Nine Herbs Ranch
The Ranch, as we have come to call it, is two forty acre parcels (adjacent lots 836 and 847) of what is now called "Phase 7 of Westwood Ranch". The parcels border the Kaibab National Forest to the east and Federal (BLM) land to the south.
The property comes with a deed restriction: a road maintenance obligation, and an association of property owners chartered to fulfill the obligation, the Westwood Ranch Owners Association. We actually use less than two miles of the association's roads, entering the Diamond Seven Ranch from Ash Fork to the east. We rely more on the nine miles of the National Forest Service's FR142.
The property also comes with a distinguished restriction: it is in Coconino County — the first “dark sky” county, home of the venerable Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. We look forward to developing this unique resource. We have found the night sky on our ranch nearly always spectacular.
The nearest town, Ash Fork, is the flagstone capitol of the US. It was once a station on the Atlantic & Pacific railroad and boasted the Fred Harvey Escalante Hotel. It was also the next stop west of Williams on Route 66. These days, the traffic of Interstate 40 largely passes right by. The grand hotel long ago burned down and disappeared into the dust.
The Coconino Plateau is high, dry, windy and remote. Outside Ash Fork there are no utilities of any kind — no electricity and no water. There is no water period. You might find some if you drill down 1000 feet, but you would be ill-advised to depend on it. The long-time residents truck water in to cisterns. Their water-hauling trailers are exempt from the usual county regulations. That's how important water hauling is on the plateau.
Wildlife: The Forest Service has a checklist of mammals in the area: bear, bobcat, cougar, elk, deer, pronghorn, rabbit, squirrel...
Flora: Trees are primarily Juniper with some Pinyon. There are a few cacti (prickly pear) and yucca family plants.
Climate: This may be Arizona, but the upland winter mornings can get down to -15°C with summer afternoons pushing 40 (that's 5 to 100°F).
Our home away from home is basically complete, with composting toilet, shower, and kitchen septic system. We bring water, propane, a house battery, and a gas-absorption cooler. We only need the gasoline generator on long stays or hot days.
November 7th, 2023 After Monument Valley and an annular eclipse we were back in Arizona, and the Jeep made a trip to the ranch such a breeze (hot, dusty, loud, three hour breeze) that it was only with mild surprise that Lori's helper again loaded 10 gallons of water and all his brushes and scrapers into the Jeep. The battle was a grind and then it was won. We left the kitchen looking cleaner than it did when we bought it.
October 4th, 2023 For Lori's birthday we kicked the rodents out of the shed. We were staying in Flagstaff apparently for that purpose. We also had a new (slightly used) Jeep Moab, which had replaced the convertible, apparently again with this purpose in mind.
We took 10 gallons of water, plenty of soap, various scrapers and brushes, two cartons of dung (dust) masks, and three cartons of mothballs. We also brought (almost) enough cement blocks to raise the shed another 8 inches if sufficiently provoked. By the time the daylight was failing, we had washed every horizontal surface in the shed and it reeked of mothballs. But we had retaken the shed only to discover the enemy dug in in the kitchen!
November 17th, 2022 After three years we were anxious to meet the new squatters, and we were not disappointed. Since our Transmogrification, our sole remaining vehicle was a VW Eos convertible, which could not reach the ranch, even the long way round. So we rented a Toyota 4 Runner in Flagstaff and got a couple nights in a pet friendly hotel in Williams.
Starting off in the morning we rocketed up to the ranch (versus slugging it out in the F-250!) and found the place a profound mess. After 3 quiet years, the rodents had... re-modeled... everything. We swept out a large nest made out of our shredded stuff and piles of dung pellets from every corner. The trailer had finally been colonized as well. But we had little water, and no dust (dung) masks, and Sophie was holed up in a hotel room.
