The San Pedro River flows north, somehow a rarity in North America. It hosts over two hundred bird species. This is a major migration corridor for 85% of our bird species. The river is part of the two percent of Arizona’s landmass that is considered riparian area.
Ninety-five percent of these riparian water sources are damaged or destroyed. There has been an ongoing struggle to protect this natural treasure. It has dry spots and much of it only flows seasonally. The ground water, which feeds it from the surrounding mountains, is being sucked out with the growth of thirsty communities like Sierra Vista. Conservation measures are in place, but the influence of money, profit and politics, greed disguised as good economics, continue to whittle away at our true wealth.
There is a 40 mile long belt on the river that varies in width that is for wildlife preservation. The river is lined with huge cottonwoods. Mesquite bosques lie beyond. I only recently found how extensive that this preservation is. I called the visitor center and was told that there was water at the bridge there. Downstream, they didn’t know. We have been in drought for two years. We will use the visitor center bridge section as a backup, in case the river is dry.
There are fewer people downstream near the bridge close to the ghost town of Fairbanks. We are heading to Fairbanks to look for flowing water in the river. We are continuing our birthday celebrations weekend, traveling from a late morning start in Gardner Canyon.
Here is that story:
We’re picking up where it left off.
We have to travel through the grasslands of Sonoita and east by the southern end of the Whetstone Mountains to reach the San Pedro Valley.
You may remember the Whetstones from our search of the location of the gunfight of Curly Bill and Wyatt Earp. This is Tombstone territory. From the road, in the distance, we can see the yellow grass slope where we walked east of Mescal Spring on the title page of that story.
Here is that story:
After another thirteen miles, we are stretching our necks and slowing down, as we attempt to look over the side of the highway 82 bridge. There is WATER down there. It is only a stream now, but the verdant colors are inviting.
On the other side of the bridge, a sign points to Fairbanks.
This ghost town is being preserved and has a visitor center in the old stone school house. There is a gate that is unlocked at each sunrise, to sundown. It is a safe place to leave our SUV, as we backpack on the river.
We pull up and park near the school house. I see an elderly man, who is all in light blue denim walking toward it. He is the volunteer caretaker and docent. After throwing on quick clothing, we follow him inside, cameras in hand. I have thrown on a robin’s egg western shirt and camouflage kilt with my five finger shoes. DF is wearing the same shoes and a light, red Hawaii print sundress. He doesn’t bat an eye to our odd fashion sense, as far as we can tell.
The doorway is like a portal in time. The old school house is filled with old wooden desks and memorabilia.
I recognize these desks. They are not from the era over 120 years ago. They are partly metal. I remember the likes as a boy. Curiously, they don’t have graffiti carves into them, as I would remember, nor gum stuck under.
We pay a two dollar camping fee and get assurances for the safety of our belongings and truck from the friendly fellow.
We pack up our gear, snack and our walk begins through this old collection of buildings in various states of disrepair.
There had been no one here but us, but at the last minute, a pair of probably birders walks down the path. We had of course, hoped to disrobe. I’m wearing a sarong around my waist, DF has that sundress, as we walk the .4 miles of mesquite bosque to the river.
The trail is easy through here. Along the way rusted trash sits in an old dump, which has now turned into archeology.
It leads us under the old railroad bridge and out to the San Pedro River.
Unlike the elevated forest that we had been in, there was quite a bit of contrast when we arrived and shut off the air-conditioner. We have found a heat more like Tucson’s 90F plus day. The elevation here is much lower and mesquite bosques tend to block breeze and hold in heat. Although we are tardy on our arrival goal previous to noon, this will work out perfectly when nude. The 2:00 pitch of the sun will couple with the shade and the day will begin to cool. It will be just right for naked wandering.
The tracks tell us that the birder couple has taken to the north along an established trail. We are heading south to the river itself.
The highway bridge towers above us as we pass under.
I check to see what the cars can see from up there and recall my experience on the highway. It is unlikely that we would be noticed. The odds of a tall enough truck passing and actually looking down are nil.
Soon, we are stripping on a grassy mound and in consequence, immediately cooling off.
Before us, the first glance looks to be paradise, fit for Adam and Eve.
The breeze breaks the silence and cools us, wrapping through the mesh of our backpacks.
The riverbed is very wide. Low green grasses and plants cover this conveyance as the stream meanders through.
Short sandy loam cliffs enclose the view, as a barrier to the dramatic difference just outside of paradise. Tall grasses hold the banks intact and slow the flow during the rainy times.
DF finds that the plumbs atop tufts of grass are soft.
