The wind had increased and radically changed direction. We stopped work on the firebreak, looked down the steep hill and saw the unthinkable. The wildfire threatening Yarnell, Arizona, previously obscured by smoke, was shockingly close and racing up the draw toward us at unbelievable speed.
No one can outrun a wind-driven wildfire leaping up a hillside. We had no vehicles to extract us. We’d hiked miles to a planned firebreak site with just the tools in our hands and on our backs. Our only hope was immediate fire suppression from the air. Eric, our leader, was yelling into the radio.
Burning embers began to pelt us. “Clear an area! Shelter in place!”. We all knew that this was the worst scenario. The unnerving sound of high-revving chainsaws ripped the air as we dragged brush clear of a space forty yards across. We spread fire shelters, thin aluminized tents, as the fire approached. The scene was hurried but orderly. Rookies climbed into their shelters first helped by the more senior firefighters. We lay head-to-head with our feet radiating like spokes. The fire was moving fast. Maybe it would pass over quickly. Shouts of encouragement competed with the wind and growing roar of the fire.
I spoke last night with a friend who’s in a cruel fight with cancer. Thankfully, she was feeling better than usual and sounded upbeat. We talked about books, politics, a funny movie she’d seen and the antics of a few mutual friends. She was gracious, calm, magnificent.
Rosalie and I prayed for her. “So, what would you do in her situation?” Rosalie asked me.
One answer emerged today while riding my familiar loop to Yarnell. I was feeling aware and grateful–grateful for the morning’s cool air, the light and shadow moving over the high desert, the gift of this lovely, lonely road. A string of impressions; placid thoughts with no clear thread streamed quietly through my mind as the landscape opened like a blossom ahead. A ride can sometimes seem like listening to good music.
Iron Springs Road west of Prescott–it belonged to me today
The prehistoric earthworks at Newark, Ohio cover almost five square miles…the largest ancient monument in the world. Over one hundred such earthworks were built over five centuries by mysterious early Americans.
Reconstructed effigy pipe
“My father has received many honors. Today’s will be the greatest. Flickering light and choking smoke filled the ceremonial house. My eyes watered as his bones blackened, then cracked and settled deeper into the coals. Only inches below the clay-lined fire pit lay the ashes of his father. If the monuments I build prove worthy, my son will one day stand where I stand. He will hold my stone pipe, my most intimate possession, home of my animal spirit; source of visions and wisdom…as today I hold my father’s. His will never be smoked again. When his funeral fire was kindled, I broke it.”
I rode to Sedona for breakfast on Sunday and tested a new, cut-down-for-summer windscreen on the K-bike. Downtown was just waking up, but several restaurants were serving early customers. I value the opinion of locals. Michelle, just opening her kiosk for ‘Vortex Jeep Tours’, urged me to ride up to the Mesa Grill at the airport. It pays to ask. I enjoyed great huevos rancheros, an interesting fly-in clientele and the best elevated views of Sedona’s famous red rocks.
From the Sedona airport
As I strolled through Sedona’s art galleries after breakfast, I saw large numbers of fancy, hand-made kaleidoscopes. These abound in every pot-infused, new-age town perforated with vortices. I squinted through several varieties.
Always curious about the apex expression of any craft, I asked a sales clerk if she’d ever seen a kaleidoscope made for two eyes; able to produce psychedelic images in three dimensions. She answered, “No.” I thought I might be onto something new and interesting.
Then I went to the web.
“I fed the macaws pulverized maize–no fruit remained this far from home–and tightened the hide straps that secured their cages. With painstaking care, I’d raised twenty Scarlet Macaws from hatchlings to an age that they could safely travel the long route to buyers in the north. Esteemed for their beauty and in much demand for religious ceremonies, these birds have become astonishingly valuable. I’m still a young trader, but my reputation for delivering healthy specimens has produced appreciative repeat customers. I trade for turquoise, fine beadwork, copper or gold. Occasionally I’ll take something else in trade; a glazed vessel or woven basket, but only if especially elegant.”
“Only two birds remained as I neared my final stop, the prosperous village with two cliff houses that overlooks a wide spot in the river. Its headman had requested two live macaws, two bundles of feathers and cacao. With difficulty, I’d kept two especially fine birds in reserve through all the prior weeks of trading. This headman is particular, he has become my friend..and his oldest daughter is very beautiful.”
Day 4 Tombstone to Safford My plan was to roll on some respectable miles in the two final days of the trip. Yet with a map crowding my plate of ribs in Tombstone, I was tempted by some shorter routes home. In the quiet of the morning, still undecided, the routines of loading and checking the bike reawakened my travel urge. I stuck with the longer route.
Good thing. It led to a memorable nose-to-nose encounter.
Day 3 Tubac to Tombstone Today’s short ride gave me extra time to explore mythic Tombstone. During the height of its silver-fueled boom, the latest Paris fashions sold from the back of wagons on Allen Street. Tombstone was like no other place in the universe. No wonder folks like the Earp brothers were drawn to it. Enjoy this scene from the movie, “Tombstone”.
The relatively uncommon organ pipe cactus
Day 2–Ajo to Tubac The desert is alien, harsh and mysteriously interesting. It conceals more life than we realize. I got a new insight into the essential nature of the Sonoran Desert–and all deserts–on my first stop on day two at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument south of Ajo.
Trace from my FollowMee.com Cellphone App
This is my go-to ride for Arizona’s winter months. I’ve done some version of it three times since 2009. “Rider“ magazine published my first account, “Half Busted in Old Arizona” in January 2010 (the article’s side topic was the then-new and still tedious US economic recession). That seems ages ago. An update shouldn’t be too repetitive. I took this ride in February 2016, logging 950 miles and spreading the trip over five leisurely days to better savor southern Arizona’s perfect winter weather.
Wegener (left) and companion in Greenland on November 1, 1930. They look cold here, but a couple of weeks later, both were frozen solid.
Waiting out a winter storm in a small tent on Greenland’s icepack, German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener was bored. With only his diary and a world map to help pass the time, he pondered the apparent puzzle-like fit between the continents of South America and Africa. Though not the first to notice this curiosity, Wegener became the first to seriously study it. For years he compared the geology and the fossil record in the corresponding areas of the two continents. He published papers on his findings before World War I, and in 1915, a book, “The Origin of the Continents and Oceans”. Wegener proposed that all the continents had once been joined to form a single super-continent that he named Pangaea (all earth). He advanced a theory that the present continents had broken apart and, through a poorly explained ‘continental displacement mechanism’, slowly moved to their current positions.
The big-name geologists in their universities predictably ridiculed the presumptuous German ‘weatherman’. Nobody else paid much notice. Wegener’s theory sank into decades of obscurity.
A century later, Continental Drift, plate tectonics (Wegener’s poorly explained continental propulsion system) and a proto-continent called Pangaea are taught to every budding geologist. Wegener is a scientific hero. He’s my hero. He receives credit for a colossal, apparently obvious, but brain-bending insight; a reality staring the world in the face for centuries. For this I create the “Wegener Prize” to be awarded to other seers in future posts. What else is staring us in the face? Maybe I’ll pitch a tent…