Some would call me a brave man. Foolish; maybe, but I’m not brave. You see, Queen Anne asked me to wake her at 5:00 am so she could see the Super-Blue-Blood moon this morning. It was another 100-year event that she didn’t want to miss. It seems to me that these once-in-a-life things happen often.
At the stroke of five, I did my duty by cracking the bedroom door and tossing a shoe in. When I didn’t hear bear growling, I entered and announced, “It’s started,” then I returned to my computer. Almost immediately, she was at my office door with her jacket on. “A walk? You want to go for our walk now?” I asked.
“Sure. Didn’t you?”
I put on my shoes and grabbed my coat and flashlight and we set off for our morning lap around the park. Venus was high in the east and Scorpio was rising out of the glow of the Phoenix lights. By this time, the moon already had a good bite out of the top as it began to enter earth’s shadow. As we walked, we watched the illuminated section shrink. It takes us about forty-five minutes to complete the two-mile trip and in the dark, I would shine the light before us checking for vermin. It was interesting to see how much light pollution our little community added with many LED ropes placed under trailers being the biggest culprit. They’re supposed to keep rodents from chewing the trailer’s exposed wiring, but I think their effectiveness is suspect.
By the time we got home the moon was only a red glow in the black sky. Rightly named the blood moon, I can see how our ancestors would have feared its omen. Anne grabbed a couple of lap blankets and me, a cup of coffee from the house. We pulled chairs out to the edge of our rear deck and watched while listening to the hoot of a great horned owl coming from nearby trees. We wanted to watch the moon emerge from the shadow, but it lost a race with dawn and to soon disappeared into the trees along the horizon. After it disappeared, we went inside and made breakfast so we could see instant replays on the morning news. All in all, it wasn’t a shabby way to start the day.
After listening to the radio reports of sub-freezing nation-wide temperatures, I donned my blue light-weight jacket and straw hat as protection against the 48º (F) biting chill and left the house for my daily dawn walk around our compound. The sun was lurking behind the Weaver Range and it turned an overhead cloud into a streak of crimson. I couldn’t decide if it was the Arctic Blast or the red sky that stole my breath.
I’m of course telling you this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, but it’s an Arizona law commanding us to brag about our winters just like our law that says we have to tell out-of-state relatives that we’re having Thanksgiving by the pool, regardless of having one. I’m just a law-abiding citizen.
On this morning’s walk, however, I did notice a couple of things that concerned me and another that brought joy. Unlike last year’s wet winter which brought snow to the mountains flanking our east, this winter has been warm and dry. The last measurable rain in Phoenix was August 23rd. That’s not good even though our RV Park is packed with northern people. Octogenarians partying in shorts and loud shirts late into the night dancing the Limbo next to a roaring campfire (do they know we don’t do that here?). All fun I guess, but winter rains are important for us. We count on them for spring wildflowers. More importantly, the mountain snowpack’s feed the streams and rivers where we keep the water Phoenix needs.
The first example I have is this brittlebush. It has flowers which is something that happens in early spring—not at the beginning of winter. In spring the daisy-like yellow flowers cover the brittlebush and they carpet the desert floor, then the heat sets in and the plants shrivel into dry sticks—hence the name.
At the south-east corner of the park, down by the water treatment plant is a large ash tree where our resident Cooper’s hawk nests in the spring. Ash trees in Arizona are always late to turn color, but this one is still green. I don’t know if something in the leach field keeps it green, or the unusually warm weather is affecting the leaves from turning. In either case, it’s not the norm.
When I got to our cactus park, I was glad to see that the warmth has not prevented the columnar cacti—the ones that look like pipes—from sprouting their winter bloom. This only happens during the coldest part of the year and the cup-like flower stay until the nights warm again. Since we haven’t had a freeze this year, I worried that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the flowers. Strangely, neighbors living near the park report hearing melodic noises during last night’s (super) full moon. They all said that they heard the soft chanting of “Whip-it, whip-it good” drifting across the night air.
I’ve been neglecting my social media for a couple of weeks because I was busy in the shop making my entry for the Worlds-Most-Expensive-Shelf contest. It took me a little over a week to make it—which is fast by my standards, and I installed in the closet yesterday. I didn’t make it expensive on purpose. My pocketbook just suffers because of my cabinetry skills.
