Watching for water on the road

December 26, 2013

Part two of a series:

A Desert Highway

A Desert Highway

The clouds were darkening when we entered the restaurant near our home in Sun City West, Arizona. A few minutes later, the summer monsoon storm hit us. Winds were so strong that they knocked a patron to the sidewalk as she and her husband tried to reach their car just outside the restaurant door. Then came the rain—so heavy that a stream of water curb high coursed down the street.

In an hour, everything was quiet, and the flooded streets were dry. We drove home as though nothing had happened.

Early the next morning, I took my regular bike ride on quiet desert roads. At one spot, near the village of Nadaburg, a stretch of the road thirty yards wide was covered with sand and debris a foot deep. I could see the relevance of signs that usually seemed so anomalous on these desert roads: “Watch for Water on the Road.”

For hundreds of years the people who lived in the southwestern deserts understood the climate: hot and dry, but with two seasons when rains would water the earth. They had learned how to use this limited precipitation to grow the food they needed and they had developed complex irrigation systems that sustained densely populated communities for generations.

Suddenly, these urban societies collapsed and, as we now know, with starvation and internecine conflict. Has the climate that wreaked havoc on these early desert societies changed so that we can plan our lives confidently? Or can we expect new periods of crisis? Are we wise enough and our regulatory systems sophisticated enough that we will be able to survive new periods of drought and flood?

These are the questions that meander through my mind as I and my bicycle wander over the quiet byways of the western world I love so much.

In their book The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell us About Tomorrow, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam answer, in a disquieting way.

They base their climatic meditations on the painstaking work of a wide range of earth scientists, people who study trees, ice crystals extracted from glaciers, sediment in places like San Francisco Bay and ocean waters off of Santa Barbara, and archeological ruins across the West. They explain carefully, although in a largely nontechnical way, how their colleagues can develop detailed chronologies of climatic conditions and compare them with human history.

They also discuss how variations in the number of sunspots affect what happens on earth how changes in the orientation of the earth toward the sun affect periods and places that are wet and dry and hot and cold. Especially interesting to me are their descriptions of two oceanic and cosmic factors that largely control climate and weather.

The “seemingly random and unpredictable swings in climate [in the Pacific Southwest] are largely brought about by periodic changes in the Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it, producing phenomena known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)…ENSO events are typically six to eighteen months in duration, whereas PDO phases last two to three decades or more” (51).

Ingram and Malamud-Roam reach three conclusions.

(1) Over the past 1,500 years, the climate of the American West has alternated between extended periods of intense drought and relatively well-watered interludes. Serious flooding and severe wild fires are part of the pattern, and changes can be sudden and catastrophic.

(2) The period since the Spanish occupation, even though it has seemed arid, is for the most part one of the well-watered interludes. Although there have been droughts in the recent history of the West (1927–1935 and 1987–1992, in particular) and floods (1861–1862, when the entire Central Valley of California was under water), these events have been short-lived manifestations of the western climatic pattern.

(3) The primary regulatory system in the American West since the early 1900s—the building of dams—has worked well but is nearing a crisis point. There is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power generation or useful water storage as early as 2021” (196). When that moment comes, ordinary life in cities from Las Vegas to San Diego will be threatened in the most serious ways imaginable.

The authors of The West Without Water suggest a course of action for people throughout the West, actions that could help us avoid the catastrophic collapse of a way of life that most of us take for granted. Now in my octogenarian years, I may not live long enough to experience this climatic apocalypse. While time remains, I hope to continue as an open-road cyclist, especially in the West.

But even for me, living as I do in part of the West that is currently wet, life has to change.  More about this next time.

Padre on Horseback

February 20, 2013

The Padre on Horseback: A sketch of Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., Apostle to the Pimas, by Herbert Eugene Bolton (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1963, 1986; originally published 1932)

Bolton-PadreThe person I nominate to be the inspirational example for multi-day bicyclists in the desert southwest is Eusebio Francisco Kino, “the padre on horseback,” historian Herbert Eugene Bolton calls him, who devoted most of his adult years to constant travel across the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico and southern Arizona.

