Tucson, AZ or Bust (March 2015) "Oh, So Right""Adults 1, Children 0"
Ice on the trail & "pea soup" visibility wouldn't have been much fun.
We left the Grand Canyon as scheduled though we longed to extend our 8 night stay. Yes, the Grand Canyon itself is grand, but the overall camping experience is what really made us want to linger. At 7000’ elevation, we enjoyed for days that high desert-in-the-mountains ambiance that we usually only have for the length of a lunch break at a hike’s turn around point.
There is something about the low growing, thin conifer forests combined with the desert flora undergrowth and the big, blue sky that is especially pleasing in the mountain deserts. Cool to cold nights make for great sleeping conditions and the dry, sunny days make it compelling to be outside. And then of course, there is the nearby ’to die for’ strolling path along the rim of the canyon that’s an added bonus at the Grand Canyon.
But as much as we wanted to remain, we dwelled on the pragmatic side of the snow storm that was due in 24 hours. We wouldn’t even spend a night in Flagstaff like we always do on the way in and out of the Grand Canyon. It’s a slow 75 mile drive through hilly terrain between the 2 destinations, which is enough driving for us given that we always need to do marketing in Flagstaff as well. But this time Bill searched for the first RV park on our route to Tucson that would be down to the 3000’ level—a calculated guess as to the ‘snow-free zone’--which excluded lovely Sedona too. We’d been snowed-in at Sedona once before, so knew it was vulnerable.
Prudence won out, but we did hesitate about leaving the Grand Canyon up until we made our exit. Weeks before arriving, Bill had fantasized about how wonderful it would be if it snowed while we were there. We’d have the best of both worlds: we’d be able to use our cross-country skis and snowshoes without having driven in the snow. But there is nothing like actually being in a place to challenge one’s idyllic image of it.
It was hard to leave this behind.
Looking around, we realized that the Grand Canyon was not a snow sport-friendly place and that all the inviting terrain for our play would undoubtedly be plowed immediately for vehicles and pedestrians. The many walkways would be sheared of their snowy coats and the high desert forests that they ringed would be impassable due to vegetation. And then there were the images of morning ice and afternoon slush. If it was windy, we wouldn’t spend many hours a day outdoors and in addition, we’d have to share our small space with a pile of damp clothes. Indeed, the child within each of us wanted to stay and the adult within us said “It’s time to go!”
We stopped at the new REI store in Flagstaff on our way out of the mountains and the clerk there laughed off the threat of snow as had done a clerk in the Grand Canyon. But the heavy, wet, snow hit overnight and the streets in Flagstaff were a mess the next morning whereas we awoke to steady rain. We had limited success in tracking the effects of the storm but the schools in Flagstaff were closed one or more days over the next 2 weeks and the visitors center at the Grand Canyon was closed part of the time as well.
“Pea soup” was the park service’s description of the visibility when Bill checked the conditions one day. We kept watching and waiting for the moment when we could make our return, but it would be at least 2 weeks after our departure from the Park before the relentless series of storms stopped dumping snow on it and the access roads.Right For The Wrong Reason
Lying in bed at Catalina State Park ten days after we left the Grand Canyon, when the folks there were getting hit by yet another snow storm, I realized how truly lucky we were to have left the Grand Canyon when we did. Once we arrived in Tucson, we noticed several small cracks in our domed bathroom skylight. We both made note that something would eventually have to be done about them but we each choose to ignore the matter. And then it rained.
Was it temperature change or coincidence that quickly transformed one of the hairline cracks into a prominent gap that let rain into our bathroom? Fortunately, our camper has a “wet bath” that is designed to be soaked while showering, but a water leak in the ceiling/roof is never a good thing. Dealing with the leak over the next several days was an exercise in frustration that finally ended in a temporary fix with a substandard product and a scheduled stop for a replacement skylight on the trip home in May.
Bill arriving at the top of Mt. Wrightson with our new poles in hand.
The crisis was over but that night it hit me: what if we’d been snow and ice-bound in the Grand Canyon Trailer Village for the last 10 days with water dripping in through the gap in our skylight? The configuration of the skylight made it all but impossible to contain the water from the inside--it really needed at least a patch from the outside made under dry conditions. And even in Tucson, we were told it would take 2 weeks to receive a new skylight.