I made the shelf to hold my Keith Monks Record Cleaning Machine. You probably do not know, I’m a fan of vinyl records and I have a substantial collection. Any serious collector knows the advantages of record cleaners and they care for their records by running them through washers. We geeks know that even new records sound better when you wash the mold release from them, and if you depend on the used market for new vinyl, a cleaning machine is essential.
The Library of Congress uses a Keith Monks for their records and I found mine at an estate sale at a fraction of its original price. I’ve had it in three houses now but I’ve never had a proper place for it. Our shack in Congress has an ideal spot. The previous owners replaced the original air conditioner with a version that sits on an outside slab. That left the utility closet next to the stereo empty, so I claimed it before Anne converted it into another junk drawer. The closet is wide enough for the machine to clear with a half-inch to spare, so I set the machine on the bottom shelf while I thought about the shelf design. After two years, I worked down my honey-do list far enough that I made this project a priority.
It’s possible to machine clean a record while it’s in the closet, but it’s hard to see in the dark—especially in the evenings when I do most of my listening, so my design had to have a slide, and a stout one at that. The thing easily weighs 50 lbs. At our Deer Valley house, I cut a piece of ¾ inch plywood which supported the weight, so I knew the general size I needed.
Last week, I set about measuring and drawing up the plans. I had a sheet of Baltic Birch Plywood and a plank of Cherry hardwood I bought for another project that’s still on the to-do list. There were two pairs of 100 lb slides collecting dust on my workbench. With plans in hand, I grabbed the wood and set out to make some sawdust.
With such a tight fit, I cut the side supports so they would just clear the opening … or so I thought. After mounting the outside rails, they rubbed, so I cut a shim out of scrap quarter-inch plywood to properly space the rails in the opening. After they were in place, I carefully measured the space between them so the drawer would be a perfect fit. I cut the piece of cherry to size and milled box joints on the corners to control the frame size. Then I cut a dado and dropped the plywood into the frame. The width was perfect, but the depth was short. To fix that, I cut another strip of plywood and glued it in place. With that done, my shelf was square and the exact size. All that I needed to complete the project was to sand and finish and sand and finish and sand and finish for the next two days.
On Friday, my shelf was on my assembly table all shiny and pretty and I was proud of how it came out. I carefully measured and installed the rail inserts and took it in the house to slide it in place. It didn’t fit. The rails would insert but they wouldn’t slide in. So I did the most logical thing; I got a bigger hammer. With a lot of pounding it went into place and now it wouldn’t come out. “Maybe the shelf is too wide,” so I sanded the sided with very coarse sandpaper. I gave up after a while and left it till morning.
Starting fresh on Saturday, I shaved each side .05 inches. The slides inserted but they’d stop with a clunk, so I looked closely at them and I saw that during my bout with the big hammer, I had damaged them. They were bent and some ball bearings had come out of their races. Then I saw that the right side was not parallel; when I put the ¼ inch shim in, I misaligned the track so it was binding.
After installing the second pair, the rails worked smoothly, but now the shelf was too narrow from all the trimming. Now I had to take the rails off again and use shims to space them correctly. It was late morning before I slid the shelf in place and worked it in and out. For a millisecond I thought about pulling it apart to finish the sides, but I decided to save that for another year when I get a round-two-it. I’m looking forward to next Friday’s music session when I get to relax while listening to clean records.
We don’t have pets. We settled that quickly in our first year of marriage. Both of us had dogs before, but Queen Anne prefers yappy purse-dogs and I’m partial to working breeds. Neither was willing to compromise. What ended the debate, however, was that we weren’t willing to clean up after a dog, so we settled on houseplants. It’s worked for us so far.
When we had a fenced back yard, we had no worries about stepping on a surprise package, and we like being outside when the weather’s nice. The Congress house doesn’t have fences and in the past month, we’ve found good size turds in the yard. Our association has a strict dog policy mandating that they don’t run free and the owner must pick-up after them, so I deduced that it was the work of a loose cat I see from time to time. I call him Lucky, because we also have coyotes that move through the neighborhood, yet he’s still alive. Even more of a puzzle is that on our morning walks, we noticed that everyone has presents in their yard. Even the streets have droppings. That’s one hell of a busy cat.
When I got home after a meeting last Monday, I saw a large toad hopping from our driveway into the neighbor’s yard. I forgot about the Sonoran Desert Toads because I hadn’t seen one since I lived in Scottsdale thirty-five years ago. They hibernate most of the year and only come out at night during the monsoon season. Their backs carry poison glands that can kill a dog if it bites into it. You shouldn’t try to pick one up because they’re also toxic to humans. After they mate and lay eggs in standing water, they crawl back into a hole and sleep for another year.
