Roadtrips in southern AZ

No Airstream doesn’t mean we can’t travel a little.  In the summer heat, the best escape southern Arizona offers comes from the wonderful Sky Islands scattered all around us.  The Santa Catalina, Huachuca, Boboquivari, and Sahuarita mountain ranges are all nearby, and whether by foot or by car you can reach the cool air in piney forests at the upper elevations.

The easiest place for us to reach is the Santa Catalinas, arrayed just north of us and forming the northern border of Tucson.  Hikers in Phoenix are jealous, because we Tucsonians can pop up into the mountains in about 30 or 40 minutes, whereas the nearest escape from the brutal Phoenix summer heat is at least 90 minutes away.  From our house, it’s a quick drive up the twisting Mt Lemmon Highway.  In 25 miles we’re up above 6,000 feet and in 35 miles we’re in the little village of Summerhaven high atop the Catalinas at about 8,000 feet.

That’s where we decided to hike last week, along the short (2.4 miles roundtrip) Marshall Gulch trail that starts just below Summerhaven in the Catalina National Forest.  The trail follows a perennial stream through the forest, with shady gorges, the sound of trickling water, and lots of dry clear air scented with pine.  Every time we hike such a trail I have a moment when I’m taken back to long-ago hikes in the northern New England mountains (Adirondacks of New York, White Mtns of New Hampshire, Green Mtns of Vermont).  Although the plants and animals are different, the little cues of summer are overwhelming.  This is something I love about being here: the ability to move from hot desert to cool northern forest just with a short drive up a Sky Island.

The photo below is one of those poorly-composed self portraits we sometimes take by balancing the camera on a rock.  We were at the peak of our climb and utterly alone, looking at the intersection of a few other trails and wondering if we should continue onward for a longer loop.  We have so few pictures of ourselves that even the fairly lame ones like this end up being keepers.  Eleanor and I have been hiking together for twenty years now, but I think we have less than two dozen photos of the two of us together on a trail.

Our original roadtrip idea was going to be pretty major: San Diego, Palm Springs, and maybe even San Jose, but with all the things we want to do here and the constraint of not having our trusty Airstreams on hand, we decided to stick closer to home and focus on what’s great about this area.  So this weekend we took a long round-robin drive out to Kitt Peak National Observatory (about 7,000 ft at the top) to see the incredible telescopes and take in the views from the top.

There was almost nobody there, which surprised me because it’s a great –and free– destination only 90 minutes drive from Tucson.  It was 106 degrees in Tucson on Sunday, but a lovely and breezy 88 degrees at the summit of Kitt Peak, with scattered clouds blowing by and monsoon showers visible off in the distance. In the photo you can see the aboveground portion of the McMann-Pierce Solar Telescope (the big white thing), and a rain shower off in the distance.

The drive out to Kitt Peak has changed a little since the last time I was out there.  Yet another Border Patrol checkpoint has been established, which you’ll go through on the eastbound side of Hwy 86.  Once fairly rare, Border Patrol checkpoints have become the norm on every road south of Tucson.  The procedure for passing through one is simple enough, usually just one question:  “Are you all US citizens?”  A simple “Yes,” and we’re always waved through.  But it really strikes me every time we pass through one, as a reminder that southern Arizona is just behind the front of a war.  Along the back roads you’ll see huge Wackenhut buses staged in strategic locations for detainee transport, and the white pickups of the Border Patrol are parked along the roads in many places, observing traffic or chasing down illegals.

I have to remind myself that the people who are staffing all these trucks, buses and checkpoints are there for our protection.  They aren’t interested in hassling Americans, they’re trying to plug a porous border.  It’s an impossible goal to achieve fully (and everyone here knows it) but without the massive quasi-military presence the drug-runners would own southern Arizona.  Still, the sheer numbers of people, vehicles, and dollars involved are absolutely incredible to see.  Anyone who thinks that we are not fighting a third war (a sort of “cool war” as opposed to hot or cold), or who thinks the border can readily be “secured” really should come down here and see for themselves.

And yet, there we were, spinning our wheels down a lonely two-lane road that has almost no services along it and poor cell phone coverage, without much care.  We do not travel armed, nor do we feel the need no matter wherever we go around here.  Southern Arizona is safe.  Living here is like living next to the DMZ in Korea, I suppose.  We are tourists to the edge of a war zone, a peculiar concept.  It’s like looking into the grizzly bear habitat from the safe side of a fence, or tapping the glass on the rattlesnake’s enclosure.  The Border Patrol guys are providing the glass.

We’ve been eating some interesting stuff lately, thanks to a few experimental meals out and a few really great meals at home, so Eleanor made a picnic out of our leftovers, which we ate at the summit of Kitt Peak.  For you foodies, we had thin-sliced marinated flank steak, French bread, hummus, fresh figs with goat cheese and a little fruit vinegar, grilled sweet peppers, green olives, and some sort of little Italian pastry that we picked up at Viro’s in the morning (the name of which I can’t remember).  Emma’s chai tea washed it all down.

After the drive back down the mountain, we felt like exploring a little more.  I had long wanted to take the drive down Sasabe Road (AZ-286) to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  This is a beautiful and underappreciated area of grassland and wetland.  There are dozens of free primitive camping sites scattered all over the refuge, and the birding is reported to be excellent.  I think we may plan a Caravel trip down there sometime to hike around and take in the wilderness.

After the Refuge, we took the rolling Arivaca-Sasabe Road east to the little town of Arivaca, another place I’d wanted to check out for a while.  It’s sort of an “end of the road” town, populated by ranchers and folks who seek out funky remote places.  There’s not much there but it makes a good destination for a driving day, and the scenery between Arivaca and I-19 is terrific.  There are a few small cafes and cantinas to visit for lunch or a drink before you head back home.  And of course, not long before we arrived at the Interstate in Amado, we encountered another Border Patrol checkpoint, where the agents expressed some surprise at seeing us. Apparently not a lot of people come through on Sunday just for the drive.

Amado, by the way, is slightly famous for this roadside curiosity: The Longhorn Grill.   We didn’t go in, but I have it on my list (along with the Cow Palace, just across the street) as places we should check out the next time we are coming down I-19.  There’s something about odd roadside stops that begins to attract you, when you travel by road a lot.  I think the mere fact of someone being an individual, bucking the norm of food chains and square boxes by building something unusual despite added expense and (no doubt) hordes of nay-sayers, appeals greatly.

Our travel this week will be a bit limited due to various appointments are have made, but we are making up for that by exploring restaurants all over town.  I’ve noted before that Tucson is one of the best cities I’ve ever encountered for eating out.  We have been here four years and barely scratched the surface of all the great & strange places to eat, so we are doing our best to try places while respecting a reasonable budget and the risk of expanding waistlines.  I’ll talk more about that in the next blog.