This cool shot was taken in Ruby, AZ. Now a ghost town deep in the Coronado National Forest, it was a booming mining town during the 1920’s and 30’s. This was part of the school yard. At its peak in the early-mid 30’s, the school had three rooms, four teachers and up to 150 students in grades 1-8. The sliding board is an interesting artifact. It’s 20 feet high. The slide is made of sheet metal with exposed rivets and the side rails are made of wood. Sounds painful. Well, this is the wild west. This region of Arizona is called the “Oro Blanco” which is Spanish for white gold. It was so-named because the gold ore here has a high silver content, giving it a shiny white color. The Oro Blanco has dozens of tough geocaches which is what brought us down this way. They are real back country challenges. Skills in four wheeling, desert hiking, navigation and route selection are critical. If you’d like to learn more about Ruby and exploring the Oro Blanco, here’s a great web page that will tell you all about it. It’s ours, of course.
Shortly after the birth of Christ, an indigenous race started to inhabit the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona halfway between present-day Phoenix and Tucson. Nobody really knows who they were, where they came from or what happened to them. History calls them the Hohokam. Anthropologists prefer a more generic term – ancient Sonoran desert people. Starting out as hunters and gatherers, they quickly advanced beyond that. Over the course of the next 10+ centuries, on the banks of the Gila River, they developed a thriving culture with sophisticated knowledge of agriculture, architecture and astronomy. They achieved all this despite having no tools, no working animals and no livestock. They never knew about the wheel and they had no written language. Then, in the space of one or two generations, they were gone. We know all this because of what they left behind at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
The high point of this ancient Sonoran culture was the construction of a large central building, which Spanish missionaries named “Casa Grande” over 250 years after it was abandoned. Sixty feet square and four stories high, nobody really knows what it was used for. It was built with a substance called “caliche” (cuh-LEE-chee). Hard clay under the desert floor was ground up and mixed with water to create a sticky mud that could be molded like Play-Doh and dried as hard as rock. This was the main construction material used for everything. Casa Grande contained an estimated 3,000 tons of caliche, all hand molded in two foot layers built on top of one another without scaffolding or tools. Floors and internal supports were built with pine and fir logs brought from 50 miles away and imbedded in the wet caliche. Fifty years after its completion around 1350, the Sonoran culture fell apart. For four centuries after it was abandoned, Casa Grande stood mute, ravaged by weather, vandals and souvenir hunters. You can still see graffitti carved into the walls by stagecoach passengers and cowboys. The U.S. Government began preservation efforts in 1891. It became a National Monument in 1918. The protective roof was built in 1932. Preservation efforts are ongoing and have successfully maintained the ruins in their 1891 state.
The achievements of this long gone culture were astounding. The Casa Grande is an obvious one but there were many more. Using only pointed sticks, they dug hundreds of miles of irrigation canals to bring water from the Gila River into the desert. This created an oasis of almost 1,000 square miles of fertile crop land in which they grew corn, beans, squash, tobacco and cotton. Artisans created pots, jewelry and baskets with intricate artwork, some of which have been found in the area. Trade flourished down into Mexico and all the way to the Pacific coast. But, in my humble opinion, the most fascinating part of the culture was their interest in astronomy. The walls of the Casa Grande have tales to tell about that.
The Sonoran culture tracked major astronomical events to guide their planning, activities and religious ceremonies. Key among them were summer/winter solstice and the spring/fall equinox. They did this through a series of “alignments”, which were holes or channels constructed in the Casa Grande walls. On the day of those celestial events sunlight would shine directly through those alignments. There was one other event they tracked – the 18.6 year lunar nodal period. This is a cycle of declination (angle) changes of the moon’s orbit around the earth. Throughout ancient history, it was used for ceremonial religious observances, particularly among pagan religions. However, the lunar nodal cycle is also a key component of eclipse prediction. This cycle is followed at many ancient sites, including Stonehenge. Could the ancient Sonoran desert people predict solar and lunar eclipses? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.
This picture is the west wall of Casa Grande. It is the best preserved and the most interesting. The round portal under the gold arrow was the alignment for the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. The square portal under the blue arrow was the alignment for the peak of the lunar nodal period, which astronmers call the lunar standstill. Other alignments are have been identified but are not readily visible and some are just gone, eroded away with the walls.
