Hike to Picacho Peak

The first and only time I hiked Picacho Peak, that impossibly towering mountain alongside I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, I did it with Brett on a 100-degree day.  That was perhaps not the best choice for a steep rocky climb that offers very little shade.  This time, I vowed to do it in the ideal season, which is about now, when we are getting lots of days in the low 70s.

picacho-peak-1st-half.jpgAlex and Charon have been visiting Tucson for about a month in their 1960s Airstream Safari, and they wanted to take on the challenge of Picacho, so I said, “Let’s do it now, before it gets much warmer.”  I had wanted to get Eleanor and Emma up there too, since they’ve never hiked all the way to the peak, and Emma is now tall enough that she can make it up the tough spots.  We had hiked to the halfway point back shortly after Emma’s seventh birthday, which is hard enough, but now it was time to go for the gusto and bag that peak.  (The full hike is not recommended for kids under age 10, for good reasons.)

The Hunter Trail is 2.1 miles.  The first half is an ascent composed of many switchbacks up the steep eroded slope of the mountain’s south side.  It is in some ways the hardest park of the hike only because the slog up is fairly dull, and this presents a psychological challenge to some.  But if you get discouraged, you need only pause and look back down at the increasingly vast view of the desert floor for a little encouragement.  You’ll see the dual ribbons of Interstate 10, the parallel Southern Pacific railway, and a wriggling stretch of the Central Arizona Project canal that feeds water to Tucson.  Most people will need to pause frequently, just to catch their breath, so the excuse of “taking in the view” is pretty useful.

picacho-peak-steep1.jpgThe mid-point of the hike is a spot called “the saddle.”  From this point, you face another psychological challenge: after all that climbing, you must now begin to descend the north side along an extremely steep and rocky “trail.”  It is so steep that a cable line is provided, and you quickly give up a couple hundred feet of hard-won altitude as you proceed.  Just a look at this descent is enough to scare people into deciding that they’ve done enough for the day, and to begin heading back to the car.

The second half of the trail has nothing in common with the first half.  It’s mostly solid rock, jagged and rough, with many ridiculously steep sections that are closer to rock climbing than hiking.  Cable lines are everywhere, and for good reason.  Those prone to vertigo or fear of heights should stay home. But spectacular views and the exhilaration of overcoming the tough spots are the rewards for those who persevere.

picacho-peak-steep2.jpgThere were a few points at which I wondered if our entire group was going to make it.  Of all of us, I think Emma did the best.  She showed no fear at any of the tricky stuff, never ran low on energy, and managed even the most technical bits with little help.  Eleanor had to deal with asthma on the way up, and Alex was having some pain in his knees.  But we all made it:  We reached the summit in about two hours without loss of life or even minor maiming.

picacho-peak-eleanor-top.jpgCharon seemed the most psychologically stressed by the hike, yet she was the one who suggested we make this an annual ritual.  That’s the kind of person she is.  Faced with something that pushed her personal boundaries, she decided not only to finish it, but also commit to going back for more.  Admirable.  I understand how she feels about it.  Climbing Picacho next year will be kind of a reminder to all of us to keep challenging ourselves.

The summit of so many mountains is nothing special, usually just a view and a chance to eat a few snacks while cooling off, but it’s a great feeling to bag a peak that you’ve worked hard on.  Even little Picacho, at about 3,300 ft, is a great achievement if you weren’t sure you could make it.  I think that it doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, or how easily other people have reached it.  Getting there is your achievement, forever.  Well worth a Saturday and a little sweat.


Car and trailer shows

Although much of the rest of the country is frozen solid right now, it’s car show season in southern Arizona.   Every couple of weeks there’s a small car show somewhere around Tucson, and about once a month there will be a fairly major one nearby.  California has the reputation as being the state most crazy for collector cars, but here in southern Arizona we’re not far behind.  We’ve got a lot of old retired guys with classic rides, and they love to show them off.

