Dog Alley No. 7: His name was Chaco

Dog Alley is a worse place now that “Biff” is gone.  He’s the pit bull that I befriended through a small opening in a gate along Dog Alley.

I didn’t know his name, so I made up one.  Biff.   He was a beautiful brown dog.  I always whistled for him, and he came running and barking to the gate.  He is at least as friendly as the dachshund on the corner, and much more friendly than the Doberman Pincher a few gates down and the Irish setter at the end of the Alley.  But he’s been gone for weeks now, and that led me to ask a neighbor woman if she knew what had happened to him.

She was out in her front yard raking up debris, a short woman in midlife who introduced herself as Jill.   When I spoke of the pit bull, her eyes began to water.  “I love that dog,” she said.  “His name is Chaco.”  Jill described Chaco as a sweetheart who got little attention from the single woman who owned him.  She seemed surprised to learn he was gone.

“Wait a minute,” she said, going to her front porch and hauling a chair over to the neighbor’s tall fence.  Standing on the chair and leaning over the fence, she called several times for Chaco.  But Chaco of course did not appear.  “I guess he’s gone,” Jill said.

There was some bad history in the neighborhood with Chaco.  He had apparently gotten loose one time and killed a cat across the street.  But that was several years ago, Jill said.  She had no answers why he suddenly disappeared.  “Maybe,” she said, “he’s living with the boyfriend.”

I still whistle when I pass the opening in the gate along Dog Alley.  I haven’t given up hope yet.


Dog Alley No. 6: A Bible delivered

I caught up with “David” the homeless man a few days ago.  He was seated at a sheltered bus stop near Dog Alley, reading a large book.  I couldn’t see the title.  The bus stop faces the morning sun, so it is warmer there and offers better light for reading.

He’d asked weeks ago, “If you want to do something for me, get me a King James version of the Bible.”  I’m not a religious person, but I eventually found a $5 King James at Bookman’s.  I told I’d bring it to him the next time our paths crossed.   He was leaving soon to take a shower, where I didn’t ask.  So it wasn’t until the next day that I delivered.

He was turning into Dog Alley wearing a clean jacket and shouldering a medium-sized backpack.  I parked my car in a nearby lot and walked over to him with the Bible inside a paper sack.

“Here it is,” I said handing it to him, relieved my mission had finally ended.  “Thank you,” he replied.  “God bless.”  And that was it.

I’m drawn to street people, I don’t know why.  But I think it has something to do with this.  We are all tied up together in this precarious thing called life, and by the merest of chance, birth or by circumstance, some of us end up on the street and some of us don’t.  If you do not believe that, you are too arrogant to take up space on this planet.

Dog Alley No. 5: Not just any Bible

You must take care of your business quickly along Dog Alley.  Things change suddenly.  The homeless person who sets up a temporary camp goes away.  So does a dog.  What happens here in the Alley mirrors America.  We’re on the move.

More than a year has passed since I last wrote of the Alley.  To the few who casually pass along its rough unkempt pavement, they may see nothing.  But it is like anything else.  The more focused you are the more you see.  The more for instance you observe blindingly bright and cloud-covered Venus the more detail that becomes visible.

Take the case of “David,” a homeless person who camped there a few weeks when the weather was warmer.  He is tall and slender with the brightest of blue eyes, a shaggy beard and long hair threaded with gray.  It’s hard to estimate the ages of street people.  Life is hard and the years slink by brutally.  But I’d guess he’s in his mid 40s.  I often saw him doing something that always catches my eye.  He reads.

One day I stopped to talk with David, who seemed to be deeply engaged with a book yet having difficulty.  “I was wondering,”  I said, “if you’d like a pair of reading glasses.” I had cataract surgery not too long ago and have plenty of useless eyeglasses laying about the house.   No, he said, “I don’t want the Devil in my life.  God has given me a pair of eyes.  I’ll get along with what I have.”

David said he was, or hoping to be, an ordained minister in, I believe, the Assembly of God Church.  He had grown up in Phoenix, but I didn’t ask why he was on the streets.  I did noticed two or three large empty bottles of beer nearby, and his breath smelled of alcohol.

