Peter’s Mesa Sunset

Can You Find the Eye of the Needle?

Peter’s mesa is at the center of Superstition Wilderness treasure legends. I was a member of an expedition to the top of the Mesa March 2008. This is a sunset view, looking south, southwest. Light raking across the desolation and an approaching storm behind Miner’s Needle create a fascinating spectacle. Ancient volcanism, apparent throughout the Superstition Wilderness, is here seen in the texture, form and type of rock as well as the mineral deposits. Miner’s Needle, like Weaver’s Needle (no seen in this view), are eroded volcanic summits. Look closely for the “eye” of Miner’s Needle, backlit by the storm cloud itself lit by the setting sun. To this day, hopeful prospectors search for gold nuggets around the Needle. There is one form of volcanism present today as an eerie rumble or hiss, similar to an enormous distant jet engine. We heard now and then during our two days on the mesa, louder and closer than a overhead plane could produce. The view includes many notable Sonoran desert plants. Many young Saguaro cactus are in the form of green poles and, on the rim of the ravine running left to right below the closer ridge, an excellent specimen with multiple arms. Catching the dramatic light, on the ridge is a tall single flower of an Agave, known as the “Century Plant” it flowers once in a long life and dies.

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Peters Mesa is named after “Old Pete” Gottfried Petrasch, father of Hermann and Rhiney Petrasch. Old Pete worked for Jim Bark for awhile in the 1890s doing odd jobs. Irregular employment gave Pete and Sons time to s searched for the Lost Dutchman Mine in the years following the death of the source of the legend, the “Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. The Petrasches were one of the first groups to search for the mine, and gold in general. They covered almost the entire Superstition range in their combined searches.

On our first day on the Mesa we came across the remains of one of these camp, on the top of Squaw Canyon. This was only deplorable junk a presumably disappointed bunch of searchers were too lazy to cart out. That March, we were lucky to find the remants of winter rains in the form of a meager trickle at the bottom of a shallow draw off Peter’s Mesa trail up from La Barge canyon. We had a good time of it until the trip was cut short by a storm front and torrential rains. We were back in Apache Junction before they hit.
This panorama is from our last evening on the Mesa. As the sun set I put the Kodak DSLR with a 50 MM lens on a Manfrotto tripod and hiked a mile higher onto the mesa for a view of Miner’s Needle. I quit only after the last light was extinguished by the approaching front. My reward for persistence was this dramatic light ennobling a craggy desolation. This is a composite of several images, combined using Photoshop. I have since invested in a Canon 24 mm wide angle lens.

Here is another Superstition Wilderness Episode

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Rincon Peak Summit

Experience the Sky Island view from Rincon Peak

The Rincons are one of 42 Sky Mountain islands isolated from each other by the gradual warming and drying climate changes since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. While this marvelous environment of oak and pine forests only accessible with much effort on foot, it is literally visible from every point of the Tucson valley and million human inhabitants.

Rincon is Spanish for corner, the mountains are called that from their shape enclosing a space on the west, northwest until recently used for ranching and is now falling into use for tract housing. The mountains themselves are reserved as wilderness, parts in the Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest.

In the past 44 years I was lucky enough to visit the Rincon Wilderness interior three times, shouldering different style backpacks onto the mountain, walking different boots. The first, during college the 1970’s, a party of six left from the end of Speedway, up the Douglas Springs trail. The climb was an exercise in desert survival that several friendships did not survive, replace by new friends met on Mica Mountain. I have no photographs from that experience, only memories and the backpack.

Reconnecting with Arizona in 2004, thirty one years after that first experience, I took no chances. My first attempt on Rincon Peak was a success. Risk and effort were reduced, not eliminated by hiring a guide for the four day trip. We made it to Rincon Peak via the Turkey Creek Trail out of Happy Valley, climbing a mountain buttress, views ever widening and lengthening.

These are some photographs from that experience and a landscape photograph of the peak at sunset, taken the following year.

Sego Lilies bloom among a stricken oak and drying grasses on the Turkey Creek trail. This is an overview of the environment, it is the winter rains that trigger the bloom.

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We paused while I unpacked my gear to capture Sego Lilies growing along the Turkey Creek Trail.

Sego Lilies -- CLICK ME!!!!
Sego Lilies -- CLICK ME!!!!

