Go Take a Hike: A Three-Generation Tradition of Hiking the Sabino Canyon

By Karen Francis-McWhite

I distinctly recall a time in my childhood when the most contemptuous thing I could think of saying to another person was, “Go take a hike!” At that time, having never been on an actual hike, I am sure it was just an expression I’d heard someone spit at another person in a Saturday morning cartoon, or after school special. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before that “curse” faded from my lexicon because I learned that a hike – even a grueling one wished upon my “enemies” – can be a gift. 

Hiking became something I did with friends, my Girls Scouts troop, and eventually with my Mom. Our hikes bore more in common with sauntering than with peak-bagging. We even flirted with a ranger-led snowshoeing excursion in the Sierras during one of our winter roadtrips. And many of the trails in other times of the year were paved or at least groomed with interpretive signs or historical sites. There was always laughter, and huffing and puffing, and satisfied joy. It was in those outdoor spaces where we came to experience each other in more conversational, playful, and grace-filled ways. When our two generations eventually became three, Mom and I continued our outdoors journey and introduced Zora to it at a young age. 

There are places whose presence in my life seem as endemic to my person as my own two feet. I have no memory of when I first encountered them.

They have always simply been part of my world and very much a part of me. The Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in Tucson, Arizona is such a place. It feels like I have known that Canyon for much longer than the fifteen years Mom has lived in Tucson; I was born in Arizona, after all. Even Mom does not remember when we first began to explore it.

Shortly after my first Covid vaccination shot in March, I found myself looking forward to two things: (1) going to Tucson to see (and hug) Mom for the first time in a year and a half; and (2) hiking Sabino Canyon with Mom and Zora. 

Hiking as a family, especially a three-generation family, means the hike is more of a vessel for conversation and creating memories, rather than a set destination to be achieved in order for the hike “to count.”

In our Sabino Canyon tradition, we have always mixed riding the tram up the canyon while listening to the history and naturalist narration, and walking most of the way back down. 

A Hiking Tradition

The first time we hiked this gorgeous desert riparian canyon together, Zora alternated between nodding off in her stroller, and toddling at a sprint downhill (good times 😳). Other times, the Canyon became a backdrop for our family photos. And it’s landscape is ALWAYS the subject of my attempts at photography.

Last month, our visit was more leisurely than usual. It was midday, and thus hotter than when we usually have gone to the Canyon. Nevertheless,  Zora tempered her tweendom and channeled the little girl who likes to leap-frog among the rocks by the low-flowing creek, while Mom took care not to twist an ankle or knee, and I closely scrutinized the underbrush to look for birds, and monitor for cougars and snakes. Thankfully, neither Zora nor Mom slipped, and I got to fan-girl a cardinal and a hummingbird. Though we did not see any mountain lions or snakes, there was one lizard sighting that nearly gave Mom a heart attack as it scurried out of the road, into the neighboring bush. 

“That wasn’t really a hike. It was more of a walk,” the Tween would later quip. The child I once pushed through the Canyon has now become the pace-setter. “We all walk our own hike,” I reminded her… and myself. My hike was punctuated by photo stops with blooming ocotillo and saguaro cacti. Mom’s hike was the chatter and conversation with her only grandchild. And Zora’s hike … was hot. … But also “kinda fun,” which I claim as a win.

As I always do, when we go to the Canyon, I declared that next time, we should come back and make a day of it – if some of the pools are high enough and flowing enough for us to take the occasional dip. But there was no doubt that we would be back. After all, it’s just what we do. 

We learn a lot about each other when we take a hike. We witness the awe in each other’s eyes … and sometimes the irritation.

There are a lot of photo stops (Zora says “too many”). Always there’s the realization of what our bodies can still or finally do. And there is the grace we grant each other to experience and appreciate those epiphanies.

A Chance to Anchor and Clear my Head

A few nights later, we went to the other side of town and explored the Tucson Mountain Park, a little before sunset. It was the day after the Chauvin verdict was announced and I felt a powerful yearning to “go take a hike” and clear my head, anchor my heart, and remind myself that “Yes, with determination, we can and WILL do hard things.” 

The trail we came across was more rugged than the Sabino Canyon tramway, thus requiring that we take greater care of each other, and of our foot placement. Zora – as sure-footed as ever – skipped up the trail like a mountain goat despite wearing Merrell sandals. Mom did not let her upcoming 70th birthday stop her from carefully and determinedly gaining elevation. And I found myself left nearly speechless by the rugged beauty so that, more than once, I shed a grateful tear.

Eighteen months of separation made it necessary to re-anchor ourselves with each other. Go take a hike. Returning to Sabino Canyon was a rekindling of family tradition. Go take a hike. I was anxious and befuddled. Go take a hike. I did and it calmed and centered me – a mother, playing outside with her mother, encountering a new experience with our Mother Earth. 

What was once a curse has become a benediction. Go take a hike.



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