Saguaro National Forest – Tucson

The ride from Deming, New Mexico to Tucson, Arizona on December 1st, 2016 was nothing less than exciting. There is no way I can amply describe the way it felt to be moving westward with mountains ahead, mountains to the south, mountains to the north and to the east.  And while it may sound as if we were surrounded by these mountains, we were not ‘in’ the mountains.  We were traveling on plains, or deserts, that extended to the pyramidal outcrops that dotted the horizon in rows, or groupings or individually in all directions. On this traverse, I followed David and Mae; they were the first to enter Arizona.

We were looking forward to a little less wind and a bit more warmth. The high desert location in Deming was some 4,300 ft AMSL and the RV Park just west of Tucson was only 2,400 ft AMSL.  Surely the temps would rise as we descended from the plateaus just east.  As we drove into the Tucson environs, the majestic Saguaro made its presence known. At first they were few and far between, a fact sheet from the Arizona Desert Museum says that a 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall, but can grow to up to 60 feet.  Moreover, the first flowers of a Saguaro begin to form at age 70 and their arms aren’t produced until they reach the age of 95 to 100 years. I read that to the Tohono O’dham Tribe of Southern Arizona, the Saguaros are viewed as a different type of humanity and each is a respected member of the tribe itself.

During the length of our stay in Tucson and later in Apache Junction, the Saguaro was present, although much more plentiful in the southern area around Tucson. I did not see them blossom but I was able to explore the skeletal structure of those who succumbed to age or disease.  I was fortunate enough to find the rib of a fallen elder tall enough to use as a walking stick. Another rib was transformed by my friend David into ‘click sticks’ for both Mae and I. On the desert floor, among many other cactus types, one may readily find one or more Saguaro boots, the skeletal shape made by wrens that hollow out nests in their main stem, or elbows (more like shoulders), the skeletal portion of the arm that extends from the main stem. These parts along with the decaying parts of other cactus types like the cholla are used to fabricate all kinds of decorative such as bowls, lamps and wind chimes. And then there was a little desert humor!

The temps in Tucson did not disappoint. Most days were sunny, breezy with highs in the 70s or 80s. The dry air was welcomed.  It rained once and snowed in the nearby mountains once; mornings were cool but not cold. Temps dropped around 3 p.m. daily. The remainder of the time I was able to wear summer clothes. I had chosen a winter haven wisely!

The Desert Trails RV Park was a hoot. Formerly as Water Park that did not succeed, its long time owners converted the grounds to a very friendly, socially focused entertainment facility.  All amenities one could want were present including world renowned entertainers.  At first, I had difficulty getting oriented in the maze of narrow lanes that provided parking spaces for the rigs.  All sites were provided with water, sewer and electric connections; our sites were located on the park’s border that abutted the main road but included a lovely cactus hedge buffer to separate us from the traffic. Only a few other RVs were fortunate enough to have sites where the ‘backyard’ included the desert or other vegetation. Most sites were back to back so that one’s backyard was another RV.  In the central portion of the RV Park was the defunct water slide. The slide itself was filled in and converted to hillside garden of sorts but the walkways to its former entrance remained intact and were used to access the ’lookout’ tower where one or more people could gather with a glass of wine to watch the sunset.  At the base of the water slide were a number of buildings and areas that were converted to more appropriate uses for RVers.  These included two dog runs, one each for large and small dogs.  One of two community centers was located in this area where crafting and occasional pot luck meals took place. This building was flanked by the ‘yoga building’ and the library.  Another area with a depressed floor framed by a shade providing pergola included chairs, tables and benches and served as the favorite late afternoon social area for residents in that area of the park.  There were three laundry areas. One was attached to the main community center which could accommodate 100 people for events like Christmas dinner or evening concerts.  A second laundry room was connected to the shower building that housed two toilets and 4 showers for men and women both. The third laundry area was behind the library. In addition to the buildings described were an office and an extensive mail center where year round and seasonal residents could receive packages and mail. The vegetation that was distributed throughout this park was mature and lush. It was clear that this facility’s management cared about customer satisfaction.  It was a very highly rated park in the entire Tucson area.

