Total Miles: 627.8
The flames dance and flicker to the music of a barely perceptible breeze floating down through the Ponderosa pines. Daylight fades, and the red embers pulse and shimmer.
Sitting a few feet away, staring absentmindedly into the mesmerizing fire, my hands are cold. Not a deep biting chill, but the kind that starts like a mild burn on your skin as the blood begins to thicken and slow, taking your dexterity with it. Despite its discomfort, it’s a sensation that is comforting to me, familiar. An old friend. It is childhood, playing in a winter’s snow.
At 8,000 feet, it’s also no surprise. But 8,000 feet is a long way from where the day began.
4,000 feet below, there was a similar chill to the early morning before the first rays of sun fell on us like a warm blanket. Ambling along a 2-track dirt road, crossing from one flat wash to another it wasn’t long before we realized we’d followed one such wash away from the actual trail. Rather than backtrack, we opted for a cross country route to rejoin the trail—a small adventure within the adventure. Simple as it might have been to navigate, the volume of dry vegetation we had to plow through along the way—including its velcro-like burrs—had me looking like I was a string of lights away from being a Christmas tree.
A dozen miles gone, and the now baking heat was enough to make you question whether the chill of the morning had been anything more than imagination. As toasty as the preceding miles had become, they were about to get a whole lot toastier. Tilting our heads up, the next sky island of Mica Mountain, whose slopes are home to Saguaro National Park, soared upward and seemed to be chasing the sun to the west. Somewhere up the nearly 5,000 foot climb before us, shade would replace sun and chill would replace sweat.
Like a Tour de France stage (minus the blood doping), the miles of anticipation-building flats leading to the foot of the mountain were at an end, and it was now time to climb. And climb. And climb.
Roughly halfway up, a vestige of Saguaro’s past life as a National Monument greeted us at the National Park boundary. Designated a National Monument in 1933, this tract among the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson was only given full-fledged National Park status in 1994, when it was paired with a completely separate tract in the Tucson Mountains west of the city.
Climbing higher and higher up the slopes of Mica Mountain above the dusty golden hues of the desert floor unfolding below, the vegetation of this latest sky island worked precisely in reverse from everything I’ve been programmed to expect. Just as with the ascent of Mount Taylor on the New Mexico CDT, everything here was upside down.
Rather than watching trees shrink into shrubs and shrubs into grasses with each successive step into thinner air, I watched grasses grow into shrubs and shrubs into trees: Silverleaf and Netleaf oaks, Ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs. Plants embracing the cool and hiding from the heat, this island in the sky was a world apart from the one the we’d left behind with the cactus and dust.
Sunset filtered through the pines, its colors matching only those of the campfire flames that now licked the rapidly chilling air. Perched over the crest of the climb at 8,000 feet and carpeted with pine needles, Manning Camp—once a refuge from the Tucson summer for a former mayor and businessman—would be our motel room for the night. As a gentle breeze began to blow, my hands began to feel its chill, trying to remember what it felt like to be too warm.