Fifty-Eight Years of Thumpin’: Luling, TX, Part 3

Watermelons have been associated with Luling since the 1950s, when truck farming began to take off in the area.

Entering Luling from Interstate 10, you’ll notice the world’s largest watermelon rising up 154 feet from a melon patch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1953, Luling residents held the first Watermelon Thump, a festival featuring live music and a seed spitting competition (ready to break the 70-foot distance barrier any day now). There aren’t any points for manners in these events, but the judges do impose a penalty if a seed goes too far out of bounds toward spectators.

Special children’s contests and a team-spitting contest also take place.

Spectators need to stay alert during the seed spitting contests, especially the under age 8 category, lest they get splattered with flying watermelon.

This popular event was introduced in 1971. The watermelon seed spit record of 68 feet 9 1/8 inches was set in 1989 by Lee Wheelis and is recorded in the Guiness Book of Records.

Local farmers roll out their super-sized black diamond watermelons at the Championship Melon auction where 50 pounders are not uncommon—winners have been known to plump up to over 80 pounds. They’re still trying to grow that 100-pound watermelon!

Other highlights of the four-day celebration, which is always held the last full weekend in June, include the Watermelon Thump Queen’s coronation, parade with floats promoting other Texas festivals, carnival, children’s entertainment, street dances, and car show. Live music, a beer garden, arts and crafts booths, and food booths remain on tap all weekend.

The earliest local grown watermelons in Texas begin to ripen after the first week in June, so The Thump is a harvest festival of sorts, marking the availability of ripe watermelons.

But why would you thump a watermelon?

Watermelons have been associated with Luling since the 1950s, when truck farming began to take off in the area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To find out if a melon is ripe enough to eat, many people like to use the thump test. That, of course, is how the festival got its name.

Basically, you test the ripeness of a melon by flicking the husk with your index finger. If you get a somewhat hollow sound from the melon, it’s ripe.

True thump experts say that a perfectly ripe watermelon will ‘thump’ and the thump will be about a b -flat note. Although a lot of people rely on that method, if you’re like me, I can’t tell a b-flat from a hole in the ground.

Look the watermelon over, choose a firm, symmetrical one that is free of bruises, cuts, and dents. Lift it up and turn it over. The underside of the watermelon should have a creamy, yellow spot—called the ground spot—from where it sat on the ground and ripened in the hot Texas sun.

Make plans now to attend the 58th Annual Luling Watermelon Thump, June 23-26, 2011.

What is a watermelon?

Watermelon is in the same family as cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.

Watermelon is 92% water and 8% sugar. It is rich in lypocene, an antioxidant that gives it its characteristic red color. It’s fat free and contains Vitamin A, C, and a lot of other good things to eat!

Experience life in old Luling at Zedler Mill Park and Cotton Gin—a turn of the century Cotton Gin—on the banks of the beautiful San Marcos River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watermelons have higher lycopene content than tomatoes! During the past several years there has been considerable media attention on tomatoes because they contain Lycopene. Lycopene has antioxidant properties and has been claimed to promote a healthy heart and to reduce the risk of cancer. Watermelons contain more lycopene than tomatoes.

Watermelon Fruit or Vegetable?

No matter which way you slice it, a watermelon is a vegetable—and it’s a fruit! It is both!

How awesome is that! You can eat watermelon and get a serving of your daily supply of vegetables!

In North America, most of us use watermelon as a fruit. We slice it, dice it, and scoop it into balls. We put it in fruit salad, we eat it as dessert, and we make fruity drinks out of it.

Other regions of the world often treat watermelon like a vegetable. The entire watermelon is edible even the rind. In the orient all parts of the watermelon are stir-fried, stewed, and pickled. In Russia, pickled watermelon rind is fairly common.

Worth Pondering…

When I was a kid on the farm after the milking came the process of skimming the cream. The cream which rose to the top of the heavy crock in which the milk was stored, was reserved for the treats of our frugal lifestyle: rich yellow butter, whipped cream for our desserts, and that rarer treat, tasty homemade ice cream. As I’m sitting in the comfort of my motorhome, the comparison of “skimming the cream” to extracting the best from life comes to mind. To us, RVing offers the cream of life; it is the “treat” that adds zest and flavor to living.

