Walter and Sara on the road to who knows where


Walter and I are safe and well. Arizona now has the highest number of cases per 100,000 in the country. Our governor has taken no action regarding this. There is no statewide mask mandate and no curbs on business or activity aside from a limit of 50 people at gatherings. Pima County has put on a 10 pm to 5 am curfew and a mask mandate has been in place here since summer. But they are not allowed (by the governor) to put any other limits on. The local school districts have shifted to remote learning (each school district makes that decision based on guidelines from the state and the recommendations of their school board). Vaccinations in Arizona are lagging behind most states but Pima County has the highest rate of vaccinations per 100,000 in the state (just a bit above the national average). We are told that Phase 1b vaccinations are set to begin on January 15th here but there is no way yet to make appointments to do it. That group includes people 75 and older so Walter is included and we will do everything we can to get him vaccinated as soon as possible. People over 65 will be vaccinated in Phase 1c once all the folks over 75 and the essential workers are vaccinated. I don’t expect that to start until March sometime because the 1b group is pretty large. Meanwhile we continue to shelter in place as much as possible. Walter doesn’t go into stores and I limit my trips to the grocery and hardware stores.

We do our weekly outing to someplace out in the countryside and walk here at Rancho Resort. I do my pottery in the garage and have been working on projects in the yard. So we are busy at least.

This will be my last missive until we actually start to travel again. If you enjoy looking at my photos and are on Facebook feel free to friend me on Facebook where I post my photos on a regular basis.

On December 1st I put up our Christmas lights including 11 of the 14 luminarias that I made last winter for this purpose. The other three hadn’t been glazed yet but the overall effect was still pretty much what I was after.

Christmas Lights

There were tall luminarias

Tall luminaria

Alternating with short ones.

short luminaria  short luminaria

They each stood on a pillar of our pony wall around the front yard.

Christmas lights

The swags of lights followed the wall up the block and around the corner. This is the view of the back wall of our lot from out in the middle of the intersection.

Christmas Lights

I found it all very satisfactory. The bad news is that even with a small bag of glass marbles in the bottom of each of the tall luminarias one of them fell over in the wind and pulled one of the short ones with it. The lid of the tall one (the 2nd luminaria I’d made in the series so it wasn’t as level and stable of as the others) broke and the face of the short one in the photo above broke. Sniff. My thought is to put them out in my back patio area on the ground nestled between plants so even if they the fall over it won’t be far.

The rest of the series has now been fired and will go out with the others. There is the last of the tall ones (the one that was my goal to figure how to make). My pride and joy.
carved luminaria carved luminaria

And two short ones:
short luminaria short luminaria
December 3rd we took a drive south to the Whipple Observatory Visitor Center northeast of Tubac.

The Visitor Center was of course closed because of Covid but the dirt road up towards Mount Roberts where the bulk of actual observatories are was open. You can’t drive all the way up but in non-Covid times there are tours where they take you up and you can tour everything.

Mt Hopkins Rd

We got a nice view of the MMT (multiple mirror telescope) housed in a building which rotates!

Mt Hopkins MMT

It’s rocky terrain with mesquite.

Mt Hopkins

And then cactus.

Mt Hopkins

There’s a small parking area at Amateur Astronomy Vista where there are trails out to benches where people can bring their telescopes to take in the clear desert skies. This is the view back up towards Mt Hopkins.

Amateur Astonomy Vista

The road narrows and we knew there were delivery trucks and other traffic on the road so we turned around so as not to meet anyone and have no place to go to let them pass. On the way back down we got a view across the valley. It had been windy that morning so visibility wasn’t that great because of the dust.

View from Mt Hopkins

Around the bend, Walter spotted deer on the road down below us.


We watched them for a while and then drove down the hairpin turn and they were still out in the middle of the road! I drove very slowly towards them and eventually they took off up the hillside and stood and watched us.


We returned to the Visitor Center area where there’s a nice picnic area and I walked over to take a photo of one of the 4 gamma ray telescopes on site.

Whipple Observatory Visitor Center

These telescopes have shiny mirrors that reflect the terrain so from some angles they are an incredible blue of the sky and others they are tan and green reflecting the rocks and plants.

We took the paved path around the picnic area and got a side view of the Visitor Center area. You can see all 4 telescopes if you look hard.

Whipple Observatory Visitor Center

And Walter found a nice bench with a view of an arroyo.

Arroyo near Whipple Observatory VC

I went on looking for more views and found this Say’s Phoebe resting on a branch.  

Say’s Phoebe

And while I didn’t find any better views of the telescopes I did get a view of Walter on the bench.

Walter Cooke Whipple Observatory VC

We hiked back to the car and got our picnic lunch and took it to one of the tables. It wasn’t long before this House Wren came to visit.   

