The A to Z of Canyon Living

Just about twenty minutes east of Catalina State Park in the Coronado National Forest is the pretty little Sabino Canyon.    I visited there on the recommendation of the same Park Ranger who recommended I divide my time in Tucson.  Still trying to warm up to the “other side of Tucson,” I figured I should reserve judgment until I had explored his favorite recommendation.

A four-mile paved road runs the length of the canyon.  This road is closed to all vehicular traffic with the exception of the Sabino Canyon Tours Tram.  This noisily narrated nine-stop tram runs every half hour up until 4:30pm, with passengers embarking and disembarking at one to nine stops all along the route.  My typical “after the workday” arrival proved to be fortuitous, as I caught the next-to-last tram up the hill, with the intention to walk the four miles down.   As with Saguaro National Park, the park “closes” at sunset, but once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like, as long as it is on foot or bike.  The crowds were all moving toward the exit, yet it was three hours till sunset, so I had plenty of time.

Sabino Canyon Tours Tram heads up the canyon every half hour.

Sabino Canyon Tours Tram heads up the canyon every half hour.


The last tram of the day heads back down the mountain…


As I started my walk down, the late afternoon sun lighting up the canyon walls was just spectacular.  Please trust me when I say the photos don’t do it justice.  I was in heaven, as everyone had now left the top of the canyon, making their way down either by foot or by the last tram, so I felt a sense of solitude as I lingered at the top, enveloped by the towering canyon walls that were changing color by the minute.IMG_1910IMG_1906
As I began to meander down the mountain, I stopped alongside a creek by a small waterfall, where I paused to take a few photos and soak up the sounds of the trickling water.   I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye.   It was a young, dark haired woman wearing only a sports bra and a pair of low cut jeans.   She was willowy-thin and dark skinned.   Her neck was adorned with strands of Native American-style jewelry…beaded silver, turquoise, feathers dangling from the ends of small leather thongs.  The instant I saw her, my first impression was that she was Native American, though I later decided she was Mexican.

She startled me as she slipped out from behind a rock, since I thought I was all alone.   I said “Hi,” and she responded back with the same, but quickly disappeared once more.   I hiked a bit further up the stream, and then I saw her again, this time with her shirtless male companion and their dog.  He was young and “wildly handsome,” looking a little like young Charles Manson.

They were both very standoffish at first, but I broke the ice with a remark about their dog’s lack of interest in swimming on such a warm day, which led to a conversation.   They reminded me a lot of the “hippies” on Haight-Ashbury Street that I so wanted to be when I was a twelve year old on our “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” family road trip to San Francisco.

At first, they said they were just in the canyon for the afternoon, but the more we talked, the more they revealed.   Turns out, they are actually living in the canyon, and only come down from above after the trams stop running.IMG_1929 IMG_1931

The young woman was absolutely gorgeous….downright stunning.  Except….she had big, one-inch letters “A” and “Z” tattooed on her cheeks in old-style Roman font, one beneath each eye.  This made it next to impossible for us both to make eye contact, me trying hard not to be judgmental, and her, seemingly not wanting to feel judged.    Finally, the more we conversed, the more I found myself wanting to look past the bizarre A to Z tattoos and make eye contact.  Once I did, her eyes locked on like a laser with the familiarity that gave me the eerie feeling that if I had a past life as a Native American, this “being” had been a part of it.  (chill bumps!)

She began to tell me all about living in the canyon, and showed me a basket of buds she had collected from the Cholla cactus.  She had done her research to learn that the Tohono O’odham Indians harvested these Cholla buds, which contain as much calcium as a glass of milk.   She demonstrated how she uses a split rib from the Saguaro cactus as tongs to harvest the buds in the Native American tradition.  She claimed there are more edible plants in the Arizona-Sonora desert than any other place on earth.IMG_1934


We talked further about the Native American traditions, and I shared what I learned when I visited the Chamula indigenous village in Mexico; “The modern man thinks the land belongs to him, but really, he belongs to the land.”  To this, they proclaimed me “the coolest Texan we ever met!”    As I started to leave, I gave them the only food I had on me…a CLIF Peanut Butter Crunch granola bar.   The man said, “I hope you don’t think we were asking for a hand-out.”  I replied, “No, that’s why I gave it to you.”

As I made my way further down the canyon road, I couldn’t stop thinking about their life in the canyon, and how they really had everything they needed, right here.   Shade under the giant Cottonwood trees.  A stream for bathing.   Rock cliffs and overhangs for protection.   Each other to keep warm.  Food from the edible plants.  And drinking water and a place to poop in the public restrooms.  😉    I found myself saying out loud, “I’d like to live here too.”

But then I came to my senses and chalked it up to being hypnotized by the “A to Z.”IMG_1966


14 thoughts on “The A to Z of Canyon Living

  1. These are both the most treasured and most frustrating occurrences in a photographer’s life … assuming you are blessed with the rare gift of such a surreal experience, being at a place where you can’t just pull out the camera or video and start shooting, even when it not for journalistic posterity but simply to preserve your own memory. Hopefully this will serve as an “anchor” to relive the memory … How lucky you are to encounter such a thing!

    • You know, I felt so motivated to write the “A to Z” story, but as I was doing so, I thought “This is an odd thing to be writing about on a travel blog.” So I asked myself why do it? The answer…Because I wanted to remember it! Thanks for “getting that!!”

  2. Totally fascinating post! I’m always intrigued by how others live and that it’s not material wealth that makes the person but rather the spiritual wealth that does and that hopefully we grow from those experiences.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, G, for the nice comment. It was indeed a fascinating experience, and it makes me happy that I was able to convey it in the post. It was one of those odd moments when all the senses feel heightened and time seems to slow down a little bit. Some might mistake that for “fear,” but to me, it usually signals “Something interesting is about to happen…pay attention.”

  3. (hope this doesn’t post twice-my internet died as I hit post so I’m dong it again)

    I thought “what a great idea” to ride the last tram up and walk down in the now silence. But to top that off with such an interesting experience. Really fine! I’m not a BIG desert lover but it does seem that a lot of chill bump sort of things happen there.

  4. Wow….A and Z made for an interesting post. I was totally glued to your words … intense! The strength of their souls…looked up the buds. Good eating… Glad you shared this adventure…

  5. Not an odd thing to be writing about on a travel blog…it catches essence of life. You my friend just experienced a very special moment in your life in an outstanding location. Your pictures really add to your story.

  6. That is exactly why many of us travel. It is not just the beautiful and often awesome scenery, but the lives which are impacted on a daily basis by that scenery. The native americans survived and lived in that beautiful canyon it is fascinating to read of some modern americans who are doing the same. I am happy to see no pictures of the couple as I am sure that some bureaucrat would use it to have them removed.
    Continue your quest, it is fascinating to follow.

  7. Sherry — I agree that the desert has an “ethereal” feel to it, especially late in the evening approaching twilight.

    CozyGirl — Thanks for the nice comment. Yes, I will never look at a Cholla cactus in the same light! More respect now than fear.

    Roxanne — “No matter where I go, no matter what I do, it is my dominant intent to look for those things that please me.” 😉

    Contessa — Thanks, mi amiga. I like that “essence of life.”

    Allen — I did worry about that just a bit, since her tattoos were such a distinguishing characteristic. I hope some “official” is not lurking here. But then my blog does not exactly “play to a packed house.” LOL! Thanks for continuing to show up!

    Dawn — Thanks for the comment. Yes, “serendipitous” was what I thought too. I love those moments! I appreciate you following along…

  8. omg … a young Charles Manson? Suzanne? lord luv a duck … I was there when Manson did his thing and I also lived in Haight-Ashbury district … and I did wear flowers in my hair as well as a crimson red fringed suede mini skirt with matching vest … as well as bell bottom hip huggers ~ today they’re known as low riders … oh, hah!

    You do help me remember the beauty of the desert. I was mesmerized by the changing colors of the rocks … by the minute ~ you are correct… the clouds and the shadows… just gorgeous

    A – Z tattoos? they live in the canyon … you are truly fearless… said it before and I’m saying it again … and I agree… you are the coolest Texan I’ve ever met …

    I agree with Don … How lucky you are to encounter such a thing … and to appreciate it… that’s the deal … you are truly earth’s child… such encounters ARE what traveling is all about … not to just look at pretty or ugly but experience in real time where you are… and you do that big time!

    • Thanks, Carolyn. “Earth’s child?” That is the ultimate compliment for us all, isn’t it? Next time I am in Texas, I am gonna have to go back to the Kodachrome slides in my parent’s attic from 1966 and see if I can spot a crimson red fringed suede mini skirt! HAHA!! (And I was passionate about ANY boy with long hair back then. In a sick, Patti Hearst kind of way, I actually thought the “Charles Manson look” was cute. SICK, I KNOW!! But I was young, stupid, and impressionable.)

  9. I totally enjoyed reading about your encounter with that couple living in the wild. I liked how they trusted you to tell their life situation to. It is so cool when we can trust fellow man. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *