To the Bat Cave We Go ~ Kartchner Caverns ~ Benson, AZ

Advice from a Cave:  Breathe deep; find beauty in unexpected places; search inward; see the hole picture; good things take time; look beneath the surface; hang tight!  (c) Ilan Shamir

We are spending a few days at Kartchner Caverns State Park, at the base of the Whetstone Mountains, near Benson, Arizona, a lovely campground with 360º views of wide-open desert and mountain ranges touching the heavens.  An added bonus is the brief walk to the famous Kartchner Caverns.  Large bands of billowy clouds surround us, whipped around by brisk winds, as a storm fast approaches. There is probably no place better to be right now than underground, so to the “Bat Cave” we go.

Kartchner Caverns Big Room, image courtesy of Wikipedia
Kartchner Caverns Big Room ~ photo credit Wikipedia

Since we had seen Carlsbad Caverns last year we didn’t know what to expect.  We found the “Big Room” tour at Kartchner to be a wonderful experience, enhanced greatly by our tour guide, Park Ranger Lisa.  A 6-month veteran of the park (impossible to believe), she is a walking encyclopedia of Kartchner Caverns history, presented with passion and humor.  She followed very strict protocol, as we traveled through six air-lock passages and a misting machine, to preserve the cave’s inside temperature of 72º and 99% humidity year-round.  Nothing was allowed inside that might disturb the cave’s health, including cameras.

Image courtesy of
Photo credit

We found the history behind the discovery of this cave to be fascinating.  Two cavers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, knew that where there’s limestone, there most likely would be caves.  They set out to explore the limestone hills at the base of the Whetstone Mountains, looking for that perfect cave but anticipating another dry, dusty hole in the earth.  What they found instead was a sinkhole, with a narrow crack in the bottom, breathing warm, moist air.  Two hours of digging around this “blowhole” allowed them enough space to wiggle through and explore 2.5 miles of pristine cave passages.  They knew they had found something very special, something to be preserved.  Fourteen years of arduous work resulted in a bill that protected this cave and in 1999 the Rotunda Room opened to the public, with tours of the Big Room following in 2003.

Breathtaking soda straws - image courtesy of
Breathtaking soda straws – photo credit

Kartchner Caverns is a wet cave, very much alive, and if the spectacular displays of stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws and “cave bacon” weren’t enough, the Big Room is closed from mid-April until mid-October when it is turned into a nursery roost for ~1,000 female common cave bats.  The females give birth to a single pup in late June and the babies remain in roost until mid-September, when they leave to begin the migration to their winter home.

Advice from a Bat:  Trust in your senses; spend time hanging around with friends; don’t be afraid of the dark; get a grip; enjoy the nightlife; sometimes you’ve just gotta wing it; guano happens!  (c) Ilan Shamir

Our tour guide Lisa explained the birthing process in a rather unique fashion. Picture a 5-foot tall, 100 lb. woman giving birth to a 25 lb. baby (size of a 2-year old), while hanging from her thumbs, enduring a breech birth, worrying about catching her baby before he plunges to his death, and that is what birthing a bat pup is like.  I don’t know about you, but I have a new-found respect for bats, at least the female variety!

Prelude to a storm
Prelude to a storm

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An Artist Colony, A White Dove, and Friendship ~ Tubac, AZ

welcome to TubacCombine a growing artist colony, a White Dove of the Desert, and friendship and what you get is a nice day trip from Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, where we are camped, to Tubac, AZ.  I have been mute on our time at Catalina State Park, not because we are not enjoying looking out over and hiking into the Santa Catalina Mountains, but because this is our second visit (here is our first).  We have chosen to lazily pass the time in the company of good friends Stan and Marilyn (also camped here) over posting again about this great state park.

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac

Stan, Marilyn, Terry and I began our trip to Tubac with a stop just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson to a place I hadn’t visited in many years, Mission San Xavier del Bac, the “White Dove of the Desert”.  This historic Spanish Catholic mission was founded in 1692 by Father Eusebio Kino.

