Chavalina and the Night Hike of Doom

This week, inspired by a desire to be social and participate in a Halloween-themed activity, I went on a night hike in the Tucson Mountains. The planned route was to climb Wasson Peak (the highest peak in the Tucson Mountains) along the King Canyon Trail, starting early in the evening and continuing through to about midnight under the full moon. This hike was organized through the Outdoor Adventures program at the University of Arizona, which for a nominal fee ($18) promised guidance along the 8-mile planned route, transportation to and from the site, and headlamps. Sounds like a good time, right?

Here’s what really happened.

For one thing, I should have known we were in a bit of trouble when our “guides” (undergraduate student employees from the University) couldn’t find the trailhead. Sitting in the second row of seats in a 15-passenger van, I could hear them debating whether or not we’d passed the trailhead as we drove slowly up and down the roads just outside Saguaro National Park (West). Once we got to the right place, we set out happily along the winding trail. Hiking at night was cool at first: we saw some birds, a spider that no one could identify, and once the full moon was out the landscape of the mountainsides was beautiful. We gladly trudged along for a half mile, a mile, a mile and a half as my Garmin ticked away. The trail got quite sandy and we started having to scramble up rocks. Then we reached a 15-foot high, impassible wall of rock and realized we were at a dead end. The guides squinted  at their black and white paper print out maps and expertly determined that we were no longer on the trail. Hmm, no kidding.

After a half-mile of backtracking, we found the sign post that clearly indicated where we went wrong and started up the correct trail. This detour was no big deal to me, and the group of five other hikers was still pretty sanguine at the time. A mile or so of uphill hiking later, we reached the saddle between Wasson Peak and the next peak over, offering our first cool view of Tucson by night.

The next mile or so of climbing from the saddle to the top was the most strenuous part of the uphill trail. It’s certainly doable for someone of a good fitness level, but walking along narrow trails with steep drop-offs might be scary for some, especially at night. This was where I discovered that one of my fellow hikers was afraid of the following things: birds, snakes, geckos (!), “anything that slithers,” and heights. So… maybe a night hike up a mountain was not the best idea? Judge for yourself. We reached Wasson Peak after just over 4 total miles of hiking, including the brief detour. I have to say, the payoff here was great. These pictures clearly don’t do justice, but from the top of the peak in the full moon you can see all the neighboring mountain ranges, all of Tucson, Marana, and the little town of Three Points on the opposite side of the mountains.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be both literally and figuratively the high point of our journey. On the way down, the guides offered us a choice: go back down the way we came, or take a different route down the back of the mountain. Some of the more intrepid girls on the trip (and we were all females, except for one of the two guides) spoke up and wanted to try something new, but there was obviously dissent from the two ladies in the back who were already tired, wearing ridiculous footwear, and were complaining of blisters. No one listened to them, though. After all, we were promised that this back route down would be: 1) Easier, with a more gradual decline; and 2) more interesting, with an abandoned mine shaft along the way. Both of these things were lies. I mean, OK, there was a mine shaft. But it wasn’t interesting.

At any rate, we started down the mountain and got about a mile before the guides realized we were on the wrong trail again. Now, I’ll give anyone a free pass on one wrong turn. But the second wrong turn, 5-6 miles into the hike and as the night was advancing, was something I had less patience for. It also came out in this exchange that, of our two guides, one had only taken this trail once and the other had never been on this particular route. I kind of feel like the primary job of a guide should be to know where the hell they are going, which wasn’t the case here, and that a guide should never take hikers down a trail they are not completely familiar with and especially not at night, in the dark, without the aid of a GPS device or even a compass. I got a little angry at this not only because I was hungry and tired and because I felt I had wasted my $18, but also because I twisted my ankle as we were backtracking on the trail again, walking along a section we shouldn’t have been on in the first place. To his credit, the male guide walked a little more slowly with me as I walked it off, but our female guide just kept plowing on ahead. I should also mention that at no point did either of them take ownership or apologize for guiding us the wrong way twice.

Yeah, sorry. I didn’t get any good pictures that look like much of anything here. Because it was dark, and I was pretty pissed off.

Unprofessionalism continued once we were back on the proper trail again. It turns out the “easier” trail we had been promised was a complete lie, as the “correct” trail was uneven, eroded, and covered with loose rocks. Given that we were already seven miles in, were not close to being back at the van, and that I was walking unsteadily on a hurting ankle, it’s no surprise that I completely wiped out on the trail somewhere along here. To my anger, the female trail guide (who was walking alone 20-30 feet ahead of the rest of the group), just turned and stared at me. I had ripped out the knee of my pants and cut my knee and my hand on the fall, but she didn’t even ask me if I was all right or offer to slow the pace. She just kind of watched as another hiker helped me up (by the way, I wasn’t the only one stumbling along this trail), and went right back to walking along ahead of us at a brisk pace. I almost lost it.

