Whenever I go touring historical houses, I always head for the kitchen. There I will find where the real work was done, and where the folks that did it hung out.
Although this Southern mansion had an elaborate, curving, walnut-carved balustrade in the front of the house, this simple staircase in back, divided for male and female servants, seemed more honest to me. More edgy, if you will.
Sweetie, if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re just taking up space. ~Florynce Kennedy,
feminist, political activist~
When I chose the setting for the third Pegasus Quincy Mystery novel, Fire in Broken Water, which centers around the ongoing Water Wars in Arizona, I knew parts of it had to be located at Montezuma’s Well.
The Well is surrounded with mystery and magic. Who expects to see this blue-green water in the midst of the high desert terrain of the upper Verde Valley? As you climb up 500 feet to the summit of the limestone sink, white-gray limestone cliffs are peopled with spare junipers struggling for survival, along with some spindly creosote and scrub oak.
In the spring, and later in the fall after the monsoon rains you’ll find a colorful display of desert wildflowers including yellow prickly-pear cactus, blue lupine, and orange globemallow. There’s also a variety of birds: raptors such as the kestril and red tailed hawk, scrub blue jays, the black crested phainopepla, and tiny bushtit.
Once you reach the top, look over the edge into a blue-green lake. Montezuma’s Well was originally an underground basin, fed by freshwater springs. When the top collapsed, the Well was formed. It has Indian ruins around the inner edge and another cave down at the bottom, near the flow-through channel to Oak Creek below.
Perhaps because of the warm spring water (a constant high 70-degrees in temperature), the Well is home to five species of critter found nowhere else in North America, including a unique type of water scorpion. No fish, though, because the water is too high is carbonation–over 80 times the level of normal freshwater–and contains arsenic leached from the surrounding rock formations.
The depths of the Well have been explored by scuba teams recently, and their findings are fascinating!
The Well was named by early settlers, but was never seen by the Aztec leader Montezuma. However, it is held sacred by the surrounding Indian tribes. The Hopi call it “sun spring,” the Yavapai, ʼHakthkyayva or, “broken water,” and the Western Apache, “Water Breaks Open.” The last two refer to an unusual feature of the well, an underground tunnel, or swallet about 150 feet long that acts like the safety drain on your sink, allowing the overflow water from the well to pour out of solid rock into an irrigation ditch on the outside of the formation.
There, the air is cool and moist–over 20 degrees cooler than on top–Columbines and wild watercress grow in the mossy waters.
At this point the water is diverted into an irrigation ditch over a thousand feet long, built Indian tribes centuries ago and still used today for cattle ranches downstream. The high limestone content of the water has coated the sides of the canal, similar to the sides of a swimming pool.
Here, take a walking tour of Montezuma’s Well to experience the stark difference between the arid land at the top of the Well and the moist-creekside environs at the bottom.
More than 90% of the springs in Northern Arizona have been lost as the result of underground pumping, too many wells depleting the ground water and periodic droughts. This sometimes sets neighbor against neighbor in the struggle between development and natural beauty. Montezuma’s Well dwells in the midst of this dispute, quiet and serene over the centuries.
Photo credits: Top picture by Marine 69-71 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 Remaining pictures of the irrigation ditch by: Dana Hunter and Fredlyfish4 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
The most frequent questions I get about the title of the second Pegasus Quincy novel are:
How do you pronounce Tavasci?
That one is easy: Tah-vas’-ski
Is Tavasci Marsh a real place? It certainly is!
I’ve lived in the Verde Valley for many years, and Tavasci Marsh is one of my favorite places to visit.
In addition to all those golden butterflies hovering around the rabbit brush, over 245 species of birds have been found there, making it one of the premier birding areas in Arizona.
The marsh has an interesting history. With only 10-12 inches of rain per year, Arizona counts any water source as precious, and Tavasci Marsh is the largest fresh water marsh in Arizona outside the Colorado River Basin.
It was formed when the Verde River formed an ox-bow, a sharp, almost U-turn in the river, and, then capriciously, returned to a straighter course. The water left by the abandoning river created Tavasci Marsh, which continues to be fed by Shea Spring and by underground seeps from the river.
The marsh was a food source for the Sinagua Indians who built a large hundred-room pueblo on the top of a nearby mountain, now managed as Tuzigoot National Monument. Their first dwellings were dated about 1000 AD, and it wasn’t until almost 900 years later that the first white settler arrived.
He was a cattle farmer in the 1890s, whose name, Tavasci, was given to the marsh. He drained the wetlands so that he could raise beef cattle to feed to the copper miners working in the nearby boom town of Jerome.
The owners of these copper mines, which stripped incredibly rich copper ore from Mingus Mountain, eventually acquired the marsh. The huge copper smelters in Clarkdale were only a few miles beyond the marsh on higher ground. This geography, coupled with the fact that mining operations were so imprecise in the early days, caused Tavasci Marsh to become highly polluted with heavy metals, from slag and tailing run-offs.
Even today, there are high levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead and other poisonous metals in the soil and even the insects of the marsh. A restoration project has been proposed to change this unfortunate state of affairs!
Spring cat tails at Tavasci Marsh
When the mines closed down in the 50s, the land reverted to a more natural state, and beaver had a renaissance. Their dams turned the dairy farm lands back into a wetlands marsh.
The desert mesquites and acacia trees were drowned by the rising waters, but they provided an ideal environment for cat tails. Today, much of the marsh is inundated by these tall marsh plants, so much so that open water is increasingly rare.
Doug van Gausig has been called the Bird Man of Tavasci Marsh, and sometimes hosts field trips to Tavasci Marsh during the annual Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival, affectionately known as the Birdy-Verde, each year. Here you can find a number of migrating waterfowl, raptors such as the brown and golden eagle, blue and green herons, and animals such as river otter and, of course, beaver and muskrats.
Doug has ventured into Drone Photography, and has several great YouTube videos that give you another perspective on Tavasci Marsh:
In this one, you can see a river otter investigating a water sampler:
In short, Tavasci Marsh seemed the perfect place to stage a murder, so I did!
Every now and then I get an email from a reader with a picture of Flycatcher Road or Tuzigoot Monument, saying “We found it!”
I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out the fascination of Downton Abbey. Certainly the clothes. How marvelous! And the interweaving of the upper class with those who care for them. But one of the biggest draws for me was watching the vehicles change.
They lived in the Age of Transportation, going from horse carriage to rail to automobile to airplane. How exciting to see all of these for the very first time. Can you imagine, having been limited to the speed a brace of horses would go, to all of a sudden be catapulted into the 20th century with a ride in a brand new automobile!
I’ve been reading a memoir of an extraordinary person, whose life parallels the folks at the Abbey. In many ways her life was as exciting as theirs. The author? Agatha Christie. I was first introduced to Dame Christie by watching reruns of M.A.S.H. There is a wonderful episode where Hawkeye and B.J. are reading her newest mystery, only to find the last page missing. The story follows their efforts to find out exactly what happened.
Agatha had always been a story-teller. As a young only child, she invented a group of Kittens, and told elaborate stories of their adventures. Later on, of course, she became famous for her wonderful series of mysteries involving both Hercule Perot (who bears an amazing resemblance to her second husband) and Miss Marple.
In a way she was like Conan Doyle in that both characters were old when she invented them, with little chance to grow and change. She tried several times to shift into other venues, but her publishers kept pulling her back. They knew what the readers wanted!
She traveled with her first husband around the world. Followed her second husband to archeological digs all over the middle east. Lived through both world wars. An amazing lady!