Sunday, January 17, 2010

Accidental Tourists? I think not.

It was 6 a.m. on a partly cloudy winter morning here in Phoenix, AZ. Beverly, my friend and neighbor, and I were heading out on one of our photo hunts. She’s the photographer and I’m the one who keeps her from backing into oncoming traffic or stepping on animal poop while she focuses on her subject.

I wanted to check out the Northwest Regional Library in Surprise. It opened at 9 a.m. We were heading down US60 towards the library when we realized that we’d be waiting for three hours to get inside. While our goal was the waterfowl on the tiny lake next to the library, we knew our senior bladders wouldn’t make it that long.

“Have you ever been to Wickenburg?” she asked.

“Not for 20 years or more. We drove through it on our way to Las Vegas before we were married. Didn’t stop.”

“It’s only 45 minutes away. We could get breakfast there.”

“I need coffee. Let’s go.”

As we ate, Beverly casually mentioned the Vulture Mine and the Hassayampa River Preserve as attractions around there. Since I knew that the Vulture Mine would be something my artist hubby would like to see, I agreed to go to the preserve now and wait on the mine.

The Hassayampa River Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is not a park. Let me make that perfectly clear, because I was expecting one. The difference is that a park is groomed and polished and is essentially an outdoor museum. A preserve is not.

After paying our $5 entrance fee and being regaled with bird watching tips from delightful fanatics, we stood outside and considered which trail to take. Beverly had been there before, so we decided that regardless of our aging knees and the cautions of steep terrain, we’d head down the River Ramble until it branched off to Lyke’s Lookout.

On the way, I realized the difference between parks and preserves. We are in the middle of our winter here in Arizona, which creates the peculiar look of green grass and leafless trees. The trails are groomed only up by the visitor center and beyond that, they are merely kept passable. Further, along the trail, we encountered stark scenes of dead trees, both fallen and standing broken trunks, everywhere. It was if “the bomb” had gone off some years before and only the skeletons of trees remained. Then we looked closer.

The preserve is doing just that. It leaves nature alone. It lets it do its “thang.” The original recycling program is on full display here. The fallen trees and the chaos of limbs intertwining creates dens for the foxes and coyotes, hiding places for smaller creatures to wait while the hawks circle overhead, and the like.

We crossed the river by means of a small pallet-like bridge and after inspecting the duckweed that travels in tiny leaflets down the stream, we continued up the path. Ducking under arches created by fallen trees, we wound our way up to Lyke’s Lookout and discovered beauty in a way that I would not have expected.

We sat on the granite bench looking over the winter bare treetops, the BNSF railroad tracks, US60 and its still audible traffic, and we “got it.” Birdcalls and songs echoed through the trees. Red rocks on the other side of the tracks were punctuated with the Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert.

After we wrestled ourselves back from the awe-abyss, we continued our exploration around Palm Lake. Again, we encountered rough, chaotic, and somewhat melancholy views due to winter. The artificial lake was being left to its own devices to return to its natural cienega state.

Before it came under the protection of the Nature Conservancy, the property began as a ranch and stagecoach stop in 1856. Life continued as a dude ranch, a trailer park resort, and then the Nature Conservancy purchased it in 1986. The docent told us it took a full year to haul the trash out of the property. They missed a rusted out water heater shell partially buried under fallen tree limbs.

If you go, please visit their website for hours of operation and restrictions. This is a beautiful site and deserves respect.

UPDATED: 01-19-10  Corrections on the bench on Lyke's Lookout and the date that the ranch began.  Thanks to Martin Lawrence, Preserve Manager, Hassayampa River Preserve for calling my attention to these errors.  I guess I was so taken with the zen of Lyke's Lookout that I didn't even notice exactly what I was sitting on!  Thanks again, Mr. Lawrence!