Tucson Honeymoon: Day 9

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Tucson, AZ
End: Monahans Sandhills State Park

Daily Mileage: 565
Total Mileage: 1984

Our hotel room smells awful and looks like an REI explosion, but we’re clean and fed and rested and all our gear is dry now. It’s worth noting that the Fairfield Marriott has an excellent free breakfast, complete with good coffee, lots of pastry choices, a self serve Belgian waffle maker, and all the peanut butter packets you can sneak into your tote bag.

Our gnome likes his morning coffee, and he likes Belgian waffles too

We head east on I-10, a little sad to begin the end of our trip. We take an almost immediate detour and spend a lot of time finding a good spot to take panographic pictures of Tanque Verde Ridge. We hop a curb at an office building and Bryan uses his new pano tripod head, and I take pictures of him taking pictures, and of cholla in the snow.

Bryan and his tripod, camera, and pano head

In places, the towns are an hour apart, which makes for a miserable McDonald’s line on a big travel weekend. We sit in an interminable drive thru; I attempt to use the bathroom but abort the mission when I count 34 other women in line. We listen to “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” (by Nirvana) on the iPod and then give up on McDonald’s, getting back on the interstate. We’ll get some nuggets somewhere else.

Here is a quote from my travel journal, written while flying down I-10 at 75 miles per hour:

Soaptree yuccas are stupid looking plants, like wandering midgets with bad hair, drunken and lost, lurching through the pasture grass. Some of them wave toilet brushes above their heads. Are they trying to hail cabs, out here in the weird, lonely west? Do they know how ridiculous they look?

We wander through an outlet mall, then eat supper at Chili’s in El Paso, a generic choice but we’re grumpy and tired. We talk to Mandy and enjoy hearing her cheerful voice, a bright spot in the evening. She is interested in our trip and glad to tell us that she’s impressed her friends in Oklahoma by doing 168 sit ups.

For awhile we parallel the Mexican border, and after dark we enjoy the idea that we’re looking miles away to the south at the lights from another country. About nine o’clock we pull off the interstate with all the other traffic to drive through a border patrol checkpoint. It is unexpectedly scary but after our truck is dog-sniffed and we tell the officers that we’re American citizens, we’re on our way again. The truck stop in Pecos is nasty, and we’re tired and ready to stop long before bedtime.

We arrive at Monahans Sandhills State Park around midnight. The camping spots are all surrounded by dunes of soft, light sand. It’s already below freezing but it’s not windy. We quickly realize that the sand won’t hold tent stakes, so we pull out the North Face 4-season tent Britt and Debbie sent with us. We’ve never set it up but it’s simple and before long I’m sitting up inside it, a luxury after hunching over in the little backpacking tent. Bryan takes some photos while I pop a flash inside the tent.

The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas!

It’s funny how we get accustomed to chill, and how much more comfortable good gear makes things. I think about the friends who’d never consider tent camping in winter, but I’m cheerfully ensconced in a cozy tent, snug and warm in my sleeping bag, dry socks, down booties and vest.

We all have strange little quirks, and I find one of mine: I can’t sleep with a cold nose. I find a handwarmer and open it, put it on my nose, and quickly fall asleep again. The stars are clear and bright on this last night of our trip.

A selection of additional photos appears below, for more photos from the trip checkout our Flickr page.

Bryan taking a set of photos of Tanque Verde Ridge

An old train in front of the mountains

Teddy bear cholla

New Mexican sign: Their road map spells “Flying” and “Missile” wrong, too

Some of the overpasses in New Mexico were really neat.

Yes, that’s a truck, in a truck, pulling a truck

Worst name for a car dealership? Ever?

West Texas’ answer to the Chik-Fil-A advertising campaign; at least the ranchers can spell.

Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 8

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Saguaro National Park (Juniper Basin)
End: Tucson, AZ

Daily Mileage: 14
Total Mileage: 1419

Miles Hiked Today: 7
Miles Hiked Total: 25

I wake early this morning, no doubt a result of our lion-induced super-early bedtime. We both slept better than we expected, I think, and the night passed without incident. It’s been raining for a couple of hours, and gusty. I listen to the iPod in the safe orange cocoon of our tent and wait for Bryan to stir.

Breakfast in bed, sort of.

The rain gives us a little break, so we get up and begin cooking breakfast. I move the packs inside the tent as it starts to rain again, and we finish cooking and eating our meal sitting in the doorway under the little awning. As we eat toasted bagels and oatmeal and bacon, we watch the light winter rain turn to sleet and then to snow.

Our faithful traveling gnome serves as a tent stake, replacing the one lost in the windstorm, while our tent collects snow.

We pump water and pack up camp in the falling snow, then head down the ridge. I like hiking in the snow, and Bryan begins by enjoying it but after several hours the novelty wears off; his feet hurt and he doesn’t like the falling snow in his eyes. The fact is, though, that the snow is beautiful stuff: puffy, Christmassy flakes covering the trail and softening the edges of the world. As we descend we see, again, ocotillo, then more and more yucca and cholla, and finally the first saguaros signaling our much lower elevation.

An uncommon photo opportunity

The lone hiker we’d encountered is gone by the time we get to the Javelina picnic area, and we have three miles of road hiking before getting to the truck. We could both walk the road with our packs, but since his feet are starting to hurt, Bryan volunteers to wait in the damp cold with my bag. I’m grateful to be rid of my heavy pack and enjoy the soggy walk on Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Not a single tourist offers me a ride, but I’m warm in spite of the rain. The far-off mountains are still shrouded in clouds, but the closer, lower peaks are snowy.

I hold Bryan’s pack while he takes a few quick photos and then I snap a picture of his silly grin. Spirits were still high!

The truck is a welcome sight and I drive it slowly back to pick up Bryan, who reports that all the old picnic shelters leak. (Apparently, actual rain shelter is not an important design feature in the desert.) We hurry to the visitors center to check in with the rangers before they close at five; it isn’t a requirement but we want to log our encounter with the mountain lion. They are interested in our story and tell us that a lion had been reported by someone else not long ago, on that part of the ridge. We also fill out a complaint form indicating that the bathrooms should be more conspicuous.

h_saguaro snow pano_6 pics_41 copy
Click the photo to see a larger version since it is stitched together from six images to form a 41 megapixel image.

I come up with a plausible reason for another hotel stay: our gear is all soaked, and we need to be dry and organized before starting home. The hot shower and clean socks feel good, and so does the prospect of a big supper.

Marriott provides whole-room gear-drying services

I love the fact that we have a favorite restaurant in Tucson. We wait for our table in El Charro’s bar, and when we’re finally sitting in the warm dining room we enjoy our enchiladas and tamales and tres leches cake. We’re tired but not miserable, at least as long as we don’t touch our calves, which were fine earlier today but are now suddenly very sore.

Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 7

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Saguaro National Park (Douglas Spring)
End: Saguaro National Park (Juniper Basin)

Daily Mileage: 0
Total Mileage: 1405

Miles Hiked Today: 7
Miles Hiked Total: 18

We awake sometime after midnight to a blustery wind and a tent down around our faces. A gust has popped a guy line off a tent stake and part of our shelter has collapsed around us. After Bryan fixes it, the rain starts and it rains hard for awhile, the wind still pounding on the sides of our tent. Around dawn it lets up, giving us time to eat breakfast and pack up our things in a drizzle instead of a downpour.

Aly sleeps late at Douglas Spring

The trail from Douglas Spring to Cow Head Saddle goes up, up, up, with hardly a break. We look ponderous and heavy in our big packs, made even larger by their rain covers. We’ve left the desert plants behind; what’s here is a dense pack of short trees, almost like a miniature rain forest. We’ve had several creek crossings and even a little waterfall. We know that it rained an inch this week, after only eight inches in the past year. We can’t help but smile, thinking that our impression of the Sonoran desert is one of a rather lush and damp place.

The views are amazing from up here. The rugged purple mountains we’d been admiring from Tucson are all around us now. As we climb, we watch the clouds move in the peaks around us, intrigued by the patterns of rain and sunshine. We see two different rainbows today.

We turn right at Cow Head Saddle and head up Tanque Verde Ridge. Our thermometer reads 45 degrees but that’s hard to believe. The wind is vicious, sustained at probably 30 mph and gusting to 40 or so. There are a couple of times we’d each have fallen if we hadn’t been using poles, and once the wind shoved me into a big, prickly yucca.

Bryan finds a strange cluster of large rocks just off the ridge, and we use their shelter as a much-needed windbreak to eat our lunch. We can’t help but notice that the trail has a great deal of scat; apparently every large animal who makes it to the ridge poops on it. We note with some concern that a lot of what’s here is rather large, with a lot of berries. Will we hike with bears today?

On the ridge, we find a windbreak for our lunchtime stop

Finally, after a number of smaller “this must be it” peaks, we reach a sign for the REAL Tanque Verde Peak. We drop our packs and hike, much lighter, the few hundred yards up to the peak. It’s later than we thought but the view is amazing and the golden light near sunset makes for some lovely photos, and we don’t mind the prospect of hiking at night.