Deer Head Spring, at the top of Turkey Creek Trail was a moist spot with no accessible water when we reached it April 27, 2004. With the remains of a gallon of water each we needed to press ahead to Heartbreak Ridge and climb into Happy Valley Saddle were, thankfully, the creek was low and full of algae but usable. Here are my first views of Rincon Peak, looking across the aptly named Heartbreak Ridge and Happy Valley Saddle.

Distant View of Rincon Peak-- CLICK ME!!!!
Telephoto view of Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

The view to south from Rincon Peak. The white rocks at lower right forms a Valley of the Moon wall. San Pedro River valley at the root, Mae West Peaks at left margin, Dragoon Mountains with Cochise Stronghold center. Taken around 12:30 on April 28, 2004 as a thunderstorm approached.

View from Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

The Rincon Peak view looking south, southwest over the Valley of the Moon to the eastern Tucson Valley and the Sky Islands the Whetstone Mountains (Apache Peak), behind are the Santa Ritas. The works of man are overpowered by sky, rock, distance.

We made a hasty departure in front of the thunderstorm. It was a touch and go decision to attempt the peak that day, we made it with moments to spare.

View from Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

April 29, 2004 the morning after reaching Rincon Peak I set up the tripod near our Happy Valley Saddle camp to capture Rincon Peak in early morning sunlight.

Rincon Peak from Happy Valley Saddle, dawn -- CLICK ME!!!!

The day we descended to the X9 Ranch via the Rincon Creek trail. My guide’s grandfather had a homestead at the X9 and his access to the trailhead through private lands opened this route for us. This is a photograph of sunset on Rincon Peak from the X9 ranch. I am looking east from the Rincon (Spanish for corner) made by the massifs Rincon Peak, Mica Mountain and Tanque Verde ridge.

Rincon Peak from the X9 Ranch-- CLICK ME!!!!

The evening of November 2, 2006 I climbed the Saguaro National Park, East, Tanque Verde trail for about 30 minutes to reach this view of Rincon Peak and waited until just before the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains for this shot. Then hiked back to the car in twilight. In my hurry, I tripped on a stepped turn and dove headfirst into a large prickly pear. It was a very painful experience and I regretted damaging the cactus and the loss of and good hiking shirt. There were large spines in my face and tiny, pesky spines covered my chest and back. The large spines are not barbed and come right out. I needed to visit a physician to remove them.

Click me for a framed version of this photograph

Rincon Peak from the X9 Ranch-- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Moon Fin

Gibbous Moon and Red Rock

Driving from the Petrified Forest National Park my son, Sean, and I arrived at Chinle, Arizona the evening of Monday, November 2, 2003.  No time to rest or eat after checking into the Best Western he and I reached the White House overlook and trail head with the sun low in the sky, the sun sets 6:45 pm these last few days of Daylight Savings.  The Navajo Reservation observes Daylight Savings, so the click jumps crossing the border from Arizona to Reservation.

I was 50 at the time and with Sean graduated from SUNY Maritime and fresh from a tour at sea we made good time to the canyon floor.  I wanted to catch the White House in the setting sun.

This morning, 14 years later, I published a fine art photograph from that trip.

Looking along the canyon, over thick stands of Russian Olives, I caught the risen moon, in gibbous phase, against a mid-canyon freestanding fin of red sandstone of the southern canyon wall.

Click for “Moon Fin” from my OnLine Gallery

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

Saguaro Sky

dramatic skies from Saguaro National Park

November is a special time for the ranges and basins of southern Arizona deserts.  Climb a bajada of foothills, face west and wait for the sunset.  That is what I did this day, November 3, 2005.  East of Tucson the Saguaro National Monument at the foot of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness is where I parked, unpacked the photo gear and climbed the side of the Tanque Verde Ridge for a favorable view.  Weather was pushing high level moisture from the west, clouds were developing.

You see here a shot from that session.  In the distance, looking across Tanque Verde, are the Santa Catalina mountains.  Months since the last rainfall, the giant Saguaros are using internal moisture reserves drawn up from a shallow root system, the flesh is less plump, the supporting structure of the ribs, always evident, are more pronounced.  The last light catches these ribs in relief against a dramatic sky.

Click this link or the photograph for my Online gallery of this offering

Saguaro Sunset -- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2021 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Homecoming Parade 2003

Celebrating Electors Voting Today

In 2003 I was 50 years old, my son Sean graduated college and started his first job and we made time for a tour of Arizona together in November. The timing was perfect for me to take in the University of Arizona (U of A) Homecoming, my first since graduating 1975.