Then he made an unusual request.   “If you want to do something for me,” he said, “get me a King James Bible.”

I made that a project for a while.  But the Bibles were too expensive.  A new one may cost $14, I learned.  I thought, “How strange.  All these churches spouting the Good Word of the Lord, and yet where are the free Bibles?”

At Bookman’s I found a used Bible for three bucks, but it was the “New King James” version.  David wanted the standard King James.  “The one with the thees and thous,” he said.  I took it back.  Eventually I found the right one and was prepared to hand it over to him, though it is in small print.  But David was gone.  I haven’t seen him now for a few weeks.

Then there is the case of “Biff,” a pit bull that I “befriended” if you can do that with a pit bull.  We spoke though a small opening in a backyard gate.  Every time I passed down the Alley, I’d whistle and holler the name I gave him, “Hey, Biff.”  He would come to the gate and over time bark less vigorously, even whine.  Later, as I came by going the other way, he would race, happily I thought, to the other end of the yard, and speak to me, though I held few doubts what would happen should I expose even a hand to him.  It was almost a month ago since I last saw him.

So Alley life has changed again.  David is gone perhaps temporarily.  He could be dead.  But Biff is gone, I fear, for good.

Cedric Ceballos: Another example

Ced taking a breather during Scorpions debut game on Nov. 5.

I was sorry to read yesterday about Cedric Ceballos, a former player for the Phoenix Suns.  Ceballos, only 42, was reported to have suffered “a series of small heart attacks” after playing in an ABA basketball game on the 20th with the Arizona Scorpions.  Sorry, yes, but I was not surprised.

Thinking of Ceballos, I was reminded of another Suns player, Armen Gilliam, who died in July at age 47 of a heart attack.  There has been a rash this year of former pro athletes who have developed serious health problems at relatively young ages.  I had listed several in a November 5 article, “Early deaths of former pro athletes:  What’s going on?”

I had actually seen Ceballos recently.  He was playing in the low-budget Scorpions’ debut on the 5th at Phoenix College and seemed to be in better shape than earlier when he hid a large paunch under an oversized shirt that draped over his hips.  Ced, as he is called, ran the court and played most of the first half before I left.  But with your health, you never know.  Not really know.

In any case, I wish him well as probably do many others.  He was a popular and charismatic player with the Suns and seems to have a lot going for him after life in the NBA.  He serves now as the Suns arena emcee and among other enterprises is said to be part owner of the Scorpions.

The heart issue is a good thing.  It gives him the chance others possibly did not have.  A warning.  Now Ceballos can correct whatever problems exist and perhaps adjust his lifestyle accordingly.

A hiker’s journal: November 2011

The sun's last rays light up downtown Phoenix on Nov. 13 as viewed from North Mountain Park,

The 21st, a Monday:  North Mountain Park, Phoenix.  I’m on a return trip from the Visitors Center to the trailhead on 7th Ave when I see a heavy-set woman walking off-trail.  She is calling out for what I think at first is a child.  But she does not seem frantic enough to be searching for a child.  I stop and ask, “Are you looking for a dog?”  No, she says.  A cat.  Well, actually three cats.  They are named Tuxedo, Mister Motors and Blackie.  They have disappeared recently from her house. She fears a troublesome neighbor near the park has catnapped them and dumped them out here in the wilds.  “I know it’s a long shot,” she says, “but I’m going to give it a try.”   This park is not a good place for cats on the loose.  Last Saturday hiking in the dark near Shaw Butte I heard the yipping of coyotes in a nearby draw.  A little later I heard an owl, and eventually spotted its outline on a nearby mountain ridge.  A cat would make a nice meal for either the coyote or the owl.

Hikers seem to think this "limp" red-spined Compass Barrel cactus needs support.

I have yet to see a hawk in the park.  Maybe I’m not looking hard enough.

I run across the “limp” cactus again, the one concerned hikers have propped up with rocks  so it won’t fall on it’s face.  It’s just off the Christiansen Trail at the divide between the east and west basins.  This cactus is a red-spined Compass Barrel.  The older ones often sag to the southwest, toward the setting sun.  I read this happens because the shady side, the northeast one I assume, grows faster.  It is one of the many curiosities along the park’s trails.

I started hiking in late afternoon, too late to see the usual activity of Audubon rabbits or coveys of Gambel’s quail with their black drooping top-knots.  I do count 29 humans moving along the 3 1/3 miles of trails I covered:  16 hikers, 11 bikers and two joggers.  I don’t always count but I did today.

I make it back to the car after sunset and finish off the last half of a foot-long Subway.  The sunsets can be very beautiful in Arizona.  But not this evening.  No clouds to speak of.

Looking west from North Mountain Park on the 19th.

The 22nd, Tuesday:  Summit of North Mountain.  I’m about ready to head back down the asphalt pavement to the Visitors Center two miles away when I hear loud huffing and puffing.  I look up to see a 50ish man running up toward the gate that seals off the towers on the 2,104-foot summit.  He is a normal looking guy except for one thing.  He is wearing a prosthesis on his right leg below the knee.  We talk a bit.  He alludes to his bad leg.  “In the service?” I ask.  “No, diabetes,” he says.  “I stepped on something and before I could get to the hospital it was too late.”  That was 2 1/2 years ago.  His goal is to do Camelback, maybe the Grand Canyon.  He takes off on another wind sprint to the top as I say good-bye.  It’s my third hike this year to the summit and the easiest.  Beautiful vistas.  The slightly higher Shaw Butte stretches out in dying sunlight to the northwest, Lookout Mountain to the northeast.  The trail back is dark and lonely.  No moonlight tonight.  I can’t count much on Jupiter or Venus.  I see only one other hiker and a park ranger picking up trash before I arrive at the parking lot.  I feel great.

Trail sign. We're close.

The 24th, Thanksgiving:  Dragonfly Trail, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area.    The sign says “To Jewel of the Creek” and points toward a dry streambed of mostly gravel and rock that is Cave Creek, north of the town by the same name.  Many take the 1-mile shortcut from the parking lot back along Spur Cross Road to reach this riparian area.  But Nebra and I have traveled a 2 1/2-mile route, first on the Spur Cross Trail, then branching southward onto the Dragonfly near a Desert Christmas cholla lit up like a Holiday tree with its bright red berries, then slowly descending 240 feet along a big wash to the creek via a striking forest of saguaro.

At the sign, we head directly for the streambed with its cluster of deciduous trees decorated in autumn foliage of yellows and light greens.  Cottonwoods, willows and others we didn’t stop to identify.  The Jewel of the Creek Preserve is comprised of 27 precious acres of riparian habitat set aside “forever” in 2001 by the Desert Foothills Land Trust.

In pristine riparian area along Cave Creek.

We follow a trail along the north side of the stream.  I see debris above my head clinging to trees that indicate flood waters have roared through here at a height of 10 feet or more.   We come across an abandoned mine shaft in the side of a rock cliff and peer in.  The shaft runs about 15 feet straight in and, I believe, hooks to the  right and out of sight.

Farther on, there is a stagnant pool of dark, scummy water with a footbridge across it.  I look for signs of life in the murk but see nothing.  Not even a tadpole.

Just across the footbridge we stop for our Thanksgiving meal on some flattened boulders.  Nebra has made several turkey sandwiches, chopped up some raw carrots and broccoli and created her specialty, munchy cranberry-oatmeal bars.  While I rush back to shoot a photo of the mine, Nebra stretches out in nearby tall grass and dozes.  It’s cloudy and a few drops of rain made their presence known.  But, at 70 degrees, who’s complaining?

A stagnant pool near the footbridge.

I lag behind as Nebra follows the trail up toward the parking lot.  I find her seated on a nice bench, a memorial to Geoffrey Platts, a desert environmentalist who drowned in the Verde River in 2000 at age 61.  Platts, I read, lived in a nearby cabin with no electricity and no running water.  He wrote a lot and was known to some as “the desert laureate.”  It is an ideal spot for a bench.  It looks down on “the Jewel” and up to the higher places like Elephant Mountain.

