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Celebrating Earth Day Among the Saguaro

[Tucson, AZ]

It seems like only yesterday Olivia and I were in Northern Arizona hiding out form a spring snow storm in our Flagstaff hotel. Here I am, mere weeks later in Southern Arizona, waking up at 5 am to beat the heat (it was 80F/26C by 9 am). Sigh.

I am here for a work conference, which doesn’t start till Sunday. I arrived yesterday (Friday, 4/21) so that I can get situated and get an early start to my hikes today). Yesterday, I arrived just in time to make a beeline for Saguaro National Park East (a bit closer than the Western side) so I can grab maps from the visitor center. I forgot my national park annual pass at home, but the rangers told me that entrance is free this weekend because of Earth Day. Whew. 🙂

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Mandatory national park sign photo.

I checked into my hotel on the edge of the University of Arizona campus (they are hosting the conference I am attending) and had grand plans to walk down to 4th Avenue, where all the action happens, but it got late so I just grabbed some dinner to go from one of the numerous eateries on campus and dove into my guidebook and the national park maps to figure out exactly what I am doing over the next couple of days.

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View of the University of Arizona from my hotel on the edge of campus.

Of Arizona’s many idiosyncrasies, I find their refusal to observe daylight savings time the one I have a love/hate relationship with. I already went over how hard is it to keep track of what time it is when you are going in and out of Utah, Arizona and Navajo country in one day. The other disadvantage is that sunrise is really early, like before 6 am. If Arizona observed daylight savings, sunrise wouldn’t be until closer to 7 am – a much more reasonable time to start hiking. My other option was to hike later into the morning, but I don’t do too well in heat so I decided to bite the bullet. I woke up at 5 am and got out of my hotel in time to walk over to Starbucks right at opening time (5:30) and arm myself with an Americano and a slow-roasted ham and swiss croissant.

Saguaro National Park has two sections, East and West of Tucson. It’s named after the Saguaro, a cactus that only grows in the Sonoran desert. The national park preserves some of the densest stands of these giants. A full-grown saguaro can be up to 50 feet tall. Its arms are often in weird configurations. Saguaros are slow to grow – they can take about 15 years to reach 1 foot and up to 75 years for their first arm to grow. In the Spring, the saguaro blooms and is covered with white flowers on top – this is the Arizona state flower.

I chose the Western side of the park to visit today. It’s smaller but more visited, and it’s closer to some other sites I wanted to see, so it made sense to make today my busiest day and pack a bunch of stuff in. I didn’t have too many trails to pick from – there are a couple of small trails off the main scenic drive and a couple of strenuous trails, but nothing in-between. I picked the Hugh Norris trail, which climbs over 2000 ft to Wasson pick, but I only went half-way up. Even still, it was great exercise. The trail took me into saguaro stands and cholla cacti and climbed and climbed and climbed for the first mile or so. Then it leveled off a bit and took me on a desert ridge. The landscape kept changing around me, with the valleys and mountains around me coming in and out of view. I was tempted to fo the full length (about 4.5 miles one way), but I knew a hike of this magnitude would tire me out and not leave me any energy afterward. I also didn’t want to undertake a bigger hike by myself and also didn’t want to spend time in the heat. This hike was completely exposed and I only got a bit of shade in the very beginning as the sun rose. It took me just under 2 hours to hike up and down with a little break at the top, and I felt like I honored Earth Day the right way. At one point I stopped and marveled at the silence around me. There was nobody else on the trail, and no wildlife that I could see. We don’t realize how noisy our lives are until we find ourselves in utter peace in nature.

I was back in my car by 8:30 am, and the heat was already starting to build. I drove down to Signal Hill to see some petroglyphs, then stopped at the visitor center to watch their introductory movie about the area. The movie was very thoughtfully done and presented the area from the perspective of the Natives who lived here for thousands of years. The Native Americans have such an appreciation for nature! The narrator explained that Native Americans see themselves as one with the Earth. Their relatives are buried in the Earth, so when you throw trash on the ground, it’s like throwing trash on your relatives. Would you do it if you felt this way? No, right? He also explained that Native Americans believe Saguaro cacti are actually people that God made into cacti so that people can take a closer look at themselves. This idea of humans turning into Saguaros is essential for local Native Americans, especially the Tohono O’odham tribe. In fact, the Hugh Norris trail is named after a respected Tohono O’odham chief. At any rate, the movie helped me gain a greater appreciation for this desert and the life it supports.

My next stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which was just a couple of miles down the road from the visitor center. This “museum” is actually mostly outdoors and features a small zoo and a botanical garden. This is a good place to see the variety of animals and plants the desert supports in one place. In the zoo, I saw a mountain lion, a bobcat, mule deer, an screeching owl and blue heron. The cactus garden was cool, too. It was getting hot by then though, so I didn’t stick around for long.

Next up was the Mission San Xavier del Bac. This is the only Arizona mission that’s survived intact. It was established in 1692 by the Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, although the current structure dates back to 1783. The work on the mission continued for 14 years but money ran out, which left the east tower with bare brick and no tower, which you can see in the pictures. Still, it is considered the finest example of Mexican Baroque architecture in the United States. The church changed hands numerous times, at first being part of New Spain, then Mexico, then USA. Today, following the creation of the Tohono O’odham reservations, it remains as a working parish for the Tohono O’odham people, many of whom still live nearby. Inside, the church is ornate with many frescoes and carvings. Paul Schwartzbaum, who helped restore Michelangelo’s work in Rome, supervised Tohono O’odham artists in restoring the mission’s artwork, which was completed in 1997. He has called this mission the Sistine Chapel of the United States.

It was almost time for lunch, so I headed back to Tucson. I drove by the historic district next to the downtown high-rises and the convention center. Although many historic adobe structures were destroyed in the 1960s to make way for new construction, some still remain in this area. Still, the neighborhood looked desolate. I would love to see this area restored and guided walks offered through here. Without those, I was left driving around on my own and consulting my guidebook to be sure to go down the right streets, as there weren’t even signs.

Finally, it was time for lunch. Cafe Poca Cosa was nearby and I was dying to try it. Billed as the most creative Mexican restaurant in Tucson, in an area known for its fantastic Mexican food, held the promise for a fantastic meal. And it didn’t disappoint. The menu changes twice daily, so it’s written on a chalk board that the server brings to you to read. In case you can’t decide, the chef will pick a beef, a chicken and a vegetarian dish to serve you. That’s what I picked; I don’t even remember what each dish was, but it was delish. And what else to wash it all down with in this heat than a beer? Ahhhhhhh. 🙂

After a shower and a nap, I feel semi-human again. The heat takes it out of you without you even knowing! My friend Martha just arrived for the conference from New York, so I’ll have dinner with her in a bit. All I have to do tomorrow is take a hike in Saguaro East and return the rental car; then it’s time for work.

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