Here’s what that last climb felt like.

Finally, finally, about nine miles into what should have been an 8-mile hike, we crossed a dry creek bed and found ourselves just a short distance from the parking lot. Just a short distance from it, and below it. Yep, our “moderate,” “easier” back route finished with a scramble up another 12-or-so-foot rock wall. As our female guide scrambled up, I turned to the male guide and said, “You seriously expect us to do that?” Two other girls, one of whom had been struggling with blisters and foot pain the whole way down, were giving him the same look but they clearly just wanted it to be over. The guides had to help us all get up the wall, and mercifully it was only about a tenth of a mile from there to the parking lot. In total, we clocked about exactly nine miles.

Overall, I would say this: I really liked the King Canyon Trail and I’m interested in going up in the daytime, when I think the views would be great along the way. Round-trip, heading from this trail to Wasson Peak and back would probably be under 6.5 miles round-trip. But I will certainly never again spend the money for a “guided” night trip with amateur guides who don’t know the trail and don’t seem to care about the pacing and welfare of their hikers. Unsurprisingly, I was promised we’d have the opportunity to evaluate this trip through Outdoor Adventures. Two days later, I’m still waiting for that evaluation form in my e-mail. I’ll also be waiting a while to run or hike again, since my knee is quite bruised and my ankle doesn’t feel so hot, either. But, hey, at least I tried something new and had a real Halloween adventure. Let’s hope my next hike goes a little more smoothly!




Gloomy Sunday

I knew today was going to be a lousy day when I started off with a lousy run. Well, actually it started a few hours before that when I was awakened around 3AM by the sirens and shouting of police breaking up a neighborhood Halloween party. I got up a few hours later to run on too little sleep, too little food, too little motivation, and some knee pain left over from last week. Unsurprisingly, I struggled and cut things short just shy of 6 miles, much less than I was hoping to run today.

Though I tried not to be too hard on myself after the poor showing this morning, I failed at that too. Nothing with me is ever as simple as, “I had a bad run, I’ll do better next time.” A day like today reminds me of how out of shape I used to be. It makes me feel like a pudgy girl again. It reminds me of when my fiance, who broke up with me almost exactly six years ago now, told me I’d put on too much weight and how I was unattractive and lazy. It reminds me of how much heavier I was when I was drinking, and how the last guy who broke my heart told me he didn’t want to deal with me because I drank too much and had too many “issues.” Maybe it doesn’t make sense that I lump these things together, but if you’ve been depressed or know someone with depression, I think you’ll understand what I mean. It’s hard to forget those words. Even if you believe they aren’t true or if you’ve moved past that point in your life, the messages never go away. In your worst moments you let them attack you over and over. What is said can never be unsaid. And even a bad run creates the opening for those voices to remind me how worthless and damaged I am, and the extent to which I have failed to create the life that I wanted.

Today I meditated on the disordered thinking. I tried to practice forgiveness for myself and compassion to others, even to the guys who have hurt me and left these messages that haunt me. I cooked myself a good meal. I managed to get just a little work done. I gave some old clothes to charity. I’m not going to say I turned things around, but I survived that one little moment where I wondered if life is worth living. I had a bad run. And now I move on.

The International Vegetarian: Part 8, Morocco

[This is an entry in my occasional series on vegetarian meals from around the world. Check out my earlier entries on Ethiopia, India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, China, and Japan.]

It’s been a while since I did one of these entries, but I had to take a small break from international cooking while the semester has gotten busier. This, however, is a quick recipe entry that is nice for fall.

Spice is central to Moroccan food, given the country’s location and history in international trade. Ras el hanout is a spice blend associated with many Moroccan dishes, but the actual term “ras el hanout” means “best of the market,” and it should be noted that it refers less to a specific recipe for a spice blend and more to some guidelines on blending spices. As noted at the site linked above, sometimes this blend can include over 30 different spices! For me, making ras el hanout was a good way to use up some extra spices that I had from many of my other vegetarian dishes. Plus, the inclusion of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg makes the blend feel like fall.

Rather than trying a stew, I was inspired by the acorn squash that I bought at Trader Joe’s and took some inspiration from Martha Stewart and my Pampered Chef “The Vegetarian Table” cookbook to make a rice dish. I used some leftover medium-grain rice as  the base, but wild rice or the more traditional cous-cous would work equally well. I re-heated the cooked rice in the microwave, combined with chopped, dried apricots and prunes (my go-to substitute for raisins, which would work just as well in this recipe). The steam from the rice helps plump up the dried fruit a little. Then I toasted some crushed almonds on the stovetop, set them aside, and heated garbanzo beans with a little water and ras el hanout to taste. The rice, seasoned beans, almonds, and fruit should all be mixed together to create the rice. While doing this, I hollowed out my acorn squash, brushed it with brown sugar and olive oil, and baked it at 425 degrees until tender (about 25 minutes). The squash bowl makes a great serving vehicle, and the entire dish looked very classy and filling. This almost felt too fancy to eat on a Monday!