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Barbecue Central and much more: Luling, TX, Part 2

Barbecue Central

Barbecue fans head to downtown Luling to satisfy their craving for City Market’s succulent brisket, hot links, and pork ribs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great joys of RVing is visiting new places and making interesting discoveries. Another is just the opposite—revisiting those places that demand a closer look. Sometimes that second chance leads to a third—and a fourth. City Market in Luling, Texas, is just such a place.

Long before there was a giant watermelon to point the way, barbecue fans were heading to downtown Luling to satisfy their craving for City Market’s succulent brisket, hot links, and pork ribs. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon. From Monday through Saturday, the unpretentious red building on a corner of East Davis Street becomes the epicenter of activity in Luling. People drive for miles just to eat lunch there and consider it well worth the trip.

Customers form two lines at this gastronomic heaven—one to select their meat and pick up pickles and white bread or crackers in the back room, and the other for drinks (this is Dr. Pepper country) and sides—be sure you try the beans. The meat is sold by the pound—except for sausage; it’s by the link—and then wrapped in butcher paper, which serves as a plate. You’ll find the spicy, mustard-laced sauce in bottles on the long, wooden tables.

This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

Customers usually include a mix of local folks and out-of-towners, blue-collar workers and suits, families, and couples. You never know who will be sharing your table, but not to worry, you’ll make a connection over the mouth-watering barbecue.

This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first bite of a generous rib was a revelation—tender, salty, fall-off-the- bone succulent.

The perfectly crisp yet moist brisket emanated an addictive woodsmoke flavor. After sinking in my teeth, it was tender like I’ve never known brisket to be. It was savory, smokey, and with just enough chew.

And the homemade beef sausage! It was epic! The link was smokey, juicy, peppery, and savory. The crisp skin and the juices running out with every bite enhanced the flavor. It alone was worth the journey.

As for sauce? You forgot about the sauce, but it’s in a glass bottle right in front of you. And when you get around to tasting it—a thin, orange-ish, deliciously mustardy concoction—the signs imploring you to “Please leave sauce bottles on tables” suddenly make sense. In fact, your yearnings now met, your hopes fulfilled—suddenly everything makes sense.

You can get your barbecue to go, of course.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, and miss it already.

Luling Bar-B-Q also serves good barbecue; some locals actually prefer its version to City Market’s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With this kind of competition, you might think that other barbecue joints wouldn’t stand a chance in Luling. But no, Luling Bar-B-Q also faces East Davis Street, on the other side of U.S. Highway 183. The fact that the restaurant exists at all is testament to the fact that it also serves good barbecue; some locals actually prefer its version to City Market’s.

To be continued tomorrow…

Travel safe and enjoy your RV experiences. Remember, getting there is half the fun!

Worth Pondering…
More words of wisdom from an Oklahoma Cowboy

Will Rogers was quite the cowboy, with all the wisdom of simple, honest folk. His words still ring with common sense today…
7. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your pocket.
8. There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.
9. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
10. If you’re riding’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.
11. Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier’n puttin’ it back.
12. After eating an entire bull, a mountain lion felt so good he started roaring. He kept it up until a hunter came along and shot him. The moral: When you’re full of bull, keep your mouth shut.

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Barbecue Central and much more: Luling, TX

Entering Luling from Interstate 10, you’ll notice the world’s largest watermelon rising up 154 feet from a melon patch. Never mind that this impressive specimen is made of steel and comprises the tank portion of the town’s water tower. The horizontal green and white stripes combine with the shape of the 56-foot-diameter storage tank, to create a great watermelon effect.

‘Cow Jumping Over Moon’ is located in a field on Pierce Street. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the banks of the San Marcos River, about 45 miles south of Austin, Luling has all the elements of the perfect Texan small town—historic buildings, great barbecue, quirky history, viable downtown, lively harvest festival, a noon whistle, vintage stop signs, and eclectic shopping.

However, there’s more. The center of this rural town lies along railroad tracks where oil field workers first pitched their tents—and freight trains continue to rattle on through.

This is Texas as it used to be!

Old oil pump jacks around town are decorated with quirky plywood paintings of animals and a variety of characters—a cow jumping over the moon, a shark, see saw kids, and a yokel devouring a large slice of watermelon. Many of the wells are still active, sucking up black gold under people’s lawns, in local parks, and near businesses and train tracks.