ArizonaCheer2003

One absolutely positive memory from my time at the U of A was trying out for freshman cheer squad when I first arrived in Tucson, somehow being chosen and then serving for the fall and spring terms. So, when I received an invitation of the cheer alumni events I accepted and planned to be there in Tucson for November 7 and 8.

ArizonaCheer2003

November 7 there was a reception for cheer alumni and current squad members. Everyone was welcoming and friendly, as you would expect, and I learned a bit about the younger members, how many were on academic scholarships.

ArizonaCheer2003

The squad advisor, Phoebe Chalk, and I chatted briefly. She responded, “We have photographers,” and I floated the idea of my taking photographs during the parade so I let that drop with the intention of doing it, anyway.

ArizonaCheer2003

I came prepared the next day with a Sony Cybershot F828. It was “Sony’s flagship prosumer digital camera” at the time. It worked well that day, the variable lens was especially helpful.

ArizonaCheer2003

At the staging site I encountered a problem. The cheer squad headed the parade, behind the University President with the cheer alumni well behind. My solution was to approach Peter Linkins, the outgoing University President, with a request to photograph the cheer squad.

ArizonaCheer2003

He said, “OK”, made a phone call and I walked up to the squad. They remembered me from the reception and I was on my way, “embedded” for the parade.

ArizonaCheer2003

I walked alongside and on the alert.  As we crossed passed the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium and into the intersection with Cherry Avenue the squad broke formation for a stunt.  Three men formed the “base”, they were  J. Justin VandenBerg, Ricardo Abud (captain) and Robert Scoby, around a “flyer”, Taylor Hendrickson, and launched her into the air, above the pavement.

ArizonaCheer2003

My sense of amazement, awe and concern is reflected in the reactions of the team members.  Taylor was thrown more than 15 feet high for a complete flip to land in the arms of the three base members.  I call this image, “Mind.”

ArizonaCheer2003

They did it again and I was more prepared to capture the instant of launch.  “Aerialists,” is the title of this image.  The next flyer to launch was Kristen Ortega, here standing on the shoulders of her partner.

ArizonaCheer2003-1

Kristen was launched in front of the review stand.  “Grace,” is the image title.  The three base members are the same.

ArizonaCheer2003-1

Here is the rest of the parade.

ArizonaCheer2003-1
ArizonaCheer2003-1
ArizonaCheer2003-1
ArizonaCheer2003-1
ArizonaCheer2003-1

I posed with the cheer squad afterwards.

ArizonaCheer2003-1
Click link for another posting about Arizonians, “Portrait of a Navajo Guide.”
Click link for another posting about Arizonians, “History and Ghosts of the Triangle T Ranch.”

Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

Saguaro Sky

dramatic skies from Saguaro National Park

November is a special time for the ranges and basins of southern Arizona deserts.  Climb a bajada of foothills, face west and wait for the sunset.  That is what I did this day, November 3, 2005.  East of Tucson the Saguaro National Monument at the foot of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness is where I parked, unpacked the photo gear and climbed the side of the Tanque Verde Ridge for a favorable view.  Weather was pushing high level moisture from the west, clouds were developing.

You see here a shot from that session.  In the distance, looking across Tanque Verde, are the Santa Catalina mountains.  Months since the last rainfall, the giant Saguaros are using internal moisture reserves drawn up from a shallow root system, the flesh is less plump, the supporting structure of the ribs, always evident, are more pronounced.  The last light catches these ribs in relief against a dramatic sky.

Click this link or the photograph for my Online gallery of this offering
Saguaro Sunset -- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Family Trek

Sandstone Togetherness

The Defiance Plateau of northeastern Arizona declines gradually from its origin, the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico.  Route 191 runs where the Defiance Plateau merges with a valley of the larger Colorado Plateau.  The Black Mesa escarpment forms the western valley wall and is clearly visible from Canyon de Chelly visitor center.  

Carved into the Defiance Plateau, the high cliff canyon walls of Canyon de Chelly at intervals belly out into wide alcoves.  For thousands of years, the land between the walls was farmed.  Here is a photograph from our 2008 canyon visit, visible are fields, farm equipment, shed and sport utility vehicle (SUV).  Look closer for the hogan, adjacent to the shed, and, on the lowest sandstone shelf on the left, white goats.

