The Cactus Speared Cact-I

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Prickly pears are just one of many cactus species ready to spear you

There’s only one rule—besides carrying enough water—about hiking in the southwest American desert: Don’t fall.

The reason isn’t so much to avoid landing on unyielding rock as it is about impaling yourself on razor-sharp spines of the cacti that infest places like the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona.

Actually, forget about falling. You don’t even want to brush against or accidentally grab any of these thorny bastards, which are all too happy to abandon their desert homeland to hitchhike on your clothing or, all too often, your flesh.

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You don’t have to step off the trail to get attacked

Let me count the many species of cactus set to make your life miserable. There’s the majestic saguaro, whose multiple arms are not recommended for hugging. There’s the aptly named jumping cholla, whose stems easily break off and attach to the poor sucker who merely grazes them. There’s the ironically named teddy bear cholla, which is not so cuddly. There’s the barrel cactus, the hedgehog cactus, the fishhook cactus, the half dozen species of prickly pear.

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Not so cuddly teddy bear cactus

Have I forgotten any? The spindly ocotillo, with its gorgeous red flower tips, is technically not a cactus, but try telling that to anyone who accidentally embraces its many spines.

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Don’t reach too close to that ocotillo

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Hey, is that saguaro giving me the finger?

I was properly wary about colliding with any of the cacti that line the fine desert hiking trails around Tucson, and had successfully avoided any contact through most of two hiking-intensive visits to the southern Arizona city. But all it takes is a moment’s inattention to learn a severe lesson.

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Don’t get distracted by fruit or flower

I didn’t actually fall into a cactus. I was just descending a little rock step, focused on my footing, when I brushed against a prickly pear. There was no sharp pain, just a twinge not unlike a mild sliver. The problem was getting the barbs out, which you want to do  immediately, before they really start bothering you.

The thing about prickly pears is not the obvious long spines. It’s the tiny, fuzzy orange things called glochids that are the problem. As in the dozens of these little spears that launched themselves through my shirt, sticking me like a pincushion.

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It’s not the obvious long spines of the prickly pear you have to worry about

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It’s the little, fuzzy orange glochids that do the most damage

Luckily, I had a companion with sharp eyes and a nifty pair of of Uncle Bill’s tweezers. She spent a good five minutes plucking all the tiny spines out. And then, a short distance down the trail, another few minutes getting the ones she’d missed, the ones irritatingly still stuck to shirt and skin. We were still finding stray soldiers an hour later.

It wasn’t my only close encounter with glochids on our November trip. One day, I, found a few stuck mysteriously in the top of my head, despite wearing a hat and not falling on my noggin. Good thing I’m bald up there.

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The up-close saguaro spines have a lulling, geometric pattern to them

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Wish This Tucson Bakery Was In My Barrio

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Don Guerra owns the fabulous Barrio Bread in Tucson, Arizona

I walk into Barrio Bread in central Tucson, Arizona and the tiny place is suffused with the wonderful smell of just-from-the-oven loaves.

“Wow! This looks and smells like a fantastic bakery,” I say to no one in particular.

“No. It’s the greatest bakery in the universe,” a fellow customer corrects me.

Not going to argue with that.

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Customers snapping up the fresh-from-the-oven loaves

It’s actually a little overwhelming, at first, scanning the shelves of artisan bread choices—about a dozen on any given day. On our visit, for example, there’s a Guadalajara-style birote (made with beer malt and lemon), a pan rustico, a khorasan, a rustic nine grain.

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A loaf of Barrio’s signature Heritage bread, complete with saguaro logo

For help, I turn to a guy unwrapping tea towels from risen little loaves waiting to go into the oven. Turns out he’s the owner, Don Guerra, who started the business out of his garage in 2009.

He explains the breads are created with ancient baking techniques and locally grown heritage grains such as organic durum and hard red spring wheat, as well as more exotic einkorn and khorasan wheats. Some are leavened naturally or with a wild yeast culture. The result is exceptional bread with a chewy interior and great crusts.

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Don getting ready to put risen loaves in the oven

We pick up a puffy einkorn loaf for breakfast toast and an apricot-cranberry pain levain for snacking; it disappears before we’ve driven a couple of blocks.

Thank God I don’t live nearby.

Barrio Bread
18 South Eastbourne Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Tuesday-Friday 9 am-5 pm, Saturday 9 am-2 pm or “until gone”. Closed Sunday and Monday
520-327-1292

Ranch of Dreams

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At the Crossed J Ranch, in southeast Arizona, you’re surrounded by vast swaths of mountainous grasslands

When I do stay in a motel on a road trip, I tend to pick generic chains that offer reasonable value, even if it costs as much as a couple of days of Marathon Mouth eating and drinking.

So it’s pure pleasure, for a bit more money, to stay at the Crossed J Ranch, just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona. It’s a 10,000-acre working family ranch, raising polled Hereford calves on sustainable pasture.

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The drive, past giant sycamores, to our studio (centre right)

Our cozy little ranch house studio is a base for hiking among Chiricahua’s amazing volcanic rock formations and for discovering Mexican blue jays, swarms of wintering sandhill cranes and foraging, raccoon-like coatimundi. But over a couple of days, the ranch itself becomes a major destination, not just to hang out in but to soak up the surrounding landscape of elevated grasslands, scrub brush, desert cacti and reddish summits.

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The ranch is 140 years old, but our rental studio has all the modern comforts

For one thing, there’s all that quiet, surrounding space, several miles removed from any pavement. The night before, we had stayed in a highway-side Motel 6, where our neighbour’s every cough and Spanish TV melodramas echoed through the paper-thin walls.

