Introduction to Sojourners
The Cascabel Conservation Association (CCA) seeks to provide a place where individuals can directly experience themselves and nature as a unity. In so far as it serves the faith community, it is fully interfaith and provides the possibility of a more truly eremitic experience. It is also for the use of those who may not align themselves with any faith, for artists, writers or contemplatives of any persuasion, who seek solitude and a more intimate experience of the Sonoran Desert.
The CCA determined to provide a place for solitary sojourning for several reasons: There are many group retreat facilities in scenic areas, but few if any that provide opportunity for true solitude in wildlands. There was also concern for the human impact that groups would have on this fragile desert. Finally, infrastructure is not so critical for solitary individuals and keeps the need for financial support to a minimum.
Solitary sojourning in wildlands, though somewhat alien to our modern society, is a long-standing tradition in many cultures. “Eremite,” from which derives the words “hermit” and “hermitage”, comes from the Greek for desert or wilderness and designates those who withdraw to the desert for religious purposes. The Russian equivalent, “pustniki,” also derives from the Russian word for desert. Possibly the desert became associated with hermitage because its vast emptiness parallels the condition of the human heart that is open and receptive to that beyond the self.
For most Americans, probably the two most recognizable representatives of these religious and philosophical traditions are Thomas Merton and Henry David Thoreau. For some contemporary surveys of a variety of eremitic traditions, see Dennis Cooper, Silence, Solitude and Simplicity and Peter French, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude.
The Cascabel Conservation Association is located in southeastern Arizona, on the eastern perimeter of the Sonoran Desert. It is in a remote area, about 75 road miles east of Tucson (about 30 miles straight-line distance) and 10 miles from paved roads in any direction. Situated between the Galiuro and Winchester Mountains to the east and the Catalina and Rincon Mountains to the west, CCA land occupies 600 acres in the uplands of a major watershed (Hot Springs) of the central San Pedro River.
Although the land is in the Sonoran Desert, it is also proximate to the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, as well as the Basin and Range “sky islands” of SE Arizona and SW New Mexico that connect the semi-tropical mountains of the Sierra Madres with the temperate zones of the Rocky Mountains. As a result, there is a great diversity of plant and animal life in this region. Evidence of this was the naming of the San Pedro River, Arizona’s last remaining undammed river, as one of The Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places,” and as one of the premier birding areas in the continental United States.
The CCA’s Corbett Center, which anchors the retreat program, is located in lower Hot Springs Canyon, beside a streambed which is normally dry (known locally as a wash). Occasionally, during rainy periods, water flows in the wash near the support center. Further upstream, water flows year round through the Muleshoe Preserve, one of The Nature Conservancy’s largest U.S. holding.
THE PLANT AND ANIMAL COMMUNITY
The plants here are primarily desert scrub, predominately creosote, mesquite, acacia, palo verde, saguaro, ocotillo, yucca, and various cacti. Some of the animals seen in this area include cottontail and jack rabbits, coyote, bobcat, mule and white tail deer, badger, skunk, gray fox, ringtail cat, mountain lion, raccoon, coati, javelina, desert tortoise, rattlesnake and Gila monster.
Some characteristic birds in this locale include Gambel’s Quail, White-Winged Dove, Roadrunner, Elf Owl, Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, Curve-Billed Thrasher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Scott’s Oriole, Black Hawk and Zone-Tail Hawk.
Some decry the lack of seasons in the desert, but to locals who know it, there is always variability and change. It is possible that there are even more seasons in the Sonoran desert than in other parts of the country.
Winter (December-February): Daytime temperatures are typically in the 50’s and 60’s, and nights below freezing, often in the low 20’s. It is typically mild before a Pacific frontal system, and cold after its passing, this cycle repeating every few days. Snow is rare but possible. Deciduous trees like cottonwood and mesquite lose their leaves. The mild daytime temperatures are a delight, as is watching winter storms move in.
Spring (March-April): Daytime temperatures typically range from the 60’s to the 90’s, with a lot of variability and strong winds. Nighttime temperatures can still dip below freezing. Wildflowers and small shrubs are in bloom. This is an excellent time for sojourning.
Early Summer (May-June): Daytime temperatures are commonly near 100 degrees or higher. Nighttime lows can be as much as 50 degrees cooler than daytime highs. Winds moderate, and light breezes or calm periods become more prevalent. Larger plants such as cacti (including saguaro), yuccas, palo verde, acacia, creosote, and mesquite are in bloom. Lizards, snakes, spiders and insects become fully active. Morning and evening coolness is pleasant, but generally this is a season for the hardier visitor.
Late Summer (July-September): Daytime temperatures moderate slightly as the “monsoons” bring moist air and thunderstorms up from the Gulf of Mexico and California. The added humidity causes the nights to stay warmer. Severe thunderstorms often cause flash flooding in washes, even several miles from the source of the storm. Grasses green and flower. This is our most dramatic season with wild storms and breathtaking sunsets. It can also be one of the most challenging seasons with gnats, mosquitoes, humidity and high nighttime temperatures.
