Romancing the Desert

Even Ardent Beach Buffs Can Learn to
Love a Respite in Arizona's Cactus Country

Dan Leeth

            It almost feels like a dream come true.  Unfortunately, it's the one where I'm caught naked in a group of clothed bodies.

            My wife and I spent the day hiking beneath the blazing Arizona sun.  Having nowhere to change, we arrive at our Tucson resort clad in grimy shorts and fetid T-shirts.  Our Right Guard left wilting, the two of us radiate a scent that would send a bloodhound scampering.  I hoped that if we kept our arms tucked while checking in, the desk clerk would survive.  I didn't count on finding the Tucson Symphony holding a soiree on the hotel grounds.

            Like reporters in a locker room, their gala separates us from the lobby.  We have no choice.  Gritting teeth, my mate and I boldly streak through the cummerbund and corsage crowd, our gym-sock redolence melding with wafts of Chanel and eau-de-Polo.  Thorns and blossoms, funk and sweet -- it's all part of life in the desert.

            We have come to celebrate my spouse's birthday.  Although she would have preferred a sand and surf sojourn, I talked her into a week's stay in cactus country, the land of my youth.  I want to expose her to Tucson where I once got an education, got a car, got a job and got out.  We book a room at Hacienda del Sol, my favorite Arizona resort.

Hacienda del Sol            "This place was once a girls' school," I tell my lovely.  "The owners fixed it up while retaining its classic character."

            The lodge sits in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains on the northern reaches of town.  Native vegetation cloaks the Hacienda's 34 acres, providing habitat for the creatures eyeing us as we relax on our patio.

            "Our plan is to keep the desert the way it is," says owner Rick Fink.  "We have a beautiful location in a densely populated, high-end community.  We try only to enhance things a bit."prickly pear cactus

            The West boasts four great deserts -- the Chihuahua of New Mexico and Texas, the Mojave of California, the Great Basin of Nevada and the Sonoran of Arizona.  Of the parched quartet, this is the most lush.  At our feet lies a land rife with moisture-hoarding plants, most of which guard their damp innards behind an armor of thorns and needles.  Although inhospitable in appearance, they provide nourishment and shelter for a bevy of creatures ranging from fire ants to wily coyotes.  Each has adapted to survive in dry climes.

            We watch a quail clan strut by with mama leading her brood.  A cottontail rabbit scrutinizes us from under a bush, then hops away to the shelter of a green-barked paloverde tree.  Birds perch on long ocotillo limbs, then flutter off leaving the branches bouncing.  A lizard silently gawks from a nearby rock, its thorax expanding and contracting with every breath.  I stare back.

            The bare cliffs of the Catalinas soon flush like paramours caught in the setting sun.  Darkness falls and the city below ignites into a lover's quilt of light and shadow.  The big dipper dominates a star-spangled sky.  It reminds me of romantic times spent camping, only here we share a king-size mattress rather than hard ground and sleeping bags.

            In the morning, we brew coffee, don bathrobes and return to the patio to read the paper.  A mourning dove coos plaintively in the nearby distance.  Other birds chirp, squawk, caw and warble.  As with the sounds of surf, the desert's voice becomes addictive.  I could linger all day, but the cactus calls.

            Mountains bound Tucson on three sides.  We begin by heading for the Rincons on the city's eastern border.  There lies a unit of Saguaro National Park, a preserve for the country's grandest cactus.  Saguaro can reach four-story heights and weigh more than an limousine loaded with linebackers.  Living to be 150 years old, they generally don't sprout arms until around their 75th birthday.  Springtime blossoms serve as Arizona's state flower.  Fig-like fruits follow.saguaro

            "This is safer than a beach," I point out to my better half.  "Sunbathing beneath a saguaro, you won't be bonked by a coconut."

            We stroll the Desert Ecology Trail and learn that as with many cacti, the saguaro's waxy skin comes accordion pleated.  It allows the plant to expand as moisture is gathered by sprawling roots.  A large specimen can soak up 200 gallons of water, enough to satiate it for an entire year.

            Precipitation falls primarily during two seasons.  Winter brings slow, wet rains while summer offers pounding thunderstorms.  The latter is known as the monsoon, a name someone apparently found offensive.  Every instance of the word on the interpretive placards has been defaced.

            "We have no idea who did that or why," says park volunteer Kristen Wright.  "When we repaired the signs, vandals took off the replacement pieces."

            Back at the lodge, the aroma of wood smoke and grilled sustenance wafts from the general direction of the Grill, Hacienda del Sol's on-premise restaurant.  Its menu features seafood from Atlantic salmon to Pacific swordfish as well as terra firma features from between.  The wine list, bound between branding-ironed leather covers, contains almost 500 entries.  We sip, sup and watch the sun reflect from mountain cliffs.  My partner appears to be adjusting to the absence of umbrellas in her drinks.