November 23rd, 2019 Went to the annual meeting of the Westwood Ranches Road Owners' Association. The meetings are usually held in Phoenix, where most of the owners reside. To better accommodate the owners actually living on the ranch, this meeting was held halfway between Phoenix and the ranches. Ironically the Facebook crowd showed up with their darkest hallucinations. We left appalled at the accusations and ingratitude coming from a large group of people we had never seen at a meeting before. The animus, of course, was about collections and the consensus was, in California fashion, many members can pay more if only a few are... special. <mic-drop>
September 9th, 2019 After 15 months we were anxious to meet the new squatters, but all we found were the obligatory 2-3 dead wasps in the trailer. The rodents were definitely thwarted, and the ants seemed to have lost interest.
We enjoyed well modulated, isolated showers. They kept us cool without gumming up the ground. We did not need the generator at all, so it stayed mercifully quiet, mothballed. With nothing needing fixing, we spent the long weekend hiking or reading, and wondering at the intensity of the silence and the nearness of the stars!
June 16th, 2018 After 20 months we were anxious to meet the new squatters, but all we found were the obligatory 2-3 dead wasps in the trailer. The rodents apparently were (temporarily) thwarted. Even the ants in the trailer seemed half as pesky. We walked the west and south property lines and found most of our stakes in good shape. The neighboring properties showed no signs of activity.
The drive in started in the rain, but the squall had missed our property and we arrived in good time, clean and dry. We might have had a campfire but did not bother. The only flaw was that the moon did not set until almost 11pm — too late for these amateur astronomers.
September 30th, 2016 This was our last weekend at the ranch for the year, and it was a weekend for fauna. On the way in we made the rare sighting of a whitetail fawn and doe. The coyotes seemed to be partying exceptionally close at night (coincidence?) but were never spotted with any certainty. We also came across a small, rabid tarantula. We don't really think rabies can infect a tarantula brain, but something caused it to be out and about in the middle of the afternoon.
Winterizing the trailer was easy. We ran the trailer's tank dry during the final cleanup. Just the pump inlet actually gets dry. There is no way to drain an inch of water off the bottom of the tank. We break both the pump inlet and outlet connections and Matt uses all his hot air to kick most of the water out of the PEX tubing leading to the kitchen and bathroom sinks.
The weather, as in the valley, was warm but not fatally so. The mornings were chilly but not freezing. The wind and rain said their piece, but we had peace too, and two camp fires, and no moon. The rain advised us not to leave home without the self-extraction winch ever again, for peace of mind if nothing else. The wind had much to say on the third night. It even shrieked a few times from a nearby juniper. We did not risk a camp fire but watched the shadows of the afternoon's puffy clouds sail speedily through the stars.
We staked our south property line, via satellite, and used a new battery powered chainsaw to clear brush along both west and south lines. Burrowing tunnels through a couple thickets allowed us to see that our line of stakes was straight and true. With few exceptions, i.e. trees that stand right on the line, we can sight along two or more stakes when standing, sometimes squatting, beside each.
And we repainted the other half of the front stoop. It is quite civilized in camp now. We even had warm showers, 16 L (4.2 gallon) each!
August 19th, 2016 We left for the ranch as monsoon storms died down in the valley. The forecast for the high country was spotty afternoon showers like those we had seen in previous years. It would take solid hours of rain to turn the ranch roads into quagmires so we proceeded with confidence... and a self-extraction winch.
We arrived in the early afternoon, in time for the afternoon high, well over 30°, so the generator and new AC unit got a couple hours' exercise. There were no pests to clean up after in the shed or the trailer (a small mercy). A couple foraging ants were spotted in the kitchen area, but their numbers were pitiful and they never found the dog's food. Matt caulked the roof seams over the water-stained cupboards before we left, just to be sure they felt unwelcome.
The monsoon rains had reduced the fire danger to “moderate” so we felt free to make a campfire both nights and disposed of the last of the scrap siding left over from building the shed. The coyotes and cattle (elk?) sounded to be in good humor, but the moon rose late and the intermittent overcast hid most of the stars. The second night we had a spectacular view to the southwest.
The afternoon showers and partly cloudy skies were quite welcome on the second day. There were a couple of showers in the wee hours, but they were short and stopped well before morning. The dust was only damp by the time we wanted to get out. We could see the afternoon rain showers coming a mile away (literally), and dodged them easily. They were short and barely wetted the dust down. A nap afterwards was all it took to avoid a slippery hike or a muddy project.