The 1885 Walker Bros. Building, in the heart of downtown, houses the Central Texas Oil Patch Museum, which pays tribute to the area’s oil industry and chronicles the boom years in Luling. One of the first buildings constructed in Luling, the former mercantile played a central role in the town’s social fabric. The spacious, two-story structure has been restored and now showcases early oil-field machinery and memorabilia, displays of photographs that date back to 1910, and a scale replica of an old wooden oil derrick. The Oil Tank Theater presents a 20-minute film about Luling’s colorful history and current attractions.

The center of Luling lies along railroad tracks where oil field workers first pitched their tents—and freight trains continue to rattle on through. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1922, Edgar B. Davis brought in Rafael Rios #1, which proved to be one of the most significant oil fields ever discovered in Texas. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the discovery of the Edwards Lime. It set off vigorous exploration to find the lucrative shallow production. Almost overnight, Luling was transformed from a railroad town of 500 to an oil boom town of 5,000. By 1924, the field was producing 11 million barrels of oil per year.

Over 180 producing wells have now been drilled within the city limits alone! Three major oil fields surround the town.

The Walker Bros. Building also houses also houses the Luling Area Chamber of Commerce where you can pick up a map and brochures about the Pump-Jack tour, historic sites, and other attractions.

Texas Spoken Friendly

The Central Texas Oil Patch Museum pays tribute to the area’s oil industry. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To be continued tomorrow…

See you on down the road and happy RVing!

Worth Pondering…
Words of wisdom from an Oklahoma Cowboy
Will Rogers was quite the cowboy, with all the wisdom of simple, honest folk. His words still ring with common sense today…
Will Rogers, who died in a 1935 plane crash with his best friend, Wylie Post, was probably the greatest political sage the country ever has known.
Enjoy the following:
1. Never slap a man who’s chewing tobacco.
2. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.
3. There are two theories to arguing with a woman…neither works.
4. Never miss a good chance to shut up.
5. Always drink upstream from the herd.
6. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

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Rare bird sighting: Black-vented Oriole

Have you seen the Black-vented Oriole?

The Black-vented Oriole has made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little did we know when we made our reservation for Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort that we’d be entertained by a rare bird feeding in the coral bean trees.

Upon arriving at Bentsen Palm on Monday (January 24), we were informed that a very rare bird—the Black-vented Oriole—had recently made its home in the RV Park less than 100 feet from our site.

Bentsen Palm Village is located adjacent to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center in South Texas.

The black-vented oriole was first sighted at the state park on December 13 (2010) and has been observed daily at the RV Park since December 31 where it flies back and forth between coral bean trees, a small to medium-sized, deciduous tree with a spreading crown and brilliant red flowers. The coral bean is also known as ‘Fireman’s Hat’ because of its beautiful panicles of bright red tubular flowers that resemble the hats of firemen.

The distinguishing feature of the Black-vented Oriole is the vent, which is all black.

It’s a large oriole with black hood, upper back, wings, and tail, including vent. Under parts and lower back are bright yellow-orange. Black bill is long and slender.

The Black-vented Oriole is attracted to the brilliant flowers of the coral bean tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The song of the Black-vented Oriole is a bold, squeaky, gurgling warble. Call is a weak, nasal “nyeh” or “nur”, insect-like and often repeated in series.

Preferred habitats include pine-oak and subtropical or tropical deciduous and dry forests for nesting and breeding. It may also be found in moist lowlands or montanes of subtropical and tropical climates. This species does not normally migrate during winter months.

The Black-vented Oriole is a foraging species, finding insects, berries, and fruit in low vegetation.

The Black-vented Oriole was first described in 1857 by Philip Lutley Sclater, an English lawyer and zoologist.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black-vented Oriole is an accidental visitor to South Texas.

Previous sighting in the United States have been rare. The first of six sightings of this species was at Big Bend National Park on September 27, 1968—and on-and-off to October 1970.

The distinguishing feature of the Black-vented Oriole is the vent, which is all black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other documented sightings include Kingsville in 1989 and South Padre Island World Birding Center in 2010.

