Sand Dunes and Sidewinders

Sand dunes and sidewinders: that’s what people think of when they think of Tucson, Arizona.  Although we did see both things, neither was the way I expected.  Before the sidewinders came the  sand dunes as we drove to Yuma Arizona, but not until after we drove past Palm Springs, CA,  saw the famous windmill farm (as seen in Rain Man), and tooled along the Mexican border for a while.  Stephanie specifically routed us through Yuma to show me the sand dunes, which were used when filming Return of the Jedi, since the production crew deemed it too expensive to film in Tunisia again.  Yuma, however, is not Tucson, so we kept on driving.  It was dark when we got there, but not too dark to spot our first coyote in the wild.

Our couch surfing host was pretty amazing.  She insisted on cooking for us whenever she could, and she gave us the most thorough tour of Tucson’s tourist offerings that we could hope for.  We spent our first day at an art museum which was having an enormous local craft fair.  After wandering the stalls and galleries, we then hiked up a local hill called Tumamoc.  We showed up all set in hiking boots and a full camelback, only to find that the trail is paved the whole way, and used by the locals as a fitness trail, rather than a desert mountain hike.  It was still a steep climb and a good workout, full of saguaros and great views of the city.  Returning to our host’s house, we were treated to a stunning sunset in shades of pink and purple.  We were quickly learning that amazing scenery and gorgeous sunsets are just a way of life in Tucson.

The next day, we went to see the San Xavier del Bac mission.  The building is beautiful and is that blend of European and Mexican art and design that one would expect from a mission just an hour from the border with Mexico.  It was really disturbing to read some of the history though – specifically how the local natives were treated (read: killed) when they resisted the Spanish priests who came to convert and govern them.  After touring the mission, we were introduced to frybread.  Frybread is kind of like an unsweetened funnel cake, and you can choose to eat it Stephanie-style with sugar and cinnamon, or Elliott-style with rice, beans, beef and hot sauce.  Either way, you can’t lose.

After our frybread lunch, we drove into Saguaro National Park to check out the views.  The desert is surprisingly green, and full of life.  There are of course the famous Saguaro and prickly pear, but there are other plants such as agave, cholla (CHOY-a) and Palo Verde (which Stephanie calls “The Grinch Tree” with its Grinch-colored green trunk and limbs) that make the desert look more lush than it actually is.  The movie at the visitor’s center talks all about the plant and animal life in the desert before throwing open the curtains on the panorama of the Sonora.

Stephanie and I could not pass up the opportunity to do some hiking, and I was determined to see a rattlesnake in the wild.  It didn’t take long for me to determine that the desert and its towering Saguaro are perhaps my second favorite landscape in the world (after my beloved ocean and coconut palm trees).  After enjoying another gorgeous sunset from up on a mountain trail with only cactus for company, we called it a day.  (No rattlesnakes outside of the movie though.)

We knew we wanted to see the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, but we way underestimated this place.  I thought it would be a dinky little indoor museum which we could blast through in about three hours.  It’s actually part museum, part zoo and part desert botanical garden.  We were there before they opened, and left after they closed.  One particularly fun thing we did was the free-flight raptor show.  We’ve seen bird-of-prey shows before, but usually a trainer brings the birds out to a stage and they fly to another trainer at the back of the amphitheater, swooping low over our heads.  This show was held outdoors where we stood surrounded by desert wildlife while the birds flew in out of nowhere, acted as naturally as they would in the wild, and then flew out again.  The advantage of this type of setting is that they could (for instance) let a Peregrine Falcon soar up hundreds of feet, and then go into a 100+ mph power dive as it hunts for prey.  Another highlight was a family of Harris Hawks which hunt in packs.  Harris Hawks have an alpha female, rather than a male, and when prey is caught by the pack, she eats first.

We saw examples of pretty much every type of wildlife Arizona has to offer, and this is where the sidewinders come in.  We *did* see one, but it was in a tank looking very bored.  We also saw some nasty looking bugs, scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, bighorn sheep, otters, javalinas (similar to small wild boars, but not actually a member of the pig family), and hummingbirds.  The hummingbirds were in a walk-through aviary, and they (fittingly) thought Stephanie was a flower and kept poking at her floral print top with their long beaks.

The museum was a wealth of information about the saguaro cactus – one of my new favorite plants.  (Stephanie has loved them ever since she came to Arizona when she was very little, and exclaimed, “Wow – cactuses taller than Daddy!”)  We learned they can grow up to 50 feet tall and weigh up to ten tons.  We also learned that they can live for about 200 years, and don’t grow their first arm until they’re at least 70.  We had fun trying to spot the smallest “baby arms” we could find, and later the smallest baby saguaros we could find, hiding under helpful “nurse trees” – trees that protect them from the elements as they are growing.  We topped off the day with frozen drinks in the hot tub, and yet another beautiful Arizona sunset.

For our final day in Tucson, we went back to Saguaro National Park, and hiked a longer, more strenuous trail.  This one wound through the silent desert, and up through the desert mountains.  We found ourselves at the top of Wasson peak, at 4687 feet.  It turned out to be a great place to break for lunch, to survey the park and Tucson from above, and to watch desert birds soaring on the thermals.  The trail to the top is about 3.5 miles each way, but we added an extra couple of miles when we got lost by taking the wrong “trail” before we even started!

It’s true that I have yet to experience the 110 degree heat of a Tucson summer, but it definitely ranks highly as place I can see myself living in.  The desert is one of those places that you just fall in love with as soon as you get to know it – even though I never did see my rattlesnake in the wild.

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