Thursday, June 1, 2017

Arizona 2017: Momentous Decision

Three weeks in March 2017 were taken up with our trip to Costa Rica. Our volunteer gig at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park had ended in December 2016. Our plan was to start back to our summer spot in Wisconsin by April 1. So what to do with the months of January and February (plus the remaining time in March)? Not a problem. Finding things to do has never been a problem. Either we find things to do or they find us. 
Our New Year’s Day ritual of starting our annual bird list (lust?) had begun. We finished 2016 with a respectable ABA count of 430 species. That number included 8 new ABA species. Throw in our 2016 trip to Colombia trip and our annual count jumped to 815 species. This also added 81 life birds. Six were from splits without leaving the RV. Given the time of year and location, we knew the start to our 2017 list would be slow so we didn’t  break any first day records like we had been used to when we were parked in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
After halfhearted birding around the RV, we opted to take in a movie (the Star Wars upstart “Rogue One”) and lunched at Culver’s. 26 species on the day without even trying. It was, as expected, a slow start.
A few day’s worth of doing laundry, grocery shopping and other household chores out of the way, we met up with birding friends Chris and Dean Hitchcock who were now parked at Tombstone Territories RV. A day of birding at Patagonia State Park helping Chris and Dean find Black-capped Gnatcatchers. Lunch at the Gathering Grounds in Patagonia. Then a visit to what was the old Paton’s feeders (now Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds) where we had a surprise early sighting of a Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Checkout the hummingbird web cam. Tom’s brief video of the bird wound up being shared to the Paton’s Facebook page. Boosted to 74 species for the year, we almost tripled our freshly started 2017 annual count.

lots happening in the "old Paton's feeders" backyard
Somewhere along the way one of Carol's nose pads on her eyeglasses had broken. A call to Appleton's Faces Eyewear where the frames were purchased resulted in a promise to repair the frames with a short turn-around time. Packed up, the frames were sent overnight to Appleton. By golly, within five days, they were repaired and back on Carol's face. Can't say enough good things about Faces Eyewear! In the meantime Carol was sporting a 'new look' with an older spare pair we use as backups traveling out of the country. Didn't look bad at all (even if it took her a bit of time adjusting to a slightly older prescription).

Streak-backed Oriole
Crissal Thrasher
Violet-crowned Hummingbird
The following Sunday we joined the weekly EOP bird tour where we were invited to join a field trip to the Portal area organized by birding guru Erika Wilson. A Streak-backed Oriole was coming to the “Bob Rodrigues” feeders plus Erika, acting upon a long-standing invitation to visit Rick Taylor's home, had planned a stop at Taylor's where we would picnic. Carpooling with us were the Hitchcocks. After successfully finding  the oriole (which included stellar looks at a Crissal Thrasher) we drove to the Taylor residence. Rick is the author of a "Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona". Rick happened to be off guiding one of his Borderland Tours. In Rick’s absence, his lovely wife gave us a tour of the house and grounds.

birding at Rick Taylor's
Tequila tasting with John
We made our way back to Portal to stop at Dave Jasper’s where New York native, John Barthelme, who was house sitting for Dave, invited us to imbibe in a Tequila tasting. Sipping fine Tequilla, we discussed reports of a Nuttings Flycatcher being seen at California Gulch and laid plans for what would be a day-long trip to try this ABA tick. While Erika and her group left to return to Sierra Vista, we drove the Hitchcocks into Cave Creek to point out a few spots to bird when they had more time. On the way back to the RV park we stopped for burgers at our favorite burger spot in Tombstone: Big Nose Kate’s.
Erika had wasted no time in organizing a trip to California Gulch and in a few day's time we were on the road again with the Hitchcocks.
California Gulch is in the remote Pajarito Mountains of southeast Arizona near the Mexico border. Its dense thorn-shrub vegetation is layered on steep rocky slopes, one of those way out of the way birding hot spots where rarities will appear from time to time. It’s not a drive taken lightly and most always requires a four-wheel drive high clearance vehicle. Looking for a bird in such a large area is like looking for a needle in a haystack. California Gulch is also a pretty reliable spot for Five-striped Sparrow (although we have yet to see one - anywhere!).

