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^ Arizona, March 2005 < Getting Oriented From Mountaintop to Lowlands >

Day 4: A Very Fine Museum

Deadly and only Dangerous Creatures Behind Glass

On our first full day in Tucson Ian was up very early -- before 7 a.m.! I blame jet lag, to which I apparently did not succumb. I did not rise for two additional hours. The morning cast a beautiful radiance upon our camp site and on the nearby mountains and creek.

Ian had suggested that we visit the reputedly spectacular Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. We drove for about one hour, from our campsite in the West, across Tucson, down a winding desert road, and into the Museum grounds in the East. As the crow flies, the distance was probably not as far as the driving time might suggest. Around Tucson it just takes awhile to get to where you're going.

As we cruised the parking lot I noticed with some alarm that there were hundreds of parked cars. I wondered whether the museum would be unpleasantly crowded. As we walked towards the ticket booth, a school field-trip bus pulled up, and I quickened my step with a bit of dread. Nice for the kids, but not so nice for quiet, chaos-averse people like us.

I was eager to reach the part of the park which was underground, where one could see animals living in burrows. There were many fascinating indoor exhibits first, however. The first was a reptile exhibit. We were fascinated by the snakes, especially the varieties of rattlers. The python was large, but did not look like it could take down an adult.

I thought that I would like to have a snake, but that I would not want to feed one. In Seattle I watched my brother's friend dampen a mouse under the kitchen tap, dust it with "nutrients", and then set it loose in the snake's cage. A mouse apparently does not constitute a square meal. I watched as the snake patiently stalked the confused and bedraggled mouse. Although the mouse's demise was mercifully quick, I did not think that I could fully enjoy owning a snake.

The next exhibit featured spiders and scorpions. The spiders were mildly interesting, even though some of them were deadly or at least dangerous. The scorpions held my interest. They were quite small, but I had heard about the folly of slipping one's foot into a boot in the desert without first shaking out any uninvited creatures.

Come to think of it, I did that very thing every morning of our trip. Seeing live scorpions apparently did not made as much of an impression on me as mountain lions did. I was plenty afraid of them.

The Birth of a Galaxy and Evolution of a Planet

Next we read about the evolution of our galaxy and of our planet. We were able to touch artifacts such as "the oldest rock you'll ever touch" and a to-scale model of the earth in relief. The model felt a bit bumpy, but did not feature the jagged ridges one might expect, given the magnificent mountain ranges which grace the planet.

With eyes beginning to ache just a little bit, we were then treated to a display of too many fantastically colored and textured rocks to appreciate in one visit. That this museum had kept me indoors while "Cat Canyon" and other outdoor wonders awaited was testament to just how wonderful these exhibits were.

Not long after we emerged into the bright and warming outdoors, we found ourselves in a simulated cavern. Stalactites and stalagmites abounded. For the adventurous (and bone-thin), there was a side trail climbing up into a narrow side passage. With our day packs and our adult-sized bodies, we squeezed carefully through narrow openings, wondering whether we would make it through.

Our efforts were rewarded by fascinating exhibits along the way. There were sub-caves thoroughly needled with tiny stalactites and stalagmites. Although I tried to be very careful, I began to get a headache from bumping my head so many times.

As we had entered this snaking tunnel, a father carrying a frightened child had followed. I mildly irritated at the time, wanting to explore in peace. As we progressed the father refused to allow the child's fear to stop them. He patiently made reassuring comments until they had re-entered the main part of the cavern. I imagine he hoped to share his own sense of adventure with his child.

Parts of the main cavern featured simulated dinosaur bones embedded in rock. Similar exhibits in other parts of the park increased my respect for archaeologists. There might only be a sparse collection of bones and bone fragments from an original skeleton. Yet scientists are somehow able to piece together the entire beast.

Pursuing Elusive Desert Animals

The most fun part of the museum was ahead of us. In the next half hour we caught glimpses of wild cats, a bear, a fox, a wolf, parrots, a deer, and a field of prairie dogs. We had caught these creatures during their siesta. Although we were able to view some of the animals quite well, we only saw the hind-end of a very fuzzy bear, and the fox turned his back on us.

Then came the hunt for the javelinas. A long stretch of path wound through the javalina habitat. Signs posted every few feet educated us about these mysterious creatures. We were warned that we might have trouble spotting these hairy non-pigs, but were given signs to watch for.

By the time we saw a single javalina our suspense had heightened considerably. I had almost given up when we reached a stone bridge surrounded by scrubby trees. The shade had attracted four or five javalinas. We peered in fascination at creatures we had never before seen or imagined. Their small size and quiet demeanor was endearing, although their ugly piggy snouts and gigantic incisors marred any possible image of cuddliness.

The next segment of the park was the coyote habitat. As tough as it had been to spot any javalina, I did not believe that we would see any coyote today. I was not wrong. The educational placards made no pretense that we were likely view these elusive animals.

As we exited the desert trail we came upon a rock-making exhibit. We saw in detail how enormous boulders are fabricated. I had not imagined that the rocks in the animal exhibit might not be real. But probably every boulder and rock we'd seen in the exhibit had been created by artisans.

Claimed by a Burning Sun

We had been at the museum for several hours by now, a world record for me. I had outlasted by a factor of two or three the length of any previous museum visit. But I was fading now, even though we had seen only half of the park.

What had gotten me was vanity. Distaste for looking like a tourist had prevented me from wearing both my wide-brimmed hat and my oversized sunglasses. Either item alone was bad enough in public. Together, the image would have wounded my pride. My punishment was singed eyeballs and a frying brain.

On desert and mountain trails, I would sacrifice vanity to pragmatism. I would allow my large hardware-store safety glasses, 98% UV resistant, to protect my eyes and my hat to keep the desert sun off of my face and neck. What kind of fool would do otherwise?

Getting Shod

I had worn out my light-weight hiking shoes long ago. I had not even bothered to bring them. However, this left me with two extremes: sandals and backpacking boots. We re-visited the camp store, where I found shoes which made me happy and left my wallet only a little lighter.

The next day I would begin a hike thinking that the new shoes were better for a non-strenuous hike than the backpacking boots. Their smaller size would mean less weight to lift with every stride. However, by the end of the hike, I would realize that the hike must have been more strenuous than I had thought. My ankles ached from the lack of support the backpacking boots would have provided.

Nevertheless, in time I would take plenty of hikes requiring nothing heavier than my new hiking shoes. My backpacking boots would live longer and delicate areas of camp sites would be trod on a more gently.

Finding the Arizona Trail

We called it a day early, heading back to the campsite for some relaxation before dinner. As we settled in a small truck pulled into the parking lot. New neighbors investigated the campsite farthest from us, deciding to stay. Ian thought that the two men were from Eastern Europe, based on their accents.

As I passed back and forth between our site and the pit toilet or the car, I looked their way in case they were feeling friendly. However, they seemed kept to themselves.

Hours later, once we had eaten, we took a walk up the road towards the end of the campground. It was very dark. Although I had hoped to tread quietly in order to observe other campers unnoticed, Ian kept his flashlight on in order not to surprise anyone. I enjoy being the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, but it's not for everyone.

There were few campers. The largest party was a family with a well-lit site and a blazing campfire. We reached the end of the campground, noting that the campsites were widely spaced, offering a degree of privacy. This layout was in sharp contrast to campgrounds up North. We have stayed in campgrounds where one campsite spilled into another, much like densely-packed cities. In some cases it was almost impossible to discern where one site left off and the other began.

At the far end of the campground the drop down to the creek bed was not very great. We climbed around the rocks in the dark for awhile, listening to the trickling water. Upon further exploration we discovered that the Arizona trail passed through our campground.

I knew little about the trail except that it stretched across more states than just Arizona. We had seen a photograph in our guidebook of the first two hikers to complete the entire trail.

^ Arizona, March 2005 < Getting Oriented From Mountaintop to Lowlands >