This weekend the big show was the Santa Cruz Valley Car Nuts’ annual show at Tubac Golf Resort, which is about 50 miles south of Tucson.  I decided to enter the old Mercedes 300D because it was a way for me to get into the middle of the show with a picnic lunch and watch all the action. I didn’t think many people would give a hoot about a slow and squarish 1984 Mercedes, since at these shows most of the attention seems to go to hot rods, American muscle cars, and exotics.

tubac-car-nuts-300d-reflection.jpgAnd I was right.  The car was mostly ignored, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my folding chair and read a book while occasionally glancing at the parade of people going by.  Once in a while someone would point and smile at the car and I could hear them relating a tale of the “one we used to have just like that.”  A lot of people used to have Mercedes cars like mine, which is not surprising since 2.7 million of them were made worldwide.

A few people took note of the car, but I wonder if any of them noticed that mine was the only Mercedes on the line bearing a “250,000 km” badge on the grill.  That’s an honorary badge awarded by Mercedes Benz USA for very high-mileage cars.  My next badge comes at 500,000 km (310,000 miles) and I hope to get that one someday too.

I was flattered when a guy came by and asked if I wanted to sell the car, because he wanted a nice example of an old Mercedes to drive around in Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had a house.  I declined. I wasn’t looking to sell, just to have fun.

tubac-car-nuts-show1.jpg It is fun, just to be a small part of the spectacle.  There were over 500 cars on display, ranging from a Nash Metropolitan to an Aston Martin Vanquish.  You name it, it was there.  Most of the cars were in excellent condition, but I was pleased to see that even people with interesting cars in poor condition came out to show the world what they had.  It wasn’t just a show of garage queens.  Some were obviously daily drivers.

Eleanor had made me a huge picnic basket with lunch, suitable for about five people. I had grilled chicken skewers, Israeli couscous, a sort of marinated tomato/zucchini/onion salad in a homemade dressing that I can’t even begin to describe adequately, a delicious homemade chutney, and Emma’s “rainy day” brownies with chopped nuts on top.

Since I had the opportunity for elegance, she also packed me a big blue tablecloth and cloth napkins.   When lunchtime came around, I spread my tablecloth and hauled out the wicker basket, and invited my friend Charlie and his friend Flash to join me on the grass.  More than a few people spotted our little picnic on the golf course next to the Mercedes cars and said, “Now, that’s the way to do it!”


Ken and Petey showed up with their 1955 GMC pickup and a 1947 teardrop called a “Tourette.”  Most teardrop trailers were made of wood, but this one was made of aluminum.  It’s remarkably intact and in good condition.  I believe it was the only travel trailer at the show, and it got a lot of attention.  Teardrop trailers were mostly made from kits, and there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of teardrop kit manufacturers over the past decades, so if you’ve never heard of a Tourette, join the club.

With spectacular weather (about 70 degrees and all sun), a fine golf course setting, hundreds of interesting cars, many more interesting people, and a fine picnic lunch, the day passed very quickly.  I was surprised to realize it was 3 p.m. — I had been there for five hours.  It was rather a shame to pack up and head out, but at least I had the compensation of a leisurely drive of 50 miles to get back home in a fine old German sedan on a beautiful day in beautiful southern Arizona.

I am really getting into this show thing.   That’s part of the reason why I’ve been working for the past few months to curate another show, the Modernism Week “Vintage Trailer Show” sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.  We are expecting 19 very interesting vintage trailers at that event:

1935 Bowlus Road Chief

1960 Airstream Caravel

1959 Airstream Globetrotter

1962 Airstream Flying Cloud

1962 Airstream Globe Trotter

1961 Airstream Bambi

1960 Holiday House

1950 Airfloat Landyacht

1973 Airstream Safari

1969 Airstream Tradewind

1957 Catolac DeVille

1948 Spartan Manor

1958 Airstream Caravanner

1936 Airstream Clipper

1948 Westcraft

1960 International Harvester Housecar

1965 Airstream Caravel

1955 Spartan Manor

1948 La Cosse Vacationer

If you are coming out to Palm Springs for Modernism Week this February, tickets for the Vintage Trailer Show can be purchased on-site at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa, Saturday and Sunday Feb 26-27. It should be quite a spectacle, with some very rare trailers open for tours, an Airstream “bar,” presentation of the new Airstream Life “Wally” award, vendors selling cool stuff, and a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll see you poolside at the Riviera?

