The plaque on the locked door of this prospector’s cabin in Little Fish Canyon details its history as a home and workplace for the Brothers family (and friend Mr. Wilson) during the Depression. Photo by Keith Krizan

The Santa Rita Mountain Range lies due west of where I live in Elgin. (Note to Siri: it’s Elgin as in gin and tonic, not Elgin as in the Greek Marbles pilfered from the Parthenon by agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in the first decade of the 1800s.) The Santa Ritas are the first range that I look to in the morning and the last one that I see if I go out to watch the evening sunset.

In the morning, as the sun first rises, I am in the shadow of the Mustangs to my east and because of that, the first things that I can see that catch direct sunlight are the peaks in the Santa Ritas. From there, the shadow lowers until it is at the base of the mountains. It then begins its race eastward, across the basin, to the point where I am finally in full sun. Bob Dylan, in “I Shall Be Released,” from 1967, sang, “I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east.” That song invariably pops into my head whenever I observe that phenomenon.

The Santa Ritas, from my vantage point, are a majestic mound of rock, frequently snow-capped in the winter and the first local range to build clouds during the monsoon. I’ve looked at them close up from the Empire Ranch and seen the old bald man asleep on his back, as described by some old timers. I’ve also heard the legend of the Native woman perpetually pouring water high up in the folds of those mountains, but I have not seen her yet.

A few weeks ago I had occasion to take a trip up into the Santa Ritas with some like-minded adventurers. In my distant youth this might have been a hike or a horseback ride, but now the altitude is gained in a side-by-side.

A word about side-by-sides: Before I moved out west I don’t think that I could have pictured myself in one of those things. Noisy and gas guzzling. I thought of them as the antithesis of a meaningful and contemplative experience with nature. Just one look, on an excursion into the Santa Ritas, was all it took to convince me otherwise. Side- by-sides are a most efficient way to get to the hard to reach and beautiful places here in southeastern Arizona. As far as noise and gas consumption are concerned I am certain that if Ford can manufacture and sell an electric F-150 then an E-ATV is not too far behind.

Our goal that day was Melendrez Pass and the radio transmitters on a nearby peak. The pass is five miles NNE of Mt. Wrightston, 13 miles SE of Green Valley and ten miles NW of Sonoita in Pima County. At over 5400′ there is a great view down to Green Valley on the west and a north view up to Tucson. 

The road that we took up, as one would expect, was steep and rocky with wonderful vistas of grasslands giving way to mesquites and steep pitched washes where many present day mining claims are in effect. Time constraints owing to a gathering monsoon storm precluded any rockhounding but we did stop at a remarkably intact prospector’s cabin in Little Fish Canyon. According to a plaque on the cabin’s front door, it was built by Bee A. Brothers and his friend Old Man Wilson in 1929 under the established Gold Seal mining claim. The sign goes on to document some family history of who was born and raised there and lets it be known that in addition to the mineral gold that could be gleaned from area digs during the Great Depression there was also liquid gold in the form of moonshine produced there during Prohibition. Apparently the Santa Ritas have been responsible for more than one kind of shine over the years.

On the way back out we passed Kentucky Camp, a well preserved ranch and mining camp where the U.S .Forest Service has developed a ‘Bed, No Breakfast’ lodging experience.

A little further beyond we stopped in a high meadow to unpack a picnic lunch and watched a storm bud and build above us. Some peals of thunder hurried our meal and our conversation.

Some shining lightning sent us racing from the west down to the east and back out to the Sonoita/Elgin basin.