Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tom Mix and Saguaros

Had some errands in Tucson yesterday, so I drove down and back. Beautiful winter day – 88 degrees, a few puff clouds, gentle breezes from the SE. (sorry – just had rub it in!)

I took the back way . . . Hwy 60 east to the turnoff down to Florence, down highway 79 to the junction with 77 and south into town. I love that drive – it’s mostly a two lane road thru the desert and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Almost no traffic, surrounded by more saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) than there are in the Saguaro National Park, the Santa Catalina Mountains still showing quite a bit of snow on Mt. Lemmon off in the distance. I will go out of my way to drive that road, rather than take I-10, which is about the same distance, is in worse condition by far, and has major traffic!

Everything is so green right now – from lots of rain this winter – the cactus all have full bellies and are plump and healthy and growing! And the wild flowers are starting to poke their heads up! Lots of poppies and penstamen and lupines and more!

Decided to stop for a look-see at the Tom Mix Memorial that I’ve noticed and driven past many times. You remember Tom Mix, the fancy-dressing silent film cowboy super hero?

Born Thomas Hezekiah Mix, he made a reported 336 films between 1910 and 1935, all but nine of which were silent features. He was Hollywood’s first Western megastar and is noted as having helped define the genre for all cowboy actors who followed.

Tom Mix led an interesting life - he joined the army as a young man and was an artillery sergeant during the Philippine campaign from 1898 to 1901, though he never saw action. In fact, he deserted from the Army, but it appears he was never court-martialed.

About 1903, he was drum major with the Oklahoma Cavalry Band, playing in the St. Louis World's Fair. In 1904 he was a bartender and sheriff in Dewey, OK. He was in a series of Wild West shows for several years, and in 1910 he was hired to handle horses for Selig Movie Productions. His first movie was 'Ranch Life in the Great Southwest.' His popularity is said to have eclipsed all other great cowboy stars of the silent era (the women reportedly loved his dashing good looks and great body!! which may have led to his FIVE wives!), and he earned - and spent - millions. In addition to Mix's riding and shooting skills, his films also showcased the talents of his amazing horse, Tony the Wonder Horse!

He was king of the cowboys during the 1920s and remained popular on radio and in comic books for more than a decade after his death.

Mix was killed in a one-car auto accident at the age of 60. On the afternoon of October 12, 1940, he was driving his yellow 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton near Florence on two-lane highway 79 when he came upon construction barriers at a bridge previously washed away by a flash flood. A work-crew watched as he was unable to brake in time and his car slid into a gully. A large polished aluminum suitcase on the rear seat flew forward and struck Mix in the back of the head, shattering his skull and breaking his neck.

That’s where this memorial was erected, about 20 miles south of Florence. Sad statement – this lonely riderless horse on a stack of rocks, a plaque you can hardly read anymore, and a couple picnic tables. Oh well – won’t be long before no one even recognizes his name. At least he’s memorialized forever in my blog! (You’re supposed to chuckle!)

Enough of Tom Mix! Back to the road - like so many others, I am completely infatuated with, and fascinated by the grand old man of the cactus world, the saguaro (pronounced 'sah-wah-roh'). The “old man” because by the time they reach their familiar shape with multiple arms reaching toward the skies, they are more than 100 years old, sometimes reaching 200 years and more, and weighing upwards of 10 tons!

Generally, the first portion of a saguaro’s lifespan is characterized by very slow growth. It can take up to 5 years for a saguaro to reach 1 inch. . . yes, one inch! in 5 years!!

The saguaro often begins life in the shelter of a "nurse" tree or shrub, which can provide a shaded, moister habitat for the germination of life, and you'll sometimes see one of the giants still growing thru the branches of an ancient mesquite 'nurse' tree.

As the saguaro ages, its growth rate increases. By 30 years of age, the saguaro grows only to 3 feet tall. By 60 years of age, it can more than quadrupled its height to 16 feet tall. Almost 100 years later, the saguaro is between 35-50 feet tall.

Home is the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, northwestern Mexico and extreme southeastern California, and they seem to prefer south facing slopes and rocky soils, usually found in elevations below 3,500 feet.

The saguaro has an incredible root system. The roots grow very shallow for such a tall, heavy plant (they can weigh a ton or more!). The saguaro has one tap root that is only about three feet long. Plus there are two sets of radial roots - one is a thick root system, which is only about one foot long, and then a thinner root system that grows to a length equal to the height of the Saguaro Cactus. A retailer must be licensed to transplant these huge plants – there is one such dealer near me here in Apache Junction, and when you see one ready for transport and see the tiny root ball, it is simply amazing that they will survive the move.

Dependent upon weather, temperatures and rainfall, the saguaro must usually reach about 8 feet tall and 50 years of age before it even puts out its first flowers

and ruby-red fruit. And the fruit - what a story here too. The fruit is enjoyed by all of the desert inhabitants, including humans! The Indians harvest the fruit and use every part - the brilliant red fruit is very sweet, and each fruit holds about 2000 seeds about the size of this little period.

I was fortunate to take part it a harvest sponsored by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum with a local Indian family. We made long sticks from ribs of an old cactus, with several tied together for enough length to reach the top of the big cactus. We gently prodded at the fruit that were showing some red, meaning they were ripe, so they'd fall, and hopefully we'd catch them in buckets as they fell. When we had enough, we used a modern convenience to slice them open - beer can tabs! The fruit was then scraped into a clean bucket. When the buckets were about half filled (which takes a lot, because each fruit is about the size of a really big lemon), they are filled further with fresh water, and squished by hand to create a thick juice. This is then poured thru fine screens to separate out the seeds from the juice. The seeds are dried and ground into a flour for baking, and the juice is cooked down for a number of yummy uses - jams and jellies, booze, sauces. Also, if you're lucky enough to find an open fruit that hasn't been devoured by the birds, if can dry into the most divine red saguaro jerky candy - what a treat!

And they are about 75 years old before growing their first arm!

This skeleton of a saguaro shows the ribs that give it the strength and structure to stand tall for so long!

So when you see these incredible giants standing tall, with lots of arms curving toward the sky, take a moment to dream of the things they’ve seen in their lives and the stories they would tell if only they could!

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