Before we got to Arizona we had been talking to our good friend, bug scientist and all around incredible woman, Chelsey. We met Chelsey almost three years ago in the first few months of being on the road and loved her immediately. She is kind, smart and fun as hell to be around. She consistently takes us on some of the best excursions we could imagine and she had something extra special in store for us this time.
On the road we meet so many people, mostly good people, sometimes bad and every once in a while someone truly great ends up in our path. In Arizona that man is Josiah Austin. Chelsey had met Josiah through research work she was doing on his land (he has a lot of it) and was kind enough to bring us up to his ranch, named Cienega. He came from the east and bought up over 17,000 acres of relatively undesirable land in the Arizona desert with the aim of rehabilitating from overgrazing, harvesting and drought and restore it to what he knew it could be with the proper care. With the dying out of native vegetation, the ground doesn't hold water like it should and floods come through and strip the land even more. Through his water projects and the restoration and reintroduction of native plants, the ground is able to keep water and flourish, luring back native wildlife with it, bringing the land back to life. We spent two days with them, touring the land, visiting his different projects and spending time with one of the most intriguing people we have encountered.
His home was everything you could want and somewhat unexpected out there in the desert. It is a minimal yet deliberate rancher with huge windows in every room (even the shower) so you could always be looking out onto the land. There was very little clutter, all the art and decor seemingly sentimental and thought out. He told us a story of buying a painting he had wanted so badly when he was decorating the house. He had spent too much of his budget on it that he ended up having to use the box it came in as a dining table for a while, a decision we absolutely understood. He had a wrap around porch (where we spent most of our time) and an idyllic lawn that filled with birds and rabbits all day long. He had bird feeders strung up on every tree and told us he goes through 40 pounds of seed a week. He detailed every type of bird we pointed out and seemingly knew every animal that ever stopped over for a visit. He had so much to teach and we had even more to learn.
We spent our first night there just sitting and talking, exchanging stories and drinking tequila. We shared a dinner of Elk steak and burgers that had been hunted in the Montana wilderness before retiring to the back porch. The night was clear with a warm breeze and the land so vast and reaching we could simultaneously watch a thunder storm to the south and a wildfire in the mountains to the east from our seats. We ended up all piled on a blanket under the clearest sky we've ever seen calling it too short, knowing we had a big day ahead of us.
The next day we all piled into separate off road vehicles and got to work. Chelsey had come out to set up wildlife cameras so they could find out what animals were coming up to Cienega. This part of Arizona is as far as animals from Central America will come and although faced with a myriad of obstacles (including the literal WALL built between the USA and Mexico) some still make it so it's important to know what comes through. We hiked through to different watering holes and looked for signs that wildlife had been present (animals tracks, trampled grass etc). Once they identified a good spot for animal activity Chelsey strapped the cameras up and we helped Jo cut down and surrounding grass (the cameras are motion activated and if you're not careful on a breezy day you'll get thousands of photos of grass swaying in the wind). She tested them to see what the framing would be like (using the selfie cam on her iPhone) and once they were satisfied we kept going. It was incredible watching the land change as we drove through it down dirt roads. At a distance you would never notice the changes but they were drastic, even the dirt turned from golden dust to deep red earth. Jo kindly explained all the different plants, what the needed to grow and how they replicated out in the desert in different parts of his property. We went to a lookout point where he had built a small shelter with no table but a very necessary beer holder (Jo is our kind of man). We could see as far as Mexico with his home below and land all around. We continued our day, setting up four more cameras and checking on some of his water projects before coming home and returning to the back porch. It will be about three months before they go back to check on the cameras.
That night Jo shared with us some stew made from quails hunted in Texas. He warned us he had been a little loose with the deboning and to be a bit careful. I found the smallest little wish bone and being as superstitious as we are, took it as a good omen. Jo explained he used to collect wishbones and used to have hundreds, in varying sizes, in his old kitchen. He told me not to break the bone but to keep it, we packed it away with the very few things that are dear to us that we keep. There could not have been a more perfect souvenir. We spent our last night sharing tequila and stories, catching toads and snakes by hand and collecting bugs for Chelsey's research while watching the night sky for one last time.
We parted in the morning, Chelsey heading to Tempe, us to the Chiricahua Mountains, leaving Jo to get back to his life at the ranch. We had found a friend for life in Jo and felt like we left a part of ourselves back at Cienaga, now invested in the land, the wildlife and the man behind it all.