            The next morning, we cross the Tucson Mountains west of town.  These somber, saguaro-studded hills look familiar with good reason.  They served as the backdrop for over 300 movies and television productions filmed at Old Tucson Studios.  Rebuilt after a 1995 fire, the movie set now hosts gunslinger melodramas staged for tourists.

            Opting for animals over actors, we continue to the nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  A bird swoops by as we enter.

            "I see you were greeted by Fred," a woman at the ticket window says.  "He's a real Arizona cardinal."Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

            Opening in 1952, this combination zoological and botanic garden provides a 100-acre glimpse into the desert and its life.  The museum's 180 docents seem to be everywhere.  One holds a Harris hawk and explains how it's one of the rare raptors who hunt cooperatively.  Another gentleman talks about poisonous pit vipers.  Elsewhere a woman presents a more docile snake, which we stroke only after inspecting it for fangs.  One docent offers a pinch of saguaro nectar.  My beach-deprived honey claims it smells like Caribbean melon and tastes like Hawaiian pineapple.

            We spend hours wandering past animal enclosures, most of which allow captive critters to live in native surroundings.  Javalina, bristly members of the pig family, grunt and munch in a low fenced enclosure.  Prairie dogs peer from underground dens while coyotes prance around a netted, gridiron-size field.  There is not a beep-beeping roadrunner in sight.

            After a late lunch at a museum restaurant, we haul our tired legs back to the car.  Our desert dash will continue from a sitting position.

            The western unit of Saguaro National Park lies ahead.  Its cacti appear to be gussied up for a wedding.  Flat-padded prickly pears flash boutonnieres of pink and yellow.  Thorny cholla clutch orange-colored posies.  Ground-hugging fishhooks don purple garlands.  Ocotillos, distant relatives of the rose, wave scarlet hankies from long, thin branches.  Gift bouquets flower everywhere.

            With white-crowned saguaros blushing in the afternoon light, I park the car.  From a hilltop vantage, we watch Old Sol say "I do" in passionate shades of red, pink and yellow.  The ceremony ends with the sun kissing the ground, then dipping below the horizon for a nocturnal honeymoon.

            "Almost as good as a seaside sunset," my own beaming bride admits.

            We spend the next few days exploring Tucson and its environs.  One of our wanderings takes us to the gallery of Ettore "Ted" de Grazia, probably Tucson's best known painter.

            Born in an Arizona copper town in 1909, de Grazia grew up loving the country, its lore and its people.  His Gallery in the Sun occupies a sprawling adobe building near the base of the Catalinas.  The artist, who died in 1982, lies buried beside the small chapel he built on the property.

            The gallery displays a selection of his whimsical works, which often depict raven-haired Indians and children.  Sometimes they appear faceless.  Other times he gave them dots for eyes and mouths.  His familiar images have illustrated UNICEF greeting cards as well as books and articles about the Southwest.Marion de Grazia

            As we walk through, an elderly woman bustles by.  Introducing ourselves, we learn she is Marion de Grazia, Ted's wife and an artist in her own right.  A collection of her sculptures graces a cabinet by the patio.

            "We got married in the jungles of Mexico," she tells us with a twinkle in her 90-plus-year-old eyes.  "Very rommmaaannntic!"

            To commemorate the day, I buy my own lover a reproduction of the master's work as her birthday gift.  I imagine how proud she will be to have a genuine Ted de Grazia.  The magnet should look great on the refrigerator door.

            I save our desert dessert for last -- a hike up Sabino Canyon.  Born in the cool pines of the Catalinas, this year-round stream plunges through the palisades northeast of town.  Its defile offers gourmet cascades, waterfalls and plunge pools garnished with a ribbon of riparian greenery.

            Since my university days, this has been a favorite retreat.  Toting textbooks in a backpack, I often hiked to a secluded site where I could study beside a backcountry swimming hole.  I want to share this special spot with my consort in life.

            In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a scenic roadway up the canyon.  The pavement is now closed to public auto traffic.  To reach our trailhead, we catch the shuttle.

            From road's end, a pathway zigzags around confining cliffs.  We ascend and continue into the backcountry.  Miles later, departing the trail like bandits on the lam, we clandestinely reach the secret swimming hole.  The size of a backyard pool, this rock-hemmed grotto lies dammed at either end by boulders.  A cliff bounds one side.  Ash and willow shade a sandy bench on the other.  The absence of trash and footprints suggests this hideaway remains rarely visited.Sabino Canyon

            My goddess of domestication lays out our picnic lunch on a rocky slab.  There, we nibble cheese and crackers while dangling toes in the water.  Seduced by the solitude, the two of us eventually shed shorts and dive into the 50-degree liquid.  Like lovers on a secret shoreline, we emerge and sprawl across boulders to dry beneath the bare sun.

            "You win.  This beats a crowded beach," concedes the woman of my fantasies.  "In fact, if the tux and gown crowd is around when we get back, I think I'll flash past them dressed just like this."