Romancing the Desert Even an Ardent Beach Buff Can Love Arizona's Cactus Country

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Leeth Daily Herald Correspondent

TUCSON, Ariz. -It feels like a dream come true. Unfortunately, it's a variation of the one where I'm caught naked in a group of clothed bodies.

My wife and I spent our arrival day hiking beneath the Arizona sun. Having nowhere to change, we reach our Tucson resort clad in grimy shorts and fetid T-shirts. With our Right Guard left wilting, Dianne and I radiate a scent that would send a bloodhound scampering. I pray that if we keep our arms tucked while checking in, the desk clerk will survive.

That's when we discover the Tucson Symphony is holding a grand soiree on the hotel grounds. Their gala separates us from the lobby.

Lacking options, my mate and I grit teeth and streak through the cummerbund and corsage crowd, our gym-sock redolence melding with wafts of Chanel and eau-de-Polo.

Thorns and blossoms, funk and sweet - it's all part of life in the desert.

We have come to southern Arizona to celebrate my spouse's birthday. Although Dianne would have preferred a sand-and-surf sojourn, I convince her to try a week's stay in cactus country, the land of my youth. I want to expose her to Tucson where I once got an education, got a car, got a job and got out.

We book a room at Hacienda del Sol, a cluster of adobe structures that began as a girls' school and later became a dude ranch popular with Hollywood celebrities. The current owners have renovated the 30-room property while retaining its historic character.

The lodge sits in the Catalina Mountain foothills on the northern, upscale reaches of town. Native vegetation cloaks Hacienda's 34 acres, providing a habitat for the birds, bunnies and beady-eyed lizards that eye us as we relax on our patio.

The West boasts four great deserts: the Chihuahua of New Mexico and Texas, the Mojave of California, the Great Basin of Nevada and the Sonoran of Arizona. Of the parched quartet, this is the most lush. At our feet lies a land rife with moisture-hoarding plants, most of which guard their damp innards with an armor of thorns and needles. Although inhospitable in appearance, they provide nourishment and shelter for a bevy of animals ranging from fire ants to wily coyotes. Each has adapted to survive in dry climes.

We watch a quail clan strut by with mama leading her brood. Thrashers perch on long ocotillo limbs, then flutter off leaving the branches bouncing. A cottontail rabbit scrutinizes us from under a bush, then hops away to the shelter of a green-barked paloverde tree. A striped lizard silently gawks from a nearby rock, its thorax expanding and contracting with every breath.

The bare cliffs of the Catalinas soon flush in the setting sun. Darkness falls and the city below ignites into a quilt of light and shadow. The big dipper dominates the star-spangled sky. The scene reminds me of romantic times spent camping, only here we enjoy a king-size mattress rather than hard ground and sleeping bags.

In the morning, we brew coffee, don bathrobes and return to the patio to read the paper. A mourning dove coos plaintively in the nearby distance. Other birds chirp, squawk, caw and warble. As with the sound of surf, I find the desert's voice addictive. We could linger all day, but the cactus calls.

Peaks bind Tucson on three sides, and we begin by heading for the Rincon Mountains on the city's eastern border. There lies a unit of Saguaro National Park, a preserve for the country's grandest cactus. Saguaro can reach four-story heights and weigh more than a limousine loaded with linebackers. Living to be 150 years old, they generally don't sprout arms until around their 75th birthday. Their tiny white blossoms serve as Arizona's state flower, and fig-like fruits follow.

"This is safer than a beach," I point out to my better half. "Walking beneath a saguaro, you won't be bonked by a coconut."

We stroll the Desert Ecology Trail and learn that as with many cactuses, the saguaro's waxy skin comes accordion pleated. …