We had been up an unfamiliar trail exploring in the Tucson Mountains about a month before. As we walked, memories flooded in and I recognized the neighborhood from a couple of decades before. I had attended several nude gatherings there.
The most attention grabbing thing around is Cat Mountain. At that time, way back, my friends had told me that there was a way around the impassible southwestern cliff-side to get to the top. They had just gone around the back. We considered climbing the mountain as an afternoon’s excursion, but the party at hand, the call of the hot tub and potluck, dissuaded us.
In our exploration a month ago, just off of this trail, we had noticed some cairns. Today, we will see if those cairns are marking the way up the mountain, which I had heard of long ago. It was a time before the trail system came through here.
The plant life in this desert ecosystem can be both tenacious and tough, delicate and dainty. This day’s excursion on the hillside will place this truth in my face….
The day has become what they are calling partly sunny, but still, it is unusually warm on February 1st. We will however, be in the shadow of the mountain, without the warm sun beaming its heat. I pack up my kilt, leaving me wearing a sweatshirt and the day pack. DF is in a light sundress and a full sleeve cotton shirt.
We just had two days of rain after nearly a year of drought. There had been a hard pelting on my porch roof. This would normally be enough to create water flow in these mountains. However, after the extreme drought, the terrain isn’t normal. We see that the replenishing liquid was immediately, nearly all soaked up by the parched earth. The life here has had a tough time.
As we walk the main trail, we are looking for the cairns, which we hope will mark the way, all the way to the top. It seems to us, that they weren’t this far. I wonder if someone has knocked them down. We pass familiar landmarks, but the saddle is getting closer, as I look up the trail ahead. We are considering that we have missed the pile of rocks.
Off of the trail about forty feet, I spot one on the top of a boulder. It is familiar.
Finally we come across the disturbed gravel where others have walked off trail into the desert. I turn to DF, “Let’s hope that this works.”
The initial walk is no problem. DF strips off, confident to find her way through the prickery desert flora, to enjoy the nature of living in a body.
Soon, the slant of this hill changes. It becomes obvious that there will be no switchbacks. The lineup of several cairns just goes straight up the hillside. The contours don’t seem to matter. It is just a string with little variation. The tread marks from the previous explorers of course dodge around the shrubbery and follow the less resistant slopes as each step is carefully thought out to use advantage. There are several spots where the gritty solid exposed bedrock gives good traction as it slopes enough to allow a sort of ramp-like stair. There will be many many more such steps to climb.
The ground has been crushed in many places looking like a path, making it easier to follow. This also means that the slope is slippery with fine grains of rock and sand. We climb stair-step rocks. Often, these stairs are quite tall. I pull myself up by placing my hands on my knee and pushing off with the help of my arms. This will be like walking up many stories like the steps of the Empire State Building. These steps however, will give no consistency.
We welcome each boulder as a brief island of reprieve in the slippery insecure sandy surfaces. Not all is bedrock, there are larger stones buried in the soil pretending to be a solid piece of this mountain. The ones larger than ourselves tend to be stable. The educated guess work is of those smaller stones, the imposters, who may give way under the weight of a body focused on the point of a foot. All along the way, there are those which gave surprise to the other climbers. A foot placed forward and in an instant the climber riding a rock backward six inches, or feet, until it grasps at another hold, stretching the riders limbs and creating a moment of insecurity.
We trudge on. DF wants to rest. I confess that my breath is beginning to huff. We haven’t been out to exertion like this for these last few winter months.
This is the first of a new season, when the weather usually changes to a Tucson pleasant. With rains, Spring flowers will probably be showing up in the next month. As I climb, my nose is close to the ground on the steep slope. I see the scattered hints of seed material on the ground along with the remains of the ground cover from last year, before the drought. Under each plant is a bed of collected debris, the precious mulch. Debris with minuscule seed and dust have anchored themselves on the more weighty grains of sand. They are waiting for the opportunity to explode and blossom. In places, too numerous to count, pieces of dry tiny plants have collected in dams, all ready to hold what precious water may occur.
