Like most mornings in Tucson during the winter, the sun slowly climbed the sky, bringing warm temperatures to the Rincon Desert Explorers on Wednesday,February 18th. A 7:30 a.m. departure time led sixteen brave souls to Saguaro National Park north in Marana to search for the Civilian Conservation Corp Windmill at the juncture of Coyote Pass Trail and Gila Monster Trail.
After gearing up with backpacks, camelback water packs, hip-packs, poles, hats, boots, and snacks, the group’s first (and last) challenge of the day was crossing the highway and avoiding cars coming around the curve and down the hill. Safely on the trail, the walk began in earnest—first in pairs and then, as the trail’s ruggedness demanded, single-file.
As the group meandered along, cacti stood sentinel; saguaros, barrel cacti, and pincushion cacti dotted the trails and hillsides. Sage greens, blue-greens, and yellow greens often made the hikers look twice to discern both shapes and shades along the trail. Tiny purple, magenta, and yellow flowers appeared as nuggets or buds at the ends of stems. Winding in, out, around, and along washes allowed the walkers to venture from uneven rocky ledges, to broken rocky terrain to soft sand, sparing both the ankles and the careful watchfulness of the group. Comfortable chatter floated along from hiker to hiker when suddenly an eerie sound like a scream broke the rhythm of the walk. “What was that?” asked one hiker. “Just some kids,” replied another. Soon the cries became louder, longer, and echoed from one hilltop to another. The line of hikers halted, eyes turned toward the rocky hillside from which the calls emanated. There were no teens or any other hikers on this part of the trail. It soon became clear that two packs of coyoteson two different hilltops were engaged in warning of impending interlopers—the sixteen hikers.
Conversations switched to where coyotes and humans fit on the food chain. One hiker suggested that if a coyote heard the cry of a wounded rabbit, it would appear promptly to claim its meal for the day. It is indeed a quality of human nature to be curious, and so, one hiker fairly innocently attempted to be a wounded rabbit with a simple cry for help. Soon movement in the palo verdes and chollos revealed one coyote, then another, followed by three more, yelping and calling and surveying this group of humans. Voices of the hikers hushed, and the group pointed cameras and smartphones to record the eerie calls and sweeping movements on the desert trails. A few hikers grabbed their poles a bit tighter, fearful that they might have to use them to fend off the pack. Once the coyotes determined who had ventured into their territory and that these hikers offered little threat, they retreated back across the hillside.
The group, now mindful of unseen desert residents, continued on its way, stopping first to explore the opening to an abandoned copper mine. Soon, the hikers wound along and around a rocky outcropping to descend to the base of an old windmill, still on this day but capable of creaking on windier mornings. The base of the windmill stood alongside a concrete trough that held stale, green water, and attracting a group of bees that stopped to check for pollen. Musings about the windmill, its creators, and its original purpose occupied the hikers as they explored its existence in this dry desert.
Soon the rocks were filled with hikers, pausing to rest and refuel with apples, crackers, and trail mix. The importance of hydration and maintaining a salt and sugar balance was reinforced when one hiker, overcome by heat and insufficient hydration, momentarily blacked out. A small cadre quickly moved into action, extending the hikers’ legs, offering a backpack for a pillow against the rocks, and getting fluids and salt into the heat victim. When the hiker recovered, everyone breathed easier. All were nudged into an awareness of caution, a need for first aid knowledge, and certainty that the team of hikers would get themselves safely across the desert trail and back to their cars and civilization.
Once again as the cooler morning rolled into a heated afternoon, The Rincon Desert Explorers trickled back from a weekly hike, fatigued, appreciative, and humbled by the beauty and the untamed forces of nature that surround the city of Tucson.