I started the walk before dawn, collecting clouds as I went. Wispy ones darted in and out of the red rock formations; others nestled in puddles after midnight rains. The pine needles had felted into heavy mats that softened the ground beneath my feet. They created soft nests for windfalls of storm-blown pine cones.
The prickly pear cactus were loaded with buds of gray-green fruit that would swell to magenta chalices in the fall, luring families of javelina to gorge on the ripe fruit. I might walk down the road then and see scatterings of red seedy scat.
The Pyracantha were loaded with caper-sized green berries that would turn red later in the year, a bonanza for urbanized deer who would jump five-foot fences to gorge on the orange-red berries.
In the pre-dawn hush, the birds weren’t feeding, just quietly murmuring in the trees like a group of dorm buddies waiting for breakfast. The flies would wait until full sun, but the mosquitoes were active. A red welt swelled on my wrist and I picked up the pace.
As the sun burned the morning air gold, a male cardinal swooped from a shaggy-bark juniper, its feathers a carmine red. In the scrub oak, a nearby rival acted serenely unimpressed.
Overhead, a phainopepla’s black-and-white wingtips flashed semaphore signals as it landed, bending the top needle-branch of a pinion pine.
The dog walkers hadn’t arrived yet, but one skinny marathon runner adjusted a knee brace and jogged painfully down the hill. I waved to early morning construction crews who were setting up for the day’s work. A scruffy bicyclist wearing a military green scrub cap, old T-shirt and cargo pants puffed heavily as he made the hill top. He gave me a grin of co-conspirators, out in these early hours.
I shared the morning with the animals. A calico cat jumped from a stone wall for a scritch behind one ear. A gray Kaibab squirrel gleaned sunflower seeds from the feeder almost too high above its reach. A cottontail rabbit elongated its hops into leaps as I grew closer.
I didn’t have to own anything to be a part of that glorious morning, and yet I felt immensely wealthy.
The whole world spread before me, free for the taking, when I slowed down and paid attention to the gifts the day offered.
Water is valued in Arizona, and especially in the Verde Valley because it is so precious and life giving. But it can come in floods and sheets of downpour that tax the ability of the red, sandy soil to absorb it.
On a walk in the aftermath of a particularly heavy rainstorm, the damp clung to my shoulders. Chain saws cut down swathes of broken limbs and the city street sweepers made the roads passable—at least until that afternoon when the storms were predicted to roll in again.
The neighbors were out kibitzing about the storm damage. “I like the rain, but not so much,” said one. Another groused, “You ought to see my backyard—it’s a mess!” “It just whooshed down, all at once!” said a third.
A friend of mine likes to do his own bit terraforming with this gift from nature. Each morning after a good storm he is out with his pickup truck “harvesting” the red dirt drying in rippled patches across the hillside roads. In this way he both keeps the roads passable for others and is gradually building up his hillside in terraced plots bathed in sunset colors of ochre and terra cotta.
I once knew a man who lived on the edge of Wet Beaver Creek near Rimrock. He came into a bit of money and decided to improve a property at the edge of the creek. For weeks the ‘dozers plowed and shifted and mounded the soil just so, building a fine peninsula in the creek for his house to rest upon.
It was lovely little cottage, really, with wonderful sweeping 360 degree views. But it was an unusually wet season that year, and each storm undercut the newly formed bank a little more. Finally one day the mother of all storms hit, with two inches of rain in less than an hour.
The last I saw of that house, it was sailing merrily down a flood-swollen torrent of red muddy water. He never did rebuild, and the last I heard, the land was up for auction to another unsuspecting tourist wanting a piece of red rock country.
Those same sunset colors of pink and red and orange give depth and movement to the rock formations in rainy weather. After a storm, the Bell Rock sandstone formation is transformed by the water. The rock turns ominously dark, soaking up the moisture. When the storm is over, the rock releases the moisture in a cascade of short-term waterfalls that reflect the turquoise blue of the rain-washed skies overhead.
The trees also look cleaner after a storm, more green. A texture of pine cones and gray-green juniper berries drop after the rains to form windrows on the road surface. They skitter under the tires of passing cars and make walking uncertain at best.
Rocks wash down on the road, softball-sized pieces of rock that roll across the roads in crests of storm-driven water.
The drive up Oak Creek, from Pump House Wash to the canyon rim can be particularly treacherous as boulders as big as washing machines are undercut by the rains, and drop suddenly down on the road. They create sudden roadblocks to unwary drivers, cracking windshields and crushing fenders.
In red rock country, weather warrants our close attention. It is a shift of energy, a reminder of our human helplessness in the face of chaos. We can try to stand up against it, but water has its own way.
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.