Tuesday, March 29, 2011


We spent two weeks at Catalina State Park, the maximum stay allowed, and loved every minute of it. About fifteen miles north of Tucson, the campground is set in the flats at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The park also includes miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and a small riding stable. We traded laundry facilities, internet, and sewer hookup for awe-inspiring views and luxurious space between sites (rarely the case at RV parks).

Lily continues learning and growing. I have no idea what she weighs but it’s somewhere between thirteen and eighteen pounds I would guess. She reaches for and grabs onto anything within reach. Her teething makes for much drool and desire for something in her mouth most of the time. She loves when we read to her and lets us know with squeals, screams, and smiles. No rolling over, crawling, sitting alone, teeth, or words yet but much progress in all areas. We love hearing her laugh and make new noises in her attempts to copy us. She remains the best travel buddy and causes smiles on the faces of everyone who sees her.

We were able to take many walks within the park and saw some new wildlife. We watched a falcon chase down a bird in flight and saw millions of red ants busily working. We saw tiny lizards, vibrantly colored birds, ground squirrels and huge yellow wasps.  On one hike with Ted we think we saw a gila (HEE-la) monster, a large orange and black venomous lizard. There was a colony of prairie dogs just next to our campsite too! We heard coyotes as we curled up in bed. The best sighting hands down was on our last day when we witnessed jackrabbit love—huge ears and very fast, period.

Whenever we left the park and returned at night we were struck by the darkness. We humans make so much light that the stars are faint nearer to cities and it’s a shame because the night sky is an incredible gift. Both Chris and I marveled at the repeated opportunities to watch both the sunset and the moonrise. It’s so hard to recognize their relationship at home mainly because of tall trees and small valleys. The moon rises about ten minutes later each day which causes its shape to be affected by Earth’s shadow. I never cared to wonder about this because I’ve never had such a clear, prolonged view of the sun and moon. Lily has been an incredibly reliable rooster lately which has allowed us to watch almost every sunrise as well. The mountains prevented the sun from hitting our little valley until it was well-risen but this made for spectacular streaks of light across the highest rock faces and a subtle, gradual beaming of light into the camper and over the mesquite trees of the campground. Often there would be a mist over the mountains in the morning that made it easier to appreciate their depth. The most distant and highest “layer” of the pass was the most misty and each subsequent layer was slightly clearer. There were about eight layers of mountain in Romero Pass so it made almost a series of V’s growing gradually smaller toward the campground. The same effect could be seen at sunset, to a lesser degree, because of the shadows created.

Plant life in the desert is vastly different than what we’re used to back East and has a lot to teach us about appreciating our own landscape. The saguaro (sa-WA-ro) cactus is the typical one you think of with a tall, thick, ribbed truck and arms that curl upward. These grow just one inch per year and they only begin growing arms after about seventy years. When they die, their wooden, skeletal insides are gradually revealed. We saw some that must have been many hundreds of years old. The palo verde trees have green bark so they can harvest sunlight even without leaves. Prickly pear cacti have flat, round “pads” and are partly edible (the javelinas love them). Mesquite trees grow wildly crooked limbs low to the ground and shed bean pods that feed all sorts of animals including coyotes.

We were blessed to eat two more dinners with Chris’ former supervisor, Rachel Moreno: a very special barbeque at her house with a whole bunch of current ACE XVI and XVII teachers from Phoenix and Tucson, and another at our campsite with Ted and his brother, Mike and sister-in-law, Rachel with whom we also loved spending time. Dr. Moreno gave Lily a small duck carved out of ironwood and we named him Pato.

Ted pitched a tent on our site one night and unfortunately froze but eventually thawed out on our hike the next day. Ted accompanied me on a hike up to the Romero Pools. Chris was the loving husband he always is and agreed to stay home with Lily. We had attempted this climb with “sling-along-Lily” and Chris but wisely turned around about halfway up. What an awesome birthday gift this was from Ted. The hike took about half as long as with Lily attached; it was a great workout even without her. We left the trailhead around 8 a.m. and spent a little over an hour at the pools. Most of the Catalina mountain rock is jagged and reddish but these pools are cradled by enormous, grey rock surfaces worn down over thousands of years. They are smooth and carved out in many places much like sand by the waves. We ate some snacks then mustered up our courage and jumped about twenty feet into one of the deepest pools of chillingly cold water. I was struck again by the feeling I had while birthing Lily: in the water and laboring “I never want to do this again” but once looking back at the cliff and holding Lily in my arms “I’d do it again right now!” which is a really interesting connection for me.

We visited the Tohono Chul Tea Room for a farewell lunch with Ted and his parents. Chris, Lily and I walked through the demonstration gardens after lunch and learned a lot about how humans get water in the desert (huge canals of diverted river water) and how we can do a better job of harvesting local rainwater and conserving what we have.

Our departure from Catalina was delayed one day by some wicked wind that shook the camper and brought along a teeny bit of rain. I am grateful to have been able to smell the scent of desert rain and to watch the clouds burn off the mountains.

We’re not nearly done with this trip but Catalina was a real highpoint for us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Between the Mountains

As you approach Tucson on I-10 west, the desert slowly turns to pavement. It is almost bizarre that we humans are capable of sustaining life out here. Tucson is set between two mountain ranges and sprawls in all directions. The downtown is modest (compared to most cities) and has some pretty neat areas including 4th Avenue and The University of Arizona. And as everyone will tell you: Tucson is the place to be during these months; it has been sunny and warm since we arrived.
Mountains in distance at our Tucson RV park
Our main draw to Tucson was none other than Tucson Ted! Chris met Ted when he taught in Phoenix for Notre Dame’s ACE program. Ted was also an ACE teacher and decided to move here and continue his service to the school. He eventually swapped his regular elementary classroom for art and music. Ted has brought music and art to children who would have seen very little of it otherwise. He revived the theater program and now makes possible two or three student plays each year. He gives incredible gifts to his students each day. We. Love. Ted. He is an amazing example of selflessness. How could we not spend time here with him?

We arrived on a Saturday and learned that Ted took Monday and Tuesday off from work! Our first day was sort of a whirlwind. Chris and I went out intending to just get some groceries at the Co-Op on 4th Ave. We ended up picking up Ted, grocery shopping, and hanging out at his house until later that evening. The only snag was that we forgot Lily’s diaper bag so had to improvise…we had ordered some cloth inserts for her “g” diapers and had them shipped to Ted’s house so we washed and used them.  We took a second grocery run to the 17th Street Market and Ted made us a great dinner and even had some homemade ice cream ready for us afterward.

Sunday we attended mass where Ted was cantor along with his guitar. This was a real treat as Ted is quite talented and really enriched the mass.  Back to Ted’s for yummy lunch leftovers. This was forecast to be the chilliest day so we stayed inside; Chris worked on his sabbatical and Lily and I helped Ted make cinnamon bread, pecan sticky buns, and waffles for dinner! It was a baking kind of day.

Monday we all drove out to the east side for lunch at Eclectic Pizza. This was no ordinary meal… “Yucatan Yum” and Thai Curry pizza… I accidentally introduced my mouth to raw jalapeño and we tried some tasty organic beer.  Next we headed to Sabino Canyon which is in the Coronado National Forest. Ranger Ted taught us about ancient Saguaro cacti, Pallo Verde, and Teddy Bear cacti. He led us about two miles out on the eight-mile paved road that descends into the canyon. This inspired me to feel teeny-tiny. The scale of the canyon walls is hard to grasp until you see people hiking on a trail what seems to be a mile above you and they are teeny-tiny too! Chris got a kick out of a couple signs like the bridge cautions with a bicyclist going head over heels off the bridge. On our way back we wanted to take some group photos so we stepped off the road and through some huge smooth rocks to a sandy beach area. After snapping a few with the self-timer on Ted’s camera, I fed Lily on a rock and the boys soaked their toes in the icy stream. Lily and I joined them on a large flat rock in the middle of the stream and I realized that there was a very deep swimming hole just off the rock. I was tempted to swim but Ted suggested it and took the first leap. Whew! Chilly! I couldn’t help but follow so Chris held Lily and, after getting down to shorts and shirt, I announced that this might be the third most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done…I said to Chris “Marrying you! Birthing Lily! And Swimming in a Canyon!” as I dove off the rock into the shockingly cold water. This was enough for me but Ted took two more dives and Chris also couldn’t resist so I swapped back to my dry shirt and took Lily while he stripped to his skivvies and jumped in. The walk back was a bit damp but totally worth it for the swim. We all went back to the camper for a taco dinner and the day had taken its toll on Lily as she was ready for sleep upon our return.

 Tuesday we crossed over Gates Pass to get to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Ted assured us that this was no ordinary museum and he was right. Aside from the entry fee, overpriced snack bar, and a couple indoor tank exhibits, the museum is quite atypical. Each exhibit demonstrates a different habitat of the desert areas: caves, mountains, rocks, riparian (water), desert, and air. We were lucky to arrive just before the raptor free-flight show and so got to see a great-horned owl, Chihuahuan raven, Ferriginous falcon, and gray hawk in flight. Check out Ted’s website for pictures. Other sightings included a mountain lion, parrots, extremely rare wolves, otter, beaver, coyotes, a bobcat, big-horned sheep, hummingbirds, lizards, snakes and spiders! I think my favorite was the javelina (HAHV-a-LEE-nah). They are not pigs but look very similar to a warthog type animal. I favor this one mostly because of its affectionate nickname, Javvy, and how it is used like on signs pointing to viewing areas that say “Javvy hot spot”. We also saw two wild ones cross the road on our way to the museum which Ted said is pretty rare. We left the museum for a late lunch at a very cool new restaurant downtown called Hub. I had a Grilled veggie chiabatta and tried out their own ice cream in crazy flavors. I had Honey Ginger and Oatmeal Cookie Dough. Mmmmmm what a day!

The rest of the week gave Ted a little break from host/ranger/chef/tour guide duty and we spent time at our campground doing laundry, swimming in the pool, and taking Lily for walks. Chris discovered a hilarious sign on the rear park exit fence: Poop your dog across the street.

Friday night was a treat. We went for a tequila sunset toast at a fancy Marriott on the west side. Lily and I did not partake in the tequila but it was a beautiful view of the city and the best part was we got to meet Ted’s brother, Mike, and their parents! We had dinner at a nearby fancy BBQ restaurant where we dined at the same time as the Oregon State basketball team (tall!). We went to bed only to wake up early Saturday to meet Ted for an American Cancer Society walk that led us three miles up Sentinel Peak a.k.a “A” Mountain. There is a huge red, white, and blue striped A at the peak. Lily slept for most of the ride up and the three of us shared pushing duty. It was neat experiencing how walking with such a huge group of people can shorten a walk…the way home seemed to take twice as long! Saturday evening we were treated to dinner with Ted at Dr. Rachel Moreno’s home. Rachel was Chris’ supervisor while he taught in Phoenix. She was an incredible mentor and is an incredibly hospitable hostess. I was blessed to meet Rachel when she joined us in Connecticut for our wedding in 2007 and this time we visited her with the gift of meeting Lily! The homemade tamales, beans and rice were delicious and Lily enjoyed meeting her “Mexican Grandmother” and hearing a bit of Spanish beautifully spoken. While Chris and Rachel washed dishes, Lily and I got to watch the video of Ted’s kids’ recent play: Cinderella. Even though Lily can't partake in the local cuisine, she has ventured into the world of bananas, avocado, and rice cereal!

We sought out another church for mass this Sunday and found St. Pius X on the east side. This was the neatest celebration I’ve been a part of…it began with a parishioner with a wireless microphone walking through the rows asking who was visiting and where they were from; we heard NY, MI, Kenya, and Afghanistan. The music was contemporary Christian which created a more vibrant atmosphere. The mass was then celebrated with lectors really pausing with purpose, a simple homily, and the entire congregation joining hands for the Lord’s Prayer.  Lily drew much attention, as usual, with her squeaks and smiles. We had lunch at Eclectic Pizza again and paid another visit to Sabino Canyon to check out the Music in the Canyon event. We watched some Navajo dancers and learned a bit about ‘scat’ (animal poop).

Monday was a laundry and cleaning day as we prepared for our next move which would take us out of the Tucson city limits away from internet, laundry, and crowded RV park living. Yesssss.
Whew! What a week!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Topsail To Tucson

Valentine’s Day put us "on the road again" and headed 240 miles west to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. We left Topsail with bittersweet feelings and took the scenic route 98 to Pensacola before hopping on I-10 for what would be a twelve-day trek ultimately to Tucson, Arizona. The drive through FL, AL, and MS was generally uneventful aside from crossing the Mississippi River.

Our second day sent us over an enormous swamp which was possible because there was an incredibly long bridge traversing it (something like 40 miles). We spent two nights at a campground in Westlake, Louisiana after first stopping at the local grocery store: Market Basket. This was a challenging shop; we found some organic mixed greens, oranges, and a $5.69 half gallon of organic milk. Lily got to wear shorts for the first time in her life and we put out the awning and our chairs to soak in the beautiful evening sun.

Thursday was a windy drive into Texas. I was driving when we passed through Houston (A.K.A Huge-ston) and we saw a number of chemical plants in Eastern Texas along with much ranch land. A quick one-night stay in Columbus, TX was plenty for us. We stopped at the H-E-B grocery store, another slim-pickins experience for us as we try to support local and organic produce and products. This was our tightest campsite ever; Chris actually didn’t believe the host when he pointed to where we should pull in (between two huge motor homes with about 5 feet on either side). However uncomfortable this campground felt, it was all made a little better by the sign Chris discovered in the laundry room:
SPIT anywhere,
this trashcan 

It was hung above said trashcan. The pool was empty and the neighborhood showed clear signs of economic stress.

We scooted out of Columbus nice and early and arrived in San Antonio ready for the three night stay we planned as a little respite from the road. This drive included more ranch land and many live oak trees. We often have a pick of many campgrounds when we research towns and San Antonio was no exception. We passed a couple on the way in that we were glad to not be staying at. The host at the campground we chose actually joked that when you check into some places, if you don’t have your own knife or gun, they issue you one. The big rodeo was going on so interestingly many people were camping in their RV/Horse trailers. We learned there was a Whole Foods nearby and ventured there one afternoon and spent the evening doing a big food shop. Saturday we took the public bus into the city (about a 15 minute ride) and strolled along the Riverwalk. It’s a loop off of the main river, below street level, that has shops and restaurants all along it and boat tours through it. The drizzly morning burned off to a beautiful afternoon. We were glad we decided on the sling rather than the stroller as the Riverwalk is not easily accessible at all. I have a new appreciation for good wheelchair access design and really feel for people who have to weave around places just to get up or down somewhere. We ate at a place called Café Ole and enjoyed some live mariachi music…paid for by other customers as the schpiel went like this: “Hello folks, would you like a song? (sure!) Ok, something traditional? romantic? funny?  (romantic!) Great! Sir there’s a $10 fee for the song is that ok? (uh, sure.)” Chris learned from the table prior to ours and so declined the song altogether. I learned that if I want Mexican food, we need to search out an authentic place rather than settle for yellow cheddar, canned beans, and rice from a box. After lunch, we headed over to see the Alamo and learned some Texas history. You could never learn it all in just one visit so we felt encouraged to learn more about the places we’d visit before we actually go to them.
Riverwalk...Lily woke up for the photo op
The Alamo
I have to admit, I was nervous leaving San Antonio and heading further west. El Paso does not have a good reputation being so close to the most violent city in the world (Juarez) and western Texas is very rural with minimal services on I-10. We planned gas stops and made use of the state rest areas which turned out to be quite nice. This drive was amazing because it moved us into the “hill country”. Mesa views, oil rigs, wind farms, miles-long ranches and desert scrub bushes made this a vastly different terrain. I gazed with awe at places where humans had flattened and cut through mountains to make the road bed more passable. The striated rock layers were beautiful and the mountain slices are truly works of art (these feelings conflict with those of distaste for the busting up of beautiful hills of course). We passed through Segovia (not much there but a truck stop) and stopped in Ozona where we found our first empty gas station (luckily there was another around the corner). The highway is dotted with exits to places literally 20 miles away with nothing in between and we had very few comrades on the road this day. Fort Stockton was our 315 mile goal and aside from overshooting our exit (bad Google directions) that was a fun stay. 

