2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  DRAMA IN THE DESERT

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22

 
"The key to the Sonoran Desert's climate is the amount of rainfall which falls.
More rain falls on the Sonoran Desert than any other desert. When it does get rain, the desert
is damp, and the air is cool. When it has no rain the desert is really dry and really hot. When the
desert is windy, the sand gets picked up and tossed around which creates a sand storm or if
the wind is blowing in a certain kind of way, it creates a whirlwind or dust devil. These
mini-tornados move across the desert floor and they most often occur in hot weather. The desert
valley is hot while up in the mountains it is cool and some mountains are even snow covered."
 
~ from the Blue Planet website description of Sonnoran Desert climate
 
 
 
Winter has arrived in Arizona, to the delight of skiers and the dismay of sunbirds and folks who are trying to get to Grandma's house for Christmas.

Yesterday was the "shortest" day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere -- the winter solstice, the day with the fewest hours of light of any of the 365 days we are allotted each year. Winter is Jim's and my least favorite of the four seasons.

My optimistic view, however, is that now each day will have one or two more minutes of sunshine to brighten our mood.

STORM DRAMA

Today we didn't have much sunshine in Arizona. The week of "severe sunshine" that I joked about a couple of days ago has come and gone. After several dry, warmer than normal days, the Phoenix area is under assault by a ferocious storm that has brought not only rain, snow, and cold air but also death and damage to folks all over the state.

My brother in Ohio was the first to alert us to the sudden dust storm south of Phoenix that resulted in several deaths late this morning. He heard it on the evening news two time zones to the east and called to make sure Little Sister and Jim were OK. Thank you, Bill!  He called us just before 5 PM Mountain Time, when local TV news broadcasts begin in the Phoenix area.

This morning's sunrise over our campground

Sure enough, the 30+ car pileup caused by a surprise dust storm on I-10 south of Phoenix near Casa Grande, about halfway to Tucson, was the lead story on every local station and the national NBC Evening News show. The freeway was closed for several hours while the mess was cleaned up. Three or four victims were dead on the scene. Over a dozen people were airlifted to hospitals, more taken by ground in ambulances. Some of the vehicles exploded on impact and were so decimated that investigators were having a hard time even identifying the type of vehicles, let alone who was in them. Very sad. Other dust storms hit the western side of Phoenix, too. I don't know if they caused any wrecks from lack of visibility but the high winds caused some property damage.

Meanwhile, farther north of Phoenix toward Flagstaff the storm brought freezing rain and snow with its high winds, creating havoc on I-17 and other roads. More pile-ups occurred when drivers slid into each other, unable to see through the blinding snow. We didn't hear about any fatalities there, thank goodness.

Jim and I were oblivious to the drama as we ran errands in the early afternoon in Scottsdale in eastern metro Phoenix. All we had was 1/4 to 1/3 inch of much-needed rain and some moderate wind. We lucked out and stopped grumbling about the rain as soon as we heard how bad it was for other folks only fifty miles north and south of us.

Storm clouds east of Phoenix this afternoon

The storm system brought in much colder air to the Valley of the Sun. Overnight temperatures this week will be in the mid- to upper-30s in the valley and a few degrees chillier at our campground several hundred feet higher up, a definite signal that winter is upon us even in southern Arizona. At least the sunshine will return tomorrow. We'll just have to bundle up a bit more when we go outside. No more 60s and 70s until after Christmas. Highs will be only in the 40s and 50s (normal highs are in the 60s).

That's OK. We've still got better weather than most of the country. We know many folks are having a very difficult time getting where they want to be this holiday week because of weather problems ranging from snow and ice to tornadoes. We're happy to be where we are for now.

MORE SKY DRAMA

I love to watch the changing patterns in the sky from our perch in the McDowell Mountain Regional Park campground. That's one reason we like this place so much. Most of the sites are wonderful vantage points with a 360 view of the mountains around us.

Some days the sunrises and sunsets are just spectacular, particularly when there are clouds to reflect the changing colors. The Goldfield and Superstition Mountains in the Tonto National Forest to the east and south are usually more interesting at dusk as they morph through a range of pinks and reds than the McDowell Range to the west:

We aren't up early enough to see the sunrise every morning but when we are, dawn over the Four Peaks Wilderness can be even more colorful:

Most sunrises are more subtle than that one. The next photo shows soft, muted colors over the mountains in the Wilderness. Although this is a sunset, some of the sunrises look very similar:

Although the mountains surrounding McDowell Mountain Park aren't as high as those in the Rockies (the highest one nearby is Browns Peak at 7,657 feet), they are weather-makers none-the-less. Their interesting jagged peaks are cloud magnets:

 

This afternoon we saw a beautiful double rainbow when the first round of storms passed through the area northeast of Phoenix and the sun peeked out from the dark clouds. We were driving east toward and through the town of Fountain Hills when I took this photo as Jim was driving:

Pictures probably would have been even more dramatic if taken from McDowell Park but the rainbows were gone by the time we got home. (Home is where our camper is.)

The mountains around Phoenix are scenic no matter what the weather is doing -- even when the metro area's smog partially obscures them. On a hazy day they remind me of the layers of fading blues that are so typical of the appropriately-named Blue Ridge Mountains in the Appalachian chain:

Well, maybe except for the Saguaro cacti! Those are a dead give-away that we're in the Southwest.

CRITTER UPDATE

To my disappointment we still haven't seen any coyotes or javelinas near our campsite. We see evidence that they have come around, we just haven't spotted them yet. We can often hear coyote choruses in the distance, both from our camper and from various points in the eastern and northern part of the park when we are running. Cody hears them but isn't very interested even when they've traipsed through our campsite on previous visits here.


The Granite Trail passes close to the southern campground loop.

One day recently Cody and I were returning to the campground on the Granite Trail (above) after running/hiking an 11-mile circuit on the Bluff and Pemberton Trails on the rocky southwestern side of the park near the McDowell Mountains. From a ridge above one of the many washes that has eroded the terrain we could hear two coyotes "talking" to each other nearby. I looked for them but couldn't see the one that was closest to us. It wasn't the high-pitched group "singing" that we usually hear, but two coyotes separated by some distance that were communicating with each other, perhaps a warning about our presence.

This time Cody's fur was standing up on his shoulders. He was on full alert status. There was something about the howls this time that caused him to react differently. We listened to the coyotes for a couple of minutes, then moved on, fascinated with the sounds of the desert.

Tonight Jim went outside after dark and saw something BIG moving across the road in front of our camper. Then he saw two more . . . horses! They were headed from their more remote rangeland in the park to the interior of our camping loop. We've seen them out on the trails but never in the campground before.

One day I took photos of these three roaming horses; a fourth was hidden in the trees on the left:

 

The horses reportedly belong to a ranch on the northern border of the park and are allowed to freely graze inside the park. They appear to have the run of the whole place. They aren't really wild but they won't let us pet them, either. They eat what little grass is available.

The horse hidden in the palo verde trees on the left was eating the little green leaves, which surprised me. I know that is characteristic of deer and elk. Guess I don't know much about horses!

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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