Post #90: Prickles to the left of me, prickles to the right

March 25, 2021

It’s always strange waking up in a hotel after camping for a few days. The luxury of a queen-size bed vs a four-foot wide mattress, the thrum of the air conditioner fan vs the wind rocking the truck, and having space to be able to stand up and slide out of bed vs sitting up and slipping out a passenger door is quite a contrast. One is not better than the other but the difference is startling. Susan’s Marriott status upgraded us to a one-bedroom suite with a full kitchen. The great part about that is that we could re-freeze our ice packs while the food from the cooler stayed cold in the fridge, giving us a few more days in the wild. We could also fill up our five-gallon water jug in the bathtub. Showers, of course, were the highlight and we knew it would be a few days before the next ones. After a “grab bag” breakfast of cereal, yogurt, muffins, and juice, we checked out.

We headed about an hour away to visit with Susan’s brother and his wife, who live northeast of Phoenix in Fountain Hills. It was an unusually chilly day for March in Phoenix, but we dressed appropriately and enjoyed an outdoor visit (Covid—they had not been vaccinated) that included walking around the town’s namesake fountain. We don’t get to see them often enough and it was great to catch up for a few hours.

Fountain Hills' huge namesake fountain

After our visit, we hit the road toward Saguaro National Park, two hours away. We weren’t expecting much, having been camping in the desert around saguaro cacti for days. There’s an eight-mile driving loop in the park, a few short hiking trails, a tiny visitors center, but little else. Though south of Phoenix, the park is at a higher elevation so it was still cool there, and clouds had arrived along with a stiff southwest wind. 

One of the larger saguaros we saw in the park. It was about 30 feet tall
We learned that the holes we see in saguaros are often made by woodpeckers, and can be large enough for owls to move in when the woodpeckers move on

The one-way loop wound around lots of saguaros as well as many other prickly desert plants. The park is really quite beautiful though most of it is remote and inaccessible. Rolling rocky hills with barrel, cholla, saguaro and ocotillo cacti with an occasional mesquite tree extend for miles. It’s not a friendly place but the loop road had pull-offs with signs that described desert life, which is no picnic for the plants and animals that live there.

The massive pile of rocks and cacti is named Javelina Rocks after its frequent inhabitants
Javelina Rocks
A winding so-called trail twists up the rocks, often leads to dead ends, and is jam packed with many varieties of cacti wasiting to attach themselves if we brushed up against them

When we reached Javelina Rocks toward the end of the loop, we got out and walked along vague trails into the granite hills rising from the desert. At one point on the trail we stopped, not quite sure where we were, and suddenly within every direction we found ourselves surrounded by sharp spines of some sort or another waiting to snag shoes, legs, arms and even face. We had to back out slowly, retracing our steps. In a forest or meadow, it’s usually pretty easy to go off-trail and hike up to a peak or a lake or to see a viewpoint. In the Sonoran Desert, going off-trail is mostly impossible because the prickly plants are everywhere and you can feel a little trapped because of it. There’s potential pain lurking around every bush, but fortunately we got out unscathed.

We left the park when it was time to find a campsite for the night, heading south until we turned off onto a dirt road with a couple of nice possibilities that were already taken. We turned onto a much smaller rough dirt road thinking we’d find some hard-to-get-to unoccupied spots. We passed a couple of spots right alongside the dusty road but they weren’t quite what we were looking for so we pushed on.

At one point, a huge gully in the road stopped us but it looked to me like the truck could make it across. Susan wasn’t so sure but I went through it with only a few scraping noises, none sounding very expensive. A hundred yards beyond was a large turn-off that was away from the road (not that anyone was going to come down it) and mostly level. Home for the night. 

We had a quick dinner and took a long evening stroll farther up the road. On the way back, Susan stopped every few feet to take more pictures of the sun casting red flames onto the bottoms of the clouds as it set across distant mountains. 

When we returned to our campsite, the clouds had turned pink. In the far distance as it got dark, we could see the lights of Tucson. The wind was still blowing hard, shaking the truck, and we wondered if we’d be visited by javelinas in the night.

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