Coyotes, Cacti, and Church: Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We spent a warm and sunny week in Arizona in early November, relishing the last days of wearing shorts and the last nights of sitting outside under the stars reading without shivering and diving into our sleeping bags as soon as the sun went down.  We spent the first couple of nights at a very nice (and very inexpensive) hotel in Phoenix while we ran errands.  We continued south to Tuscon, and spent the rest of our week camping in Tuscon Mountain Park just west of the city.

Our first night of camping was less than ideal.  I wouldn’t call it our worst night of camping (that was the night of the never-ending trains just south of Bellingham, Washington), but it was a close second.  The setting was picturesque, but our neighbors were less than ideal.  To one side of us was a couple that believed they could only communicate by shouting.  Their shouts continued into the night and were only drowned out by the deafening sounds of a concert celebrating the Day of the Dead.  It seemed like we were off in the wilderness when we set up camp.  We weren’t.  Though it was out of sight, our tent was not too far from an old-west theme park, complete with live (and loud) entertainment.  When the music finally stopped a couple of hours past midnight, we thought we could finally catch a few zzzzs before daybreak.  Hahaha!  Shortly after the music stopped, our tent was illuminated by headlights from the cars of concert-goers as they parked, partied, and then crashed for the night in the site on the other side of us.  Alan awoke to one man asleep on the ground, whiskey bottle to one side, Budweiser cans on the other side.  Watching them awake one-by-one made me so happy that it has been a very long while since I’ve drunk enough to earn a morning hangover.

The second, third, and fourth nights were better, but no less interesting.  Once all of our neighbors cleared out, new ones moved in.  Replacing the drunk and passed out concertgoers was an older man and his dog.  They had no car, no bike, and did not appear to have a backpack.  They never left the site for the three remaining days we were there, and we’re still not sure how they arrived.  There was a bit of muttering and full-on conversations with the dog, but things got interesting at the first sounds of the coyotes.  One coyote started, then a second, a sixth, and a twenty-sixth.  And then the older man joined in, howling right along with the coyotes for a few minutes until they all quieted down.  Alan and I looked at each other, whispering that we were in for a long night.  Though our human neighbors changed, one thing that did not change was the very regular sounds of coyotes near (sometimes very near) and far.  Luckily for us, our neighbor did not choose to join in every chorus of the canines.  Phew!  Sleep was much better during the rest of our stay.

When we weren’t listening to neighbors, concerts, or coyotes, we were out enjoying the desert and the tree-like cacti that dotted the landscape.  We went to both the western and eastern sections of Saguaro National Park (pronounced Sawaro) and both prefered the landscapes and the hiking trails of the western half of the park.  The eastern portion is more easily accessible from the city, which also means that large portions of it have wide views of the urban area.  The western portion is set further off from the city and gives you the feel of being in a more isolated locale.  Regardless, the cacti, and particularly the Saguaro, were fascinating.

Saguaro Cactus, Arizona

Saguaro Cactus, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

I always thought of cacti as something apart from other plants, but as I get to know cacti better during this trip, I begin to see the many similarities.  Saguaros are very much like a tree, from their height and girth to their woody stems.  The decaying Saguaro allowed us to see the similarities most closely.

We spent our time hiking, taking photographs, and helping Van earn his fourth Junior Ranger badge.

Hiking in Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Hiking in Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In between our forays into the desert, we spent a morning at the International Wildlife Museum, run by Safari Club International.  As one might expect, there were many taxidermied animals – big game and small game – as well as a stunning collection of butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects.  The exhibits were very well done and, except for a cavernous trophy room (which was interesting and educational in its own right), were focused on wildlife conservation.  They even had a display on famous hunter/conservationists, including none other than Aldo Leopold, and a quote from an author and individual I greatly admire, Wendell Berry.

Though we spent most of our time in the Tuscon area exploring its natural wonders, we did make time for a few man-made wonders.  The highlight was our visit to Mission San Xavier del Back, which was constructed in the late 1700s.  It’s hard to overstate the magnificence of the bright white walls against the deep, blue, afternoon sky.

But most of all, our week in Arizona will bring back memories of late night howls and the tree like cacti recoiling from any attempt at an embrace.

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Lessons Learned v.5

It’s getting colder, and our thoughts turn from where to travel next to where we’d like to live.  As we run through the possibilities and all of the pros and cons, I’m getting a much better sense of my priorities.  Between that, and the thoughts that come as we approach a transition in our life on the road, the lessons are coming hard and fast.  Here’s my latest installment of lessons learned.

1. I do not want to live in a home that is part of a Homeowner’s Association.  In certain areas, this eliminates large portions of housing.  So be it.  I don’t want anyone telling me I must have a two car garage, can’t hang my laundry out, can’t paint my house pink and purple, can’t have chickens or bees or goats or llamas or pet tigers (ok, maybe it’s ok if they tell me I can’t have a pet tiger).  Nor do I want my neighbors to be so constrained.  I understand that this opens me up to more “risk” of my neighbors opening a junkyard next door.  Oh well.  Homeowner’s Associations are great for some people, just not me.  I’m glad I’m fully aware of this before buying a house in an HOA.

2. It is easy to travel far and wide and still only associate with a certain type of people, eat in certain types of restaurants, and stay in certain types of places.  I think it is more important to travel half an hour away to a place with people very unlike you and your cohorts than to travel halfway around the world to associate with similar types in a slightly different cultural context.  Some of the worldliest people never hop onto a plane, but instead fully immerse themselves in all the worlds around them.  After traveling to so many places but never staying in one place for very long on this journey, I’m looking forward to getting to know a new place in depth.  And not just the parts of that place that immediately appeal to me, but all the parts I may first overlook or turn away from.

3. Fall feels like home.  Fall is my favorite season.  Fall is Alan’s favorite season.  What is the one season we missed this year?  Fall.  In order to attempt to outrun cold nights in the tent, we missed this most magical and cozy of seasons.  I hope that this is the very last fall we ever miss.  I’m not sure winter will feel the same without having been welcomed by the golden hues and smokey, sweet, crisp air of autumn.

4. When the choice is more land or more house, I will (almost) always choose more land.  I don’t need a big house, but I want to be able to see lots of green from my window.  I also don’t need a lot of land, but nine times out of ten, more land will satisfy me better than more house.  For me, a house is really just a place to take a break from the sun, the wind, the rain, and the snow.  Oh, and a place to curl up in front of a fire with a good book.  Can’t forget that!

5. You can’t have it all.  Certainly not at once.  This is fine, but it’s a myth that gets perpetuated for young people, especially young women.  When we finally realize that we can’t have it all (if we ever believed that to begin with), the truth can sting a bit.  I already knew this, but when you begin to prioritize all your goals, it crystallizes this truth in a new way.

6. Having a place that feels like home is almost as important as having a place to call home.  I’ve had many places to call home in my life, but only some of them actually felt like home.  I spent the past two years in a very nice town home in the suburbs.  It was clean, safe, and nice, but it never actually felt like home.  I realize that I put off so many things that I would have done had the place felt like home.  I never felt invested in the place, and in turn, it only served as a place to live and not a true home.  Besides becoming invested in any place I live in the future, I’d also like to prioritize finding a place that feels like home.

7. It’s hard to go wrong with green chile sauce in New Mexico.  Not much I can add to this, except for the fact that I am loving New Mexico, its people, and its delicious (and inexpensive) food.

8. I scare a lot less quickly than I did eight short months ago.  There are so many ways I could illustrate this, but I’ll stick with one.  Coyotes.  I like coyotes.  They’ve never scared me and I’ve found their cries hauntingly beautiful.  But that didn’t stop me from scrambling out of my tent in Kentucky when they were making a kill very near by.  At that point, we still had our van, which is where the three of us spent the rest of that night.  Fast forward about seven months, and we’ve heard numerous coyotes, but none as close or as constant as when we were camping in Tucson Mountain Park.  There were dozens in the area around us, some near by, some far.  But even when they were howling mere feet from our tent (and even when our semi-crazy camping neighbor joined in with the coyote howls), I felt warm and secure in our tent and enjoyed the evening serenades.  I’ve come a long way, baby!