For the Love of Tumamoc

Humanity has embraced Tumamoc Hill for several thousand years, so maybe we finally got something right.

It started with a sunrise and a cup of coffee.

All love affairs start somewhere, and this one began at 5 a.m. on a desert winter morning as I hiked to the top of Tumamoc Hill with three friends. We went on a lark, coffee cups in hand, thinking it would be cool to start our day together watching the sunrise while saner Tucsonans remained under the covers.

From the freeway, and even from the trailhead in Menlo Park, the top of Tumamoc looks miles away, with a few buildings and communications towers dotting the hill's skyline. The trailhead—actually the entrance to a paved road that winds to the top—is across the street from St. Mary's Hospital, west of Silverbell Road off Anklam Road. The final ascent consists of two steep switchbacks that reward hikers with a view of the city in a different light. When you see Tucson as the sun climbs over the Rincons, it's as if some preschooler had poured gold and silver glitter on every house and road during the night.

When local politicians talk about the hill, it's often described as our Acropolis, a geographic landmark that anchors us to our history. These days, more than 10,000 people walk—or run—up the hill every week, and scientists have studied the ecology of the Southwest from the hill's renowned Desert Laboratory for decades. But the ancients who first populated Tumamoc some 2,500 years ago also considered the 750-foot-high hill a special place.

Covering 860 acres, Tumamoc stands like an older cousin next to Sentinel Peak, known to most Tucsonans as "A" Mountain. More than 300 acres on Tumamoc are devoted to scientific research, including two long-term studies that date back to 1903, when the Carnegie Institution founded the Desert Laboratory. The UA bought part of the hill from the federal government in 1960 for its research and education efforts.

But two-dozen centuries before there was a city called Tucson, a pre-Hohokam people thought to be ancestors of the Tohono O'odham lived in a village on top of the hill. You can still see the remnants of pit houses circa 300 B.C., pottery sherds, petroglyphs and depressions carved into the volcanic rock that were used to mill corn and grind seeds. A line of rocks that appears to have been set by hand is what's left of a trinchera, a wall used by the early hill dwellers to protect themselves from their enemies.

Today, the enemies threatening Tumamoc are urban sprawl and climate change, and—some might say—the runners and walkers who love the hill to death. But scientists leading the research at Tumamoc are beginning to accept what they call "reconciliation ecology," which involves facing up to urban growth while making space for nature and for us.

Giving Thanks

During the workweek, there are only two opportunities to hike the hill: before 7:30 a.m. and after 5 p.m. During business hours it's a working laboratory and closed to the public. The early morning crowd tends to be a more reserved older group of people. After work, you'll find lots of students and worker bees who are done with school or jobs for the day, as well as scores of parents pushing baby strollers or herding children up and down the hill. It's not unusual to see activity on the road as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m.

You also get a feeling for the essence of democracy on the road, with hikers of various physical abilities, economic and ethnic backgrounds, and ages. And if you're a regular, it doesn't take long to get to recognize other Tumamoc fans. (I swear the guy who works at the Pep Boys on South Sixth Avenue walks the hill all the time.)

And sometimes you might bump into a school board candidate ... or even a musician you saw a few nights ago at Club Congress urging everyone to mambo their hearts out. Sergio Mendoza, the co-founder and leader of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, says he took up running about five years ago, mostly on the flat path that surrounds Reid Park. About two years ago, he switched to Tumamoc, looking for a challenge. (It takes him about 25 minutes to do the round-trip from the trailhead compared with about an hour for many walkers.) But his workout ritual soon became about more than just staying fit.

"It's become a place I make sure I go to before I leave on tour; (it's) my way of saying goodbye to Tucson," says Mendoza, who has toured internationally with Calexico and DeVotchKa as well as his own band.

"It's also my way of giving thanks, making an offering, a thank-you for getting me this far, to be able to go on these tours with these amazing musicians," he says.

"When I get to the top I feel like I can talk to Tucson. You see the entire city. I pray on the way up. ... I pray to Tucson. There's a sacrifice I make as it gets steeper and steeper and I never stop-no matter what. The reward is seeing all of Tucson and then running back down."