We ate dinner outside for the first time and met some really nice campers who came from where we were going and calmed our fears. 

One night’s rest had us back on the road for another long day of 285 miles to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Mountains! Beautiful views as we followed I-10 along the border with Mexico. This trip introduced me to what a border patrol inspection station and border wall look like. The desert grows a beautiful soft yellow grass that covers large swaths and tumbleweeds line fences where they get caught. We approached El Paso eventually and noticed a smog cloud over the city. In some ways it is like any other city I’ve seen but bars over windows and Mexican slums just on the other side of the highway made it a new sight for me. As Chris drove, I struggled to read the huge white lettering inscribed on a mountain overlooking Juarez and El Paso : “CD Juarez, La Biblia es la verdad. Leela.” I being a non-spanish speaker looked this up and found “City of Juarez, The Bible is the truth. Read it.” 
internet pic of the inscription...I was busy trying to read it as we passed.
Just outside of El Paso were  a whole bunch of dairy farms right on the highway. We were reminded of why we support local, organic, grass-fed practices whenever possible. It is so important that we know where our food comes from.   

Arriving in Las Cruces was comforting especially given that it was a beautifully maintained campground with mountain views. Las Cruces is famous for its Old Mesilla section which was the stomping grounds of “Billy the Kid”. We enjoyed the city and its wider selection of services such as the Mountain View Food Co-Op. It is home to New Mexico State University as well. We decided to spend three nights here instead of two to give us a break and allow for a trip to see White Sands National Monument.

We rested for one day then spent our second day on a trip to the monument which is about an hour and a quarter north of Las Cruces and on the other side of the mountains I mentioned. The monument is a 275 square mile surface-level deposit of gypsum (commonly known for the product made of it: sheetrock). It is bright white and makes spectacular dunes. Having just been on the gulf coast, it seemed as though the ocean should have been right over the next ridge but there was no sound from the waves and no birds to be seen. Chris and I took turns comforting Lily in the car while the other sledded down the dunes in a saucer! Given more time we agreed it would be a really special place to wander and spend more time just soaking in the tranquility.
Lily getting good at sitting now

After one more night on the road spent in Lordsburg, New Mexico we were ready to be in Tucson…
Lordsburg is a town mainly because it has gas stations I think. The campground we stayed in had the tell-tale empty pool along with a manager who was as bewildered by our English as we were with his! The welcome pamphlet explained rules such as “Pools is open 3:00 pm to 8:00 pm” “Dump Porta-Potties in Dump Station Only” “Kamp fire with permission only” “If having slide out do not go near the tree.” “No Mechanical works and oil changing allowed” (we saw an employee with his truck up on lifts near the office). And the best laugh we got was from the description of the place. Among other points, “Mostly Shady Sites.” The only shade in this desert campground was cast by the RV’s parked in it, seriously. We wondered it he meant it as a pun because of the neighborhood.

We left around 6 am for Tucson mainly because of a forecast windstorm. We learned that the weather pattern tends to include building winds through the day. So we watched the sunrise in our rearview mirrors and were affirmed in our early departure by signs on I-10 that read, “Dust Storms May Exist Next 30 Miles…Use Extreme Caution…Do Not Stop in Travel Lanes…0% Visibility Possible”. A roadrunner actually crossed the road in front of us. We saw many Chihuahuan Ravens and a few different hawks or falcons hunting along the highway. The railway runs along the highway for much of I-10 so we witnessed trains transporting cargo including anywhere from 20 to 60 freight cars carrying lumber, cars, tankers of some kind, and hundreds of shipping crates. We made it the last 160 miles to Tucson in one piece and backed into our spot to stay for ten nights: a welcome rest from the expanses southern Texas through which we drove.