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home > community > viewpoint > a fig to thee oh tourista!

A fig to thee oh tourista!
Arizona adventures in Tucson.

A fig to thee oh tourista!

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By Chris Russell
Posted Tuesday, 23 May, 2006

Traveling on business can be an adventure if you seize the day. My business life took me southwest last week and I carved out a fantastic run up the side of a mountain. It was a long week. I started with two days in OK city and on Wednesday flew against the time zones to Tucson. I got my run in and it was awesome.

I was a speaker at a conference. The conference was in a palatial golf resort nestled hard up against the Catalinas. In the cab, with my new friend Gene the cabbie, coming in from the airport it was still daylight. I'm well traveled, but the high desert country is alien to a Boston boy. At home they were suffering through 14 straight days of rain that was driving docile New England rivers out of their beds and into the basements of fretful Yankees. Here it was hot, dry and sunny. The most alien thing to me is the total lack of trees. I'm sure a Tucsonite dropped into the great green tunnels of my back yard would feel just as out of place.

Chatting up the cabbie - a lifelong local - I got the basic weather expectations and lay of the land. Looking out the window I saw rocky, scrub covered mountains heaving grey-blue against the afternoon sun. One thought came to mind. "I've got to get out there and run!" My particular form of insanity runs deep.

Upon arrival at the resort I was checked in a whisked away by golf cart to a very nice room. (Probably too nice for a mid-packer) I'm not really comfortable with luxury, but my nice room was conveniently adjacent to the "health spa". Oh boy! No rusty universal here. They had a full weight room, a full cardio room and a lap pool. I got my Speedo and made a break for it before someone discovered I had arrived. Unfortunately, there was some charity function going on at the lap pool area. I told the attendant that I didn't mind and it could be considered entertainment. Why not cocktails, cheese and some big, un-tanned New Englander thrashing about? They could throw me fish or something. They weren't amused.

I had to backtrack, get my other workout stuff and head for the cardio room. The place was geared to a swanky clientele. The rich and famous set. The locker room had secret-code keypad entry and secret code electronic locks on the lockers. It was all chrome and leather with more gratis personal care products than a compulsive hairdresser. All that was missing was the little old guy in a suit to hand you towels and gesture uncomfortably for a tip. Must have been his night off.

The cardio room was full of nice, new, high-end equipment. Each machine had a personal flat screen monitor with cable T.V. I mounted a recumbent bike and cranked it up for a 40 minute random work out. In my experience 'random' actually means 'random hills'. I had my iPod on so I wasn't really into the T.V. but scanned the channels to see if I could find something that didn't require audio, like a soccer game on the Spanish channel.

I became fixated on an old black and white movie from the 30's. I think it might have been a young Angela Lansbury as the courtesan of a young doctor. The actors, not that far removed from silent films, painted emotions clearly with their faces. I don't know what the movie was really about, but they were all very troubled about whatever it was. It was fascinating and intersected weirdly with the Pink Floyd on my head set. Maybe there was some Peyote growing in the air conditioning system, who knows?

I got my workout in but missed dinner and had to dig into my emergency cache of power bars and sunflower seeds. The night was clear and cool - in the 50's with a bright moon over the mountains. Not a cloud in the sky, but plenty of stars sprayed across the heavenly mean. There were rustlings in the desert bushes, geckos and birds nesting in the night.

The next morning I rolled out of bed wide awake at 5 AM. The 3 hour time change played to my advantage vanquishing sleep deprivation with adrenaline. I had a couple cups of coffee in the room and reviewed my presentation. The sun rose before I did in a clear, dry bright blue desert sky.

At 5:30 I made my way back over to the pool to see if I could finally get a swim in. Although the temperature was only in the 50's, the pool was heated. I was thinking that it must make life simpler when the weather forecast is the same every day. Checking the sign in book I could see that there were half a dozen people already at the door of the spa when it opened at 5:30. Demographics are changing. More business people try to get their exercise in every day. It's becoming part of the culture and not an aberration anymore. Executives are more and more coming to understand the relationship between training the mind and body as a success enabler.

I spent the next half hour doing what I refer to as swimming. The more I train the worse I get. They're going to find me at the bottom of that pool one of these days. How is it possible that I can run 26 miles but end up gasping like a sick sturgeon after a few laps? Life is full of opportunities!

Walking back to the room my plan for running up the mountain was becoming a fixation. There it was. A couple miles away. Beckoning and wild. This is the stuff that great stories are made of. What kind of person would I be if I let this mountain get away? There were Jack rabbits bouncing around in the agaves acting skittish. Somewhere close by a great horned owl hunted with the signature "Who-Who-Whooooo!" Mourning doves mourned vociferously in the underbrush. I think I saw a road-runner. This resort compound was teeming with life.

I had actually tried to plan ahead by contacting the local running club for good runs in the vicinity. They told me I was in luck; there was a good wash nearby. I told them I wasn't looking for a laundry; I was looking four a trail run. Seriously, they were helpful, but not really specific enough for an executable plan with a high probability of success.

I went to the concierge fully expecting the "jogging path around the parking lot" answer. I was surprised. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill roadside motel. They knew their stuff. When asked if I could 'run up that mountain', she immediately produced two maps and three copies of trail reviews from the local papers. There were three options within reach. The first was a place called Sabina Canyon which was billed as a well used family hike. The second was something slightly more challenging in the form of a ridge hike. The third was Finger Rock Trail. This last was advertised as a difficult trail with 5,000 ft of elevation gain. You can guess which one I set as my goal.

The Finger Rock is a prominent geographic feature on the Catalinas. It is an 80 ft column of rock jutting up from the top of the mountain. In a politically correct way the guides describe it as like an index finger proclaiming "we're #1". To my sardonic temperament it is the mountain flipping me the bird and daring me to assault it! "A fig to thee Mr. Tourist! Bring it on!"

Feeling extremely excited about my impending adventure I wanted to share my good fortune. I went to the conference organizers and told them I was willing to organize a 'run up the mountain' the next morning at 5 AM if they thought anyone was interested. She looked at me like I was insane and mumbled some deprecating assurances. Oh well, I tried! I bet if they made the announcement there would have been a couple other crazies who would join me!

I did my speech and sat on my panel of experts. It all went swimmingly. My plans were coming together. I wouldn't have to get to the airport until midmorning and would have a good 2 hours to explore that mountain.

My resolve hung in the balance as we were spirited away on buses to an 'old west adventure' ranch. My co-workers were surprised to see me loading up a huge plate of southwestern goodies from the dinner buffet.
"Geez, Chris I've never seen you eat this much…"
"I'm going to run up that mountain in the morning!'
"Ummm…, sure you are…"
"Where's the pecan pie?"
We played black jack and inhaled second hand cigar smoke until late. The buses didn't drop us off until midnight. I set my alarm for 5:00 AM and thought longingly of my mountain. No one wanted to join me for my 5:00 AM jaunt up to finger rock.

I got up; had some coffee and a power bar. The trail head looked to be due north. I did some internet mapping and satellite reconnaissance - don't you just love technology? I did what I had to do to prevent unnecessary surprises later in the run. I filled a 1 liter water bottle with water and forced down a few glasses to prime the pump. My experience with desert running is that I never have enough water. I had my old trail shoes, some basic running stuff and a hat for sun protection. I threw the latch and headed out.

I immediately ran into a woman walking on the cart path. I commented to her on how improbable it was that the only two people awake on this early Friday morning would cross paths. She said that she had just been frightened by a herd of Javalinas, which look like pigs, but are actually some sort of giant rodent or something. I wished I had seen some. It was sunny and in the 50's again.

I headed north towards the finger rock. I crossed a highway and wandered into a gated community. I ran through the gated community but couldn't get out the back because it was surrounded by a wall. Eventually I just scrambled over the wall and found myself on another highway looking at a sign with an arrow pointing up a road that said "Finger Rock Trail Head". Cool, how lucky is that? The road went up, up, up at a nice steady 3% grade for about 3/4 mile of tarmac. The mountains screened off the direct sunlight when I got close.

At the trailhead there were warnings about endangered bighorn sheep. I didn't see any. Actually I didn't see much wildlife at all once I left the resort. The trail followed a canyon up to the top of the mountain. The write up said it was around 5-6 miles to the top with a 5,000+ ft elevation gain and great views.

The trail started out on an easy incline up broken rocks and gravel through thickets of native vegetation. The running wasn't that bad. I couldn't have pushed the pace even if I wanted to because of the uneven surface and twisting and turning of the narrow trail. The vegetation was pure Southwest and magnificent. Large multi-armed saguaro cacti in full flower. Clumps of beaver tail cacti also flowering. The thing about desert plants is they all bite. I picked up more than a few scratches and imbedded thorns just by brushing up against things on the trail.

It was actually quite comfortable with the sun still hidden behind the mountain throwing the higher crags into sharp relief. After about ¾ of a mile the trail got serious and proceeded to turn into a series of steep switch backs that climbed the canyon wall. Parts of it were untenable and I had to use my hands to climb. As I climbed up-up-up the canyon dropped away in a sheer cliff on one side and a sheer wall of rock on the other.

After about 37minutes of this I couldn't run anymore and switched to a power-hike-run mode with my heart working hard and my liter of water disappearing fast. There were shallow caves carved into the cliff face and I thought I might see some coyote or sheep, but I did not. I checked my watch and made an adult decision to stop at an hour in.

I would have loved to push on to the top, but I wasn't outfitted for it. I had less than half my water left and the sun was threatening to come out with all its fury from behind the mountain. To make it to the top I would need a camelback and some food. I sat on a lookout rock and soaked in the fine view of the Tucson plain that spread out from the bottom of the canyon. I stacked up some little rocks and built a cairn. Some sort of atavistic offering. I could probably find the right person nearby to perform the proper healing ritual for me, but this would have to suffice.

I figured I made it in about 3 miles and maybe up 3000 feet or so. It was magnificent. I could have gone on, but the adult decision was to head back. I was fairly well soaked with sweat from the ascent so I took off the stinky shirt and turned around.

As is always the case in rough, steep mountain trails going down was just as taxing as going up if not more. I really worked my quads to keep from careening out of control as I skipped from rock to rock down the switchbacks. I looked over the edge and wondered how long it would take them to find me if I missed a turn and ended up in the bottom of the canyon. I figured they could narrow it down to a handful of guys by the combination of my Boston '05 hat, my ES20 tech shirt and my Canadian MEC shorts. Those CSI guys should be able to pinpoint me from that information alone even if the coyotes ate my face off.

Scene opens. Police tape outlines a badly mauled body on the canyon floor. The CSI team hunches over, inspecting.
Catherine: "I.D. is going to be difficult, the coyotes a have really torn him up."
Grissom: "Yes, they're drawn to carrion with high adipose content. It gives them more energy for mating season."
Catherine: "Geez, what a mess, how are we going to figure out who it…was?"
Grissom: "Follow the evidence. What do you make of the hat?"
Nick: "It's the 2005 Boston Marathon. For a 40 something year old guy that only narrows it down to about 4,000 potentials…"
Grissom: "And the shirt?"
Nick: "Well if he ran the Eastern States 20 miler in 2005 as well it probably gets us to under 50 probables when we cross reference…"
Grissom: "And the shorts…"
Nick: "MEC, what is that some sort of club?"
Grissom: "Mountain Equipment Company, a Canadian based sporting goods co-op that you have to have a membership to buy."
Nick: "So, we cross reference a 40- something guy with Boston '05, ES20 '05 who shops in Canada and we've got him?
Grissom: "Simple deduction."
Scene cuts to morgue. Coroner and Grissom.
Grissom: "So what have you got on our friend here?"
Coroner: Well he's got high levels of certain well-being enhancing chemicals in his blood stream. Do you think he was a doper?"
Grissom: No that's common with endurance athletes."
Coroner: "Gil, I've autopsied this guy, and he wasn't much of an athlete…"
Grissom: (scowling thoughtfully) "I believe they call them 'mid-packers'. Even though they have little athleticism they still try to run up mountains, it's not an uncommon psychosis."
Coroner: "Well, the other strange thing is that he was carrying a lot of extra weight around the middle for an endurance athlete."
Grissom: "The irony is, if he could have pushed back from the burrito buffet he might have been able to make that turn on the switchback."
Phone rings - Grissom answers - tight cut to Greg
Greg: "Hey, I analyzed his iPod and found some weirdness."
Grissom: "Greg, just the facts please."
Greg: "Well this dude had bizarre mix of music from classical to punk rock"
Grissom: Probably a borderline schizophrenic, might have been having an episode on the mountain. Anything else?"
Greg: "Can I keep the shoes? ASICS trail shoes are cool."
Scene fades, music comes up.

Midway down I met some hikers going up who kindly made way for me. I must have been quite an apparition with my New England tan hopping down the trail full throttle and slightly out of control. Before long I was at the trailhead again and feeling fantastic. Those dopes hanging out by the pool didn't know what they missed. What a great run! Talk about a healing ritual! There is nothing like running up a mountain in a strange place to bring you closer to God, and you can quote me on that.

I got a little lost on the way back, hopping walls and sprinting across the meticulously manicured Jack Nicklaus golf course, hoping not to get hit by an errant drive. I found my room eventually and packed up for the 14 hour plane ride home. I could face it with ease now because I ran up that mountain. My quest was fulfilled. On the way to the airport Gene the cabbie told me it was going to be over 100 that day. Good thing I turned back.

I paid for it over the weekend. My quads were sorer from fighting that mountain than they were from the hills at Boston on Patriot's Day. But it was a good hurt that reminded me of my mountain every time I bent over or stood up.

Go find your mountain. Tell the real world to take a hike and wander off into wild places. You might not ever be here again. Today it is just you and your mountain. Embrace it.

See you out there,



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