North and east of Tucson is a beautiful park/wilderness area called Sabino Canyon. Hiking it was on my short weeklong bucket list. I set off yesterday at 6:20 a.m. to benefit from the cool of the morning. No plan or agenda really, no real time frame except for the ominous blistering heat of the day, projected to top 102 degrees. I borrowed my daughter’s camelback water backpack, took a fig bar, an apple, and some trail mix. 64 ounces of water registered on the bladder of the camelback. Away I went without directions. Hey, Tucson roads are on a grid. How hard could it be to drive east and then north at the right spot? There would be signs, I was sure.
After a twenty minute detour into town and a reverse along a nice golf course community, I finally got the right destination typed in to my phone map app… Sabino Canyon Road. I was about 100 yards from the parking lot when I clicked the route button only to see that I had already arrived. No perceivable loss. I’m on vacation and I have all day to explore… or so I thought. The sun was low but the temperature was already near 80 degrees at 7:15. I parked the Prius in the lot and wandered into the desert following rusted steel and aluminum signs.
Lizards of all types skittered by, some running up high on their toes like water bugs across the blazing sand. Doves cooed all around. The quiet grew palpably. As I was checking in via cell phone with my daughter before she drove to work, I noticed a large, slow lizard crawling across the road. I’d seen one of these before at the museum last year– a gila monster. I snapped some pictures of the 16 inch beaded beauty and left him alone in the shade of some desert shrub. I walked on toward the vortex, a term a fellow hiker gave me as I struggled not to call it the crotch of the canyon.
I thought about rattlesnakes and how I’d just die if one bit me. It’s too late once the venom hits the vein. ( Great line for a goth band, “when the venom hits the vein, my fatal love will crush you like a train”, not a great band. ) The instructor at the Sonoran Desert Museum told us of the terrible outcomes of rattlesnake bites last October, and the terrible price of anti-venom, which is not covered by terrible insurance, I’m sure. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something strike airward, it was not a rattlesnake but a road runner, hopping at bugs and then pecking them. What funny birds they are. He skadoodled off into the scrub to the right. I plodded on, cognizant of the heat and the sun, trying to find a pace that would be productive but not exhaustive. Sand and gravel crunched underfoot. No other sound appeared.
Soon I came to a small pool with fish in it. Odd in the middle of a bone dry place to have a tiny pond with fish. I could see that this pool was part of the larger wash which rushed down the mountain slopes during the monsoon season. I wondered what sort of wildlife visited this water hole at night– wildcats? javelinas? coyotes?
As I continued up the various slopes that confronted me, I came across a yellow sign with a mountain lion’s face on it, warning of recent sightings. I wondered what I’d do if one appeared. I thought of making myself bigger like a bear and charging the cougar, showing him who was the boss. I thought of smashing his snout with a rock. I thought of being slain from behind, my snacks uneaten, my photo album’s last picture of a road runner. Tragic. I determined right then and there I was not going down without a mighty fight worthy of my Facebook newsfeed.
Forward into the wilderness area, the tough trail rose into the high holy ground. No more paved roads or flat paths eight feet wide. Now the trail was rocky, sandy and narrow. It paralleled the canyon riverbed, occasionally crossing over when a sheer cliff rose up on one side. I drank more from memory and out of caution now, knowing dehydration doesn’t let you know of its presence until it’s too late. The water was lukewarm. I wondered about inspiration, expiration, and perspiration… “breathe in, breathe out, breathe through”, the water was breathing through my skin and evaporating into the silence.
I felt the constant strain on my knees and hips, sure to pay the price later but this scenery was worth great sacrifice. The five dollar parking fee felt like chump change as I gloried in the saguaros, the mesquite,and the cliff faces on this path into heaven. I had no idea where I was going, but it felt like a spiritual magnet was pulling me toward that hidden vortex. Like a pilgrim I plodded on in seemingly holy air. God seemed close enough to just chat with like my invisible fellow hiker. “I really like what you’ve done with this place, God. Your endless creativity and sense of humor give me goose bumps on a hot day.” I sat under a mesquite tree to eat my apple. I felt like a rich man as two hummingbirds rested on a branch above me. I savored the texture and taste of that apple and realized that I’d been in savor mode ever since I got on the trail this morning. The fig bar was figulous. The trail mix a banquet of nuts and dried fruits. A king, I felt royally blessed in my spot of shade. I had to keep climbing into the vortex.
The trail, like life, turned and twisted and was never clear for long stretches. That’s a good thing, keeps you engaged. I thought that God had it right to begin with and men came up with level and square and plumb to control the world. But God had it right and this pristine cactus cathedral sings hymns of praise to the Creator in its pipe organ rocks and giant saguaros. My 60 year old frame kept plodding up and over, finally descending into a large pool at the base of Seven Falls. Ahhh, the vortex, the water, life, God pulsed out of this place into ever widening space. My heart beat like a drum in a Navajo rain dance. Thump, thump, thump, as a sunrise smile broke across the vortex of my soul. Ahhh! Life is so good.