The Real Antique Land

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We heard a Gila woodpecker pecking out its lunch in a saguaro cactus and watched a Gambel’s quail outrun us up ahead. Queen butterflies, colored like monarchs, hovered over newly sprung buds. At the start of the trip, Ted, to whom no form of animal life is alien, said, “I can almost guarantee you will see a rattlesnake. They’re as North American as apple pie and Mother’s Day.” The city slicker wasn’t thrilled. As it turned out, Ted diligently led us past rattlesnake haunts every day, but the closest we came to an actual snake was on that first day, when a dry, spooky rattle emanated from beneath a shrub. Its owner glided away unseen.

After an hour or so we left the arroyo behind, the trail narrowed, the breeze turned into a stiff wind, and switchbacks became a menace every few yards; their cramped shelves threatened to hurl me into space. The views were spectacular, but with nothing but spiky, low-growing vegetation to the right and on the left a cactus-strewn mountainside tumbling into canyons now far below, I met up with an old enemy: fear of heights. I shared this, I soon realized, with another hiker, and how greatly, in this case, did misery appreciate company. We both made it, not to the peak but just below it to a flat, slightly wider rocky outlook, where we gratefully collapsed and devoured our lunch. I was mad at myself for not having considered the topography of this part of Arizona; I was deeply uneasy about the precipitous descent to come; and when someone asked if I didn’t feel pretty terrific about having managed to do this at all, I barked out, “No!” Inevitably, a few days later not only did Wasson Peak begin to take on the shape of a good story, but I started to think that in slow doses I might learn to ease this lifelong fear.

God knows there were other opportunities for doing that on this trip. Remembered most happily was a hike up the forested Madera Canyon, where, if necessary, I could have clung to a tree. This is a bird-watcher’s mecca where serious practitioners had set up gigantic scopes on the meadows below. “From a biological perspective,” Ted said, “we have just entered Mexico.”

Beyond the miles of walks there was time each day for stops to see such totems of human history as San Xavier del Bac, a magnificent Spanish church of the 1780s, and Tombstone, the town that set the standard for Western lawlessness. But the most satisfactory hours off trail belonged to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, founded in 1952 in Tucson Mountain Park. It is set up so artfully to blend with the land it describes that the place barely whispers “museum.” The desert landscape itself opens seamlessly from this planned one, bounded in the distance by the tree-fringed mountains that remind you that this region is most often described as a “sea of desert” punctuated by mountain “islands.”

You need to spend a day out here at the start of any trek into the desert because all the sights that attack your senses, all that appears so strange and maybe dangerous at first, all the mystery, come into play at the Desert Museum in a way that makes it seem if not manageable then at least part of a plan, part of a desert-driven logic. Cactus in its all its grotesque variety and animals in the most natural possible habitats don’t seem pinned down or imprisoned but function almost as ecological signposts, put here to show you the way. At one moment I turned down a path and found myself confronting a powerfully muscled, tawny mountain lion. Except for the solid sheet of protective glass between us, we were practically nose to nose. I looked at him for long minutes, and the big cat just stared back.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP