The Pad, or How I Am Spending My Pandemic


Tulip Season from inside our living room, where we were marooned during the rains of March.

The post prior to this one was written on March 6, 2020, from the middle of a cactus forest near Tucson,  Arizona. It was about then that things for us changed.

We had been watching the new virus spread rapidly around the US. It was in Seattle, our territory. It had moved into northern California. It was ramping up in New York.

March 6, when we took our photos at Catalina State Park, was a Friday. On Saturday, we talked about heading north, getting home before things got worse — and decided that, nah, we had a week or so left on our rental, and we’d stick it out in our warm dry sunny cactus land.

Sunday morning we both woke up early, anxious, — and decided to go home.

And so, no posts about the biosphere in Oracle Valley, Arizona, or photos of our glimpses of the Colorado River and the teasel and ponderosa pines as we zoomed our way to Portland. We got into town on Thursday, the 12th; on Friday the 13th, Jer did a huge grocery shopping, and that was the last day either of us were free to move around in a non-pandemic world. We are officially old and officially vulnerable and unofficially cautious. So we are staying home.

Clearly, it was time for a project — a pandemic project, a project that would take on the challenge, as it were. No in-person shopping¬† possible, no lingering in plant nurseries and mooning over outdoor furniture. Nope, a project that could be carried out using on-line deliveries and websites — that was what we needed. But it also had to be something to get me (June) outside.

The paved space outside the studio.

So I returned to a problem I’d been circling for six years.

Outside my studio (on the left in the photo above and the right in the photo below) is a wide paved driveway. The driveway has a pleasant entry sitting between two stone walls and going up a gentle slope. But once on top the slope, the driveway turns into a wide, paved, hot, and unprepossessing space. We have seldom used the driveway; friends sometimes leave their cars in it when they fly out of town. But mostly it just sits there, empty and dirty gray, looking ugly.

Over the last six years I have surrounded it with potted plants and let the Japanese maple (top left in the above photo) flow down over the entryway. I grew vines up the garage doors. I had a wooden planter box built out from a triangular bit of soil which holds a persimmon tree. All this, and the concrete still reigned.

This is the driveway from 85th Ave. Our property sits between two streets. It fronts 86th with an old-fashioned narrow driveway and small garage. The big garage-turned-studio is in the back of the house, with a driveway that comes up the slope off 85th Ave.

The front of the studio as it faces the driveway and 85th Ave. The photo is looking out from the house. We managed to plant a lot wherever there was soil, but alas, the pavement remained stubbornly un-plantable.

After looking at that concrete out the back window for a month, I was itching to do something, anything, to relieve its ugliness. In early April we had a warm spell, and I pulled a couple of chairs from storage to sit in the warmer space of the driveway.

Ah, an idea begins to form.

And seeing those chairs and red umbrella on the concrete pad, I found my project. The photos below show how it developed — with lots of on-line searching for materials that would be lightweight, easily assembled, and able to be moved around after delivery. I like my potted plants to sit on rollers so I can “move the furniture” when the spirit moves me. And, the tipping point for me was to realize that the space might be just right for socializing while fulfilling the physical distancing requirements.

I found perfect planter boxes at Wayfair — plastic, meaning lightweight and easy to put together, and not likely to rot in Portland’s rain. They had trellises, which I didn’t think I would use, but which we liked after we saw them. And we ordered a bunch of new rolling pot stands so the boxes can be moved about as we spaced them correctly. We can also move them to the side if we ever need to use the driveway.

The planter boxes right after they were assembled. I was sooo proud.

These two photos look out toward 85th Avenue, which helped turn the ugly space into the feel of a circular room.

Kerri, next door, agreed to shop for annuals (mostly) to fill the boxes with flowers. The local nurseries were deemed essential services and were monitored for safe practices, but we are not yet ready to shop there. So Kerri, much younger, did the work for us, assuring us she shopped safely. Her plant picking skills are marvelous.

More to do, but it’s starting to look like a place to hang out in.

The new round table replaces an older folding table that was not exactly stable. The new table has a glass top which is a bit startlingly red, but will do anyway.


I added the smaller brass planters to make tiers and to hide the black space under the gray planters. I filled them with bits of ground cover from around our grounds. They are still a little ragged looking, but are starting to take hold.


Kerri’s plantings.


On the wall, along the steps leading to the studio door, I put a couple of brass pots that I bought without checking their sizes. I wanted ones at least a foot high; these are 4 inches. Never mind, they are fun sitting on the persimmon tree surround.

The last addition to the space was a couple of golden sword yuccas. Again, ordered online, with a whole set of interfaces between my notion (one golden sword yucca for on the back deck) and what we got (two enormous yuccas, with pots too big for the back deck). Never mind — the yuccas made the final end-stops, door-frames for the Pad, our physical distancing, socializing space.

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Catalina State Park

Bobcat Amphitheater

We’ve made two trips recently to Catalina State Park, which is only about 10 miles from our rental casita. The Bobcat Amphiteater, where park rangers give talks, faces the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Wet feet

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The Redwood of the Desert

OK, so tree huggers might be a bit dismayed to think of the saguaro cactus as a beloved tree. Hugging them seems contraindicated. And of course, they are not trees, even if they are the tallest, most formidable things in the landscape. But, still, the saguaro is my kind of being.

Saguaros are irrefutably the commanders of the Sonoran Desert landscape. They are eerily prescient — they seem to be silently summing up your goods and bads, your deeds and doings. Keeping watch.

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Our Cactus Forest

We are currently residing in a cactus forest. But, of course, it’s cacti, not cactus.

There are barrel cacti, which are used everywhere for landscaping because they are, well, seemingly tamer, and generally smaller, than other forms of the species.

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Oro Valley Cottage

Front view with Prius

This is what our temporary home looks like from the front. It was literally a mother-in-law cottage until it became a rental. Since June is a mother-in-law, its function remains nearly the same.

Rear view

The cottage seems structurally flawless. It does not seem to have shifted since it was built. I have not noticed any cracks.

Kitchen and dining room

The kitchen is small but well-equipped. Everything has been well-maintained. This is true of the rest of the cottage infrastructure as well. Excellent plumbing, excellent wiring.

Cactus garden

From our back porch, we look onto a cactus garden that extends from the owners’ house next door to the far side of the rental cottage. Barely visible to the left is the owners’ swimming pool. Doves, quail, cardinals, and little gray birds congregate near a feeder, out of sight to the right of the walkway between the two dwellings. — Jer

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Sittin’ in the Back Yard, Feet Up, Admiring

We are in Oro Valley, a suburb of Tucson about 15 miles from the city. If one thinks only in dualities, this new U-wood locale may be the opposite of Sheep House. Sheep House was embedded in the city, with traffic, well-groomed trails, lots of speeding bikes and roller-bladers, Trader Joes, fine restaurants, bustling, hustling, charming. Sheep House is a city house, pleasant, modest, comfortable and uninspired. It is surrounded closely by others just like it. Oro Valley, on the other hand, is inhabited by well-heeled, horse-oriented denizens, whose homesteads are spread out on incredibly large chunks of desert. Our casita isn’t palatial, but it is a work of art on its own, inside and out, everything kept just perfect, and all amenities provided. No traffic noise, nothing but coyotes and birds. Not many other humans, just cacti and ground squirrels. The nearest grocery store is a Fry’s (Safeway equivalent), about 3-4 miles down a busy highway; our lane is dirt and gravel; we walk down the middle of it, savoring sun and space.

And the back yard of the casita is a joy.

Our digs are not sumptuous, (although they are several cuts in design and furnishings above the Sheep House). But it is beautiful in every detail. The back yard has been carefully landscaped for humans and desert denizens — made to be sat in and walked about, even if filled with cacti. The patio off the back of the casita faces a serene, adobe-wall-bound space, full of birds and precisely placed desert plants.

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African Art

On Friday, our friend Yvonna took us to the African art exhibit at the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The wonders we saw included enormous collections of fabric, clothing, beads, jewelery, paintings, pottery, masks, drums and stringed instruments, hats, and toys on display in a series of tents spread over an unpaved parking lot the size of two football fields. It had rained hard earlier in the week, and we stepped carefully around lingering puddles and sticky mud. The rain kept potential customers away for three days, one of the vendors told us. Several vendors offered us a “good price” or “bargain price” for whatever we were looking at, and we believed them. It would be very expensive to move tons of stuff all the way from Nigeria, Benin, Mali, etc., to Tucson and back again. One vendor told us he would rather sell wholesale than to haul everything home. June bought a half-dozen woodblocks for printing on paper. As much as I admired the big-eared hornblower in the image above, I would not know where to put it, and I did not inquire about the price. — Jer (with photo by June)


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