Finally, the sign for Tanque Verde Peak

We’ve been traveling through the low, damp woods, with little patches of untracked, old snow. Burned black skeletons of old pine trees rise above the heavy green foliage, for as far as we can see their separate shapes. By the time we reload our packs, it’s already dusky, with about two more miles to go before our backcountry campsite for tonight. The views from the ridge are amazing: eye level with the heavy, dark lower margins of the rainclouds, we look across at the dusky bulk of the next mountains. And, as hard as we’ve worked to get above the city, we still sometimes see the lights of Tucson spread out below us in the dusk.

After dark, our trail crosses several patches of bare rock, and is difficult to follow in spots. At each of these, I stop at the edge of the trail until Bryan finds the route off the rock; this keeps us from getting turned around in the dark and backtracking. We find that, while I like to hike in front for part of the day, I prefer that Bryan lead after dark, since he sees better at night.

About a half mile before camp, Bryan sees two eyes in the woods to our left. They hop hurriedly away and he’s excited to have seen another jackrabbit. Another pair of eyes peers out at him from a bush right near the trail, and he walks forward, turning his headlamp on high to get a better look. He stops, still in the path, with one arm out to block me: “Aly, it’s a cat.” We both take a step backward.

After a moment to collect our wits, we do all the right things: we wave our arms and yell, we throw rocks, and we don’t panic. One of Bryan’s rocks causes the lion to retreat enough that we can continue down the trail past where it was sitting, but after moving off just a few feet, it stops and watches us. Another rock makes little difference: the big cat is just watching.

Bryan walks slowly and I walk backward, just behind him, yelling “We are PEOPLE! We are BIG AND SCARY! Also, we are NOT AT ALL TASTY!” As silly as our words sound, we’re terrified. I move my headlamp from my neck to my forehead, in case appearing just a little taller might help. Bryan walks faster forward than I can walk backward, and I stumble and nearly fall. He slows down, then, and I pay a little more attention to the trail, but still, each time we look back, there are eyes behind us, following.

Sometimes the cat moves off to our left a bit, and sometimes it drops behind us, but always its wide-set eyes are the same distance away, not more than a hundred feet from us. Fortunately, the trail is crossing a rather flat area and we can see some distance. We continue our awkward retreat, still yelling, still moving slowly but moving away. But we don’t lose the cat. We realize, with alarm, that we’re being stalked.

We cross a little stream and the trail dips; we can still see behind and to our right, but the trail runs next to a cut to the left. We lose the lion; he could have stopped following us but he could just as well have climbed up the little hill to our left; he could be fifteen feet from us before we see him again. We hold our flimsy hiking poles and we yell and we know that, if the lion wants to catch up with us here, he can.

We want so badly to walk into the Juniper Basin backcountry site. We start to worry that in our preoccupation with being hunted, we’ve actually walked past it in the dark. But after a few more minutes of loud conversation and awkward backward lurching in the dark, we find a sign that says “Juniper Basin – Campsite and Comfort Station” and we follow its arrow.

The backcountry sites at Saguaro National Park have prefab toilet structures, and we’d used one just this morning at Douglas Spring. We’ve been talking about that bathroom for quite awhile, discussing how nice it will be to have a door to shut behind us, trying to figure out whether or not we can actually cook and eat supper in a pit toilet, puzzling over whether we could both somehow sleep on its floor with the door shut behind us. I’m not sure I’ve ever looked forward to seeing a bathroom quite as much as I was looking forward to seeing the bathroom at Juniper Basin.

We follow the arrow, and we find the first, and second, and third tent sites tucked into the folds of the wooded basin. But we can’t find the bathroom anywhere. We retrace our steps in the windy dark, still watching for eyes, still talking loudly, and still can’t find the structure.

Neither of us is hungry, so we opt to skip cooking supper tonight. We get out our plastic-coated guide and Bryan looks at the animal pictures: yes, he says, the face of the mountain lion on the page is the face he’d seen in the woods. We still feel vulnerable and worried, but we decide that we look less like food if we’re in a big orange tent. We set up camp, looking around us all the time, and we are very careful to put everything else in the metal bear box. We crawl inside the tent eat a “supper” of dried fruit, chocolate and water, and after a time, we fall asleep.

A selection of additional photos appears below, for more photos from the trip checkout our Flickr page.