One of the best features was that it abutted the Saguaro National Forest at the east so hikes did not require a drive to a trail head.
Not long after arriving, friends I’d met in Alaska a few years ago were in Arizona visiting relatives to the south of Tucson; it was wonderful to see Anne and Tom.  Anne knew a lot about the cacti here as she grew up nearby; she and Tom were very accommodating as I was in utter awe of this Saguaro.

On one of our walks in the desert, we happened on a beautiful labyrinth. This beautiful spiral invited Mae and I to center ourselves within its carefully laid trails; it was a sweet find!

The only downside to the extensive desert vegetation was that it was difficult on Nuttah who had no knowledge of how to avoid the painful cholla tubercles. We quickly learned that the best way to hike was to walk single file; we gave David the lead and with his walking stick, would clear the trail as best he could of anything with spines! Luckily, Nuttah had only two incidents of stepping on chollas or other cacti pieces.  When he did, he immediately knew enough to not step down. He would stop and hold his leg up until one of us rescued him. Most often, gloves were enough but even then our hands were imperiled.  Combs with finely spaced teeth made for another tool that aided in the removal of spines. If any remained, a pair of tweezers came in handy.  Thankfully, his patience prevailed, knowing that we were there to help.

The only other puppy peril at this park was the presence of many honey bees.  With all the flowering shrubs and plants, the park managers had installed bee lures in a variety of locations. One was close enough to our sites that Nuttah became obsessed with hunting these buzzing bugs. The first and second stings were not too rough; the 3rd one actually stung him on the inside of his jowl. He shrieked in pain and ran to the end of his tether. His lip swelled quite a bit from this episode.  After the 4th one stung him, he thankfully opted to run to the trailer door rather than risk the pain of his obsession. “Get me away from them” he seemed to say!

My RV site had enough room to allow me to install the ante room tent addition to my trailer. The wind was only a problem on a couple occasions. For nearly the entire month of December I was able to set up a sewing room in the tent and finish many projects I’d accumulated over the last several months since leaving Maine.

Tucson itself was large – very spread out; I had fun finding my way around to various retail outlets including books stores, fabric stores and of course grocery stores. I located the local Camping World and purchased a few small items to help with storage and a 30 pound propane tank to replace my 20 pound tank.

The wonderful thing about western towns is that they are laid out on a grid; you can’t get lost! Everything is flat and there are no or few natural resources to avoid so the grid pattern is easily achieved unlike the hills, ponds, ledges, streams, wetlands and other resources that prevail in the northeast.

It was clear to me, as a former land use planner that the highway-oriented form of development was preferred here. None of the buildings were higher than two stories except for a few you could count on two hands in the core downtown. The rest of the structures were ranch style homes of various sizes; in addition to the Tucson Mall, most other shopping areas outside the downtown proper were what I would call strip centers of all shapes and sizes that contained all of the well-known retail chains. This pattern forced the hand of the DOT to accommodate all the driving; many off-interstate roads were divided with 4 and 5 lanes. I was disheartened by this. It would have been so much more attractive, easier, less expensive and consumptive to develop village style communities (that promoted good pedestrian and bicycle traffic) in a place where few obstacles (i.e. natural resources) had to be avoided. I’ve not read up on the history of the development pattern but more than likely the current layout was dictated by expediency and the fact that it looks as if there is an unlimited supply of developable land were it not for the lack of water needed to support the development!

There were a few out of the way gems that we were lucky to find. One was a nice park where we walked on Christmas Day. It was here that the mosaic wall incorporating Wendell Berry’s poem “Where the Wild Things Are” was found; and just beyond a whimsical aerial whirligig that screamed “let’s have some fun”.

On one of my excursions, I went on a little adventure through what is known as Grant’s Pass. The Pass is a narrow windy road that rises quickly up one side of Tucson Mountain Park and just as quickly down the other. It is actually just outside Tucson to the west. The panoramas from the pass where viewing areas were developed with nearby parking were outstanding. After my excursion, I invited David and Mae to join me for a sunset surprise (and there were many).  The beauty, the colors, the peace of the place was palpable!

