A Travel Vignette

Desert Wildlife Meets City Slicker; They Hit It Off Splendidly

Tucson Is Cool, Phoenix Is Not

Javelinas, Bobcats, Tarantellas, Dung Beatles, Deer,  Rattlesnakes… and Sabino Canyon’s Blacketts Ridge Trail


A Bob Djurdjevic Column, August 2002

Tucson Trails... continued

TUCSON, Tuesday, Aug 20, 2002 - Tucson is cool, Phoenix is not.  At least not anymore.  That just about sums up the Tale of Two (desert) Cities.  What the (Charles) dickens am I talking about?

Here in Tucson, I might as well be living in a zoo or a botanical garden.  Honest.  I’ve seen more desert wildlife in my first month in Tucson than I had in 20 years in Phoenix.

On Saturday night, I almost walked into a herd of javelinas in my apartment complex, only yards away from my city home.  As you can see, I lived to tell the story.  There was a scorpion at my door the other day.  He didn’t make it past the doorstep.  He was rude… didn’t knock.  J Yet even in his mortal agony, this little fighter was desperately striking out at me with his venomous tail.  (They say, the smaller the scorpion, the more poisonous… just a little Q-tip for some of your city dwellers among my friends and readers).

So how can I stand living in such a “hostile” environment?  I love it.  No, I am not a masochist.  But that’s such a “city slicker” question.  I find the foul air in traffic-infested streets far more hostile than meeting some little critter trying to survive the hostile desert climate.  And managing to do it without air conditioning and swimming pools, too.

I know what you’re thinking.  I am turning soft, right?  Or worse, “liberal?”

One of my Phoenix friends had already warned me about that when he heard I was about to move to Tucson.  “Don’t you know how ‘liberal’ Tucsonans are?,” he said.  Actually, I didn’t know.  Nor did I care.  I just wanted to get out of the overpopulated, over-polluted and definitely overrated Arizona capitol.  

Of course, Phoenix was a dandy place to live and raise your family once upon a time.  Which is why I moved there in the first place.  But that was 20 years ago.  I didn’t like the California urban jungles.  Since that time, however, California has also moved into town.  And Mexico.  And even New York and New Jersey.  Yuck!

About two years ago, it dawned on me that this was no longer the Phoenix I knew and loved.  Ever since, I have been trying to get out.  And finally did.  Last month.

Ever since I took that final hike, I have been hiking non-stop.  In Tucson, of course. Almost every day, I have been marching up and down the many tough but beautiful trails that grace the slopes of the Catalina Foothills.  If you click on the photo essays at the end of this story, you can see with your own eyes what I am talking about.

Of course, Phoenix has trails and mountains, too.  But also its contrails.  On the ground.  Every car leaves one behind.  It’s just that we don’t see them when we’re on the ground.  But when you get to the top of a mountain, you feel like reaching for a gas mask.  You look down at the city and at the yellow haze that envelopes it.  And you say to yourself: “I can’t believe I am breathing that foul air 24 hours a day!  What am I still doing here?”

Now I am happy to leave to the 3.5 million remaining Phoenicians to grapple with that question.  I’ve got other things to worry about.  No, not the javelinas or scorpions.  They come out at night.  By day, I have to decide what shoes to wear for a particular trail, how much sun screen to lather on, or if today’s mission possible is a one-, two- or a three-bottle trail.  (Water bottles, of course!  No booze allowed in National Forests). 

When I walked into the Sabino Canyon office this morning, a middle-aged man in a beige U.S. Forest Service uniform gave me a bored look.  “Ah, another tourist,” he must have thought.  “And a blonde one, at that!”  But his demeanor changed quickly when he realized that he was talking to an experienced local hiker, rather than a “blonde city slicker.”  He became animated and shared some of his own travel vignettes with me.  He even ignored some bona fide “city slickers” who had walked into the office during our 5-10 minutes conversation. 

By the time we were finished talking, we knew each other’s first names, and shook hands warmly before I hit my today’s trail.  “Have fun, Bob!”, Brent exclaimed, smiling and waiving goodbye to me.

How did this instant rapport develop between two men?  Simple.  In a word, it was because of water.  Because of water?  Yes, because of water.  Water is the most precious commodity in the desert.  Tourists and city slickers may have read something about it.  But only serious hikers know what it is like to survive physical exertion in the desert in a 100-plus-degree heat. 

So when my first words to the forester were, “hey man, what do you say… is this a one- or a two-bottle day for the Blacketts Ridge trail?” (the hardest of the Sabino Canyon trails), they created instant bonding.

“It was a one-bottle day in the morning,” Brent replied.  “But it’s pretty humid today.  So I’d say it’s a two-bottle day right now.” (it was exactly 12 o’clock - noon).

Brent and I then spent some time studying various topographic maps, and comparing notes on the trails we’ve taken.  I asked him if he had a newer map than the one the U.S. Forest Service was using, displayed under the glass counter at the office.

“What’s wrong with that one?” Brent asked. 

“Look at the date,” I said.  “It’s a 1957 map.  I used to have that one at home.  But I thought you’d have a newer one here at the office.”

“Gee, I’ve never noticed that before,” Brent admitted sheepishly. 

He looked on the shelves behind him and pulled out another map.  He spread it on the counter.  We both leaned over it and started studying it.  It was indeed a newer map.  But it didn’t have all the trails marked on it.  The Blacketts Ridge trail, for example, my today’s target, was not on it.

Brent agreed.  But he immediately offered a helpful suggestion.  “I just use a yellow marker to mark the trails I take.”

“That’s good,” I said.  “But I have never taken the Blacketts Ridge trail before.  Is it steep?”

“Oh, yeah,” Brent replied, giving me a “significant look.”  It was the look you give your pal before sending him off into battle.  “It’s steep alright.  But you look fit.  You’ll be okay.”

“It’s an expensive map!” I exclaimed when I noticed the price tag.  “$8.50 plus tax for a map!?”

“That’s because it’s specially coated,” Brent explained.  “You can even use it as a tarp in case you can caught in the rain,” he added with a smirk that left me wondering if he was joking or being serious.

“I can think of some other uses, but they are inappropriate in mixed company,” I said, signaling with my head at some silver-haired ladies who were looking at postcards and other souvenir items in the store.  Brent understood.  He suppressed his laughter. 

I realized he was feeling guilty for neglecting other customers while chatting with me.  “So it’ll be a two-bottle day then,” I said, waving him goodbye as I started walking out. 

“Have fun, Bob!” Brent said.

As I walked out of the office, I pushed the swinging door so hard it hit the outside wall.  I expected a stronger door spring at a government office, I suppose.  At that moment, a tiny lady was walking toward the office.  She was also wearing a U.S. Forest Service uniform.  I could tell she was shocked to see the door flying open and hitting the wall so powerfully.

“Oops.  Guess I’ve stored up too many calories this morning,” I joked.  “Better hit that trail pretty fast.”

She smiled.  I was relieved to see she had a sense of humor.  “Take lots of water,” she mothered me, not seeing any bottles on me.

“I know.  Brent and I have decided it’s a two-bottle day.”

I could tell by her raised left eyebrow that she was now perplexed about how I knew her colleague.  But she didn’t say anything.  “And take some electrolytes, too.”

“I know.  About 10 years ago, I had some bad cramps when I failed to heed that advice.  Luckily, it happened near a resort hotel, so I was able to get some help.”

She smiled and also waved goodbye to me.

The Blacketts Ridge Trail

Brent was right.  The Blacketts Ridge trail is not for the faint at heart.  Least of all when the temperature hovers around 100F, like today.  It’s a 6.6 mile “death march,” (as my daughters would probably put it), with a total elevation difference of 3,400 feet.  You start at 2,700 feet (the Sabino Canyon parking lot), and reach the summit at 4,400 feet (see the map).  So up and down it’s 3,400 feet.

In my case, the 3.5-hour trip included an extra half a mile or so through the Sabino Canyon which I tacked on at the end for good measure.  So the round trip total was just over 7 miles.  I also fielded two phone calls during the climb, including a full-fledged media interview.  Who says you cannot mix work and pleasure?  If only I could claim the hike as a business trip, and pay some of my taxes in sweat.  J 

Oops… men don’t sweat.  A girlfriend of mine from the days of sliderules used to always correct me.  “Horses sweat, dear, not men.  Men perspire and ladies glisten,” she would say, sounding triumphant that she belonged to the glistening sex.  Okay, so if only I could pay my taxes in perspiration.  Or at least - inspiration?  I know I could glisten till hell froze over and the IRS would still not listen.

While talking on the phone, and during my ascent, I frequently stopped to enjoy the scenery and take pictures.  Such as of that pretty collar lizard. 


Or of the blooming barrel cactus.  This guy, and many of his brethren around here, must be confusing August with April and mistaking the monsoon season for spring rain.


But my favorite scene was this one…


I named it Saguaro Love.  Look at how Mrs. Saguaro put her arm around Mr. Saguaro’s shoulder, and is stroking him gently - for all of Tucsonans to see (city in the background).

And then there was “the big one that got away.”  Every story has to have one of those.  Half a mile or so below the Blacketts Ridge summit, a deer and a doe crossed my trail, not more than 50 yards ahead of me.  Both were fully grown and looked beautifully groomed.  I rushed to get my camera out of the case, but they were quicker.  They galloped down the southern slope of the mountain.  They did not seem in any particular hurry, as if going out for an afternoon stroll.


The scariest moment on the whole hike was actually provided by yours truly.  As I stood up on a big rock to take this picture showing the vertical drop of about 1,700 feet straight down to the bottom of the Sabino Canyon, I suddenly felt a case of mild vertigo.  As I swayed a little, my left foot slipped of the rock.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to lean back, rather than forward, where 1,700 feet of air and rocks awaited me.  So I ended up stumbling off the rock in slow motion. 

As I looked back from the trail, I wished there was someone there to take a picture of me, standing on that cliff, with nothing but air in front me. 

By the way, that tiny speck at the bottom of the canyon to which the red arrow points is a Forest Service trolley bus!  Which should give you an idea what a birdseye view of 1,700 feet looks like.


And now, here are the four corners of the world, as seen from the Blacketts Ridge summit:


TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW (it’s late I am off to bed now)…

The Epilogue

Dung Beatles, Rattlesnakes and a Single Dad of Four




The End


For a photo essay from this writer’s post-911 road trip through 10 western states, including two Canadian provinces, click here (at our web site). 

For other Travel Vignettes from around the world, click here.

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