A Few Days With Cactus (Tucson #1)

Arrival (Day 1)

We dropped into Arizona slightly ahead of the 10:36 pm predicted (arrival times have been gamified to create the illusion of early arrival) landing time, grabbed a nice bright red pickup with an extended cab from the National Emerald Aisle, and arrived at our first hotel, a chain hotel not as Super as the name suggested, just before the clocked tick tocked into Christmas Day. We would have liked to arrive earlier and head straight to Tucson but my wife’s work schedule was still in flux when we purchased the tickets and flying into Tucson was double the airfare. So, Phoenix it was and the couple hour drive down to Tucson the following morning to hike in the Saguaro forests.

Saguaro West (Day 2)

On Christmas morning, despite the overcast skies and incessant rain, we opted for half interstate and half scenic route. It took an hour to shoot out the far side of the rain and another hour to reach Saguaro National Park West. We visited the National Park before checking into our lodgings to maximize daylight and get in some hiking before settling into our lodgings.

We selected Desert Trails Bed and Breakfast for apparent quietness and proximity to Saguaro National Park East. We’ve had problems with B&Bs in the past so choose them with a measure of trepidation. The good ones tend to be great with their boutique feel and homey accommodations. Desert Trails exceeded our expectations and we highly recommend it. The room was nice, the grounds were beautiful, and the breakfasts cooked by John were fantastic.

What about gift exchange on this most commercial of all holidays? We decided a couple of years earlier to forego present exchange and give ourselves the gift of travel for Christmas and our combined birthdays. The memories generated are far more valuable to us than things. Besides, we don’t need trinkets or clothes or to add any more shoes to the selection already overrunning our small condo.

Why choose Arizona to spend Christmas week? There are many. Scout places to live when I retire in less than two hands of time. Temporarily escape the brutal Chicago winter if only for a few days and pretend the oppressive ice age has not descended onto the Midwestern lives. I’m obsessed with desert landscapes and am slowly infecting my wife with the same fixation. I would rather invest time exploring dry ‘wastelands’ than sit on ocean shores sipping Mai Tais with fresh fruit and the most expensive rums. Nothing against Mai Tais. But, for me, put almost any destination up against a desert and the desert will win.

Deserts inspire me especially when dry humping in their near-perfect silence. I am sad to say perfect silence lives only in my past. I was at Joshua Tree on a hot August day in the mid-1980s. I sat beneath a Joshua tree, closed my eyes, and heard absolutely nothing. It was marvelous. These days, silence is invaded by ringing in my ears caused by minor tinnitus. Then there is the adventure. There is a tasty freedom knowing no one is available to rescue me from the lurking dangers while I admire the many adaptations in the most challenging environments. And, in a pinch, there is always space in the backpack for a bladder filled with the world’s largest frozen Mai Tai or an insulated bottle full of frozen Margarita that will stay sipping cold most of the hiking day.

The particular lure of Tucson exists in the Sonoran Desert, an ecosystem defined by the giant, green old men pogoing on their single leg and, in the oldest, many arms raised in reverence to the gorgeous blue sky. I’m talking about the Saguaro cactus. Eight months ago, Phoenix was the hub for our visit to Sedona where I adultered with red rocks. On the flip trip, we were mesmerized by the ancient saguaros. We included in our final twenty-four hours, a visit to a desert botanical garden and an early morning drive through the Phoenix foothills and their saguaro decorated mountains. We took a few very short walks during which time my wife’s southwest desert infection sunk unshakeable barbs in her blood. Hikes deeper into the saguaro forest were overruled by airline schedules. For this Tucson trip, we planned on hiking extensively within the old men landscapes that define my cowboy fantasy of the Old West. No gun totin’ for me though. Just a knife or two and a needle nose plier to pull sharp and nasties from our screaming flesh.

We arrived at Saguaro National Park West and the saguaro forest close to noon. The skies were laced with swatches of blue between the billowy white clouds. My heart went pitter-patter and I wanted to get at ‘er. First, though, we needed to get the lay of the land to find out if there were any seasonal surprises. We always hit up the Visitor Centers first for insights. Online research is always dated and we want current happenings. Being Christmas Day, the Visitor Center was closed. We did not get the ranger’s take on where to best hike nor was I was able to buy a hat to shield my eyes from the sun. We were on our own. The outside wall map gave us some pointers on where to hike near the park’s Eastern entrance.

Following a short drive on a dirt road, part of a much larger loop, we came to an already crowded parking area. Not wanting to fight for parking further along the dirt road, we squeezed the truck into the last remaining legit spot, gathered up our gear, and took to the hills. It was in the low 60s and fairly dry…perfect hiking weather. The trailhead sign labeled the nearby trail, the Hugh Norris to Wasson Peak at 4.9 miles, with a rating of difficult. We did not plan to go all the way to Wasson just enough to whet our saguaro appetite and still make the B&B check-in time between 3 and 6 pm.

The difficulty rating is based on the trail being mostly uphill. On a hot day, I can see it being a challenge. But in the coolness, it was a fairly easy stroll. We basked in the ambiance while meandering along the lazy switchbacks bounded on both sides by saguaro of all shapes, sizes, and ages, the porcupine spiny jumping cholla, the occasional green barked palo verde, and a handful of massive rocks. For the most part, we had the trail to ourselves passing only a few other small groups. We ended the uphill part of our walk at a saddle where we climbed rocks, took photos, and basked in nature’s holy beauty.

In the United States, we are guaranteed by our founding documents with freedom of religion. Reality is, that freedom is heavily skewed toward Christianity with other faiths needing to fight for similar protections. This despite the Declaration of Independence specifically worded for a multiplicity of creators when founding fathers penned ‘THEIR creator’. Had they believed there was only one god, they would have used a phrase denoting the singular ‘THE creator’. It’s amazing how many thumpers will argue about minor nuances in biblical texts yet completely ignore this important differentiator in the Declaration of Independence. I guess it is easier to ignore any truth challenging one’s beliefs than face facts head-on.

Faiths that specifically get short shrift, if not downright derision, by the government are any in which the deity arose under the auspices of brown people (Hinduism, Islam) or worships a goddess especially the Earth goddess. Those that worship Mother Earth must continually battle to stop the war waged on nature leaving vast ecosystems raped. John Muir said, “all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.” I couldn’t think of a better church to spend Christmas Day 2019 than the mountain desert in Tucson. I dwelt in connection with the natural world and oneness with the universal consciousness interlacing all beings. The only improvement would be to make all the rocks, red rock.

We returned along the same well-groomed trail. No loop available here. Though we did engage in a few side excursions being extra careful not to brush the cholla with the insidiously barbed spines. I was prepared to pull them from my flesh but was hoping it would not be the case. Pulling cholla spines out means sacrificing meat from the body. It is best to not dance with a jumping cholla.

We did not know it at the time, but we would not get another hike until day five when we finally made it into Saguaro East. We spent the third day at the Desert Museum where we watched birds of prey up close. Day four was incessant rain, cold, and a little snow driving a switch in the itinerary to a road trip visiting the touristy Bisbee and Tombstone. They were nice but not the reason we took a trip to Tucson. We expected warm weather and sunshine but were greeted by chill and rain. We later learned it was warmer in Chicago than Southern Arizona.

About David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 2. I spend my days working for a medium sized multinational corporation where I am an Agile Coach. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7-year-old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on an 18-month delegation. It's an adventure that was 1.5 years in the making...The experience is captured on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad" My two latest blogs are "The Learning Leader", a topic I have been studying since 1990, and "Lipstick on a Pig", a foray into the fashion sense of this middle aged man.
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