Travel in the United States: Tucson Arizona, Mt. Lemmon and Saguaro National Park

This big, blue planet we call home is full of wonderment and adventure. Natural beauty surrounds us and at any given fork in the road lies surprises, the unexplained, the undiscovered.

The desert has a desolate beauty to it that has taken hold of me. It’s a harsh environment that is to be respected and somewhat feared. I have a friend that lives in Tucson, Arizona who is fond of saying, “Be careful out there. Everything in the desert is trying to kill you.” That statement is somewhat true. There are creepy, crawly, slithery things that have fangs and stingers. There are coyote roaming the expansive emptiness of sand and sage looking for their next meal. Even cacti seem to want to jump out and bury their sharp spines into the flesh.

The beauty of that vast emptiness however still calls out to me. Watching the amazing sea of colors change as the sun rises or sets along the horizon. Brilliant yellows and oranges fade to lighter pinks and purples before the darkness completely takes over. When it does, the temperature swings, sometimes as much as 60 degrees, to bring a sharp chill to the air as the stars radiantly shine and twinkle in the sky above while reflecting the vastness of the desert below.

Each time I visit Tucson I try to carve out some time to explore. The heat of the midday sun bakes the city as I can literally see the waves rising off of the road ahead of me. This trip is both for work and pleasure and with the work finished, I am free lose myself in the desert. Saguaro National Park, aptly named for the towering cacti that grow there, is where I begin my adventure. The road winds through the desert giving views of the Rincon, Santa Catalina and Santa Ria mountain ranges that surround the Tucson basin. Hawks soar on invisible currents in the sky above. I pass by countless cholla and saguaro as I make my way further into the park. The thermometer in my car reads 95 degrees even though it is the second week of October.

The cloudless sky is a deep blue as I leave the majestic symbols of the American west and the park named after them. I point my car towards Mt. Lemmon, the highest summit in the Catalina Mountains. The majestic peak rises to 9,157 feet, over 6,000 feet above the desert floor and looks down over the city of Tucson.  Although I have traveled to Arizona numerous times this will be a first and I can hardly contain my excitement. As I start to gain elevation the desert and cacti give way grassy hillsides. As I climb even higher I see yucca and other smaller shrubs, then small patches of oak and pine. I pass stands of ponderosa pines dotted with aspens that have started to turn yellow and rock pinnacles eroded by the passing of time.  The sun has almost set when I reach Windy Point, only halfway to the top of the mountain. I grab my camera and run, scrambling over the rocks to get a clear view of the dying light which does not disappoint. In the twilight I return to my car and the journey upwards. I can see campfires starting to glow as I make my way past ever darkening heavy forest.  At the peak of Mt Lemmon there is an observatory run by the University of Arizona called the SkyCenter. It is closed to the public and the road I am traveling along ends abruptly before I can get near.

I park my car in a small lot at the end of the road. The temperature has dropped significantly and a breeze has started to whip across the mountain. I don a headlamp and again grab my camera. I carefully pick my way over rocks, following a narrow trail that skirts the closed property. I come upon a rocky outcrop and start to setup. At this time of year the moon doesn’t rise until after 10 and the Milky Way shines directly above the city. I spend an hour in quiet, cold solitude photographing the night sky and the beautiful show that the galaxy provides.