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A Wedding in Tucson and a Road Trip to Montana


Only A Month Late to Christina's Wedding

My friends and relatives never invite me to weddings.  No, I'm not a rude or unruly guest.  But I don't enjoy going to weddings, so my friends know that I'm probably not going to show up even if they invite me.  I like the concept of marriage, certainly, but I don't like either the formality of a wedding ceremony or, being the introvert that I am, attending a lively event where I don't know many people.  Strangely enough, I much prefer going to funerals than weddings because they're quiet, reflective and solitary just like I am.  So if you're getting married, I hope your wedding goes well and I sincerely wish you the best in life, but don't bother sending me an invitation.  I'd be more than happy to come to your funeral, though, so please pencil me in.  In fact, I'm looking forward to it.


Above:  Michael and Christina at brunch in Tucson.

My niece, Christina, in Tucson, Arizona got married this spring and had sent me a lovely invitation, but I politely declined.  Instead of going to Tucson in April for her wedding, I told her that I'd enjoy coming down in May and spending a weekend with her and meeting her husband, Michael.  Being very understanding, Christina was fine with that and said she looked forward to seeing me. 


I figured this would be better than going to her wedding because I could spend some time with Michael and get to know him, instead of just briefly chatting with him over a slice of wedding cake.  And I could combine this trip with some desert camping, which, living in Portland, I sorely missed.  So my plan was to first go camping in the desert and then drive to Tucson, where I'd spent the weekend visiting Christina and Michael.


I flew to Phoenix on a Friday morning and rented a PT Cruiser at the airport, stocked up on camping food at a nearby grocery store, then made a run for the border.  My destination that afternoon was Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just north of Mexico.  Yes, it has a funny name but it's one of my favorite national parks in the U.S.  In fact, this would be my third visit there since 1985. 


I reached Organ Pipe around 2 p.m. and found the park mostly deserted.  Its peak season is in January and February when thousands of snowbirds descend on southern Arizona, but this being early May, it wasn't crowded like it is in the winter or unbearably hot like it is in the summer, so I figured it was the perfect time to visit.  There's a large, developed campground by the visitor center and a much smaller, primitive campground several miles away.  I chose the smaller campground, of course, reserved a campsite for it at the visitor center, and spent the next few hours exploring the park. 



Above left:  Flying into Phoenix.

Above center:  Stocking up with groceries.  Look at that rental car.  Nice color, huh?

Above right:  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of my favorite "hidden gems" in America.  I first visited this park in 1985.



Above left:  The park has endless miles of deserts, saguaro cactus and mountain landscapes.  And there are hardly any visitors this time of year.

Above right:  A saguaro cactus almost ready to bloom



Left:  Don't mess with Texas or a  jumping cholla ("choy-a") cactus. 

Their nasty barbed needles come off so easily that they really do seem to jump.




Above left:  This is why you should always wear shoes in the desert.  If those cholla barbs get in your skin, they're very difficult (and painful) to extract.  Believe me, I've learned this first hand.  Many times.

Above right:  Saguaro (pronounced "sa-warr-o") cactus are much friendlier.  They grow arms to help them balance and to wave at tourists.



Above left:  To complete my lesson in cactus-ology, here's the namesake of the park, an organ pipe cactus.  They grow only in a few small areas of the U.S., including this part of southern Arizona.

Above right:  I camped in a primitive campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and shared some evening conversation (and wine) with a nice couple from France.

Swimming to Mexico and a Visit to Tucson

I arrived at the Organ Pipe Cactus campground around sunset and set up my tent, the little shelter I'd bought in Abu Dhabi, which had served me well in the Oman desert.  There was only one other group in the campground, a couple that joined me later that evening bearing a bottle of wine.  They were from France and were spending a few weeks exploring the western U.S. and were amazed at the cactus and desert landscapes at Organ Pipe.  It was a warm and pleasant evening and we spent several hours sharing good conversation (and good wine they were French, after all).


Above:  Camping in Big Bend National Park in Texas in November 1985.  I swam across the Rio Grande River here, my first and only visit to Mexico.