Nutting's Flycatcher
one happy group after seeing the ABA Category 5 Nutting's
After three hours of searching for the needle, a birder from another like-minded group tracked us down to say they had found it! And indeed they had. Not only did we get good looks but Tom managed a brief video of the bird while it was vocalizing. Thankfully it was vocalizing because there are three other very similar species of crested flycatchers common in Arizona that made sorting out this accidental vagrant from Mexico all the more difficult.
Since we missed a chance to visit the kids in Colorado last summer, and, realizing that our route back to Wisconsin this year would not include Colorado, we sketched out a plan to make the drive to visit them in mid-January. On the 18th we drove to Las Cruces where we had an invitation to stay with friends Paula and Dave Hanson which helped to break up a very long drive into two days.

Cafe de Mesilla with Joyce
Frank, Carol, Dave, Paula, Paul
and add Tom
We arrived in Las Cruces in time to have breakfast at the Cafe de Mesilla, our favorite Las Cruces breakfast (and lunch!) stop run by Joyce Zimmer. We’d met Joyce a few years earlier when we first discovered the cafe and have remained friends on Facebook ever since. As luck would have it, Joyce’s son and his girlfriend, both biology students,  were visiting Joyce.
That evening at Paula and Dave’s, two more dear friends, Frank and Paul, joined us for a dinner party. How fortunate we are to have such caring friends!

Early the next morning we were off. By the time we crossed the Colorado state line we had already seen lots of snow in northern New Mexico. And there was no shortage of snow at the kid’s house. Several feet of the white stuff was piled high in the yard almost blocking their mailbox. And, a couple more feet fell while we were there (and us without our ‘winter’ clothes!). A ten-hour, 600-mile drive to finally spend time with Chris, Robin, Callie and Carter.

ready for a Packer game (they lost!)
a crafty bunch to be sure!
and snow
Breakfast at the Mountain Lyon Cafe with Chris. Shopping with Robin and the kids. A family breakfast out at the (now remodeled and expanded) Sunshine Cafe. A drive up to Loveland Pass (more snow!), and hanging out with the grandkids. My how they have grown in just a year’s time! Interesting to note that NO birds were coming to the yard and in fact, we saw very few birds in the neighborhood. Wonder what's up with that?

Black Rosy-Finch - only seen in the United States
Our plan was to drive back to Las Cruces and another overnight with Paula and Dave. However, prior to leaving Arizona, we’d been closely following reports of all three rosy-finch species coming to feeders at Sandia Crest House high above Albuquerque.  The Hitchcocks had tried for and seen all three species earlier in January. We already had Gray-crowned and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches on our ABA life list but were missing the tough to find Black Rosy-Finch. Sandia Crest House would be a short detour along our route and doable. If we had to we'd find a motel in Albuquerque. We want that bird!

driving up to and view from Sandia Crest House
The problem was that Sandia Crest House is only open on weekends in the winter. Our return drive was on a Monday. Hmmm. However, Carol had been keeping in touch with the owners via email and texts and there was a chance that they might, just might, be open on that Monday given that they missed being open on the weekend due to a snowstorm. As we headed out of Dillon in a snowstorm, we got the word that yes, Sandia Crest would in fact be open.
By the time we reached the turnoff to Sandia Crest House we had decided to take a chance. Our high-clearance four-wheel-drive truck was not a concern to make the drive up the mountain. We only hoped that the birds would be there.
Sandia Crest House is located in the Cibola National Forest a good 10,000 feet above sea level. The road was indeed packed with snow. The scenery was breathtaking, though, with snow-covered pines and majestic views of the surrounding Rio Grande Valley and Albuquerque.

view from inside through the deck door; feeder feeding finches
Parking was limited due to snow piles near the main building. The wind howled, blasting us with frigid crisp air. As we made our way to the main entrance a large flock of birds suddenly lifted up and dropped over the side of the mountain. Most likely rosy-finches!
Two long walls in the gift shop/cafe were nearly floor to ceiling windows. A deck with tables might have been an inviting place to sit but given bone chilling winds, not today. We could see a couple of bird feeders on the deck dancing in the wind. Unfortunately they were devoid of any bird seed.
Carol asked one of the cafe workers if they might restock the feeders. “Sure! No problem!”  Within minutes rosy-finches descended to feed. Among a flock of 60-80 we spotted Black Rosy-Finches! Finally, another nemesis ABA bird in the books. By the way,  Black Rosy-Finches (Leucosticte atrata) are one of a small handful of birds endemic to the United States. Anyone wishing to see Black Rosy-Finches must travel to alpine areas well above the tree line - in the winter - and only in the western United States. Our side trip to Sandia Crest House was successful but it also meant a much longer driving day. We reached Paula and Dave’s by 9:00 that evening, totally exhausted.
Early the next morning, after breakfast at a local Cracker Barrel, we managed to get all the snow and grime washed off the truck at a local car wash before heading out.

always hospitable - Mark and Lori Conrad in their home in Portal
“Heading out” included making a swing through Portal to catch up with Lori and Mark Conrad, arriving just in time for lunch and to view their multiple feeding stations. By mid-afternoon we were back at the RV and ready for naps!

Shirley and John
Toward the end of January we caught up with friends from Wisconsin, John and Shirley Strange for lunch at Saguaro Corners in Tucson. John is an Appleton High School classmate of Tom’s who spends part of his retirement mountain climbing.

Glenn, Diane, Bill
technically, the Bisbee Breakfast Club is just outside Bisbee in Lowell, AZ
More friends from Wisconsin, Glenn and Diane Chambliss, were renting a house for a month in Sierra Vista (as they have done in past years). We met them at the EOP for the Sunday bird hike, then, with friend Bill Brown, drove to Bisbee for breakfast at the Bisbee Breakfast Club. It seems that getting together over a good meal is a constant in our lives.
The end of January we birded Fort Huachuca after renewing our fort passes (now good for an entire year instead of the 30-day renewal card). Finally caught up with trogons in Huachuca Canyon along with a few more FOY (first of year) birds pushing our annual tally over the 100 mark.

Mary, Ann, Carol
Mary, Tom, Ann
We made a noon lunch date with Ann Gurr of the Cave Unit at Kartchner Caverns State Park. As a new park hire, we first met Ann who was in our lead guide class during our first year volunteering at Kartchner. Nice catching up with Ann, learning about all the changes in the park. We also got to meet the new volunteer coordinator who extended an invitation to us to come back to volunteer (they’re in desperate need of trained tour guides) but we were already committed to leaving the RV where it was parked. We needed to leave it somewhere safe during our Costa Rica trip and Kartchner was not going to allow us to leave the RV on a volunteer site (as they have in the past).

Brent and Carol (at a Culver's, of course)
Another lunch date. This time with Carol’s nephew, Brent, who happened to be in Tucson for a few months. Brent was keen on buying an RV to emulate our lifestyle and was looking for advice about what kind of RV to buy. Not sure if he ever made the jump to an RV but we certainly gave him reams of info and tips about what to look for in a rig to match his requirements. And as long as we were in Tucson, a little grocery shopping at Sprouts and a visit to the Apple Store (Tom was considering updating his laptop).
More birding. A hike at the nearby historic town of Fairbank, the San Pedro House (big find was a roosting pair of Long-eared Owls), and more visits to the EOP.

dining in Naco, Mexico with Bill Brown
Friend Bill Brown who was staying at Ash Canyon B and B helping maintain and stock feeders, had on his bucket list, a trip across the Mexico border into the small town of Naco - would we like to go along? Well, of course!
The name Naco is drawn from the Opata language and means nopal cactus. It was established in 1897 as a border crossing to connect copper mines on both sides of the border. Naco, Sonora, was officially founded in 1900 with the construction of the Naco-Cananea rail line. Fort Naco was a former military post on the outskirts of Naco. Subsequent to Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. Fort Naco served as a staging area for American troops protecting the border (which wound up not needing protection).
Our own invasion of Mexico simply consisted of parking on the U.S. side and walking through the border checkpoint. From there we wandered the main road looking for shops and a place to eat lunch. After a few failed attempts to locate a restaurant open for business (in spite of locals telling us that these places were open) we stumbled across a small cafe with excellent food. The three of us dined for less than $14 (including beer!). Happy to have made the trip but not necessary to go back.

dining with Renell and Ron at Santiago's, Bisbee
Bisbee in a whole new light
Another date for dinner, this time with Sierra Vista friends, Ron and Renell for a meal at a Mexican restaurant in Bisbee we’d been wanting to try for some time: Santiago’s. It appeared to be a bit pricey (great Margaritas!). However, Carol, ever the bargain hunter, discovered the restaurant has a ‘Thankful Thursday’ special. If you “like” their Facebook page and write a brief note about what you are thankful for, they will give you 50% off any entree. That’s was good for each member of our group posting to Facebook! Food was tremendous and we couldn’t beat the price.
Ron, a hopeless history buff at heart, suggested we stroll around Bisbee in the evening to walk off dinner and were thrilled to discover a whole other side to Bisbee at night.

Patagonia State Park with Dick and Sally and Dick's sisters
Mid-February we had more visitors. Dick and Sally Werling, RVer’s we had first met while parked in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and now have a winter home north of Tucson, met us at Patagonia State Park where we hiked for the morning then lunched at the - you guessed it - Gathering Ground before heading to checkout the progress at Paton’s. We’d heard that a Yellow-throated Warbler was back in the Patagonia town square (it's actually oblong) in front of the Gathering Ground. We managed to located it feeding in mistletoe.

Anne's friend Jim, Anne, Tom
Mary, Carol, Dave
Carol with Troy, our favorite guitarist!
Later into February found us concentrating more on getting ready for our Costa Rica trip. But that didn’t mean we were letting other opportunities to bird and meet people slide past. Within a three day period we made two trips to Saguaro Corners in Tucson. The first was to have lunch with Anne Meyer, a long-time friend of Tom’s and then a few days later, return to have brunch with friend Nancy Novak from Tucson and another couple of RV’ers, Mary and Dave Russell, two Canadians we had also first met in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. The reason we all met when we did was to hear guitarist friend Troy Gray play. And as long as we were in Tucson, a drive through one of the units of the Saguaro National Park, East (Gilded Flicker - yay!) was a must.

birding with Larry and Carol at San Pedro House
a life bird for the Doles - Western Screech-Owl
Larry and Carol Dole had arrived at Tombstone Territories so of course we exchanged a few scrumptious evening meals plus talked at length about birding possibilities. We hiked a bit at Huachuca Canyon hoping to nail down their nemesis Elegant Trogon (which winter in the canyon) but no luck. As a consolation prize we drove to the Bisbee Breakfast Club for breakfast.
Late February is when Tom’s new MacBook Air arrived requiring a fair amount of time to transfer files from his old laptop in order to be ready to take it to Costa Rica. Nothing he couldn’t handle - just time consuming.

By March 1 we were off to Costa Rica covered in our three part blog post starting HERE.
Back from Costa Rica we had a long laundry list of things needing to be accomplished. An oil change for the truck morphed into more regular service work plus four new truck tires. Ouch$$! However, while the truck was being worked on we managed a drive up to Incinerator Ridge in the Catalina Mountains above Tucson. Wow! At the top we were reminded that it was still early spring with temperatures in the low 30's!
We had finally decided on a route back to Wisconsin that would include Texas and a stop at High Island. We starting making reservations for other stops along the way including a reservation at a St. Louis city owned RV park conveniently near where we had planned to visit Graham and Caitlin.

