After the Summer Rains
ASV Visit October 2006
I flew out on the usual British Airways flight to Phooenix, collected a hire car and had an early night. The next morning I drove straight to the village where the after-effects of the Summer rains were plain to see. The vegetation was much greener and more prolific, it could almost be described as 'lush', and new plants had established themselves around the house and in the driveway. The Summer monsoon season occurs around August and until recently was much lighter than average. The last two years have helped replenish the aquifers and have brought relief to an area starting to suffer drought symptoms.
Not quite after the Summer Rains
The area is classified as desert but its annual rainfall is on the upper limit of what would normally qualify as a desert. Two rainy periods, one around August and one around January enable plants to survive and flourish. The August rain occurs mainly in the late afternoon when clouds build up during the day and then produce heavy, localised downpours. They die down at nightfall and can leave the sky clear and the stars bright. This picture was taken during my visit showing that this year odd showers were still occuring in October, but the rest of the time the skies were blue.
Not only did the Summer rain produce lots of new plant growth but the animals benefitted too. This large grasshopper posed conveniently on the kitchen window and when I drove to Animas to visit the hardware store the road was littered with them and it was impossible to drive without running many of them over.
Three horses are often seen wandering through the sky village. Apparently they belong to a couple with a nearby plot of land and are supposed to be fenced in. However, they often escape and graze in the village. Some of my neighbours aren't too keen on them in case they trample on things left outside or eat their plants. I don't mind them and they seem quite friendly. Whilst I was there the owners rounded them up and promised to repair their fences.
I visited the bird feeding station run by David Jasper several times and was delighted to find lots of Humming Birds around. many of them have irridecent plumage and give lovely flashes of colour as they fly. As they flit around your head their wings buzz like oversize bumble bees.
There are lots of birds of prey around who live on the small animals living in the desert. Red-tailed Hawks are among the most common and will often be seen perched on roadside poles and fences. With a litttle patience it's possible to get quite close to take photographs. This one posed for a short while after I pulled over to take a closer look.
Flying with Cleo
As usual I managed to fit in a flight with Cleo from Rodeo Airport. I had intended to fly several times but Rick and Cleo were heading off on holiday so we only flew once. It was interesting to see the village from the air and to note the spread of vegetation around the creek bed where it crosses the desert. In this picture the straight road is Eagle Path that runs down one side of the village. The curved road running from its near end is Newton Way and the Green Witch house is just off it. You can see that we are in the area with more vegetation.
David Sung's Observatory
David Sung had been staying in my house over the Summer whilst he supervised the building of his observatory on Norrick Peak, a nearby mountain available for ASV residents to set up their telescopes. David's observatory was largely complete and his 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien had been installed when we visited it. Access is via a steep and rough track requiring four-wheel drive.
My last Arizona horse-riding had been with my daughter Heather and Linda from the local RV park. Unfortunately, Linda had moved out of the area so I made enquiries to see if anyone had taken over her stables. The new RV owners gave me a couple of numbers to try, one of which was Chris Wilbur's. She has moved to a small ranch just south of Rodeo with her husband Bill, where they keep a real menagerie. Horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, cockatoos and iguanas fill the grounds and house. Chris agreed to take me riding but emphasised that they are not a dude ranch and don't offer instruction.
When I arrived at the appointed time Chris was ready to go with three horses, one of which would be ridden by her neighbour Janet who came with us. The ride was confined to the level desert along the edge of the mountains and was easy and most enjoyable.
Stone Monuments near Rodeo, NM
One of the strange sites we saw whilst riding was a set of stone monuments, supposedly created by an English doctor who came to New Mexico to recover from a nervous breakdown. He lived alone in a small shack and spent his time collecting large stones and building several geometric shapes. This one is a spiral large enough to walk a horse into. Having moved a few stones to landscape the house on my last visit I could appreciate how much effort had gone into these structures. I hope it made him feel better.
The next week Chris and I went riding again. This time we trailered the horses to the entrance to Horseshoe Canyon then headed into the mountains. Following the creek we passed through a broad, grass-covered valley where miriad butterflies flew up in front of the horses. Their shapes and colours changed as we went higher. As the valley narrowed we followed the creek bed until we were ready to turn back. One day when we have the time we hope to find a way across the mountain into Cave Creek.
