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Lights in the Dark

When in Tucson, there are some iconic experiences you must partake in, such as a drive up the 9,100 foot high Mount Lemmon, where you can actually ski; dinner at El Charro, home of the chimichanga; and a hike among the saguaros, which grow in the Sonoran desert and nowhere else in the world. 

mountain views from up high

Fun fact, the saguaros in Tucson outnumber the people 2 to 1. Yes, they take a census.  

saguaro cacti on a mountain

Many of the most beautiful clusters of saguaros are, not surprisingly, found in Saguaro National Park, but Tucson has also claimed a large swathe of saguaro-dotted land and enclosed it inside Tucson Mountain Park. Located west of the city, this park features a small but picturesque mountain pass, lots of hiking trails, and plenty of little turnouts off the twisting, undulating roads where you can pull over and watch the sunset. 

red sky at sunset over the desert

You can stay long after sunset as well, and wander off the trail a bit until you find a nice place among the prickly pear and barrel cacti to spread out a blanket. Sure there are coyotes and scorpions, but they probably won't bother you. The nighttime sky show is worth the risk. With minimal light pollution from Tucson, on the right night you can see several planets, a handful of shooting stars, and a dozen or more satellites in orbit.

You might see one more celestial body: ICE helicopters. Even in Tucson, more than 75 miles from the border on a peaceful Wednesday evening, the helicopters were visible in the distance, their powerful spotlights illuminating the harsh terrain below, looking for terrified, dehydrated, exhausted, but hopeful human beings nearing the end of an imaginably horrific journey, so close to success. As I lay there, having just finished a beautiful hike, enjoying some male companionship, marveling at the cosmos, a terrible cat-and-mouse game was playing out just miles away. 

That night was the perfect example of how heterogeneous America is. How we are several dozen countries rolled into one. Much like cruising down highway 90 in Mississippi, that evening I spent under the stars is one that can only be had in Tucson. Residents of Seattle or Tulsa or Philadelphia or Savannah could never understand it unless they came here and experienced it for themselves.

And after random internet date and I said goodbye and I started driving back, my belief that I had participated in something uniquely Tucson was validated. Every turnout in the mountain park had a car parked it, the owners undoubtedly also curled up on a blanket under the stars with someone, simultaneously thinking about the greatness of human ingenuity that we can create and launch those all those satellites that improve our lives in myriad ways and the great cruelty of humanity that has created situations people desperately flee from and sometimes die in their quest for something better. Or maybe the others were just out there smoking marijuana and drinking 40s. Either way, we were all having the most Tucson of nights. 

woman standing atop a mountain at sunset