A Festive Anniversary Week in the Sonoran Desert. Part 4: King of Cowboys, Casa Grande Ruins, the Hohokam, and One Very Weird Fungus

(December 11-17, 2022)

December 13, 2022

This day we explored areas as far as 50 miles north of la Casita. Following the old highway between Tucson and Phoenix, we first came upon a roadside rest area and memorial to the legendary cowboy, Tom Mix, who died at this spot 83 years ago. Tom who?  Of course we had to stop and learn more about this interesting bit of history.  

Then on to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument where history dates back more than 1700 years, well before the first Spanish explorers showed up, exploring. Even Luna was permitted to wander around this cultural monument, but we may have appreciated the stories surrounding the Hohokam more than she did.  

Then to complete our tour for the day, we came upon a lonely ranch road on the way back to la Casita, where the saguaro stood tall over countless cholla, barrel cactus, iron trees and palo verde.  It was here, in the middle of “where-are-we-now?” that I peered under a creosote bush and found the weirdest puffball fungus ever.

Read on for a snapshot of our day.

Full 2-page spread of our travels north of la Casita

Tom Mix Memorial

Being more in tuned with western stars, like John Wayne and Roy Rogers, Tom Mix was a mystery to me. Roy, being the western fan that he is, knew of this King of Cowboys, but not the circumstances surrounding his death.  So we stopped to learn more. The memorial consisted of a plaque dedicated to Tom, embedded in a cemented stone pillar, topped by a cut iron silhouette of his equally famous steed, Tony the Wonder Horse. On an adjacent picnic table was a laminated news clipping with a full, and sometimes entertaining account of the events leading up to and on that tragic day, October 12, 1940. There are many accounts on-line of the life and death of Tom Mix, including how he starred in more than 290 films (all but 9 were silent), and how he gave John Wayne his start in the film industry. Tom Mix did almost all of his own stunts, usually with Tony, the Wonder Horse; both suffering numerous injuries as a result.  And 2 years to the day that Tom Mix died, Tony died at the age of 37.

Close-up of the journal page with focus on Tom Mix and a weird fungus

But back to Tom.  Racing from Las Cruces, NM to Phoenix, in his sporty yellow car fully loaded with belongings, including a very large and heavy, leather covered aluminum trunk, Tom was in a hurry to get to his grandson’s christening. About 25 miles north of Tucson, in an area of road construction preceded by warning signs and barricades, Tom lost control of his car, barreled through the barricades and flew off the road at a high rate of speed. The car plunged headlong into a dry wash and came to rest on its side.  Witnesses say that Tom survived the crash; they saw him climbing out of the car, appearing to be unharmed. He waved at the few spectators for a brief moment, and then from out of the car fell that very large and heavy, leather covered aluminum trunk right down onto Tom’s head, crushing him and breaking his neck in the process! 

Tom mix was 60 years old.

Casa Grand Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins

About midway between Tucson and Phoenix, lies Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, right in the center of the small town of Coolidge, AZ. The ruins of Casa Grande (Great House) and its adjoining village were part of a network of many villages with Great Houses that were located along an extensive canal system. These canals, built as early as 300 CE (Common Era) by the ancestral people referred to as Hohokam (ho-ho-KAM), transported water from the Gila (he-la) and Salt Rivers to irrigate their fields.  Then around 1150 CE, the Hohokam left these outlying settlements and concentrated in large villages like Casa Grande, still situated near to their vast canal system. These walled villages continued to play a major role in irrigated agriculture. Construction of Casa Grande was complete around 1350, and is the largest of these structures built by the ancestral peoples. 

