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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.