At the car I listen closely for the coyotes we heard as we started out.  “They’re hunting,” a woman hiker told us.  It is nearly sunset and I hear nothing now but snorts from the stables where horses are feeding on scattered hay.

This is how Nebra and I spend our Thanksgivings.  On the trail.

Nebra along the Spur Cross Trail.

November 28, Monday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  As I drop down into a gully, two Desert cottontails appear.  One is bashful, the other continues to forage not more than 15 feet away.  I’m just guessing it is a Sylvilagus auduboni since Arizona’s other two cottontails are said to live in mountainous regions.  These rabbits show disproportionately long ears that are not so much used for hearing as maintaining body temperatures due to their many capillaries.  Cottontails are increasingly popular small-game targets for bow-and-arrow hunters, though they are relatively safe from humans here in the park.  And, I might add, much easier to shoot with a camera than a bow.

A Desert cottontail along the trail.

Among wildlife, the Desert cottontail and Gambel’s quail are the two most visible out here at dusk.  The quail with their big black top-knots, on the other hand, are easier targets for the gun than the camera.  They hate open space and often hustle off into the bushes before you can snap a shutter.  They seem to be everywhere.  If you can’t see them, you hear them chattering away in a field of creosote or under low-lying palo verdes or mesquite.

I again identified a descendant of homo erectus.  This one is male, a hiker of retirement age, holding with one hand four small dogs on a leash.  A dachshund is the largest.  With the other hand he carries a cellphone, trying to make plans for Christmas.  His authoritative voice leads me to believe he is speaking with one of his children.  “We’re going somewhere,” he is saying.  “We’re not spending Christmas alone, that’s for sure.”  He is one of 26 hikers I run into today, not to mention five bikers and eight joggers.

Coming back to the Visitors Center 15 minutes after sunset, two tiny “birds” are making acrobatic moves in the air.  They are about the size of hummingbirds.  I believe they are a pair of bats, probably Western pipistrelles.  I haven’t seem the bats before.  There is always something new out here in the urban wilds.




Lost in a world of bad decisions

Our pro football team continues to reap the misfortune of bad decisions by its coach and front office.  With the loss in San Francisco yesterday, the Cardinals have won only 8 of their last 26 games over two seasons.   And, if there is even a dim light on the horizon, it is lost in all the fog.

Here is a list of those bad decisions.

(1) A failure to recognize after the 2009 playoff season that success was built on the arm of one unique player, quarterback Kurt Warner, and a strong supporting cast.  When Warner retired and other top talent like wide receiver Anquan Boldin and linebacker Karlos Dansby departed, the Cardinals chose not to replace them with equally talented players.  The loss of Warner exposed coach, Ken Whisenhunt, for what he really is.  A lightweight offensive mind.

(2) Last season’s quarterback fiasco, and the mind-numbing release of the team’s 2006 No. 1 draft pick, Matt Leinart.  While Leinart was no Warner, he was head and shoulders above what they were left with, Derek Anderson.  That decision so angered fans that  Whisenhunt’s 3-year honeymoon came to an abrupt end.

(3) The colossal blunder last August in over-paying All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.  That $120 million contract pays Fitzgerald $20 million this year alone and prevented this small-market team from up-grading other positions.  In Sunday’s game with the 49ers, Fitzgerald caught three passes, each worth $417,000.  To pay that much for a player who is such a small part of the offense (5% yesterday) is absolutely crazy.

(4) Misjudgment of the abilities of untested quarterback Kevin Kolb, who the Cardinals got in a preseason panic from the Philadelphia Eagles at a stiff price — draft picks and their All-Pro corner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  Money paid this season to Fitzgerald and Kolb amount to roughly one-third of the team’s payroll.

(5) Whisenhunt’s decision to stick with an offensive system that places too much emphasis on what is now its weakest position, quarterback.  While the system did well with Warner, the current quarterbacks are not nearly as talented.  To ask inferior quarterbacks to carry the load is insanity.  And yet Cardinals quarterbacks this season are throwing at almost the same percentage as in 2009 with Warner, 62% of the time.  The previous season, with Derek Anderson, they threw even more — 66%.  What kind of sense does that make?