Distinguishing characteristics

  • Entire head is black
  • Black wings
  • Orange wedge on wings
  • Black tail
  • Black vent under the tail
  • Light orange on stomach on lower back
  • Gray legs and feet

Photo tip

Capturing a bird’s image can be challenging, frustrating, and fun all at the same time. Try to get the bird’s eye in focus. Don’t put the bird in the exact center of your photo. Show the bird doing something interesting.

A major challenge when photographing birds is to get close enough to obtain a decent-size image of the bird.

As a photographer, you need to be two to three times closer to any bird for a good photo as you would need to get with binoculars. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to get good bird photos with a group of birders, since they won’t appreciate the closer approach you’ll need.

Access to Bentsen Palm Village RV Park

The RV Park management has graciously allowed birders to visit provided that they DO NOT drive into the park (parking is available at Bentsen Rio-Grande Valley State Park, a short walk north on the bike path to the main gate for the RV Park).

Ensure you follow the requests of the RV Park management—be respectful of the residents.

Black-vented Oriole feeding on the flower of the coral bean tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You MUST sign in at the Office on the right as you enter the RV Park on foot. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

DO NOT point SCOPES, BINOCULARS, or CAMERAS in any direction but at the bird.   DO NOT direct your optics toward the recreational vehicles.

Please remember that visiting birders are the guests here!

Worth Pondering…
The Oriole’s Secret

To hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The tune is in the tree,
The sceptic showeth me;
No, sir! In thee!

—Emily Dickinson

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Saguaro Central: Catalina State Park, AZ, Part 2

Catalina, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests.


Catalina State Park is a hot spot for birders. Pictured above is a Western scrub-jay. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Parkencompasses 5,493 acres and is located at the base of the beautiful Santa Catalina Mountains at an elevation 2,650 feet.

Catalina is saguaro central
One of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Catalina also offers an excellent system of trails with a variety of scenery and recreation. Hiking and riding on the trails are popular activities, with eight trails varying in length and difficulty.

  • Romero Ruin Interpretive Trail (¾ mile) meanders through the ruins of a prehistoric Hohokam village site that is over a thousand years old.
  • Nature Trail (1 mile) offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and Santa Catalina Mountains, with signs explaining the desert ecosystem and its inhabitants.
  • Birding Trail (1 mile) offers hikers a chance to see some of the park’s many species of birds in three different types of habitats.
  • Canyon Loop Trail (2.3 miles) is representative of the various habitat types found in the park.
  • Bridle Trail (1.4 miles) is the only completely flat trail in the park, connecting the Equestrian Center with the main trail head.
  • Romero Canyon Trail (7.2 miles) and the Sutherland Trail (10.5 miles) offer longer, more strenuous hikes through beautiful desert terrain and riparian canyons. Both climb to cool natural pools and connect with other Coronado National Forest trails which continue on to Mount Lemmon at the top of the Catalina Mountains.
  • 50-Year Trail (7.8 miles) is popular with equestrians and mountain-bikers.

Each camping experience at Catalina is unique

Following several days of rain, one RVer leaves Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a result of an El Nino weather pattern last winter, the Southwest was the recipient of a considerable amount of precipitation and cooler than normal temperatures.

The park entrance road crosses a sandy wash about halfway between the entrance station and the campground. As a result of vegetation loss during a forest fire in 2003, this wash is prone to flooding when it rains up the mountains next to the park.

There is no way of predicting when this wash might flow. Since the wash extends for over 30 miles up-mountain, a considerable volume of water can flow.

When it does, it is possible for vehicles in the campground to be stranded in the park for several days or more. There is no danger to the campground, itself. You just can’t get out of the park (or in) as long as the water flows.

During our annual visit to Catalina last winter we experienced a significant rain event and as a result stayed several days longer than expected.

We took advantage of the time to hike several more trails and photograph more scenic vistas and birds.

Worth Pondering…
Happy is the man who can enjoy scenery when he has to take a detour.

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Saguaro Central: Catalina State Park, AZ

One of southern Arizona’s numerous “sky islands”, the Santa Catalina Mountains dominate Tucson’s northern skyline. These sky islands are small mountain ranges that rise steeply from the desert floor and often feature a cool and relatively moist climate at their highest reaches. Their wooded slopes offer desert dwellers a respite from the summer heat.