It was our neighbor—Jane— that told us about the toad scat. “It couldn’t be, it’s too big for a toad! It’s gotta’ be a dog,” I thought. She was right because the poop easily breaks down in a light rain leaving only the undigested insect exoskeletons which look like a handful of dry oatmeal. Damn! You learn something every day, I hate picking it up, but I can’t blame the neighbors anymore.
When we drove home from the Herberger opening reception last Friday, I put on the high beams and slowly turned into the driveway. I hoped to show Anne one of the toads. We lucked out because she spotted something by the porch stairs. Except it didn’t hop, it crawled. “Is there a flashlight in here,” Anne asked.
“Sure,” I answered and dug around in the console to fish it out. I turned it on and got out of the truck and went for a better look. When I was close, I turned and shouted, “You got to come and look.” She walked over from the truck and saw what I had in the light; she ran up the porch stairs without her feet ever touching them. It was a tarantula, about the size of my hand … If I had LeBron James’ hands. We followed it for a while—me from the yard and her from the porch—until I got bored and handed her the light so I could put the truck in the garage.
After I put Fritz away, I walked through the house and joined her on the front porch. Mr. Spider had made it around the porch as she silently watched. The giant spider acted like it was out for an evening stroll and seemed a bit annoyed in the spotlight. It stayed next to the house as it moved south. When I saw enough, I handed the light to Anne and went inside.
Soon the screen door slammed and Anne bellowed, “There’s a tarantula in my front yard. We’re moving.” Then she went to the desk and put new batteries in the flashlight before going back outside. I don’t know when she came in, because I went to bed. When I asked the next morning, she told me that she watched it until it disappeared into the neighbor’s yard. Then she explained how we were going to seal up the house so they couldn’t get in. Now, she’s an old tarantula hand, they don’t faze her, but she won’t venture off the porch when it’s dark.
Because we’re so snobbish, we don’t have trash pickup at our house. Instead, we toss the garbage and recycle into Fritz and drive up to the local refuse transfer station. It sounds like another chore, but we get pleasure out of dump runs by stopping off for breakfast while we’re out. There are three local restaurants we can choose from, and we choose which one to eat at depending on the hankering we have at the time. The Ranch House is in Yarnell at the top of the pass, and they have the best ham and eggs. The ham is so big it should come on its own plate and I always get a doggie box, because we can get two more meals out of it. Nichols West is our swanky joint and they probably serve the best Eggs Benedict in the county (if not the state). Finally, there’s the Arrowhead Bar and Grill — usually frequented by geezer bikers that are on a weekend road trip reliving the youth they wished they had. It’s the Plain-Jane of the trio, but it’s the most convenient and so we eat there most often.
Saturday was this week’s dump day and after unloading the truck and heading back, we pulled into Arrowhead’s parking lot. It was exactly 8:00 am and some people were standing in the parking lot talking. The door to the dining room had a sign saying it was closed, so Anne rolled the window down and asked the group what was going on. The group was the new owners having just bought the place two weeks ago. The wife explained that the dining area was infested with boxelder bugs, but the kitchen and bar were open. She added that the exterminator just left but the treatment would need some time for it to work. We considered leaving but they told us that the area was under siege, including the other two places that we frequent. Reluctantly we decided to risk it.
Boxelder bugs are beetles smaller than your pinky fingernail, and Wikipedia said that they get their name because they favor the tree of the same name. They winter over in the warmth of nearby structures by invading through cracks and crevices. You may see one or two of them occasionally, but they lay eggs in the millions that hatch at the same time. The swarm forms large mats of bugs on the warm side of rocks and buildings until they dry out. Then they fly back to good tasting vegetation nearby. I don’t know what they eat here because I don’t think boxelder trees grow in Arizona, but it must be good and plentiful, because (with all the rain we’ve had) there’s an exceptional hatch of bugs this year. They’re not aggressive and don’t bite, but like a mosquito, they can leave a mark if they think you’re food.
We’ve seen other insect hatches on our morning walks. White flies, midges, no-see-ums, and those irritating mosquitoes. Early this summer while driving down our street, we drove through a bee swarm moving diagonally to the neighborhood. Until I figured out what they were, I thought it was a dust storm.
