#92 - Chiri Charm - Portal/Rodeo

Last year I visited many breathtaking places across the U.S. In Florida, in January and again in March after a February Malaysia/Borneo odyssey, from the Keys to Kissimmee Prairie. On to Texas in April, from Sea Rim State Park on the Gulf, clinging to the Mexican border west to Laredo's urban Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, on to wondrous Big Bend National Park and then Seminole Canyon Historical Site. Then April saw me jumping back and forth between New Mexico to Arizona, camped at places like Picacho Peak State Park between Tucson and Phoenix, visiting the Superstition Mountains and the Sky Island complexes of the Santa Catalina and Santa Rita Mountains.

Last weekend, while I was in Paradise banding hummingbirds, the annual Elegant Trogon count took place here in the Chiricahuas. As arriving birders associated with the Tucson Audobon Society arrived, I was struck by the newcomers who had never visited the Chiris before and their love-at-first-sight enthusiasm for Cave Creek Canyon. Their home was Madera Canyon, another American nesting spot of the Mexican bird. Situated in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson, about halfway between that population center and the Mexican border, Madera Canyon is incredible. I visited it first with my arachnologist friend Brent and his students, and then again after they moved on toward California. I look forward to my next visit. But it is a short drive from the Sonoran desert sprawl of America's thirty-third largest city, whose greater metropolitan area is home to more than one million people. It ain't exactly a "well kept secret" as I have heard remarked about Cave Creek Canyon.

Even closer to Tucson city limits, the Santa Catalinas draw daily visitors from Phoenix as well. The Catalina Highway that rises to above 9000 feet near Mt. Lemmon is thirty miles of perfectly paved access to high elevation heat relief. I look forward to my next visit to this Sky Island as well, and have fond memories of a hot and dry day in Tucson becoming an evening flipping snow-covered rocks in successful search of scorpions.

The Trogon count participants that spend a great deal of time in Madera Canyon marveled at the Chiricahuas just as I did when I visited last year for a week that turned into four months. I still marvel every day, and each day I work at the VIC someone remarks on the uniqueness and splendor of Arizona's largest Sky Island. Far off the beaten path, the Chiri charm and cheer takes a little more work to experience.

Some Arizonans who venture toward the Chiris simply visit the Chiricahua National Monument on the west side of the range after leaving the interstate at Willcox. Fort Bowie National Historic Site lies in the valley below and a full day's outing can be had visiting both. Only the few cross Onion Saddle to descend toward Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. Others make Cave Creek Canyon their destination, most staying on the interstate into New Mexico and dropping south on Highway 80 five miles into the state and proceeding thirty miles to Rodeo, NM before heading back west into Arizona to Portal.

  Aerial view of Portal, AZ and Cave Creek Canyon. Photo by BAlvarius/Wikimedia Commons

Aerial view of Portal, AZ and Cave Creek Canyon. Photo by BAlvarius/Wikimedia Commons

Straddling two states, the Portal/Rodeo community has a charm that affects arrivers who don't mind being in the middle of nowhere. But first, the confusing time zones takes getting used to. It isn't just that it is one hour earlier in Arizona and you may enter and leave both states multiple times in a day. It's that today we are slaves to smartphones and, when you leave the WiFi offered by the VIC or your lodging or wherever, your cell phone will pick up signal from New Mexico only. You may have remained in Arizona, but now your phone makes you think you've lost an hour. I've changed my setting to disable automatic time zones. The bigger issue with the New Mexico cell signal is in the event of an emergency. Should you need to call 911 you will be contacting services in New Mexico and may have to request transfer to Cochise County ARIZONA emergency dispatch. I have the direct numbers in my phone. Verizon is the only reliable carrier for use in the area, but the signal may be weak or nonexistent in some spots. One of the many services the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon provides at the VIC is public WiFi during open hours (9-4 daily, AZ time) and a Verizon Hotspot.

  The VIC - Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center

The VIC - Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center

Nine miles into Arizona, Portal is the hub of the area. Although Rodeo, New Mexico has a post office and a small diner that has an extremely limited selection of groceries, arguably the only two major establishments are Rusty's RV Ranch and the Chiricahua Desert Museum. The latter is the must see attraction in the area. It sits between Rusty's to the north and the Rodeo proper to the south, directly where Highway 533 heads towards Portal and Cave Creek Canyon. After passing State Line Road you are in Arizona and Hwy. 533 is better known as Portal Road. 

