To Bluff and Back

Bluff, Utah - Buttes and Fog

I was being overtaken by recurring thoughts reminding me that I should write something for my blog.  Athena added a few of her own and then there were the suspicions of friends and readers who were wondering if a great crisis had befallen me, and so, I decided to write something.

My temporary absence was not due to lack of interest, but a combination of constant activity and visitors to Canelo, several trips to Mexico where we remain very involved, an iPhone photography course in Mexico and assorted other odds and ends.  However, for the moment, I sit here free from most distractions.

During the month of January we coordinated and helped host a weekend vacation for the kids from the Xunutzi dance group that included visits to:

–       The 47 Ranch owned by Dennis and Debbie Moroney just outside of Bisbee,

–       El Coronado Ranch of Valer and Josiah Austin,  in the Chiricahua mountains.

Some of the kids of Grupo Danza Xunutzi with Valer Austin of El Coronado Ranch, Turkey Creek, Chiricahua Mountains, AZ.

–       And of course Canelo.

Over the past couple of months, I’m remembering that I spent a period of time becoming familiar with the “hows” of the iPhone camera and its apps.  That in turn led me to exploring Facebook more thoroughly and how to use it effectively.  I discovered it to be a powerful communication tool when used wisely, at least most of the time.

One change that you might notice is that I’ve put a signature and copyright on my photos, not because I’m trying to protect them, but rather that my 11 year old son Kalin started complaining and wanted to make sure that no one confused my photos with his.  He also pointed out to me that not including the copyright icon was not the right way of doing things.  Feel free to use mine however you like.

All that said, this post is about how work, fun and pleasure can come together in a really nice balance and that they need not be separate.  Such was the case when we recently undertook the task of beginning the plastering on a newly built straw bale home owned by Bob Helmes and Sandy Maillard in Bluff, Utah.

Exterior of Bob and Sandy's new home.

Athena, Sandy and Bob.

As it is with almost any plastering venue, the work is never easy.  Increasingly, we make sure that our energetic, strong, 21 year old son Benito is with us whenever faced with this kind of work.  In addition to physically challenging work, the climatic conditions in southern Utah during the month of February bear little resemblance to a winter haven for snowbirds.  In other words, all the makings for what could have been a really challenging and miserable week of work were in place.  And as it turned out, 75% of the time, it was cold, cloudy, complete with frozen buckets of water, at times even the piles of sand.

Benito Mixing Plaster.

However, every now and then, all the pieces come together for the making of a really great adventure.  In this case, good friends rose to the occasion and added the extra touch that was needed to turn what could have been a stressful week into something quite special.  Both Bob and Sandy are pretty extraordinary people and in addition to being wonderful people to work for, they housed us, fed us 3 meals a day, evening wine/beer, what-have-you included.  When and where needed, they cleaned, worked with us, mixed plaster and made it a whole lot of fun.  On top of all that, they also had the stress that accompanies the building a place to deal with, which they did so very gracefully.

Sandy’s system for keeping track of napkins for the week.


As an extra benefit, they took us on several hikes through red rock canyon country where Anazasi rock art was abundant.  For many years, Bob has run a guide and tour business, taking folks into the back country of Utah and consequently has extensive knowledge of Utah’s canyon country.  Bob’s company is called Passage to Utah

There’s not a whole lot to say about the work, other than we spent the week applying the base or rough coats of plaster.  Actually what I should say that I remain convinced that it is by far the best way to create a base coat on straw bale walls or any others where any thickness of plaster is needed.  The finish coats that come later are the ones that give the final beauty decoration to the walls.  In this case, it was the “how of the work” that was most notable.  Benito, as hoped, picked up the heavy and bulk work.  He’s excellent at it, and this was the first time that Kalin got into the act as Benito’s assistant, and to his credit, worked extremely hard.   And of course, Athena and I rounded out the team.

Athena and helper Claudia mixing plaster.

Kalin helping Benito with the plastering.



I realize that this kind of work experience is not totally unique, but what struck me was how much that kind of experience is lacking in the larger commercial workplace that is all too often dominated by impersonal, greedy and aggressive behaviors.  Thankfully, Bob and Sandy are more typical for what we encounter with most of our projects.



Hiking alongside the San Juan River in Bluff.

Afternoon walk to view rock art.








Our work week by itself would have been a sufficiently great experience by itself, but the addition of a great road trip home made it that much better. If there’s a state that varies geographically and culturally from one end to the other, more than Arizona, it’s escapes me.  From the cliffs, mesas and buttes of northern Arizona, through the alpine forests of the White Mountains, gradually descending into the Sonoran Desert and then back up to the 5,000 ft oak grasslands where we live, it is simply stunning.  If you enjoy driving accompanied by changing beautiful landscapes, the drive we took on our way home might be for you.

