Down on the Farm: January hiking
Tucson is surrounded by four mountain ranges, one in each direction. The city is sandwiched between the two halves of beautiful Saguaro National Park.
Coronado National Forest lies to the north of town. So does Catalina State Park. Countless outdoor recreation areas dot the city's perimeters. A little farther out are numerous wilderness areas accessible only by gravel road.
Anybody who sits on their duff in Tucson and whines that there is nothing to do hasn't looked.
The rattlesnakes hibernate from October through March, so there is no worry that you'll be bitten while on a hike during that time.
The remaining animals, such as migratory song birds, javelina, coyotes, roadrunners and harmless little skinks, remain active. They spice up a hike with their presence.
From downtown Tucson, it is about 1-1/2 hour drive in any direction to a trailhead that will take you into the wilderness on foot. A few minutes from the parking lot, the silence of the desert sets in and you feel like you are alone with the sun.
If there is a breeze, it whispers through the bristles on the saguaro much like the wind whistles through pine needles at higher elevations.
The desert absorbs sound. You don't have to walk very far from a road before you can no longer hear the highway racket. Sounds of other hikers only carry where there are rock cliffs.
The same holds true in the city itself, if you want to take an urban hike. Just a couple of blocks away from main thoroughfares it is as quiet as the countryside. A slow walk through the alleyways is particularly interesting, if you can stand the stares from people who expect you to start digging through their dumpster.
A couple of days per week, the various jets from the Davis-Monthan air base fill up the area with sound from overhead. The occasional San Diego-bound airliner breaks up the silent bliss.
But overall, the hiking experience around Tucson is one of calm and quiet.
I am not a heroic hiker. I don't go very far. I carry only a camera. I ignore the advice to bring water because water bottles and the packs which carry them are a nuisance. I just drink a bunch before I hit the trail.
Going up, I walk slow. Real slow. I learned that trick from a mountain-climbing uncle who said if you go fast at the bottom you'll tucker out before you make it to the top. So I go slow.
Even still, I never make it to the top. Why bother? My goal is to experience the quiet, the solitude and the scenery. No need to conquer a meaningless obstacle like the top of some hill and experience unnecessary discomfort in the process.
If we ever have to defend our shores, I will march twenty miles to conquer the foe. But not until.
As a prairie dweller, it makes me nervous to go ever deeper into a canyon in the mountains knowing that the only way out is the way you came in.
On mountain trails, you can't just go to the end of the next mile and take a right as you can on the prairie. You can't call for somebody to come pick you up. You can't stop at a farmstead and use the phone or ask for a drink.
With the knowledge that every step in means you have to take the same step back, I amble in for about an hour or two, sit around on a rock for a rest and then bolt back down to the parking lot as if I were escaping a dangerous trap.
That's when I get exercise. That's when my heart gets pumping.
Yep, it is always fun to head home, especially if it is all downhill. After a 20-minute rush down the mountain, I plop puffing into the driver's seat, roll down the windows and bask in the breeze on the way back into the city.
As I hang my arm out the driver's side window and thump it to the radio, I sit at a stoplight, feel the warmth of the sun on my face and figure a hike in the desert is a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon in January.