  Chiricahua Desert Museum & Geronimo Event Center - Image from CDM Facebook

Chiricahua Desert Museum & Geronimo Event Center - Image from CDM Facebook

The Sky Island Grill & Grocery will soon become the third Rodeo establishment of note, but it is only just now sometimes opening its doors after being in development for years. It sits just inside New Mexico a short distance from the Chiricahua Desert Museum just before the bend to the northwest takes you into Arizona.

Consisting really of only one intersection, the crossroads of which is a complex known Portal Peak Lodge and Portal Store & Cafe, the tiny eclectic community of Portal, said to be home to more Ph.Ds per capita (retired) than anywhere else in Arizona, is centered on this venue for lodging, good food and, occasionally, live music. Up the hill to the north is the Portal Rescue & Fire where special events and meetings are also held and south down Rock House Road is the small post office and library. The rest of Portal are the residences that stretch out into the desert or up toward the canyon. I overheard one resident in the library mentioning how she feels like there are two communities - the desert and the canyon. This is where two worlds meet; the Chihuahuan Desert of Rodeo and eastern Portal and the foothills and entrance to Cave Creek Canyon, the Coronado National Forest and the Chiricahua Mountains.

  Storefront - Lodge behind left - Image from web search

Storefront - Lodge behind left - Image from web search

You may now be wondering about how many people live in the hamlet of Portal. A web search results in wide-ranging population estimates from 100 to more than 1300. Homes are secluded down dirt roads branching from Portal Road, but I can't imagine where one thousand or more people would reside. There aren't exactly apartment complexes. It is no surprise that the median age is just above my own soon-to-be 54, or that most households consist of just two people, generally a retired couple. It also isn't a surprise that more than 10% hold a graduate degree. What Portal residents have most in common is that many are birders and/or hikers and/or astronomers. And they live in one of the most beautiful places in America. They are also more than a little adventurous and industrious, and choose to live somewhere fairly remote. It is twenty-five miles each way to Animas, NM, where the Valley Mercantile offers hardware, feed, convenience groceries and, thankfully via 24-hour pumps, the closest fuel. About the same distance up a primitive mountain road and almost one hour's drive takes you to the interstate and San Simon, AZ where you can also buy fuel and one gas station offers a pretty good selection of produce, groceries and hardware. Most drive 75 miles northwest, entering New Mexico before returning to Arizona, to the Safeway in Willcox, AZ, or instead travel 60 miles or so southeast to the Wal-Mart in the border town of Douglas, AZ in order to shop. These cities also offer the closest health care services and other needs. Northeast of Portal-Rodeo, Lordsburg, NM is about the same distance as Douglas, but its little grocery store is pretty dismal. Some plan weekend trips 350 miles round-trip to Tucson to take care of many tasks every few months. It's the price you pay to dwell next door to a canyon and mountain range where Elegant Trogons and Blue-throated Hummingbirds fly, without the influx of city folk seen by Madera Canyon and other wonderful places.

  Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cave Creek Canyon

Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cave Creek Canyon

Those, like me, who visit the Portal-Rodeo area and the northeast side of the Chiricahuas have a handful of choices for lodging. Here in Cave Creek Canyon, there are three forest service campgrounds and, beyond where the paved road ends and becomes a primitive road climbing the mountain, there are some excellent dispersed campsites. Those seeking cooler climes may wish to camp at Barfoot or Rustler Park, where the 8000 foot-plus elevation provides respite from the heat. However, like the other dispersed sites, there are no toilets. Those with RVs best stay at Rusty's; only one of the three USFS campsites can accommodate small campers and there are no hook-ups. Many birders choose one of several B&Bs along Portal Road or Portal Peak Lodge. The USFS also has two rental cabins on each side of the VIC. Housekeeping cottages at Cave Creek Ranch are one of the more popular places for birders to stay and it is within walking distance of the VIC. In fact, owner Reed Peters is also the president of Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, and it is at his Ranch that I receive mail, packages and do my laundry. Guests at Cave Creek Ranch enjoy coatis, javelinas, a large population of very tame Coues or Desert White-tailed Deer and a spectacular variety of birds.

  One of the variety of cottages at Cave Creek Ranch - Image from CCR website

One of the variety of cottages at Cave Creek Ranch - Image from CCR website

#89 - Life at the Corral

A home with wheels. Parked at a corral where the forest service has held horses used in ranging cattle wandering the wilderness. Where I have fed the remaining hay to the Coue’s White-tailed Deer that come to drink from the trough at dusk each day. Hummingbirds, Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays and Black-headed Grosbeaks empty my feeders. Western Tanagers dart through camp, their crimson heads and black and yellow bodies creating vivid streaks of color.

 Acorn Woodpecker at The Corral

Acorn Woodpecker at The Corral

Early to bed, early to rise. Neither wealthy nor wise. At dawn I replenish the nectar in the hummingbird feeders at camp before taking the minute stroll down to the VIC to put the feeders there back outside. This morning I was there before 5 a.m. By dusk I return to the ViC to leave one hummingbird feeder at the VIC out for the bats, but put the five others in the refrigerator overnight so as to not attract bears. As darkness envelops the rock faces, I sit beneath the feeders as the Mexican Long-tongued Bats come in to feed. The sound and air movement as they deftly fly around and above me increases as more are drawn to the sugar water, and occasionally I light up my flashlight to see flocks of them dine and dash. They do not perch like hummers, nor even pause. They lap up nectar with an instant tap of the feeder and just as rapidly turn away to bank and prepare for another approach. When I return the next morning the feeder will be empty and the concrete porch below will have a shiny sugar stain.

Last night I had some landscaping to do. I went down to the VIC earlier than usual to plant six Salvia in a flower bed. The heat of the day was fading but I still worked up a bit of a sweat, or at least a thirst. I returned to camp to wash up and grab a beer, but decided to return to the VIC as it my reliable source of Wi-Fi and I thought I’d catch up while I enjoyed the drink in the fading light of the peaceful canyon. 

Walking my path back up to the corral I noticed a wild turkey behind my Wheelhouse. The Mexican subspecies called ‘Gould’s Wild Turkey’ is found here and has benefited from reintroduction efforts. I had seen a lone hen a couple times over the past couple weeks in the vicinity of the VIC and the single female at my camp may have been the same. I set down what I was carrying and tried to approach with as much stealth as possible. As I approached she headed away from me towards my bird feeder area, which is on the far or ‘up canyon’ side of my camp. There I have a chair and small table positioned so I can sit and enjoy the birds and I was able to slide into my seat while watching her peck about the feeding area. To my surprise when she decided to move on she came directly toward me and walked three feet away from my camp chair as if I wasn’t even there.

This morning after doing my chores here at the corral and at the VIC I headed up South Fork Road to do some birding. The manager of the VIC, Mike Williams, has a houseguest from Denver who would be meeting one of my fellow volunteers who lives here in Portal and is well-known in these parts as a bird photographer. I’m an early riser so I had a head start on them and finally met up with them an hour and a half after I began. The three of us headed up South Fork Trail and the highlight of the day for all of us became seeing a White-nosed Coati. We noticed a large group of Mexican Jays were riled up about something and their cacophony drew us to the area. After some time I showed the other two guys the reason. A single Coati was up a tree and the jays were less than pleased. I have had the pleasure of seeing Coatis in Costa Rica, and I know my family has enjoyed the ‘resort tame’ Coatis that are human-habituated in Cabo San Lucas and the Dominican Republic, but this was my first observation of a Coati within the United States. For Scott, the gentleman from Denver who Mike met when they both owned Wild Birds Unlimited franchises (Scott still has his), it was his first Coati experience ever. Interestingly, while Coatis are normally seen in groups, here in the Chiricahuas I am told that they are typically loners. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d finally see one in America, especially since the best place to encounter one is at Cave Creek Ranch just below the VIC where I will now be doing my laundry and receiving mail and packages, but it was a special treat to see one away from bird feeders and other humans.

 White-nosed Coati, South Fork Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

White-nosed Coati, South Fork Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

A Gould’s turkey in camp last night and a Coati this morning? How can you top that? How about a mountain lion going through your campsite in broad daylight? At 1 pm? In 94ºF heat? Yes, that happened. 

Tomorrow morning is the VIC’s annual event - a garden party with exhibitors displaying reptiles or bugs or selling plants or explaining the local rescue service and more. I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for it and today I had to go to Portal Rescue to pick up tables so after my morning birding, which was followed by making myself a guacamole-bacon-tomato omelette brunch, I backed up my truck to unload three large coolers that I had picked up for the event. I looked toward my feeding area and saw a cat. It was walking casually as if a midday mountain lion is a normal occurrence and it owned the bloody place. In a way, I guess it sort of does. It takes time for a brain to process seeing something like this. I may have been slack-jawed, but I certainly froze. Its long lean form was unmistakable but the computations inside my head first yielded a response of ‘bobcat’. It took a few seconds for my mind to rework the equation and realize that bobcats weigh 15 pounds and this animal was probably about 75. Adult male mountain lions can exceed 200 pounds, whereas females are usually closer to 100, so this may have been a small female or a youngster of either sex, but it was a hell of a lot larger than a bobcat, which - of course - is named for its bobbed tail and this one had a long tail. The cat was perhaps 40 yards from me and never once did anything to let me know it was even aware I was there. It was moving perpendicular to my position, crossing the open grass behind the agaves and cane cholla and trees that surround my camp. I walk everywhere with my camera slung over my shoulder just because of chances like this, but since I was unloading my truck and getting ready to pull out, my camera was in my truck. I went to grab it but that was the last I saw of the cougar. 

We have mountain lion sightings in this area at least once a week. My colleague Joan said she saw the rear end and tail of one below the VIC where the two primary RV sites where she is camped lie just a few days ago. Two days ago someone saw one by the campgrounds that are walking distance up the road from me. We’ve had a few recent bear sightings as well including a mother and cubs up the road a few blocks from here. I previously told the story of the dog-hunting bobcat that was reported a month ago at Herb Martyr Campground, which is about five miles up canyon from here. Yet people and dogs are here every day and conflict is rare. 

#88 - HOME IS WHERE YOU PARK IT: Wheelhouse at the Corral

#88 - HOME IS WHERE YOU PARK IT: Wheelhouse at the Corral

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.
— Maya Angelou

'm on my second Dos Equis lager and the first inch of a Romeo y Julieta Romeo #3 Cuban cigar Joel brought me back from his travels with my sister and brother-in-law (Dominican Republic?). It's been a long day. I'm seated at the picnic table outside a Wheelhouse that is now parked somewhere new. My new home is at "the Corral" and, yes, there is the horse dung to prove it. But the corral and adjacent tack house are sadly vacant.

I am perhaps one hundred yards or meters from the V.I.C. Night has fallen and it is serene and eerily quiet. Crickets chirp and the last of the day's birds now rest and give way to the bats and owls. There are trees every way I look and it is yet to become too dark to take in the silhouette of the huge pink and green rhyolite rock faces that too surround me.

The move was not Plan A. Hell, I'm not sure it was my "C" but things changed and I rolled with them. My official volunteer start date isn't until June 1, but I hit the ground running when I arrived exactly one month ago. My training started immediately and really was just two days shadowing one of the two couples who have been here for the past two months and then doing the same with the other couple who leave tomorrow after their third stint volunteering for the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon. However, with the training quickly completed I took on other projects: cleaning, gardening, weed-whacking and making two 170 mile round-trips to Willcox, Arizona for a piece of equipment that was the wrong tool for the job.

The plan that F.O.C.C.C. and I had agreed upon for some time, me staying at Rusty's until the two RV sites were vacated by the aforementioned couples, and F.O.C.C.C. reimbursing me for Rusty's site fee and electricity plus fuel I was using to make the 20 mile each way commute from Rodeo, New Mexico to Portal, Arizona and Cave Creek Canyon. A few weeks ago the forest service came in to do some filling and grading a third site that sits alone above the Visitor Information Center (V.I.C.), but I didn't pay much attention because although I hadn't looked at it myself, the other volunteers believed that my rig was too long (55' truck to trailer; 31.5 feet of it my rolling cabin) to both back/pull in and then maneuver to back the RV onto the pad area. A fourth site was even supposed to be in the works, but it would be new construction and nothing came to fruition. Meanwhile, I didn't mind the commute as it is the scenery and habitat I adore, and it's cool going from one state, in a different time zone, situated in the sunny, hot, often windy and arid edge of Chihuahuan desertscrub of Rodeo to the rocky canyon ten degrees cooler and almost 1000 ft higher in elevation even though the drive seems confusingly level. I love staying at Rusty's and enjoying her swim spa at the end of the day before heading out to road cruise for snakes. But the original offer of covering the cost of a private RV park quickly evaporated into my giving it a college try to shoehorn my lengthy highway dwelling into the former home of forest service horses used for ranging. In the southwest cattle are free to wander and sometimes they become wayward. And, I too, live by 'all who wander are not lost' and was ready to take on that challenge.

