New Faces in Familiar Places: Benson, AZ Redux

Back in friendly surroundings

After our nine day semi-sprint across the middle of the country, we were ready to drop anchor and settle in somewhere nice for a few days. This would give us a chance to rest and do laundry, but it would also mark the transition between the “traveling” and “living” parts of the trip. And we were delighted to be back at one of our favorite places, the Escapees SKP Saguaro Co-op in Benson, AZ.

Maureen making new friends

I’ve written about Saguaro before, and it’s still the friendly, welcoming and comfortable place it was back in March when we last stayed there. Although that was just eight months ago, it feels like “last year”, because I think I’m starting to count “Odysseys” instead of years.

Maureen had lobbied for slowing down our journey to Benson by a day, so that we would arrive on a Sunday instead of a Saturday, figuring that more weekenders would be checking out on Sunday, thus offering us a wider selection of spots. It was a good call, because in the event we had our pick of half a dozen sites. Saguaro has a fancy flat panel monitor showing where the available sites are, and we tried to visualize which ones would have the best views of the Dragoon Mountains. As it turned out, the site we picked was fine, but the views were not as good as they could have been, and we were just a little too far from the clubhouse to enjoy free WiFi from our rig. Site selection is an art that we are still learning.

A fine site

But these are quibbles. I loved being able to wash 1800 miles of road grime off of the rig and the Jeep, and Maureen took advantage of as many exercise classes and social activities as she could handle.

Another full calendar of events

Benson sits at 3500′ elevation, so while the days were warm, one night did dip below freezing, turning the clubhouse fountain into an ice sculpture.

Temporary ice sculpture

If you can’t meet people at SKP Saguaro, you must be trying hard not to. Everyone waves hello, and the calendar is packed with activities. We partook of the Mexican dinner night, and were amazed at how well the all-volunteer team prepared a delicious meal for about seventy people. All the proceeds went to fund the park’s “Cactus Wrens”, who host social events for the park residents and do other good works.

Easy to meet people, and good food too

Taking nothing away from the SKP dinner, we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant in Benson, Mi Casa, not once, but twice. We’d been dreaming about it every since we left, and it was every bit as good as we remembered.

Mi Casa – even better than we remembered

To work off all that food, we once again drove down to San Pedro House for a bird walk, which reliably produces an embarrassment of avian riches. This time we saw “only” 36 species, but two new ones for me (Grasshopper Sparrow and Yellow-headed Blackbird).

Bird geeks ready to roll

Fall has had an extended stay in southern Arizona this year, and the cottonwoods along the San Pedro river were still hanging onto their leaves. One of the other birders remarked that cottonwoods were underrated, and I have to agree.

Glorious cottonwoods

Another outdoor activity I had wanted to do last spring was a visit to the Chiricahua National Monument, about 1.5 hours southeast of Benson. We weren’t able to go then, but made a point of it this time. The main attraction of Chiricahua is its rich, otherworldly collection of hoodoos and balanced rocks. We took a hike from near the summit. Up at the top it was windy and cold, but as we walked down into the canyon it turned warm. The rock formations are truly strange and wonderful, some reminiscent of faces, others perched in seeming impossible and precarious positions. It was well worth the drive to see this unique phenomenon.

Hoodoos and one lucky guy

The last nature-oriented activity we took on from our base in Benson was Kartchner Caverns. The story of the discovery of these underground caves is almost as fascinating as their geology. I can’t imagine the thrill that the cave explorers who found this place must have experienced upon discovering this previously hidden treasure in 1974. Then, realizing the need to protect it, they and the landowners and the state of Arizona were able to keep its location a secret until 1988, when it was acquired by the state.

Opened to the public in 1999, Kartchner is a living cave, which means you can see the formations in the process of being created. It has been very dry in Arizona since the summer, so cavern activity was pretty mild during our visit, but in the rainy seasons I expect it would be much more dramatic as water percolates from the surface underground.

The park is very protective of its natural environment. Before entering the cavern you must pass through an airlock and are sprayed with a fine mist of water to reduce the amount of human debris (hair, skin flakes) falling onto the ground.  No photos of the interior or even cell phones are allowed, since they don’t want people bumping into the formations while they try to take pictures. And please, no touching. If someone does touch something other than the railing, the spot is marked with bright red tape (no pun intended, I believe), and a cleaning crew sanitizes the contamination. We were a good group and no red flags were thrown.

Yours is a very nice cave

There is also a very nice campground in the park, although we didn’t stay there this time. Carlsbad Caverns has a larger, more impressive set of underground rooms, but we enjoyed some of the unique features of Kartchner, and would recommend it to anyone passing through on I-10.

Rested from a restorative week in Benson, we were ready to move on to Tucson.