Saddlebags, Butts, Buttes and Fun Among the Saguaro: Running Tucson


By Gordon Cherr


Several years ago I had the chance to visit Arizona. It was too hot to run and I did not want the beckoning desert to become my personal Raid Gauloise, nor did I care to die of heatsroke, so most time was spent long hiking in the Superstition Mountains and short hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The Arizona we saw was breathtaking, Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale notwithstanding, and when a late January-early February opportunity came knocking, I seized it without a moment’s hesitation.

Travel Tip No. 1: Why are there birds inside of airport terminals? I noticed this in Atlanta, while in Hartsfield, and again at Tucson International. Little sparrows who have seemingly fully adapted to year round, indoor living. Maybe they can’t find their way out once they come in. More likely they are thriving on scrap food leftovers which sloppy travelers drop on the floor, mostly scones from Starbucks, and they have no intention of voluntarily quitting the premises.

I have an uneasy truce with these little fellows. It began several years ago when I saw them flying over the food court at the Governor’s Square Mall. I couldn’t help but think of little white and green “bird condiments” being dropped from on high, onto the plates of unsuspecting patrons. You know, a little something extra for the vegetable lo mein or the personal sized pan pizza. Heck, just a few weeks ago I was having a peaceful lunch outside at Andrews on Adams Street, sitting under one of those huge ancient magnolias, when a hot gusher hit me on the right shoulder. I looked up and saw these two little pigeon tushies directly overhead. I imagined that this is what it must have looked like to Tippy Hendron while filming Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, except that this was real life and there was hot bird excrement on my shoulder. Now, this would be noticeable enough if it hit your pastrami sandwich, where green and white is out of the color combination, but if you are eating, say, noodles alfredo, you might be in big trouble. Anyway, be watchful for the birds when you eat airport food these days.

I didn’t have a clue about where to run in Tucson, but was able to email some runners who live in the area and they had no shortage of excellent suggestions for trail running. As for Tucson proper, forget it. Tucson has set the bar for ugly, unrestrained urban sprawl. Now, my overall impression of Tucson is that it has more Jack In The Box Restaurants per capita than anywhere else on earth, followed closely by Subways. There is heavy traffic 24/7 and you just cannot get anywhere quickly. This was reiterated by my email buddies who also gave me the three basic rules of thumb for desert running: Hump up constantly, bring as much fluid as you can carry, and scan the trails closely at all times for rattlesnakes.

Travel Tip No. 2: When staying in Tucson, do not stay at the Inn Suites, City Center. The bathtub spigots run all of the time and no one has the plumbing acumen to fix the damn thing. The bathtub will not drain except very slowly, so when you shower, it may reach your knees or, if you are a female, even over flow the tub. There are railroad tracks nearby and the trains blow their whistles constantly from about 2 AM until sunrise. In fact, I can tell you that they average about 21 blasts over a three to four minute period of time with no one blast being less than 5-6 seconds. Truck drivers who stay there overnight like to meet out in the parking lot, drink, and spend most of the night throwing their empty beer cans and bottles into a metal trash can, and they all complain about their ex-wives.

My first run in Tucson was in the Saguaro National Park, east of town. The instructions were simple, just take Broadway Boulevard east until it dead ends in the desert. There will be signs for trails there. As one goes further and further east, the road, previously flat, begins to undulate and roll. There are many signs warning you to stay out of the low places if there is rain, you may be washed away. The undulations become more and more pronounced as you travel further east.

Travel Tip No. 3: The speed limit on Broadway Boulevard is 45 mph. However, if you rent a Ford Explorer and drive it over these little hills at about 75 mph, you can actually get both front wheels to simultaneously leave the ground. I was going to try for all four, but then realized that it was a Ford Explorer that I was driving, the old “Roll Over Special”, and I didn’t bother to check to see if it had Firestone tires.

Eventually though I did reach the end of the road and found the trails as advertised. I was east of town, in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. There was a trail map of sorts but with so many trails that the whole thing resembled a plate of spaghetti. This also looked like a swell place to get lost, seriously lost forever, find your bleached bones in a few years lost, and this was reinforced as I started the run. About 200 yards up the trailhead was a metal stand with a heavy metal box perched atop it. Open the box and sign in. Name, address, date, time in, time out, and a big line for “next of kin/emergency contact”. And one question: “Did you bring water”.

Not knowing the territory I followed my usual rule of thumb: Bear right (or left) all of the time, go out and come back the opposite way. This minimizes (but does not eliminate) the possibility of getting lost. This run started fairly flat but began to work its way into the foothills. The trail was narrow and very soft under foot. The prickly pear cactus growing on either side of the trail has vicious spikes and likes to lean towards the trail and unwary knees and shins. The ocotillo and other cactus appear to like to grow to about groin height. It pays to be attentive. It is painful when your are inattentive. The huge saguaro stand further back, like silent sentinels.