House Wren

It marched right across the table and looked at us. It flitted away and returned to the benches. And at one point it even touched my hand (totally startling me since I hadn’t seen it arrive).

House Wren

As we drove back down the hill, I stopped to try to get a shot of the mirrors on the telescopes. Here you can see the sky reflected in the bottom and the ground reflected in the top.

gamma ray telescope

This is the telescope nearest the road. Again blue below and gray above.   

gamma ray telescope

One of my favorite signs that we saw on the road was this one.

Caution Telescopes in Operation

There are others that tell you not to use your brights but this one is the best. It made me wonder if the telescopes might be prone to jumping out at people.

We also got a nice view of Elephant Rock on our way out. This area is just south of Madera Canyon and there’s a mountain bike trail that you can take from lower Madera Canyon out to Elephant Rock. And no, I can’t see the elephant either. Well maybe if I squint just right…

Elephant Rock

Friday December 12th our outing was to go test drive a new Subaru Forester. We had a Forester back in 2011 and liked it a lot. This one drives just like the old one, with lots more bells and whistles. So we traded our Ford F150 Truck, François, in for a brand new 2021 Forester. The process took all afternoon and we were pretty tired when we got home. But the deed was done.

2021 Subaru Forester

2021 Subaru Forester

2021 Subaru Forester

2021 Subaru Forester Walter Cooke

And it has more safety features than you can shake a stick at—it will start applying the breaks if it thinks you’re going to hit something! It tells you when you’ve gotten near to (or have crossed) a lane line. In cruise control, it maintains the distance between you and the car in front of you—if they slow down so do you!

Interior Subaru FOrester

And it has a very nice back-up camera in addition to lots of fancy electronics so you can use your phone as a GPS or play your MP3 player through the sound system. The back-up camera (which the truck had too but wasn’t as good as this one) helps a lot in backing out of our crazy driveway.

2021 Subaru Forester

Wednesday December 16th, we drove around Rancho Resort looking at the Christmas lights.

Christmas Lights

There were lots of lights this year—people needed to be festive any way they could. I am particularly fond of trees wrapped in lights.

Christmas Lights

Along with yards just FULL of them. These folks are on a corner and they filled both sides of their lot with lights.

Christmas Lights

We had a new gorgeous tree of lights in our park near the club house.

Christmas Lights

And one of the houses in another section of the development who have a funny little pie-shaped empty lot next to them filled it all up with lights too.

Christmas Lights

And their front yard too.

Christmas Lights

Thursday December 17th, we took a drive back down to Pena Blanca Lake just west of Nogales. This time we took the dirt road (with the new car!) out to the Red Rock Picnic Area.

Here’s the view from the road to Red Rock.

Road to Red Rock

The road takes you DOWN the hill to a parking area where there are picnic table set back from the lake in the shade and then access to the lake.

Pena Blanca Lake

We followed the trail a ways and could see the fishing bridges that we’d hiked to last time we were here.

Pena Blanca Lake

Walter had decided that we should take the Nature Trail that starts at the boat ramp, so we turned back and drove to the boat ramp on the other side of the lake. The trailhead is down at the boat ramp, but we found a spur from the parking area up the hill and followed it down to reach the trail. It gives peekaboo views of the lake as you walk along.

Pena Blanca Lake

We got to this view, only to discover that the trail had eroded really badly and had big drop-offs that made it impassable. So we enjoyed the view and turned back. There were signs that said not to jump into the lake, and handwritten below it said that people had died doing it. Ahem.

Pena Blanca Lake

We took the branch of the trail that followed the water’s edge and as we neared the loading dock for the boat ramp some ducks made a beeline for us.

Pena Blanca Lake

In fact, they turned out to be the same ducks we’d seen over near the Red Rock Picnic Area.


And remember that juvenile Pied-billed Grebe we saw in November? He’s bigger and still diving like crazy.

Pied-billed grebe juvenile

By December 19th, the Saturn-Jupiter Conjunction was visible from our back patio.

Saturn Jupiter Conjunction

That evening the Rancho Resort Christmas parade made its way by our house too. These folks were in the lead. They live across the street from us.

Christmas Parade

There were golf carts

Christmas Parade

A pick up truck complete with elves and a Christmas tree.

Christmas Parade

There were a couple of convertibles.

Christmas Parade

There were a bunch of bikes too—complete with a dog!

Christmas Parade

I caught the tail end of the parade as they went around the corner and the light was much better that way.

Christmas Parade

December 21st, the Saturn-Jupiter Conjunction was as close as it would get. With the naked eye it looked like one bright dot in the sky.

Saturn Jupiter Conjunction

With a bit of a close-up you could tell there were two planets.

Saturn Jupiter Conjunction

And with full close-up you could even see two of Jupiter’s moons.