In the late 1600’s, a stranger in dark flowing robes on horseback, a Jesuit missionary, ambled into the village of Wa:k.  The desert people who resided there, the Tohono O’odham, welcomed him with open arms, thus beginning the tenure of Father Kino’s mission work.

Present-day church construction began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. Following Mexico’s independence in 1821, Mission San Xavier became part of Mexico, but with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, ownership changed to the US.  It is said to be the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, still containing the original mural paintings and statuary within its chapel, the frescoes and back altar quite striking.  It is very much an active mission today, with services being held daily.  A separate, smaller chapel to the side of the church is available for special prayer offerings.

Mission San Jose de Tumacacori
Mission San José de Tumacacori

Mission San José de Tumacácori (Too-muh-ká-ko-ree) was our next stop, four miles outside the town of Tubac.  This historic mission was also founded by Father Kino, one year earlier than that of Mission San Xavier.  No one knows the meaning of the word Tumacácori but it is believed to be an O’odham word.

In January, 1691, on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River, the oldest mission site in what is now Arizona was built, a very modest structure compared to Mission San Xavier to its north.  It’s original name was Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori and was renamed to Mission San José in 1751 when the mission was moved to its present location on the west side of the river.  The structure was never completed, due to many woes:  Apache hostility, lack of government support, and disease, to name a few.  When Tumacácori lost its last resident priest, scaffolding still hung from the bell tower.  The mission is unfinished yet today, although restoration work has begun on what remains.

Having had our spirits rejuvenated and broadened our knowledge of Arizona history, we headed to the growing artist colony known as Tubac “where art and history meet”.   Established in 1752 as a Spanish Presidio, it houses Arizona’s first state park and European settlement, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. There is a museum that is open to the public, but quite frankly, a girl can only fill her head with so many facts and figures in one day.  We chose instead to wander among the roughly 100 eclectic shops and world-class galleries, a very nice way to wind down our day.

But wait, there’s more!  Our exciting finish to the day took us to Elvira’s to dine at what is probably one of the most popular and funkiest restaurants in Tubac, featuring gourmet Mexican fare.  The is the second Elvira’s restaurant to open, the first being in Nogales, Mexico.  We were thrilled to have friends Stan and Marilyn with us, along with new friends Gary and Christine, who we were fortunate to meet up with while camphosting in San Elijo State Beach in CA.  The food and drinks were yummy, the restaurant interior delightful (so sparkly) due to the hundreds of teardrops and colored balls hanging from the ceiling reflecting the light, and the company superb.

L-R:  Marilyn, Stan, Christine, Gary & Terry
L-R: Marilyn, Stan, Christine, Gary & Terry

We could not have asked for a better ending to our day and with the knowledge that we would see all four of these great folks again next winter in CA, we said goodbye to Gary and Christine.  Tomorrow will be a sad day for us as we part ways with Stan and Marilyn, two amazing friends who have crept into our hearts and will definitely remain there.

I must share one final photo of this area, as it speaks to the gentle spirit of this man.  He is not near old enough to be my poppy (papa) but I’m certain he was a sweet and gentle poppy to his children.  Sorry Stan, I couldn’t resist!

Stan, one sweet man and our dear friend
Stan, one sweet man and our dear friend

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In Search of the Proverbial Needle ~ Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, AZ

superstition mountain

Our hike into the Superstition Mountains took us in search of a needle, Weaver’s Needle to be exact.   There are several hikes in this wilderness area that allow for views of this well-known landmark (and the Needle presents differently depending on the angle), but the Terrapin Trail we chose gets you closer than most.  The entire hike is a 13-mile loop that circumnavigates Weaver’s Needle but we weren’t able to start early enough to do the entire hike so we opted instead for an 8-mile out and back.  This actually was just about perfect, given the section we trekked was fairly aggressive, over rough terrain, and required some boulder-hopping.  We threw in a little bushwhacking just for fun so we could enjoy lunch gazing at Weaver’s Needle.  If you long for isolation while hiking, this trail is far superior, in our opinion, to the Peralta Trail, one of the most heavily traveled in Arizona.