Close-up of the journal page, with focus on Casa Grande

The early Spanish explorers, who named this structure “Casa Grande” were puzzled by its presence. Noticing the walls faced the 4 cardinal points on their compass, they speculated that openings in the upper walls aligned with the sun and moon at specific times of the year. Was this intentional? Did the ancestral people who built Casa Grande watch the sky to determine ideal planting and harvesting times? Did celestial alignments mark times of celebration or other events? We may never know. Even though the Hohokam thrived for more than 1500 years, by the 1400s their culture began to ebb. By the late 1600s, when the Spanish arrived in the area, Casa Grande and all of the Great Houses and villages had long been abandoned.

A very weird fungus

And then there was the encounter with one of the weirdest puffballs I’ve ever seen.  Standing tall on a spindly 10” stalk, underneath the protective canopy of a creosote bush, was a cream colored mushroom, it’s cap sporting a light covering of clay red dust. Looking to be long dead and dried up, I reached under the creosote expecting the withered ‘shroom to disintegrate when touched. But to my surprise, this long-stalked puffball poofed a cloud of red brown spores all over my hand, as it easily gave up its purchase on the ground. 

Close-up of a very weird puffball fungus

The hollow, slightly woody fibrous stalk broke away from from the gill-less cap with ease, but not before tapping and tapping the cap (actually called a spore sac), releasing millions of spores that were carried off by the afternoon breeze. 

This was quite a find (for me, anyhow!). I learned that this species looks like a dead, dried up plant even when fresh and newly emerged from underground.  And this is the only species of fungus in the family Agaricaceae known to occur in North America, in desert habitats. Meet the Saltshaker Stiltball (Battarreoides diguetii)!

There is another closely related Stiltball species found in the deserts of Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe, but if you happen to be peering under brush in a North American desert, and find a long stalked puffball, it will surely be B. diguetii.

And it was another fine day in the Sonoran Desert.  Thanks for coming along! 

Stay tuned for Part 5: Saguaro National Park – East, Rincon Mountains Unit; All saguaro, all the time!


  1. janeottawa says:

    Hey there Barb, loved this wonderfully illustrated narrative, and it brought back memories of when we had the motor home. It was our first trip with the RV and we were on our way to TX…we stayed in Casa Grande for a few days when Bernie put his back out and temporarily couldn’t drive. We also stayed there on our way home and I never knew there was so much history in the area!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jane! That’s so cool knowing you and Bernie spent time in the area! We almost didn’t spend time there, but very glad we changed our minds. Thanks so much for the comments!


  2. sgoodman56 says:

    Such as sad end to Tom Mix. His horse must have been devastated when he didn’t return.
    And what happened to the Hohokam? Such an advanced society to just be gone-what a mystery.
    I love the way the stiltball waited for you to release all the seeds. You changed the future.
    Fascinating reading as always, Barb and with the illustrations, I feel like I’ve been there. 🙂


    1. It was a sad, and surprising ending for Tom. Not sure what Tony must’ve thought, but maybe he died a few years afterwards, waiting to be really sure Tom wouldn’t come back, ever? The Stiltball was very excellent, and maybe I released the spores a bit earlier than nature? Thanks again for all the comments!


  3. What a tragic end to Tom Mix’s life! I have heard my Dad mention his name as he really likes cowboy books and movies. A very cool fungus that you found! It really pays to get down to the ground peering under things, you never know what you will find! Wow, the age of Casa Grande is impressive — so much to learn from these places left behind. Fascinating pages and information, Barb!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting on this post, Karen! This is the extent of my urban sketching …….. I meant to ask if you’re into that! So much history out there in the desert, under and over the shrubbery!


      1. I haven’t done much urban sketching, but enjoy the architecture of old barns, crumbling castles. I sketched a few buildings on my trip to Ontario, Canada last year and showed them in this post (https://wp.me/pdstun-qo). I might do more, we’ll see — I just need to get back to the U.K. to sketch those beautiful, historic castles!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll check out your post from Ontario. Thanks for sharing. Your wish to sketch in the UK reminds me of all the castles we visited in Portugal a few years back! Of course I wasn’t actively nature journaling back then. Maybe someday we’ll return!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s