Driving into the canyon would be different. A route taken hundreds of times in my truck would be the maiden path in my rig. Steve and Rick, the male halves of the two couples I have trained and worked with, met me outside the VIC at 8 a.m. (AZ time; you ought to try being in two different time zones every single day!) and the process was much less painless than prepping the rig at Rusty's yesterday and breaking down camp and doing the myriad tasks required of making a sedentary RV move again.

For those of you wondering, both the beer and the cigar are wonderful, as is the cool breeze and peaceful sounds of night. Soon it will be pitch black and the dazzling clear sky gazillion stars of the southwest when there aren't city lights for 100 miles will twinkle. Setting up camp has taken up my day. A Blue-throated Hummingbird, appropriately also known as the 'mountain gem' and only second to the Elegant Trogon in target species for Chiricahua birders, tried to get at one of my hummingbird feeders as I was unboxing it so I became motivated to erect feeding stations around camp and then focused on sanitary hook-ups and running solar powered LED rope lights beneath my Wheelhouse to deter rodent visitors. As I was setting up feeders and tidying the grounds I flipped a couple 'snaky' looking rocks and beneath the first was two Devil Stripe-tailed Scorpions so I became distracted with the business of macrophotography.

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So the plan that unfolded was contrary to what my melon had understandably presumed for two weeks, but it has me now living in the heart of Cave Creek Canyon, which for me is the most magical of places. As my day's work completed my new 'backyard' was visited by a group of Coue's White-tailed Deer. This is a dwarf subspecies of the abundant deer of my home Midwest and throughout much of the U.S. Here the Mule Deer is the 'full-sized' deer and the much smaller deer seen every day along FR42 (the forest road known right here as Cave Creek Road, but over its length as the Trans-Mountain Highway). As dusk approached, the little deer eventually gathered in the corral itself – a sight that was amusing at first and then was advanced when I tossed them the last bunch of fresh hay that was left behind.

The two original RV sites - call them the official volunteer housing - are being improved on next week, and I could move into one of them June 1. A couple that is arriving next week to replace one departing couple while i replace the other, would be my neighbors. No offense to them - I haven't even met them yet - but my thinking right now is that I enjoy my privacy. I strum my guitar and listen to demon rock music. Rarely I smoke a damn fine cigar. Occasionally my parrot Jesse screeches. I am certain that I snore. The only problem with 'the Corral' is that I can't pick up the V.I.C.s Wi-Fi. We played with a few booster/extenders today and didn't get them to work. The primary extenders and antenna towers were designed to broadcast the V.I.C.'s Internet *north* toward the 'official volunteer housing'. There is a receiver mounted up a pole by those sites. They can stream Netflix. Right now I walk the lovely little hundred yard trail from my exclusive horse camp to the V.I.C. for access. It will be cathartic to relieve a little device dependency. But it shouldn't be that difficult to get a VIC- supplied booster configured correctly, and adding my own RV cell booster to my Wheelhouse's antenna would be wise.

So this morning I woke in New Mexico as I did for four months last year and one so far in 2018, but I sleep in Arizona for the next few months at least. I'll close this by remind y'all that the images that often accompany these posts are there for the story-telling, but the bulk of my photos are posted on Instagram. There are so many more to see. You don't have to be a user or have an app to just view. Just point your browser that direction [click here & bookmark please]. For those of you who do use the app make sure you also check out my story. The *posts* are primarily 'serious' wildlife pix, but the story has all sorts of shenanigans, plus scenery from the trail and road. Here are some images from today's story as the 'Wheelhouse at the Corral' adventure began.

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