Buff-breatsed Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher
strange clouds on our drive up to Carr Canyon
The Hitchcocks had by now returned to Tombstone Territories following a swing into to California. And the Doles were also back in the park following their unexpected trip back to New Hampshire. Of course this meant more birding and meals! We squeezed in a drive up Carr Canyon to find another Mexico vagrant, a Tufted Flycatcher. Two were hanging out with another of our favorite flycatcher species, Buff-breasted Flycatcher.
There never seems to be enough time to do all we want to do whenever we find ourselves wrapping up to leave a location where we've been parked for a while. We would have liked to stay a bit longer for more migrants to appear while birding with the Doles and Hitchcocks. But we also needed to be back in Wisconsin before May. Last year we had missed Wisconsin's spring migration and we didn't want to miss it two years in a row.
In our final week before leaving, Tom uncovered some disturbing facts about his status with the Veterans Administration. One, he was no longer registered as eligible to receive benefits. And two, he was not registered in the Agent Orange Registry as he had been lead to believe he was in the 1990's. These were uncovered during an application for disability (hearing loss) with the VA.
Through a series of phone calls he learned that he would need to obtain a new photo ID. It didn't matter that he had his old VA card given to him when he left the Army - the number associated with that card was no longer valid (i.e., not in the VA system). After filling out an online application for eligibility, he was told that he would still have to provide a copy of his DD-214 (proof of one's service) in person. That could be done at a local VA Clinic like the one in Sierra Vista. He also learned that to be placed on the Agent Orange Registry, he would have to undergo an interview - in person - at a facility with a "VA Environmental Representative" authorized to perform such interviews. The nearest facility was Tucson.
After three separate trips in one week to the Sierra Vista office, Tom still didn't have a valid ID card. He provided proof (DD-214) and answered a series of questions - more than once -  which were entered into the VA database by the one individual at the clinic who handled eligibility claims. Let's just say that person was less than competent and leave it at that.
In the end, Tom did wind up in the system but to obtain a photo ID he would have to pursue the matter at a local VA Clinic when we got back to Wisconsin (he did and now has a photo ID). As for the Agent Orange Registry, that too would have to be pursued in Wisconsin (it has been but his appointment for an interview isn't until the third week in June).
And as for the disability claim? Following a series of filling out forms, and followup forms all beginning in January, it's still ongoing. A followup exam took place in May (while we are in Wisconsin as of this writing). Tom is now waiting to hear whether or not the claim will be approved - or if there is any further follow-up needed.

one last get-together - next time we're together should be in Thailand!
There was one last party with the Doles and Hitchcocks the night before we left for Rusty's RV Park near Rodeo....then off to points east and north. By this time we had also come to make a rather momentous decision.

quote the Raven "Never more"
In this, our eighth year of our nomadic lifestyle, we’d found ourselves more frequently discussing if it was finally time to give it up. Weighing all the pros and cons while sorting through our options, we had finally reached a decision. It was time.
So what’s next? If we’re not living in an RV, where will we live?

If we have learned but one lesson during our travels, it’s that we’ve discovered lots of places where we DON’T want to live. Places where there are long stretches of cold, snow, ice and extended periods of gray skies (after all, that’s why we left the Midwest in the first place!). Conversely, we don’t care to live in areas famous for extended periods of hot, humid weather which pretty much eliminated the sultry southern states (yes, especially you, Florida). We don’t consider ourselves urbanites in the sense that we’d be happy living in a densely populated metropolitan area. Forget Los Angeles, San Antonio, and the Bg Apple. The Northwest certainly held a lot of attractions (Portland, Seattle, and Bellingham, we love you!). But again, the climate?
But wait! How about immigrating to another country? The overall cost of living would drop significantly. And to that end, we came ever, ever so close to immigrating to Costa Rica, a country we’ve grown to love. No standing Army, a solid health care system, loads of wildlife, and inexpensive housing. And year round access to fresh fruits and vegetable! Our plan was to live there for a maximum of two to three years. But what about family? Not that we see them as often as we like now - but living so far away? In the end, that was a deal breaker.
Given our interests in nature, we want to be near it. Or at least reasonably near. Hiking, birding, biking mean a lot to us. We LIKE living outside! We want to be near decent shopping (driving 25 miles to grocery shop for the short term was OK - but not in the long haul). Reliable medical facilities, especially with our advancing years, are key. And, we also want to be near an airport - we don’t intend to give up our international travels just yet.
In a perfect world we would choose to live in more than one location. You know - move with the seasons (as we have in our RV). But let’s be honest. Without deep pockets to maintain two or more households in multiple locations, that pie-in-the-sky dream was out of the question. Given our financial resources and basic needs we knew we were going to have to compromise.