There’s a bug in Aly’s peanut butter. You can’t see it, but it’s there

Near sunset, near the peak

Photos of both of us are rare, with no one to hold the camera; the peak logbook stands in

Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 6

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Tucson, AZ
End: Saguaro National Park (Douglas Spring)

Daily Mileage: 14
Total Mileage: 1405

Miles Hiked Today: 11
Miles Hiked Total: 11

Finally, we’re walking! It’s in the mid-seventies today and the weather is beautiful. It’s lovely, though not at all what we packed for. SmartWool socks are wonderful: my feet are dry but my legs are wet from the moisture that’s wicking up through the fabric. We’ve brought our cold weather gear, which makes our packs comically overstuffed, but we’ll probably need coats and gloves up on the ridge.

Bryan hikes into the desert

The desert is strange, with the saguaros standing tall amid the spiky alien ocotillos, and the cloud shapes on the mountains and desert add another layer to the weird geometry of this place. I put a hole in my boot when I accidentally wander into an Engelmann’s prickly pear. We disturb a jackrabbit, a surprisingly tall and gangly creature with a rabbit body and long, long legs that make it walk more than it hops.

Mister Jackrabbit, with his amazing legs.

It’s a beautiful day. We take a break near a stock tank by a spring, sitting barefoot on the trail with our opened packs beside us, amidst an odd assortment of drying socks, maps, doodads, and platypus bottles. It’s chilly in the shade. We hear a noise on the other side of a palo verde; Bryan grabs the camera hoping for another jackrabbit. I’m hoping it isn’t a lion or bear, since I have no shoes on. We’re both wrong: it’s an old man, coming down a side trail. He doesn’t hear well enough to understand the joke, and we watch him quietly feed the fish in the tank before moving on.

Lunchtime at the Rock Spring stock tank.

We can sometimes see Tucson below us, a flat grid of streets with tiny mica sparkles of windshields, ringed by the rugged Rincons. The closer mountains are dark purple-brown, the higher peaks sharper and snow-covered. We see lechuguilla for the first time today, and think about how proud Carter would be to see us faithfully consulting our new plastic-covered plant and animal identification book.

Santa Bryan stops to enjoy the golden hour and the view of Tucson

A desert oasis: Bridal Wreath Falls are running, and the excited tanktopped dayhikers tell us we must take the spur trail to see them. Grateful for a break from the weight, we drop our packs near the trail intersection and hike up to see a pretty double waterfall behind the saguaros. The stream crossing below the falls is home to an ancient, gnarled oak overgrown in an enormous cholla, with tiny baby shoots of green grass around its base.

Bridal Wreath Falls, running the day after an inch of rain

Finally, after dark, we arrive at the Douglas Spring backcountry campsite. We join a group of about a dozen teenagers; their leader describes their group as “youth in a program for those with family issues.” We had expected a group of inner city thugs but what we find seem to be spoiled rich kids in Marmot jackets, discussing their addictions, their snowboards, and their architect fathers. There are alarms on their tents and they don’t seem very comfortable in the woods or with us.

Near Douglas Spring: The bleach blond desert grass glows at sunset

It’s Christmas eve, and after we set up our tent, eat our beef stew, and stash our things in a bear box, Bryan takes off the Santa hat he’s been wearing all day. I string up a spare bootlace inside the tent and decorate it with some miniature ornaments I’ve brought along. We exchange small presents and lie awake for awhile, listening to podcasts in our tiny room. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Christmas Eve in a backpacking tent

A selection of additional photos appears below, for more photos from the trip checkout our Flickr page.

We hope we don’t run into one of these!

Saguaros are much taller than we’d imagined

Internal ribs support the saguaro’s height and bulk

A cholla cactus

Aly’s favorite desert plant, the teddy bear cholla

Young saguaros; they don’t typically start growing arms until about 75 years old.

An ancient sun-worshipper.

The only down side to trekking poles: it’s hard to eat and walk

Englemann’s Prickly Pear grows up and out; Spreading Prickly Pear grows along the ground

A “grandfather” saguaro

On a warm day, Aly is grateful for a tshirt but more than willing to carry fleece in her pack

Santa Bryan checks a confusing trail marker

Palo verde trees have photosynthetic bark and tiny leaves

The nearby ranch keeps the tank stocked with goldfish, and the park pretends not to notice

We startled a deer in the higher country, near sunset

Aly on the trail just before sunset

One of the Rincons at sunset

Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 5

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Colossal Cave Mountain Park (AZ)
End: Tucson, AZ

Daily Mileage: 22
Total Mileage: 1391

I hate getting up. Dawn’s my favorite part of a backpacking day, when the light starts to filter through the fabric of the tent and the hazy outline of the day begins to form inside the warm padding of my down-filled sleeping-bag brain.