I highly recommend this as a fall dish, I think it will impress meat eaters and would even be fancy and unique enough to serve to company. I plan to make it again soon, but this time instead of acorn squash I will try serving it in a little tiger pumpkin that I got at the market. Who knew that Moroccan spice and American traditions could blend so well!

What Makes a Run Good (or Bad)?

Yesterday I had one of those mornings where I just did not want to run. I got up, snoozed the alarm, let the dog jump into bed with me, then let him drag me all over the neighborhood while I procrastinated. I did eventually get in my 9-miler, and the first 3 miles were just me being whiney, tortured, etc. Then it turned into a good run and I finished strong. I wondered afterward why some runs are “good” runs and some are “bad” runs, and why some runs turn around in the middle. Here’s some of what makes a run work (or not) for me.

1. Rest

Last week was a weird week for me. I felt bored with running and tried to switch up days/distances, had an incident on Wednesday where a driver almost hit me and it cut my run short, and then I did Friday’s run in the evening and faster than I should have, which left me not well rested for my weekend run. I could feel the soreness in my knees and thighs on Sunday when I got up, and I felt it through the first part of my run until I hit my stride.

2. Stress

Stress can be a reason to run, when you need to pound the pavement, gain confidence, or get an endorphin burst, but as Meghan Rabbit over at Runner’s World warns, it can also make us too tense or make us run too hard. This goes hand-in-hand with item 1, but I’ve definitely been channeling some other frustrations into my running which results in doing too much and making me tired.

3. Fueling

I do pretty well with nutrition and with fueling along the way, but cramming down a greasy veggie and bean burrito at 9PM the night before waking up to do a long run may not have done me any favors.

4. Goals (and getting them met)

Getting my pace faster but keeping it controlled has got to be a goal for me. This is a tough balancing act on long runs. I’ve managed to keep the overall pace under 10:00/mi on my long runs since the Arizona Half Marathon, and that was the goal that kept me going necessary. But sometimes I race a bit unnecessarily. For instance, charging up a hill at 9:30/pace yesterday after I’d already run 8.8 miles was not smart, and my knee is not happy about it today. Speed and hills and distance do not need to happen all at the same time–no matter how awesome I feel in the moment. I’m hoping that a swim and limiting time on my feet today will have me back up and running tomorrow!

Enjoying the Foods of Fall with Trader Joe’s

So, last week on the ABC World News telecast there was a hard-hitting story on the topic of whether we have too many pumpkin-flavored foods. I have two responses to that:

  1. What an idiotic story for a nightly newscast. Seriously, even Diane Sawyer looked embarrassed introducing it.
  2. No, we absolutely do not have too many fall foods.

I recently went on a fall-food-buying bonanza at my local Trader Joe’s and would like to report back on some of my vegetarian finds. Even if you don’t like pumpkin, there is something here for you… but probably not these first few items.

1. Pumpkin Spice Coffee

I have to admit that I’m not generally a fan of pumpkin spice coffee and this was no exception. This is better than some types I’ve tried, and the coffee itself is strong and tasty, but the sweet aftertaste of cinnamon and nutmeg did not blend well to me. With milk and sugar, things mellow out… but I don’t usually take sweetener in my morning coffee so I’d call this a miss. However, if you are someone who prefers sweet coffee drinks perhaps you should try it for yourself. The roommate loves it, so it fits someone’s tastes! ($7.99, 14 oz.)

2. Country Pumpkin Spice Granola

This was an unexpected win, since I don’t often buy granola. But an in-store sample of this granola with some vanilla yogurt sold me. The granola is sweet, rich, and filling and in addition to the pumpkin flavors and real pumpkin bits, it includes raisins and honey (so, sadly, not vegan-friendly). Mixed in with yogurt, it tastes amazing and makes a filling snack or dessert. It’s also delicious on its own. ($2.49, 16 oz. and 210 calories for a 2/3 cup serving)

3. Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix

This is just plain delicious. What else can I say? Essentially it’s pumpkin pie batter that comes in dry form and you mix it up with egg, butter, and milk. The huge caveat, though, is that this isn’t health food. Take a look at the label and you’ll see that the final product is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Even worse, the ingredient label gives data for a 1/3 serving size of mix, but preparation calls for 1 cup of mix. If you follow those directions, then, you end up with a whopping 900 calories of pancakes. I found that 1/2 cup of mix (essentially, 1.5 servings) makes a filling meal, but still not a healthy one. Buy this, but use it only as an occasional treat! ($2.99 for a 21.1 oz. box, 300 calories for the recommended 1/3 cup serving)

