Sweetwater Saguaros: A Dog-Friendly Hike, A Word of Advice and A Middle School Memory

I Googled “dog friendly hikes in Tucson” last weekend and set off to one of the listed destinations. When our German Shepherd mix, Zelda, and I arrived at the trailhead, we were greeted by a comically large NO DOGS ALLOWED sign.

Maybe…  we could… do it anyway? My mind started a feeble line of argument that it already knew I wasn’t pursuing. The “no dogs” signs (and there were several) were almost as big as my 65-pound dog. Running into someone on the trail and telling them, “Oh, I didn’t realize!” was not going to be feasible. I tried to get a picture of my dog in front of the sign to capture how silly I felt. But then I saw some people coming and worried they might be upset with me for mocking the laws of nature (well, the laws of this particular nature), so we left. 

I don’t hike enough to be the sort of person you should take hiking advice from, but I do have one important suggestion to share. If you Google “dog-friendly hikes in Tucson,” Sweetwater Preserve Trailhead will come up. When you look up the directions, make sure you search for Sweetwater Preserve, not Sweetwater Wetlands—which looked beautiful in pictures but is emphatically not dog friendly. I’m almost certainly not the first person to make this mistake, but hopefully I’ll be the last. Please tell your friends.

Sweetwater Preserve was only about 15 minutes away. The trailhead parking lot was full of cars with bumper stickers that said things like “I Love My Pitbull” and “Life’s Better With a Dog,” so we knew we were in the right place. The preserve is an 880ish-acre area just west of the I-10, with around 15 miles of trails. It’s a big, beautiful sea of saguaros out there.

On saguaros: I took an art class in middle school where I grew up in California, in which one of our assignments was to find a photograph in a magazine and then try to recreate it. I chose a saguaro at sunset. My teacher, an elderly hippie with an enormous gray beard, was not impressed.

“That doesn’t look like a cactus,” he said. “That looks like what you think a cactus looks like.”

Maybe it sounds like he was squashing my artistic sensibility, but he was right. I wasn’t trying to do an impressionistic piece or be the next Picasso. I was being lazy, trying to recreate the photo without really looking at it. I felt like I already knew what a saguaro looked like, from cartoons and pop culture and the Discovery Channel: a big tall stick with two arms waving hello.

Mr. Gregory took me back to the photo and tried to show me how to notice. The arms of the saguaro weren’t uniform sizes. The spines were barely visible, unlike the big black thorns I had tried to paint. The sun had a distinct ring of orange around it I hadn’t noticed before.

This would be a more inspiring story if I had grown up to be an artist or something, but, nope: Still bad at art. But I think about his lesson with the cactus sometimes anyway. Before, it felt like a lesson about paying better attention. Now that I am grown up and live in the Land of Saguaros, thinking of art class reminds me to let attention turn to appreciation, especially for wherever I happen to be. Right now, that’s Tucson. 

We are all so used to saguaros it’s hard to see them sometimes. They wave at us from street medians and shopping centers and our own backyards. And they’ve become their own aesthetic, with people buying saguaro-patterned notebooks, punny T-shirts and mass-produced art prints romanticizing the Southwest. 

But, oh, how neat they are! They are homes and perches for birds, their fruit is food for mammals, and their woody ribs can be construction materials.  Also, while there are certainly saguaros that look just like the ones in cartoons, there is a much wider and more whimsical variety of saguaro poses than I ever expected. Some are just starting to grow arms that look like cute little pom poms. Some have no arms. Some have up to 25! Some look like hands, or tridents, or ballerinas, or octopi. 

Every time I go hiking, I think about how I should do it more often. Sometimes the value of a hike is seeing something new: a snow-topped mountain, a serene and isolated lake, a sea of new colors. But there’s also value in going to whatever nature you happen to have handy and just being in it, maybe with a dog who can really model the joy of living in the moment. Leaving your to-do list and your laundry list and your listlessness at home to wander around and wave to the saguaros. Just make sure you type the right location into your GPS.   

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