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Javelina trotting past our door

On the ranch, the loudest noise is a breeze sighing through sycamore leaves. We are treated to javelinas trotting past our door to a watering tank. And we soak up the morning light warming our front-porch coffee and the vast western sky turning orange and pink over a sunset beer.

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How’s this for a front-porch sunset?

At a motel, your principal and likely only interaction with management is during the lengthy sign-in procedure and bestowal of room card keys and Wi-Fi passwords. At the Crossed J, owners Jim and Janna Riggs come by to welcome us and point out native artifacts that Jim’s father unearthed many decades ago. The next morning, their young grandson, Nathan, cycles over with a friend to introduce himself and show off a vintage truck his father used to drive.

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Ranch patriarch Jim Riggs

Our second, and last, morning, we dally over breakfast, last viewings of displayed fossils and farewells to family members heading out to check distant pastures. We don’t want to leave.

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Grandson Nathan (left) and his friend Mark

Crossed J Ranch (VRBO)
Just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona, about 30 minutes southeast of Willcox

Pictures From a November Road Trip to Southeast Arizona

 

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November is a perfect time for hiking in Tucson

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Hoar-frosted lines on the long, glorious drive down the I-15 in Montana

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Never too soon to promote Christmas: Willard Bay State Park north of Salt Lake City

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Sandwiches for three at Grove Market in Salt Lake City

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Trendy Welcome Diner in Tucson, Arizona

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Feathery cacti at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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Wild turkeys in southeast Arizona

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Hole in the U.S.-Mexico fence near Montezuma Pass in southeast Arizona

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Sign in Bisbee, Arizona around mid-term elections

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Wintering sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, northeast of Bisbee, Arizona

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Majestic Gadsen Hotel in the border town of Douglas, Arizona

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Superb, eroded volcanic rock pinnacles in Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona

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My first sighting of a coatimundi in Chiricahua National Monument: Three feet from the car window; never paid attention

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Razor-wire fence surrounding U.S. Border Patrol compound, near Willcox, Arizona

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Can’t visit Tucson without a trip to Ruiz’s for a Sonoran hot dog

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Early-morning red rock driving near Page, Arizona

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Power plant near Page, Arizona at dawn

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“Can I park your yacht for you, sir?”

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The Maverick gas station experience in Fillmore, Utah

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Swans along Highway 91 in southern Idaho

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Hoar frost above hot spring along Highway 91

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The incomparable Carmen making fresh tacos in Hamer, Idaho

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Dead great horned owl at a rest stop along the I-15 in central Montana

Great Food, Service at Canmore’s Market Bistro

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Market Bistro is a casual, fine-dining spot removed from the Canmore crowds

Now, this is what I call service.

We’re sitting inside The Market Bistro, a lovely little dining room sheltered from the madding crowds of nearby downtown Canmore, Alberta. I order an Alberta craft IPA, which the server says has orangey notes. That it does, but without the hoppy bite I’m expecting.

Upon her return, she asks how I like said ale. I give an indifferent shrug. Immediately, she whisks away the beer and returns with two other options, including a more satisfactory (from my perspective) Railway Avenue rye IPA from local Canmore Brewing Company.

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A fine rye IPA from Canmore Brewing

The exceptional service, from sharp-as-a-tack Brande, is just one of the details that makes Market Bistro a fine destination for a quiet dinner in the mountains. Another is the open kitchen, from which French-born co-owner and chef Anthony occasionally emerges to chat with regular customers.

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Great service from Brande

Most of all, of course, it’s the bistro-style French cuisine. It’s a step up from my usual cheap-eats meals but quite reasonable for the skill and time that goes into dishes such as chicken tajine and duck confit. Consider my exquisite beef back ribs ($27), braised for hours to fall-off-the-bone tender and served with Gorgonzola polenta, mushrooms and braised kale.

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Fall-off-the-bone braised beef ribs

Of course, you can’t finish a meal at Market Bistro without a slice of its famous lemon pie. Brande cautions other diners that it’s not the overly sweet confection they’re probably used to. Indeed, it has wee slices of lemon rind and a pungent flavour that lingers on the tongue.

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You haven’t had a real lemon pie till you try Market Bistro’s distinctive version

Lemony tones, certainly. Definitely not sending this one back.

The Market Bistro
102-75 Dyrgas Gate, Canmore, Alberta
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 11 am-8 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Tuesday
403-675-3006

Chuck Out This Great Victoria-Area Burger Bar

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The bountiful burgers at Chuck’s Burger Bar, in Sydney, B.C., are juicy and flavourful

All too often in Canada, restaurant burgers are cooked to the edge of shoe leather. It’s no doubt the result of kitchens not wishing to violate government health regulations that stipulate burgers must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 71 C. (160 F.), eight degrees Celsius above medium rare.

So it’s a pleasure to discover a place like Chuck’s Burger Bar, in an industrial area of Sydney, B.C., near the Victoria airport and ferry terminal. Chucks manages to walk the fine line between burgers that are regulatory acceptable and still juicy and flavourful.

As the name suggests, it’s a spot owned by a guy named Chuck, and the predominant, half-pound burgers (about $9) are from fresh-ground Angus chuck, “grilled to medium.”

From a plethora of complimentary toppings, I choose pea shoots, sautéed onions and roasted garlic mayo, along with some sautéed wild mushrooms ($2.50 extra). It’s a delightful combination, with a shared mountain of Yukon gold fries ($5) and a local pint.

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Chuck’s is in an industrial area near the Victoria airport and ferry terminal.

Chuck’s is a small space that usually fills up quickly, this night with young locals. It’s a great, affordable place to get a last-minute bite before boarding a ferry or airplane.

Chuck’s Burger Bar
2031 Malaview Avenue West, Sidney, B.C.
Monday to Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sundays
778-351-2485