While our plane was somewhat on time, another one took our gate and so we twiddled our thumbs while we waited for another United flight’s passengers to disembark hoping our driver was more patient than we were at the time. I think our driver said his name was Jim when he greeted us at the luggage carousel — it’s all such a blur.
Realizing that we may not reach the hotel until close to midnight, I decided to nap on route as my plan was to get up early the next day and hit the pool. Jim had other plans for us however as he proceeded to tell us every historical fact about the area from Tucson all the way to Marana, where a comfortable bed and goose down pillows were waiting for us at the Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain.
I couldn’t help but smile despite my fatigue since there’s nothing more precious than finding a passionate local who is so proud of his home that he wants to make sure you’re as proud of it as he by the time you part ways.
Hardly new to cactus, having lived in Arizona and graced her soil countless times since then, I couldn’t help but notice the size of the cactus in southern Arizona, massive compared to other parts of the state. They almost felt like they were the granddaddies of them all, regal almost.
It was almost as if they appeared to glow in the dark they stood so tall, as if the property had a vast number of natural kings watching over it but in the form of primitive green fauna humans now call cactus.
The next day was the first time we had a chance to observe Ranger Ron in all of his natural glory. Decked out in tan and khaki hiking gear with a pouch, hat and knife looped through his belt buckle, he was prancing around the lobby with a snake wrapped around him. Children seemed to take great delight in this visual however I was keen to walk the opposite direction and so we did. I saw him again a bit later and little did I know at the time that he was to be our private guide for a hike through the local canyon.
I made sure he wasn’t hiding a snake when we first met up but snakes was the last thing he was thinking about when he first met me. I was wearing a mini skirt, a wide one, not a tight number designed for a cocktail party. It was the coolest thing I had with me that would be easy to walk in with the exception of a swim suit and since it was an au natural number in olive and earth tones, I figured it would make for great photography once we were in the middle of the desert terrain.
It wasn’t my skirt he was looking at however, but my shoes. As an avid hiker, I was well aware what shoes were inappropriate for a desert walk and yet I figured because we were leaving from a five star resort, how tough could it be?
The truth is that it wasn’t necessarily a “tough” hike as there wasn’t much of an incline anywhere through Wild Burro Canyon, which was part of the surrounding Tortolita Mountains. What I had forgotten about however was the number of critters you’re likely to see and how prickly the bush was and I’m not just talking about traditional cactus.
After his eyes said “you’re not wearing those open toed sandals are you?” I tossed them in my bag and put my Arcopédico walking shoes on, quite honestly, one of the most comfortable set of walking shoes I own.
This of course led to Ranger Ron needing to justify his raised eyes but frankly he didn’t need to – he had one of those faces you could trust and frankly, I knew better, but just wasn’t in the mood for a hike given the 105 degree air.
And so, off we went while he began to tell us stories about all the scorpions and snakes he has seen over the years while hiking in the canyon. Just what a girl wants to hear, although Anthony loved all of it, especially given that it was an afternoon leading to dusk hike, which is when all the spiders and snakes apparently come out of hiding.
“How often?” I asked him looking down at his knives and other contraptions hanging from his belt.
“Oh, all the time,” he said cheerily and proceeded to tell us about all the critters he sees almost daily and how many of them he has in his office – alive of course. Crikey I thought, thrilled that we met him in the lobby rather than his office. Anthony seemed to be intrigued but I wanted to change the subject to something a little tamer and calmer, like the flora and fauna.
While the canyon wasn’t dense, especially when compared to a forest hike you’d take in the Washington or New Hampshire, the brush was thick and you could never tell when it was going to show up and catch on your sock or pant leg if you happened to be wearing one.
Interspersed of course were some of the largest cactus you’ll ever see in Arizona and perhaps some of the oldest. He pointed to one after another giving us an estimate of their age based on the size of their “shoots”, particularly the second highest one. Many of them were well over a hundred years old, some so majestic that I found myself wanting to stare at them for awhile.
I quietly named one such majestic cactus Henry and gazed at him while Ranger Ron returned to stories of snakes up ahead of me.
I named him Henry….
Did I know that the mojave snake was one of the most dangerous snakes in the canyon? Nope, can’t say that I did and without knowing what a mojave looks like, I wasn’t sure I wanted more information. After all, the more we talked about snakes, the closer we’d be getting to dusk which is when we’d be most likely to see them on and off the trail.
