Sonoran Desert Musings

“Magical” is the best way to describe my nine day, 269 mile walk from Douglas, Arizona to Tempe. The scenery was incredible, the plants were mesmerizing, and solitude in the Sonoran Desert gave me plenty of time for reflection and introspection.

I left Douglas on February 10th after a much needed day off. PJ and I continued west on Highway 80 towards Bisbee. After walking primarily quiet highways from El Paso to Douglas, being back on a road with a steady stream of traffic was a shock to the system. It was a loud first few hours, but PJ and I quickly adapted and settled in. Thank you, ear plugs!

As I pushed PJ up a series of hills and neared Bisbee, we walked past a handful of mines before turning left on Highway 92. I was already tired when we hit the highway junction. I couldn’t figure out why (especially since I was coming off a rest day), until I saw the “Welcome to Bisbee Sign,” which indicated the city sits at an elevation of 5,300 feet. We steadily climbed 1,300 feet since leaving Douglas.

“That’s a relief PJ – I thought we were out of shape for a second there,” I joked.

The mountains leading into Bisbee, covered with ocotillo cacti!

From Bisbee, it was a downhill walk for the rest of the day into a massive valley south of Sierra Vista. After enjoying a beautiful sunset, I was still trying to find a suitable camping spot for the night. I knew there was some BLM land down the road, but it was still six miles away. I pushed PJ off the highway, turned off my lights, and had a drink of water while I decided what to do.

After five minutes, a vehicle pulled right up to us on the dirt road between the highway and the barbed wire fence. Border patrol found us! The agent stepped out of his cruiser and shined his flashlight on me.

“We come out and check on people who are walking through. This is a very high-traffic area for illegals,” he told me. “Sometimes people will call us when they see a person on the road or in the bushes, or sometimes our sensors detect them.” He never told me how they knew I was there. I’d like to think someone just called me in because the thought of sensors detecting me creeped me out. The agent, Frank, was quite friendly and we talked for a while.

He recommended that I camp on the BLM land. The area is regularly patrolled (often by agents on horseback) and I wouldn’t be bothered by the BP again. PJ and I walked for another two hours and arrived at our campground around 8:30.

Another beautiful Arizona sunset with Miller Peak in the distance. I had no idea I would have my first run in with the BP in about an hour!

In the morning, I began the walk towards Sierra Vista. Highway 92 climbed a long, steady hill, then took a right turn at the foot of Miller Peak. The impressive mountain still had a little snow on top from a recent storm.

After walking around Sierra Vista on a bike path that ran parallel to the highway, I continued to Whetstone, where I found a rare Arizona RV Park that allows tent camping. I had a pleasant encounter six miles from town.

A man named JC was pulled over next to the entrance to the airport. When I told him what I was doing, he didn’t seem surprised. As it turned out, JC and his wife walked nearly half of the American Discovery Trail (2,000 miles or so) in 2019. JC’s knee gave out in Des Moines and they were forced to stop.

JC and I have more in common than that – he is also in recovery and has been sober for 15 years. His eyes lit up when I told him I’m a recovering alcoholic. We had an impromptu meeting on the roadside. Once I arrived in Whetstone, he stopped by Dollar General and delivered a half-gallon of milk and a few candy bars. We prayed before he said goodbye. Thank you for sharing your story, faith, and sobriety with me, JC!

JC – my road angel and brother in recovery.

After reaching the Mountain View Campground, I met Sheila (the manager) and went inside to pay for my site. A group of campers were in the community room getting ready for Thursday night bingo. Sheila introduced me and I gave them an overview of my walk after apologizing for interrupting their bingo game. They sent me on my way with a slice of cake and some Sunny D!

Mountain View Campground was one of the best places I have camped on my journey (and not just because of the cake). The bathrooms were SPOTLESS, the people were friendly, and Sheila even turned on the motion detector lights near my tent to “give me a fighting chance just in case the neighborhood coyotes decided to invade my camp!”

After coffee with the other campers in the morning, I continued north on Highway 90 towards I-10. When I left Douglas, I planned on heading west from Whetstone and walking a dirt road through the mountains to Green Valley. After doing a little more research, I discovered the road is a popular 4WD route. Considering PJ only has three wheels, and my boy has a tough enough time with curbs and stairs, 20 miles on a rocky, sandy, potentially washed out road sounded miserable (and potentially impassable).

Although pedestrians are prohibited on all interstates in Arizona, it was the only “reasonable” alternative. If a cop stopped us, we would plead ignorance. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

I put the impending 11 mile interstate walk out of mind for the first 20 miles of the day and enjoyed the incredible scenery on Highway 90. Panoramic views of Apache Peak and numerous mountain ranges to the east were visible from the highway, which ran along a high ridge.

Apache Peak

Before hopping on the interstate, I “gassed up” at McDonald’s, determined to make it through the 11 mile stretch as quickly as possible. It was a loud, unnerving walk. Endless lines of semi-trucks and passenger vehicles continually pounded PJ and I with bursts of wind and dirty looks (though only five cars actually honked at us). During our illegal walking escapade, five border patrol agents, one state trooper, and one county sheriff drove by, but none of them stopped to harass us. PJ and I victoriously left the interstate at the exit for Marsh Station Road, just before dark. We successfully cleared another big hurdle!

Tucson was in our sights the following day, without having to walk on the interstate. After a lovely walk on Marsh Station Road through the Sonoran Desert hills, we followed a frontage road for a few miles, then headed north and reached the city limits of Tucson. It was a primarily suburban stroll through the foothills of the Santa Clarita Mountains. Just before dark, we walked the Harrison Greenway, which cut straight through a swath of untouched Sonoran Desert. I pushed PJ about 100 yards off the trail, carefully avoiding the neighborhood cacti and mesquite trees, and cowboy camped under a clear desert sky.

In the morning, I was eager to watch the sunrise over the desert. I was all packed by 6:30 and walked a mile down the trail. The sun rose over the Santa Clarita Mountains shortly after 7, bringing the sleepy desert to life.

Shortly after the sunrise, I struck up a conversation with Sue and Leslie, who were out for their walk with Annabelle. The friendly little pooch greeted me enthusiastically and never barked at PJ!

Sue and Leslie are Tucson teachers and daily walkers. They recently finished walking the entire “Tucson Loop,” which is a 58 mile-long series of bike and walking paths that circle the city. They are also a part of a walking/hiking group called the “Sole Sisters” and regularly head into the mountains for more strenuous hikes. The duo can certainly attest to the physical and mental benefits of walking.

As we said goodbye, I told them “Keep on walking!” Their reply was perfect…”We never stopped!” Neither will I! Thank you for the company this morning, ladies, and thank you for the gift card, Leslie!

My “Sole Sisters,” along with Annabelle.

I spent the majority of day leisurely walking the “Tucson Loop.” I waved and smiled at every cyclist and walker that crossed my path. While much of the country was gripped by the polar vortex, snow, and ice, I was happily basking in the Arizona sun and enjoying temperatures in the 60’s (not to brag or anything). The path followed a number of dry river beds and meandered past clusters of saguaro cacti. After a brief stop at REI to pick up (hopefully) one last tire for PJ, I headed north and walked for a few hours after dark, ending the day near Oro Valley and camping on a small hill overlooking a wash.

After two days of walking, PJ and I were clear of Tucson and ready to start the four day jaunt to the Phoenix area. We stocked up on food and water at a Walmart and walked north on Highway 77 towards Catalina – flanked by Mt. Lemmon to the east. Maybe it was the howling coyotes the previous night, a questionable lunch selection at Walmart, or my sore left pinky toe. Whatever the reason, the miles didn’t come easily on the walk out of Oro Valley. I managed to walk 20 miles and reached Highway 79, but cut the day short after coming across a nice spot to camp across the highway from a power station. I nicknamed my campground “Power Line Junction” because power lines dissapeared into the desert in every conceivable direction.

I woke up to overcast skies the following morning. Mt. Lemmon received a fresh coating of snow the previous night. Thankfully, I stayed dry, aside from a few raindrops. The clouds dissipated as I made my way further north on Highway 79 just in time to enjoy beautiful views of the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo, barrel, and chain fruit cholla cacti were visible for the next 40 miles. I was in heaven!

Chain fruit cholla cacti off Highway 79.
What a view!

I ended the day camping in a rare desert “forest.” I was well hidden from the road and was able to set up camp before dark and enjoy another beautiful Arizona sunset.

From mile marker 123 off Highway 79, I was a two day, 66 mile walk from my friend Shane’s house in Tempe. I enjoyed another few beautiful miles in the Sonoran Desert before reaching Highway 87. Farms and agricultural land replaced the desert scenery. The farms felt oddly out of place given the harsh, hot, dry Arizona climate, but were beautiful all the same. Fields of alfalfa added some green to the otherwise brown landscape.

My last night outside of the Phoenix area was spent stealth camping on Gila River Indian Reservation. I struck out early the following morning and reached the Phoenix suburb of Chandler after 15 miles of walking.

Chandler had a vibrant, lively downtown area. The building pictured is the Chandler City Hall/Arts Center.

The final 20 miles to Shane’s house in Tempe went by pretty quickly. I walked a mixture of sidewalks, bike paths, and a few dirt shoulders through Chandler and into Tempe. A variety of desert plants signaled spring had arrived.

An ocotillo cactus flower! This was the first blooming ocotillo I have spotted on my walk.

I reached Shane’s house on February 18th shortly before 9 PM. It was a full walking stretch from Douglas to Tempe. I elected to take a day off and rest up for the second half of my walk through Arizona. What a grand stroll it has been so far!

In honor of being on the road for 100 days, I put together a short list of things I have learned (or need to be reminded of) during my walk so far…I hope my thoughts give you some food for thought!

1. No matter how many miles I walk, I need to keep learning. I’ll never have this mastered. Even though I’ve walked over 9,000 miles throughout the U.S. and Canada, every day poses new challenges, which I look at as opportunities to learn and grow. What a great metaphor for life! Keep learning and adapting, no matter what.

2. My ability to “let things go” is directly related to how often I listen to “Let it Go” from the Frozen Soundtrack. My four year old niece will be so proud! Once a day does the trick.

3. I can create my own happiness. A gratitude list, prayer, a roadside dance, or looking for ways to help out another person or place (even if it’s something small like picking up trash at a rest area) immediately improves my mood and perspective.

4. The average saguaro cactus lives between 150 and 175 years! Some are over 200 years old!

5. Wherever I go, there I am! Whether I’m walking across America or back home in CO, I am solely responsible for my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health. Keeping up with these isn’t a weekly or monthly task. It is a daily endeavor. I need to take steps everyday to ensure I’m taking care of myself, no matter what is going on around me.

Favorite Four Pictures

I encountered a brief (and small) sandstorm just south of Phoenix. Watching the plume of sand move in from the west and engulf the highway was mesmerizing!
Saguaro Cacti – a Southwest staple!
The Santa Clarita Mountains from the “Tucson Loop” near Oro Valley.
Walking through a desert forest on the “Tucson Loop.”

Walk Recap

Days – 101

Miles – 2,324

Jars of Peanut Butter Consumed – 86

Roadside Change Count – $5.75

Miles Per Shower in Arizona – 63.8

From Tempe, I will be following Highway 60 to Hope, Arizona, then heading up to Parker. I’ll hit the California state line after crossing the Colorado River. My next update, Lord willing, will be from California….Until next time, walk on!

-Ben

6 thoughts on “Sonoran Desert Musings

  1. Thank you Ben for including Sue and me in your post. Your walk has inspired all the Sole Sisters we’ve shared it with. One Sole Sister, Zulema, centered on your TED talk in a six page essay she wrote for a writing class she’s taking.
    When we allow a male to join our group, he is invited in as a Sole Mister. So I am granting you that privilege – you are now an official Sole Mister. Be safe as you walk that ribbon of highway into Blythe California. Our prayers and love are with you, brother. Leslie

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  2. Hi Ben, Thanks for the update. I especially enjoyed the sunset photo from Arizona near Miller Peak…awesome!
    Happy Trails!
    Liz

    Like

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