Sitting out the Grand Canyon’s snow storms in Tucson had delivered what we had expected, which was great hiking in good weather, and unexpectedly, it literally did damage control from the aging skylight. We’d have been happier in Tucson without the rain day and the several freezing nights but the conditions did force us to confront a new maintenance issue under next to ideal conditions.Trekking Poles
At the end of our 2 month stay in Palm Springs, we’d decided to take on hiking with trekking poles as a sub-sport, a variant on hiking, to add a little challenge and novelty to our outings. While in the Grand Canyon, we pulled out our single pair of clunky, telescoping aluminum poles to directly experience the pro’s and con’s of various pole features in the field while we window-shopped for new poles online. We were planning to buy spiffy new poles that were lighter weight and more compact than ours but thought it foolish not to revisit the matter with what we had.
About once an hour while hiking in the Grand Canyon we’d pass-off the pair of poles to the other person, which turned out to be very wise. The poles were heavy enough that we both felt some aches in our shoulders after a full day of hiking with them and knew it would have been worse had one of us used them all day. Bill also wanted to go easy on his healing thumb joints that received some pressure from the poles.
We were so excited about the prospect of regularly using trekking poles after experimenting with our old pair while in the Grand Canyon that Bill proposed buying a single, finer pair in Flagstaff on our way to Tucson. He remembered that we both took some bad spills on the ball bearing-like granite grit on the trails there and thought that we’d be bandaging fewer wounds during our stay if we each had a pair of poles.
Descending Mt. Wrightson: it was Barb's turn to use the new poles.
The plan was to stop first in Flagstaff and if the REI there didn’t stock what we wanted that we’d stop at the 2 REI’s in Tucson. But Flagstaff had a pair of our selected poles in the back room and inexplicably, they were marked down by $25. That more than covered the sales tax we wouldn’t have paid if we waited to shop in Oregon, which sweetened the impulsive decision.
The footing conditions on the big hikes we had done in Tucson last year were harder than most, which would provide an excellent side-by-side comparison of the 2 different pole options. The rolling granite grit; the starting elevation of over 3000’ that always puts us in the short-of-breath experience once we hit 5000’; the ‘high stepping’ over and around the many rocks; and the ducking under and climbing over fallen trees makes hiking in Tucson slow going. We knew the many obstacles would highlight the pro’s and con’s of hiking with a pair of poles and expected it to make us eager to have a second pair of the ultra-lightweight design.Italiano in Tucson!Starting Over
While in Palm Springs, I treated myself to Costco's budget-priced Italian language DVD set. The brain fog from a GI medication I’d been taking for months was starting to lift and I longed to stimulate those woozy cells with a fun and productive challenge. And challenging it was because my Italian skills that had slowly developed for years while we traveled had melted away.
It had been the combination of restricting our European travels to 3 months beginning in 2011 and the resulting decision to pre-book all of our stays that meant I suddenly hardly spoke any Italian. Being high-season-only travelers made pre-booking a necessity, which eliminated the nightly recitation of “Do you have a room for the night for 2?; Do you have a space indoors for our 2 bikes? How much is it?” And going gluten-free and then low-carb in 2014 eliminated the daily shopping at the bakeries that had also required a script and and ensuing dialogue.
Catapulting Us To The Next Level
Mt Wrightson's peak's great 360° panorama drew a crowd.
Listening to the DVDs while we exercised each morning our last few weeks in the Palm Springs RV park's club house got the ball rolling and began correcting the pronunciation errors that had resulted from our Italian being self-taught with a dictionary. But once in Tucson, where our still-slow internet connection was better than in the Grand Canyon, Bill began streaming an Italian radio station. He had recently snapped-up a deal from Verizon that finally gave us some bandwidth to spare and he had decided that this was how we were going to spend some of it.
