One Square Mile

We’d been in Prescott several months before I felt brave enough to wander the state trust land near our new home on a hill overlooking, well… almost everything surrounding us – valleys, canyons, mountains.

Being raised in the Midwest, the landscape of Arizona’s Central Highlands was like another world – harsh, seemingly barren, with strange creatures I’d been warned of: giant spiders, poisonous snakes, big cats, long-toothed peccary.

I expected an unwelcome encounter around every scrub, rock and corner, but soon found none.

Instead, I discovered in this small, square mile, an odd, new world of high dessert ways where life and death are on display with every cow for slaughter resting in the shade of a low, broad pine, every blade of blood red grass pushing through the dry, rocky earth.

In the great, bright white blossoms of the moon vine which shun the mid-day sun all summer long, closing their blossoms to everyone. Then as the earth begins to cool, the shrivelled blossoms slowly unfold and reach out to the gentler night.

In every piece of a recent kill, picked nearly clean from above and below, until nothing remains but full bellies and scattered bones to bleach and decay in the strong, abiding Arizona sun.

Each time we wandered its rolling terrain, it begged more questions and felt more sane.

Because every new path helps me see; helps me become part of the marvelous whole which co-exists so beautifully on the highland square beside my home.

One still, cool, autumn day the dogs and I went walking, making a dubious circle inside this small square of land. About half-way round, we climbed a small ridge near the northern fenceline, alongside a jarring stretch of a dirt road that leads to Chino Valley.

There, on the other side of a wide, shallow wash, some 15 yards away, we encountered a herd of pronghorn – two dozen, or so – grazing. Though every creatures lifted its head from meals, naps, and play, they didn’t seem bothered enough to take leave.

To take flight.

Even as the dogs whined and pulled hard at their leashes.

It was a remarkable sight. Small groups of juveniles, females and males, spread out, but close at hoof, with earthy colors of wheat, white and black blending with the vast desert grasslands where they like to roam.

I once found one of their dark, slender, knobby horns on one of our walks, having just been shed.

Still pungent and warm.

Feeling the aching resolve of the dogs’ interest in my arms, I soon turned away, toward the west and home. Happy to have been able to get so close to such remarkable creatures – the fastest land mammal our hemisphere. (The cheetah might be fast, my friend, but the pronghorn has the speed and endurance.

The dogs were frantic and frightened and nearly pulled me off my feet.

All I could do was dig my heels into the dry, hard earth and with nowhere else to look, stare straight into the eyes of the leader, who seemed somehow surprised by our meeting. With the herd at her heels, and us just ahead, it was up to the lead as to how this would end.

So glad she decided, at the very last moment, to dart to our right.

The spray of dirt from her hooves shot into my wide open mouth, as we watched the leader take her swift-hooved family around the other side of a short, fat scrub, just a few yards away.

I held tight and dug my heels deeper, as the dogs turned with the pronghorn, and me with the dogs. Yet instead of continuing forward and away, the leader suddenly turned the panicked herd and circled back to where all of this began.

Instantly surrounding us on all sides. Lifting the dust high above our heads.

The dogs, now howling, kept yanking and yanking, but I kept them anchored,  all the while bemoaning the unreachable phone in my back pocket because no one was going to believe that we were at the very center of a neighborhood stampede.

When the bright white backside of the final pronghorn disappeared into the dust, I finally looked down from my tired, trembling arms to see that the dogs were not in the least bit tired, but trembling too.

Holy shit,” I laughed, repeating the sentiment a few more times, as my sore, quaking, anxious fingers fumbled for the phone in my pocket to call Kurt.

I found my breathe again on the slow, wobbly, happy journey home.

Winged Chatter

I try to find a new way to wander across the rolling hills of scrub and pine and stretches of grass, each time the dogs and I go walking; and so every day, I get to see familiar things in a different sort of way.

Sometimes this leads to new treasures like old, sun-bleached bones for my growing bone collection, a newly dug den with earth so freshly excavated it’s still moist and brown; or an ancient juniper at the top of a ridge, rounded like a giant, perfect mushroom cap, where generations of cattle resting and rubbing in its shade, helped give it its flat-bottomed, fairyland shape.

But mostly, it’s not knowing where the dogs and I are going, except out.

To explore this small patch of hilly land near our home where Mingus Mountain rises behind Chino Valley to the east, Table Top Mesa and Granite Mountain command the views to the south and scattered homes along long, dirt roads in the near distance remind us we’re never alone.

As does the jackrabbit springing from shrub to shrub, with its skyscraper ears that quickly disappear; or a flock of quails lifting noisily from an impenetrable cluster of apache plume in near perpetual bloom at the side of the wash.

Which, like my path, is always changing.

Crumbling.

Reshaping.

Exposing many tunnels dug feet below the surface (which look like sunken eyes, sunk deep in deep, dark sockets); and hardened roots of Pinyon pines clutch eroding walls, refusing to fall, to succumb to the changes. Clinging green on so few of its branches.

