I found this old bucket in a Gold King Mine back lot. For those of you who haven’t been to Jerome, the Gold King Mine is a three-acre graveyard for all things mechanical: old ice cream wagons, belt-driven band saws, trucks and cars and tractors that are slowly melting back into the environment, one rust chip at a time.
What fascinated me about this arrangement, attached to a working windmill by that pipe you see, was the fence down the middle of the bucket. It provides much-needed water to two critter enclosures, neatly dividing the water between them, share and share alike. And the burros seem to like it just fine that way!
To love and be loved is to feel the sun
from both sides. ~David Viscott
When I set out to write the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, I knew the first one, Death in Copper Town, had to take place in a mining town on the slopes of the Verde Valley. To make it realistic, I had to include the Ailanthus trees ubiquitous to that part of the Valley.
Apple trees in the old pioneer orchards make a surprise appearance in an upcoming Pegasus Quincy mystery, Silence in West Fork, to be published later this year.
Two trees on opposite ends of the Verde Valley bring together the spirit of the Verde Valley. One, the Ailantus altissima or Tree-of-heaven, populates the hilly streets of Jerome in the foothills of the Black Mountains to the south. The other, the humble apple tree, grows wild on the upper banks of Oak Creek Canyon to the north. Both have become a part of my life in Sedona.
First, the tree of heaven. If you travel up the mountain to Jerome in the spring, you’ll catch the “burned peanut butter” fragrance of golden blossoms. In the summer, the lacy green of the leaves frames the view across the Verde Valley like a Victorian lady’s parasol. Later in the fall, you’ll be surrounded by the crimson, sumac-like leaves drifting down to the worn limestone cobblestone streets of the old mining town.
The tree first became popular in eastern cities, because it was easy to grow and survived almost any kind of pollution. It became the title of Betty Smith’s book about family life in the tenements at the turn of the century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The air in the mining towns of the West was just as polluted. During the heydays of the copper mining, the smelter smog killed just about every living plant in Jerome. With the local pine and juniper decimated to shore up the mines, nothing remained to hold the soil and hillsides eroded. The town was endanger of slipping down into the Verde Valley below.
The “Tree of Heaven/Paradise Trees” that abound throughout the Upper Verde were part of a “re-greening” of the Verde Valley by Phelps Dodge when mining operations ceased in the 1950s.
Enter the ailanthus. It is an alien tree, first arriving in America from China in the 1700s. The tree is a survivor, thriving in the sulfur dioxide-infused soil of Jerome. It is also a selfish beastie, secreting a substance in its bark and leaves that, like the black walnut, inhibits growth of any other plants in the area. But the ailanthus likes the crumbling soil and arid conditions of Jerome, and it gives life-sheltering green to a town that was barren and dark after the mines left.
That being said, it’s not without drawbacks. According to Jeff Schalau, head of the master gardener’s program in the Verde Valley, “Most people start out liking the tree of heaven. It grows with little water, tolerates alkaline soils, and it creates shade. Most trees of heaven begin to produce seed at about 10 years of age. Male or female flowers are usually produced on separate trees.
“So, the after the 10 year honeymoon period, seedlings begin to come up everywhere. In addition, if the tree is damaged or cut down, then it begins to sprout from the roots. The tree of heaven also produces allelopathic chemicals that preclude other plants from successfully growing nearby.”
The second, the apple tree also came from China, arriving in America in the 1600s. It hitched a ride with the pioneers to Sedona a hundred years ago. Here it thrived on the banks of Oak Creek canyon in small orchards planted by early homesteaders. They would harvest the crops and trek wagon loads of apples up the steep canyon to Flagstaff to satisfy the hungry timberland workers living there.
Some years ago I helped my sister-in-law locate and map all of the old homesteads spread throughout the canyon. We found almost twenty old orchards, together with old trails once used by mountain lion and bear crossing the canyon.
The big predators are gone, but the trees remain. Many are on the outskirts of the tourist camp grounds: Manzanita, Pine Flats, Banjo Bill. You’ll see the cracked cement footings of an old cabin, some renegade lilac bushes, and these old craggy trees. If you look sharp you’ll spot them, interspersed in pine and fir stands near the water or tucked in at the edge of a penstamen-filled meadow.
Some have reverted to native stock, producing small sour apples, but others are loaded with green fruit, already ripening with a dusting of red. Come late September, they produce the best eating apples in the world, crisp and juicy, with a sweet snap as you bite into them.
Well almost the best. I think that distinction has to be the ones I stole from the neighbor’s orchard next door in the small South Dakota town where I grew up, a descendant of Scandinavian immigrants.
And in a way, these two trees, the apple and the ailanthus, are pioneers, too. They came from the other side of the earth and have adapted to surroundings very different from their native soils in China.
