Our next stop was Southern Arizona, an area completely foreign to both Teresa and I. As we headed further West, the desert landscape slowly changes as we move from Chihuahuan Desert to Sonoran Desert. Some of the mountains were more spectacular than I expected. I was expecting desert certainly and got plenty of desert, but I wasn’t expecting mountains with snow on them. These mountains pop up out of the desert floor, capturing more rainfall and allowing a pine-oak forest to thrive. They are known as sky islands. They are beautiful places to spend time in Southern Arizona and must be an absolute blessing to the nature lover in the heat of the summer.
Our first example of a sky island was Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. This spot was not on our original list of places to see, but was recommended to us by a very nice retired National Park Superintendent we met on the road. I sure am glad we did not miss this outstanding destination. The mountains of the sky island were beautiful enough, but top that off with amazing rock spires over a hundred feet tall and balanced rocks. We were lucky enough to get the last two spots on the hikers shuttle and had a great nine mile, one way, downhill hike through the strangely shaped spires.
In former blog entries, we mentioned that we were disappointed that US Customs and Border Protection had closed the Big Bend border crossings. We still wanted to have a quick multi-cultural experience, so we had lunch in Agua Prieta (translation: dirty water or dark water), parking our car in Douglas, AZ. We bought a trinket in a shop where the owner spoke a little English and she recommended a little restaurant called Doña Maria. Teresa got a boring tostada plate, but I wanted something that was really authentic, so I attempted, in my horrendous Spanish, to ask what others were enjoying. I ended up getting comida corrida, which, literally translated, means "food in excess". Of course, I didn’t know this at the time; we just figured it was the daily special. The waiter told me it had pork, but he didn’t say what part of the pig the "meat" came from. Anyhow, I ended up with a plate of pork skins in a delicious green chile sauce. Amazingly enough, I suffered no intestinal distress. And remember, I’m the type of person who can trim fat off of a anorexic chicken!
Throughout our journeys in Southern Arizona, we kept hearing about this Coronado guy. Well, we finally learned who he was at the Coronado National Memorial. Soon after coming through the door of the visitor center, a park service volunteer ran over to me and started dressing me up in chain mail so I get get a good feel for what Coronado’s men went through. It weighed a ton! Anyhow, turns out Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored what is currently now the Southwestern USA in search of "cities of gold," from 1540-1542. Of course, after appeasing the natives a bit, he planned to claim these lands for the king of Spain. Well, obviously, the "cities of gold" did not exist, and all he found were some natives living in adobe huts. He returned to Mexico City a broken man, struggling to clear his family name. He died ten years after his journey completed in 1552. However, he is commemorated for opening the door to a cross border influence between Spain and America that still exists today. Given the weight of the chain mail, and the intense heat and lack of water in the Southwest, it is a miracle that he completed the journey at all!
Another place that was recommended to us by many different folks was Kartcher Caverns State Park. We ended up taking their Big Room tour. The cave has an amazing story, about how it came to be a show cave. Basically, two cave explorers discovered it in 1974. In order to keep the cave pristine, they told no one about it except the land owners. Over time, in order to protect the cave, the pair decided to try to get the state of Arizona to purchase the cave and develop it to protect it, but had to do so under complete secrecy. Can you imagine trying to get the state legislature to approve purchase when none of the representatives could even see the cave? Anyhow, they were successful and the cave was developed, while taking extraordinary measures to protect the cave. We passed through 6 moisture locks and a mister to keep lint out of the cave. The paved paths through the cave are hosed down every evening. And lastly, no pictures are allowed, so unfortunately, you’ll have to browse around the web to see pictures of the cave. 🙁
Next stop was Tucson area, and a nice visit with the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro National Park, and the majestic Saguaro Cactus. The Saguoro cactus is the typical cactus that you think of when you think about the southwestern desert. They are absolutely huge… They can tower well over 50 ft high. As an example, we saw a few that towered over nearby telephone poles. Their forms often remind people of human shapes and gestures. Their flowers and fruit are enjoyed by birds and humans alike. And in the West unit of Saguaro National Park, they grow quite thick… to the point where they call a stand of them a "forest."
My feelings about the whole Tucson experience were mixed. A number of the locals have thoroughly abused their natural resources in the area. As an example, the Coronado National Forest‘s (yep, that Coronado guy again!) Redington Pass Rd and some parts of Tucson Mountain Park just outside of Tucson are trashed… graffiti, garbage, and gun shells abound. See my soapbox rant below. On the other hand, we had an incredible time at the area museums including the Pima Air and Space Museum (where I got up close and personal with SR-71s Blackbird, harrier, B-52s, etc…) and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. We had a great meal at El Charro, a Mexican restaurant started by a French chef which dates back to the 1920’s. And we had a nice camping experience at Gilbert Ray campground in Tucson Mountain Park.
On our way out of Tucson, we went out of our way to stop at the San Xavier del Bac Mission, which is a beautiful mission dating back to the late 1700s.
In addition, I can pretty much say that the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum was one of the finest museum experiences I have ever had. We must have had at least twenty folks recommend the place to us and we were not disappointed. We arrived before they opened, and left after they closed to get the most out of our day there. It is almost entirely outdoors and combines zoo, botanical garden, and natural history museum in one experience. So what makes this place so spectacular? The whole museum tries to show the entirety of the Sonoran Desert in all of its splendor in its wild environment. They have invented "invisible fences" that allow you to walk along the path and simply see Javelina or Mule Deer just off of the trail in their natural environment. They also strive to provide an intimate experience with the desert. For example, in the hummingbird aviary, you can be a few inches from a perched, nested, or flying hummingbird. I think I can sum it up with with an experience I had while talking with one of the docents (specially trained volunteer) working the free-flight raptor demonstration. In as many words, he basically told me that the birds must be acting naturally, as if they would in the wild; otherwise, they would not show the bird. We were very impressed with the whole experience.
Last stop in Arizona was Oregon Pipe National Monument. This monument pays tribute to the Organ Pipe cactus, a large cactus that really looks nothing like the majestic Saguaro, or for that matter, organ pipes. They climb skyward, only really branching at their base. On our hike in the park we ran into several nice folks including a yodeling poet (you never know what you’re going to run into in the desert!). See Teresa’s Daily Diary for more on that. We had a nice few days near Organ Pipe, enjoying our Crazy Woman BLM campsite underneath an gorgeous ironwood tree. Yep, that’s right, ironwood is that extremely dense and hard wood that actually sinks in water.
Well, it’s off to California to say hi to Ahh-nold. We’ll be back… Hasta la vista, baby!
In my humble opinion, these areas outside of Tucson that have been horribly mismanaged by local authorities. As an example, Redington Pass Rd climbs above Tucson with plenty of nice views of the city. Camping is allowed on the road, but locals have abused the camping policy along the road and have used the camp spots as trash pits, party spots, and makeshift shooting ranges (we awoke to gunfire one morning). Probably not unexpected, but given the proximity to Tucson, the Forest Service should consider banning shooting along the road, set up a proper shooting range so gun owners can enjoy the area, patrol the area to "keep the peace", and provide fee-based camping facilities with trash cans, bathrooms, and a camp host. The citizens of Tucson should be horribly upset for such mismanagement of their federal lands by the Forest Service.