After seven years in the sun on the high, dry Coconino Plateau the trailer's front stoop was almost completely stripped of porch paint. Lori scraped one half while the other remained in use. Matt did the re-painting, but only after spending a fortune in water (almost 15 liters!) trying to get it clean.
We also continued driving stakes along the property line west of the lower forty. We easily followed the line as drawn on a Google satellite image, identifying each intersecting clump of trees. We ran out of stakes just as we spotted the surveyor's pin in the southwest corner.
The stakes along the western border had an unexpected benefit one evening when we struck out due east for the national forest fence line. It was not far, yet it was, and Lori's phone's compass app was all turned around. We scrambled up a hill we did not recognize and came across our line of stakes. Of course Lori's phone was quite correct. We had gotten turned around 180°! It was a sobering lesson in how broken terrain can mess with your sense of direction.
June 14th, 2016 After 20 months, we were surprised to find just one small mouse in the shed, though it seemed it had help peeing and pooping on every horizontal surface. The cleanup took an hour or two and a couple gallons of precious water. The odor of rodent-processed juniper brought back fond (not!) memories of ranch life just two years before.
During this stay a new adversary made effective use of the element of surprise. They only carried off a minuscule amount of the dog's food, but they were the first pest to infest the trailer. Ant bait went immediately onto the “Bring Next Time” list.
The trailer got a new AC unit — the type with a small, indoor cabinet on casters, with a 120V cord and a flexible duct to connect it to a window exhaust port. We hacked the trailer door with interchangeable panels: one solid, painted panel to replace the old rotted replacement for the long lost original, and one with an AC exhaust port screwed to it. The new unit saved our bacon which was beginning to fry that afternoon in the unfiltered sunlight.
The terribly dry conditions ruled out campfires, but seemed to also take a big bite out of the fly and wasp population. Sitting out in the moonlight after the wind died down it was eerily quiet, like sitting in a darkened church. The waxing gibbous moon lit all with a ghostly light, and chased away most of the stars, until the wee hours, so we gave thanks for the wonder and went to bed early, exhausted by hikes and hacks.
On the way out we got a photo of a big jackrabbit (above) doing the “I'm a stump.” thing. We did not get it up and running so we can only speculate on whether it could be the same ol' one-legged jack Sophie flushed a couple years ago. That jack actually had three legs but with a big hind leg gone it looked like half a jack, still fast as a rocket though.
October 4th, 2014 Identifying groups of trees on a Google satellite image was surprisingly easy and allowed us to follow the property lines straight from one surveyor's pin to the next. The ground was still moist from monsoon rains, so we were able to set stakes along the property line from camp down into the western wash. Getting them more than 20cm into the ground still could take a dozen tries because of the volcanic rubble. Hopefully the cattle will not immediately lick, scratch or trample them down (again). Until then, we can walk up the wash and turn unerringly toward camp.
With the moon near full, we saw only the brightest stars. It did not set until very late. By Monday, thin, high clouds were moving in and we were treated to a huge moon ring.
We had another altercation with the neighbors. We are quickly losing our tire covers to the sun, wind, cattle, whatnot, and tried replacing them with sheets of scrap siding. Somehow that was interpreted as an invitation to nest in the wheel wells, and we knew where that was heading. We left with a couple tires naked to Sol, more desperate to keep the mice out of the trailer than to save some old tires from more UV damage.
We reached an extra special milestone on this visit. After 5 years the composting toilet was full. With no little trepidation, Matt gave up rotating the barrel and pulled the “finishing” drawer. He was disappointed(?) to find only potting soil(!) — no lumps, no odor, a certified miracle.
We cleaned up other possible rodent invitations, hauling home scrap lumber, bits and bobs. We winterized before we left.
August 16th, 2014 We raised the shed onto an additional set of concrete blocks, 8 inch blocks this time. It now stands almost a foot off the ground, allowing the ninth pier to be placed underneath and thus the sag in the floor to be corrected.
