Picking up the pace in the land of cacti

The meandering pace of my ride changed after San Diego.  I found out during this trip that the interment of ashes of a good friend, that passed away last year, was finally going to happen in Arlington National Cemetery in about four weeks.  This meant that, for me to make it back east in time for the service, I would have to swap leisurely, scenic backroads for more direct routes that would allow me to cover maximum, unencumbered miles between major planned stops.  And unfortunately, that meant interstates.  So, for the first time in almost four months, I found myself travelling via four lanes of fast-moving traffic.  Of all times in the trip for interstate travel to become necessary, I guess rolling at 75-80 mph in 100+ degree desert heat could be considered fortunate.  I won’t lie, that 400-mile day of desert, between San Diego, CA and Tucson, AZ was tough.  Four hundred miles is a cake walk to a lot of long-distance riders, but for this body, of multiple surgically-repaired joints, that’s a long day in the saddle.

After a good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast, I rolled out for Saguaro National Park (pronounced sah-WAH-row), a section of the Sonoran Desert.  The park is split in two and straddles the city of Tucson.  The unit to the west of the city is known as the Tucson Mountain District, and the east unit is known as the Rincon Mountain District.      

“Saguaro National Park ranges in elevation from 2,180 feet in the low-lying areas of the Tucson Mountain District to 8,666-foot Mica Mountain in the Rincon Mountain District.”  -NPS brochure

I started off my tour of the park by visiting the Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro West and watching the fascinating 20-minute movie about the park titled “A Delicate Balance” (you can view it by clicking HERE).

“Gently sloping alluvial hills below the Tucson Mountains create ideal habitat for saguaros, which grow in stands so dense they’re called cactus forests.  Seedlings have the best chance of survival when sheltered by “nurse trees” like mesquite, ironwood, or palo verde.” -NPS brochure
According to the Visitor Center movie, a Saguaro cactus can hold up to 200 gallons of water in its accordion-like pleated trunk!  The pleats expand when water is available, and shrink during dry periods.  They collect water through their shallow roots which extend out for about the same distance as the its height.
The spines of the cactus provide shade, which shields it from drying winds and defends it against animals that may damage it.  The waxy skin serves as a protective layer and prevents moisture loss.  Saguaros produce sweet fruit that Tohono O’odham, believed to be present day descendants of the Hohokam people of the Tucson, continue to gather to make ceremonial wines, jelly, and candies. –NPS website

My intent was to make the 2-mile trip up the road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in time to watch the raptor free flight show, but I ditched that plan when I realized that would only leave me 30 minutes to explore the walking trails around the visitor center.  Oh well, I thought, I’ll miss the show, but I’ll still go after my hike and maybe even have lunch there.  As I started down the hiking trail, I heard the unmistakable rumble of Harleys coming up the road and caught a glimpse of a group of about a dozen bikes as they rode past in the direction of the museum.  Hmm, maybe I’ll catch up to them later and chat a bit.

About 20 minutes go by, and I hear emergency responder sirens.  A lot of them.  In the direction of the museum.

A voice comes over the Visitor Center loudspeaker stating that there’s been an accident in front of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and that the road has been closed.

Long story short, when I pulled up to the road block about an hour and a half later, the officer directing traffic stated that there was an ongoing investigation, so he didn’t know how long the road would remain closed and the museum inaccessible.  Unfortunately, I read online the next day that the accident involving a motor vehicle and two motorcyclists resulted in one biker being life-flighted, and the other biker transported by ambulance, to a nearby trauma center.  I rerouted to the east unit of the National Park and never did get to the museum.    

This cool mosaic outside the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center on the east side of the park shows the vast array of plants and animals that can be found in the park.  Probably some of the most fascinating animals are the Javelina (looks like a pig, but it’s not, and can eat prickly pear cactuses!) and the Gila Monster (one of only two venomous lizards in the world!).  Unfortunately, I saw neither of these interesting creatures.
I didn’t see any Gila monsters, but I did happen upon this little 6-inch-ish desert spiny lizard sunning itself on a rock while I was walking on the Desert Ecology Trail.  It quickly scurried under some bushes when I approached it to take a photo.
Rincon Mountains watching over a field of saguaro cacti.  It truly was surprising how green the desert was here!
Barrel cacti are scattered throughout the park.
There weren’t a whole lot of barrel cacti in bloom, so it felt like finding a little treasure whenever I stumbled upon one.

Despite the heat, and the sadness I felt for the downed bikers earlier, I enjoyed my time in Saguaro exploring the Sonoran desert. I fully intend to make it back to the museum some day, so perhaps I’ll also get the chance to see the saguaro cacti in bloom or full of ripe fruit next time.

Next up…White Sands National Park!

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