Letter From The Desert: Ray Mine

Salt River Canyon, Arizona
Salt River Canyon, Arizona. Chris Clarke photo

Let us ignore, for the moment, the dozen square miles of missing desert valley between the Mineral and Dripping Springs mountain ranges: The Sonoran Desert air is full of black butterflies. And the air above the Mogollon Rim. Did they emerge in the rains brought by Hurricane Rosa? I don’t know. After the first day’s driving the dog and I mostly escaped the rains. Rosa did her best. I got wet walking out to Newspaper Rock in Petrified Forest National Park, which I wanted to see, again. The dog chose to stay in the truck. We walked later, around the rim of the Painted Desert, met here and there by visceral memory and blood sugar fluctuations, with only a few sprays of sunlit mist to accompany us. The road to Show Low aimed us straight for another dark cell of Rosa’s storm, but it dissipated before we got more than a few wiper blades’ full. Are you a hurican or a hurican’t? And then ten seconds of deluge in reply: a reminder.

I mean: missing. An entire valley, just gone. Head down the road from Superior, down steep pitches of two-lane — “10 percent grade next 7 miles,” advise the yellow signs — and it is as fine a vista of saguaro and cholla as I have ever seen, and the ocotillos have leafed out again in Rosa’s wake. I wonder why in all my decades of traveling the desert I have never thought to take the turnoff toward Winkelman, and I vow to do so again as soon as possible, and then a sharp curve around an elbow of mountain and the valley is just… gone.

So let us instead consider the Painted Desert. Let us consider how visiting the Painted Desert during a rainstorm is watching an artist at work in her studio. Slow trickles ooze down through the bentonite, form dangerous slicks where floods have washed a quarter-inch of mud across the pavement. This is how the badlands got that way, and how they will eventually be worn down to plains. I walk to Newspaper Rock with binoculars tucked under my shirt, gaze down a cliff at a detached angular house-sized boulder, a fallen piece of cap rock, covered with petroglyphs. It is a good thing I forgot to return the glasses to la mujer que amo last month, I think, and then I think it again an hour later when a prairie falcon waits atop an interpretive sign, watching the dog’s desultory approach. There are polished slabs of petrified wood for sale in the Fred Harvey store, and I am oddly seven years old again, holding a hand-sized piece of the self-same forest, a literal touchstone of a half-remembered landscape, and how many times has that kid returned so far? Three, I think. I briefly regret my inevitable decision not to buy another piece. All is ephemeral, even memory, even Triassic fossil kindling. Another fifty-two years and I would have inevitably misplaced the thing anyway. Or misplaced the memory.

There, between the Minerals and Dripping Springs. There, where canyon wrens once sang, wolves once hunted, jaguars once slept. Excised like a tusk from a poached elephant. Except a million times larger. A million times more atrocious. Two townships of once-wild not just paved, not just plowed, not just built upon or dumped upon, but gone, leaving only a massive smooth-faceted gape. I must look away or drive off the road. I cannot look away, a rat transfixed before something far more hypnotically compelling than a snake.

Let us look away. Let us look down a dust road out of Benson, where an old concrete house presides over a ranch carved out of a mesquite bosque. This is the far corner of the Chihuahuan Desert that just edges into Arizona. I spent the night before watching alpenglow swell on the Chiricahuas. A small terrier mix bursts out of the house, launches itself at my dog. A fence intervenes. The little dog is undaunted. It rounds a corner into a burro paddock, barking furiously. The nearest burro, which had been observing us calmly, is startled into a short panic, then — clearly irritated — rears up at the little dog. I watch the spiraling of its hooves, the arc upward and then down. The burro takes careful aim. There comes the thud of hoof on something not quite soil. The little dog shrieks. My eyes are wide. But these two know each other, and this has clearly happened before. In seconds the dog is barking at us again, furiously wagging what it possesses in the way of tail. The burro snorts. I see I am not yet too old to fall in love with a new landscape. I could rest a long while in this mesquite shade. But the ranch house holds an improbable bookstore, and there are the obligations of professional interest to consider. Heart spends some time hitched to a pole on a shady concrete ramp. She seems none too worried when I return an hour later, books in hand.

The Ray Mine, between the Dripping Springs and Mineral Mountains north of Kearny, is a 250,000 ton-per-day open pit copper mine. Its owner, Asarco, has 20 Superfund sites to its name, scattered across the country like wind-blown plastic bags. Asarco expects to mine copper from the Ray mine until 2044. The company boasts on its website about the $13 million in property taxes it pays each year on the Ray Mine, the 1,400 and change people employed there. In exchange, we get more copper on the world market, more smelter pollution down-valley at Hayden, and a 13-square-mile gap where a Sonoran Desert valley once was. Also where the company town of Ray once was. There was copper ore beneath Ray; it had to go. How many thousands of saguaros once lived here? How many chollas and rattlesnakes? How many palo verdes and ironwoods? How many petroglyphs and pot drops? If space aliens arrived and commenced to obliterate a valley this way, perhaps with an orbital-mounted death ray, the nations of the world would go to war to stem the destruction.

But jobs. But jobs.

North of Ray, north of Superior and Globe, the Salt River has cut a deep canyon in the edge of the Mogollon Rim. I came by here once a lifetime ago at night. It has been a poignant blank spot on my map since. Last week the dog and I descended into the canyon from the north, took our time on the looping switchbacked road, got leashed and walking as the cooling truck pinged softly. I have only imagined this place for 25 years. Layers upon layers of rocks more than a billion years old crop out here, the Colorado Plateau in cross-section, and desert spoon grows in the shaded river banks. Water in Arizona cuts away rock, washes away lava dams a thousand times bigger than our half-hearted concrete arches, in less time than it takes the earth to wobble on its axis. Bird-planted seeds of palo verde, or cholla and sacaton, will prise loose the smooth-cut walls of the Ray Mine in time. Earthquakes will topple boulders into the depths, reroute streams to fill the pit with water and then silt, mess up Asarco’s nice clean lines. A mere three or four million years and that vandalism may be apparent only to the scientists of whatever species comes after ours.

A comforting thought, but only remotely so. I much prefer my copper diffused into solid bedrock, kept safe by a protective layer of prickly pear and scorpion.

Also we spent a couple days in downtown Phoenix.

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