Did you know an estimated 5,000 saguaros live at Catalina State Park? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conversely, the adjacent desert canyons and foothills offer spectacular scenery and excellent recreation during the cooler months of the year.

Catalina State Park protects a choice section of desert on the western base of the Santa Catalinas.

This scenic park is located on Oracle Road which becomes State Route 77, just minutes from the bustling city of Tucson. Watch for the signed entrance to Catalina State Park at Milepost 81.

The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. An equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders and plenty of trailer parking is also available.

Miles of equestrian, birding, and hiking trails wind through the park and the adjoining Coronado National Forest, as well as an interpretive trail to a prehistoric village.

The locale was first inhabited by the Hohokam people, Native American agriculturists who disappeared mysteriously around AD 1450. Remains of their village site are still evident in the park. In the late 1800s, prospectors worked claims along the banks of a wash called Canada del Oro, translated from the Spanish into “wash of gold”. Cattle ranching also became prominent around 1850 and continued until the early 1980s when the park was established.

The most common plants include mesquite, palo verde, and acacia trees; crucifixion thorn, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, and saguaro cactus. Desert willow, Arizona sycamore, Arizona ash, and native walnut grow along the washes.


The Catalinas with a rare dusting of snow in late afternoon glow. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 300 types of flowers are cataloged at the park. A binder in the visitor center has a picture of each type of flower in the park, the common name, when it blooms, and where it is found. They are sorted by color so if you find a flower in the park you can identify it.

There are 120 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis, 95 with water and 50/30 amp electric service. Most sites are spacious and level easily accommodating the largest of RVs. A dump station is available. Campsites have picnic tables and grills. Restrooms are handicapped accessible with showers.

Please note: Catalina has NO overflow area. When all sites are occupied, you will be turned away.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…
The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains
sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulates creativity.

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Sonoran Pronghorns Make Comeback: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, AZ

A capture-and-release program is part of an effort to help the endangered Sonoran pronghorns regain a foothold in the Sonoran Desert.

Population of Sonoran pronghorns on the increase due to capture and release at wildlife preserve. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historically, Sonoran pronghorn traveled across vast expanses of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, California, and Sonora, Mexico. Currently it is confined to fragments of its former range, with only three small populations remaining—one in southwestern Arizona, and two separate populations in Mexico.

The U.S. herd lives on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a vast stretch of desert wilderness near Ajo. The refuge’s 860,000 acres has no paved roads and, more importantly, no fences. Pronghorn will reluctantly cross roads, but they don’t jump well.

Cabeza Prieta and the lands around it form one of the largest stretches of wilderness in the contiguous 48 states. The refuge has no permanent natural-water source, though a few wells have been dug. It is next to the Barry M. Goldwater Range and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The combined holdings create about 2.5 million acres of pronghorn habitat.

In 2002, there were only about 21 Sonoran pronghorns left in the United States. But their numbers are rising as researchers have collaborated to carve out a home on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, expand the herd with a captive-breeding program, and help the animals reclaim their range.

The pronghorn, which stands about 3 feet tall, is the fastest land animal in North America, capable of speeds of 60 mph. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pronghorn, which stands about three feet tall, is the fastest land animal in North America, capable of speeds of 60 mph. It once ranged as far north as the present location of Interstate 10, as far east as the Baboquivari Mountains, west to the Colorado River, and south into Mexico. Biologists believe the Gila River marked the center of its range in the U.S.

Pronghorns were squeezed out of their natural habitat in the early 1900s as ranching, farming, roads, and fences carved up their range. Hunting and cattle-borne disease thinned their numbers.

Some biologists have estimated there were only 100 Sonoran pronghorn left in the United States by 1925.

The pronghorns struggled in the drought that gripped the state over the past decade. The refuge and the thousands of acres of additional habitat around went dry.

Pronghorn can eat cactus to survive. They will eat chain-fruit cholla, which is 85 percent water, but it doesn’t provide much nutrition.

In 2002, biologists watched as the last of the herd was reduced to eating cholla and slowly starving to death.

In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department built a mile-square pen, divided into two sections. Eleven animals were caught, some from the larger herd in Mexico, to provide for genetic diversity.

From 2003 to 2008, this captive population grew, and as it did, biologists released some into the wild.

