116. That was the forecasted high temperature for Tucson for the day we were going to be hiking through the Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park. And, unlike our day in Big Bend, Arizona’s bizarre refusal to go on Daylight Savings Time meant that sunrise was going to be at 5:17 that morning. There was no way we were going to be up and at ‘em to beat the heat by then.
We were actually pleased with ourselves for getting up, grabbing a quick Starbucks breakfast (since breakfast at this JW wasn’t included, even for Marriott Rewards Gold members..Grrrrr), and made it to the King Canyon trail head by 8:00. By then, the temperature was about 100 degrees. And, let me tell you, 100 Sonoran Desert degrees is NOT the same as 100 Chihuahuan Desert degrees. The higher elevation of the Chihuahuan Desert where Big Bend is located makes the heat much more tolerable. There are occasional cool breezes, and being under even a small amount shade makes a big difference. But not here. Not in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The breeze that blows in this desert feels more like you’re standing fully clothed in a sauna with a hair dryer on its hottest setting churning super-heated air straight into your face the entire time. It’s miserable.
But we are Boyds, and just visiting the air-conditioned visitors’ center and calling it a day isn’t what we do. So, there we were, starting a 2.2-mile trail in heat that would keep us inside all day if we were at home in Indiana. We each had water, and Kinley sweetly volunteered to carry the backpack containing the back-up water.
The first part of the trail was an ascent that gave me flashbacks to Carlsbad Caverns minus the dark and the cave-swallow stench and with the addition of sweltering heat. We had to stop every hundred yards or so for me to catch my breath and take a drink. I like to tell myself that the rest of the family needed to stop, too, but I’m definitely the weak link. I am not ashamed.
|Frequent water breaks were a necessity.|
I spent most of the first part of the trail looking down at my feet and the path in front of me, trying not to trip on the stones that made up the old CCC road that we were following for the first mile. We were surrounded by massive saguaro cacti, and we amused ourselves by imagining them as people – the one with the perfect dance hold that we decided would be on DWTS (Dancing With The Saguaros), the ones that looked like twins, the ones that looked like a little family. Josh and Knox also had some fun naming the varieties of cacti that weren’t familiar to us.
|Even Len would give a 10 to this cactus's dance hold.|
We saw several lizards that ran away, tails curled into the air showing stripes that were only visible as they ran. From the trail, we noticed that most of the saguaros had red fruits growing out of their tops bringing vibrant color to the otherwise brown landscape. Many of the prickly saguaros had visible gashes and holes that provided shelter for birds and other creatures. Standing guard along the path like sentinels on a 200-year-long watch, the aged plants rarely looked as regular as cartoonists and old western movies would have us believe. Few of them had one large central shaft and two shorter arms reaching upward on each side; they were as different from each other as we humans are. Saguaros don’t start growing arms until they are about 65 years old in this area of the desert, and the ones with multiple arms were probably about 150 years old. Can you imagine surviving those harsh conditions for so long? God is so creative.
|Typical saguaros were far less common than you'd expect.|
|There really is a lizard in the middle of this picture. I promise.|
Turning onto the Gould Mine Trail, we ended up back at our car by 9:45. A ranger who had noticed our car in the parking lot and was worried about us hiking in the heat walked over carrying a backpack full of Gatorades and protein bars. Kinley was feeling nauseated and overheated, so she and Knox both took the ranger up on the offer of electrolyte-replacing liquid. The ranger wouldn’t accept any payment and assured us that she was just glad we had gotten an early start.
Next we drove to the visitors’ center so that the kids could do the Junior Ranger program, and a special ranger-led program about the harvesting of saguaro fruit was starting. Native peoples still have permission to use the traditional long cross tool made from dried saguaro ribs to collect the fruits within the park, and we got to taste a sample from the small cactus garden just outside the visitors’ center. The fresh pulp was tasteless to me but it had the consistency of poppy seeds. We tried a piece of the fruit that had been sundried next, and it was sweeter.
|A rib from a dead saguaro is used to harvest the fruits.|
|The inside of the fruit is a beautiful pink color.|
|The dried fruits could be found on the ground and were much sweeter.|
Once the kids finished their badge requirements and recited the pledge, we asked a ranger if the trail to the petroglyphs was too long for the current temperature. A white-haired man behind the counter gave us a confused look and said, “It’s just two blocks!” We took that as permission and drove to the Signal Hill Trail. Kinley stayed in the car since she was worried that she’d start feeling icky again, but the rest of us traipsed down a few rock stairs and then up a hill on another trail constructed by the CCC. Thank you, FDR.
|This one made up of concentric circles was my favorite.|
As we passed the sign warning of rattlesnakes, we took care to scan the dusty path leading up to the rocky area where ancient peoples had carved symbols that had survived for untold years in spite of the harsh desert conditions. The images were simple and strange and beautiful, but it was far too hot to do much more than snap a couple of pictures before heading back to the car.
What followed was quite possibly the hottest drive of my life. A friend of a friend recommended Rosa’s for lunch, and it was about 45 minutes from the park through Tucson traffic. The A/C was on full blast the whole time, and yet every part of me, even the backs of my knees continued to sweat profusely as we made the seemingly-never-ending journey toward sustenance and shelter from the sun. We straggled into the restaurant looking so pathetically hot and bedraggled that heads turned to stare. The man behind the counter wasn’t sure whether to seat us or offer us a handout. I’m fairly certain people were talking about us, but we hardly cared.
Cooled and fed, we returned to our hotel for showers and rest. Once the sun set the kids enjoyed the pool, and we joined them in the lazy river. It was still 107 degrees at 9:00, so the cool water was a welcome change. At 10:00 the pool guys were ready to close up shop, and we returned to our room wondering why in the world anyone lives in Tucson in June.