Saturn Jupiter Conjunction

What was fun about watching this each night over several nights is you got to watch as the two planets switched position over time. By the 22nd, Jupiter had moved above Saturn but you could still see Jupiter’s moons.

On December 23rd, my friend, Judy, was out in her yard and managed to catch these photos of part of a pack (herd?) of about 15 javelinas in the desert just the other side of her back wall.


My favorite is the mom and baby.


Meanwhile on the 23rd, we took the drive down to Tubac and walked around town for a while. While the big display of arty javelinas was over, there are still a few about.

Tubac javelina

In front of the Art Institute, there’s a giant Jack Rabbit too.

Giant Jack Rabbit sculpture

We strolled past shops with tons of metal sculptures for sale.

Metal sculptures

I love the colors of these flowers together.

metal flower sculptures

In a courtyard we’d never explored I found a pair of really fun dragons.

Metal sculpture dragons

And another gallery had some marvelous sculptures combining stone and sea glass.

Stone and sea glass sculptures

There were a couple more javelinas back in front of the Art Institute near where we were parked.

leopard javelina

The babies are great fun.

baby javelina sculptures

We drove the streets of a nearby development just to explore and then went down near the De Anza Trail for lunch.

The cottonwoods near the Santa Cruz River still had some fall color.          

Cottonwoods Santa Crust River

We found the trail and wandered along for a while.


Yellow leaves, blue sky and a pleasant temperature. What more do you want?

yellow leaved cottonwoods

On Christmas, we took a walk around our section of the Rancho Resort and I finally remembered to take a photo of this wonderful old granddaddy saguaro that is at the top of the hill.

Large old saguaro

On December 26th I caught the moon as it was rising over the houses across the street from us.


All month long I had been hemming and hawing about what I wanted to do about the pond. By December 29th, I was clear. I wanted to do the simplest thing and just decommission it and fill it with dirt and top that with gravel and be done with it. So I took a sledge hammer out and standing on the brick edging took a couple of swings at the walls on the inside to see how thick the concrete was.

hole in concrete

The answer: not very. The only thing holding those broken pieces together was some chicken wire!

hole in concrete

The same was true over by the big crack on the other side.

hole in concrete

If a nearly 70-year-old woman can do that kind of damage with a few swings of a sledge hammer, it certainly explains why the thing developed multiple leaks before it was 5 years old!

hole in concrete

Down near the drain hole I swung a couple of times and mushy concrete exuded water and then mushed open.

hole in concrete

That certainly settled it. There was no repairing it! And I might just be able to do much of the work myself. The next day I took a ½” drill with a ½” masonry bit on it and went for it.

drill with 6" bit

I started in the shallow end of the pond, and I drilled ½” holes with no problem. But as I worked my way towards the deep end (where it’s most important to have holes) the drill couldn’t hack it. The cement was too thick. Google to the rescue. After considerable research I decided to buy a Craftsman hammer drill. We picked it up at our local Ace Hardware on our way to our outing on Thursday the 31st.

After picking up the new toy, we drove east until Sahuarita Blvd ends and then turned south to the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the Empire Ranch. Here we picked up the Heritage Discovery Tail.  

Heritage Trail sign

The trail takes you through the wavy grasses to the old Hired Hand’s House. It’s an adobe building from the early 1920’s.

Hired Hand's house

The trail takes you through stands of Fremont Sycamores.      

Fremont Sycamores

These are huge trees.

Fremont Sycamores 

Walter spied a juvenile Say's Phoebe.

juvenile Say's Phoebe

We found this big old fallen tree along the trail. As I said, these are BIG trees growing in a very arid grassland.

Walter Cooke fallen sycamore

Here’s the big granddaddy again as we looped back on the trail.

Fremont Sycamores

After having completed that short stroll we drove to the other end of Empire Gulch and picked up a primitive trail along a little waterway.

Water in Empire GUlch

The water plants had created a lovely green carpet that was a welcome sight in this otherwise beige environment in winter.

There were even a couple of places where the water gurgled and splashed.     
Water in Empire Gulch

We had our lunch and then drove back north towards the Santa Catalina Mountains which lie to the northeast of Tucson.

Santa Catalina Mountains

We had a quiet night at home on New Year’s Eve. And on New Years Day I broke out the new hammer drill and put the masonry bit I’d used before in it. It’s a very clever invention. It hammers at over 5000 beats a minute while also drilling. It’s not loud and the vibration isn’t bad at all. It did a nice job finishing the holes I’d gotten stuck on before and I got a number of more drilled along with drain holes all through the low points in the waterfall. But when I reached the shallow end I discovered that the concrete was thicker than the length of my bit! The head of the hammer drill literally hit the surface of the concrete without puncturing through the bottom of the pond.

Google to the rescue again. Our local ACE had 12” long hammer drill bits that were stock. So off I went and bought one.  