A highlight of any RV excursion is the unexpected sighting of wildlife. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer of 2008, they started to build circular corrals, which they call bomas, inside the breeding pen—a pen within a pen. They stocked them with food and left the gates open. Months passed, and the pronghorn got accustomed to feeding inside them.

By June 2009, there were about 70 pronghorns in the wild and 70 in the pen, including 30 fawns.

Workers stated securing the fences and built gates that open and close by remote control.

One December morning about 30 people from various government agencies and five zoos were brought in to capture, tag, and vaccinate the captured pronghorns. By the end of the day, 20 pronghorn had been captured and released back in the pen or turned into the wild. The next day, about 20 more were captured. When it was over, 23 animals were released, which brought the number of pronghorn in the wild to about 90.

The next step, researchers say, is increasing the pronghorn’s range, perhaps in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and parts of the Goldwater Range east of Arizona 85. And there is hope that the population within Cabeza Prieta will continue to grow and expand to new areas, such as Organ Pipe.

Worth Pondering…
Wilderness settles peace on the soul.
—Biologist E.O. Wilson

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Prepare for Solitude: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, AZ

Want to take advantage of your SUV or high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicle? Then Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is the place for you!

This historic windmill makes a good lunch stop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boundless desert surrounds you in Cabeza Prieta, the third largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. Here, seven rugged mountain ranges cast shadows over barren valleys once swept by lava. Saguaros loom in stark profile above the baked earth. A 56-mile, shared border with Sonora, Mexico, might well be the loneliest international boundary on the continent.

Imagine the state of Rhode Island without any people and only one wagon track of a road. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is that big, that wild, and also incredibly hostile to those who need lots of water to live.

Cabeza Prieta, is Spanish for “dark head” and refers to a lava-topped granite peak in a remote mountain range in the western corner of the Refuge.

Temperatures may top 100 degrees F for 90 to 100 consecutive days from June to early October. Summer thundershowers and winter soaking rains average about 3 inches on the western part of the Refuge and up to 9 inches on the eastside. The winter and summer pattern of rainfall in the Sonoran Desert stimulates the growth of more plant species than in most deserts.

Far from a barren desert, Cabeza Prieta harbors at least 391 plant species and more than 300 kinds of wildlife. Endangered Sonoran pronghorn and lesser long-nosed bats call this parched land home, as do desert bighorns, lizards, rattlesnakes, and desert tortoises.

Boundless desert surrounds you in Cabeza Prieta, the third largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area. Elf owls peer from holes carved in saguaros by Gila woodpeckers.

You’ll find creosote and bursage flats, mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, ocotillo and an abundance of cacti, including cholla, and saguaro on the bajadas (alluvial fans of sand, silt, and gravel deposited by running water on the slopes of mountain ranges).

The Refuge also takes the lead role in the recovery of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. This endangered species ranges across the Sonoran desert in southwest Arizona and Sonora, Mexico in small, scattered bands.

Pick up a Permit First
Before entering the Refuge, you must obtain a valid Refuge Entry Permit and sign a Military Hold Harmless Agreement. Free permits are available from the Refuge office on Highway 85 on the northern edge of Ajo.

Most of the Refuge falls within the air space of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Numerous low-flying aircraft cross the Refuge on their way to air-to-air bombing and gunnery ranges located to the north. Some military training exercises over the Refuge may require limitations on travel and even short periods of closure of the Refuge to the public. Military schedules are known in advance, so Refuge staff can help with your schedule.

You’ll Need 4-wheel Drive

17-mile dirt road slices among ridges and ironwood-laced washes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling on the Refuge requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle except for Charlie Bell Road where 2-wheel drive high-clearance vehicles may be driven. This 17-mile dirt road slices among ridges and ironwood-laced washes. At 8½ miles (13.6km), a historic windmill makes a good picnic spot.

Worth Pondering…
Wilderness settles peace on the soul
—E.O. Wilson, Biologist

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Where the Summer Spends the Winter: Ajo, AZ

The tiny Arizona town of Ajo (ahh-ho) is situated deep in the Sonoran Desert, 42 miles south of Gila Bend and 37 miles north of the Mexican border. For many snowbirds, as it was for us, Ajo is merely a stopping-off point on the way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For others, especially Spring Breakers, it’s a town to pass through on their way to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point).

