The last big observing run to obtain data for Lori's thesis occured just before Christmas at the 4 meter telescope on top of Kitt Peak. For the next two weeks all of our effort was spent in the reduction of this data. Lori is studying star formation in the Lynds 1641 dark cloud extending southward from the Orion Nebula region. We made sure that we understood everything about the data while we were within easy reach of the instrument developers and software authors. We didn't want any surprises to rear their heads after we reached home.
Although we had planned to do some hiking while in Tucson, we didn't manage to find the time until our last weekend there. That Sunday Lori and I drove our rented minivan west on Ajo Road to the Tohono O'odham Reservation. At the capital of Sells, we found the road heading south toward the border with Mexico . Halfway to the border a rough plywood sign indicated that Baboquivari Park lay 12 miles in on a dirt road, and that is where we turned. Almost immediately, as we were driving through an enormous "old growth" forest of saguaro cacti, we saw a black vulture perched on the top of a tall saguaro on the right hand side of the road. He seemed unperturbed by our attention. A little farther along, on the left side, we spotted a kestral having brunch on the lower arm of another saguaro. Annoyed with us for watching him eat, he stashed his snack in the crotch of the cactus for safe keeping and flew away. We annoyed no other raptors for the rest of the drive which ended in a glorious true "park" beneath Baboquivari Peak, an old volcanic plug in the Baboquivari Mountains south of Kitt Peak. The piñon oaks, Arizona walnuts, piñon junipers and cottonwoods are magnificant here; a permanent stream runs through the well kept picnic area.
On leaving our car, after collecting our water bottles, day pack (Lori had forgotten to bring hers!), snacks, hiking stick, and caps, we were greeted by a retired tribal elder who was picnicking with his grandchildren. Understanding that we came to hike and to revel in the glory of the day, he reviewed the recent history of the area, including the fact that the caretaker had just obtained a better paying job. As a result of this, he was volunteering his services to help with the upkeep of the park. He recommended that we take the trail up to the cave of I'itoi where offerings are still made. While the trail signs were all down, he assured us that we had only to cross the stream and we would pick up the trail.
After we had checked our equipment again, with our hats in place (it was beautifully clear this afternoon and at a reasonable altitude) our water bottles full and our snacks in the pack, we crossed the stream at an obvious crossing, well away from the caretaker's house. We made a culturally driven assumption that the trail would not pass close to this house. After all, at U.S. National Parks and Monuments, the roads to the park ranger's houses are always marked as off limits, even well away from the houses. The rangers must even feel that they are intruding when they drive home! Very shortly we were stepping over cowpies
(we're in open range here) and working our way through the ubiqutous desert thorns! When we are almost ready to turn back, now bent in half to work our way through gaps in the brush, we break out into an opening where we find the elder trying to stand up a trail marker in a pile of stones. We say hello again and follow in the direction indicated by the sign, leaving him wondering where we came from.
For a while we think we are on the trail but soon realize, as we get farther up the mountainside, and the climb gets steeper and more random, that we are bushwhacking it again! At a particuliarly difficult juncture, we decide to attempt a guess at where the trail should be going. Lori thought she knew where it must be so we bushwhacked over to a saddle about 2/3 of the way up the mountain. There was some shade available there and we did find the trail!
After climbing a bit further, it became clear that it was not wise for me to continue. My shoes were not made for this, even with the aid of my hi-tech walking stick. The elder had noted that he could not make it to the cave anymore, but, looking us over, said he thought that we could make it. However, he couldn't see the straps on both my knees through my long pants (essential here!). Even if I had made it up without incident, downhill would be even more treacherous. So I gave my walking stick to Lori, and she continued upwards.
I settled in the shade accompanied by a breeze, took out my binoculars and examined the local vicinity, the magnificent saguaro forest on the desert floor and the raptors soaring below me. An antelope squirrel came out and eyed me suspiciously as he went about his business. In the near distance was a rock outcropping, a volcanic dike, thrusting out of the desert floor. I knew from a past visit that there were petroglyphs on this dike, and that there were offerings left in smooth cups in the rock, worn by water flowing from ledges far above.
