It’s somewhat confusing referring to the current season here in Phoenix. By our position relative to the equator and the sun, it is winter. The deciduous trees, having finally turned color and shed their leaves in early January, also proclaim that it is winter. On the other hand, the wildflowers are beginning to bloom around the valley, heralding the spring. And here in my garden, the harvest is overflowing – dill and cilantro reach higher than my head, the broccoli plants that have put me off grocery store broccoli for life are sprouting countless side heads for the secondary harvest, and the peas are persevering through the late frost to round out the last few weeks of their pod production. I suppose that would be late spring/early summer in most of the country?
But here it’s just the brief unnamed transition between the cool season and the warm season: the final ripening of all the plants that thrive in the chilly winter weather, and the first stirrings of the short-lived beauty that is the spring wildflowers, and the preparations for the summer planting in just over a month.
Now is when some days are cloudy and windy and we have to bundle up well against the cold, layering jackets upon jackets – but now is also when we can spend all day outside, warmed by the sun and cooled by the breeze, climbing and running and imagining and snacking on the bounty of the garden.
In between shelling peas, the kids pretended they were giant spiders and the climbing dome was their web: the teal bars were the sticky threads to catch prey and the grey bars were the non-sticky threads that the spiders could safely travel across. Aubade kept getting her skirt hooked on the handholds but was quite adept at getting herself unstuck by the end of the afternoon 🙂
So whatever this season may be, we are definitely enjoying it!
A few weeks ago my parents and I took the kids down to Tucson to visit the Sonoran Desert Museum. Despite its name, it is not very much like a traditional museum (although it does have an art gallery) – it is part botanical garden, part naturalistic zoo, and part museum. And all of it is exceptional. We were there for over six hours, impressive enough with three littles even before factoring in the 2 hour drive to get there, and we still didn’t get to see or do everything. But here’s a taste of what we did experience!
So many native plants! – The museum irrigates their grounds, so that while the desert there isn’t representative of any exact part of the Sonoran Desert, all the plants that are native to the region can thrive in a smaller, more accessible space. I could have spent the whole day just looking at the plants and reading all the information about them.
The Hummingbird Aviary – While we didn’t visit at the optimal time of year for birds, bees, and butterflies, there were still a lot of hummingbirds zipping around the aviary. All the kids loved looking up into the branches to see if they could spot a bird, and Aubade got especially excited when one flew just over her head and landed near her. The aviary has a large informational sign as well for help in identifying the different species of hummingbird, which I appreciated!
The Desert Bird Aviary – Yes, there are two aviaries at the museum! In this aviary, there is a wide range of different birds – we saw doves, ducks, cardinals, orioles, and quail, and my mom commented that she’d seen even more types on a previous visit at a different time of year. There were places to sit and be still and watch the birds, with water features trickling through the center of the aviary, creating an overall very calm and peaceful atmosphere. We had to be sneaky and peek under bushes to find most of the birds though 🙂
The Animal Shows – Every day, the museum hosts at least one live animal show where a docent will bring in a variety of native Sonoran species and talk about them with an audience. Unfortunately, I had to miss most of the show on the day we went because it was lunch time and Aubade was having a hard time – but Rondel and my dad absolutely loved it. The docent asked for questions and actually meant it, engaged with the audience, and explained things well. Rondel even asked several questions himself, loud and clear! And at the end, a few of the animals stayed up at the front for people to look at more closely and even pet. This was Rondel’s favorite part of the entire day, and I wish I hadn’t missed out on so much of it.
The Animal Exhibits– The exhibits here recreate the natural desert environment, and can often be viewed from multiple levels. All the riparian animals have underwater viewing areas, for example, and cliff-dwelling animals like the ocelot can be seen from two different vantage points. We saw a beaver curled up in his den, and a playful river otter swam around by the window for a long time with Aubade and Limerick. He would swim right up to the glass and around in circles and back again; Aubade kept jumping back giggling saying that he almost touched her and Limerick kept trying to explain to her that the otter couldn’t actually touch her because there was a glass wall in the way 😛
The Raptors – My mom and the kids also saw an ocelot, a fox, and a mountain lion, but I have no pictures of these because I was too distracted by the Harris hawk family winging over the desert. It was such a beautiful and wild thing to see, the hawks on the wing, or perched on top of the saguaros like sentries overlooking the land, glorious and fierce.
The Packrat Playhouse – If you have little kids, this is a great place to stop in and play! The museum limits the number of people allowed in at a time, and restricts the time spent to a half hour, so you’ll probably need to reserve your time in advance and come back later. But after several hours of walking in the sun looking at plants and animals, a little time out of the sun climbing and sliding and tunneling was perfect for the kids.
Honestly, I could keep going. The views are spectacular. The offshoots from the trail with nests for solitary bees or gardens for butterflies are fascinating and beautiful. The day we were there, the museum had a rocks and minerals event going on and we got to learn about a lot of the different rocks that are part of the Sonoran desert – and even take samples home! The reptile and amphibian houses captured Rondel and Limerick’s attention for ages, with so many unique types of snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and more, and a wonderful display describing the life cycle of an amphibian.
In short, if you are anywhere near Tucson and in any way interested in the Sonoran Desert (or birds, or animals, or plants in general), I highly recommend the Sonoran Desert Museum. It can be a bit pricey, but there is a lot to see and do and it is very much worth the cost – just plan on spending the whole day there!
January is really an exceptionally good time to hike the low desert – the sky is clear and brilliant blue, the little cool-weather ground plants are green, the breeze and the shadowed rocks are crisply cool, and the sun is cheery and invigorating. So I took advantage of some extra adult helping hands and decided to attempt a trip to Fat Man’s Pass and the Hidden Valley Tunnel on South Mountain. (Actually, I had intended to go alone with the kids, but my parents wanted to come too and I’m very glad they did!)
There are multiple ways to get to Fat Man’s Pass, but because Limerick is an avid climber I thought we’d try starting at Mormon Trailhead, where the trail climbs steeply upward for 1.3 miles before leveling off and descending to Hidden Valley. I may have underestimated just how steep it was… but the kids did really well! Aubade trekked up almost the entire first leg of the hike on her own two feet, and Limerick charged ahead and even took detours to boulder off on the side.
One of the benefits to hiking so steeply up the side of the mountain was the view gained by such a rapid increase in elevation. We could see out to downtown Phoenix and over to the ASU Tempe campus, even while looking up towards the mountain let us see beautiful desert slopes.
It was definitely helpful to have an adult paired with each child for this trail, however. It was also helpful to carry a lot of water, despite the cool weather, and plenty of snacks for well-timed breaks. Jackets, on the other hand, while comfortable at the trailhead, quickly became just extra weight to carry – hiking in the open sun gets your body warmed up fast!
Towards the top of the mountain, Mormon Trail comes to an end at a junction with National Trail, and there is a turnoff to the left for Hidden Valley Tunnel. While you could turn in here and go through Hidden Valley beginning with the tunnel and ending with Fat Man’s Pass (giving yourself a longer descent back to the trailhead afterwards), we followed National Trail about a quarter of a mile longer to the turnoff for Fat Man’s Pass. After the sun and heat of the trail, the pass feels almost frigid, the eerily smooth rocks around the narrow path very cold to the touch; it is quite refreshing, and the pass itself is really fun to play in. The kids ran back and forth through it for a long time, and we ate a picnic lunch in the shadow of the overhanging rocks behind it.
From Fat Man’s Pass, the trail meanders down through flat sandy washes towards a tumble of rocks through which hikers must clamber or slide. When you approach them, it appears that the trail has reached a dead end, but don’t give up! Going to the left and through an opening in the rocks leads to a series of short slides; going to the right involves a short climb and a trail down to the bottom. I convinced the kids to come with me on the right to show my dad that it was an actual safe trail, but then they saw my mom sliding down the left side and climbed back up so they could go the “fun” way 🙂
The rock barrier between the upper and lower sections of Hidden Valley are really a fun place to climb around – I came with some friends back in college (we must have taken some other trail to get there since I don’t recall either Fat Man’s Pass or Hidden Valley Tunnel) and we spent a lot of time clambering up and down the boulders and joking about it being a great place to pose for an album cover photo. Aubade kept marching up to every tall rock she saw and doing her best to get to the top of it, giving my poor dad much anxiety while being exceedingly cute, oblivious, and self-confident.
When we reached the lower end of Hidden Valley not long after, we found the tunnel filled with other hikers so we didn’t stay long, unfortunately, and I didn’t get any good pictures. It is a really neat place, though – the rocks have made a literal tunnel leading out of the valley, long and thin (though not nearly as narrow as Fat Man’s Pass!) and cool, the rocks again polished slippery smooth.
Then it was back up to National Trail and a short ways to the junction with Mormon Trail, and the long (for tired little kids) descent down the mountain. Every few tenths of a mile there was a trail post with a picture showing how far you were from the bottom or the top of the trail, and Limerick and Rondel took great encouragement from these as their energy wore out – it was a great way to visually confirm that the end was getting closer! Aubade did have to be carried down as she was completely exhausted, and ended up napping on my mom’s back (we had been alternating the carrier – I had it most of the way up without Aubade, and my mom got stuck with it going down. She does have better knees though…).
According to the South Mountain Trail map, the total distance of the loop was about 3.4 miles; according to my mom’s Apple watch tracker, it was 5.5 miles. My guess about the discrepancy is that the trail map measures the flat distance traveled, while the Apple watch measures the actual distance traveled, including the vertical aspect – which was not insignificant on this trail! The hypotenuse of this particular triangle was quite a bit longer than the base 🙂 Either way, it was the longest trail the kids have every hiked, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it with more than one little without help (I could have hiked with Rondel and either one of the others, for instance, most likely, but definitely not all three). However, if you can do it I would encourage you to go for it! Hidden Valley is worth the trek to get there, and the Sonoran desert is beautiful this time of year.
How to get there: from the I-10, exit on Baseline Rd and drive west till 24th Street. Turn left and continue south till the road turns left and becomes Valley View Dr. The trailhead is to the right very shortly after. It does fill up quickly on weekends, but there is roadside parking available on 24th Street. There are no bathrooms or water at the trailhead,so come prepared! Mormon Trail is the only trailhead, and the path is well-marked the entire way except through Hidden Valley itself.
Today we celebrated Aubade’s birthday! She’s only just 3, and yet her birth already seems so far away; the time before her, scarcely imaginable.
She is entering into a very sparkly and colorful phase these days – her favorite clothes are fancy dresses with lots of pouf and sparkle, she loves fairy dolls and rainbow unicorns, and her favorite movie is Cinderella – but she is no less fierce for all that. She will run around the house with her brothers playing games where at least one of them is an evil villain or a ferocious monster or a brave warrior; her little dolls (with names like Vanilla Ice Cream and Sparkle Cake) will fight away giant poisonous snakes with stingers on their tails (courtesy of Limerick’s imagination); and she tries her hardest to climb, run, or jump high and fast enough to keep up with the boys.
She is definite about what she wants: she is confident in her own opinions and makes sure everyone who might need to knows what she thinks! When I asked her about her birthday cake, for instance, she told me she wanted it to be pink and purple and red and blue, and to be little enough for her to eat it all by herself (Limerick, on the other hand, was so overwhelmed by the decision process that he told me he didn’t want any cake, or any party for that matter – it is crazy how different two siblings can be).
She brings a unique vibrance and energy to our home, dancing and singing and sometimes screaming her way through life, full of ideas and the motivation to get things done: to play pretend with her toys and her brothers, to listen to her favorite books (Henry and Mudge), to climb up Daddy and get flipped upside down, to comb Grandma’s hair with her fingers, to pull out all the craft supplies and make a picture, and more. I am so grateful to get to watch her grow, and to have the opportunity to love and guide her along the way.
The boys were trying to be sneaky, scampering through the kitchen when my back was turned, hiding behind the trellised sweet potato vines when I said hi through the kitchen window, running into their bedroom when I peered down the hall.
(They’re not particularly sneaky, but they are very adorable when they’re trying to be.)
At one point Limerick crept silently into the kitchen and proceeded to stare at the water and ice dispenser on the fridge for several minutes, then disappeared again. Shortly thereafter, the boys appeared with the following note:
Rondel needed more water and they wanted to ask in a sneaky way, so they worked together to figure out how to spell the words and Rondel transcribed the message (they had a dispute about whether “water” should be spelled with an “a” or an “o”, thus explaining Limerick’s mysterious visit to the fridge: he’d been checking the spelling (and proving himself right!)). They told me they didn’t know how to spell the word “you” so they just used the letter even though they knew it wasn’t correct 🙂
This is the first time they’ve used writing to communicate, besides a few happy birthday cards, and definitely the first time they’ve written without any external prompting. So I’m most likely inordinately excited about it and am looking forward to more notes of this nature!
Through a fortuitous combination of a Groupon deal for tickets to Lowell Observatory and my mom’s travel bug, we were able to travel up to Flagstaff for a weekend and take Rondel and Limerick to the observatory one evening while we were there, without worrying about a late night drive home or an overtired Aubade.
I had been to Lowell before, but not since before college, so I didn’t remember much, and it was of course all new to the boys. Paul and I split up near the beginning, and I went with Limerick who absolutely loved every inch of it. He sat through an entire 45 minute talk about the solar system, explored the old telescope through which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and got to see both Jupiter and Saturn through the massive telescopes set up for public use. (He was so cute looking through them – he had to climb all the way up the ladder to look through the view piece, and he kept pausing to tell me about everything he could see: storm bands on Jupiter, the four Galilean moons, Saturn’s rings, and some of Saturn’s moons as well, until the observatory volunteer told him that it was time to let someone else have a turn 🙂 ). Lowell also has a large globe that can display in three dimensions images of various planets and moons, and Limerick enjoyed experimenting with that as well.
I think both boys’ favorite part, however, was the Solar System walk stretching through the heart of the observatory grounds. The walk starts with the Sun and has a sign for each planet along with two bronze markers in the sidewalk denoting the aphelion and perihelion of each planet’s orbit. The distance between the markers is all to scale, of course, and reveals just how close together the rocky inner planets are compared to the outer gas giants. We’d done a smaller scale model in our house, but when you have to keep walking and walking to find Neptune, because the scale is larger, it has more of an impact. We did the walk through twice, marveling at how elliptical some orbits were compared to others (Mercury, for example, has a distance of almost 24 million kilometers between its aphelion and perihelion, while the near and far points of Venus’s orbit are only 1.5 million kilometers different), and probably would have done it again if it hadn’t gotten too dark.
While Flagstaff at the end of October is cold in the evenings, it was definitely worth it to be above the city in the dark, clear air; the boys had never seen the sky so full of stars, and I was able to show them the cloudy glow of the Milky Way arching across the night sky as well. It made me think of how humanity must have seen the heavens throughout history: a tapestry of light spread wide above them, telling the stories of their people, singing the praises of God. For both science – the desire to learn, to know, to explain – and story – the desire to remember, to understand, to give meaning – are fundamentally human and find a home in the stars above.