Mendoza also performs a Tumamoc ritual when he returns home from tour. As soon as he gets home, he puts on his shorts and running shoes and heads for the hill. "I'm thankful for being home," he says.

Mayor of the Hill

Diana Rhoades, an aide to Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero, has hiked Tumamoc and Sentinel Peak since 2003, when she moved to Tucson from Alaska and could see the hills from the window of her downtown apartment. The avid runner and hiker says she knew instantly that she wanted to go there.

It was during one of those early hikes that she saw a big sign the UA had put up that said "Public Lands—Keep Out." She thought the irony was so funny that she took a picture.

The laboratory's previous director wanted to close the hill to walkers, Rhoades says. "The idea was to preserve the ecological value of the hill and he didn't see the importance of the walkers. A lot has changed the past few years."

The laboratory's new director, Michael Rosenzweig, appointed in 2007, sees the walkers in a different light, even referring to them as "constituents" in an interview with the Weekly.

"He views it the other way around, as the group that's going to help protect the hill's resources," Rhoades says.

There has also been a concerted effort by Pima County and the city of Tucson to protect the area from development and improve accessibility for hikers. The county started the process, which took several years and cost $12 million to purchase the remainder of the hill property not owned by the UA.

Sentinel Peak underwent a face-lift last year when the city invested in signage and path development, and there are plans for more infrastructure improvements. Back at Tumamoc, in a deal involving the city and Carondelet Health Network, owner of nearby St. Mary's Hospital, solar-powered lighting will be installed at the trailhead to provide illumination for evening walkers, Rhoades says. The hospital has changed its parking policies to allow Tumamoc hikers to park in designated spaces at the hospital, although parking remains off-limits at the private doctors' offices west on Anklam Road.

None of this would be possible, Rhoades says, without Rosenzweig, his staff and a group of dedicated walkers called Friends of Tumamoc.

"They've started a docent program, and lecture series on Wednesdays; there are art and poetry projects; and the important research that's taking place on the hill continues," she says.

Rosenzweig recalls a series of public hearings held a few years ago by Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, a supporter of the activities on Tumamoc Hill. All the people who showed up were walkers and runners, and none of them knew about the scientists' work on the hill and its history.

"I've been working to change that," Rosenzweig says. "The next time we need them or have a series of public hearings, I want them to be there for everything happening at Tumamoc. I want them to be there for us, too."

Outreach has become a priority for the ecologist, and for the past 11 months he's been working to expand the Tumamoc website,, which includes a detailed history of the hills and the ecological research, and information about the scientists who have worked there.

Friends of Tumamoc helps with fundraising and recruiting volunteers who perform tasks ranging from office work to speaking to the groups of schoolchildren who visit regularly.

"We have a lot of plans, and we're foolish enough to think we can do them," Rosenzweig says. "There are different ways to look at the hill and different issues, but our goal is to help people understand that it's (Tucson's) hill and all areas of importance can be satisfied."

One example of an alliance Rosenzweig says he helped forge is with a natural gas company that has a pipeline running through the hill. The pipe needs to be tested, and Rosenzweig met with the pipeline owners over a period of three months to figure out how to do that testing without scarring the hill. They finally came up with a way that allowed testing of 15 feet of pipeline without moving tons of earth, cactus and other vegetation.

As part of Arizona's centennial celebration in 2012, the Desert Laboratory held an open house in conjunction with Friends of Tumamoc. The boathouse, a historic structure that's part of the lab and just west of the trailhead entrance, was cleaned out. Signs were placed along the road to explain the history and vegetation (that's where I learned how paloverde trees act as nurseries for baby saguaros). And for many regular hill walkers, it was the first time they had ever been in any of the historic laboratory buildings.

Rosenzweig says the open house was an example of the outreach that he hopes to continue. "I firmly believe you can't put an 860-acre nature reserve in the middle of the city and wall yourself off from the inhabitants of that city."

The ground rules, such as the hours for hiking, can be difficult to enforce, Rosenzweig admits. But he finds it easier thanks to the Tumamoc regulars, who wag their fingers at other walkers who go off the road or bring their dogs. "There are people who come up and do damage and go where they are not supposed to, but not that often," Rosenzweig says.