Weaver's Needle
Weaver’s Needle

Weaver’s Needle was named after mountain man Paulino Weaver and was formed from the erosion of fused volcanic ash.  It has played a major role in the stories told of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. Supposedly the Needle’s shadow points to the location of a significant vein of gold.  Many have searched for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold and some have lost their lives in this pursuit.  There are even those who feel that the Dutchman mine doesn’t exist within these mountains at all.

The Superstitions are not kind to those who don’t respect her and the wilderness is rugged and vast, with  many trails not well-marked.  If not careful, you could easily get yourself turned around and never leave.  The stories are endless of those who have disappeared, with some estimates of over 600 deaths or disappearances.  Earlier this week on the local news we heard of a 51-year old woman who had to be rescued from the Superstition Wilderness and this was not a first for her but has occurred many times during her quest for the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, the last rescue as recent as December 2012.

Many feel there is a curse in this desolate wilderness.  The fantastic tales of strange phenomena involving the Superstitions are lengthy and quite bizarre, from Aztecs still holed up in caves, to UFO sightings, to portals into other worlds. Strange coincidences swirl around these mountains as well.  Stone from the Superstitions was used to build the Roosevelt Dam on the Apache Trail and 22 died in the construction.  The first water that came over the dam was saved and used to christen the famous battleship USS Arizona.  Twenty-five years later this same battleship became known as the most devastating loss in the attack on Pearl Harbor, with more than 1000 men going down with the ship.

Wicked accidents are a common occurrence as well, as my husband can attest to. Some years ago, while hiking down a rocky trail out here, he stumbled and fell into a teddy bear cholla forest.  Neither he nor the teddies fared very well in this encounter.  Lots of blood and a few tears were shed (mine) as I pulled hundreds of barbs out of his body.  Luckily his face was unscathed, but the palms of his hands took the brunt, along with a shoulder, stomach, and hip.  For weeks afterwards, the teddy bears enacted their revenge on him in the form of secondary barbs that continued to surface in the palms of his hands.  Guess they didn’t take too kindly to him tearing away their appendages in his rush to greet them!

Happiest in nature without teddy bear cholla!
Happiest in nature without teddy bear cholla!

The Superstition Wilderness is fiercely rugged country and a fabulous place to hike in pure isolation, provided you watch the signs and follow those stacked rocks (cairns), which could literally save your life or prevent a rescue mission.

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Dawn to Dusk Desert Delights

Desert awakening
Desert awakening

Our day began at dawn as we loaded up the truck to take the 90-mile journey into Tonto National Forest.  It looked to be a glorious day for a road trip.  Our destination was Tonto National Monument, home to the Salado ancient cliff dwellings.

Situated within rugged terrain in the northeastern part of the Sonoran Desert, Tonto National Monument tells the story of the migration of ancient peoples who called this land home and is the setting of two 700-year old cliff dwellings. Recessed into shallow caves, they overlook today what is Roosevelt Lake, but in earlier times was a verdant valley with a river flowing through it.

Roosevelt Lake seen from trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling
Roosevelt Lake seen from trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling

The first Tonto Basin inhabitants (between 100 and 600 AD) support evidence of some of the earliest farming communities.  The river provided fertile ground for many crops until the year 600, when all who had settled here moved on, perhaps due to adverse climate conditions that laid the land barren.  No one was to return for another 150 years.

During ancient times tribes migrated to land that was able to supply most of their meager needs.  Off and on through the 12th century a constant ebb and flow of settlers marked this land.  Periods of drought and flooding caused these huge migrations as farm crops withered or irrigation canals were washed away in the rushing waters, leaving hundreds of acres of useless farmland in their wake.

Lower Cliff Dwelling
Lower Cliff Dwelling

By the early 13th century, thousands once again called the Tonto Basin their home.  New immigrants began seeking refuge in the basin’s upper elevations, perhaps because all the prime Salt River Valley floor was occupied or maybe due to strife between tribes.  The cliff dwellings that remain have provided archeologists many clues to their lives.

