Banff in the backyard

Rising far above Tucson to the north is the Santa Catalina mountain range.   This range is one of the southwest’s “Sky Islands,” which means it pokes up through the desert heat to reach the cool upper-altitude air at 9,000 feet.   Sky Islands like the Catalinas are aerial oases, with deep forests of Ponderosa Pine at 6,000 – 8,000 feet, and sub-alpine terrain above that.

Imagine that we are living at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.   A rift in the floor allows a volcano to crack through, and the rising cone of the volcano eventually penetrates the sea and forms a Hawaiian island.   That’s what a Sky Island is like.   Up above, it’s an entirely new world, with completely different climate, creatures, and plants.

I think the Sky Islands are one of the more remarkable features of the desert southwest.   We aren’t just baking on a flat plain of dry desert with featureless sand dunes everywhere.   (That’s the Sahara.)   From Tucson you can look in any compass direction and see a Sky Island.   They are beautiful on a clear day.   We can see half the Catalina range from our kitchen, and there is no view I enjoy more.

But better than seeing them is ascending them.   Most of the Sky Islands are National Forest land or other public lands, and they are easily accessed by hiking trails.   The Catalina range is even easier to reach: there’s a road that winds all the way up from Tucson, passing multiple spectacular viewpoints, to the very top where there’s a ski area and the small town of Summerhaven.

As you might guess, driving up is a popular activity in the summer.   It’s often 30 degrees cooler at 8,000 feet than it is down in Tucson, and there are several campgrounds along the way. For each thousand feet you climb, the air gets cooler and the chance of precipitation increases.   If you ascend to the very top of Mt Lemmon, you are in a climate equivalent to Banff, Alberta.

Now think about that:   In 30 minutes of driving, we can go to Banff.   Up there, the evergreen trees and the mountain peaks tower around us, and there’s snow in the winter.   We can put on our warm coats and hats, smell the pine forest, walk the little ski town and drop in on the local store for hot cocoa by the fire.   And then, when our need for a reminder of our northern roots is satisfied, we can drive 30 minutes back and be in the Tucson sunshine at 70 degrees with the palm trees.   Who needs a jet when we’ve got this right in the backyard?

Yesterday we took a trip up to about 7,000 feet, just exploring.   That’s the equivalent of a trip to (roughly) Montana, in terms of climate change.   We were dropping into the various campgrounds along the way, looking for one we’d like to visit with the Airstream sometime. Most of the campgrounds are suitable for tents only, but at least two can take RVs, including Gordon Hirabayashi Campground (about 5,000 feet altitude) and Rose Canyon Campground (about 7,000 feet).

Rose Canyon was a nice surprise.   The camping area is large and very spread out in multiple loops. ($18, water, bathrooms, no hookups, no dump.)   Toward the lower end of the campground is a small man-made fishing lake, stocked with trout.   Emma loves fishing, so this was a big hit with her.   Some friendly folks at lakeside let her take a few casts with their equipment, and while we were watching one of them landed a little trout.

The lake and campground will close at the end of October, so we may not get to camp there this year, but I can see a trip next year when the weather gets warm again. Eleanor is already talking about getting a fishing pole for Emma for Christmas. Although many of the spaces are short or unlevel, we’ve identified about ten that we can get our 30-foot trailer into.


The road up through the Catalinas costs $5 if you don’t have a pass (the “America The Beautiful Pass” works here, since this is a National Forest road).   As a visitor to the area, it’s the best $5 you’ll spend in Tucson, in my opinion.   The total drive is about 60 miles roundtrip and takes at least two hours if you only spend a little time at each of the many overlooks.   If you take your time and stop in Summerhaven for lunch or browsing, it can easily be a full day.

Here’s a tip: try to time your return to Tucson for sunset.   The views will range from nice to amazing.   Even a rare cloudy day is beautiful to see as you descend the winding road to the valley floor.   The air is normally very clear here (yesterday we had still air and so there was a bit of haziness), yielding superb viewing of stars, full moon, and city.

I’m reminded that when we are not exploring the country we’ve still got a local area to explore.   One of the reasons we chose Arizona for home base was the broad range of year-round recreation available.   The southwestern outdoors are like a galaxy: beautiful at a distance, and full of richer detail the closer you get.   We can enjoy the Sky Islands at a distance, but every step closer yields new views and new things to see.   Driving them is one perspective, camping in them is another, hiking them is another, and then activities like birding give even more perspective.

Given that there are five Sky Islands within sight of Tucson, we’ve got a lot yet to see.   It’s just a matter of readjusting our mode of exploration.   Instead of driving north to the real Banff, we’ll be exploring the climate and ecosystem of Banff from our backyard in Arizona.

Curiouser and Curiouser

alice-and-the-mushroom.jpgWe spent three years exploring this great huge country, and yet I am lost in a 2,000 square foot house.

In my Airstream, I knew where everything was.   I knew everything we owned.   There were few surprises lurking in the dark corners (except the occasional mouse turd).   I could reach from my bed and touch my books, the front window, the cabinet containing my clothes, my scanner, and my wife — all without sitting up. Having such a small space bewilders those who have never lived in one, because they equate small with “uncomfortable” and “crowded.”   In reality, a small space can be magnitudes more comfortable than a dramatic Great Room with vaulted ceiling.   I know, we’ve lived in both.

A small space is a control-freak’s ultimate answer to housing.   Everything is within reach, little is hidden, and complete mastery of the entire domain is easily achievable.   You can be a big fish in a small pond.

But now we’re in a house, and it has galaxies of space, entire sectors that we don’t   have a purpose for, and dozens of mystery boxes from our relocation last year still scattered around.   It turns out that our biggest struggle now is to figure out what to do with all the extra space.   We don’t want to buy furniture just to fill it up, but it seems so empty.   Even a “zen” garden needs some gravel. Today we bought six chairs for the dining room table, so we don’t have to ask guests to bring their own.   This sort of splurge is going to empty our bank account quickly if we aren’t careful, so for the most part we are furnishing like college students, with whatever is available.

Being in a house has provided us with endless entertaining novelties.   Water just comes out from the sink endlessly — no worries about running the tank dry.   I still can’t get used to that.   Yesterday Eleanor was rinsing something in the sink and I had to repress the urge to say, “Hey, watch it — we’re not on full hookup!”   Really.   In my mind’s eye I could see the holding tank filling up.

The 25-cubic foot refrigerator is never full because it’s three times the size of the one we lived with for so long.   The freezer that takes full size pizza boxes.   That sort of thing tickles me.   Whoo-hoo, frozen pizza!   It’s the little things in suburbia that make it worthwhile.   How can you not love a land where every kitchen has ice and water on the fridge door?

Ready-made ice is like a miracle.   We never had room for ice in the Airstream, even the kind you make the old-fashioned way, in a tray.   Now it comes out of the door on command, and at night we can hear the refrigerator industriously clanking as it deposits another load of ice in the bucket.   Even though the unfamiliar sounds wakes us up, I find it bemusing.   (After all the years of sleeping in Wal-Marts and near industrial areas, freight trains and street sweepers don’t wake me up, but ice cubes do.)   We are still getting a kick out of putting a glass in the fridge door and getting endless cold water.   I think we’ve all been drinking 20 glasses of water day just for the thrill.

In this way, we are like repatriated refugees.   We haven’t had a dishwasher since 2005.   Our wardrobe has been limited to what can fit in a plastic tub.   High living in our book has been defined as the ability to take a shower longer than three minutes. So you can see why the concept of cable TV with 200 channels is too much to absorb.   I’m afraid if we indulge in everything that suburbia has to offer, we’ll simply tip over from excessive pleasure, like the character in Crichton’s “Terminal Man.”   It’s best to re-enter “normal” life slowly. We still don’t have a TV in the house, and I’m not sure when we are going to get one.

Today Eleanor found that her jar of Cain’s All-Natural Mayonnaise was running low.   It’s a New England product, made in Massachusetts, and you can’t find it out west. In the old days we’d just get make a note to pick up some on the next trip east, but now we don’t know when that will be.

We’ve become accustomed to having most of the Lower 48 available to us.   Back then, it went like this:   “Remember that nice smoked fish we had at Ted Peter’s?   Next time we’re in Tampa, we’ll get some more.”   It was that simple.   Hankering for a Czech pastry?   No problem, we’ll be in Texas soon and we’ll stop at that nice pastry shop we know.   Coffee milk?   That’s easily found in Rhode Island and a few other New England states.   Conch chowder in the Keys, authentic ingredients in Chinatown, crabcakes in Maryland, dry-rub barbecue in east Texas … it was all just somewhere down the road.

But now even little things like Cain’s Mayonnaise are off in a murky haze of possible futures.   (Fortunately, we’re able to have that particular item delivered by friends from New England.)   We’re used to sampling the world as we go, and roaming it as if it were our back yard.

So I am in a strange paradox:   The house is too big, and the world is getting larger too. I feel I have taken a step backwards in the Maze, and I have gotten smaller relative to my surroundings, at least temporarily.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.   Now I finally know how she felt. I have to figure out how to start growing again. Alice did it by eating a bit of the mushroom.   If only it were that easy to find your right place in the world.

Taking the First Step

man_in_the_maze.jpgIf you’ve been following the Tour of America weblog, you already know me and how I’ve come to this point.   If not, you’ll figure it out.   I am just like you, symbolized by the Man In The Maze, who travels through life from dark to light, growing larger in relation to his surroundings by learning and making choices at every turn.