Suddenly our heads were spinning from the struggle to catch a familiar word here and there during soccer games, traffic reports, the weather, interviews, and the news. Regrettably, I’m an obligatory visual learner and an abysmal auditory learner, but my rusty accomplishments with Italian were good enough that I could convert a few of the spoken words into visual images, which then lead me to the dictionary. Bill was then forced to immediately buy us better electronic dictionaries to meet the demands of everyday Italian, not just the carefully composed tourist talk of our past.
We listened to Italian radio for 4-5 hours each day the first week while we did our exercises in the camper and prepared breakfast and lunch. It slowed down the completion of our morning chores by more than an hour but we reveled in the fun. We’d stop everything when we heard the tones announcing the carefully spoken time each thirty minutes, which was great practice with numbers. And when we’d catch what seemed to be an important word that we thought we could spell, we’d click away in our new electronic dictionary to search for it. The audio feature on the dictionary helped confirm the word identification and took our pronunciation to a new level.
There were only a few flowers to be seen on the Tucson area trails in early March.
Day by day I could feel the improvement in my listening ability. Each day I was able to better isolate individual words and to recognize more words. It took days to even recognize the weather report because it was rapid-fire and primarily used a different set of weather words than we had learned. But we increasingly were able to pick-out words in every segment though we rarely determined the subject of the news stories.
About Day 5 into our radio listening extravaganza, Bill identified enough words to know that there was a crisis in our beloved Selva di Val Gardena in the Italian Dolomites. Searching Italian language websites online, I finally confirmed what we suspected: 200 skiers were trapped in 20-person lift cars. No one was hurt but plenty were scared while awaiting individual helicopter rescue after a single tree was blown onto the lift cable. We simultaneously wrote down a string of new words, listened to recognize them when the story was repeated on the radio several more times, and fretted about our favorite hostess who was likely to lose a lot of business the last month of the ski season because of the damage to this center-of-town lift.
At the end of our first week of listening when the Saturday morning soccer coverage began, we were flabbergasted at the progress we’d made in so few days. During a few of our very best moments, we’d recognized nearly half the words in a burst of game commentary. On this Saturday, we effortless culled most of the proper names of many of the players and teams that previously had been a huge distraction, increasing our focus on the content. But the speech was so fast that our overall comprehension was still very poor. The result of our intent listening was primarily a string of disconnected words, though we’d occasionally come up with “A player has been side-lined with an injury” or “Oh, somebody got a yellow card.” Nonetheless, clearly the intense week of listening had catapulted our learning to a new level.
I would have given up in tears had we used the radio to begin our Italian studies, but it was a highly effective tool at our current position on the learning curve. Though the radio was too challenging for comprehension, it was exquisite for reinforcing pronunciation and pacing. We’d known that we needed to make our pronunciation snappier but we were at a loss as to where to tighten it up. Our conscious brains were still hesitant about speaking but we were both perfectly clear that some part deep in our brains was getting it and it would eventually be expressed. I even began having images of myself rattling off Italian just like I was hearing it. I can’t believe that that will ever happen, but it was a welcome shift in self-image that I happily embraced.
Picnicking atop Mt. Kimball via Tucson's Finger Rock Trail.
It was tempting to pull out the ol’ ear buds and listen to even more Italian on the Tucson trails but I resisted. I feel it’s a little rude to shut out the world like that on hiking trails. But in addition, I’ve always thought that people were positively mad to render themselves hard of hearing in rattlesnake country. I was reassured by 1 Tucson hiker that it “Is too early,” which I knew was the conventional wisdom, but I’d also been warned 2 days earlier by a mountain biker that there was a rattling snake just off the trail minutes ahead of me. So, the earbuds stayed at home and I challenged myself to practice speaking aloud and to conjugate a few verbs while I hiked alone one day.Trip Planning
Coincident with listening to Italian radio for hours every day, Bill began his European trip planning in earnest, which soon had me wondering where I was. For an instant here and there while listening to Italian radio and discussing European lodging, I’d be confused: US or Europe? Already suffering from season confusion, I didn’t need any more help being disoriented. And it was too funny one day while in the US SW listening to Italian radio that we heard a song about “Portland town” and the “Rocky Butte County Jail.”