The beautiful tree-shaded Spanish Colonial plaza in downtown Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, Ajo just might be the “best kept secret in Arizona.” This is the place where the “Summer spends the Winter”, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

The town of Ajo reflects its one time wealth to this day. Glistening white churches and a well-designed plaza are so inviting.

Ajo today is a retirement community and snowbird haven along with an increasing number of artists. Ajo’s gorgeous mountain views and charming Old World architecture are enchanting and we soon fell in love with this friendly community in southwestern Arizona.

Ajo got its name from a poor Spanish translation of an Indian word. To make body paint, the local O’odham Indians used copper. Their word for paint was aau’auho, which sounded to the Spanish like the familiar word ajo, meaning garlic in their language. Later, the wild lily plants in the area were named ajo for the flavorful bulb at its roots.

But copper has provided the sinew for this desert town for about 300 years. Ajo was the oldest-known mine site in the state, and until the 1980s Phelps Dodge ran a sizable copper mining operation out of here.

Across the street from the plaza are two stunningly beautiful churches—a mission-style Catholic church constructed in 1924 and a Federated church built in 1926. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mines originally were made profitable during World War I by John C. Freeway, who also gets the credit for building the town’s palm tree-shaded Spanish Colonial Plaza in Ajo’s center. The plaza is a traditional town square with Spanish Colonial Revival porticoes to keep the sun from invading the post office, the library, the former railway station, and a couple of shops and restaurants. In the midst of the plaza is a large, green park. Across the street from the plaza are two stunningly beautiful churches—a mission-style Catholic church constructed in 1924 and a Federated church built in 1926.

Ajo was the birthplace of copper mining in Arizona
In the 1700s, the Spanish dug a 60-foot mine to extract copper ore before moving on. The next major activity occurred in 1854, the year the Gadsden Purchase was ratified and made the area part of the United States. But that venture failed because the mine owners had to ship the ore to Wales for smelting, and the ship carrying the second load of ore sank, which bankrupted the company.

After several other attempts at mining the low-grade copper ore failed, a new sulfuric acid leaching process made the cost of extracting the ore profitable in 1916, and Ajo’s mining boom was under way, producing hundreds of millions of tons of milling ore.

Phelps Dodge Corp., present owner of the mine, mothballed it in the middle 1980s. But the vast reserves of copper remaining in the ground at Ajo no doubt mean the mine has not seen the end of its days.

Porticoes of the former train station front one side of the town plaza. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A number of the buildings from the 1920s and before are still standing. Curley School, southwest of the plaza on Vanand, was constructed in 1919. The Train Depot directly northeast of the plaza dates from 1915. New Cornelia Hotel just east of Curley School was constructed in 1916.

A few miles further, past loads of cacti, long hills of white sediment and stretches of crushed stones in multicolors line the highway, left by the New Cornelia Copper Mine.

At one time this was the third largest copper mine in the U. S. It was named after the wife of John Bode who helped the promoter A.J. Shotwell set up the St. Louis Copper Company in 1890.

As a company town, it was attractively laid out by an architect and built in 1916-17.

Among progressive industrialists of the day, such garden cities were in vogue for their workers, and Ajo was nationally noted as the first in Arizona. Still, though the immense open-pit mine is closed, the town plaza remains grand to this day.

Worth Pondering…
The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulating creativity.

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Playing in Mute Harmony: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever. Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area. Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”. There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The winds of Organ Pipe

Organ pipes in a mixed cactus forest against the backdrop of the Ajo Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve.

Located 35 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next. Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. It is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ.

Each desert plant is exploitable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds. Tohono O’odham people have eaten the fruit raw or dried, and have made syrup, jams, and a mild wine from it. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center has information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way dirt road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument.

A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the visitor center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy. Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The first five miles of North Puerto Blanco Drive has been newly reconstructed and is open in both directions, providing access to the new picnic area at the turn-around point by Pinkley Peak.


Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Be Aware

Because of the dangers posed by drug smuggling and human trafficking along this isolated portion of the U.S.-Mexican border, most of the roads into the remote areas of the monument are closed.

Did You Know?
Coyotes are highly intelligent animals that are well adapted to survive in almost any environment. They are among the most common animals spotted in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and you might hear them “singing” on any given night.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.

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