The next morning I hiked through the desert for an hour and then, back at the campground, packed up my gear and drove a few miles south to the border town of Sonoita, Mexico.  I didn't cross the border and go into Mexico on this trip because I didn't have my passport.  I've been to several countries but, surprisingly, never to Mexico. 


Well, I've never "officially" been to Mexico, I should say.  About 25 years ago during one of my cross-country drives in my beloved 1985 Toyota pickup truck, I visited Big Bend National Park in Texas and camped alone one evening right along the Rio Grande River.  As I looked across the river, I realized that I'd never been to Mexico, so I put on my swimming trunks and swam across, walked on the Mexican side for a few moments, then swam back to Texas.  So yes, I have been to Mexico, I guess you could say.


After taking a couple pictures of Sonoita, I hopped in the PT Cruiser and headed out.  This area has really changed in the past few years and there's a much larger presence of Border Patrol agents now, including several that I saw in the park, reflecting the increasing concerns of illegal immigration and drug smuggling.  In fact, on the deserted highway on my way to Tucson, they had set up a check point where I had to stop and roll down my window, then I went eye-to-eye with a burly Border Patrol agent wearing reflective sunglasses.  


Above:  Leaving Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, bound for Tucson.

The agents are apparently instructed to talk fast, in case the person doesn't speak English very well and won't be able to understand what they're asking, an indication they might be an illegal alien.  So speaking very quickly, the officer asked me, "WhereAreYouFrom?"  "WhereAreYouGoing?" and a FewOtherThings, then he waved me on.  I was hoping Mr. Mirrored Sunglasses wasn't going to ask me about that Rio Grande incident back in 1985 and thankfully he didn't.


I reached Tucson on Saturday afternoon and met my niece Christina and her husband Michael.  He's a great guy, just as everyone had told me, and they make a cute couple.  They took me out to dinner that night at an Ethiopian restaurant, a new experience for me, and we had a great time, then back home they showed me slides of their honeymoon in Asia.  We had brunch on Sunday morning at a busy restaurant near the University of Arizona that was filled with college students and then went to Sabino Canyon, where we took a tour in an open-air bus.


Above:  Christina and Michael took me out to Tucson's only Ethiopian restaurant.  No utensils here; instead you eat everything with your fingers.  That spongy bread with the spicy condiments was awesome. 

My last visit to Tucson, about 25 years ago, wasn't nearly as fun.  Back in my college days in southern California, I dated a student named Katy for a few years, then we parted ways to go to different grad schools.  She moved to Tucson and I moved to Wisconsin, but we still dated for a few years afterwards or at least, I thought we were still dating. 


One June after the school year, we planned a weekend get-together, so I drove to Tucson, found her house, knocked on her door and gave her a big kiss.  After a few hours, though, she told me that she had, uh, found a new boyfriend.  And not only that, but this guy joined us that night for dinner (can you say "awkward"?)  And then he decided to spend the night with her, upstairs in her room while I slept on the living room floor (can you say "awkward"?)  It was a very strange evening for me, as you can probably imagine, and I left Tucson early the next morning vowing never to return.


I never thought I'd see Katy again, but amazingly enough, she popped up 20 years later at my company in Seattle, where she'd been hired to work on the same project as me (can you say "awkward"?)  It was, indeed, an amazing coincidence.  After 20 years, though, I figured that incident in Tucson was water under the bridge and I forgave her, because I figured we all do strange things when we're in love.  So Tucson is now back on my good list.


I said goodbye to Christina and Michael late Sunday afternoon and drove up to Phoenix, where I caught a plane back to Portland.  So while I didn't make it to their wedding, we did have a great post-wedding get together.  Best of all, I didn't have to dance the Hokey Pokey and that, like the song says, is what it's all about.



Above left:  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is right on the Mexican border.  This is the Mexican town of Sonoyta.

Above right:  Why not?  The Arizona town of Why got its name from a "Y" that the highway makes here.



Above left:   Christina, Michael and I went to Sabino Canyon on the outskirts of Tucson.

Above right:  Where we hopped on an open-air shuttle bus.  It was a nice visit and much better than a wedding!

A Road Trip to Glacier

I got a hankering for a road trip a few months after visiting Tucson.  It was summer, the weather was nice, it had been several years since I'd taken a long road trip around the West, and I was eager to get back on the highway.  I had a week of vacation saved up, so I looked at a map and figured that Glacier National Park in Montana would be a good destination.  I've been to about 200 national park "units" so far (National Parks, National Monuments, etc.), but Glacier was one of the first I'd ever visited, when I was eight months old during one of my family's many cross-country trips.  However, I hadn't been to Glacier National Park in over 10 years.  Given the situation with global warming, I figured that I better see the glaciers there before they all disappeared.  No joke that, as I discovered, is a real concern now at the park.



Grammy-award winning Nanci Griffith was one of my favorite singers back in the 1990s.  This is Montana Backroads, one of the first songs she ever recorded.


I packed up my van and left Portland on a sunny Saturday morning in July, then drove east on Interstate 84 and up into southeastern Washington, where I camped at a state park.  Southeastern Washington is pretty bland in the winter and early spring, to be honest, but in the summer it's absolutely beautiful, with rolling hills and golden wheat fields.  The next day I continued east, driving along the Snake River through Clarkston, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho, neighboring cities named in honor of Lewis and Clark, who paddled through here in 1805 on their way to the Pacific Ocean.  I followed their trail through central Idaho along the rugged Lochsa River, then dropped down into Missoula, Montana, one of my favorite smaller cities in the U.S., and camped that night several miles north of town.


Above:  Packing up the van in Portland for a week-long trip to Montana, my first real road trip in many years.

The next day I entered Glacier National Park, crossed over Logan Pass and the Continental Divide, and dropped down to beautiful Lake St. Mary, where I snagged one of the last campsites in the windy campground.  Glacier, one of the country's oldest national parks, gets a lot of visitors in the summer.  But the crowds are usually spread out because there are a lot of different things to see and do in the park, so it rarely feels crowded, unlike Grand Canyon or Yosemite, two parks I never, ever visit in the summer.  I'd never been to the adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park on the Canadian side of the border, so I headed north the next day, crossed into Canada, and camped in a nice campground at Waterton.  It was really pretty here, but a wicked rainstorm rolled in that afternoon.  After it cleared, though, I had a nice walk around the village.


I headed back into the U.S. the next day and drove back into Glacier Park.  Crossing into Canada on my northward trek the previous day had been easy and the Canadian Customs agent asked me only a few questions, but coming back into the U.S. was a different story.  As I stopped at the border station, four U.S. agents surrounded my van and looked through everything.  Two guys opened the back of the van and began going through my things while another guy opened the passenger door and began rifling through my daypack, which was sitting on the passenger seat.  When I looked over to see what he was doing, the agent by my window firmly said, "Sir, don't look over there."


Jeez, guys, crossing from the U.A.E. into Oman was easier than this and I was expecting one of them to ask me to bend over and cough.  But maybe they heard I had illegally swam into Mexico 25 years ago or maybe I looked like I had and were being extra cautious.  After a thorough search, the only "contraband" they could find was a half-eaten bag of Canadian barbecue potato chips (busted!), so they waved me through and I resumed my voyage.



Above left:  The Palouse Hills of eastern Washington on my first evening.

Above right:  Southeastern Washington is beautiful in the summer.



Above left:  Hey, it's Del's Place in Missoula, Montana!  I should've asked for a free burger.

Above center:  Here's my home during my week in the Rockies.

Above right:  Entering Glacier National Park, my first visit to Glacier in about 10 years.  It was nice to be back.



Above left:  Driving up the "Going-to-the-Sun Road" in Glacier.

Above right:  In St. Mary's campground cooking brats for dinner, my traditional camping fare.



Above left:  View from the St. Mary's campground on the east side of Glacier National Park.  It's usually windy here and this night was no exception.  I snagged one of the very last campsites in this huge campground.

Above center:  The next morning I headed north.  This is at Canadian customs.  The folks here were friendly, much nicer than the American customs agents I encountered the next day when I returned to the U.S.

Above right:  The wildflowers were in full bloom.



Above left:  In the Waterton section of Glacier National Park, in Canada.

Above right:  The most spectacular building in Waterton is the Prince of Wales Hotel, on the shores of Waterton Lake.



Left:  Windy and wild Waterton Lake in Canada, looking south into the U.S.




Above left:  Waterton Village is very "Canadian":  clean, proper, polite and well-kept.  Such a change from America!

Above right:  Crossing back into the U.S.  The U.S. Customs agents searched and searched, but the only contraband they found in my van was a half-eaten bag of Canadian potato chips. 

Close Encounters of the Bear Kind

Back in Glacier National Park in the U.S., I drove up the Swiftcurrent Valley that afternoon on the east side of the park and hiked up to a lake that was about three miles from the trailhead.  During the hike, I saw a group of a dozen folks up ahead who were excited about something, and as I approached, they told me there was a bear up ahead near the trail and that no one was hiking through.  I spotted the bear, about 50 yards ahead, and even though he was cinnamon colored, I thought it was a black bear and not a grizzly bear, so I kept hiking.  I could hear the folks behind me saying, "Look at that guy.  He kept going." 


Above:  The Swiftcurrent Valley in Montana, shortly after I encountered a hungry bear on the trail.

I dealt with a lot of black bears when I worked in Colorado, including one that got into my tent (while I was gone).  From that experience I've learned that black bears usually don't cause problems as long as you don't harass them or their cubs.  Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are a totally different story.  Grizzlies, which grow about twice as large as black bears, are much less predictable and much more aggressive.  I don't mess around with grizzlies or pretend to be brave; instead, I get away as fast as possible. 


But black bears, like I say, don't usually cause problems so I walked by him (or her I didn't inquire).  He was about 10 yards off the trail and grubbing around for bugs and berries, which comprises most of a bear's diet.  We looked at each other for a moment and then he (or she) resumed eating his lunch and I resumed my hike.  After I walked through, the rest of the group behind me figured it was safe and followed my lead.


Later that day, I drove back over Logan Pass, this time heading west, and that afternoon I drove on a bumpy dirt road for many miles to the farthest northwestern corner of the park to Kintla Lake, my favorite spot in Glacier.  During my first visit to this remote area in 1983, and just a few hours after I'd driven out of the campground, a grizzly bear had attacked a ranger, pulling him down from a tree and causing massive injuries.  I heard about the incident the next day on the radio as I was driving across central Montana.  I've always remembered that incident and take a lot of precautions whenever I go hiking in this area.  Like I say, I don't mess around with grizzlies and, while I greatly respect them, I hope I never encounter one up close in the wilderness.


I camped at Kintla Lake that evening, then the next morning I got an early start for my drive back to Portland.  I drove about 800 miles that day and reached Portland in the evening.  It was a good trip and it was nice to be back on the road again.  The glaciers are still there but are melting fast, so, sad to say, if you want to see them, you'd better hurry.



Left:  St. Mary's Lake on the east side of Glacier.




Above left:  One of the historic open-air buses.  These types of red buses have been traversing Glacier National Park for over 70 years. 

Above right:  Crossing over Logan Pass in Glacier National Park.



Above left:  I parked at the pass and spent a half-hour enjoying the spectacular views.

Above right:  The busy Logan Pass parking lot.



Above left:  Viewpoint at Logan Pass.

Above right:  A roadside mountain goat hoofing it up to Logan Pass.  I suppose if I were a mountain goat, I'd take the road, too!



Above left:  Glacier is a pretty popular place, especially in July.

Above center:  Heading back to Portland, this is Kootenai Falls in western Montana, where the Kevin Bacon and Meryl Streep movie, "The River Wild" was filmed.

Above right:  Spokane, Washington and a break for Burger King.  Next stop:  Portland.



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