So. Based on places we’ve experienced, and balancing our needs versus our wants, finding a footprint somewhere in the Southwestern United States seems like the best option.
Southern California? Love the politics but not the higher cost of living. Utah? We’re not Mormon enough. Roll the dice in Nevada? (we’re not big on gambling). How about New Mexico. We love New Mexico. But Sante Fe is too rich for our blood. Las Cruces has loads of charm (it was tempting). But having spent as much time as we have in Arizona, and given what Arizona has to offer, it seems like a reasonable compromise. But which part? There are many places to choose.
Fairly quickly we narrowed it down to Southeastern Arizona, an area with which we’ve become very familiar. Somewhere in the Tucson area. The pros include access to lots of nature, shopping, medical facilities, and a climate that while not perfect, comes pretty close. Culturally there is much to see and do. The cost of living is doable. Volunteering at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum has long been a dream. Within a one hundred mile radius, there’s no end to the number of draws. And we love the Sonoran Desert.
The cons? Top of the list are hotter summers. Yes, it’s a dry heat (just like Wisconsin may lay claim to “it’s a dry cold”). In Wisconsin you go from your heated home to your heated car to your heated (fill in the blank). In the desert southwest you go from your air conditioned home to your air conditioned car to your air conditioned (fill in the blank). Our wardrobe in Arizona will wind up being far skimpier.
Traffic can be an issue. But not close to that of Austin, or San Francisco, or Miami. Ever been to Bogatá Colombia? It’s insane. Then again, we know people living in Appleton who complain about traffic congestion (do these people ever travel)? It’s all relative. We can make it work.
Once our decision was made to get off the road, we have returned to Wisconsin as we have for the past eight years. This time, however, we’re sorting through stuff in the RV (yes, even living in an RV one can accumulate stuff). We’re also starting to gather belongings we have stored with family members, some of which will wind up in a garage sale (the belongings, not the family members) to be held in July at Carol’s sister’s home on Lake Wisconsin. After the garage sale we’ll be putting our beloved RV on the market.
We’re already working with a realtor in Arizona. Should the RV sell here in Wisconsin, we’ll use the truck to transport our belongings to a storage unit in Tucson. We have two offers to stay with friends while we’re house/condo hunting. If the RV doesn’t sell here in Wisconsin, we’ll leave the bulk of our belongings (to be retrieved later), tow the RV to the Tucson area, and live in it until it sells (or we find a place to buy). We still have the fallback option to live with friends should the RV sell before we find housing while in Tucson.

With the RV gone, we’ll migrate to a smaller vehicle. If it should happen that the RV AND the truck sell together here in Wisconsin (if someone made us an offer we could not refuse), then we’ll go to plan C. We’ve yet to settle on an exact plan C but we’ve learned over the years to be flexible.
Was it a hard decision to give up life on the road? Hell yes! Only those who have been full-time RV-ing will fully understand the seductive and serendipitous draw of the open road - and how difficult it is to give it up. There’s nothing quite like roaming the country as ephemeral visitors, parking in the mountains, near an ocean or lake, surrounded by prairie, forests, and vast skies…a seemingly endless foraging of the world around us. It can never be replicated by living in a house. In fact our greatest concern is that once we’re in a house/condo, that we’ll be “stuck”. Of course that won’t be the case. We will travel. Just not as freely as when we were pulling our house behind.
But, the reality is, we need to do it now while the RV is still in great shape and while WE’RE in great shape. And, most importantly, while we’re still in the driver’s seat. We want to avoid suddenly finding ourselves pushed into a panic situation, having to make snap decisions about getting off the road. We will remain nomads for life, in love with distant and uncharted places. Just with fewer wheels beneath us.
Hmmm. Maybe we should be thinking of buying a boat?

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