Monday, May 10, 2010

Don't Tread on Me!

[As always with any of my tales, just click on the photos to view them full size. I hope you enjoy the journey!]

When I saw the words "Signal Road" in an off road trail book, anyone would've thought I was a bird dog the way my ears perked up. Like with most things in life, there's a reason for that.

When my mother and grandmother began researching our family history, they were given lots of letters that were kept over the years, decades--and even centuries. One of them piqued my imagination.

Back in the 1880s, a bachelor in the family decided to pack up and head West to find his fortune. He wrote a letter back home that was postmarked "Signal, Arizona Territory", and that was the last anyone ever heard from him. When I saw "Signal Road" in that trail book, I had to know if the road led to a mining town of the same name.

It did, although Signal has been a ghost town for many, many years. It didn't take long for the ore to run out, but my imagination showed no signs of turning loose of this little nugget. I thought it would be fun to follow in an ancestor's footsteps almost 150 years later. Time has passed, and Denis and I have traveled this dirt road several times--usually with company-- and always experiencing something special. (One year it was seeing sand-colored drifts of downy Gambel's quail chicks scrambling away from the Jeep.)

Speaking of special, one of the things that makes Signal Road one of my favorite drives is the fact that you can't take it for granted. You see, one of the things that must be done in order to travel down Signal Road is the fording of the Big Sandy River-- at least three times. Sometimes it's been dry for months, and the only thing you see in the river bed is deep soft sand and a curious steer keeping a close eye on you.

Other times, heavy rains in the desert have washed the dirt road completely away and gobbled up large chunks of real estate. There's no two ways around it: you have to stop, get out of the vehicle, take a look down six feet or so into debris-filled water, and then turn around and go back the way you came. Travel for the folks who live here must be interesting at times.

Then again, once in a while you may get lucky and be able to ford the Big Sandy when there's just enough water in it to make the experience fun. My knees may be decades older than the rest of me, but the part of me that counts will always be a child who absolutely loves to splash through any water I find.

Recently Denis and I had the great good fortune of having a dear friend come to visit for a few days. Mike is like the brother I never had, and what makes it so wonderful is that Denis truly loves spending time with him, too. We three have many things in common, some of them being a love of unpaved roads, photography, and having adventures. Our latest trip down Signal Road would be no exception.

At first we seemed to be on some sort of botanical safari. We stopped a few times to photograph flowers, like the paperflowers to the right. Brittlebush may have sheer numbers when they bloom in the spring, but I've never seen such a striking shade of yellow on a flower before. One small paperflower bush simply blazes with a light all its own.

We were even a bit stumped. We kept running into the same small flowering shrub that had stringy orange straw on it. I could tell that the "straw" had to be some sort of parasite, but I'd never seen it before, so I knew it was something I'd be looking up once we returned home.

I began looking through my reference books when we got home, and I found out that the small shrubs were all sweetbush, but I couldn't find the name of the parasite.

Denis came through trumps on this identification because as soon as I told him the shrubs were sweetbush, he got online and asked the search engine "What's the parasite that grows on sweetbush?" The answer? Dodder.

The more we looked, the more flowers we discovered. Denis and Mike clicked away when we found big clumps of prickly poppy. Ocotillos were slender whips tipped with blazing red. Everywhere we looked, there was something else waiting to be seen.

Finally, the critters began making themselves known. The dirt road wound around a large, dark brown rock outcropping. At the very top, I noticed a rock that was the perfect profile of a bird of prey. I didn't think anything of it. Arizona has plenty of rocks, and I'd seen Owl Rock, Eagle Rock... this was just another bird head-shaped rock.

Until we rounded the bend and I looked back to see the magnificent body of a red-tailed hawk to go along with that perfectly chiseled head. We stopped for a photo op-- and I goofed. There wasn't any way for me to get a good shot of the bird, but instead of letting Mike take the photos and getting copies of his, I slowly opened the door so I could maneuver and.. the hawk flew away. No one got the shot. Needless to say I'm still aggravated with myself about that, but at least we did have a Western Kingbird who obligingly perched on a bit of barbed wire for his close-up.