At the centennial open house, the lab and Friends of Tumamoc unveiled a plan that included restoration of the boathouse (built when the Santa Cruz River still flowed regularly), improvements to a building to be used for meetings and educational programs, creation of a tea room and a native-plants garden, and a security gate to limit access to the lab during business hours.

Another goal is to make permanent the signs explaining the history and the flora and fauna of Tumamoc. The signs are being designed by Tucson artist Paul Mirocha through a grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Rosenzweig says the laboratory is always searching for funding for hill improvements. (Donations can be made to the UA's College of Science through the UA Foundation.)

Next, Rosenzweig says, are projects that involve expanding reconciliation ecology and creating new ecosystems throughout Tucson. He sees Tumamoc as a hub that will link the area's native-plants associations with the birds and butterflies folks to create more environmental infrastructure in the city.

"We have a responsibility as scientists to use what we have, what no other city has, to serve our community," he says. "The hill has led us in the past and there is no reason we should stop."

Rosenzweig's vision excites people such as Rhoades, who wants even more people hiking Tumamoc and Sentinel Peak to get a better understanding of the city's place in the world. Hiking Tumamoc is more of a social scene, while climbing Sentinel Peak is more introspective, she says. But both give people a chance to view the desert and its inhabitants from a special place.

And yes, she admits, like all those walkers and runners, she's a bit obsessed. "You know Four Square?" she asks, speaking of the program used with social media like Facebook when visiting various places in numerous cities. Regulars can earn badges, and those truly obsessed can earn badges or even become "mayor" of the place. Rhoades was mayor of Tumamoc for six months.

Don't forget the water fountain

Former Weekly staffer Linda Ray and I have gone through our own obsession with Tumamoc. Although we never were serious competitors for mayor, we hiked the hill nearly every weekday morning for a spell. During those morning walks we would often pass a friendly man who always gave us the same advice:

"No need to bring those bottles up with you ladies," he said, referring to the plastic water bottles in our hands, because hikers now have their own water fountain halfway up the hill.

The man, I learned recently, was Ron Spark, a local physician who started climbing Tumamoc with his wife about nine years ago. She'd been in a serious accident, and was walking the hill as part of her rehab. Although she no longer walks the hill as often, he still does it four or five times a week.

Spark is a member of Friends of Tumamoc, and like his cohorts, he feels personally invested in the hill, which means doing such things as picking up trash while he walks and coming up with ideas such as the water fountain.

"It was a safety issue, first," he says. "On those hot days, people don't always drink enough water and we wanted it there for that purpose ... but we also wanted to cut down on the number of people carrying water and the plastic bottles discarded on the side of the road. It worked."

Many Friends of Tumamoc projects involve safety improvements, and many emphasize donations of construction materials over cash. Up to 60 people are often involved in making the projects a reality.

After the water fountain came bike racks and benches at various points on the climb. "Nobody likes to alter the appearance of the hill, but we've been concerned about medical emergencies and the need may come up to have a place for someone to stretch out until help arrives. Those are the things we think about when we work on ideas with the (laboratory)," Spark says.

Spark shares Rosenzweig's vision for Tumamoc and his interest in engaging the greater community. Many of the walkers who became part of Friends of Tumamoc are now docents for Rosenzweig and his staff.

"We feel we have an obligation," says Spark, who believes there is something spiritual about the hill. "Perhaps it's the hill's physical presence. It rises up almost like a volcano. ... mountains and hills inspire people, and this one is endowed will all kinds of plants and animals. It resonates with us."

Spark also appreciates the people who tackle the hill despite disabilities, for example, hikers carrying oxygen bottles or using braces. "To me that is so rewarding."

On my way down the hill during my morning walk one day, I stopped at the Friends of Tumamoc water fountain for a sip and found my writing friend Jenny Fiero, another person who makes the walk for more than just the exercise.

As we walk down the hill together, she reminded me that walking the hill might start as a solitary endeavor, but it also can lead to new friendships. Fiero met a woman while hiking Tumamoc who ended up visiting the ancient Peruvian ruins of Machu Picchu with her a few years ago.

Fiero also confided that she was worried because a relative is battling a rare tumor, and that the hill seemed like a good place for her to go at the moment.

"I do believe in God. That's important to me," she says, "And maybe that's it, maybe I feel that here—always have."

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