Crested Saguaro Picture of the Week

Queen Anne and I left The Boulders—the subject of last week’s post—continuing west, and within a mile, we reached the side road to Cochran. It goes north to the ghost town on the Gila Riverbank. Unfortunately, nothing remains except a few foundations and several beehive ovens used to produce coal for the mines. However, the ovens are on the north side of the river, and there isn’t a crossing short of wading through quicksand. I want to reshoot them, but the trail coming in from the north is too much of a challenge for Archie.

The other notable thing about the Cochran intersection is that the Florence-Kelvin Highway becomes paved. That meant we could roll down the windows and pick up the pace, although I’ve never heard of anyone who has ever been in a hurry to get to Florence. The long, straight road follows the gentle western-facing slope into town, and you can’t help but notice how the vegetation packs the desert. Groves of saguaro, cholla, prickly pear, staghorn, and ocotillo make it treacherous to hike cross-country, but there were still cattle out there picking at sparse patches of grass.

The day was late, and there were no impressive mountains around, so I’d given up on photography and was paying attention to the road when I saw something in my periphery that made me skid to a stop.

“What is it? What did you see?” Anne said, waking from her slumber.

“I’ve seen pictures of these, but I’ve never seen one in person. I got to get me a photo,” I was excited and up in the pipes. I grabbed the camera and walked a short distance from the road. Among the dozens of saguaro standing around like they were at a cocktail party was my first crested saguaro. In the evening sun, aglow looked like it had put on a shawl and got a fresh hairdo like it knew I was coming to take its portrait.

Crested Saguaro - My first sighting of a crested saguaro out in the wilds of Pinal County.
Crested Saguaro – My first sighting of a crested saguaro out in the wilds of Pinal County.

Crested saguaros are rare, and no one has a conclusive answer for what happens. Some biologists say lightning strikes, while others guess freezing or genetic mutation. According to the Saguaro National Park Web page, of the thousands of cacti there, only 25 crested ones have been identified. Like humans and snowflakes, the saguaros are unique individuals. I could build a career by photographing them, but better photographers than I have already done that. However, you can bet I’ll collect every crested saguaro I see, like baseball cards.

Click here to see a larger version of Crested Saguaro on its Web Page. I hope you enjoy viewing it. As you know, Thursday is Thanksgiving, so Queen Anne and I will be surprising a lucky Deneys somewhere in Arizona. If we have too much fun, next week’s post might be late. We’ll be writing about a new road we’ve traveled, so it’ll be worth the wait.

Until next time — jw

Ray Tailings Picture of the Week

Queen Anne's directives - From her royal coach, Anne delights in pointing the way we should've gone.
Queen Anne’s directives – From her royal coach, Anne delights in pointing the way we should’ve gone.

Picking a new back road to explore, photograph, and talk about is easy for some months. I may have seen a place that piqued my curiosity, and I’m ready to go. Other months are hard. I’ll pour over my maps, hoping to find inspiration. This month was different. When Queen Anne told me that she wanted to visit an ex in Florence (1), I knew right away which trail we’d be talking about in November. Of course, we’d pick the Florence-Kelvin Highway.

The highway between Florence and Kelvin is a 34-mile shortcut between the towns. Although it’s 13 miles shorter, driving around the Tortilla Mountains and through Superior using the paved highways is faster. I’ve partially traveled this road before when I photographed the Cochran site—the ghost town where only the coke ovens remain. They paved sixteen miles of the highway between Florence and the Cochran Road. It’s a long gentle grade rising 1500 feet. Then it winds through the Tortilla Mountains, past a couple of ranches, before descending into Kelvin—a small community along the north bank of the Gila River. Although there may be some wash boarding between gradings, the dirt is broad and doesn’t require a particular vehicle.

On this trip, Anne and I drove east to west, so we’d be somewhat closer to home. From Congress, we drove two and one-half hours to Superior, and most of that time was spent getting to the other side of Phoenix. In Superior, we turned south on County Road 177 to Kelvin—a community so small it doesn’t even have a Dollar Store. Something that Kelvin does have is the Ray open-pit copper mine currently managed by the Mexican mining company, Asarco. And it’s where I photographed this week’s featured image that I call Ray Tailings.

Ray Tailings - A 500-foot tall inside out mountain of mine tailings.
Ray Tailings – A 500-foot tall inside out mountain of mine tailings.

This operation is so massive that you see it on the east side of the highway for a couple of miles. The central pit—Jimmie Luck Gulch—looks like it could be used to mold giant Devo hats (“Whip it good“). In the middle of the Dripping Spring Range, the mineworkers have dug a negative mountain with terraces that the behemoth trucks use to haul ore to the surface. Digging that much dirt out of the ground to remove the copper, you have to stack the sterile waste somewhere, and that’s what I photographed for this week’s issue. It’s the mountain stacked up—inside out. The minerals found beneath the surface colors each layer. To me, the 500-foot pile looks like a gay-pride wedding cake.

It’s an impressive bit of technology to see, but it also causes environmental problems. Because the rocks and dirt are devoid of nutrients, unless scientists intervene, it will take centuries for plants to colonize the tailings. So that makes them susceptible to accelerated erosion. With each heavy rain, bit by bit, the pile makes its way into the Gila River and eventually the Sea of Cortez. That’s not good for the downstream people who rely on the river for clean water (Arizona Copper Co. vs. Gillespie).

You can see a larger version of Ray Tailings on its Web Page by clicking here. I hope you enjoy viewing it. Next week, we’ll continue along the Florence-Kelvin Highway, and I’ll show some of the natural beauty we found there.

Until next time — jw

(1). For those of you that live in another state, or don’t get the joke, Florence is the location of Arizona’s State Prison. She doesn’t really know anyone incarcerated there, but that’s not as funny.