What always gives me a rush is how so much of the beauty of the Sonoran Desert is hidden from immediate view. Sure there can be mountainsides literally covered with wildflowers in spring, but oftentimes the loveliest of wildflowers still remain hidden from view unless you get out and walk around.

The parts of this journey down Signal Road that thrilled me this time are filed away under the phrase "Don't Tread On Me!" Yes, a flag with those words on it was the first Navy Jack of the United States, but in the case of Signal Road, if you're out walking around it also means "take a look where you're going before you put those big feet down!"

I took the photo to the right to try to show you the scale of some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert. That dark brown lump at the bottom is the toe of my shoe. The tiny purplish flowers just above it are miniature woolstars. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see minuscule white flowers above and to the left of the woolstars. These little lovelies might be all of a half inch tall. See them from the window as you're driving past? Yeah. Right. If you do stop to wander around a bit and you don't watch where you're going, you'll be committing murder with almost every step you take.

I simply have to show you another of my favorite "bouquets" to the left. Once again, there are the miniature woolstars, but to the left are my favorite wildflowers: the blaze of the tiny white desert stars. They lie so close to the desert floor that they blend right in-- unless you're looking for them.

For those of you who read my tale about journeying down the Bloody Basin Trail, you'll remember that we met something very special out in the middle of the trail.

The same thing happened to Denis, Mike and I on Signal Road. Once again, there was a snake sunning itself right smack dab in the middle of the trail. Denis stopped the Jeep, knowing that I'd want to photograph it. He didn't realize that Mike was right there with me until he happened to glance in his side mirror. (Notice how he stays in the Jeep when snakes are involved?)

Here was what was relaxing in the road:

It's a 3 foot-long Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. If you can tell a rattler's age by the number of its rattles, it's about five years old. Yes, it's alive, and yes, it was keeping an eye on us. The next photo will prove to many of you that I'm crazier than the proverbial bedbug...

...and so's Mike. Fortunately reducing the size of the photo for this post may keep many of you from screaming and running away from your computer. Viewed full size, it looks as though Mike is much closer to the snake than he really is. And yes... I was the photographer.

The rattlesnake was keeping a much closer eye on us than that gophersnake did a couple of years ago. I would've loved to be as close as Mike was, but I thought it prudent to stay a bit further back. If we'd both crowded the snake, it might've gotten nervous, and Denis might've seen just how high Mike and I can-- or can't-- jump!

It was a wonderful day out in the desert. We even managed to be chased by a dark cloud or two and get a few sprinkles of raindrops on us.

We took lots of photos, wandered around looking for treasures (and found a few), got to cross the Big Sandy River, and the best thing of all? We enjoyed each other's company.

You can't ask for more than that.


  1. Sounds like a great Day Cathy and you've done a fabulous job of finding and showing us the beauty in your desert. We don't get nearly so much wildlife in ours.

  2. That's a near-perfect day. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Beautiful pictures, and now we've seen Mike, the friend you and Denis enjoyed having as a houseguest so much. But, I'm with Denis - I would've stayed in the Jeep, thank you very much.

  4. A five-star Kittling post!

    You can't ask for more than that. :D

  5. Bernadette-- there may be more there than you think. Desert critters are pros at hiding themselves. The Sonoran Desert *is* full of wildlife, perhaps because it's a subtropical desert.

    Beth-- You're welcome!

    Barbara-- Well, I know Denis would appreciate the company! LOL

    Dorte-- I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Dorte!

  6. Wow, that was great fun. I blew up every one of those photos and pretended I was there. I've never seen woolstars before. They are incredible.

  7. Margot-- The wildflowers I've found here in the desert can quite simply blow me away. Perhaps the lack of water is what makes them so unexpected.


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!