I got up in the early hours of one morning to take a look at the sky and as I stood in the doorway I was aware of something dark in the underside of the alcove above my head. Using a night-vision scope I could see it was a roosting bird that was clinging to the stucco. I took a couple of pictures through the scope then went back to bed.
A little later I got up again and found the bird still there. It was getting towards morning so I decided to take a flash photo before it left. As I was getting ready the bird woke up and flew off in a panic. Or at least it tried to fly off but headed into the house instead. It flew from perch to perch in the house, sometimes clinging to the wall, sometimes the blinds. Eventually it settled on the floor and had a walk around. After taking several pictures I guided it out through the door and it flew off.
Over the next few days it returned several times with a friend and started pecking at the stucco making several holes. It's since made a lot more which will have to be repaired.
Uisng bird guides to identify it didn't prove as easy as it should and I couldn't find a picture or description that was 100% convincing. In the end it was labelled 'some kind of Flicker' but I've yet to show it to an expert who will undoubtedly tell me it's something very obvious and common.
A Chance Meeting
Rodeo Tavern is one of the local places where you can get a good meal and a friendly welcome. ASV residents often meet there on a Friday evening so I went along and soon found myself in conversation with Randy Norrick. Randy is a local landowner and realtor; it is his mountain that is available for us to put up telescopes. He was soon telling me about a venture being set up at a nearby airfield by John McAfee who founded the computer virus protection company. John is a self-styled 'Sky Gypsy' and his passion is flying what we would call microlights and what are classed as sports aircraft in the USA. His plan is to establish a series of bases in this part of the world to make a large circuit with accommodation stops in interesting countryside. Randy suggested I go and see their operation.
The Sky Gypsies
The next day I went to find the Amigos de las Estrellas airfield and to look for the Sky Gypsies. There was supposed to be a flying school building plus other hangers but it wasn't clear where to go so I assumed the Sky Gypsy van was a good clue and knocked on the nearest door. It turned out to be John McAfee's house and he invited me in for coffee and a tour of his aircraft.
A few of his friends and family were there too, all waiting for evening and the wind to drop so they could go flying. I was invited to wait with them and to take a flight with one of the instructors. As it happened, the conditions didn't become good enough so I was told to come back in the morning for my flight.
In keeping with the gypsey theme, John McAfee is refurbishing a fleet of airstream caravans to act as student accommodation for the flying school. The chap doing the work showed me round them and they are all different, having been fitted out to their original owner's personal taste. One belonged to a retired sea captain and was fitted out with polished wood and brass. Another had a psychedelic sixties interior with colourful spotted upholstery. Apart from not connecting a gas supply for safety reasons they will be restored to their original condition.
The Next Morning
The next day's weather was better although still a little windy. On arriving at the airfield I met Bruce my instructor who took me through a very thorough pre-flight check of the aircraft we were to fly. It was a tandem two-seater similar to the one shown here and is made by the French company, Aircreation. The model we checked out was the Tanarg with a high-speed wing but its battery was flat so we took a training aircraft instead which was not as fast. This didn't concern me and we had a most enjoyable flight. Bruce did the take-off and landing but I was soon doing the flying. It takes a little getting used to as the sense of the controls is reversed compared to a conventional fixed wing aircraft. For example, to turn right you push the control bar left and vice versa. To go up you push forward not pull back. I found left and right soon came naturally but fore and aft required more thought. The critical time is when flaring to land. A conventional pilot pulls back on the controls, a microlighter pushes forwards. In close proximity to the ground this is not a mistake you want to make, which is why Bruce handled the landing.
All Good Things come to an End
After we landed back at the Sky Gypsies and put away the plane it was time for coffee and a chat. Bruce is trained as a biologist and has been using the slow-flying ability of the ultralights to observe ant colonies on the move. Apparently, they have well-defined routes covering long distances and linking large anthills. The ultralight makes it possible to explore the extent of the networks much more easily than can be done on foot or even on horseback.
Having said goodbye to the Sky Gypsies it was time to pack and head for home. As I left, the contractors were just moving in to put the finishing touches to Newton Way. The summer rains had been especially heavy and had provided a good test for the roads. Newton Way had stood up pretty well but needed a little bit of repair work.
The drive back to Phoenix was pleasent with a stop at Casa Grande to buy presents. The BA flight was comfortable and on time as usual.