The Sonoran Hot Dog test

My friend Bill says that Tucson is famous for Sonoran Hot Dogs.  And here I am, alone again in Tucson with a week left before I am reunited with my family, never having tasted one of these artery-clogging specialties.  What’s a Temporary Bachelor Man to do?

Of course there’s only one response to that. On Saturday I recruited my neighbor Mike to be wingman as I crossed the threshold to this medically-cautioned treat, plunging headlong into a sea of mayo, mustard, and jalapeno sauce.  We piled into the old Mercedes diesel and clattered our way across to 12th Street on Tucson’s south side, where the two undisputed champions of Sonora hot dogs can be found:  El Guero Canelo, and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.

El Guero Canelo’s name refers to the founder, “the blonde Mexican guy.”  I have no idea what BK stands for, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the owner’s initials.  Both of these restaurants have opened other locations in Tucson, but both keep their original 12th Street locations as well, almost directly across the street from each other.  The hot dog business must be good.

bk-sign.jpgBK was our first stop.  An open-air restaurant, it features a tall, happy (and apparently suicidal) hot dog welcoming you to come and eat it.  Perhaps this hot dog is smiling because it knows that real Sonoran dogs are smothered in ingredients.  Nobody’s going to eat that naked thing.  It’s almost perverted to think of a hot dog so undressed when you are expecting the rich, fat taste of one wrapped in bacon and buried beneath beans, onions (grilled and fresh), tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and jalapeno.

bk-sonoran-dog.jpgWe decided that the BK dogs would be best with a “Mexican” Coke (meaning, in the original style green glass curved bottle that you hardly ever see in the USA anymore). A bottled soda tacks $1.75 onto your tab, but even still the meal of a Sonoran dog plus a Coke comes to less than $5.

The Sonoran dog, whether it comes from BK or El Guero Canelo, is a minor work of art. The sauces are decoratively zippered across the top, providing fair warning to those who attempt to eat them.  As with the Double-Double with extra sauce at In’n’Out Burger, you WILL need a napkin.  And possibly an angioplasty.

chowing-down.jpgBeing old guys, Mike and I both anticipated this glorious pig-out and ate lightly for the previous day.  We were hoping to earn cholesterol credits (at least in our minds) that would offset the highly unbalanced (but delicious) meal of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and doused in mayonnaise.  I think the only way we could have really earned these would be to have jogged all the way across Tucson, but being 104 degrees today, we weren’t even considering that.

The BK dog had a definite jalapeno bite to it.  Three bites later, however, and my taste buds were so busy struggling with the unaccustomed “full fat” flavor that I stopped noticing the jalapeno.  No doubt my tongue was also coated by then, protecting it from the sharpest of the spice.

Five or six bites later, it was gone.  My brain said, “MORE!” even though these things are surprisingly filling.  I was ready to call it a day after my first Sonoran dog, but Mike insisted on pressing onward.  We had come all this way for a hot dog trial and we weren’t going to shy away from the challenge now.  So we fired up the Mercedes again and drove all of 300 feet to El Guero Canelo for Round Two.  (Exercise was definitely not part of the plan.)

el-guero-canelo.jpgLike the competition across the street, El Guero Canelo on 12th Street is an open-air place with a roof for shade. I like the extremely casual atmosphere of the place.  It’s somewhere between a street vendor and sidewalk cafe, on the ambience scale.   If you want a Sonoran dog, you can get one at dozens of locations in Tucson, but still plenty of people from all over Tucson come down to 12th Street to eat at one of these two restaurants.

el-guero-canelo-sonoran-dog.jpgFor the second dog, I switched from Coke to Jarritos orange soda, and found there’s absolutely no impact on the dog-eating experience.  A Sonoran dog will overcome anything.

I did like the El Guero Canelo touch of a roasted pepper on the side.  But overall, I couldn’t decide whether I like BK or El Guero better.

They say we are hard-wired to love fats and sugars, as a survival instinct.   If so, it will always be hard to resist the lure of a Sonoran dog and a sweet soda.  Eat it, and not only do other tastes fade away, but soon you can’t even remember what was bothering you earlier.  You float gently on a raft of lipids, and your biggest challenge in life seems to be chasing those baked beans that rolled away.  It’s a bit of escapism in a bun.