In 1932 Bolton published a slender book which he described as a “sketch” of the “apostle to the Pimas” whose “well authenticated feats in the saddle” leave southwestern cowboys “aghast and almost skeptical.”

A chapter entitled “Hard Riding” summarizes this endurance on horseback. In 1695, already past fifty years of age, Kino made a 1,500-mile journey in thirty days, averaging thirty miles a day. In 1697, he made another seven or eight hundred mile journey in thirty days and the next year a trip of similar length in twenty-five days, thus averaging twenty-five or more miles per day. In later years, his averages sometimes reached thirty to nearly forty miles per day.

Since Bolton began his scholarly career in 1902, at a time when travel on horseback was still part of the ordinary experience of most people, we can trust his evaluation of the impressive character of Kino’s horsemanship.

It must be remembered that this Jesuit missionary was riding through rough country, without roads, and that he had to find food and water for himself and his horse. Many of the nights, he and his travel companions would stretch out someplace on the desert floor to find sleep and rest.

Furthermore, these were business trips for Kino, to adopt a modern term. He stopped along the way to preach to the people he met, counsel village leaders, baptize, and sometimes marry.

Kino died in 1711 when he was nearly seventy years old, “having spent twenty-four years in glorious labor in this Pimería, which he entirely covered in forty expeditions, made as best they could be made by two or three zealous workers” (Bolton, p. 78).

During my forthcoming week bicycling with PAC Tour, a dozen companions and I will ride from sixty to eighty miles a day for six days. Because bicycles are far more efficient than horses, we’ll go twice the distance in a day as compared with what Kino could cover, but perhaps expend less energy than he did. Like Kino, we will be exposed to the weather and experience the world around us with an immediacy that never comes when traveling in motorized vehicles.

On days when my energy wanes, I will think about the padre on horseback in the hope that his example of physical prowess, spiritual zeal, and humane values will help me continue my ride with renewed energy.

Kino’s life and work will be most evident on the first and last days of the tour as we travel through the middle basin of the Santa Cruz River valley between Tucson and Nogales. We’ll see churches at the two northernmost sites where Kino established missions: San Xavier del Bac, which still functions as an active church for the Tohono O’odham people, and Tumacacori, which for more than a century has been a National Historical Park. We will also travel close to two other locations where the Jesuit mission system operated.

As I bicycle along on well paved Arizona roads, enjoying the luxuries of modern life and PAC Tour’s provisions, including hot showers and real beds at night, I will think of Eusebio Kino, S.J., who died as he had lived, so Bolton tells us, “with extreme humility and poverty. . .His deathbed, as his bed had always been, consisted of two calfskins for a mattress, two blankets such as the Indians use for covers, and a pack-saddle for a pillow” (p. 78).

Borderlands Bicycle Tour

February 8, 2013


High fog, 33 degrees! Just the morning to think about my annual week of bicycling in the warm winter sun of southern Arizona!

This year’s tour will travel through border towns: Nogales, Patagonia, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone, Sierra Vista, and Tucson. As I drink my Peet’s coffee, looking out at Portland’s bleak sky, one thing is clear: I have to spend the rest of the month in serious training—of my legs and lungs, and also my heart and mind.

Long ago I decided that one way to build coherence into my travels is to focus attention on two or three themes that are illuminated by the places through which I ride. For a retired academic like me, that means reading up on places where I’ll be cycling. Guidebooks help a little. Even better are materials that discuss the history and culture of the region. This kind of study helps me understand and more fully appreciate what I see while riding along through unfamiliar countryside.

For this year’s trip, “Border to Border” (week two of PAC Tour’s Desert Camp for 2013) my reading will explore three themes.

