Now, here is one of the hazards of my personality. As we blow past Wilcox and head north on route 191 I am starting to see so many birds along the roadway. I am so tempted to stop and when I discover that there are two state parks just south of Safford I want Gus to pull into them so we can count birds. But here is where he saves the day for he insists that we press on to Greenlee County first and then if we have time we can stop on our way back, so, on we go.
Route 191 takes a sharp turn east as we enter the town of Safford before turning north once again to Greenlee County. There are not a lot of towns on the map and this is the only road in this direction. Rolling hills covered in brush give way to distant mountains. I can still see ocotillo and prickly pear cactus scattered among the mountain grasses. The hills are getting steeper and closer together. We come to a junction of three highways. On eBird it is called Three Way. I see a rest area with signs for the Clifton Ranger Station. This looks like a promising place to count birds. As Gus turns the car around to head back to the spot I see my first birds in Greenlee County, a pair of mourning doves perched in a low tree.
In the distance I see turkey vultures, then a few more mourning doves fly by. That’s it. These are all the birds I see. We are here for half an hour, but this is all I see. As I am walking to the car finally a lone barn swallow flies by. I now have 4 species of birds counted in Greenlee County.
We could have turned back at this point but we press on. I want to count more birds and we both want to see what lies ahead. We follow route 191 north as it winds its way upwards. The road is getting ever steeper, the hills are closing in. We cross deep canyons on high bridges with names like Cougar Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon. I gaze far below me as we cross the low edged bridges. Suddenly we are climbing a steep hill and as we reach its crest and start down the small “town” of Clifton is revealed in the crevice of the earth.
Low gray houses like blocks sit on perched on the edges of steps or terraces carved into the mountainside. I realize that we are entering a mining town and these must be the company houses. Each one sits check to jowl with the other and under the currently cloudy skies all looks bleak and gloomy. How does anyone live like this? This place is so remote. It is hours from anywhere and crammed in this narrow canyon. Each house looks exactly like the other. There is no variety, no creativity. All is about function and making money.
The road levels out at the bottom of the town where the San Francisco River flows through the town. I do not know if it flows all the time but today it is brimming its banks. Railroad tracks cut though the town running parallel with the main street.
We find a little park tucked into the cleft of the mountain and pull in to park. The river flows by along the street and an iron railroad bridge crosses the river. Once again Gus is out taking photos while I count birds.
The river’s edge is lined thickly with willows and brush. I can hear a few birds but they are difficult to see in all the greenery. A white-winged dove flies into a branch overhead but takes off when it spots me. I think I can hear some kind of flycatcher but I do not see it and I am unsure of its call. I think I hear the “cheer, cheer, cheer” of a cardinal but I want to see it first to count it and it never appears. The sky overhead has grown black with thick clouds, a light shower is starting to fall.
Suddenly the light shower turns into a downpour and I bolt for the car! Gus has no protection for his camera and I know he will not be able to get back here fast enough.
I can only hope he is seeking shelter near one of the abandoned buildings as I jump in and start the engine and head across the bridge as fast as I can. I see him hunched and walking swiftly towards an old building as I round the bend and beep my horn at him. I pull into the gravel parking lot nearby and he jumps into the car. He grabs some napkins to dry off his camera and then he holds it in front of the blowers.
From here we continue upwards to the town of Morenci. The sun has emerged once again as we park the car in this small town. This town must be older and newer. Homes are carved in to the cliffs. They are of varying styles and in various locations. We find a grocery store, a medical clinic, schools, gas stations and shopping centers. Little parks are tucked in everywhere and we even find a town pool. It feels a bit different here than in Clifton but looming over everything is the ever present copper mine. There are not a lot of birds here, but I find another black-throated sparrow. It seems they are everywhere along with mourning doves, white-winged doves and Eurasian collared doves. These species along with turkey vultures and barn swallows are all the species I find in Greenlee country except for a lone Cassin’s Kingbird. That is it. Oh, and a few house sparrows here at this corner where we have stopped.
Once again we get back in the car and head upwards. Now the road runs straight through the heart of the mine. It climbs numerous steep switchbacks through terraces of ochre, red, green and silver streaked earth. The colors of the rocks are amazing, but all is barren desolation around me. I see a turkey vulture searching the steep cliff sides and wonder what he could possible find to eat. This is certainly a place to die but you have to be able to live here first! We reach the crest of the mountain and we are both stuck by a stark contrast. On one side of the road the huge Coppermine drops into a multi- colored and multi-layered pit where trucks larger than a house haul chunks of rock away to be processed and dumped.
The mine is on the right side of us as we are heading north, but on our left is a spot with unspoiled landscape, rolling hills, mountain peaks, and rocky crags. It all tumbles away into a gorgeous vista.
I cannot help but think to myself, who saw all this beauty and said, let’s dig this up! I know I know, I am not a business man or a miner but really, is this worth it? How long will it take for this land to heal when and if they ever stop extracting these minerals? As if to emphasize the difference in our opinions and what we value we drove just a mile or two farther up the road where a sign is posted for a “Scenic view”.
After leaving the Scenic View we drive a few miles more to the edge of the mine. It is now almost 3 p.m. and we realize we have to turn back. Out of curiosity I reset the car’s trip meter to see how many miles of road are within the boundaries of the mine. It takes us 20 minutes to cover the 12 miles of road from border to border. I have no idea just how wide this mine is, but it sure does take up a big chunk of the landscape.
Birds Seen In Greenlee County 8-1-10
- Turkey Vulture
- Eurasian Collared-dove
- Mourning Dove
- White-winged dove
- Cassin’s Kingbird
- Barn Swallow
- Black-throated sparrow
- House sparrow