Author Archives: Erin Willett

About Erin Willett

Photographer, writer, and environmental educator.

Passenger Rail Study in Arizona

Eying the projected doubling of the population here in the Grand Canyon State by 2050 our forward-thinking Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) is studying the feasibility of passenger rail service connecting our two main population centers, Tucson and Phoenix.

Giddy with excitement we participated in the first survey back in late 2012. We imagined whizzing through the desert in comfort without the hassle and danger of driving: haboobs, semis, congestion. After arriving in the Phoenix area one could speak their mind at the Governor’s office, explore a museum, attend a professional game, or catch a concert and then return home safely.

So we sent off our surveys and… (crickets chirping)… heard nothing. Figuring the idea had suffered a slow and torturous death we went on with our lives.

Good news! The next part of the survey is now here. ADOT has winnowed through the 6,500 plus comments and narrowed the route options down to three. After reading the background information I am even more impressed by the concept and hopeful that it will get built.

Sure, there are major obstacles such as funding but to ignore the existing traffic problems won’t make them go away, it will only make them worse. Trust me, we’ve tried doing nothing, and that hasn’t worked out so well.

If you live in Arizona please make your voice heard, take a few minutes, and fill out this survey.

Ventana Cave, Window to the Past

Thanks to a tour hosted by Old Pueblo Archaeology I finally had the chance to visit a place I’d long desired to see: Ventana Cave. Twenty (gasp) years ago while attending the University of Arizona I studied the archaeological excavation of the site. It featured prominently in my coursework as it contained evidence of human activity going back 10,000 years.

Looking Up at Ventana Cave

That length of continuous history at one site in the US is rare and it is the only one in southern Arizona. I suppose my professors might have also emphasized it since the dig was under the auspices of Emil Haury, famed archaeologist and early head of our department.

There are a few misconceptions I should dispel before going further. First, it is not a cave, it is technically a large rock shelter located in the side of a volcanic hill. Second, it was never used for long-term habitation, in other words, it was never permanently occupied. Third, the spot is still in use today by Tohono O’odham and migrants.

Why has this spot been so popular with native peoples for thousands and thousands of years? You know what they say in real estate; location, location, location. That was as true back then as it is today and Ventana Cave had everything you could ask for: a commanding view of the valley below and a small spring which is the only permanent water source for miles. Based on the evidence archaeologists believe the site was used as a seasonal camp for hunting and gathering.

Across the Valley

When the excavation began in 1941 Haury had no idea the accumulated layers were 23 feet deep or that they would span such a vast amount of time. The top layer was littered with detritus from contemporary Tohono O’odhams while the bottommost layer contained the remains of Pleistocene megafauna. They uncovered extinct species such as bison, dire wolf, tapir, giant ground sloth, and early horse.

Ventana Cave was clearly an important location for the walls are covered in pictographs (which are rare in southern Arizona), there are a dozen bedrock mortars, and 1585 projectile points were found along with 39 burials, ten of them infants. Of those inhumations, three were associated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BCE) while the rest date to the Hohokam period (200-1450 CE).

The variety of pictographs also denote the passage of time; from the dots and lines of the Early Archaic period, to the humanoid figures of the Hohokam, to the riders on horseback which can date no early than the the mid 1500s.

Black Figures, Horse and Rider on Painted White Background

Two of the burials were especially interesting. An infant was found with well-preserved feces which were carefully examined. The child’s last meal contained mesquite meal, saguaro seeds, and cholla pollen. Since cholla blooms in the late spring they were able to determine the time of year the child died.

Also unique was Burial 9, a middle-aged male. He was wearing a cotton breech cloth, a rabbit fur belt, a wooden nose plug, shell earrings, a fur robe, and a human hair wig. Next to him was a skin quiver with arrows, creosote branches, a cactus needle, four bone awls, and two Archaic projectile points tied with string. In other words, he was not your average Joe.

To assuage any worries, all the human remains and associated burial items have been turned over to the Tohono O’odham who have reinterred them in a special cemetery set aside for the ancients.

Bone Fragments, Pottery Shard, Lithics

Which brings up a question that Haury was unable to answer and still has yet to be definitively answered, Were the Hohokam the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham? The archaeological record is unclear. The tribe doesn’t know; some elders say no citing oral history, while younger O’odham say yes. Modern techniques such as DNA testing could solve the puzzle but the tribe (like most Native American groups) will not give permission since the test would destroy part of a skeleton and that would be sacrilegious.

Archaeologists are still studying the Ventana Cave artifacts in hopes of answering that question and many others. It is a fascinating place!

Creosote Bloom



The beginning of another year is a wonderful time to pause and reflect back upon the one that just ended. Even though the majority of the year was consumed by aspects of daily living, those are not the things we hold dear. Time spent with loved ones and friends: hiking, rafting, Letterboxing, disc golfing, playing games, sharing mealtimes, birding, bike riding, and attending baseball games, to name a few. Those are the memories that stick with us.

As you may know, we share a healthy dose of curiosity, an urge to explore and understand the world around us. Which explains our love of travel, reading, and spending time outdoors. There are just so many fascinating aspects of life to discover. Ansel Adams summed it up quite well, “In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”

Our lives are enriched in a myriad of ways during our explorations, often tangibly. This past year one of the tangibles was an injured kitten discovered while out hiking—a tiny, dehydrated ball of fur. Six months later spunky Wylie Kitty is a welcome addition to our household. Even curmudgeonly old Bailey likes her.

Our love of and fascination with the Sonoran Desert morphed into an ongoing volunteer project to improve a small corner of it. That in turn led to a part-time job for Erin this past September. The Buffelgrass Outreach Coordinator position is fulfilling and flexible, a perfect fit.

Lance’s job as a Theme Wrangler with Automattic continues to involve a good mix of travel, exciting projects, and new challenges. In other words, never a dull moment. Which is good because neither of us enjoy boring.

And so we look forward to this new year and all that it holds in store. For the new adventures. For the new discoveries. For the shared times.

For the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes. —e.e. cummings

Javelina Holiday Feast

A Javelina herd chomped their way through our front yard earlier this week, devouring many of our carefully tended plants. Their favorite “foods” are the starchy roots of our agaves.

TeamworkFinishing off an agave together. Yum!

Deep Thoughts

Tummy full and content.Ouch!

Poke on the nose. Ouch!Yep, I'm CuteDiscolored nose sets this one apart.

I suppose it is the time of year for feasting…

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

A cold, wet storm moved into the Tucson area yesterday and it’s been raining ever since. Good for our thirsty plants. Bad for the 9,000-odd folks riding in El Tour de Tucson bike event.

Apparently it is also bad for the juvenile Harris’ Hawk  that lives in our neighborhood. This is what I woke up to this morning:

Look at me, I'm pathetic. Don't you feel sorry for me?Seriously, that’s one pathetic-looking bird.

Mom. Mom. Mom?

Crying for help…Now I'm mad!

Now I’ve got that Linda Ronstadt song in my head, “Poor, poor pitiful me…

A Cat is a Puzzle…

Recently read a paper from last month (dentist office, ‘nuf said). Came across a Mutts comic that featured the following quote by Hazel Nicholson:

A cat is a puzzle for which there is no solution.

I would say this applies to all cats (except Bailey, because he thinks he’s a dog). But it is especially appropriate for our little Wylie.

Here’s Wylie “helping” us rake up the needles from our Palo Verde tree. It is worth noting that even Bailey is thoroughly dismayed by her antics.