We tried to have breakfast at the bar and ordered our usual. As I drank my coffee and Anne her Diet Coke, we watched each other for bugs. Occasionally one would land on our tee-shirt and the other would brush it off. When they served breakfast, we hurriedly gulped it down before ‘the pepper’ moved on the plate. Before we could finish, our waitress came over and apologized and told us that they were closing. “The owners want to say they are sorry by comping your meal,” she said. We left a large tip and thanked them as we left.
On the way home, we had to stop at the Quickie Mart and Post Office. On each of those walls were large mats of bugs with others crawling away from the swarm. My hair is itching just writing about it. We live four miles down the road from town and nary a bug is found. I don’t know what we’d do if they invaded our house. Fortunately, they move on in a week and things go back to normal.
So the next time you think that humans rule the world, just remember insects were around before dinosaurs. Our 7.5 billion world population looks tiny in comparison. I’ll bet there are more boxelder bugs in Congress now. Enjoy your breakfast … watch the pepper closely.
I’ve been reporting about this year’s monsoon season, how afternoon storms roll through here every other day, how they put on a great show, and how they have distinct personalities. Today I want to tell you about last Tuesday’s storm. It was a doozy!
The day started off normal enough, the Queen and I ran into town to do some errands and grab a bite of lunch. As we drove home, we noticed clouds building up in the west and south. We ignored them, because it’s rare that weather comes in from those directions. Since there wasn’t a lot of activity over the mountains that normally affect us, I figured that we’d have a quiet evening. When we got home, I laid down for a nap, but when I woke an hour later, the house was dark. The sun wasn’t streaming in the windows, so I stepped outside to check the skies. Everywhere I looked were storm clouds in every shade of gray; white to black. The most menacing patch was over the pass where Yarnell is. As I watched for a few minutes, I realized it was heading in our direction.
I’ve been having fun and some success shooting storms as they move in this summer. I was playing junior storm chaser and already had a couple of, as I call them, Mitch Dobrowner—light images, and here was another chance at dramatic weather shots. I grabbed my camera and walked down the street to the open desert. As I began clicking off frames, the darkest section of the front cleared the mountain range and began behave oddly. As it forced its way through the pass, it formed a vortex and began dropping in elevation. It looked like the spirals coming off Formula One wings during rain races. Behind the main thrust, the mountains disappeared in a curtain of black rain. Since the storm was closing fast, I started walking back to the house. Half way home, I turned for one last shot, and as the wind picked up, I could feel drops on my skin. When I got back to the house, I told Anne that we have to think about finding a safe place to hide should the storm spawn a tornado.
The full force of the wind hit just as we were checking out the kitchen pantry. We watched the front tree blow back and forth brushing its limbs against the porch for a few minutes before we heard a pounding on the roof and kitchen sky light. It was too loud for rain, and we went out on the back deck we confirmed that hail was pelting the house. In a matter of minutes, the hail began to turn our red-rock drive to white, then just as quickly, a heavy rain started and washed the hail away. Even though we were on the leeward side of the house we got soaked because the wind whipped and swirled so the rain was coming in under the roof.
For a moment, I thought about getting my rain jacket and microphone out so I could pose like one of those idiot Weather Chanel reporters do in a hurricane, but I decided not to because I’d have to stand out in the wind, rain, and lightning. Besides, I don’t have a waterproof microphone. In a matter of minutes, the back yard turned into Lake What-a-muck-a.
Meanwhile, out front the streets were fast flowing, knee-deep rivers from curb to curb. The swift flowing water would have knocked you down if you attempted to wade across them. The streets were designed to drain to a wash that cuts through the park, but it was running beyond capacity and couldn’t take any more run-off.
Within an hour the wind and rain stopped. The thunder and lightning continued for a while but finally died as the storm moved south. Anne and I ventured out on the front porch and watched the water slowly recede uncovering sand bars. Neighbors ventured out of their homes and compared notes. Those that have rain gauges said they had 2-2.4 inches for the hour-long storm. I would guesstimate the wind gusts a conservative 60 mph. All of our water ran down the dry creeks to Wickenburg where the evening news had flooding stories.
While out walking the next morning, we were surprised there wasn’t more damage in the neighborhood. A handful of trees had broken limbs, some ocotillos were knocked over and some of the wash’s engineering suffered, but there wasn’t much structural damage. I had to mend some skirting, but that was it. Mostly the people we saw were busy shoveling dirt from the streets back into their yards. Not bad for the storm of the year.