Overlooking the San Juan River.

Athena makes for a great traveling companion, especially on these kinds of trips.   She loves planning routes, making numerous stops throughout the course of the day at potentially interesting places and grabbing a short hike whenever possible.  She can turn a 4 hour drive into an all day experience.  Driving extended distances with blurry eyes into the wee hours of the night is something that is simply not her.


A small piece of the road home from Bluff.

Here’s a few photos that touch some of the highlights of our trip home. From Monument Valley in the north, one travels south through the barren landscape of Navajo and Hopi lands, mesas and bluffs abound, the pallet of colors is exquisite yet subtle and a the lack of vegetation that is almost unbelievable.  Miles can go by before a tree appears.

Passing through the little town of Mexican Hat, I remembered it as the place where I had the worst breakfast I ever had in my life some 40+ years ago.  I suspect that it wouldn’t be the same today.

To the south about the same latitude as Flagstaff the trees start to appear.   Typically it’s the junipers that appear first and then give way to the tall pines around Flagstaff or those of Arizona’s White Mountains.

The Navajos are the dominant Native American presence in northern Arizona.  The Hopis, surrounded by Navajos, remain contained on their, comparatively small, island of mesas.  On the way to Bluff while passing through Navajo lands there, on the side of the road, was an irresistible crudely painted sign on the side of the road – “Dinosaur Track Tours.”  How could you say no?  Priceless is the only description needed and sorry, there is no website link for you.

Guided dinosaur tracks tour near Monument Valley.

A stop at the historic site of Hubbell Trading Post, continuously operated since 1887, quietly spoke of more than a 100+ years of history.  My last stop there may have been in the 1950s.  Although now operated by the National Park Service since the 1960s, it still remains much of its original feel.

The main counter at Hubbell Trading Post

Basket collection hanging from the ceiling at Hubbell Trading Post.

Wupatki National Monument on the way to Bluff.

South of Interstate 40, the options vary as to how one can proceed south.  Our route took us through Show Low and the White Mountains.  Around the middle of the state one comes to the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment that forms the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau and is characterized by spectacular cliffs and stunning canyons.  From there one descends by traveling through the exquisite Salt River Canyon.



Our stop for the first night – Globe, Arizona is not likely to be included on the “places to visit” list anytime soon.  However, Manny, the Motel 6 owner, of Hindu persuasion with red tilaka on his forehead, originally from Malaysia, tells us the next time we come to through, to call ahead and he’ll prepare an Indian dinner for us. Globe now looks like a place worth returning.  I’m sure he’d do the same for you.

Continuing south, Globe fades rapidly into obscurity as the landscape becomes intriguing once again.  The route follows the Gila River passing through several small mining and agricultural towns before arriving Oracle, AZ, noted for its large boulder rocks and Biosphere ll.

Teddy Bear Cholla south of Globe.

On the spur of the moment, before arriving Tucson, we turned into Catalina State Park for a short hike on the park’s nature trail.  However, the abundance of wildflowers – poppies, lupines, desert marigolds, brittlebush and abundant euphorbias lured us into a 3 hour jaunt up the streambed of Romero Canyon.  February and March have to be two of the greatest months to experience the Sonoran Desert and this year, the fall and winter rains made for a profusion of wildflowers.

Romero Canyon, Catalina State Park outside of Tucson.

I had the fortunate opportunity some years back to work as a photographer for noted botanist Richard Felger on a book he was doing on the ethnobotany of the Yaqui Indians in the Sonoran Desert region.  One comment of his remains with me to this day and that was that the biological richness, in terms of useful plant life in the Sonoran Desert exceeded that of the Amazon.  I don’t know if Richard was stretching the truth that day, perhaps it was his way of expressing his enthusiasm for the specialness of the place, but or perhaps it is true, but I don’t think it really matters.  I think what is important is that the Sonoran Desert is a place that is much more biologically diverse and resource abundant than one might ever suspect.

Romero Canyon streambed on the way to Romero Pools.

Rocks and small waterfall in Romero Canyon


Looking back over that week, I thought to myself, how great to be able to work like that.  Work can be and ought to be fun.  I don’t think I ever dislike the work we do, but it’s ever so nice to be able to enjoy it when everything that supports and surrounds it is fantastic, including the getting there and back.

Desert Marigolds between Globe and Oracle.

Desert Zinnia in Romero Canyon


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