Casa Grande was completed around 1350. By 1400, the Sonoran culture was in a steep decline from which it couldn’t recover. Theories abound as to why. There’s no evidence of warfare or conquest. The conquistadors were still two centuries away. One version that seems credible is supported by geological data. In the late 1300’s, the Gila River Valley experienced flooding on a monumental scale. This deepened the river channel to the point where no water could flow into the irrigation canals unless they were rebuilt. This flooding was followed by years of drought, which lowered the water level even more. The desert began to reclaim its land. Unable to sustain themselves, the Sonoran people began to leave. Within 30-40 years, this 1,000 year culture was gone. They most likely dispersed to different areas in smaller groups and formed the genealogical base of today’s southwest tribes.
This National Park Service diagram shows the extent of the Sonoran irrigation system. There were hundreds of miles of canals. Parts of it are still in use today. This entire system was dug with pointed sticks, the most sophisticated tool they ever developed.
At its peak, the Sonoran culture had several thousand people living in compounds over hundreds of square miles on both sides of the Gila River. The Casa Grande was one of these compounds, centered on a one acre site surrounded by seven foot walls. It was just one compound out of many, although it was the biggest. This culture pre-dated other Native American cultures and lived in peace. Today, the Pima, Hopi and Zuni nations consider this culture to be their ancestors
In this 1964 photo, an archaeologist is standing in an excavated section of a Sonoran culture irrigation canal. They were built with steps for gravity flow and lined with caliche. Not bad for pointed sticks.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located in Coolidge, AZ – about 20 miles due north from Exit 211 on I-10. It’s small. You can see the entire thing in 60-90 minutes. Nevertheless, it is one jaw dropping discovery after another. If you get out to Arizona, make sure you take the time to visit.
This is the chapel of the Misión San José de Tumacácori. Franciscan missionaries began construction in 1811 although no services were held here until 1822. Even though it was still a work in progress after 11 years, it was a magnificent structure. It represented the zenith of a Catholic mission community that stretched back to 1691. In that year, Father Francisco Kino arrived at a Pima Indian village on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. His ministry was to advance Spanish influence and spread Catholic teachings into New Spain, an area that encompassed the entire present-day southwestern United States on up to the San Francisco Bay. The name of the Pima village in their native language is lost to history. The Spanish phonetic version of it became Tumacácori (too-mah-ká-ko-ree).
The chapel design is very interesting from a cultural standpoint. It strongly reflects a style brought to Spain by the Moors, who established an Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula that lasted 700 years (roughly 750 A.D. to 1490 A.D.). The pointed window niches in the front, the distinctive arches in the bell tower and the white domed roof above the altar are right out of Islamic architecture. The faux columns on the front and cutouts in the walls for statues and icons were usd by the Romans. On the other hand, it was brightly painted and decorated both inside and out, reflecting Mexican and Native American cultures. Everything in the picture is original construction. Even some of the original paint can still be seen today.
For the first 70 years of its existence, the mission had no church. All services were conducted among the people, often by visiting priests. Father Kino ministered to his flock until his death in 1711. The first real church was built in 1757. The outline of its foundation is nearby. Tumacácori carried on through good times and bad until 1848, when it was abandoned for good – a casualty of the Mexican War and Apache raids. The magnificent chapel, which had been under constant construction since 1811, was never finished. In 1853, the entire area became part of the United States after the Gadsen Purchase transferred most of New Spain to American hands. In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt established the thoroughly dilapidated mission as a National Monument and began preservation efforts. It became a National Historic Park in 1990, incorporating all the missions and presdios in the I-19 corridor.
The main sanctuary inside the chapel. The layers of white limestone, mud and adobe brick used in the construction are clearly visible. You can also see some of the original paint on the far back wall of the altar. There were no pews. People stood or knelt for the service, which was in Latin and sung by the priest and choir like Gregorian chants. Most of what’s in here is original construction, although the roof was rebuilt by the Park Service. Their charter is to preserve the ruins, not restore them.
