Visiting Family in Southern Arizona

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A stop to visit Brandon’s dad is always a must when we pass through Arizona. Mike and his wife Cindy live in San Tan Valley, one of the many suburban areas outside of Phoenix. Every time we pass through here I am amazed by the sheer size of the sprawl. Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., despite the scorching summer temperatures. San Tan Valley, however, is on the far southern edge of the sprawl where open still-uninhabited desert is nearby.

Much of the desert in this area has been irrigated and converted into fertile farmland. In fact, when looking for camping spots near Mike and Cindy’s place the closest thing we could find was an actual farm. Schnepf Farms is a huge complex of organic gardens, orchards, and multiple event spaces. They host a regular farmers market, a fall pumpkin festival, and all sorts of private events. It was mostly quiet during the week, as their big fall festival had just ended, but on Saturday they were hosting two separate weddings and a huge dance social for mormon singles.

The camping space was separate from the event spaces so the music and people didn’t feel overly intrusive. However, we were also the only tourists camping at the farm. The small camping area was mostly full of people who worked at the farm. Some were also travelers. We met two women from New Zealand who came to the farm to see America and work at the organic garden.

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Most of our five-day stay was spent just enjoying quality time visiting with Mike and Cindy. Brandon’s dad is also a photographer and had lots of great tips for us. On Saturday I stayed home and worked on the blog while Brandon and Mike took the Jeep out into the desert for some sunset and nighttime photos. Mike has spent a lot of time shooting the moon and stars while living in the Arizona desert and this is something Brandon has just recently become interested in. 

Well done guys! These turned out great!

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Of course, they also took pictures of the Jeep. Brandon just can’t help himself. 

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Our only touristy adventure while in the area was a trip to see the Casa Grande National Monument. Brandon told me about this place the last time we drove through Arizona but we never drove out to see it.

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Casa Grande (“Great House”) was the name given to this structure when discovered by Spanish missionaries in 1694. The four-story adobe building and the surrounding village had already been abandoned. Archeologists believe Casa Grande was built during the mid-1300s but don’t know exactly when the village was abandoned.

This village was one of many settlements in the area built by the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert. This group of native people lived in this area of Arizona for thousands of years, first as hunter-gatherers, and later as farmers in small villages. They built an extensive canal system for irrigation (a painstaking job undertaken without pack animals and only primitive tools) and traded with other villages as far as California, Colorado, and Northern Mexico. Trade with California coastal tribes is evident from the elaborate shell jewelry often found within the ruins.

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Casa Grande is the largest known structure of the Ancestral Sonoran People but, despite years of study, scientists still don’t fully understand its purpose. The four exterior walls line up precisely with the cardinal directions on a compass. Even more curious are the various circular holes that line up with specific celestial objects at specific times of year. The hole shown below lines up with the setting sun at summer solstice. Other such windows also line up with the sun and moon at very specific times. Perhaps the building was a celestial observatory. Perhaps it was a sort of calendar, helping the people to time planting and harvest with celestial activity.

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I was surprised to learn that this structure was also the first archeological site officially protected by the U.S. government. After being discovered in 1694, Casa Grande endured two centuries of destructive tourists, locals, and souvenier-hunters before receiving federal protection as an archeological reserve in 1892. Graffiti from the 1800s (and some much more modern graffiti) can be seen carved into the interior walls.

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National monument status helped to further protect the site from withering away under the intense desert sun. The steel and concrete roof was built in 1932. It has been repainted and repaired over the years, but never replaced. When Brandon described this place to me, he had much more to say about the engineering involved in building the roof than about the ruins themselves. Typical.

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The shaded rafters have become a haven for local birds. We saw three sleeping owls and countless pigeons. Unfortunately, this also means that the open-top ruins are filled with bird droppings.

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I actually took this photo on accident, but it turned out to be one of my favorites.

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Mike trying to get a close-up of some snoozing owls.

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Brandon noticed these little plastic and metal tabs attached to a number of the cracks in the building. We think they are used to measure movement of the crack, helping archeologists to watch for further deterioration of the structure.

All in all, Casa Grande was an interesting historical tour and a fascinating education in how people have managed to survive in this harsh environment for thousands of years.

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At this point we feel like we’re on the home stretch. We only have a few more weeks and a few more stops before we’re back in Texas for Thanksgiving. This comes with all sorts of mixed emotions. We’re a bit sad that this leg of our journey is coming to an end, but also very anxious to see friends, family, and our pets again. However, our downtime in Texas will be short-lived (probably too short). Before we know it we’ll be on a plane on the way to the Bahamas!

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