They are a legacy that makes the Verde Valley a very special place for all of us.
My father was a rock hound, so I developed my love of geology early. He’d bring home a new find and hand it to me proudly.
“This is schist,” he’d announce. Or, “Take a look at this snowflake obsidian!” His excitement was infectious, and I got excited, too.
So when I moved to Sedona, I felt right at home. There are a lot of rocks in Sedona. Most of them are red. Most of them have names. And over the years, they have become old friends, familiar and beloved.
At the Grand Canyon, or Bryce, or Zion, the formations have majestic names like Bridge of Sighs or Bright Angel Trail, or El Tovar, but in this red rock country, the names are more humble: Coffeepot Rock, Submarine Rock, Rabbit Ears, Lizard Head, Teapot, and the best of all, Snoopy Rock.
Sedona has a population of only fifteen thousand people, but over three million people visit every year. Sometimes foreign tourists come in tours, not speaking a word of English, but with guidebooks in hand. They’ll collar bystanders on Main Street and point to the page.
“Snoopy Rock? Where Snoopy Rock?” they demand.
At dusk, sometimes the sun will break out under brooding purple clouds illuminating one red rock formation after another. Amazing, memorable, never the same. It’s a great traveling light show, roaring across the horizon.
From the viewpoint at Airport Mesa, there’s a grand panorama of red rocks. People will start gathering about sunset, just to participate, together, in the magnificent vista.
Some the rocks around Sedona are Hollywood famous: Cathedral Rock was in any number of Westerns. On Highway 179, Bell Rock greets visitors coming into red rock country, looking just like, you guessed it, a liberty bell.
My favorite rock, though, is Slide Rock. I met this great place long ago, when I attended high school in Flagstaff. Back then, our favorite ditch day spot was the apple-orchard picnic ground and slippery red sandstone at Slide Rock.
There, a 30-foot slide of snowmelt water tumbles through a narrow, moss-covered chute dumping sliders into a pool of frigid water. The wise locals wear old jeans, because the chute rips apart ordinary swimsuits with one slide.
Right now, in winter, the red rocks peek out under a dusting of snow. But in my dreams, red rock country is forever summer under a full moon. Then, the red rocks glow white in the warm summer nights. Eerie and unforgettable.
About four years ago I decided to write a mystery series based on young rookie sheriff’s deputy who lived in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
The Verde is a unique place, an oasis in the middle of the Arizona desert, with one major river and five tributary creeks.
It is on the flight path between Mexico and points south, and the entire US and points north, which means seven kinds of hummingbirds, golden AND bald eagles, and 300 hundred + other birds to watch!
It has a huge cement plant, a salt mine, pecan orchards, wine vineyards, a thriving artists’ colony, and some of the most magnificent red rock scenery in the world.
PLUS, a real live ghost town.
In short, a milieu crying out for a mystery series to be created. I wrote five books in rough draft, and then circled back around to start rewriting and publishing. The first, DEATH in COPPER TOWN, begins the journey for my heroine, Pegasus Quincy, with her adjustment to life as a cop, in an environment very different from her native Tennessee.
As a Valentine’s gift to you this week, 2-12 through 2-16, please accept a free Kindle copy of this debut novel through Amazon using this link. Enjoy!
When I began planning the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, my prime impetus was to share the beautiful Verde Valley with the world. The area is a paradox, a small valley with one major river and five named creeks in the middle of a state, Arizona, renown for its deserts.
The first novel, Death in Copper Town, introduced the fictional small town of Mingus, located in the mountains that were made famous during their copper mining heydays. The second, Blood in Tavasci Marsh, continues exploration of this setting bymoving down the hill to the Native American Indian Ruins at Tuzigoot and the marsh below it.
Setting can involve time, as well. What better time of year to visit a ghost town than at Halloween? In this second novel, Mingus prepares for the holiday in typical small town fashion: Pegasus visits the old mining cemetery, Isabel prepares for the Day of the Dead ceremonies, and the entire town, shops and all, decorate for the holiday with skeletons and pumpkins.
Setting involves not only plants, but animal life. Blood in Tavasci Marsh concerns a young man in love with the beauty of indigenous butterflies, his brother who is breeding redbone coonhounds, and Shepherd’s cat, who becomes more than a match for Pegasus.
Weather is another ingredient of setting. The second novel in the series takes place in the volatile autumn season in Mingus, where one day is sweltering hot, and the next brings an ice storm that paralyzes the Valley. Both will influence how the story develops and resolves.
Characters in a novel, no matter what the genre, must be developed three-dimensionally in order for the story to work. But setting is no less an integral part of story development.
Join me as Pegasus Quincy continues to grow as a person and as a law officer in the novel Blood in Tavasci Marsh!