We think Baby Rat managed to get inside only recently, based on the modest amount of crap we found. We hope the more exposed underside will be less inviting, but there are still sheet metal shields and other tricks we can use.
We trashed the damaged cement board shower walls and used regular plywood with a coat of exterior latex. The environment tends toward brutally dry here, so molds and fungi get little respect.
We tried to block rat access to the underside of the shower base with the commodity urethane spray foam, but wound up with a puddle that slowly expanded for 10 hours, causing the base to bulge. The walls were not up yet so we pulled the base out and tore out the foam. Next time we will pre-humidify and perhaps carve blocks to roughly fill in the larger openings.
We got almost 10mm of rain with hail on Sunday afternoon, so the rest of the weekend was spent inside, on the patio, or jumping between pieces of scrap siding. We managed to stay free of the mud mostly. When we left late Monday morning the road was hardly sticky. The washes had several inches in them but were as hard bottomed as ever, so we got out with our self-extraction winch still untested by the heat of battle.
May 10th, 2014 After 19 months, Mamma Rat and Baby Rat were surprised to see us. We were surprised to see them too — so surprised we forgot to take a selfie with them before they had to dash (behind the shower). We did get a photo of the rat mansion and rat mess before we cleaned up. It took a third of our water to scrape and scrub all the crap, cemented down with urine, out of every corner. We had to tear down the shower in order to evict the squatters.
The private road to the Upper 40 is much improved thanks to the cooperation of the neighbors. We raised $4500 to have the steepest, roughest 100m bulldozed.
October 3rd, 2012 It is time to winterize already! Overnight lows around the South Rim of The Canyon are dipping toward freezing.
July 4th, 2012 The holiday traffic was light and we got to the ranch in good time. We found everything just as we had left it 9 months ago, and no sign of mice. We punted the customary campfire because of a high fire danger and recent bans. The astronomer was a little deflated by high cirrus clouds every night, but still found a few hours of spectacular night skies.
September 23rd, 2011 The weather was merciful. It brooded some on the first day and even sent us a sprinkle, but then left off. We enjoyed crystal night skies for the rest of the long weekend. For exercise we replaced the hatch lids on the trailer (with steel!), and raised the shed onto 8 cinder blocks. With the shed 6-8 inches higher, Lori was able to seal around the shower drain pipe with a can of spray foam. We left it at that. Even after a month of quiet we saw no sign of the mice. If a new crew makes off with all of our toilet paper this winter, we will have to try the sheet metal shields.
August 26th, 2011 After nearly 11 months we finally got “up nort'” to check on our trailer and shed. The monsoon has already turned the ranch roads slick yet sticky. All three plastic lids on the trailer roof vents were holed by hail and 90% of one was found under a bush 50 meters away. There was no sign of water damage in the trailer. The occasional wetting helped keep the interior moist? (This is a weirdly dry climate.) In spite of obvious signs of heavy weather, the turbine vent was still on the shed and spinning noiselessly. The new gas absorption cooler was easily plumbed to the trailer's low-pressure LP piping, and worked well — no generator noise nor exhaust fumes!
The only bummer was mouse crap over every inch of the shed. We uncovered a pail of water when we arrived and the next morning found a mouse had drowned itself in it. We chased three more out and spent most of the day moving everything out to sweep out the littered corners. Every shelf and every box, package or tool had to be wiped of sticky globs of mouse urine. To add injury, they took our toilet paper. We threw out two camp chairs one of which contained not just a nest of toilet paper and poo but a dead, mummified youngster.
Next task: a shed raising. We hope that raising the shed onto a taller foundation and using sheet metal shields to keep the mice on the ground, we might frustrate the little toilet paper thieves.
October 6th, 2009 One of the last two old tires delaminated and had to be changed on an off-ramp on the Mogollon Rim. Stayed in Flagstaff to get two new tires, completing the set, keeping an old one for a spare.
Built a wooden stoop under the trailer's door. Buried the micro septic system's settling tanks underneath. Installed 12VDC wiring between batteries and shower pump, with an on-off switch and fuse.