Yet clinging.

And fruiting and feeding the creatures who live here. Here in the washes and brushes and hollowed out trees. In the boulders and burrows and fields, where me and the dogs keep wandering, because every day it keeps changing.

Each bloom, each moon, each orbital click.

While the dogs keep on sniffing and sniffing and sniffing, and finding their own unique way, which these days is through a grassy stretch of fleeting monsoon green that tickles my knees and their noses.

Past Prickly Pears with their thorny pads, crowned with green, pink and purple fruit, growing darker and bigger and bolder and sweeter. Across the patch where the air is fair and the land is electric with tiny, winged voices that buzz here and there. Humming strange, chatty words in my ear. While modest patches of yellow, white, orange and purple wildflowers barely boast that they’re there.

But they are.

Bringing color and grace to a rough, rugged place, where mettle must rule every moment. Where you need to be swift like the pronghorn and strong like the mule deer – built wide and low – whose tracks I’ve tracked across a still-damp wash to the bottom of a vertical embankment, where I looked up the 10 ft. wall and saw a single hoof print – half-way up.

And wondered whether danger prompted such a vault, or was it simple daring because it could be simply done? Like the rattlesnake, who with a shake, might let you know they’re near. But then again, it all depends on whether you’re his next meal.

We surprised a small, skinny coyote looking for hers the other day, when we appeared from the wash and the scrub about thirty feet from where she was rising from a small ravine. She saw us first and was trying to make a quiet retreat into the Pinyon and Juniper up ahead, when I spotted her out of the corner of my eye.

Holding tight to the leashes, I stopped and turned and greeted the startled creature who, instead of fleeing, paused as well. As the dogs strained their leads, I smiled at the brazen thing who just stood there staring, Then, suggesting it best the four of us part company, turned from our chance meeting.

The scraggly coyote followed, moving in a similar direction, stopping one final time between a gap in the growth, to stare at our constrained trio before her shabby, honey-colored hide slunk over the next ridge and disappeared.

And the dogs and I, ignoring my instinct to go home, turned left instead.

The Wind and the Owl

When the central highland winds howl through the valley and rattle the windows of our house on the hill, shaking and bending the juniper and pinion trees I see beyond the shuddering panes, my body and mind still brace for the only thing that comes of such blustery warnings to the Midwestern me.

The menacing advance of a fearsome storm.

Intense and unforgiving.

I feel my body – tense and taut – bracing for the worst with each swollen

Pacing through the house.

Anxious for it to stop.

Or me to move.

So my dogs and I head out for our walk, prepared for a fight against tempests and cold and I’m ever surprised to find the winds far more kind than I imagined.

Mellowed by the sun’s abiding strength.

Layers are shed at the start of our walk and the warm, constant breezes now push me, Frank and Nellie to the chapparal below, where I know the sweeping winds will blow much gentler music across the tall grass. And at my back, urge me forward toward to the far fence line where the pronghorn often graze.

But downwind today, well warned of our arrival, they’re likely to have scattered; prompting me to turn against the wind and start a circuitous loop back home.

Toward the scrub oak and junipers.

Shelter and shade.

And the shadowy scent of Mountain Lilac blossoming profusely in the wake of generous winter rains.

The gentle fragrance of this rugged bush, appears and disappears with the shifting winds, lifting my spirits with each sweet return, as I wander up and down the hills with my two, most joyful companions.

The world in their noses turned into the breezes.

Close to home, I see a Great Horned Owl take to the air just a few feet ahead.

I hear one, grand flap of his wings. And then nothing.

A familiar shadow among the neighborhood trees, I track his flight and see him perch again in a pine, up the hill and up ahead, and I follow with glee.

Silently.

Deliberately.

From tree to tree.

Hidden among the dark, green boughs of an old, domed Juniper, heavy with pollen, the owl waits. But just as we near, off he goes, higher up the hill and closer to home, past the scattered remains of a long dead tree which lay like a skeleton, gray and sunbleached, exactly where it fell.

Pursuing him again to yet another tree, it’s as if the owl is hunting me. For, there, in a clearing of branches, the great hunter sits.

Quietly watching us move up the hill.

Allowing me the perfect view of this very perfect predator.

Staring still, my eyes meet his, until he decides we’ve come close enough.

And that is that.

He spreads his wings and disappears, without a sound, among the pinion near the old pit mine.

I try to reconnect at a fourth tree ahead, but instead, meet a noisy grackle balanced at the top of the tree where I hoped the Great Horned Owl would be. But he has already continued on his way, up the hill, over a fenceline, and out of my sight.

Certain we’re not out of his, I scan the trees on the hill in vain.

Unleashing the dogs, Nellie’s off in a dash in her fruitless pursuit of chasing small reptile.

Zigging and zagging, but never succeeding.

I think she’s just teasing.

My call for her cuts through the wind and the white-noised silence.

Unsettling me.

Until the music of the wild winds in the scrub oaks and the pines, in the final footsteps home, help me find my peace and place again.