Eusebio Kino, S.J., and the chain of missions he established in the Sonoran Desert between 1685 and 1704. The three northernmost sites are strung along the road between Tucson and Nogales: San Xavier del Bac (still functioning as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, Tucumcacori (for more than a century a National Historical Site), and Guevavi. Although I have owned books about this system of missions for well over a decade, the time has come actually to read them, and I’m making a little progress.

An ever greater need, however, is to learn more about Kino himself, and with the help of Powells Books in Portland, two volumes are on their way. Because this reading connects my two blogging interests, American Religion and Aggressive Cycling, my background reading will likely influence columns on both sides of keithwatkinshistorian during the next few weeks.

Nabhan - RainPre-industrial Patterns of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. When Spanish conquistadores and priests traveled northward through the desert in the 1500s and 1600s, they discovered thriving indigenous civilizations that were well adapted to the arid climate. The interweaving of mission agriculture and Native American development of a food supply is an important part of the history and culture of this part of the world.

My guide to this topic is Gary Paul Nabhan, whose academic career at the University of Arizona has focused upon the ethnobotany of the region. Some of his books, most of them at least half read, are on my shelf, and I hope to pick them up again.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, his family is Arab/American, with continuing family connections in the Middle Eastern deserta. His interest is scientific and cultural, and he has spent most of his adult life in close communion with desert people, especially the Tohono O’odham (referred to in some of the literature as the desert Papago).

Nabham also was instrumental in establishing one of the most interesting organizations dealing with food and nutrition. Based in Tucson, it goes by the name Native Seeds/SEARCH. This organization specializes in preserving indigenous fruits and vegetables and also food-producing plants and trees brought by early Spanish colonizers that have since become indigenized.

In cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains its own farm near Patagonia where it cultivates many of the seed crops that it conserves and keeps alive. I hope to visit the farm on this year’s tour as I bicycle along the Nogales-Sonoita Road.

LoganThe Lessening Streams. The critical issue in sustaining life in arid lands is the availability and effective use of water. One source of supply is the river system, which in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert consists of tributaries of the Gila River (itself, a tributary of the Colorado). In preparation for last year’s tour, I bought The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River by Michael F. Logan, professor of history at Oklahoma State University, whose family homesteaded near this river in the 1880s.

I read the first 50 pages last year and now must try to read the 200 remaining pages. One reviewer of the book describes it as  “one of the finest studies of the history of a particular watershed that I have read.”

There’s much to read in the next two weeks as I train my mind for “Border to Border.” And, of course, the bodily side of training, already much neglected in this wet Northwestern winter, has to be intensified soon.

These next three weeks will be filled to overflowing.


Bicycling in Arizona’s Sky Islands

October 21, 2010

The southeastern corner of Arizona is a broad, elevated plateau punctuated by small mountain ranges. They have been likened to islands in an archipelago, separated by desert and grassland rather than by water. In the early 1960s, Weldon Heald gave this 70,000 square mile territory a name: the Sky Islands.

In 1937, Aldo Leopold wrote this description of the region: “These oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near being the cream of creation.” More than half of the bird species of North America travel through this isolated section of the United States.

When I bicycled through, with PacTour’s Desert Camp 2009, however, all that I perceived was bone-dry land, with a little cactus and many blackened shrubs, alternating with resplendent fields of thinly spaced native grass, two feet high, waving gently in the desert breeze. After the week-long ride, I read more deeply into the history and geography of this region and wrote a travel narrative: Sky Island Soliloquy: Body Dissolving, Spirit Strong as Always.” It tells about a week of challenging and satisfying cycling with the premier travel company operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo.

This week of their annual Desert Camp is called “The Chiricahua Challenge” because it includes cycling to the high point in the Chiricahua National Monument, 6,870 feet in elevation. As the oldest rider in the group, the week provided me the opportunity of learning a new skill: how to come in last and feel good about it. After the trip was over, I learned that chiricahua means wild turkey. Instead of  the romantic title “Sky Island Soliloquy,” my travel narrative might better have been entitled “An Old Buzzard in the Land of Wild Turkeys.” To read the full story, including “the truth” I learned, click here.