desert, one came from watching the Harris's hawks, as at first I couldn't figure out why multiple adults were not only hanging out near the nest, but calling out to each other in a way that seemed to my untrained eyes and ears like they were keeping in touch rather than warning to keep away. And indeed they were, as I later learned the hawks live in family groups and work together as they hunt and raise their young. Even after a year, this desert surprises.

    As the sun first breaks over the mountains, an environmental portrait of a Harris's hawk showing more of the desert where it lives, and we live too as our house is somewhere further past the hill.

    The hawks aren't the only ones calling the saguaros home. Two woodpeckers, the gilded flicker and these Gila woodpeckers, make their homes inside the saguaros. After the woodpeckers drill out the holes, the saguaro coats them with a resin that keeps them watertight, making a solid place for the woodpeckers to raise their young. Here the female brings a moth to the babies as the male gets ready to leave. They are relentless in bringing food to the nest, mostly moths from what I saw but a variety of other insects, stamens from saguaro flowers, and even what looked like fruit.

    While they may not live in them, white-winged doves are on saguaros this time of year, seemingly all of them, as they devour the fruit in preparation for migration later in the summer. Their faces, like this one, are heavily matted with fruit juice as they eat the red fruit of the saguaro. Because of the natural landscaping in our subdivision our small backyard shares many of the same birds as the nearby desert, including white-winged doves and the smaller mourning doves. We've even had Harris's hawks at times, which send the other birds scattering and our cats into a tizzy as they watch from the picture windows.

    I've only seen them a few times, they don't move about much in the day, but what a treat it is to see javelinas in the desert. Also known as the collared peccary, you can see the white collar that gives them their name. While bearing a resemblance to pigs they aren't directly related and are instead all natives of the Americas.

    Look underfoot and you may see some of my favorite residents of the desert, the lizards, such as this regal horned lizard. This one I rarely see, I suppose that is by design.

    I'll close with one last pic of the pup, taken on her last night with us. It was hard to take pictures as I knew it might be her last as her health was failing, we had been in close contact with the vet and all agreed the next morning it was time to say goodbye. She was happy to the end, always willing to put up with whatever life threw at her as long as we could be together. The Aeronaut was with me as I interviewed here, as we moved here, as we moved into this house. The ID was with me then too, and all the time I spent with the pup either in the house or in the backyard. And the Guide's Pack took me out, to explore, to learn, to fall in love. I hope for you too, these bags we hold dear, bring you to and keep you with the things you love.

    I'm so sorry for your loss of Ellie. Dogs are amazing companions and make life so wonderful. Your photos are beautiful as well. (((hugs)))
    Navy/Wasabi S25, Sitka Mini OP,
    Nordic/Iberian SE, Nordic PCSB, Navy Medium Clear OP, Iberian 8" Key Strap, Ultraviolet 8" Key Strap,
    Black/NWS SK, Ultraviolet Large OP, Fjord Small TT, Verde Small Double OP, Island Origami Swan, Island 3D OP , Island SSC , Nordic/NWS LCB, Multi Color Clear OW


      @boolie, you always share such gorgeous photos... I'm glad you shared Ellie's story with us too - more hugs to you
      I like all the blues and greys...and all the happy citrus colours too! My search unicorn is the Sapphire Dyneema original Small Shop Bag...


        Great pictures and stories @boolie. I'm glad Ellie had a great life with you. I know how hard it is to say goodbye to a furry family member as I had to say goodbye to one of mine last week. I wish you peace and healing.


          Boolie, this is so beautiful and so expressive. Two years ago we too lost our furry companion of fifteen years, and even so I still tear up when I think of him. What a lovely way to remember your Ellie as move through the landscape of your new home.

          Nothing stays the same. Change can bring disruption, even destruction, but if you're lucky also a newfound beauty. We've been very lucky.


            A Year in Arizona, Of Love and Loss in the Desert

            @boolie, this was a very moving tribute to your sweet dog. Thank you for sharing your story and photos with us. I am sorry for your loss, and I can tell how much you cherished your time with her.

            Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
            Last edited by NWhikergal; 07-06-2019, 08:32 PM.
            "Do one thing every day that scares you." - Eleanor Roosevelt
            "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." -Ferris Bueller


              This was incredible- I teared up when you described slowing down while processing your grief and being able to witness the magic of the hawk community. It's a beautiful world and your photos and words reflected that, in many ways. Rest in peace, sweet Ellie, who it seems was loved until the very end.