The structures that stand today, the Lower and Upper Cliff Dwellings, are two of hundreds that once stood in the thriving Tonto Basin.  The skeletal remains of the rooms within tell a story of people who flourished and struggled  with the changing climates.  Dump sites have unearthed many important artifacts, along with the remains of a few, lovingly buried where they lived.

The first written record of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument date back to 1880.  What the first Europeans who explored this dwelling found was a much larger, well-preserved structure than we see today.  The effects of time, weather, visitation, and vandals have taken their toll, which is why President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in 1907 and declared this site a National Monument.

The Lower Cliff Dwelling, built in 1250 AD, was occupied and maintained for ~100 years and can be viewed as a self-guided tour, a one-half mile paved walk with a 350-foot elevation gain.  At its height it housed 20 rooms.

The Upper Cliff Dwelling, also built in 1250 AD, can be seen only by guided tour. Our Park Ranger tour guide Jan has a passion for preserving this site, and gave an excellent tour.  Our small group took the 3-mile hike (round trip) into the rugged wilderness, up 600 feet, to the cave which once housed 40 rooms within its depths.

We chose the route back over the Apache Trail.  One would think, based on its length (40 miles), that this would be the shortcut, but you would be wrong. Although a part of it is now paved, many miles are rutted dirt road, but passing by some amazing scenery, and the mile-long Fish Creek Hill is not to be missed for some hair-raising fun.  Winding, steep, and narrow, if meeting a vehicle coming the other direction, someone must back up to the nearest turn-out.  This was once a stagecoach trail that ran through the Superstition Mountains, named after the Apache Indians who traveled through this harsh country.

President Theodore Roosevelt had this to say about the Apache Trail in 1911:

“The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the Glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have, to me, it is most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful.”

We arrived back home just as Mother Nature was painting the sky the most delicate shades of coral and lavender, a delightful ending to the day.

Mother Nature's final gift at dusk
Mother Nature’s final gift at dusk

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Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park ~ Sedona, AZ

Buddha of Infinite Light
Buddha of Infinite Light

Although we had lived in Sedona for many years, we had never visited the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park.  Thanks to a friend, a recent trip to Red Rock Country from the Valley of the Sun brought us to this sacred ground, situated at the base of Thunder Mountain.

Amitabha Stupa with Chimney Rock in background
Amitabha Stupa with Chimney Rock in background

Stupas have graced the Earth for over 2,600 years and are said to be the physical embodiment of the Buddha’s enlightened mind.  One of the oldest forms of sacred architecture on the planet, their blessings are immeasurable and their presence in the West very rare.  For millennia stupas have been built to deepen the spiritual life and promote healing, peace, and prosperity, and are a place for meditation and spiritual renewal.

Construction on the 36-foot tall Amitabha Stupa began in July, 2003, with a final 3-day consecration ceremony taking place on August 1, 2004.  On this final day, marked with offerings, song, and dance, prayers began in the early dawn at 5:00 AM.  At this hour the Stupa was bathed in moonlight, but when the rising sun shone on the face of the Amitabha Buddha, the Stupa was born.  Since then the Amitabha Stupa has been radiating blessings of compassion day and night.

The external beauty of the Stupa covers many offerings within its walls.  A sok-shing, tapered 4-sided, 21-foot long cedar column runs along the central channel and is the life force of the Stupa.  It is carved at the top like a stupa and has a thunderbolt at the bottom.  A large copper cauldron has been placed in the center  as a symbol to protect the environment and replenish the five classical elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) and is said to restore the Earth’s vital energies. Along with this are holy relics, rolled mantras, semi-precious stones and crystals, and other deity statues.

When you arrive at a stupa, Buddhist tradition teaches that there is great benefit in walking clockwise around the stupa at least three times, while making personal prayers for those suffering and for world concerns.  A small offering can be made after this journey to dedicate the merit of these prayers for the greater good.

After the three of us had made the journey around the Stupa, we quietly absorbed the serenity of our surroundings.  Soon a lone coyote’s cry pierced the silence.  Native Americans feel the coyote teaches us that only when all illusions have fallen away will we connect with the source ~ beautiful symbolism experienced on this sacred ground.

Prayer flag mantra
Prayer flag mantra

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