Friday, April 30, 2021

Tucson: Saguaro National Park - Day 2, Douglas Spring Trail

A view of outlying areas of Tucson over a saguaro forest with the Santa Catalina Mountains behind. The Catalinas loom over the entire Tucson area. The highest peaks are over 9000 ft above sea level. This was taken from early in Douglas Spring Trail, when it starts to climb the Sierra Rincon.


I got up at 6 am, worried about the limited parking at the trailhead, but once I arrived I realized that this was irrelevant. The Douglas Spring trailhead is outside of the main part of the park and not only was the "official" parking lot already full by 7:30 am local time, but the approach road had very wide, sandy desert shoulders with a few cars already overflowing. I went ahead and parked along the road and put my annual interagency pass on the rear view mirror, though I doubt it was applicable or necessary.

The trail starts off in a relatively flat area of typical Sonoran Desert and crosses through several sandy dry washes. The cacti were starting to bloom and I took several photos of the flowers.

Ocotillo were blooming.

Teddy bear cholla? Not sure.

After about 0.8 miles the trail starts to head uphill, and I was glad I brought my trekking poles, which I had considered leaving behind. The next couple of miles were almost entirely uphill into the lower slopes of the Sierra Rincon.

The Sonoran Desert teems with life, even after the last two years of extreme drought. The desert tans are opposed by the deep greens of the succulents, and enlivened by the scurrying of lizards and rodents. I startled Gambel's Quail a couple of times and saw and heard a myriad of other small birds. After the sun warms the day, the ground crawls with red ants and other insects dragging food stuff to the underground colonies. Flying species visit the flowers. Beware of the africanized bees.

Climbing into the foothills of the Sierra Rincon (Rincon Mountains).

The trail steepened, and soon I hiked up a well-maintained, stepped path that ascended above a narrow canyon. I enjoyed views of the eastern and northern suburbs of Tucson, with the Rincons and the Sierra Santa Catalina looming on northern and southern sides. As the sun rose, the air temps increased, but remained tolerable, even considering the uphill slope.

I'm out of shape from the snowy Flagstaff winter, but I found the uphill going reasonable, perhaps assisted by my everyday existence on the thin air of high altitude. That is not to say I wasn't passed, but I was passed mostly by trail runners.

I bought a Garmin GPS watch several months back, and I found myself watching it like a hawk, trying to decide if I had missed the side trail to Bridal Wreath Falls, but I persisted in the lack of evidence that my hike had gone astray. I passed the streaked rock of the high end of a dry wash, and eventually came upon a trail intersection with a metal sign that confirmed that my hike had gone true, and that I needed to turn right to get to Bridal Veil Falls.

Along the side trail the terrain broadened and it became clear I was climbing to an obvious place for a waterfall, and though the rising April wind tricked my mind a couple of times, I eventually realized that no water was flowing. The side trail deposited me into a dry wash that nonetheless showed signs of being a riparian area. I startled birds and lizards and a chipmunk. I made my way up 50 meters of dry boulders and found the "falls." As I anticipated, the falls were dry but for an area of rock darkened by water oozing out of cracks in the rock. I would have preferred an actual waterfall, but close examination revealed small plants living off the meager flow.

Water oozing from cracks in the rock at Bridal Veil Falls.

Tiny plants thriving on the meager water supply.

I spent some time taking photos and rock hopping, then decided to go back to the trail and try a "goat track" that I'd seen climbing the right bank of the arroyo. This lead to sketchy views down onto the "waterfall" and more bird spotting, but I finally decided that I was risking my life. The trail, such as it was, consisted of loose gravel surrounded by cacti and other spiky plants.

The day was young, so when I got back to the trail intersection, I decided to take another side trail downhill on a completely different arroyo to Ernie's Falls. Considering the lack of water on Bridal Wreath Falls, my expectations of flowing water were low.

Ernie's Falls is presumably at center. It's difficult to see but there were dark streaks that presumably were wet. The mountains above are the Sierra Rincon. They have pine forest on the higher elevations.

Ernie's Falls were almost completely dry, but I could see black areas on the rock face which I suspect revealed oozing sheets of moisture, much like at Bridal Wreath Falls. The trail continued to the park boundary, but I saw no reason to continue. If I'd taken the Douglas Spring trail further, beta tells me that it eventually leads up into pine forest above 7000 feet, but I wasn't in shape for that, nor was I prepared with my pack. I was already approaching 6 miles and carrying extra mass around my midsection from the Flagstaff winter and the COVID lockdowns and knew that hiking back to the car would take all my energy. I started back to the trail intersection, and having reached it, immediately headed downhill on the Douglas Spring Trail.

Douglas Spring Trail headed downhill.

Just another photo of beautiful Sonoran Desert slopes. Places like this make me remember my childhood visit to Arizona.

After a few minutes I was tired and moving slowly despite going downhill. I found a rock to sit on high up in a steep dry wash. It was midday, and there was no shade. I ate a leftover breakfast burrito and resumed my descent. The good thing about doing an out-and-back: you always notice things on the way back that you didn't on the way out. Like a rare opportunity to see a saguaro bloom up close. Usually they are too high to see into.

A rare look into a saguaro bloom. Usually they are too high up to see into!

I finished up, tired and feeling my continued lack of fitness. But it's amazing how much better I feel than I did a month ago. The only solution for a lack of fitness is to get fit.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Tucson: Saguaro National Park - Day 1

After lunch on Thursday at Tacos Apson, I needed to use a few hours before the check-in time of my Airbnb in Tucson. I decided to drive straight over to Saguaro National Park to use them well. I visited the larger, eastern section of the park, called the Rincon Mountain District. There is also a western section called the Tucson Mountain District.

The visitors's center is relatively small compared to other parks I have been to, but perhaps proportional to the number of visitors. I embarked upon the Cactus Forest Loop Drive and visited every overlook. As always, there were drivers behind me nearly the entire time who wanted to drive faster. I'm not sure these people understand the purpose of national parks.

I knew there were some trailheads leading into the saguaro forest that I passed on the drive, but decided to just hike the easier hikes and plan for a longer hike on Friday. I've been to the Sonoran Desert many times in the past and wanted something a little more diverse.

Desert Ecology Loop - This is an easy, short loop on pavement with signs describing the plants and ecology of the Sonoran desert. It's a fully accessible trail and I recommend it for anyone.

A lovely barrel cactus on the Desert Ecology Trail. You can distinguish young saguaro from barrel cacti by the curved spines on the barrel cactus.

A classic dry wash on the Desert Ecology Trail.

Strava GPS Track - Desert Ecology Walk

Freeman Homestead Loop - This is also easy but it is an unpaved trail with a little bit of up-and-down. The trail goes through an old home site but there isn't much to see there, but it also goes through the desert and into a dry wash with a high, eroding wall. It's a good trail for beginning hikers.

Strava GPS Track - Freeman Homestead Trail

A view of the Rincon Mountains from the Loop Road.

There are many places to stop on the loop, sometimes curated with signs. Others stops provide trail access. The road climbs to a high point with good views of Tucson and the Rincon Mountains. I particularly enjoyed a stopping point where it was possible to wander out onto some rocky points to look down on the desert. There were bees and red ants everywhere though. But there were also blooming cacti and small wildlife, especially birds and lizards.

A short walk from the road on a beaten path led up to a rocky promontory with great views.

The Tucson Mountains from the rocky promontory. Tucson lies in the basin between.

The view from near the high point of the road. On a bicycle, this would be a substantial climb.

A view of the Santa Catalinas over a saguaro covered ridge from the rocky promontory.

The loop has low speed limits, and is a popular bicycling route. I brought my bike with the intention of riding while in Tucson, but found other things to do and ended up not riding it. Also, I did a lot of walking and hiking and my legs were not quite in shape to do everything my brain wanted to do! I may go back sometime to ride it, because it is surely one of the most scenic bike routes in Arizona. There is also a loop in the Tucson Mountain District, but it is partially gravel/dirt, so would require a mountain bike or gravel bike.

I always enjoy visiting our national parks and Saguaro is a very nice, and somewhat quiet park to visit. I recommend it!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Tucson: Culinary Adventures

The modest original location of Tacos Apson on S 12th St in Tucson. Source: Google Street View (because I forgot to take a photo when I got there - distracted by hunger)

One of the disappointments with my previous visit to Tucson was that I had been too indecisive to seek out some of the local Mexican restaurants for which Tucson is known. Instead I went to a local chain called Sir Vezas that seemed promising, because the founders have Mexican heritage, but it turned out to be more of a sports bar.

Tacos from Sir Vezas in Tucson in 2016. Looks like I forgot to take the photo before I started eating. Funny to think this photo was probably taken with an iPhone 5.

I was determined not to let that happen again this time, so I put authentic Sonoran tacos right at the beginning of my itinerary. After reviewing Yelp, Google, and Reddit, I determined that there was one place that usually shows up in everyone's top 3 tacos for Tucson: Tacos Apson. This is a multi-generational family restaurant operating from an old building with walk-up windows for service. Tip: Although I don't think Apson is a Spanish name, I noticed everyone pronounced the vowels with a Spanish pronunciation and the accent on the second syllable. I got there late in the lunch hour, but still had to wait a good 10 or 15 minutes just to place my order, and another 10 or 15 to get it. The service was slow but I think it was worth the wait.

I was disappointed that my first choice, the taco al pastor, was not available, but they did have one of my other choices: the Apson. I ended up with an asada, a barbacoa, and the Apson. The Apson was the best by far, and the most well balanced, with plenty of mushrooms with multiple types of marinated meat, all provided with three small containers of shredded cabbage, hot red chili sauce which looked homemade, and the characteristic creamy green sauce from Sonoran cuisine that is usually served on Sonoran hot dogs. Apson also has Sonoran hot dogs and other plates but I stuck to tacos. I recommend Tacos Apson if you ever visit Tucson, it's a good example of the Tucson Sonoran taco shack.

The Taco Apson after I put cabbage on it. Unfortunately, I again started eating before I took photos the other two tacos were gone. I was very hungry! I guess I'm not cut out to be a food blogger. I get distracted by the food too much.

After lunch, I went over to Saguaro National Park, a new park for me. After seeing the sites and doing the loop drive with some side hikes, I was hungry again. I checked into my AirBnb on the north side of town and visited a nearby restaurant called El Cisne. This restaurant was "fancy" Mexican cuisine. It was dimly lit and the servers wore black. Sauces were made with wine and cream in the French tradition.

A La Veracruzana from El Cisne. I'll try not to get my shadow on the photo next time.

I ordered the A La Veracruzana, an Oaxacan style dish of chicken with peppers and onions and a lemon-tomato sauce, accompanied by fried rice and my choice of black beans, along with a craft wheat beer and a Pacifico. To my surprise, they also served a side of long slices of lightly sautéed zucchini, squash, and carrots. I've never had anything like that in a Mexican restaurant. Honestly the beans were the best thing. It wasn't bad, and I might go back in the future, but it didn't meet my expectations for a Mexican restaurant, especially one that is more pricey. The vegetables were cut into too long of slices to eat easily without cutting. That seems silly to me. Cutting a meat filet is one thing but I see no reason to have to cut carrots to fit them in your mouth. The menu is interesting though.

The last place I visited was simply a local neighborhood restaurant-bar called Risky Business (the Tanque Verde Road location), which despite the name was quite tame. I had a grilled three cheese sandwich (havarti, provolone, and parmesan) and roasted tomato soup - satisfying contemporary American bar food. I had a couple of local craft beers with it. The restaurant was selected more from convenience than any other reason, and also I was looking for a break from Mexican food for a meal. Although it was nothing fancy, they have a huge menu of mostly contemporary American cuisine. It's the kind of place that is "safe" for people with neutral paletes but it isn't adventurous or outstanding. The service was friendly but there were regulars at the bar who all knew each other and looked at me like I was an alien. It was kind of a Cheers for elderly white people bar, though I saw younger couples in the dining room. If I'd stayed another day I would have gone for more Sonoran cuisine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Tucson: The Old Pueblo

A view across Tucson from my Airbnb.

The nickname for Tucson, Arizona is "The Old Pueblo." It is one of the oldest cities in the American West and was founded during the Spanish colonial period in the late 1700s.

I started this blog entry in 2016 after my first visit to Tucson, which happened on short notice. Somehow I never got around to finishing it and publishing. The weather had been bad and I wanted to go somewhere warm and dry. It was an unduly short visit though, so I'd wanted to go back ever since.

Having arranged a four day weekend a while back, I originally intended to go to California, but while not officially closed to tourism, it's apparent they were trying to discourage tourism. I decided not to be one of the people ignoring the official recommendation. My second choice was Zion National Park in Utah, but the weather forecast turned rainy, and some of the best hikes in Zion are subject to flash flooding. What to do? I decided to go back to Tucson for a slightly longer visit and see and do the things I missed before.

My earlier blog entry sounded a little grouchy. I seem to have had some issues with my visit to Tucson, but I somehow still came away with a positive impression. There are parts of the town that look like one of these junky little desert towns with dirty, flat-roofed houses of cinder block construction, trash sitting around, and window air conditioners dripping on the dirt yard. I saw two young men in one neighborhood who appeared to be about to get into a street fight. But there are also parts of the town that are nice, clean, and modern, with beautiful southwestern architecture, and the entire valley is ringed by beautiful mountains covered with saguaro and pine forest on the higher peaks. There are areas of dusty, dry desert, but also areas of lush, green saguaro forests and irrigated fields.

There are many things to do in Tucson, so I'm breaking up the two trips I've made into multiple blog posts to follow. Although I have made long weekends of it, you could easily go to Tucson and spend a whole week or more seeing sites, visiting parks, hiking, bicycling, rock climbing, or attending sporting events. It's a great city.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Diet and Exercise

My legs are vascularized from years of running and bicycling yet still I'm slow. Right now excess weight on my torso is making things even slower.

It's frustrating that it's so easy to gain weight and so difficult to lose it. Up until my late twenties I could lose weight simply by doing a few pushups and sit-ups 5 or 6 days a week. As I approached 30, I found this no longer worked and that I really had to restrict diet in order to lose weight, regardless of exercise. My body fights against weight loss. 

You can sort of reason why this might be the case if you think about humans living in a primitive state thousands of years ago. For survival, hunter-gatherers needed to be both strong and maintain weight, and store fat against times of scarcity. We are adapted to gain weight and keep it, not to lose it. In the modern world that's irritating.

I've been working out for a few weeks now, despite the snowy March we had here in Flagstaff, but as I strengthen I can feel the extra weight I've been carrying. Hopefully some of it is muscle, because I've been hitting the dumbbells quite a bit. There is progress there but running and cycling I feel every extra pound I carry.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Algorithm

An algorithm. Source: Wikipedia.

I don't know who reads these blog posts. Some get only a few hits, others dozens. I assume Google algorithms dictate some of that, like a post shows up in a search based upon certain terms, or is presented to people browsing through seemingly related topics.

We all know that Big Tech manipulates the information we receive on our displays. Some of this is automated and only intended to provide the best experience possible, but it's also apparent that the information is manipulated according to company policy and managerial decisions. It's creepy, and even if you are knowledgeable about such things and try to get around the algorithm, you can never be certain that what you see is true, or that your searches haven't been filtered in some way that prevents you from finding the best results.

I don't know why I wasn't posting here for a while, especially since my last post got a lot of hits and it would have been the perfect time to take advantage of the algorithms and "grow my following," but I haven't tried to build a following anywhere on the internet for a decade or more. I simply don't care, and write almost entirely for myself. I know other writers have said that over the years and I didn't understand it until I reached that point myself. It sounds selfish, but on the other hand I don't like the idea of seeking the approval of strangers. If I'm practicing self-discipline and living according to my personal ethics, I shouldn't need it.

But I have written over the last couple of weeks over on one of my other blogs, where I share my sharper opinions. Interesting that my sharpest take seems to have received no hits in a couple of weeks. It's political-economic, and I can't help but think the algorithm is suppressing it, because people at Google* don't like it.

I'm a computer programmer, and I can tell you that algorithms sometimes produce unexpected results, especially if you are using AI (and if you don't verify and test adequately), but on the other hand it's easy for programmers to produce contrived output. Since the public doesn't see the program code, we have no way to know if our click metrics reflect a truly hands-free, automated outcome, or if the outcome was motivated. Are the results from an algorithm or from the programmer who wrote it?

Now ask me what to do about it. I don't know. Some clamor for regulation, but regulations too sometimes produce unintended outcomes.

* Google owns Blogger.