Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Annual Great Escape

After a hot May we've had a rare cool June to date. Cool being a relative term as it has been well into the 90's just about every day -- still a great relief from the triple digits that are our June normal. We are forcast to be approaching 110 this time next week, as excessively hot as we've been deliciously moderate through mid-June. It appears we are escaping just in time.

There is a strategy to desert life for most of us. Some folks just plain LOVE the heat and stay here, uncomplainingly, year round. Then you have your snow birds, arriving in the fall from somewhere up north about the time they'd need to turn on their furnace, reveling in sending Christmas cards with photos of them in shorts and t-shirts on the golf course to their pals stuck in the deep freeze, packing up and heading home the first time it approaches 85 degrees. And then there are those of us who simply do our best to get a serious break from the heat come late June, that interminable period after the serious heat sets in with months since the last rain and before the relief of the monsoon arrives.

We head to Colorado where we have a place up at 8600 feet in the Rockies. It's family land on my husband's side, and up until seven years ago there was a cabin he'd helped his Dad build as a teenager forty years before. The Hayman fire took the cabin the first year we were together. I never got to see it, but it was clear how much the place meant to him. A few years later he took me on a Colorado road trip, the last stop being his five acres adjacent to Pike National Forest. The fire spared most of his trees -- ponderosas, spruce, Douglas firs, quaking aspens -- and the views were still spectacular. I could see he needed to be able to keep this, his favorite place on earth, active in his life. We bought a 33 foot Airstream and parked it permanently where the cabin had stood up against a wall of red decomposing granite. A 12x24 foot deck along side gives us wonderful outdoor living space. We have several choice spots to hang our hammock and read. Or nap. Thank goodness the fire didn't take the outhouse.

My husband's old Peace Corps pal comes every year from Cleveland to house and dog sit for us while we eek out the better part of three weeks in that cooler mountain pine-scented air. We bird watch different birds, keep our eyes peeled for deer and elk, do a little fishing in the stocked lake down the hill, try to identify the rampant wildflowers, and hike the surrounding wilderness. The stars are so bright and seem so low that you almost feel you need to duck your head on those middle of the night runs to the outhouse. It's a glorious time and a cool respite from the cruelest heat of the desert.

If I can "borrow" some WiFi somewhere (no Internet connection, no TV, no phone, cell or otherwise) I'll next post from the middle of nowhere, but somewhere wonderful, during our Colorado summer sojourn.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Banded Gneiss, Hoodoos, & Stoner Mummies

The landscape surrounding Tucson, those brackets of rugged mountains rearing out of this valley of stone and sand, is key to the essence of this part of the Sonoran Desert. We orient ourselves by them, learning early on their shapes and proximities -- the Catalinas to the north, the Tucsons to the west, the Santa Ritas to the south, and the Rincons to the east. We bid them a fond adios when we leave town, and they are the first to welcome us upon our return. We watch the light play over them, changing with the time of day and day of the year. We drive up into and over them, and test our legs and lungs by hiking them.

In the triple digit heat of the summer we retreat to the loftiest ones where the temperatures are guaranteed to be 20 degrees cooler, maybe more. Mt. Lemmon, soaring to over 9,000 feet in the Catalina Mountains, 6,500 feet above the Tucson Valley floor, is known as a "sky island", an ecosystem isolated by surrounding terrain, in this case a searing desert. You start your journey in classic Sonoran desert vegetation -- the iconic saguaro cactus, ocotillos, and palo verde trees -- and in less than thirty miles you you arrive in an Alpine landscape similar to that found in southern Canada. About half way up the mountain the windows in the car go down and the A/C gets switched off, and the car fills with cool air bearing the scent of pine.

Yesterday we joined a Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation outing, a trip up Mt. Lemmon with geologist Bob Scarborough. I've loved physical geography and earth science since junior high, and evenually earned a degree in geography and almost (all but paper) a masters in earth science. I was lucky enough to have taken classes with Bob Scarborough before during my two attendances at the Audubon Society's excellent Institute for Desert Ecology held annually at Catalina State Park. I knew we were in for a treat.

Fifteen of us caravanned up the mountain, making five stops along the way. Bob started out orienting us to geologic time with his "time stick", a fancifully painted representation of a big chunk of Planet Earth's existence. A consummate story teller, Bob spun the tale of the creation of our mountains in a way that had us making connections across topics ranging from geology to archeology to spirituality, with heavy doses of mystery and wonder.

Some favorite factoids:

The Tucson Mountains are the remnants of a huge volcano, one which spewed out about 800 times as much debris as the Mount Saint Helen's eruption.

Mt. Lemmon is capped with sedimentary shale that is a million years older than the granite it now sits on, and was formed when the continents nested together and a shallow sea covered the area that is now Tucson.

The U-shape of Ski Valley on Mt. Lemmon (yes, you can drive from Tucson to a ski area in less than an hour) is evidence that there was probably a glacier on Mt. Lemmon at one point.

Our trip included a picnic stop at the San Pedro Vista

and a hike on the Oracle Ridge Trail.

And it was about more than rocks. The discussions ranged, quite logically mind you, from types of rocks, such as the banded gneiss so representative of the start up Mt. Lemmon, to the eroded granite hoodoos, to the Clovis people and the stomach contents (refined cocaine) of 8,000 year old mummies on two continents. It made sense. Trust me. And do yourself a favor -- if you get a chance to attend a class or participate in a field trip with Bob Scarborough (he leads trips for the Desert Museum among many others), take it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Desert Diversions -- Daughter Trip

Note: During my visit with my savvy daughter and her high-tech husband I was "coached" on the art of blogging -- more posts and don't try so hard. I'm giving it a go.

There is something a little bit strange and lot wonderful about going to visit your daughter, a grown daughter with a husband, career, and home of her own. The enthusiastic welcome, the obvious preparations, the plans. I'm tempted to say it's come full circle, but she was never a guest growing up in our home as I am now in hers. And that's as it should be. Our visit was extra lovely since she lives in San Carlos, a charming town on the peninsula in the San Francisco Bay area. I'd happily visit her in Gary, Indiana, but the central California coast is better.

First order of business was lunch at Mack's Smoked Barbecue, a favorite from a previous visit. The pulled pork there is unmatched; this from two people with over a decade of eating experiences in North Carolina, and everything else they serve is equally delicious. We sat so long on their cozy and comfortable back patio, chowing on pulled pork sandwiches and ribs and catching up, that we surprised them on the way out.

Early that evening we walked down to San Carlos's Thursday night Farmers' Market where dozens of stalls sold the most gorgeous produce, flowers, bread and pastries, and prepared foods. Every other of the many friendly dogs was a golden retriever, strollers abounded, and there were amusements and activities laid in for the kids. We scored with the best rotisserie chicken EVER, slathered in fresh herbs and grilled right on the street, accompanied by roasted fingerling potatoes baked below the spinning poultry, basted by the drippings of the herby birds. We were provided with limes to squeeze over the succulent hen, a surprisingly perfect spritz, and carried our dinner home in the perfect evening air to eat with the potatoes a salad of the most tender butter lettuce and incredibly sweet tomatoes. Breakfast the next morning was organic strawberries and a dangerously delicious pastry bought from a handsome French baker.

It wasn't all about food. Over the next few days we wandered the classic old-school neighborhoods in San Carlos and Menlo Park where every home is different and each yard a botanical garden. After almost eight years of gardening in the desert, all those big, green, flowering plants, huge twisted oaks, and soaring eucalyptus looked miraculous. All that walking gave us an appetite, and my daughter made Kofta from the Jamie Oliver at Home cookbook I'd given her for her birthday (what a good investment). Okay, maybe it's a bit about the food.

I put the amazing mass transit system to good use, getting myself easily from the San Jose airport to within a mile of my daughter's home without hailing a taxi. We took the train into the city to see the Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keefe show at MoMA. The show itself was amazing, but I loved the building and sitting on the rooftop garden and people-watching most of all.

The best day was the last day. We headed to Half Moon Bay for a little mother/daughter beach time. A little history here -- my daughter was born on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and most of our play time together was spent in, on, or around the crystalline waters of the Caribbean for the first ten years of her life. Walking along that magical line where the earth, sea, and atmosphere all intersect feels like home to us.

We parked a bit back from the beach on the access road, and were glad we did as the stroll through the seaside neighborhood was enchanting with it's whimsical beach houses, the fields of flowers, and the distant hills cloaked in golden grasses and studded with deep green oaks. Here's one resident who clearly has it made in the shade, living the good life in sunny California.

We walked a large arc of Half Moon Bay, enjoying the perfect bright day with cool onshore breezes, avoiding the jellyfish washed up on the beach, peering into the tangles of beached kelp. We sat for a long while on the high tide berm, watching the battalions of pelicans cruising the waveline. Talking. Not talking. Equally good as the connection was there either way. Precious times.