Fall (October-November): Daytime temperatures begin to moderate, typically ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s. Nights can be quite chilly or even freezing at times. The broadleaf trees up the canyon or on the river change colors. Insects are still prevalent but not so severe. Fall, like spring, is one of the most delightful times for sojourning. Temperatures are mild, leaves are still on the trees, and there is still lots of daylight.
In order to maintain the integrity of the wildland area, all facilities are intentionally primitive. There is no electricity, no heating, cooling, refrigeration, inside plumbing, hot and cold running water or flush toilets. Phone service is not available at hermitage sites, and sojourners are requested not to bring cell phones.
The Corbet Center (photos) is located in Hot Springs Canyon in a small mesquite bosque at the end of the dirt road into the canyon. Hiking is easy up the wash, and the stream is usually running within a mile or two up the wash. The Corbett Center may be reserved for use by solitaries, couples, or small groups.
For solitaries or couples, a cottage is available that was designed and built by David Omick as a basic off-grid homestead. It has two single beds, table, chairs, book shelves, work space, basic utensils, and is a secure, comfortable 8’x16’ living space. Drinking water is hauled in, but a rainwater harvesting tank provides water for all other uses. The outdoor kitchen provides a propane stove and covered work area. The cottage has no heat or cooling, but a metal chimenea is available on the cement pad for small fires.
For small groups (under a dozen) there is a camping area for tents and a fire ring. An old ramada provides some shade and possible rain protection. A composting toilet is available for those using the cottage or camping (see photos).
To help preserve a sojourner’s solitude, vehicle blockades and alternative parking are provided when the center is occupied. Signs and a marked trail lead the occasional hiker down into the wash and around the center.
The Gonzalez-Leitner Hermitage (photos) is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle and has a sweeping view of the San Pedro Valley and Rincon Mountains. This strawbale cottage provides relatively good protection from the extremes of the elements but is only recommended for those desiring a more physically demanding stay. About 12 x 15 feet in size, it is simply furnished with bed, table, chair and a chest containing plates and other utensils, toilet paper, flashlight, first aid kit, etc. A 55-gallon tank next to the Hermitage serves as the water supply, and nearby is an outdoor composting toilet.
It is important to note that the Gonzales-Leitner Hermitage is in deteriorating condition. The strawbale has a dirt floor and is not tight from insects or the occasional mouse. Mice or small lizards often inhabit the ceiling and can make noise at night. Applicants should feel easy in primitive desert surroundings and be aware that use is dependent upon conditions and our ability to service the hermitage.
The hermitage is located about 2-1/2 miles from the Corbett Center. To facilitate transportation of a sojourner’s personal effects and food, we typically drive sojourners to the hermitage at the beginning of the retreat and pick them up again at the end. To help preserve a sojourner’s solitude, a cable, which is strung across the road about 1-1/2 miles before the hermitage, remains locked during retreats to prevent vehicle access. In addition, a sign next to the cable notifies pedestrians that access is closed.
Drinking water is hauled to all sites by staff. Sojourners are expected to provide their own food as well as other supplies and equipment noted below. Sojourner vehicles will remain above the canyon, and staff will ferry the sojourners to the hermitage. No provision is made for restocking or driving in and out once at a hermitage. On occasion Saguaro-Juniper cattle may range in the area.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Life in the desert can be harsh at times, especially under primitive conditions. Prospective sojourners must take responsibility for realistically evaluating their physical capabilities. This experience is generally best suited for physically active and healthy individuals.
At least as serious as the physical realities are the psychological stresses that can occur in solitude. As Joseph Campbell noted, the sea in which the mystic swims is the same one in which the psychotic drowns. Sojourners must take responsibility for realistically evaluating their emotional tolerance for being alone in a remote setting. This experience is recommended for emotionally and spiritually mature and stable individuals who have prior experience with solitude.
A staff person checks on sojourners daily by remotely observing a signal system located at each hermitage site. In case of emergency, a first-aid kit is available at the support center, but local resources are minimal. CCA staff will assist to the extent they are able; however, they are not always present and cannot be relied on to provide emergency care. It is about 30 miles to the nearest hospital for professional care, and a one-hour drive minimum.
LEGAL NOTICE: Sojourners need to take responsibility and due precautions for their own health and safety. CCA staff may not be trained outdoorsmen, mental health workers or health care providers. They should not be relied upon to provide physical assistance, psychological counseling or emergency care. The CCA must reserve the right to deny hermitage to any person without cause. A release form signed by the sojourner is required.
* The Sonoran desert is very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and day and night temperature fluctuations of 40 degrees or more are not uncommon. Dehydration, hypothermia and heat stroke are real concerns in the desert, and adequate precautions must be taken. Spring and fall offer the mildest weather conditions.