4. Spiced Apple Cider

Finally, something for the non-pumpkin people out there. This cider is a must have, flavored with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. The spiced taste is not overwhelming, and if you’re like me you may want to add some freshly grated cinnamon or a spoonful of honey. Warmed, this cider makes a great after dinner drink or a substitute for coffee and tea. It will also promote good digestion, thanks to the fiber and cinnamon content. ($2.99 for 64 oz., 130 calories per 8 oz. serving)

5. Acorn Squash

This is one you can enjoy even if you’re not near a Trader Joe’s, though Trader Joe’s does carry a wide variety of squashes this time of year. Acorn squash is easy to prepare and versatile. It can be used in pies, as a puree, and hollowed out it makes a great edible bowl. Martha Stewart’s website has a great primer on acorn squash, so don’t be afraid to try this! I used one half of the squash to make baked wedges drizzled with cinnamon butter and served with nutty manchego cheese, which complimented the dish perfectly. What did I do with the other half? You’ll find out in a future post! (Prices and sizes vary, check out the selection at a store near you)

Tucson Meet-Less Yourself

On Saturday, I went to the 2012 edition of Tucson Meet Yourself. This major, annual event in Tucson celebrates international culture through arts, music, and dance, but the plethora of ethnic food offerings has led some to dub the festival “Tucson Eat Yourself.” This year, the first time I’ve been to the festival since rededicating myself to a vegetarian lifestyle, I decided to make it a “Tucson Meet-Less Yourself.” My goal was to stuff myself like I usually do, but to sample as many vegetarian items as possible. It was a rousing success.


I made a beeline to the Buddhist Temple tent in Jacome Plaza because I knew I could count on them for great offerings. Sure enough, they had several vegetarian options. They also had chicken, which confused me. Isn’t there some Buddhist precept related to that… ? Anyway, I chowed down on a vegetarian spring roll with chili sauce and then got some spinach pakoda from the Indian booth next door. In India, pakoda are a popular street snack of deep-fried batter and veggies. I ate mine with tamarind chutney. Plate #1 was a real success.


El Presidio Park, between the Pima County Courthouse (pictured above) and City Hall also featured a lot of food and entertainment. As soon as I got into the park, I saw folks already queued up for fry bread at the San Ignacio Yaqui tent. Who can blame them? Fry bread is delicious, whether you’re eating it with meat (in red or green chili sauce) or veggie style with beans or sugar and honey. Sadly, I was put off by the line and never did get any fry bread. I did pay a visit to the Polish kiosk across the way, though. They offered two types of vegetable pirogi: Mushroom and cabbage or potato and cheese. I had the potato and cheese, topped with onions.

Lots of cultural beverages were also on offer. In the past, I’ve enjoyed Indian rosewater and Native American cinnamon tea. This year also featured Indonesian iced tea and Turkish coffee. I, however, went with a tried-and-true horchata, the Mexican drink made of rice, vanilla, and cinnamon. After getting a rather large cup, I settled in near the stage and listened to the delightful stylings of the Tucson Sino Choir as they performed Chinese choral music.

A wiki picture of horchata. Horchata makes me happier than a pig in slop.

By now I had only seen maybe half of the festival, so I wandered off to see the other vendors in La Placita and in the area of the convention center. This part of the fest was less geared toward food and more toward activism and selling crafts, but there was a lot of pretty stuff to look at and I signed some petitions to help wildlife. The Sonoran Pavilion–celebrating the culture of our neighbors to the south, was set up near the convention center. Here I got to see some cool dancing by a Mexican dance group, Grupo Danza Xunuti de Rio Sonora. Their costumes and dancing evoked the Old West, featuring cowboy boots for the men and frilly dresses for the ladies. It reminded me that our histories are not so different after all!

On my way back to the start, I grabbed a delicious pumpkin empanada to benefit the Tucson Mexico Sister Cities scholarship fund. This was $2, but I would easily have paid twice that much. Just a tip to fill those coffers for next year!


There were lots of other options here that I could have tried: Pad thai, the fry bread, gelato, and plenty of pastries at the French and Danish booths. There was an entire vegetarian soul food booth, but it was closed on Saturday. Keeping that in mind, my award for the best vegetarian booth goes–surprisingly–to the Turkish food tent. They had a clearly labeled menu of vegetarian options, several different items available, and they were very good. Kudos to them on their stuffed grape leaves and Turkish coffee.

If all goes to plan, this will probably be the last time I visit Tucson Meet Yourself, which is sad. The festival is one of the things I’ll miss about this town. In a place where politics tends to get ugly (especially right now), it’s a treasure to have a festival that really celebrates everyone. Humanity. Encouraging empathy and understanding. And stuffing your yaw full of fried foods. Thanks for another great year, TMY!