The solution?  You can not undo Fitzgerald’s contract.  Finding another quarterback is out of the question.  So why not scrap or modify the offense?  Play conservatively, run more even if it’s inconsistent and upsets Fitzgerald.  Punt often if needed, play for field position and rely on a defense that is playing fairly well at this point.  Maybe then you have a chance against the NFL’s elite like San Francisco.

But don’t look for changes.  One of Whisenhunt’s most salient traits is stubborness.  He will likely continue with the program of pounding square pegs into round holes.  That and to heap more blame on quarterback play even though the system is not best suited for the talent at hand.

What is that ‘Thing,’ really?

A billboard west of Willcox, Arizona

I did not know what to expect last weekend as I steered off of Interstate 10 at Exit 322 in Arizona to visit what is known in the hustler’s world as a roadside attraction.   You know, roadside attraction, as in a sneaky way to lure the traveler to stop and maybe buy some merchandise after seeing a disappointing exhibit or whatever.  But “The Thing” was too much to pass on.  I bit.

From El Paso to Tucson, I’m told, yellow billboards line I-10, promoting the attraction.  I counted two such signs myself between Willcox and the exit, but strangely nothing close by.  Even at the exit there is not a single sign saying “The Thing” is here.

Bowlin's at The Thing, Arizona

It is a nothing kind of place.  It is a dot on my Arizona Road & Recreational Atlas shown as The Thing.  Other maps, even my shiny new 2012 Rand McNally, doesn not list it at all.  Nor does it even show an exit here at mile post 322.   But, barring a paranormal experience, I can attest the place exists.  It is a complex of Shell gas pumps and a long building consisting of a Dairy Queen and a Bowlin’s souvenir shop.  “The Thing” rests in a shed in back.

It’s dark when we stop and go inside.   It’s a big store, brightly lit and loaded with trinkets, T-shirts, caps and a whole bunch of other stuff.   The clerk, a balding man of middle age, takes our $1 admission fees and points toward the door in back.  There  are three sheds out there, he says.  “The Thing” is in the last one.  Then he adds, with a smile I’m unsure of, “Try to be quiet.  If you wake it, I’ll have to feed it.”

A 1937 Rolls Royce said used by Hitler.

We follow yellow footprints along the cement walk.  In no time Nebra and I are alone in the sheds.  They are filled with oddities.  Most have not seen a dust rag for many moons.  But there are some worth noting.  There is a 1937 Rolls Royce parked behind a cage.  The sign says it was used by Hitler.  There are some old firearms, one a Matchlock rifle said to have been made in 1634.  There is an ancient Edison phonograph and above glass-encased exhibits a large collection of driftwood sculptures.  We hurry along, eager to answer the question:  What is “The Thing,” really.

"The Thing" rests inside this casket.

We enter the third shed.  I’m expecting some kind of Halloween show.  Mechanical monsters, maybe, jumping out at you, trying to scare you so much your heart stops.   But we arrive at a solemn scene.  A casket-like container rests under strong flourescent lighting in the middle of the floor.  A sign above it asks, “What Is It?”

Peering in through thick plexiglass, I see only a mass of grayness at first, something nebulous.  But focusing, “The Thing” comes into view.  It appears to be a grotesque mummy of a clothed woman clutching a child in her right arm with a somebrero-like hat laying on her lap.  The legs do not look like normal legs.  They are long and shapeless as if someone had substituted stout logs where legs should be.  It is puzzling.

"The Thing," whatever it is.

Back inside Bowlin’s I asked the clerk what he thinks “The Thing” is.  He says the mummy was DNA-tested in the 1980s.  It is said to be half human, half animal.  The owner, whose name I have forgotten, acquired the mummy a half century ago from a carnival sideshow.   The clerk doesn’t seem to know much more.  Or isn’t saying.

We leave to make the drive into Benson for the night.  Was it worth the $1 to see “The Thing”?  Nebra and I agree.  It was.