It seemed like a most unusual love affair. John’s brother Les is a real Iowan. Loved his state, his job, his town, his home, his life. The least likely candidate to catch a bad case of wanderlust. But that’s exactly what happened. I believe the blame might lie with his better half, my sister-in-law Mary Jane. From here on out be advised, her real name is Mary Jane, but she also answers to Jane, Mary or MJ, so as I’m telling the story, it’s all the same gal, just by whatever I feel like calling her in that sentence.
|Les and his famous mustache…|
About 10 years ago, Les was having some pretty serious back issues. This just wasn’t his style. He didn’t call in sick, he rarely took vacations. Goodness, he was needed at work, he couldn’t be gone, and he was used to heavy, physical labor. But his back and leg didn’t get better, it got worse. He needed surgery. I believe 2 surgeries were required. Major bummer for a workaholic with a less than average amount of patience. Sorry Les, but after 75 years, somebody had to say it. And as kindly as I could.
So surgery fixed the problem but recovery took it’s time and a toll. He was sick to death of working jigsaw puzzles, and everything and everyone was getting on his last nerve. Mary Jane decided Les needed a change of scenery. They were in the middle of a nasty Iowa winter and getting out, doing things were impossible. MJ suggested they go away for a few days and visit some friends who no longer spent their winters in Iowa. Blasphemy. Well at times Mary (she knows when these times are just right for a subtle push) can be a bit assertive herself. “Les, you’re bored, you’re crabby and we can’t get out to do anything. We’re going away. Period.” Alrighty then.
|Called a Prickly Pear, when it blooms the flowers are fluorescent…|
They had some friends who spent some of Iowa’s endless winter in Arizona. That sounded like a plan. Les conceded, well maybe a day or 2 would be ok. (Kind of a long ways to go for 48 or 72 hours but you have to take your victories where you can get them when you’re married to a Van Berkum. I should know). They spent a couple days with friends enjoying weather and landscapes as opposite as Iowa’s deep black soil and white winters. Guess what? “Hey Mikey, he liked it!” Not long after Les and Jane got back, their friends called with this enticing tidbit. “There’s a place for sale near our house. “Are ‘ya interested?” Maybe. They flew back to Arizona, looked at several places and bought one a couple days later. But it was already mid-March, that’s when the snowbirds start leaving Arizona, not moving in. So it would be about 9 months before Les and Mary would retreat to their winter retreat.
|Aptly named the Hedgehog Cactus…|
Les and Jane stayed 7 or 8 weeks that first winter. And the little Iowa boy who seemed the least likely to love winter anywhere but Iowa grew to love the weather in Arizona during the winter. Each year they’d go a little bit earlier and stay a couple weeks longer. Les didn’t miss the blizzards, below zero temps and snow-blowing twice a day at all. He looked forward to the large group of new and old friends they had in Arizona. And one of the things they all had in common-enjoying better weather during the winter.
|Eye in the sky, one of many around Yuma. This blimp was grounded when we drove past…|
About 8 years ago was when I started hearing stories from MJ about Les and his fascination with ‘the desert.’ He and some of his cronies (ok, let’s just call them his crew) would go exploring. Maybe the desert looked boring to some, but to Les it held all kinds of neat secrets. Places that needed further inspection and examination. Roads not much more than 2-tracks, but took him to caves, old mines, landscapes with different and bizarre cacti, animals, snakes including rattlers. Yikes. He bought books and studied cacti and areas of the desert, always learning and respecting it’s sheer magnitude. Exploring pretty much everything which wasn’t found in Iowa. He loved it! Les learned early you never, and I do mean ever, go to the desert by yourself. Always more than one person in a car, and more importantly, always more than one car. (This after his first ‘desert car’ a Tracker had to be towed 80 miles).
|The entrance to my day in the desert, 2017…|
Often Les went with his crew, other times the gals would go along. Exploring the surrounding desert got to be a pretty regular occurrence. Les learned when the desert would change and virtually come alive. Usually the month of March, the cacti get kind of show-offy and start blooming like crazy. I’m very disappointed to miss blooming time in the desert. Mary Jane says it’s simply stunning and pictures don’t do it justice. My problem? I really don’t need to be gone from Michigan in March. We have some decent days, snow starts melting, the days get longer and life outside is sometimes bearable. Barely. I need to get away sometime between January 15 and March 1st, which feels like about 6 months. Minimum. Honest. February is the longest, shortest month we have.
|Thumb Butte, always around…|
After we arrived, Mary Jane (our social director) put things in perspective. Dentist first, everything else to follow. My initial visit with Marco, the Mexican dentist, included 3 hours of prep work, we then had a week to fritter away before the crowns and bridge were ready. What else could we do besides sight see and eat, right? Let’s not forget the Margarita’s. Jane’s an expert concocting those little gems.
I don’t know why I just assumed it would be Les, his crew and John heading out to the desert. Call me dumbfounded when Les looked right at me and asked, “do you want to go out to the desert with us?” My quick wit was warping through my head with the speed of sloth and I nearly blurted, “aren’t we already in the desert?” Luckily I caught my slow self and said “sure” instead. Les talked to some of his neighbors (mostly Canadian couples) and by the time the desert day dawned on me, we had 4 Jeeps heading out to-not even sure where we were going. But I was included.
|Little sentries lined up…|
Since I hadn’t planned on a day in the desert with Les, I wasn’t prepared. Keen sandals on my feet when everyone else wore socks and shoes. Les’ jeep is a two door and pretty high off the ground. Mary Jane’s had both knees replaced yet she somehow managed to nimbly hop up behind the front seat, snake her way to the other seat, while John noisily hoisted this little heifer with some of his blood, sweat & tears. And some bad words. I might have mooed. And snorted. And swore. It wasn’t pretty.
|They seem to multiply like bunnies…|
After driving out of Yuma (my built in GPS has not started working yet in Arizona so I have no idea which direction we were going. Plus I give not a shit). Les, leader of the pack, pulled off the hiway and stopped. Everyone got out of their 4-wheel drives. I felt like I was on a cliff, the ground was so far, far away. Hubs finally just grabbed me and set me down. Hard. While Mary Jane patiently waited to spring forth after the clod-me. I looked at the flat, bland surroundings and thought we’d hike a half mile, turn around and drive back to civilization. Everyone smiled at each other, drank a couple sips of water-AND CLIMBED BACK INTO THEIR VEHICLES. We weren’t even close to anywhere yet. Just kill me now. I tripped up the nine endless feet into the back seat and boinked my head on the soft top.
|Unknown species to this gal. Pretty…|
Our destination was Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1939 to protect Desert Bighorn Sheep, it’s part of the Yuma and Sonoran Deserts and includes 1.5 million acres. And yes we covered them all. Kidding, but we did go about 15 miles in on what might be loosely called a road. It did have a gravel base, but pretty big rocks were everywhere. And our jeep rode over everyone of those puppies. I kept track. But Les, our fearless leader did take the road seriously. And pretty slow.
|Typical road. Shaking my temporary crowns right out of my mouth!|
The first stop ended up being the only one I regretted for the day (besides getting in and out of the dang jeep a half dozen times). It’s called Copper Cup Mine, and you could see all the way through it. I should have just enjoyed the view and not attempted going through. In my defense, I was either the youngest person there or close to it. Couldn’t be embarrassed and choose not to participate. Pride, it’s ugly at times. First off, there were steep little peaks and valleys loaded with slippery rocks just getting to the mine. Sandals were not the right footwear. I slipped and slid to the entrance. Les handed me a flashlight and said he was going first to make sure we didn’t find a napping rattle snake. It was dark, and the floor was full of uneven stones. My balance is wobbly at best, and I found myself grasping for the walls to keep my balance. I didn’t fall, but didn’t come out unscathed either. Lots of little cuts on my hands and wrists.