It begins to rain during breakfast and we enjoy the luxury of a stone picnic shelter. We each have our own old concrete table to spread out our gear and organize and pack our bags, well out of the wet. We should have left by nine, but the continuing rain and another headache made us move slowly. By early afternoon neither the headache nor the rain have abated, and with both getting worse and daylight wasting we decide not to hike the 14-mile day we’d planned.

We stop by the Visitors Center, amend our backcountry permit, and then head out to explore Tucson. The city looks scruffy, and I know why: no one has lawns. The plants that grow in front of fancy houses are the same as the plants in the bad neighborhoods, and those are the same things that grow on the roadsides and in the ditches: prickly pear, ocotillo, barrel cactus, and cholla. This gives even the most expensive neighborhoods the scroungy ambiance of a seedy trailer park.

Tonight’s plans have changed from a backcountry camping permit to a nice hotel room (Fairfield Inn by Marriott), a hot shower, and an old Mexican restaurant. Bryan does a brief internet search and finds “El Charro”, the oldest continuously operated family Mexican restaurant in the US. The directions provided by Google Maps are almost but not quite exactly wrong, but we find the restaurant anyway, tucked into an odd corner of old downtown Tucson. It’s cheerful and interesting and every bit as good as the reviews: the service is excellent, the red salsa is the best I’ve ever eaten, the chicken and tomatillo tamales are amazing, and the chimichanga we share is as big as a stick of firewood.

In fact, according to their menu, El Charro was the place where the chimichanga was invented. It was first opened in the twenties by a French woman who’d moved to Arizona with her stone-cutter father. It was a family restaurant and her little nieces were often in the kitchen. So one day when she accidentally dropped a burrito into hot oil she stopped herself from cursing by saying “shi……michanga!” The fried burrito was found to be delicious, and the name stuck.

The picnic shelter at El Sevillo camping area, in the Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 4

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Truth or Consequences, NM
End: Colossal Cave Mountain Park (AZ)

Daily Mileage: 288
Total Mileage: 1369

Bryan wakes up feeling much better this morning. The weather channel reports that it’s 14 degrees in Benton and -6 in Brookfield. Even New Orleans is chilly, with a wind chill of 25. There are winter storm systems scattered across the country and a lot of people will get a white Christmas this year. We imagine the newspaper headlines:

Nation Shudders Under Winter Cold,
Snowfall Heavy Everywhere,
Civilization Sinks Into Carnage,
and the Signorellis Go Backpacking

We’re glad we decided against Grand Canyon; the forecast lows for the rim this week are around zero.

The day begins with a shopping trip in Truth or Consequences. Bryan says this is the most beautiful view from a Walmart parking lot he’s ever seen; I just wanted to get a high school t-shirt. I was disappointed to learn that when the town was renamed, the high school wasn’t, so the only thing available was a “Hot Springs Tigers” shirt. (I’d been hoping for something like “Truth or Consequences Badgers”.) On the way through town we discovered that the elementary school’s name had changed, and their mascot is hilarious; I should mail a check to the PTO and ask for a “Truth or Consequences Kittens” shirt.

The drive to Tucson is interesting. We visit Hatch, the Chili Pepper Capital of the World. A dozen little stands are set up along the road selling wreaths and ropes made from dried chilies. We enjoy the break from four-lane travel for awhile. Small mountain ranges dot the landscape, each different from the next. The Sierra de las Uvas to the south are smooth, like giant, soft hills of dirt. The Greg Mountains are a series of short, rocky mesa hills to the north. As we continue west the ranges get bigger and rockier and more imposing.

Near Tucson we stop for a terrible lunch at Jack in the Box, which serves something called a “Teriyaki Bowl” apparently made from leftover rice and cat food. I swear I will never eat there again. We turn north off the interstate and head toward the park and suddenly, saguaros start appearing in the desert near the road, huge human shapes out in distance. We’ve finally arrived!

The elderly volunteer ladies at the visitors center are less than confidence inspiring when they answer our questions. “Backpacking? You mean camping? Out THERE?” Fortunately, a ranger named Jeff arrives in time to answer our questions and give good advice. We’ll camp on adjoining private park land tonight, but we have some good ideas and backcountry permits for the three nights after that.

We spend the night at Colossal Cave Mountain Park, in the La Sevilla group campsite. It’s old but sprawling and clean and we have it to ourselves. After a supper of pasta primavera and a very pretty little campfire, we’re in bed early. We’ll sleep tonight under the friendly mesquite trees, with the saguaros standing sentinel.

Entrance to Saguaro National Park (East side)
Our campfire at La Sevilla group site at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5