There are apparently 17 species of rattlesnacks in the U.S. and 13 of those species can be found in Arizona and of those 13, 6 or 7 live in the same canyon where we were hiking. I finally managed to get Ranger Ron off snakes and onto cactus and trees, which is a helluva lot more interesting to the nature lover in me and got my mind off visualizing mojaves suddenly appearing from nowhere, for awhile.
We heard about the saguaro cactus, which apparently has a 250-300 year life. They apparently grow a white flower, which blooms for 24 hours and then turns into a fruit, called quite logically, the saguaro fruit. It tastes a bit of a cross between a strawberry and a fig.
He then took one of those knives out and broke off a little piece of “meat” from a Jumping Cholla (also known as a Chain Link Cholla) and we sampled the inside of it, which had the texture of okra and the color of an avocado. Frankly, it didn’t taste much like anything but apparently is a good source of protein, which must have been great for natives living in this part of the world at the turn of the century.
Fiber sources came from peabods which grow on meskeet trees and there are plenty of them in the canyon. They were ground down into flour and apparently very sweet in taste and locals made flatbread out of it.
In addition to meskeet trees, we were able to marvel at the Blue Palaverde tree which has brilliant yellow flowers on them, not to be confused with foothill palaverde trees, which could not only be found in the canyon, but also on the Ritz property – the luminous green bark makes you think of how wet green frogs look as soon as they jump out of a pond.
Ironwood is also plentiful in the canyon, which is apparently the hardest known wood to man. This hearty tree can live up to 1,500 years and after it dies, it can stay intact for another 1,000 years. At one point, we came across a live one right next to one that had been dead for over several hundred years at Ron’s best estimate.
Within Wild Burro Canyon is more granite than anything else however there is some marble. You can also find Petroglyphs, which is ancient rock art that tell stories from our ancestors through drawings that demonstrate war, weapons, art or an event. There are apparently six of them in this canyon dating back to 6,500 BC.
Dusk was falling upon us quickly and so while for the bulk of the hike, I kept my distance from the guys taking shots on my trusty Canon 7D, I kept close to them as the sun began to sink. It was the “time” of day” according to Ron that the creatures came out, his favorite part of the day, my least…
Suddenly, Ron got excited and began to walk briskly towards a “find.” “Oh gawd,” I wondered. “What was it?”
“This is so rare, SO rare,” Ron kept saying. “They spend 95% of their time underground and unspotted – they rarely ever come out.”
“Come out to play?” I thought. Is that what he was hoping for?
Anthony piped up almost as excited as Ron and asked, “what is it?”
“Ahh my friends,” he said. “It’s a Gila Monster, nothing to be afraid of – they won’t hurt you.” I crept up to see what all the fuss was. I had to admit, he was an unusual creature, a cross between a lizard and well, I dunno. Maybe a lizard with chicken pox? His colors blended well with the environment, so much so that you had to get up close to see his markings. Anthony took off with his own Canon in hand clearly committed to getting a close up of this rare desert find.
I realized that he had a wide angle on and the F stop was not set properly to capture this little guy so I snapped one on my phone instead. In hindsight, we really should have had our zoom lens with us to get that award-winning Gila Monster shot that everyone at home was clearly waiting for.
While there’s no doubt that I’d rather shoot a Giraffe than a Gila Monster, I found the desert adventure compelling somehow, because there was an element of danger to it. I had faith in Ron’s knowledge and experience in the desert, so what could possibly go wrong after all? He had his knife, Anthony was carrying his Kung Fu Bo Staff and I had my Canon.
While the Gila Monster doesn’t pose immediate danger, if they feel threatened, they will grind their venin into your skin. Oooohhhh! Did I need to know that? Apparently they eat eggs, rodents and rabbits I learned, since of course Ron knew the answer to that as well. There’s nothing greater than going out into nature with a pro who knows the answer to everything and a passionate one at that.
As the sun began to sink deeper, Anthony and I took our sticks and started to play, taking a Martial Arts stance as we gazed into the cascading sky. The sunset was as breathtaking as all Arizona sunsets are as we walked behind Ron listening to his tales of Germany to Arizona. Echoing into the dusk light were the sounds of morning doves and gamble quails and none of it was a dream.