There is something immediately spiritual about desert running. It is so quiet, the landscape is stark and barren to the uninitiated. It is actually a highly specialized, diverse and fragile ecosystem. But the silence is overwhelming, perhaps deafening. Except on this day with the wind that was gusting in from the west. The trail climbed and climbed, twisted this way and that, and it was all too easy to lose your way because there is so much space between the cactus, that it is easy to imagine the trail going almost anywhere you want it to go. At some point after about 30 minutes I crested a high bluff, and stopped to look and take a drink. The Rincon Mountains were to my left. Behind me were the Santa Catalina Mountains and to my right, the Tucson Mountains. The air was so crisp and clear, the mountains so stark looking, like they were carved from glass or steel. The further mountains were bathed in a pink hue, or maybe it was blue, or maybe it was gray, or purple or even red, maybe it was all of these things at once, for it was ever-changing. This was surely the enchanted land of Carlos Castenada and I could feel the goosebumps grow on the back of my neck. A calm but dangerous place to be during the day, a mystical and doubtlessly scary place for the uninitiated to be at night, but I did not want to find out about that as I watched the sun begin to dip to the west.

It was time to retrace my steps and follow the footprints from where they came. The wind was picking up and I was hot when the sun was out, and cold when it sneaked behind a cloud. I turned to leave and was stunned to see a man approach me, literally from out of nowhere. A weather-beaten man with a leathery face, sun bleached blond hair, carrying a dirty khaki colored rucksack over his right shoulder, He could have been 25 or 55 for all I could tell. There was a purpose to his walk and he skimmed gracefully over the sand as he walked, with nary a sound. I said “hello”, he walked past me like I did not exist. I gave in to an overwhelming urge to get out of there, and fast!

And one more thing. I was irrationally nervous for the remainder of this run and found myself periodically looking over my shoulder, this man or this man-spirit had spooked me good. But about 15 minutes from the end of this run there was the rustle of large powerful wings behind me and a raptor, from his coloration perhaps a peregrine falcon, flew so close past the left side of my head that I could feel the powerful wind from his wingbeats. He flew past me, then steeply banked and made a ninety degree turn to the left and disappeared into the brush. But not before turning his head and looking me right in the eye. Now eagles and other hawks have always been a powerful totem for me, a protector of me and my family, and the bearer of good tidings. This was not a coincidental meeting or encounter. A great calmness settled over me.

I swear this all to be true.

Travel Tip No. 4: When you run through the desert cactus and have the good fortune to not be impaled, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. When I got back to the room I was wiping sand off the bottom of my trail shoes and found that a goodly sized thorn actually was stuck in the sole of my shoe. Fortunately it had not penetrated. Unfortunately, I found it with my right thumb and it had no trouble whatsoever penetrating human flesh.

The next day’s run was in the in the Saguaro National Park, 6 miles to Douglas Springs and return on a well established mountain trail, much more challenging than the day before. I decided to give it about 90 minutes each way but to be flexible depending upon what conditions presented themselves.

Travel Tip No. 5: When someone who lives in the mountains tells you that a trail is “runable”, don’t believe it.

This day was beautiful and there was not a cloud in the sky. The trail started a gentle climb to the now familiar metal sign-in box. After that it was a series of switchbacks and rocks and rock hewn steps and boulders and after about 20 minutes of “running” my thighs were simply on fire and I was reduced to a power hike, then to a hike, and then to a hobble. Actually, every time I walked a sufficient distance there almost magically appeared a runable stretch of maybe 300-400 yard that made me want to continue on. I really didn’t care to walk but you have to take what the mountain gives you and it is in your best interests to accept your fate gracefully. It was on one of these uphill hikes that I met Chris and Mary from Lake Tahoe, who had come to Tucson to get out from under all of the snow which had fallen in the Sierra Nevadas. Just by chance I was wearing a Wakulla Springs Ultra shirt and he was wearing a Western States 100 shirt and when we started past each other we read the other’s shirt and naturally stopped to compare notes and ultra experiences. As it turned out we had nothing in common but our running (and that was plenty), and we sat and chatted in the middle of the trail like old friends for about 15 minutes, trading energy gels and bars. Soon it was time to push ahead.

The first mile had taken me 16 minutes and by mile marker 3, I was close to 47 minutes. I saw a sign for Bridal Wreath Falls, and Mary had mentioned that there was a beautiful waterfall up ahead, so I took that as a sign to go that way instead of pressing ahead to Douglas Springs. The trail to the waterfall was runable and the scene was like every old cowboy movie I had ever seen. With some water the desert abounded in blooms, barrel cactus with yellow flowers, purple cactus, ocotillo, and even some red wild flowers, willow and all manner of little trees were everywhere. Previously silent and hiding, there were birds flitting about, calling loudly to each other. You can’t appreciate the landscape when you are running and walking uphill with your eyes glued to a steep pathway, but here I walked the stream to the waterfall and surveyed it all. There were huge rocky sandstone outcroppings overhead, of all shapes and sizes. Some the size of houses, some larger. I sat down on a huge smooth boulder the size of a VW, in the middle of the stream.