Hammer drill with 12" bit

Here’s a closeup of the drill bit. 10” of drill on a 12” shaft.

12" bit

It allowed me to finish the job! Holes all over the bottom of the pond—all which leak water nicely.

pond with holes    
You can see the little rims around the holes on the right—those are the ones where I hit the limit of the first bit.

holes in pond

The holes in all the low points in the waterfall all drain nicely too.

holes in waterfall

On Saturday January 2nd I began to deal with the next phase of the decommissioning: the plumbing.

The waterfall was run by a sump pump down in this hole. As you can see there’s a nice union which should make it easy to get the thing out. But of course it had been under water for nearly 5 years and it was STUCK. And you couldn’t fit a wrench of any length in the hole to get it out.  

sump pump

We talked about the problem and decided the solution was to drill holes in elbow joint at the top until we could saw it out. I used all sorts of drill bits (including a nifty little rotary sander that did great work) and after two days of struggle we got it out. It wasn’t pretty but it was done.

Cut of pipe

Here’s the sump pump.

Removed sump pump

And here’s a nice empty hole!

Empty sump

Hip hip hooray! But there was still another problem.

The pond was originally installed with a float valve to keep it the pond full. But it didn’t work properly and just seeped water. We wedged rocks under it to keep the float up and that mostly worked during the summer when we were gone. But that was clearly not going to work for the long term.    

float valve

The easiest thing would have been to locate a shut off valve for it. There was a mysterious valve over by our irrigation system but it didn’t do anything. The only way the water stopped flowing to the valve was to turn all the water in the yard off including the irrigation and the outdoor faucets. Um no.

So I went about removing the brick above the valve hoping to create enough access so we could at least see what we were working with. I used the hammer drill and discovered the mortar they’d used in setting the bricks was WAY denser than the concrete in the pond. So having drilled a bunch of holes with a great deal of struggle, I went after it with the masonry chisel I’d bought back when I was trying repair the pond and needed to widen the cracks before applying the hydraulic cement. With considerable effort I managed to get the top brick off only to discover a thin shim under it. By this point I was tired and cranky. I took the sledge hammer to it and in three swings had it out. I am woman. Hear me roar!

float valve

I got my camera into the hole and took some photos. First we’ve got a plugged up valve in front (we have LOTS of minerals in our water). Behind that is a rusting piece of galvanized plumbing which is snugged into a bed of concrete and attached to a PVC connector. There is not room for a wrench and even if I worked to get another brick out above, it wasn’t likely to help.

float valve

So on January 5th, I raked all the gravel away from the dirt in front of the pond where it look like the pipe feeding the valve came from and took a few swings with my large mattock tool and presto there was the pipe that feeds the valve! Whoo hoo!

uncovered pipe

I got down on my hands and knees with my hand mattock and cleared all the sandy soil away.

dug out pipe

I used one of Walter’s Japanese hand saws to cut the pipe (after turning the water off to everything in the yard).

Cut pipe

And I took the piece with me to the hardware store (this time Tractor Supply because Walter had an order for me to pick up) and got some PVC primer and glue and a PVC cap. I came home and did the deed.

capped pipe

Two hours later we turned the water back on and voila it didn’t leak. The plumbing part of the project was complete. I can’t tell you how happy I was about that.

We’ve measure the pond twice and repeated the calculations twice and it appears that it holds a little over 3 cubic yards. So Friday January 8th, I ordered 3 yards of screened fill dirt to be delivered the next week. And I picked up a new wheelbarrow at ACE so I’m all prepared to slowly but surely move that dirt from our front driveway, through the front gate, across the front yard, through the side gate, along the side yard, across the back patio and into the pond. Walter has offered to help. If we wear out I can always hire a day laborer to finish. But you know how persistent I can be. I’ll probably get it done in a couple of weeks. If I do 3 loads of three cubic feet each every day I’ll be done in 9 days.

We’ll water the dirt in as we fill it to make sure it settles well—and probably stomp around on it too though I’m not bothering with tamping it. And then I’ll top it with 2 inches of gravel that matches the rest of our mulch. In the end we’ll have a new planting area where I hope to install a large urn/pot where water can burble to provide a lovely sounding low maintenance water feature. The waterfall will get plants (probably shallow rooted cacti of some sort) in all the little basins.

Late in the day on January 8th they announced (even though we are in the middle of a huge Covid-19 surge) that they are opening the Crafts Room to 8 people at a time by reservation. So our Clay Club will have access once again to our materials and equipment. I have no intention of sitting indoors with 7 other people for 3 hours at a time, even if they are masked. The ventilation in the room isn’t that good. But I will go for a while each week to sell clay and answer questions and load the kiln when we’ve got enough to fire. And I’ll build things at home in my studio in the garage.