Obsessions and Dancing
When I was young I was drawn to the exotic, reading books about faraway places, mysterious structures, and strange beasts of legend. Although I have had the good fortune of experiencing many of these childhood fascinations, one that I haven't is a gold mine of unsurpassed wealth and riches, buried in a web of murder, lies, and deceit: the Lost Dutchman Mine, hidden somewhere in the wilds of the Superstition Mountains of Southern Arizona.
As I say, I've seen many wonderful things. Many of my adventures have revolved around mountaineering, but recently my climbing has become sporadic and far less technical as our children grow towards adulthood. Perhaps danger and death has lingered too close - if that avalanche had struck one day later or the whirling rock had followed a slightly different trajectory… Instead of dreaming of walking the lonely heights of Gasherbrum IV or the Eiger, more of life has involved my children's activities as well as the ever increasing demands of teaching in a public high school. As it stands, the last technical climb that I managed was some two and a half years ago.
The Superstition Mountains
One of the activities that I talk of is my daughter's sport of Irish Step Dancing, which like many things takes years of practice and dedication to master. Each year, there is a Western US regional competition known as the Oireachtas, which represents a qualifier for National and World competition. Last year, it was in Sacramento, so I went with her for several days of music and dancing, just the two of us. This year, when I learned that the competition was to be held in Phoenix, long lost thoughts came alive: gold and treasure, mystery and intrigue in the Superstitions.
As another back story, my parents had lived for a time in Tucson for a while, and I'd enjoyed many adventures in the magnificent desert peaks lining all sides of that southern city, but I'd really only visited Phoenix once, long ago, before I'd even met my wife, when I watched the team that lost that famous game against Doug Flutie and settled for a Fiesta Bowl berth. Before moving back to the East, my parents had purchased some land south of Tucson, built a small house, and for twenty years had invited us to visit but complexities of life always seemed to keep us away. After some discussion, we arranged to meet, watch the dance, and then spend a couple days at their casita as they called it.
View From Peak 5024
The flight down included a mixture of lean high school students headed to a regional cross-county meet and girls carrying tell tale dress bags. Soon, we were embroiled in the many lane chaos of Phoenix highways, and later, spent two days listening to reels, hornpipes and watching individual and team dancing events. It's different being the parent watching helplessly as events proceed completely outside your realm of influence, nevertheless, she finished her performances well, with continued enthusiasm for the sport.
The final day of Oireachtas was for older girls, and my daughter wanted to watch for a while before we headed south for a reunion with an old friend and then the trip to the casita. My wife knows when things are meaningful for me, so she allowed me the opportunity to slip away for a few hours early in the morning to finally walk near the fabled lost mine. All knowing Google had told me that it would take 35 minutes to travel from our hotel to the Lost Dutchman State Park, so exactly that amount of time after leaving, I was at the entry booth to the park, listening to the ranger continue on about carrying sufficient water and how the hike took longer than I had before I needed to check out from our hotel.
Nevertheless, I greeted the early morning by hiking up the Siphon Draw trail to a feature known as the Flatiron which supposedly revealed a spectacular view of the surrounding courntryside. I began the walk, and once again, was among saguaro, cholla, and so many desert plants that I'd long missed. There was a fire burning somewhere, though, and the acrid taste of smoke kept with me at each breath. Eventually, the maintained trail ended at a slab of rock and the route continued up bare rock then rugged gully for a couple thousand feet. At the top of the draw, rather than turning right to the Flatiron, I continued upwards to the top of nearby Peak 5024, the highest point of the northern Superstition Mountains. At the summit, Arizona extended out in all directions; valleys and peaks reaching far away to the horizon. Down below my feet, I made out Weaver's Needle, a prominent feature just south of the fabled mine. If stories were to be believed, the gold was now only a couple miles from me - hidden by the Apache's, they say, and then covered by debris from an earthquake.
Relaxing, I opened my pack for a taste of water, only to find that the bottle was the one with the leak, and it had tipped over, leaving nothing. I thought back to the advice of the ranger, wishing perhaps that I hadn't dismissed him so flippantly. Descending to the Flatiron, I admired its spectacular view and then descended back into the steep draw to rejoin with my wife and daughter. Times have changed, of course, and two different groups came up the wash accompanied by the loud blare of music, another group unabashedly carried a large hookah, while a fourth shouted exuberantly into the cliffs to converse with their echoes. Maybe these things aren't really new or any different than they've been for millennia, but they seem different from my own pursuits in wilderness. It's good, though, that such a large portion of the city was out enjoying these lands.
Sunset from the Casita
Within a few hours, we were taking the shuttle along I-10 to Tucson, past Picacho Peak, site of the Civil War's westernmost engagement, and on to Tucson, a place that I hadn't been for nearly twenty years. Ragged Top drifted past to the right, then the magnificent features above Catalina State Park - Leviathan Dome where I'd spent my final day in Tucson all those years ago, Cherry Jam - what a fabulous day that had been, and many more obscure features such as Barrier Tooth and a peak we knew as Shrouded Tooth. Memories.
That night, we all enjoyed dinner with Terry, both a friend of the family's and my long ago climbing partner in Tucson, and his wife. From his home at the mouth of Sabino Canyon, we looked again at past adventures: that fin on the south side of Rattlesnake Peak where I'd fallen into a prickly pear during the descent and another faraway spire with an unprotected death fall that had kept us shy of its summit. Terry trades and sells goods from the Navajo, the Tohono O'odham, and many others. He showed us baskets, kachina dolls, pottery, and other rare treasures. Many of the tribes have stopped making baskets. It just isn't worth their time any more. Change again. As the wonderful meal that Peggy, his wife, had made came to a close, he let us enjoy the fruit of the saguaro with its delicate and complex flavors. What a magical time!
View of the West Peak from the East Peak summit
Then we continued on to the south to the casita for a couple days of solitude far from the cities. Years earlier, my wife and I had visited the land where my parents ended up building, and I'd been captivated by a range of stately peaks arising out from the sweeping valleys beyond. For years they'd dwelled in the far reaches of my thoughts, so the next day my parents dropped me off for a three hour tour of the range while the others visited a nearby ranch. A three hour tour, sort of like Gilligan, I guess. Soon, sharp stalks of grass poked through my shoes, then memories again: shindaggers, achotillo, prickly pears. The peak that I climbed was a wonderful reef of limestone, rising in several steps, as the plains of Southern Arizona fell away beneath me. There was a deep gap between its Western and Eastern summits. An improbable descent materialized, though, and then the hike became a bushwacking classic: cliffs, cactus, loose rock, and thick stands of live oaks. I could have descended most of the way to the base of the peak and avoided the cliffs, but there wouldn't have been time, so I pressed on, weaving eventually to the gentle slopes near the mountain's summit. A prickly pear banged into my knee at some point leaving an array of small spines: déjà vu once again… After a brief rest at the peak to take in the magnificence around me, I rushed back down, running the last mile or so to get back in time.
The San Juan Range
We spent the next couple days there, relaxing, enjoying solitude, gazing up at the brilliant stars and drones keeping our border safe. Then it was time to return to our own home. Visibility was probably 200 miles on the flight north: Shiprock, the Henry Mountains, Mesa Verde, the San Juans, Elks, and southern peaks of the Sawatch Range all passed by in succession, and then we descended back to Denver and home. The next morning I went for a run and was soon stewing about all of the testing and the status of public education. Suddenly a gentleman passed in the other direction, "Happy Thanksgiving," he shouted without provocation. He's right, of course. We live in a wonderful place and time…