|Les and Brian halfway through Copper Cup Mine. Sharp, jutting sides…|
I never knew there are so many mountains around Yuma, when the whole area is virtually surrounded by mountains. It’s quite breathtaking. Throughout our day at Kofa, a constant was this one mountain called Thumb Butte. It remained in our view most of the day on one side of us or another. Les mentioned it several times and I’d have to search until I spotted it again.
|Large brown rock like mountains against the cloudy sky…|
The variety of cactus was simply amazing. While some species seemed to share real estate, several seemed to claim some acres to themselves. And in that little snippet of desert it would be about the only kind we would see for a spell. Giant Saguaros with limbs and appendages reaching skyward. I believe they don’t start those little growth spurts until they hit puberty which is like 70 in human years.
|Limbs a-plenty on this giant Saguaro…|
Teddy Bear Chollas cactus, now they’re a trip. They look all fuzzy and warm standing about 3 feet tall. On the ground near every one of them resembles the old woman who lived in a shoe. Dozens of cuddly babies that roll off mama and just sit there on the ground. Waiting. For some wind or maybe few drops of rain to get them rooted where they start their own family.
|Sure looks warm and fuzzy. Not…|
Then there’s the spindly, lovely green Ocotillo. Kind of bush-like, they grow quite tall. There were a couple Ocotillos we saw that were clearly ahead of schedule, because they were starting to bloom. Just the tips of a few of the tops were turning bright orange with little flowers.
|The babies just waiting to put down roots…|
The Red Barrel cactus stood out because of his color, but they’re weren’t as many of them in Kofa. Les has one of in his yard. OK, funny side story. This year has been really odd because Yuma’s had so much rain. Usually while Les and Jane winter here, they might encounter one or two rains adding up to about a quarter of an inch. This year Yuma’s had 6 rains. Thus the desert, even the shoulders along the hi ways are a lush green when they’re usually drab brown. But green isn’t always good either. When this low green ground cover dies, it’s a fire hazard which can be very dangerous and deadly. After a couple of rains this winter, Les (or more likely MJ) decided the windows were dusty and dirty and needed washing. Les and his trusty ladder got nominated. Well, Les took a tumble and landed smack dab in his Red Barrel Cactus. Poor little cactus lost 13 of his sweet little quills to Les’ back. So Mary Jane had to remove them because it’s illegal to wear those quills in Arizona. Ok, I’m done with cacti.
|Quite a burst of color on the Red Barrel…|
I was kind of bummed about the wildlife part of Kofa. The first 2 hours I saw one tiny gecko dart across the road in front of our jeep. But the animals finally showed up after we stopped at the fancy restaurant where the road ended. Really there was no restaurant, but we brought Subway sandwiches, water and pop. Loosely sat in a circle of nice shade and enjoyed a nice hour of visiting.
|John, Les, me and Brian during our restful lunch…|
Since there’s only one road, we had to return the same way we went in, but you see totally different plants and landscapes because I was looking on the other side of the road. On top of a gnarly tree, I finally spotted a bird. He looked like a Cardinal with that cute tuft on top of his head, but he was completely jet black. After I got home, I looked him up and sure enough, it was a Northern Phainopepla. But the animal angels saved the best for last. We were a couple of miles away from the entrance of Kofa when I yelled, “Les, stop!” Just ahead and to our right was a Big Horn Sheep. Les slammed on the brakes not knowing what was wrong. Then Les, John and Jane noticed him. He took off across the road in front of us. Followed quickly by 2 more Big Horns. They started up a small hill, stopped midway and watched us. Through 9 years of desert days with Les, Mary Jane has never seen a Big Horn. The Sheep stood there for a few minutes, facing uphill, with their butts in our full view. Sorry about that. I asked them to please turn around and pose nicely for the camera. Their response, “kiss my ass.” No matter. A fabulous day. Again. Me, the forever doubting Thomas had the best time ever. It’s been a week since my day in the desert, and I think my left kidney has finally slipped back to where God originally intended it reside, more or Les…
|Hard to see, so I zoned in on their butts (the little white specks)…|