* In winter, good sleeping bags and warm clothing are essential. We recommend dressing in many layers. Sun can still be severe, making broad-brimmed hats, skin protection and sunglasses necessary even in this season.
* In early and late summer it is essential to drink a lot of water (a gallon a day or more) and supplement with salt. We recommend wearing lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts, rather than shorts and tank tops, as they offer better protection from sun and insects. Again, broad-brimmed hats, sunscreen and sunglasses are recommended.
* Gnats, flies and mosquitoes are prevalent at times. Insect repellant may be necessary.
* Lightning is a real threat in late summer, and one should take adequate precautions. Stay away from high points and keep a low profile. Severe thunderstorms often cause flash flooding in washes, even several miles from the source of the storm.
* Some animals of the desert have developed defensive mechanisms of which sojourners should be aware. Some are venomous and potentially dangerous: rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, cone-nose beetles, centipedes, black widows, ants, bees, wasps, etc. Generally they are not a concern if common sense is observed, but one would do well to learn about them and take due precautions. Small guidebooks are available on loan from CCA to assist in identification, precautions and treatments.
* An equipment checklist includes: sleeping bag or blanket(s), pad, cook stove and utensils, matches, food, canteens, salt, flashlight, broad-brimmed hat, sunscreen, insect repellant, toilet paper, appropriate clothing and sunglasses.
Note: Because our intent is to provide a place for true solitude in wildlands, we strongly discourage the use of electronic transmitters and receivers during retreats, including cell phones, portable radios, TVs, etc. (cell phone coverage is poor to non-existent at all sites).
Persons interested in a sojourn or more information should email Susan Tollefson or Daniel Baker. Advance notice of at least two weeks is required so that staff can be available and conflicts in scheduling avoided. Extended stays beyond a couple of weeks are only granted in limited circumstances.
Rides to and from Tucson airport may be available, but due to volunteer staff limitations cannot be guaranteed. If driving, allow 2 hours from Tucson. Sojourners and their supplies are transported from the support center to the strawbale hermitage by CCA staff in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Other sites are accessible by foot only. CCA staff are usually available to help carry supplies.
Retreatants will leave any vehicles above the canyon and will be ferried to the site by CCA staff.
If you are travelling from a distance, or are otherwise unfamiliar with Sonoran Desert wildlands, you will find the following emphases of particular importance.
SAFETY: Please be aware that you will be alone under relatively primitive conditions during your sojourn. Signal checks are made only once every 24 hours or so, and in the interim you are on your own. We try to make people aware of potential dangers environmentally and personally. They are mostly common-sense issues, and in general the precautions are no more serious than in routine urban life, only of a different nature.
If you go hiking away from your hermitage sight, you must be careful to not explore beyond your endurance and capability to return without losing your way. You must carry sufficient water – 2 quarts is minimal, a gallon better. Falls and sprained ankles would likely be the greatest hazard, so good foot wear and watching your step are critical. Terrain can be very rocky, steep and loose. Leaving a note at the hermitage as to your direction, general destination and departure time is a good idea if you are setting out on a lengthy hike.
A majority of the plants have serious spines or thorns. Respect the damage they can do to you when in their proximity. Wearing a long-sleeve shirt and pants is recommended.
A book of poisonous animals is available for review at the hermitage. By and large the greatest potential hazards are rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders. These are not overly common around and especially not within a hermitage, but it is not impossible for them to occur. Mostly being aware of their appearance and likely locales and then avoiding them is all that is required, essentially akin to looking both ways before you cross the street in a city.
VEHICLES: If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, or have a vehicle poorly adapted to rough dirt roads, it is probably best to arrange to meet us at our office in Cascabel or a prearranged location. From there we can ferry you to our Support Center, and then on to your hermitage site in our 4WD vehicle. In that way it is not necessary to rent a more expensive vehicle or subject your own to potential damage.
WHAT TO BRING: Beyond what is mentioned in the Introduction to Sojourners, for those flying in or coming from a distance, a few additional notes are in order. Regarding food, dried food stuffs are the easiest to transport and use. A supermarket is available in Benson where food supplies can be augmented on the way in.
Camp stoves, and especially fuel containers, are not allowed on airplanes, even in baggage. A camp stove and fuel container are available at the Gonzales-Leitner Hermitage, along with a few basic pots, pans, cups, plates and utensils. A sun stove is also available. The Corbett Center has a propane camp stove installed.
For cool or cold season sojourners, we reiterate that no heating is available, and no open fires are allowed. The Strawbale Hermitage generally has sufficient insulation to make conditions reasonably comfortable, though it can potentially still get quite cold, especially if one is not being active. The Corbett Center cottage has no heating and is not terribly well insulated. A chimenea is available on the cement pad outside. A warm sleeping bag and warm clothes are essential.