Over the hill at the local college, I used to watch a few tiny plots, little islands of life growing over time. They were there every day as I passed to classes. The area had been bladed raw to create a parking lot in 1970. All topsoil was gone. A bus stop had been erected. Where people didn’t tread, there was a chance to make a living.
My frequency of passage changed after graduation. In the 1990’s I returned. Once again, I passed by daily. Over those twenty years, the fine powder of dust had accumulated between the grains of crumpled rock and gritty sand. Eventually, a blade of grass or some tiny tenacious desert survivor would get a grip and the chance rains would allow it to make a foothold. The process might take years.
The growth would collect even more dust and other seed would chance to make its way to the new bed. It had taken over twenty years to create this minuscule plot that one foot step could kick scuff away. I attended more classes in the earlier ten years of the new century. The foot hold grew and new types of life appeared. Things happen very slowly in a desert.
On field trips in one of those college classes, I was shown that once a saguaro ecosystem is bladed away by the acre for any construction, it takes around 400 years for it to return fully, if left alone.
Here we are, climbing this mountain. Our step’s destroy the precarious hold that life clings to, as it waits on the conditions that it depends on.
It is good that these cairns lead the way and the travelers all stay in a narrow space. They don’t wander in a breadth, destroying this mountain in their search for footholds. Every step on this mountain involves something that has taken centuries to accumulate, something both delicate and of tenacious strength in its perseverance, something unique and diverse in a diminutive scale.
When I tread in the desert, my light nearly barefoot shoes and naked more vulnerable body gives respect to what lives here. It recognizes the fragility and wondrousness around me. Leave no trace and abundance will follow.
The trail zigs around the occasional leafy jajoba bush, a particularly tall rock step, or a menacing bundle of needles. If it wasn’t for the cairns, we would be disgusted and lost. The vegetation grows taller and thicker when we get to the higher elevation.
As we crawl through, the cairns become more frequent and can be seen in rows sitting on the tops of boulders. We are grateful to whoever took the time to set these up. It keeps others from veering off, making their own confusing routes, lost, trampling, and creating erosion on the hillside. Without the guidance of the simple piles of rock, we would be wandering into more precarious strata. It is an unofficial trail, but a wise move. People will climb this mountain anyway. We can’t keep them off of it. It is best to channel the assault to the mountain’s top.
Today, climbing through a scratch infested environment, I immediately find the false security of my sweatshirt. I naturally begin to swish away plants, and clothing gets caught in their hooks. I am surprised when errant cloth gets snagged in barbs, pulling me before I am aware of the situation. One may think that walking nude in a desert is a bad idea, but my experience tells me that heightened awareness, the feel and sense of a body’s natural boundaries, protects. My forearm begins to bleed out of a crimson bubble. A bare body would know to caress. A bare body knows to safely take a minor scratch, those like finger nails across an itch, before it digs and becomes destructive.
There are pockets of that wonderful dead silence, where all that is heard is our breath and the crunch of sand and rock. More often, there is the sound of the distant highways, as it rises up from down below us and echos through the mountain passages. In the silence, the necessity of focus to secure each individual step, the care born out of fear, brings mindfulness. My mind is immersed in the business of climbing and being right here, right now.
We take few breaks. When we do, we turn and capture a picture of the magnificent vistas that we view from this height. In the distance, the Catalina’s are northwest, the Rincon’s to the east, the Santa Rita’s southeast and each have a white cap of snow on them.
They are far enough away that our minds are fooled into the perception that we are at that same height. The curvature of the Earth makes this more diminutive mountain range seem grander than it is.
The sun is only a white dot in the gray skies. The wind is calm, broken by the mountain that we climb. This gives DF comfort in her nakedness. I begin to notice the moister under my backpack and shirt, as I exert myself.
It had looked very rugged from down below with many cliff sides, but this climb is surprising as it remains a consistent grade. We continue to encounter none of those perpendicular grades where a sense of vertigo grabs the unsuspecting. I dread that feeling, as if I might be about to go backward over a cliff. It can be slippery, but there is no chance of sliding too many feet down a slope with too much momentum to stop. We continue carefully, and feel safe, invigorated and fascinated with this place in this moment.
DF is surprised when she gets ahead and realizes that where she is, is not the top of the mountain. But it is only a blind rise. She chuckles seeing a whole lot more effort ahead. Times like these, we turn around and look out at the changing expanses across sprawl the City of Tucson with its familiar landmarks, now in miniature.
The route becomes steeper. We at times, begin to reach out and pull our bodies up through granite formations. Teddy Bear Cholla increase in number.
The one of us in the lead calls out a warning, “bomb!” This is the signal to the other of yet another small bundle of needles shed by the cactus poking at the ground and waiting to attach to us.
When I least expect it, I find myself at the top. I trade my sweaty bag and top for free fresh air and the glory and finality of accomplishment.
Naked, smiling, DF arrives soon after, distracted by her camera lens. She makes the realization, “We’re here!”
There is that place at the top of a mountain, where as I approach the crest, another world opens up past the ridgeline, as if a cliff at the end of the world. The void gets filled with yet another view and a new perspective. It is literally a cliff where I’m standing looking down on the suburban neighborhoods and the highway that leads out into Avra Valley. It is like another world, hidden by the mountain in-between.
It is barren up here. There are plenty of sitting rocks. None are smooth, but we have some clothing folded to cushion us from the rough grit and sharp edges. The sun comes out and greets us with its welcoming warmth. The world suddenly has more color and gleam in the new less filtered light.
In my enthusiasm, before I rest, I take what might pass as a trail out to the east. The cairns and the disturbance bring me around a bend with the uninterrupted view of Tucson.
DF begins a climb to the west. There, there also appears to be a trail. It may lead to more, an even higher perch, or another route down.
We shoot each other’s photos. I return and follow DF’s lead, curious myself. All of our belongings are left behind. We just need cameras and shoes. We don’t know for how long, or where we might end up, but we are intent to roam as free as our desires.
This route appears to die, but then, DF sees another cairn. We follow, to another. The trail climbs from here, up a smooth steep barren cliff. We are in no mood to conquer and persevere. Our mood is lunch.
We return, to our picnic sandwiches, our stone sitting and our earned view.
And the Return:
The way back down, as anticipated, is treacherous. All of those tall steps require sinking our body weight, our balance low. The loose slippery sand and gravel wants to go the same direction as us this time through. With a wrong step, it will carry us away. I imagine such a calamity, and remember my toddler son, falling in his thick cushioned diapers. I think, perhaps there might sometimes be a place for pants. I then think of the better stretch and dexterity of nudity, the restrictions that clothing steal from my nature. I remember how the cloth sometimes hides a critical view of the next step. I realize that without pants, I am less apt to fall in the first place.
All along the way, we have been looking down, only to look out briefly. It has been evident and entertaining what a plethora of color, texture and detail all of these rocks have. Perhaps the clouded light has brought it out. DF and I have a tendency to bring home souvenir rocks from each excursion. I suspect that I would take any one of the unique millions of pieces of geology on this mountain home and place it in my garden.
The trail that I see far below will be a more frequent refuge for me in time. I resolve to bring a rock or two back to the car each time. They can be used as weights to lift, exercising my upper body and balance on my return trips.
The last time through here, we discovered a partially crested saguaro. I notice a younger saguaro at just the height that the crest appears on many of these. It shows mutation beginning. It could be the very beginnings of a crest.
We take photos. We’ll be back as the years pass to see how it turns out and shoot periodic updates.
Down the trail, up above on a hillside, there is another mutant. This one has an arm poised in a “V” a near two fingered peace sign.
The golden light of the sun comes out from under the clouds.
For twenty-five years after first hearing of the potential, I’ve passed by, looking up at this prominent land-form and thought, “One of these days.” This has been the day. I’ve done it, one less on the bucket list. I got up there. It has been a good day.
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