September 4th, 2009 Built a shower stall in a corner of the shed, using a shower pan and some cement board.
August 14th, 2009 Tried to go to the ranch, but blew a tire on the highway, smashing the fuel tank filler pipe. Taking the 4-wheel drive Explorer, loaded with generator, gasoline, batteries, LP cylinder, etc. in the passenger compartment did not seem reasonable.
July 24th, 2009 Drove to the ranch in the “new” F-250. Painted the shed.
July 13th, 2009 Bought a used, diesel Ford F-250 with 200,000 miles on it. Replaced most of the wearable parts in the front end, and all of the u-joints. Bought a spare tire, jack, lug wrench — things normal people need in a truck...
June 23rd, 2009 Drove to the ranch to finish the shed. Kicked two large rats out and shingled the roof. Installed an electric refrigerator after removing the old, leaking, propane fridge. Ran PEX to the bathroom sink. Replaced another hatch lid.
June 11th, 2009 Went to the ranch to erect a 10'x10' shed. Rented a Home Depot F-350 and hauled one of their shed kits (approx. 1 ton) to the North Forty. Assembled everything but the shingled roof.
April 10th, 2009 Went to the ranch for no reason. Left the new toilet at home; there's nowhere to put it. Got snow the first evening, and lots of sleet and rain most of the weekend.
April 7th, 2009 Our Sun-Mar composting toilet was delivered.
November 28th, 2008 Left Erica with a friend. Celebrated the end of Lori's sabbatical from Intel?
The top priority next spring had to be poop. As much fun as it is to truck home a weekend's poop, we hoped to replace the black water side of the trailer's plumbing with a composting toilet as soon as possible. We also needed a septic tank for the kitchen wash water. You can throw your gray water under the thirsty trees without making anyone sick, but kitchen wash water full of food and grease... not, by law!
November 8th, 2008 Went to the ranch to work on getting some water running. Replaced the bath and kitchen faucets. Repaired the bathroom sink with a fiberglass repair kit. Ran PEX from the water pump to the kitchen sink, then drained everything again to “winterize.” Replaced the forward hatch lid too.
October 4th, 2008 We bought a used trailer, which was an enormous improvement in our standard of living at the ranch. This is a shelter from wind and mud like no tent. The stove and the lights were about all that worked. The bath sink had a 2 inch hole busted out of it. The pipes had all burst — a rupture or temporary patch about every 3 feet.
September 20th, 2008 Went to the annual meeting of the Westwood Ranches Road Owners' Association.
April 19th, 2008 Went to an informational meeting of the Westwood Ranches Road Owners' Association regarding a special assessment to meet the association's road maintenance obligation.
September 15th, 2007 Went to the annual meeting of the Westwood Ranches Road Owners' Association.
August 10th, 2006 Camped on the ranch. Walked all over the North Forty. Tried to plot a rough survey of the terrain.
March 16th, 2006 Checked out our new “South Forty.” Stayed in a motel in Williams, dodging spring snow storms. Drove the ranch roads from Ash Fork to Seligman, then drove to the Grand Canyon.
October, 2005 After decades of scrimping, we finally have some elbow room: eighty acres of the old Diamond Seven Ranch. We were looking for some rugged frontier land 3 hours from Phoenix and the pickings were slim. A Realtor in Williams told us about two lots that had recently been put up for sale north of Ash Fork. We were not enthusiastic. The land around Ash Fork is awfully flat and dry and boring. But these lots are 16 miles north of Ash Fork and surprised us with 15 foot scrub Juniper and elevations that varied 100 feet, including a small, wooded ravine. That's not boring! We just had to out-bid the ubiquitous Californians.
It was October of 2005 and our choices were limited because Arizona had just approved an enormous indoor water park near Williams, on the road into Grand Canyon National Park. The plans for the water park and associated developments totaled more than a billion dollars and the land speculators went loco, pushing land prices up almost an order of magnitude. Six months earlier our 80 acres, 25 miles from the action, would have cost half as much.