Soon, she is caressing our bodies with feathery gentle swipes.
Then there are those trees!
They shoot into the sky, lining up as a wall on each side at the old banks.
They have a magnificent cathedral-like sense about them.
Their branches are like gothic arches lining the river.
We come to a large ruin of a bridge.
Back in the day, this river flowed much stronger.
The stream is filled with tens of thousands of tadpoles, small fish and the muddy banks flourish with very small more mature toads. As we walk, toads plop into the water and the tadpoles disperse in protective cautious fear. There are so many that they sound like a fizzy bottle.
Tracks are everywhere, javalina, coyote, and small deer mostly. We make our way fascinated. The water flow begins to increase.
We methodically choose the driest route.
We read the meander, we cross the stream, we find the more solid parts on the inside of curves, and decide where the sand is less of a slog.
We often choose our route to avoid disturbing the tiny amphibians.
There are a pair of ducks ahead. We grab our cameras to document. They are in shadows and take to flight when they become uncomfortable with us.
All of this time, until we ultimately stop, over and then over again, we will come across this same pair of ducks and ruin their good time.
I imagine the two thinking like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I hear the famous line, “Who are those guys?
We want to get as far as we can get away from the potential of people. To each side, we know that there is only wild and desert for several miles. Upstream, it is a full day’s walk to the next bridge.
We know that there is an abandoned railroad bed that can be used to hike or bike, running alongside of the river course. All that we know is that it is somewhere through the thick growth. We want to stay in solitude in this paradise.
I soon realize that this is essentially a forty mile long nude beach just an hour from Tucson. This could be a day trip. I consider one day taking a bike down the railroad bed to a place further, but then the hike and exploration is the fun. There is so much along the way.
We explore for a couple of hours on our way south, waiting to be blessed with a perfect campsite. There will be no flashfloods this day. We will be camping next to the stream.
Eventually, we find a sort of sandbar. It is level and smooth. There are no rocks or sticks, whatsoever. We decide to try going a little further, but after about 15 minutes, we head back to what we know. Anyway, there is a smelly, destructive cow ahead, a rancher’s mistake. There will be shade at the campsite for the rest of the day. There, the sun will warm us in the morning through a break in the trees.
The tent stakes hold easily. We have already decided to leave the tarp in the truck and go topfree in the net tent.
We find a diminutive log. It is just slightly more than adequate to squat or sit on. Rolled up towels and clothing provide more comfort. I’m rationalizing that the squatting is good for me, but after a couple of hours with a pack many doubts are raised in that faith. We wander, explore and play, nude and absolutely freely.
The temperature feels just simply perfect, as we move about barefoot all over. Even the water feels perfect. It is a blessing.
DF finds a particularly large crawfish, which is after tadpoles and the small dace fish that are everywhere.
Up in a tree across the riverbed, we see a figure on a branch. We sit and watch at ready, debating if it is an old broken branch or an owl waiting.
Strangely, of all the varieties of birds that frequent this habitat, this evening, we hear only the familiar sound of the turtledove in the calm.
We need fresh water from the stream. I have the Mini-Sawyer filter and bags. It is easier for two to handle as a team and the sun is going to go down. We stand there doing our chore. I submerge the bag into the stream, careful not to stir up the silty sand or catch one of the multitudes of curious tadpoles.
Then, I stand next to DF and squeeze as the freshened water slowly, slowly streams out into the waiting bottle. At about the third bagful, DF begins to complain about being bitten. At day’s end, there are no-seeums about, like mosquitoes. The process feels not quick enough, as they attack with their light, but irritating nibbles.
We head to our bags and put on long sleeve shirts. We will need a covering until dark.
This works, but damage has already been done to DF’s compelling smooth skin.
We rehydrate a delicious veggie soup in a spaghetti sauce and parmigiana. There are fire restrictions and we are tired. Tomorrow will be best started early. We climb into the net tent and turn on a lamp. We bought a map and information booklet at the schoolhouse. We read and learn together.
Lying on our backs, the moonlight illuminates our hanging shoes and socks, just enough through the netting. We have hung them on the cord, that structures the tent directly above us. The toes in this light look as though we have hung a collection of zombie feet.
We have a laugh and soon the calm of night overtakes us.
Part Two: Walking Unencumbered, comes next week. I think that this place actually gets better.
The San Pedro is beautiful when the water flows, we stop at Fair Bank frequently on our motorcycle trips to Tombstone, Bisbee and beyond. Hike up to the historic cemetery on the hill above Fair Bank if you haven’t been there already, it will be plain to see how rough life must have been in the late 1800’s .