In our fourth installment of 5 Awesome Hiking in Tucson Adventures, today’s adventure takes us to one of the best hiking trails near Tucson and most spectacular sky islands in Arizona: Rincon Peak.
I was 12 years old again, competing against Rodney Bernard in a judo tournament. Rodney was about my size but a more skilled and experienced player. He competed that summer at the nationals in Detroit and won a medal. I was an awkward kid, a beginner to the sport. But dad and my judo instructor were yelling encouragements from the sidelines. Like a boxing coach in the corner of the ring, my dad had been pulling for me my entire life. Rodney attempted repeatedly to hurl me to the mat but I countered his every move and I threw him off balance a few times. I didn’t win the match but battled Rodney Bernard to a draw, a triumphant moment indeed.
With dad’s ashes, two days worth of water, food and gear, my pack weighing well over forty pounds, I trudged up the mountain, saving my energy for the big push near the end. My father asked me several years ago to scatter his remains on a beautiful mountaintop. He passed away three weeks prior to this trip and to honor him; I chose one of the best hiking trails near Tucson and most spectacular sky islands in Arizona, Rincon Peak. Joining me was my friend Russell Lowes, an ardent Sierra Club activist and champion of the environment. Russell, an avid hiker, had accompanied me on many epic adventures including the Grand Canyon and the High Sierras of California.
The steepness of the trail and terrain was unrelenting but the views were outstanding. We started out in desert scrub and hiked through a riparian forest featuring huge oaks, cypress and sycamore trees. But there was no water to be found. It had been a very dry year and all of the springs and creeks had dried up. Despite the arid conditions, we observed colorful wildflowers such as blooming cacti and radiant coral bean plants in full blossom.
We ascended through junipers and pinyon pine trees, typical of mid elevation altitudes in southern Arizona. As we climbed higher, massive Manzanita shrubs flourished, such as this twisted and colorful specimen, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen
The sky island we were hiking in, although relatively small in stature, contained much biodiversity. There are other sky island archipelagoes in the world but the mountains of the Southwest may be the most fascinating. In southern Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, there are at least forty sky islands ranging in elevation from 6,000 to 11,000 feet.
Life’s diversity abounds here and each mountain range is unique, picturesque and worthy of exploration. In addition to a great variety of flora and fauna, these sky islands feature stunning riparian areas such as Aravaipa Canyon in the Galiuro Mountains.
A few peaks contain great forests of Douglas Firs, Engelmann Spruce and dramatic columns of rock, remnants of great volcanoes and tectonic plate movement. As we climbed, my mind drifted once again to my dad. Towards the end of his life when he was fading in and out, he gathered his family around him and with tears in his eyes; he admitted that although my dad was difficult to deal with at times, he never meant it. To a man who hardly expressed emotion, this was profound. It was his way of completing and saying he loved us.
One can throw a pebble into a lake and watch the ripples form around it. The ripples become wider and wider. Truth be told, we throw little pebbles into people’s lives every day. Had my dad not sent me to an outdoor oriented summer camp as a child, I probably would not have led hiking outings and wrote about climbing mountains. I grew up in a big city where nature and the outdoors were not readily accessible. Whether he knew it or not, my dad impacted not only my life but the lives of others.
We reached the summit of Rincon Peak. Atop this isolated peak in southeastern Arizona, I gazed upon a landscape which struck awe, resonated beauty, and took in one of the most biologically diverse corners of the world. The landscape encompassed subtropical oaks, soaring pine-clad cliffs, and undulating hills of grassland and forest.
One hundred miles north of here, the massive Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountains jut into central Arizona with their snow-clad peaks, thick forests and deep canyons. The Mogollon Rim lies at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. In the opposite direction, 150 miles to the south, the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, another great mountain system in North America, gives way just before reaching the Arizona New Mexico border. The ecosystem there is different from the sky islands, different from the Rockies, and adapted to warmer temperatures with strong connections to the tropical latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. The mountain ranges of the Sky Island Region exhibits the north south overlap of these two major mountain systems which span the temperate and subtropical latitudes.
From atop Rincon Peak, I released my dad’s ashes into the wind. His remains have melded with the elements of the ages, the rain, the earth, the wind, the water. Perhaps after good monsoon storms his ashes flowed through rushing waters down the mountain and eventually merged with the San Pedro or Santa Cruz, the Gila, the Colorado and into the sea. Storms will again rain on the land and the cycle will repeat once more.
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