I think that in a year or two I’ll have earned enough dietary credits to have another Sonoran dog.  I wouldn’t recommend them as part of a regular diet, any more than I’d recommend the dreamy chocolate cake that Eleanor left in the freezer, but as a treat they are pretty special.  It may well be, as Bill implied, that eating a Sonoran dog is an essential part of the Tucson experience.  I may start recommending them to people who visit — or at least, those who don’t already have heart conditions.

Tucson’s historic neon signs

tiki-motel.jpgWhile I’m in Arizona enjoying the summer monsoon season, one of my projects is go out at sunset and take pictures of signs …

I’m co-authoring a book with Carlos L., a local architecture enthusiast here in Tucson, about historical neon signs in Tucson.  Tucson’s stock of historical buildings is vastly depleted due to years of careless re-development.  Carlos runs a Yahoo group called “Vanishing Tucson” that tries to document places that are about to get torn down, and work with the community to save things when they can. Recently they were involved in the re-purposing of the massive handmade sculptures at Magic Carpet Golf.  (Many of the sculptures have been saved and a few are now permanently installed elsewhere.)

silver-saddle-steak-house.jpgWe still have a good stock of historical signage in Tucson, but it is severely endangered.   Most of the signs are neglected, dysfunctional, and non-conforming with current law.  Once they come down, they can’t come back.  And they can’t be fixed unless they come down!  Catch 22.  So activists in the city are working on a Historic Sign Amendment that will protect and grandfather those signs.

owl-lodge.jpgJust before sunset, when the desert heat is beginning to abate, we go out on photo safaris to find the signs and capture pictures of those that are lit.  On weekends, we make daytime trips to the signs that are no longer lit (which, sadly, is most of them).  Others are badly maintained and only partially lit, like the famous Tucson Inn sign pictured below.  I drive the car and jump out to take pictures, while Carlos rides shotgun with his laptop and updates his database of signs with details about their current condition.

tucson-inn.jpgBefore the Interstate, the main entrance to Tucson was a highway from Phoenix that became Tucson’s “Miracle Mile.”  Strung along it were scores of motels, restaurants, and other businesses, lit up with signs and beckoning the hot desert traveler with “Refrigerated Air,” swimming pools, and Color TV. The road continued down what is now Drachman Street, 6th Avenue, and out to Benson Highway.  Of course, the arrival of the Interstate changed all that, and now huge swaths of this formerly dramatic and bustling road are degraded, disregarded, and even disconnected from the former alignment.

abc-market.jpgStill, a lot of the historic signs have held on through the years, advertising apartments, “motor courts,” markets, and steakhouses. They are a largely under-appreciated resource of Tucson and many other cities, perhaps because old neon signs are associated with seedy parts of town.  But most of these signs are in front of thriving businesses.  If the Historic Sign Amendment can be passed, over 100 signs will be eligible for preservation. Hopefully then the owners will be able to take them down temporarily and have them refurbished to their former glory. I could even see this amendment spurring the founding of new local neon restoration businesses. There’s plenty of work to be done.

We’re doing this only because it is interesting to both of us, and it’s really needed.  We hope that the book will raise awareness and appreciation of historic signage, and perhaps provide inspiration for people in other cities that also have a historic sign resource worth preserving.  It’s a long term project with no specific completion date, but I hope we’ll be ready to publish in about a year.

Anyone who has old pictures of signs in Tucson as they appeared in their heydey, or information to share about signs, please get in touch with me by clicking here.  We’d welcome contributions and acknowledge them in the published book.

A very wet hike in Arizona

I’m in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, during summer.  All around me is nothing but sand dunes and shimmering waves of heat, right?

Well, no.  Actually we are blessed with beautiful “sky islands” in southern Arizona, which are tall peaks that rise from the desert and provide blissful cool forests and completely different ecosystems to explore.  Just north of home base are the Santa Catalina mountains, probably the more accessible range because of the excellent road that winds to the top, and the multiple hiking trails.

I’ve talked about this range before. From our home base, it is the first thing we see every day through the window, a stunning range of brown (down low) and green (up high) frosted with white peaks in the winter.  Everyone who I’ve talked to, even the residents who have lived here for their entire lives, says they never get tired of the Catalina view.

My friend Brent from the Phoenix area invited me to do some tent camping last weekend.  Like us, he owns an Airstream Safari 30 “bunkhouse,” and like us, he sometimes wants to get back to the basics once in a while.  There’s something about tenting that makes you really feel the experience. Just you, a thin shield of nylon, and an outdoor fire.

During the preceding few days the summer monsoon had finally kicked in, and I had been watching huge thunderstorms sitting atop the Catalinas, so it was a pretty fair bet that we’d get rained on up there, but what the heck.  Tucson averages just 12 inches of rain per year, so a little rain would be a somewhat novel experience. Besides, for a New England camper like myself it would just be an average camping trip.  Or so I thought.


There are several campgrounds located along the Catalina Highway.  In the summer, most people avoid the two National Forest campgrounds that are below 5,000 feet (because they are too warm), and head for the three that are located at 6,000 feet or above:  General Hitchcock,  Rose Canyon, and Spencer Canyon.  On weekends, that means you’d better show up early if you want to snag a spot.

When we arrived on Saturday morning, the camp host told us that terrifying thunderstorms had plagued the campground the night before.  Some people bailed out and drove back down to Tucson, apparently leaving their gear to fend for itself.  One camper told us he slept in his car, probably to avoid getting fried by the frequent lightning strikes.  We figured we were in for more of that on Saturday night, so we quickly set up our camp and anchored the tents as best we could.

The minute we left the campground, the rain started. At the trailhead, just five minutes later, it was a steady drizzle.  Being tough hikers, we decided to plow through.  “A little rain won’t hurt us!”

mt-bigelow-mushrooms-2010-07.jpgFor a while, the rain was intermittent and I captured a few shots during the drier moments, but that was not to last.  The rain poured down, so much that our conversation turned to rain forests we’d visited in Washington state and Puerto Rico.  There were no views except dripping plants, the occasional mushroom, and fog.

Soon our “water proof” gear began to surrender to the relentless rain.  My hiking boots soaked through and flooded, leaving me “squinching” with every step.  The sleeves and edges of my Gore Tex rain jacket became soaked, and the water migrated by capillary action up the sleeves and onto my forearms. My exposed hands became chilly from being constantly wet, and the rain was growing colder.

The cotton shorts I’d worn for the hike turned out to be a particularly big mistake. As hikers up north say, “cotton kills,” because once it gets wet it starts to leech your body heat.  Normally this isn’t a problem in the southwest, but in these mountains the temperature was only in the upper 60’s, and the humidity was 100%.  We were in the hypothermia zone, and those soaked cotton shorts were chilling my body rapidly.

By this time we’d turned around and were climbing up a steep hill, so my concern was minimal, but it was still a sobering revelation that, if something went badly wrong, one of us could die in these conditions.  People die in the summertime from hypothermia. Imagine having a serious sprain that left you unable to hike out.  In these conditions, you could easily suffer severe hypothermia while lying on the trail, waiting for help to arrive.  The cold ground would steal your body heat, while the constant rain would ensure no chance to warm up.

Imagine the irony of dying of the cold just a few miles from Tucson in August.  I told this to Brent to cheer him up — it didn’t work.  He said, “I’ve never been this wet before in my life.”

Rather than head back to camp, we drove further up the mountain to the village of Summerhaven, where there is a little pizza and cookie restaurant in a log cabin.  Looking like two people who had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed, we recovered from our adventure while eating pizza and dripping water all over the floor.


Of course, the rain stopped completely once we got back to camp, and the skies were clear all afternoon and night.  The cumulative rain total for the preceding 24 hours was 4.5 inches.

You know how good it feels to get out of cold wet clothes and into dry ones?  Well, it feels even better when you’re camping in a tent.  Those little pleasures are amplified by the starkness of your resources.

So we set up the fire and ate leftover pizza for dinner, told stories, and let the world revolve without any help from us at all, until late at night.  There’s no exciting ending to this story.  We just hung out, slept in our tents, and got up the next morning for some hot cocoa.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about how we’d like to do it again soon.  That’s good camping.