It snowed in Tucson today. We didn’t get much on the valley floor, which is around 2,500 feet in altitude. Above 3,000 feet though was a different story. They got hammered. I expect we’ll wake up in the morning to snow capped hills all around.
I love shooting landscapes. A snow covered desert has to be one of the best subjects for a photo. So being from Minnesota, snow or not, I was out looking for a shot with my trusty Nikon SLR. The challenge of shooting the desert winter is that it doesn’t last very long. You’ve got to shoot on the fly, with not much time for setup. I got some. An hour later, they were gone.
Here’s another one. Ya gotta love the snow in the palm trees. The picture is a little fuzzy because of the ice fog rolling in.
This would be a great shot for a Corona beer commercial – or not.
About a mile away in the background of the pictures are the Santa Catalina Mountains. They jut up from the desert floor to an altitude of up to 9,000 feet on Mt. Lemmon. Today, they are completely socked in by the storm. It’s supposed to stay cold tonight and be sunny tomorrow. Could be some great shots in the early morning.
Tomorrow it will warm up and the snow will be gone. Even the higher elevations will be gone in a week. All that moisture will make the desert explode in color in a few weeks. More work for the Nikon.
Trying to nail down the Top 10 is sometimes elusive because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. Basically, to make the list, there has to be something extraordinary about the geocache under consideration. It might distance, difficulty, uniqueness, history or just the surroundings. Our #5 cache fell into all of these. From January 2012, welcome to the geocache at Dragoon Springs.
In the high desert Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona, a number of natural springs gurgle out from amongst the rocks. One of them was Dragoon Springs. This area was the homeland of the Apache, who didn’t take kindly to trespassers. Since water was critical, they watched and guarded the springs aggressively against interlopers from the Conquistadors to Mexican bandits.
The Gadsen Purchase of 1853 made the land part of the United States. White settlers, ranchers and miners began arriving in great numbers and a large military presence was also established. In the decade before the Civil War, the whites and the Apache, under Cochise and Mangas, observed an uneasy truce. In 1857, the Butterfield Overland Stageline began operation through the area on its way from St. Louis to San Francisco. They had way stations with food and fresh horses at each of the springs. One of them was Dragoon Springs. In 1861, the Apache ended the truce and started ridding their lands of whites. The Butterfield stages became prime targets, with 22 drivers killed in 16 months. The line was already in financial trouble. Apache attacks and competition from the Pony Express finished the job. It folded just after the Civil War began.
The way stations and the route itself were the only transportation and logistics infrastructure in the entire region, so they were used by both sides in the desert war of 1862. In this little known theater of the Civil War, the Union Army, the Confederate Army and the Apache all fought each other. The abandoned Butterfield Stage station at Dragoon Springs was the site of two fights between Confederate cavalry and Apache war parties.
On May 5, 1862, a Confederate patrol was foraging and rounding up stray cattle in the area around Dragoon Springs. They were jumped by an estimated 100 Apache at the now abandoned stage station. Four Confederate soldiers were killed and the livestock stolen. The rest of the patrol got away. This was the First Battle of Dragoon Springs and they were the western-most combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy.
Four days later, on May 9, came the Second Battle of Dragoon Springs. A larger patrol found and engaged the Apache war party in the same area, killing five and getting the livestock back. The four Confederates killed in the first battle were buried in shallow graves and covered with stones. Those graves are preserved and marked by the National Park Service along with the ruins of the relay station.
The geocache itself is a further hike from the station. We were able to drive to within 7/10 of a mile, then hiked in the rest of the way. An ATV can almost drive up to Ground Zero. The geocache itself is an easy find. Like they say, getting there is half the fun.
This one took us most of a day from our snowbird headquarters in Tucson. The Dragoon Mountains are spectacular and full of cool places to check out. We barely scratched the surface but are headed back in 2013. Can’t wait!
The geowife and I are closing in on 5,000 caches. Every one is different and you’d be surprised how many you remember. We started scanning our memory banks for the 10 best caches we’ve ever done. Some make the list because of the difficulty. Some because of the scenery. Still others because of the overall experience or some unique aspect. Picking out the 10 best will be difficult.
We love the desert and spent the winter of 2011-2012 in Tucson. It was geocaching heaven. This particular cache was in the Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area and was one of our first long range desert finds.