And, without even having left the ground, we were experiencing the highs and lows of international travel with Bill’s trip planning. Undecided about wrapping our itinerary for 1 of our 3 months in Europe around the Ortisei mountain run a second time, Bill discovered that it was a non-starter. Inexplicably, the local tourism board had moved the run date from the expected July 12 to June 7.
We approached Window Rock from Ventana Canyon.
To participate in the run, we’d need to fly to Europe in mid-May and go directly to the mountains to altitude acclimate, which would put 1/3 of our allowed 90 days in the EU squarely in the “non-season.” Ski season ends in early April there and low season for the summer begins the last few days in June, so most of the facilities in the mountains would be firmly shut. It snowed on the course days before the July 2014 event and it likely would be cold and nasty the first week in June.
Training a year for the 2014 mountain run event had catapulted our fitness to a new level and we’d inadvertently initiated an even more intense regime over the winter of 2014/15. Run or no run, we’d carry-on like we were doing the event for the considerable pay-offs we were still reaping.
The change that did have us cheering was in the Euro/dollar exchange rate. In recent years we’d suffered through a high of $1.35/E but while making bookings in 2015, the rate plummeted to $1.05/E. Bill snapped up 1 week stays at 2 different lodging establishments in the mountains that we’d passed by last year because they were just too expensive with the extra burden of the unfavorable exchange rate.
One catch was especially sweet: it was a new hotel at a mountain pass, the pass we bussed to several times last summer to read and stroll for hours to aid in our acclimation for the mountain run. We had a grand time hanging out at a pass that we’d biked over many times and were delighted to envision living there for a week this summer. No markets and no kitchen would make ketogenic meal planning an adventure in itself, but we were dancing for joy in anticipation of life at the pass.Peak Baggers
In the fall of 2011 while on Mt Lassen in northern California, we did our best to repel the derisive label of “peak bagger” that was hurled at us from hikers reclining on the ground near the trail. They were critical of our hiking speed that clearly was in conflict with their “smell the roses” approach.
In reality, we’d spent too much time smelling the roses and it was our very, very late start that spurred us to rush on to the low peak to avoid descending in the dark. But by March of 2015 as we anticipated hiking to the top of Tucson’s 9400’ Mt Wrightson from Madera Canyon, I decided that we had earned the label of “peak bagger," whether it was viewed as good or bad.
Coming down from bagging "The Window," the traditional destination near the peak.
While in Palm Springs over the winter of 2013-14, we’d settled on speed hiking up the trail towards the tram 3 times in 2 months as sufficient for our mountain run training program while there. This year our new RV park neighbor, Monte, was keen on doing weekly training hikes to the 4,000’ level. We gulped and ramped it up even though most of our hikes in the prior 5 months had topped out in the 1500-2000’ range.
After 2 months of weekly big-gain hikes, we were loathe to give up the hard-won fitness level. Last year our goal had been to do as many 4,000+ hikes as possible but this year, instead of it being a handful of hikes, 4000 footers had become a part of our weekly diet. We weren’t just trying, we were doing it for months in a row. Of course, it would come to an end at some point, but in the meantime I decided I’d earned the right to call myself a peak bagger even though our peaks were only in the 8,000-10,000’ range.
For me, acknowledging myself to myself as a peak bagger was limited to the entertainment value. I’ll leave it to others to continue the arguments as to the evils and virtues of peak bagging; to join peak bagging clubs; to use special apps; and to differentiate themselves from high-pointers (who sometimes drive) and mountaineers (who sometimes take the hardest route). Yup, I was now a minimalist sandal/shoe wearing, ketogenic, old lady, peak-bagger in a wide-brimmed sun hat with poles. “Step aside sonny boy, I’m going to the top!”On To Albuquerque, NM
Our detour to Tucson stretched to 3 weeks while waiting for the weather north of us to improve. Rain was still in the forecast, but at least the nights at Albuquerque were above freezing, so we hit the road, always in search of 70 degree weather. We hoped that the inevitable snow on the almost 9800’ South Sandia Peak had cleared enough so we could make it a weekly peak-bagging activity instead of a finale event as it had been before.