We made it to the Saguaro National Forest Visitor Center but opted not to hike it after being discouraged from bringing the dog. Cougars and coyotes were known to frequent the trails; it just seemed prudent to view it from afar!  Nearby was the Tucson Desert Museum; another place that was not really set up for dogs and I was not comfortable leaving him in the trailer for more than an hour or two at most…and only with the AC on.  I definitely was not prepared to leave him in the car. The temps outside often rose into the high 70s so the temps inside the car were substantially higher even with windows left open a few inches each. I was glad that Mae and David recounted their visit; it sounded like a great place!

Back at the RV park, entertainment was scheduled for each Tuesday and Friday evening. Native American Classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala of international fame provided entertainment on one Friday evening. I was in complete awe.  His talent was very moving; he played at President Obama’s inaugural ball among other notable events. He spoke of visits to Standing Rock; I was moved by his down to earth demeanor. Follow this YouTube link to see what I mean.

I met many people from all over the country while there. The sweetest connection I made was with Rosie, a vibrant 5 foot 2 inch blond bundle of bubbly love from Quebec City.  I practiced a bit of French whenever I saw her. She had big German shepherd and drove a Class C motorhome. A class C is not unlike a U-Haul truck with a cab that accesses the living quarters directly.  We very quickly connected I think mostly because we were single women and she had good dog sense. There was something very mysterious about her – she did not share much of her history and what brought her there. But she beamed with light and love every time I saw her – anytime she greeted anyone!  I marveled at this. One day, I asked her where her joy came from.  She said “Well, I’ve seen a lot of life and some not too pretty.  I’ve decided that life is too short to waste being unhappy. I’ve made it my mission to bring a little joy into the lives of everyone I meet.”  We talked a bit more and she shared that she had suffered a great loss; in her grief she retired to a Buddhist monastery for an entire year. I knew then that I was in the presence of someone special. The day before we departed Desert Trails, she gifted me with a beautiful red acrylic-art pendant. While I’ve worn it a couple times, it generally hangs from my rear view mirror next to a Selenite pendant as a reminder of the two souls who gifted them to me and whose messages touch me deeply. Theirs are spirits I shall never forget her.

Early on in the month, David, K Mae and I talked about what kind of magic we might create together. After some discussion, we opted to jointly build a medicine wheel based on Sun Bear’s work; this wheel is one Barbara from Kentucky taught me to build and use. While each rock we placed in the wheel had an intention associated with it, we did not explicitly replicate those that Sun Bear’s book highlighted. In this way, the wheel had personal meaning to the three of us. We completed the placement of its 36 stones on Solstice but decided to keep adding spokes to the wheel until New Year’s Eve; on that day, we dismantled the wheel feeling confident that we had created positive energy for the place and ourselves.

On Solstice we participated in a ceremony of light and potluck dinner.  Along with a short candle ceremony that I led, I gave each person in attendance a piece of rose quartz telling them the story of Anna, my Coast Guard friend who each day blesses the ocean waters off Long Island with the unconditional love vibration of this beautifully pink stone.  I asked them all to do the same for the waters near their summer homes in the hopes that the grid I had begun by my crystal drops would spread. I also hoped that they not only did this for the one time represented by the one stone I’d gifted them but also for any other time they were moved to appreciate the waters of this planet.

Near the end of our time there, on our early morning walk, I was met by an owl; it was one of the young ones that nested in a palm nearby. It sat on the power lines and bobbed its head back and forth as I approached. It had the look of a great horned owl but it may have been a western screech owl.  It sat on the telephone line and was possibly 10 to 12 inches tall. I immediately thought of my cousin Lisa back home – I knew she loved owls.  Its bobbing head seemed to be saying “is it you, is it you?” Later that day, I learned that one of her son’s had unexpectedly lost his life. I believe that animals show up to deliver messages. Had her totem come to deliver the sad news….or had it come to alert me of my own pending life transition?

On New Year’s Eve, our last night there, David, K Mae and I found a local authentic Mexican restaurant. We treated ourselves to a great meal and a few drinks; on our return, we packed up and readied ourselves for our next adventure.

As I reflect on my time at Desert Trails, I think it served as a sweet oasis – a stepping stone in the rushing stream that I’d been navigating since leaving Maine.  I did not leave the Sonoran Desert without giving it a rose quartz – I was  immensely grateful for the time to breathe with new and old friends.