This weekend I went to the desert of my imagination. The desert of Southern Arizona with giant Saguaro cacti, which the National Park Service calls the symbol of the West. Saguaro National Park consists of two separate pieces of land on either side of Tucson.
I make a point to share both the good and bad of travel, but I typically leave out the mildly annoying, such as traffic. But the traffic was so bad on the final stretch into Tucson that the sun had almost set by the time I arrived. That left me with only one day in the park, which I was so determined to make meaningful that I willfully avoided acknowledging dark clouds in the sky.
Saturday I headed first to the West side of the park, taking the scenic drive, stopping at the visitor center, and then hiking King Canyon Trail. It was only overcast when I started. The first section was flat, but loose rocks and gravel made my progress slow. It wasn’t until I was heading up into the hills that it became windy and dark. I wanted to hike further, jumping onto a longer trail, but thought the wind might push me over the edge. I was disappointed to turn around at the end of King Canyon Trail, but knew I’d made the right decision when it started raining on my way down.
When I first decided to visit National Parks, I had no idea what I would do in them. I just wanted to see nature and assumed I would figure out what to do once I arrived. I was following an instinct and there was nothing more to it, but when pushed, I'd say I was planning to read and write. Instead I have discovered a new love of hiking, which has left my legs bruised and cramped, my arms and neck sunburned. I do wish to spend more time in nature in quiet reflection, but for now I am enjoying the adventure of hiking longer and more strenuous trails.
After leaving the West side of the park, I stopped at my hotel to grab my jacket, and by the time I made it back to my car, it was raining so hard that I considered just going back inside to take a shower and spend the afternoon with my book (Kafka on the Shore). But I hadn’t had my share of adventure or hiking for the day, so I made the 50 minute drive in the rain to the other side of the park.
The East side of the park is smaller, but there was something I preferred about it. Cactus Forest Loop Drive is a long scenic drive with several stops and overlooks. There is lots of other vegetation in addition to the cacti, and all of it together created a particular feeling in me. (I’m trying not to compare everything to Middle-earth, but it’s a real struggle.) I walked in the rain along Desert Ecology Trail where I learned that pack rats are a real thing. Sorry I didn’t have time to talk to them about minimalism.
Next I stopped at the trailhead for Cactus Forest Trail. It was dry for a while and then started raining. I expected it to remain overcast, but then the sun finally came out, and a rainbow formed over the cacti. Up to that point, I feared this would be my first disappointing trip to a National Park. I had such limited time and then it started raining. In the desert! But after the rainbow faded, the sun remained, and it became a beautiful day. When will I stop being surprised to be surprised.
I hiked past old Lime Kilns and then to Limestone Falls. It is strange to come across signs of life, like a rusted old bucket, from a time before the land was protected. A theme in the Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks is how they’re unique in that they do not change. A park you visit as a child will look almost the same when you return as an adult. For better or worse, almost nothing in life remains the same that way. I like change, but it is interesting to think that when I return to these places I’m writing about, it will always be me who has changed the most.
On my way back to my car, the sun began to set and the desert looked so beautiful that I could not stop taking pictures. I finished the scenic drive, stopping at several overlooks and climbing around Javelina Rocks, collecting a couple needles in my legs in the process. My only regret while leaving the park was that I did not get a chance to hike Rincon Peak. It's always nice to have a reason to return.