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Here is a quote from the reference link provided at the end of my post:

“The massive, high cliffs that form the walls of the canyon are De Chelly Sandstone. The De Chelly Sandstone consists of sand deposited in dunes in a subtropical to arid environment in Early Triassic time (about 250 to 230 million years ago).”

In this photograph the goats jumped off the shelf to graze, around them are the two forms of De Chelly Sandstone.  230 million years ago winds driving across the dry lands, piling the eroded bits of ancestral rocky mountains into dunes hundreds of feet high.  The in-stratified rock cliffs are the body of those dunes, converted to stone over the eons.  The cliffs are visible in both photographs.  The dark stains are called desert varnish.  Read more about desert varnish in the first posting of this series, “Portrait of a Navajo Guide.”  The rock in the foreground appear formed from an orderly pile of stone plates, this appearance is called stratification.  Another name for it is Cross Bedded Sandstone, formed from wind blowing across the dunes.

That entire, northeastern, side of the alcove is Cross-bedded sandstone.  Click on any one of the following photographs for a larger version, to peruse the detail.

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A fascinating detail in these photographs, the subject of this post, are human figures rendered tiny by the distance and the enormous maze of sandstone.

It is four generations of a Navajo family, fathers, mothers, children of all ages down to infants in carriers.  My wife Pam, myself and our Navajo guide watched in wonder as they made their way down to the canyon floor.

Their progress was slow and careful.  Everyone kept together.  Nobody left behind.

Here they inch along a high ledge.

Descend from one ledge to the next.


Most amazing of all, the first person down is an elderly woman wearing sports shoes, steadied with umbrella, accompanied by a pre-teen girl.  Her progress steady and sure from years of experience.

Our guide knew the family.  He and they chatted in the Dine language.  The were travelling for a birthday party.

Reference Link for the quote

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

Portrait of a Navajo Guide

a window in time

On November 3, 2004 my son, Sean, and I made our way to Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly.

The next day, driving a rented 4 wheel drive, we arrived at the visitor center, at dawn, and there met Peter Tsosie who worked as a guide. This is how you do it, if learning about the Canyon is your goal. It is possible to walk, unaccompanied, into the canyon to view the “White House” and this I highly recommend. Tourists can also drive around the rim to various overlooks. This is what most people do.

The canyon is still farmed and the tribe only allows visitors when accompanied by a guide. Only Navajos are certified as guides. They know the rights of way and the preferences of the landowners.

Click for my OnLine Gallery of Arizona photography

We negotiated with Peter to take us for half a day for our interest in petroglyphs and ruins. It is important to start early when the sun is low in the sky, when directly overhead the details of ruins and petroglyphs are washed out by the light. Catching the late afternoon/evening sun is also an approach that requires detailed knowledge of the route, taking into account the time of year.

Peter was an excellent choice, though he was our only option on that day. He was fluent in Navajo beliefs, the lore of the canyon and generous in sharing what he knew.

Here is Peter, approximately 6.2 miles into the canyon with the “Ledge Ruin” behind. We arrived at the junction just in time, before the sun was high enough to wash out the ruin. It is slow going into the canyon what with the deep sand and water that must be negotiated. Peter did the driving and was expert. We passed other parties bogged down in the wet sand. I do not believe it was luck that kept us moving . We stopped many times to talk and admire the petroglyphs and pictographs.

Petroglyphs are symbols incised, or cut, into the surface (the name means petro, “rock”, glyph, “symbol”). In the desert climate of the southwestern USA a thin, dark pigment forms on rock surfaces of overhanging cliffs. The pigment forms from infrequent precipitation, in the form of water, flowing downward over the surface or even dew. The high heat of the desert drives a chemical reaction between water, clays, iron and manganese oxide to form a coating on the rock surface. The dark coating, called “desert varnish”, contrasts with the underlying rock. When it is scraped away a line forms. Many of the petroglyphs were of this form. Others were carved into the rock itself, more time consuming and durable. No one knows when the petroglyphs were made, they were always there are respected. People have inhabited Canyon de Chelly for over a thousand years.
The word pictograph has a different meaning when used to describe prehistoric art. The earliest writing were symbols incised in wet clay, then allowed to harden. The pictographs we viewed was prehistoric art, mostly white pigment on the red rock, outlines of hands. There were also kokopelli, the outline of a flute player and jagged lines, symbolizing, Peter told us, lightening.

In November the cottonwoods were in fall foliage, a brilliant yellow under a cloudless sky. The sun is lower in the south and rises later. The Navajo Reservation follows daylight savings time, unlike Arizona. This November morning the sun rose around 7:45 am, so if you are not an early riser this time of year is an excellent choice for a Canyon de Chelly tour.

Click for the next posting in this series, “Junction Ruin Musings”

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

White House Ruin

iconic image

November 2003 my son, Sean, and I drove up route 191 from the Petrified Forest National Part to arrived at Chinle on a November afternoon. In 2003 my photography kit included a Sony Point and Shoot 5 MP camera with filters, an over the shoulder (purse type) bag and an inexpensive “Kmart” tripod.

We found the White House trailhead, hiked down essentially alone as the sun set at 5:20 pm.  At that time, a thick stand of Russian Olive trees choked the wash.  We stopped at this point in the gathering dark.  I took this distant shot of the White House Ruin against the Russian Olive autumn foliage.  A stand of Cottonwoods growing near the canyon wall had yet to turn their brilliant yellow.  At that time, the White House Ruin was painted white.

When Pam and I visited July 2008, in the intervening 4 years, 9 months the Russian Olives were removed as an invasive species, the ruin was no longer white.

There is one highway headed south in the Four Corners region of Northern Arizona, the same route 191 Sean and I took.  In 2008 Pam and I came from Colorado south on 191, also arriving late afternoon.

That July day the sun set 8:33 pm as the Navajo Reservation observes daylight savings time. My goal was to photograph the White House Ruin I missed in 2003. We arrived at the trail head. My photography kit was expanded from 2003, now included a Kodak DSC Pro slr/C, the “C” meaning “Canon” lens mounting, a Sony 700 alpha slr (I only use a variable lens), Manfrotto tripod with hydrostatic ball head, and the backpack style Lowe camera case. With the tripod it is over 25 pounds.

With this on my back I was prepared to boogie down the trail. At the height of tourist season there were many more people at the trailhead. Pam, being a friendly person, started a conversation while I ploughed ahead along the flat canyon rim. It is solid red sandstone, beautiful, generally level with enough unevenness to require attention. When Pam saw how far ahead I was she tried to catch up, tripped, fell hard.

I backtracked to Pam and we pulled it together. She thought, maybe, the fall broke a rib. We descended, slowly, together. Here we are in front of the ruin. The sun, low in the sky, is moving below the south canyon wall. This is a perfect time and I used both cameras.

The sweep of cliff and desert varnish was my intent to capture. Here it is through the Canon 50 mm lens.

Click link for this White House photograph in my Online gallery.

I captured this version with the Sony Alpha 700 slr, the variable lens set to widest angle.

Click link for this White House photograph from my online gallery.

Here the camera setup waits out the sun…..

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

Sycamores and Riparian Space

a Preview of Reavis Ranch

….continued from the chapter “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.”

Compare these Arizona Sycamores with the struggling specimen from the last chapter, “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.” Many Sycamores such as this one flourish along Reavis Creek, a perennial stream of the eastern Superstition Wilderness. The drainage that feeds Pine Creek is far less acreage than that of Reavis Creek and, when the Pine Creek flow fades in the driest seasons, plants go into survival mode and halt growth and may even slough off limbs to conserve water.

These Sycamores grace a stream that seldom stops flowing, even in the driest of seasons. I had the good fortune to visit the Reavis valley of the Superstition Wilderness in November 2007, when these trees were at peak autumn foliage.

The tree requires a supply of water to thrive. This specimen demonstrates the species growth habit growing multiple trunks with a shape driven by water availability and the environmental context. The multiple trunks may be a desert survival mechanism. In dry periods a trunk or trunks are sloughed off to reduce moisture loss. This is why the Sycamore of “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek” has a single trunk.”

To encounter a riparian space of the Arizona desert is a revelation, to progress from Sonoran desert spaces assailed by the breath of dry wind, to see the first signs of water in the distance as a welcome fluttering of leaves, to feel a welcome odor of water.

Yes, the first effect of a riparian space on the senses is the smell of water. Let’s finish this post with limbs of the Reavis Creek Arizona Sycamore reaching for the sky.

Click me to visit Michael Stephen Wills Online Arizona Gallery.
Click me for the next post in this series, “Desert Luxuries.”
Clck me for the first post in this series, “Racing the Sun.”

Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills