Sometimes you have to work a little to surround yourself with natural beauty. Which is to say, sometimes you have to take a hike, and hiking isn’t always a metaphorical walk in the park, even if you’re in good physical shape. On Mel’s recommendation, Bob, Mel, Jim and I drove north to Oro Valley and Catalina State Park, a 5,500-acre park in the Santa Catalinas, the southern face of which we look out onto from our livingroom windows.  It was another perfect day:  a cloudless sky, light breezes and temperatures in the mid-60’s.  Our goal was to hike part of the way on the Romero Trail to the “pools,” which are fed by run-offs in early spring.  An out-and-back hike, Mel’s hiking book said, would be about 5.5 miles with around 550 feet of elevation gain.  The book labeled the hike “moderate.”  Mel is not a hiker with a zeal for self-punishment, so this sounded like a reasonable day’s effort.

The hike started out inauspiciously enough.  We crossed a sandy wash and walked along a broad, gradually sloping path for half a mile or so.  But at the sign pointing to the Romero Trail the path narrowed and started ascending, and for the next hour and a half we were headed mostly up and up, over rocky terrain.  Checking his park information the next morning, Jim determined that we’d actually climbed closer to 900 feet.  That sounded more gratifying, especially given the abuse to my arthritic left knee and Achilles tendon.

Still, no pain, no elevation gain, and no spectacular views like the ones spread out before us when we paused to look up from the dust and jagged rocks of the trail.  Below us lay the reddish brown Oro Valley stretching to the horizon.  Up the trail and as far as we could see scrub- and cactus-dotted slopes alternated between green shadows and sunlight.  Giant saguaros loomed overhead like extraterrestrials descended from the cloudless, hyper-blue sky.

Giant citizens of the desert - Photo by J. Dannenberg

It was a weekday, but there were still other hikers on the trail.  We passed three older women on several occasions, since their group periodically strung out and then reconstituted itself.  The oldest woman, as we were informed by another member of her party who had walked on ahead, was 80.  Our informant was probably no younger than 60 herself.  But 80 and hiking a trail that I myself would have labeled “moderately difficult”!  That was enough to propel me on to the pools, even though the closer we judged our approach the further the pools seemed to recede.  We’d see the final saddle just above us only to find ourselves headed sideways around yet another little ridge, with no promised water on the other side.

The Pools - Photo by J. Dannenberg

We got to the pools at last, though.  Despite the fact that there has been no rainfall in the lower elevations of southeastern Arizona since the end of last year, the chain of rocky basins was full of water rushing all the way down from 9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon.  Mel struck up a conversation with one of a second trio of women, younger than the first, who arrived at the pools just behind us.  They were New Yorkers and were staying at the Miraval Resort and Spa in Oro Valley.  One of them, dressed as if she were headed to a Pilates class (I’ve since noticed that almost all women on the trails under thirty eschew technical hiking attire), dipped her manicured toes, their nails painted an arresting sea-green, into the mossy green water of the pools. She said she was a consultant to non-profits.  Non-profit work in New York must pay well these days, I thought.

Just then two members of the older female trio arrived.  “Nan,” the 80-year-old, had stayed farther back on the trail.  The chatty 60-something sat down while the third, a wiry, athletic woman who appeared to have coiled metal springs for knee joints, knelt over the smooth rock and stuck her straight, close-cropped hair into the water.

The descent into Oro Valley - Photo by J. Dannenberg

After a hiker’s hodge-podge lunch of cookies, trail mix and apples, we left all these generations of hiking women lolling  on the rocks, like an REI version of water nymphs, and headed back down the trail.  And though the long descent involved some strategic foot work and knee bending better suited to a marionette (or at least to Nan’s bouncy companion), it wasn’t as painful as I’d feared.  The slant of the sun gave us some shelter:   we passed through sections shaded by rocks and groves of small trees and moist enough to allow for ferns and lichen and wing-nut cryptantha,  plants whose stems resemble delicate, skinny bottle brushes crowned with tiny white flowers.

At the bottom we strode out like all hikers, basking in the virtue of fatigue and the exact mileage we’d covered.  And, more than even that, in the glow of the country we’d just walked through.  Whatever your age, if you can keep hiking, your grip on the world is still tight.