Meanwhile Lori did manage to reach the cave. Upon her return, she reported that the opening was small; she only stuck her head in. Inside the cave were offerings left to I'itoi: the traditional - prayer sticks - and the modern - aluminum baseball bats and trophies. With a better pair of shoes and an earlier start, maybe I will make it next time.
We started back down the trail. The sun was dropping rapidly toward the horizon, and Lori wanted to see the petroglyphs before it got too dark. We found that, had we been on the trail, our path would have been much easier, as well as shaded from the mid-afternoon sun. But our trip down was not to be uneventful. Lori had not brought a hat of her own for hiking, but I had accidently brought 2, so she was wearing a light grey baseball cap from the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial. She was in front of me as we were walking down through bushes and trees which were about as tall as we were. I suddenly caught a rapid motion out of the corner of my eye and was paralyzed by the sight with my mouth open, totally unable to respond. A sharp shinned hawk was diving at Lori's head, talons forward. Suddenly the brakes were put on, and (s)he veered sharply away and up. Lori just turned and looked at me baffled. "What was that? I felt this large whoosh of air on my neck and saw the bird flying away." When I recovered, I explained what had happened. "And you did nothing?" she said indignantly. The hawk must have only seen a bit of grey moving around in the tops of the bushes and made entirely the wrong assumption!
The rest of the trip down the mountainside went without incident. We found that the trail did pass right by the front porch of the caretaker's house. So much for culturally based assumptions! That man must be really regretting taking the "better" job. Lori was ready to move in and started planning the installation of a solar hot water system and a few other small improvements.
As the sun was getting low, we headed over to the volcanic dike, a mile or so away. On the way we met a javelina out for his evening constitutional but not anxious to socialize. While Lori examined the petroglyphs and the offerings, (I didn't feel like battling the thorns again today) I took out my binoculars again and watched a large red tailed hawk who was perched on the top of the dike. There was clear evidence on the ledges of old nests belonging to large raptors. This dike was a perfect perch from which to observe the activity for miles around. Of course, when (s)he observed me observing him (her ?), flight was the only option.
The sun was now near the horizon. We watched it set as we drove out through this unspoiled part of the Sonoran desert to the highway. As we drove north toward Sells, we passed the church at Topawa, constructed of the local rock, and saw the telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory far in the distance, on top of the mountains, lit by the setting sun. For the entire drive back to Tucson, we were still lost in our afternoon escape. Upon our arrival back in Tucson, we did manage a mall to mall search for a phone booth having a phone book so that we could eat at El Meson del Cobre, a very good Mexican seafood restaurant.
Our schedule for the next 2 weeks was determined by only two fixed points. I had to be in Socorro at the VLA Operations Building to reduce data 2 weeks hence, and Lori was visiting Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to check into a job opening there. Since many of the astronomers in the US were going to be in Washington, D.C. for the semi-annual AAS meeting during the week before I was due in Socorro, including those from Flagstaff, that meant that we must visit Flagstaff, at latest, on the Friday before they flew to Washington. Between that Friday and the Monday a week later, we were free to float at will in northern Arizona and New Mexico. We planned to finish up in Tucson on Wednesday and leave on Thursday morning for northern Arizona. Since I had discovered the Heard Museum in Phoenix recently, after avoiding Phoenix like the plague the entire time we lived in Tucson, I planned to spend several hours there, eat at another excellent Mexican seafood restaurant that Steve and I had found in the Hispanic section of Phoenix (better if you can speak, or at least read, Spanish and you must like hot food). Then we would drive up to spend the night in Flagstaff.
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© 1994 - 2003 Karen M. Strom
On to Day 1
To a later trip to I'Itoi's Cave
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