There are windswept days in the Arizona Desert where seemingly every color of the spectrum may be examined upon close inspection. This particular area is just north of McKellips Road and Crismon Road in East Mesa, an area where Usery Mountain Regional Park stands adjacent to Tonto National Forest. After a period of seasonal rain, it is amazing to see how green this area becomes, bursting with lime-green, yellow-green, emerald green and dozens of other varieties of spectacular hues. When the desert is dry, one notices the rust-colors, the tans, the yellow ochres, the bleached greys, faded green hues and ashen rocks. The wildlife also exhibits great variety of color, from flashy iridescent hummingbirds to motley colored songbirds and rustic desert quail. Once I visited a Park nearby and witnessed Harris hawks sailing high overhead, looking like noble black falcons on a cerulean blue sky. I am reminded of a phrase coined by American artist Wolf Kahn, a gifted painter and fantastic landscape artist. Kahn once told a group of Drew University art students that he was intrigued by "the tangles of nature," those outdoor spectacles we notice when we truly study and observe the natural environment which surrounds us. The Arizona Desert is indeed such an environment, filled with tangles and colorful spectacles stretching from the desert floor all the way to the blue-grey, purple and lavender mountain peaks.
I love the contrasts between light & shadow upon the desert mountains of Arizona. This area is known as Usery Mountain Regional Park, located just 20 minutes from my home in Mesa. The Park encompasses 3,648 acres and is situated at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Pass Mountain rises to 2,840 feet and features a spectacular hiking trail which allows views of 70 or more miles into the distance beyond. The lower Sonoran Desert is a fascinating place offering a wealth of rich color and a diverse variety of flora & fauna. On a bright day with palatial clouds sailing overhead, you can absorb the pulse and atmosphere of this remarkable environment. As you take in the sweet birdsong and distant calls of wildlife, for just a moment you begin to absorb the manifold beauties of the wilderness preserve.
I have stood here in the midst of the Arizona desert, feeling the power of the sun momentarily dispersed through the traveling court of clouds high overhead. In the quiet of pristine clarity, one comes closer to the ever evolving sounds of nature, hearing the sometimes muffled cries in the distance interwoven with the startling immediate presence & pulse of desert wildlife. The desert quail and other birds often respond to the sounds produced via the Audubon bird call, coming closer to inspect the source of the tweets, chirps and foreshortened birdsong. One feels the immense carpet of time-change sweep from early morning to late afternoon, noticing the colors of the day as they morph from brilliant hues to faded transparencies. These are the feathers of time, where the mountains, rocks and trees diligently mark the passage of years, decades, centuries and beyond. How great a privilege to see and hear this remarkable environment, a place of everlasting Light & Shadow.
A Wilderness Journey & a Memorable Encounter
Many years ago I drove from my home in Mesa to spend a day hiking in the Superstition Mountains at Lost Dutchman State Park, just north of Apache Junction, Arizona. It is a leisurely drive from where I live to the entrance of the Park, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes, with clear views all around and a rare majesty of the mountain/ desert interface on panoramic display. On this particular day I brought an Audubon Bird Call with me as well as some reading material, good hiking boots, comfortable clothing (safari style), a couple of snacks, plenty of water, and a nice cowboy hat to offer some shade from the hot desert sun. Early in the morning I started up the main trail and hiked a brief segment until I found a shady spot next to some palo verde trees and rock outcroppings. There I found a perfectly secluded spot where no one could see me and I could rest amidst the bounty of natural flora & fauna, taking delight in these extraordinary surroundings.
A Startling Sound & A Brilliant Display
As I became entirely comfortable in this desert hideaway, I began to read and to quietly mimic the sound of bird chirps through the use of the bird call. After a few minutes I suddenly became aware of a thundering sound and a delicate palpitation right next to my right eye and upper cheek. I thought for a moment that it was a very large bumble bee or honeybee and I just froze unable to move. This winged phenomenon was beating its wings wildly in an extraordinary manner, and I could hear it and feel it so distinctly, perhaps only 6 inches from my face. I turned my gaze ever so slightly toward this object and noticed very bright, iridescent colors, and a very long, slender and narrow bill. It was a beautiful hummingbird just hovering next to me, apparently attracted by the sound of the bird call and looking me over from cowboy hat to dusty boots! This moment only lasted a brief minute or two, yet I was so delighted and stunned to come that close to such a beautiful creature. The little fellow took off after a suitable inspection, allowing me to savor that spectacular chance meeting as a divine and cherished gift.
The Audubon Bird Call
The Audubon Bird Call was invented in 1947 by Roger Eddy, an author and member of the Connecticut State Legislature. This small device, just a couple of inches in length, is made of cast zinc (or other metal) and birch wood, made in Rhode Island and available from many specialty shops in either red or natural wood color. You can twist the metal knob and mimic the sounds of a host of different species of birds, from chirping sounds to song-like tweets. The wooden chamber may be treated with a bit of rosin (usually supplied by the manufacturer) in order to keep it at its best sound-producing capability. If kept dry and away from moisture or humidity, the bird call should last indefinitely and provide many hours of bird-watching enjoyment.
Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures to watch, with estimates of anywhere between 60 to 200 times per second of the flapping of their delicate wings. They experience a fast breathing rate, fast heartbeat, and high body temperature, can fly up to 60 miles per hour, are capable of incredible gyrations & mid-air maneuvers, and can live 5 to 6 years in the wild. There are some 320 species extant, covering a wide swath of geographical territory, often migrating appreciable distances. Their colors are fabulous in richness and vibrant in texture, shining in a spectacular manner, especially in the deserts of Arizona, a location noted for brilliant sunshine year round.
Lost Dutchman State Park
40 miles east of Phoenix stands this remarkable sanctuary, nestled within the Sonoran Desert, featuring many trails which lead into the Superstition Wilderness and the Tonto National Forest. You can hike Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron, an elevation of 4,800 feet, a height which affords a monumental view of the Valley below. At that elevation, Phoenix looks like a city made of toy blocks perhaps one quarter inch high along the distant horizon, and Mesa and Apache Junction fan out in dazzling array as far as the eye can see. Mule deer, coyote, javelina, jackrabbit, desert quail, and cactus wren populate the landscape here, with hiking trails and nature trails adding to the convenience of 72 campsites within the perimeter of the Park. The name "Superstition Wilderness" was apparently inspired by Pima Indian legends, and one may still find evidence of cliff dwellings and caves in this area. Salado or Hohokam Indians may have populated this landscape 100's of years ago, with Pimas, Apaches and Yavapais living here subsequently. In the 1800's this area became an Apache stronghold. In the 1840's the Peralta family of northern Mexico produced a gold mine here. In the 1870's Jacob Waltz and his partner Jacob Weiser apparently located the mine, but kept its location a well-guarded secret. After Waltz died in 1891, no one was ever able to find the exact location of "The Dutchman's" lost mine.