Essay originally written for The Arizona Historic Quarterly, Tucson
I suppose it was a training ground for what would come later; never thought about it that way at the time, but more than likely, Sabino Canyon is the place where–over a dozen years practicing–I learned to stick to near vertical surfaces; to recognize the temperament of various rock forms; and for sure, what grows beside, on, and especially inbetween those rocks. Years later, those skills probably saved my life more than once during my ten year exploration of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River.
Sabino came in two parts: upper and lower. I was about three years old when my parents started going to the lower part for weekend picnics (1922). The dam was not there then, or the reservoir it formed. I remember clearly the rocks, the trees, the sand, and the miracle of moving water that ran over and around and through all this. Outside of water from our hose beneath the hollyhocks at Stone and Third Avenue (now University), this was the first real creek I remember seeing. I wanted to know where it came from—pretty big hose!–and even at three years old, who’d left the water running?
I learned to swim before I was five—when my dad took me to the big pool at Wetmore’s, way out Oracle Road. Why not Sabino? Was there no place near the picnic area where the water was over knee deep? My dad was an outdoor guy who roamed around, looking for things, and I’m sure he would have preferred teaching me in a natural setting if indeed there’d been one. And the road to the upper part of the canyon—did it exist in 1923-4? Well, if it did, I knew nothing of it until much later in my young life, when the uprooting began.
In the fall of ’24 we moved to the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, California, where mountains and steep, curvy, paved roads introduced me to a more conventional (restricted, really) relationship with the outdoors; sliding down talus slopes of decomposed granites, swinging on the framework of hillside houses under construction (my dad was an architect and building contractor), crawling into bushy hidey-holes with ever present poison oak, and having downhill races with friends on my scooter—it had a button-brake at the rear of the footboard that probably kept my mom from going ballistic.
Then came the ’29 market crash. Suddenly there was no money. Our big hillside home was sold to pay bills. We had lost nearly everything but two Willys-Knights, the furniture I grew up with, and the property we owned in Tucson. Came 1930, it was back to the desert at age eleven. Fine with me–I was returned to my real roots…and Sabino Canyon. I’d already had visions of where I was going to build my rock house beside the stream. But both my parents had to go to work to feed us, and by now I had a little brother pretty much entrusted to my care when I wasn’t in school. There was no time or money for Sunday picnics, or a drive to the Catalinas, even at fifteen cents a gallon. So, for me, Sabino had to wait a while longer. The canyon itself was probably waiting for more snowmelt and substantial rain to fill its streambed–a lengthy drought was searing the entire southwest, not helping one bit with our struggle through the depression.
Yet, in spite of all that, on my thirteenth birthday, my dad handed me a beautiful 0.22 Remington rifle with an octagon barrel (I can still smell the gun oil!); taught me how, and how not to hold it, stand, breathe, sight, aim, allow for drop, and squeeze (not pull) the trigger; then, instructed me in the skinning and gutting of my kill by watching me do it many times. I could wander the desert’s dry washes and riverbeds to hunt cottontail, quail or dove for the dinner table—protein that helped a plenty during the depression —but if I hadn’t returned home within a couple hours they’d send the posse, and I wouldn’t be allowed to go out alone anymore.
Daddy still drove Old Bill—the Wyllis-Knight from Hollywood–keeping it at the construction site until sometimes late in the day, making it imperative for Mom to have wheels since we lived in the pure dessert–the greasewood-palo verde-catclaw-mesquite-ironwood-saguaro desert–on the outskirts of town. She picked me up at school one spring afternoon in a second-hand Ford Cabriolet which, within a couple weeks, I was allowed to drive on the desert’s two-track, twisty roads for the sole purpose, of gathering wood for our stoves in wintertime. An even stricter rule flanked this new exhilarating freedom—“back in one hour, or you can forget you ever had this privilege.” She meant business! I was many orbits away from legal driving age and was made aware that I, as well as my parents, would be in deep doo-doo if I got pulled over on any major thoroughfare. I paid strict attention…for almost a year.
You must know, one of the first things that crossed my teenage mind when I got behind the wheel of that Ford was, maybe I can find the way out to Sabino. I remember being in that car, though not driving it, on a road to what would become—or maybe had become without my knowing it—the road to Upper Sabino. Friends of my mom and dad had homestead land around the ankles of the Catalina Mountains above River Road—one of them near the very entrance to Sabino–and were building cabins on the their property. Some weekends, we would join them to help, or to go inspect whatever parts of the houses had been completed.
[One of those “cabins” belonged to Dr. Russell J. Callender and his wife, Claire. With many additions, and subtractions, it later became the home of two celebrated artists of the 40’s and 50’s who, in turn, also became family friends; a painter of considerable renown, Dale Nichols–whose paintings of mid-western red barns with deep blue shadows hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City–bought the Callender place around 1942. When he left Tucson to live in Guatemala, the house was sold to Elliott Arnold, author of many novels and screen plays; among them, The Time Of The Gringo and Blood Brother, his most popular novel, which was later made into the movie, Broken Arrow]
From the “homesteads” we often took picnic lunches to Sabino. Not the same old picnic place, but where the canyon steepened; where water spread over and around huge boulders into pools; where the road crossed the creek a few times as it wound upward and there were pools deep enough for swimming! I found one long enough for almost ten strokes before hitting the end. This became my special pool; near enough, yet far enough away from the grownups to feel like it was my very own. Someone usually had to come after me or I’d miss the picnic lunch altogether.
Driving crooked little tracks around mesquite trees, palo verde, saguaro; keeping the tires clear of barrel cacti and all other prickly vegetation, gives a person skills for finding obtuse routes to places they might want to go. On my wood-gathering forays I kept looking up at Thimble Rock where I now knew Sabino crouched, wondering how I could drive up there, plunk in-an-out of my pool–didn’t matter how cold, I was a water bug—and get back home in an hour. All this without hitting any main thoroughfares unless absolutely necessary. My devious little teenage brain started ticking. I began stockpiling wood along my trails and heading north, rather than south or east for collecting. I told mom I’d found some old ironwood in that direction–the very best for long burning and heat—in case anyone should come looking for me. By then, I was trusted to a five or ten minute delay for my good behaviour. Tick-Tick. So, I proposed they let me combine my hunting with the wood-gathering trips in the Ford; for sure it would be better to get both things done at once.
They were smarter than I thought. “Nix! Absolutely not!”
My real love affair with Sabino Canyon developed at the beginning of my High School years. That affair continued, with pronounced changes in the life of the canyon and my own–through University, war, marriage, childbirth and beyond.
From high school through my sophomore year at the University of Arizona, there was never a spring-into-fall weekend that didn’t leave a whole day, or at least a few hours for Upper Sabino Canyon. Beyond the nine bridges (completed in 1936), where the road abruptly quit, there was a very steep switchback trail down to creek bottom; from there on, pristine creek and adventure. Three of us (two boys and me) chose the most difficult route possible up the raw bottom of the creek—a mile or more of hike-swim-leap-swing-crawl; a cinquethon around sycamore roots and trunks, over granite boulders onto squishy sand and gravel bars, across and under waterfalls, in and out of swirling pools, down slippery slides; avoiding all contact with streamside poison ivy, cacti and catclaw–just to see if we could do it, I suppose. But again, it’s nothing we thought about then–it was just more fun to arrive that way to our deepest and biggest pool where boulders fit our bodies and sycamores shaded the pourover downstream. Besides, there wasn’t a path even if we’d wanted one. High on the slopes above, a faint, hardly used trail wound all the way to Mt. Lemmon and every once in a while, through the brush and trees, we’d see someone hiking up there, but only in the first half mile beyond road’s end. Where we were we never saw anyone, high or low. We’d sometimes hike Snake Canyon if there was water flowing; up Bear Canyon to Seven Falls, or trek Tanque Verde’s streambed to spend a day at those Falls; but other places didn’t intrigue us like Sabino and just to look at Ventana Canyon scared me. Anyhow, it’s entrance was on private ranch property so we never ventured there.
Is it because the first experience leaves the deepest impression, is the most awe-inspiring, most challenging, the ultimate teacher? If we’d first inspected Seven Falls, or the others, would one of them have turned out to be our sanctuary? I think not. I believe the places that grab us must first fire our imagination; then earn our respect by challenging us, or speaking to us in a way that leaves an impression so vivid we can’t shake it, or want to. Events happen there; smells, sounds, words, landscapes collide to create a wholeness, a reality never felt before. Sabino did that to us…for us. The paths we take (or even better, make) act as foundation for our future, giving us a balance through turbulent times, and Nature shows us basic truths we’ve lost in the maelstrom of our so-called civilized lives. There’s a healing power in calling up those special places we don’t let change in our minds, even though they may have altered dramatically over the years. I can still see things along our Sabino-no-trail as plainly as they were sixty years ago, and I don’t need photographs to help me. I get the smell of the spring runoff, the scent of sweet, decaying leaves in autumn, I see the crystal light on huge, striated, water-worn granite boulders—can remember crawling beneath them in a rainstorm; or cooking hamburgers over pine cones, cottonwood, mesquite, ponderosa, and saguaro-rib fires, each with its particular smell. Nothing about that stream in the middle of a rough, rocky desert landscape seemed out of place—sycamore and cottonwood and Arizona walnut by the creek; up the slopes, a bosque of low desert plants like mesquite, catclaw, cholla, prickly pear and barrel cactus; from there to the cliff bottoms, agave and saguaro with red wand ocotillo waving between them. And I remember sunburn—lots of sunburn.
The University of Arizona years and beyond, 1939-48, differ dramatically–a complete alteration of emotions and personal growth (or decline thereof) separates those two decades of my enchantment with that very special place—even notches the canyon itself into separate areas. In retrospect, I see these changes follow naturally with the diversity of people brought there; some were not rock-hoppers, others didn’t have the time or inclination, some only wanted to swim or take photographs; many had to study, a few made love. The rest drank beer.
The two young men with whom I had learned the Heart of Sabino went off to war. The University mob, with whom I studied, swam and drank beer, were never introduced to that sanctum beyond the road–athletic and able as they were– they just didn’t fit in our pristine, secluded area. Don’t ask me why I told them it was too far away and too hard to get to. Instead, we climbed down a rocky road-built talus slope beyond the sixth bridge to a couple of flattop granite ledges and two pools long enough to swim in; where the sun hung out until one or two in the afternoon. From the U, we’d pool into a couple of convertibles, take lunch, drive out there, lie in the sun, swim and study for exams until it got too cold for comfort. On moonlit nights we might stay, drink O-koolie-hows and swim behind the dam in Lower Sabino; then drive back to town, taking our trash with us.
How clearly I remember the sight, the shock and anger that followed, the day I brought two Shavetails from Davis Monthan Airbase to the canyon for a swim, to find our ledges near the bridge and the sandy bottom of the pool strewn with glass and broken beer bottles. Drunk or sober, how could anyone be that stupid, careless, thoughtless, downright evil. The stress of war brought a rush of stress to Sabino. Natures’ I could endure, humans’ I could not; cars parked without consideration for fauna or fellow man; trash beside the creek, in it and along the road; campfires built anywhere and everywhere; wood slashed from the trees, all the drift gone. Here is where I learned that not everyone is blessed with respect for nature’s beauty, and that strangers who don’t know, or don’t care about places that have special meaning to you, will use it and abuse it for whatever turns them on.
You’ll note that I have used our ledges, my area, our pool, to describe sections that became part of us. I don’t know that I will ever come to terms with the mine that is not mine at all. Of course, the deeper we get into places the more personal they become. Say it begins as ‘ours’, and the others’ aren’t as bound by it as I am; it then becomes ‘mine’, even though the others’ may not be excluded. When there’s a landscape like Sabino, so long removed, so altered, that ‘mine’ is no longer an issue, it becomes—grudgingly, or ungrudgingly–a place ‘they’ can have.
After the two boys (no longer boys) came back from the war–one married, the other looking to get that way; me, married, divorced, with a three year old son–we hit the cinquetrail again. Beyond road’s end the canyon hadn’t changed much at all–oh, sure, since our beginning years flash floods had moved things around in the creek bottom, parts of the road were washed away a couple of times with some bridges in need of repair, but still there was no real trail to the huge granite boulders surrounding our deepest pool. The trees, the rocks, the cliffs all held intact–unlike our threesome that did not.
Seems they had to sneak away from wife and girlfriend–time not being their own as in the old days–making me feel like a dangling participle; as if they were going to Sabino only to please me, when there were other things they would rather do. All the time they were away, I mostly took the trail by myself; in fact, I could count on one hand the times I brought someone with me. It was the canyon that drew me—that particular spot on the globe cradled something important for me. If I got stressed out, pissed at someone, or just wanted to be away from people, I’d take a couple of books, some sandwiches, ask my mom to look after my son, climb in my sweet Model A and head for my favourite spot in upper-upper Sabino.
On a luscious day in May of ‘47–creek running full bore with snowmelt from Catalina’s peaks, water splashing against the arched stone culverts beneath the bridges and gushing over the lower dam, I do just that.
Down the switchback trail at the end of the road, up the sinuous creek bottom to my favorite pool rimmed with smooth, water-worn, bus-sized granites. They glisten in the high noon sun except where sycamore leaves pock their rounded rumps. This far up the creek, the west and east walls are closer, looking sharp and chippy in rouge colors streaked with magenta. They stair step up and away to the cactus-covered mounds between the next pinnacles of gold and tan—a wide spectrum of colors looking down on the marshmallow granites circling my swirling, petal-shaped pool of reflected sky. I never come here without thinking of the guys because I can see parts of a small dam we built across the downstream pourover to keep our pool deep in dryer seasons; built it over-and-over with each springtide removal. No need today. The pourover is about six inches high, three feet across and easy to jump.
I’ve a small carryall with a book, a bandana, an apple, a banana, and am wearing rubber-soled moccasins in place of my usual tennis shoes. Crossing to the upstream side of the pool, I head for one of a few flat places at the base of the biggest boulders, stretch out in the sun until I get hot enough for a cannonball into the pool. (Never dove into one, because leaves tanned the water a strong tea color, the deeper the more opaque, and one never knew, with annual floods, what had been moved around in the bottom). I read some, eat some, doze some, swim some and maybe around three in the afternoon, I put on shorts and halter, gather my stuff to hike up a big granite, over the top of it, then down to the crevassed boulder that leads to the pourover where I will jump down and head for home.
The crevasse is steep and about twelve feet high; I’ve come up and down it more than a hundred times in everything from bare feet to boots. Today, with carryall over my shoulder, I take the first two steps, my foot slips on some greenery growing out of the crevasse and I plunge to the bottom. Landing hard with my left foot pinned under me, I hear a snap, feel a lightning stab of pain in my ankle, a buzz in my head along with blurred vision. When I roll over to ease the pain and straighten out my leg, I see my foot sticking crazily off my ankle bone at an impossible angle!
Ohmygod! What‘s happened?
No blood or broken skin–must be dislocated. When I pull my foot back on the leg bone an electric jolt shoots up my spine nearly blacking me out. Blood to the brain. Adrenalin has kicked in. All this has happened in about six seconds, but the rush gives me a clear look at the situation. I’m alone, a mile from any possible person, on a no-trail through rough country and already the sun has left the pool for the east side of the canyon. How in hell am I going to get out of here!! It’s not a question, it’s an order. GET OUT OF HERE. NOW. My carryall lies beside me and there’s a bandana in it. I tie it tightly around my foot in a way to try and keep it anchored on the ankle bone, crawl back to a ledge, tuck my carryall and moccasin under it, rise up on my one operable leg and begin to hop between rocks, looking for a stout stick to lean on. I take about five hops and swings between boulders to the head of the pourover before my foot slips off the ankle bone again, sending the shock waves back up my spine.
I sit down starting to cry, but know I can’t waste the time or the energy to indulge in poor-little-me thoughts. I have to keep this ankle on the bone if I’m going to get anywhere, so I find a couple of sticks within reach, re-tie the bandana around my ankle in a makeshift splint and take a couple of test hops to the lip of the pourover. So far, so good, but…here is the place were I always jump down to the sandbar, six or seven feet below. No way can I do that today. There’s a sycamore limb overhead–if it bends without breaking it will get me down to the pool or the sandbar–if not, I’ll be worse off than I am now. I look up, gulp, grab the limb and go for it.
It not only holds, but lets me down like a monkey on a string and bounces back up without me. leaving me to wonder why in the hell I haven’t used this method before. I swim the pool, belly over rocks to the next where I find a stout branch to help balance me when I have to hop.
Next, I begin searching—for the first time and without much hope–for someone on the upper trail who might hear me as I start hollering “help—help—help,” scuttling here and there, in and out, up and down, like some demented bug. I feel as close to a bug as I’ll ever feel, dealing with this never before situation—wondering what will happen to me tonight if I don’t find someone, or they don’t find me before everyone exits the canyon? This is Sunday and nobody’s likely to show up very early Monday, if at all. It’s here I realize that, quite unconsciously, I’ve been looking for shelter—any kind of shelter—near a cliff wall, between large boulders, beside a tree trunk; looking at beds of leaves, something to cover myself with when it turns cold. Isn’t that what bugs do?
There are slanting slickrock places where a wet moccasin with no tread can easily slide from under me, even with the aid of the hiking stick, and sure enough, down I go on my butt, putting my arm out to break the fall and sprain my wrist. Great! The new pain is so intense, I forget the other one, and in so doing understand what adrenalin really is. It’s the hyper-energy that’s saving my life right now, keeping me from going into shock; so when I’m not swimming, I don’t even stop to wonder how I’m going to swing between boulders with a sprained wrist. I will simply do it. Furthermore, I understand that “help” is untranslatable in a steep canyon with rock walls and many echoes. I could be calling “hey-hey-hey” for all that, so I quit hollering before the adrenalin runs out and leaves me a cold corpse in this canyon.
I haven’t a watch with me, but the going is mighty slow–must be close to five, maybe more, me still crabbing along, trying to remember how much farther to the switchback trail up to my car–when I heard a buzz. First I think it’s the one I get in my head when my foot drops off the bone, but no, there he is on the ground, right inbetween the two boulders I need to swing through. In the twenty or more years I’ve been coming to Sabino I’ve encountered three rattlers…and this is one of them. Adrenalin must be working overtime, because I stop about five feet from the snake and start a conversation.
“Hello, ol’ buddy. You’re on your way home–I hope! Ya’ know, I need those rocks on either side of you for crutches, so why don’t you just amble off and let me be on my way?”
He rattles some more, flicks his tongue at me a few more times, and does just that. Then, as I watch his tail disappear between the rocks I start to tremble. Bad sign. Adrenalin needle must be dropping. I begin muttering to myself as I swing between the boulders. “Have to keep on going–can’t be much farther–listen, you—done my very best–need a little help–where are all the people–come here on Sunday–don’t go home until after dark–need ‘em to carry me up the switchback—Hey!”
Suddenly the whole show erupts into rampant rage. Now I’m really pissed. Slashing ahead a few more yards, I sit down on a big boulder and begin screaming at the top of my lungs.
“Goddamnit, somebody come and help me, I’ve dislocated my ankle, sprained my wrist, I can’t get out of here by myself, I need some help. Goddamnit, somebody help me. Nowwwww! I can’t walk, only one foot! Where is everybody? I need…”
From behind a boulder fifty feet away a head pops up. Fired up as I am I scream back at it, ”I’m hurt, damnit,” before recovering, and much more civilly ask him please to come help me, that I’m in serious trouble.
There are two of them; a guy and his girlfriend who’ve fallen asleep after a hike and are cooling off beside the creek. Turns out I’m only a few yards from the trail bottom. Next question: How are they going to get me up that steep sum’bitch to their car, which apparently is parked near mine? She’s a little squirt, and he doesn’t look like he’s been outside more than twice in his life.
“Make a ”fireman’s carry,” I tell them.
They never heard of it. Simple. Two people’s right hands grasp their left wrists then link them together making a place for the injured one to sit. I try showing them, but when he grabs my right wrist with his left hand you can hear my screams all the way to Lower Sabino.
They aren’t going to be able to do this, so he scoots up to the road and comes back a bit later with two late canyon revellers who haul my sorry ass up the switchbacks to their car and drive me to the hospital.
“It’s just dislocated, Dr. Cline…I know it isn’t broken, just dislocated… couldn’t have come as far as I did if it was broken..it’s only dislocated…I’m sure you can fix it up tonight and I can go on out to the ranch…the guys brought my car in…just dislocated…doesn’t hurt enough to be broken…bad sprain, I guess…dislocated…”
I must have sounded like a chipmunk on speed, but I couldn’t stop, I was going into shock, and they had to needle me to shut me up.
After the dope, the x-rays, the plaster cast and me deep in a pile of pillows, Dr Cline stands smiling at the foot of my bed.
“Yes, Kathryn, the end of your fibula, inside ankle bone, is dislocated for sure, dislocated in half, like a knife cut it; and your tibia is also dislocated, like severed, two inches above the joint. I’m glad it wasn’t compound, or you wouldn’t be here in even half the shape you are. You’ll be in that cast at least six weeks. What I want to know is, how in the devil did you get out of there all by yourself?”
“I don’t know how. Sabino likes me, I guess, or maybe it’s trying to tell me something.”
Did I ever return to Sabino Canyon? You bet, many times; the first about a month into that hot summer. I left the ranch with an itchy plaster cast, a tennis shoe with laces, and my crutches to help me down the switchbacks. Finding them more hazardous than useful, I gave up, stuck them under a bush and butt-crawled to the bottom; then, started up alongside a creek running much lower and slower than when I’d last come down it. I swung between boulders and whatever else was available to push my way along, and after several hundred yards, having learned what I came for, turned back. First discovery: much harder with a heavy cast. Second discovery: no adrenalin to levitate me through or in-between tough places. Third: this water level would have had me crawling on my belly most of the way, where before I’d been able to float or swim. Fourth: poison ivy had intruded in places where there was no other way around—I’d have been covered with it! Fifth: knew I’d been very lucky to find someone in the canyon, which I wouldn’t have had I not listened to my intuition that said… Get out of here, now! And lastly: along with my philosophy to forge-ahead-never-turn-back. Lastly, I concluded: Anger, added to adrenalin, gives it extra hype. When they finally got me to their car some invisible blotter had soaked me dry and I began to cry, really hard. From relief? exhaustion? pain? All of the above.
When I could walk–free of the plaster and wood—I retrieved my book, moccasin, and carryall. Subsequently, I spent many a day at our sanctuary before leaving my hometown the following year–never to return to live there again.
Sabino has ruptured, broken it’s ankles, legs and arms, even it’s neck –at least four times, maybe more that I know nothing about–since my thirty-five years climbing its frame. My last hike up to our pool with a dear friend and fellow explorer, was in the fall of 1957. I wanted him to see the canyon that meant as much to me in my childhood as Glen Canyon came to mean for the rest of my life—no matter its death behind a dam. In only nine years one would think there’d be little change; yet, so much was altered–some by nature, most by man (road paved, ferchristsake!), that I had trouble relating to the place that had taught me invaluable lessons. There was an unfamiliar ‘walkway’ where the switchback trail had been, almost making me lose my way, but we were able to get to my pool by the big boulders that day. It had filled in, not deep anymore, and wouldn’t be until Mother Nature loosened her girdle once again. The bus sized granites stood firm, of course; the sycamore over the pourover was gone; the crevasse where I’d broken my ankle looked wider; the creek had altered its course, as I remembered it, farther into the right wall, and part of the way up there was a half-assed trail with signs of passage. My companion, however, seeing it for the first time and knowing nothing of such alterations remarked, “Now I understand why you can crawl up rocks like a little monkey if this is where you learned how.”
Nature’s alterations intrigue me. No landscape is ever truly fixed, and one that’s altered even slightly makes for new discoveries, especially in canyons with a watershed; like an old friend growing more beautiful, more interesting with age, or even a facelift. So when man comes along with his paved roads, shuttle busses, designated hours of entrance and exit, locked gates and permits–which is what happened a few years after my last visit– that intrigue turns to boredom. And that’s when they can have it.
Luckily, the Sabino of my mind is forever here. I’m grateful to be blessed with a sense of indelible vision and I suspect there are many others like me who retain such memorable pictures for the peace and serenity of their souls, for the lessons learned, the victories won, or the stories to be told.
If you really want a relationship with Mother Nature, you won’t go out to see her—you’ll go in to be with her. Thank you, Mr. David Thoreau.
© May, 2008