I had gotten cold while walking, but here the rocks were warm from the sun’s rays, so I dumped my waterbelt, my shirt and eventually the rest of my clothes and laid down, looking up into the sky. Directly above me were three or four flat rocks, each the size and configuration of a flattened Buick, each one seemingly carefully stacked on top of the other. I wondered for how many eons those huge rocks had stayed like that, being shaped by the wind and rain. I don’t know how long I laid there, entranced by the scene, until a covey of quail emerged on the other side of the stream to drink. Not good I thought…if there are quail there are foxes and raccoons and coyotes and other predatory animals. HEY, THERE COULD BE MOUNTAIN LIONS AROUND HERE! So much for Shangri-La.

I ran back to the main trail and started my climb back down to the valley floor. Climbing down a steep and rugged trail is totally different from climbing up. You have control coming up, going down requires more skill and patience, and to tell the truth, I am afraid of heights. The scene on the way down was frightening for me. I mean, one slip on the side of this mountain and the next bounce was probably 500 feet below. Well, you’d probably smash your head on some rocks before you hit bottom, so the concussion would kill you first, at least that was a bright spot to consider. If you didn’t trip over something, the sandstone gravel was slippery and always loose.

I was sort of slip sliding my way down when I came around a sharp curve. An unbelievable scene flashed before me. I could see across the entire valley to the next mountain range, I’ll guess 25 miles away. The mountains looked like Indian teepees and animals and anything else you could conjure up in your mind. The colors could not be described; grays, blues, pinks, purples, reds, oranges overlapping one another. But it was the scale of the scene that was so incredibly magnificent, I had to sit down. I could feel tears inexplicably welling up in my eyes and beginning to cascade down my cheeks. We are really so small and a part of something so much greater. I sat there a very long time until it got so cold that I had to move on. I must never forget that feeling. I never will. People are nothing save minute blips in time, someday extinct. Sadly, the earth’s remaining inhabitants will be better off for it.

Travel Tip No. 6: I was in the Tucson airport, people watching and trying to make sense out of the more current fashions. Young women wearing tight, hip hugging pants and tight, short blouses. What’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that most of today’s voluptuous young women are just too fat for that get up. The pants are too tight and make them look like they have hippy saddlebags bigger than those on the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. They try to hide this or distract your attention by getting intricate tattoos in the small of their backs but it doesn’t work. I mean, one got up in front of me at the airport this morning and on top of the saddlebags, her slacks hung so low on her hips that she gave everyone in the place a shot of the crack of her butt. Now, I am really not complaining, but if she is not a plumber or electrician, then she needs to keep that thing under wraps while in public. Otherwise, it is OK.

I decided to make my last day in Tucson special and actually complete a 10 mile run. It was suggested that I run from the trailhead on Hohokum Road in the Saguaro National Park to the top of Wesson Peak. The climb was 4687 feet in 5 miles. The day was beautiful and cool, cloudless and wonderful. For the first 3 miles. This climb started in a box canyon but after a series of switchbacks, was a rather steep climb up an exposed saddle ridge. The higher I jogged, then hiked, then walked, the steeper the trail became. Plus the wind, negligible at the bottom of the trail, was furious on the exposed sides of the mountain. Indeed, at some point I reached the top of one ridgeline, and the huge saguaro, which don’t even seem to bend in the wind, were all blown down helter skelter, and I lacked “the strength to persist and the courage to endure” and I decided to turn around and find another place to run, which I later did.

But the climb down was frightening. And slow. And deliberate. And nauseating. When I turned around I was able to see a little white dot far below and I knew it was where I had parked at the trailhead. Someone standing down there was about the size of a speck of flea dung. I was working my way down the trail as fast as I safely could when someone came up from behind and yelled “trail”. I almost fell off the mountain I was so startled. I couldn’t believe that anyone else could be up here given the conditions. But the thing was, that while I was dressed for such a climb with proper shoes and clothes and a hat, and in reasonably good condition, this fellow was wearing dress slacks and a short sleeve Los Angeles Laker golf shirt and worn tennis shoes with dubious traction, and he was just in deplorable condition physically, yet he passed me like I was standing still. I watched him purposely and gracefully climb down the steep mountain trail, vaulting rocks and boulders, a natural athlete comfortable with his body and with himself. He never slowed, he never wavered, never slipped or tripped, never seemed cold or the least bit out of his element. When I reached the trailhead the Buddha was long gone.

Life most clearly is a state of mind.

Travel Tip No. 7: Don’t fly anywhere if you can help it. If you can’t help it, try to avoid Delta Airlines. If you don’t sit with the fat cats up in first class, they won’t even give you a damn soda cracker. Those of us packed in like sheep in the back of the plane did get some sweet revenge when the big butt folks were served a hot meal. The captain yammered something about seatbelts, he said bumpy, he said discontinue beverage service and then those big butts were all wearing their lunches.