City High at Marshal Gulch

On November 1st, 2018, 5 students from City High School ventured up the Santa Catalina Mountains for an adventure in the high pine forests that floated above Tucson. This was a literacy class, with the goals of increasing the reading interest and levels, of students while being in the outdoors. Using the Arizona Trail, we began our hike from Marshal Gulch Trailhead and sought to explore the mixed conifer biome. Some students had never been to the top of this mountain, a place which has served as an important retreat for people living in the area for a very long time. Using this area, our plan was to learn more about the Sonoran Desert by exploring its Sky Islands, and play through the landscape to fully enjoy the learning we were doing. 


The hike begins the moment the full smell of pine fills the nostrils of the students. The moment the car door opens, the smell rushes in, giving us no escape from its wonderful aroma. The mountain tops are an alien world to the young desert dweller. Only an hours drive from the school, we’ve found ourselves in a place most youth have only seen on tv. Places like Colorado, Montana, Northern California. We began hiking the trail, which begins mercilessly with a steep incline. Each member of our group quickly begins struggling for their breath, and none of them are quite sure why. ‘Elevation makes it harder to breath’ I told them. ‘Why do you think that’s the case?’ The students look puzzled, and couldn’t find the words to guess, maybe because they didn’t have the breath for it. Tucson sits at about 2500’ elevation, whereas we were just above 9000’, a pretty large difference. ‘Its is a clue as to why this is called a sky island’. This only complicated the puzzled faces.


After some time hiking, we pulled over when the trail dipped to the creek. Marshal Gulch Trail follows a creek fed by a spring. It creates a perfect little riparian area, flush with aspen and maple trees, and a large variety of water-loving plants that offer shades of green usually unseen by desert dwellers. Previous to this expedition, SOS brought these students to a local book store to purchase books. The idea was that by offering these students the opportunity to select their own book, they would have more interest in reading it. It was at this creek that we decided to sit and read our books. The sounds of bubbling waters were the perfect background noise, accompanied by the songs of birds, and the long-bodied breezes that dragged themselves across pine needle canopies. If the students decided they no longer wanted to read their books, their attention was turned toward green things, lit by sunlight, moved by the doings of natural things. To me, it is the perfect environment to sit and read. 


We sat in silence for over an hour. When it was time to put a bookmark in it, we circled up to talk about what we read. ‘Tell us about your book, and what stood out to you today?’ Turn by turn the students went around describing the last hour of interest and observations. Some really enjoyed themselves, others seemed to hold the same apathy for reading as before. Either way, we spent time in nature, and we practiced reading our books. Mission accomplished. 


We ate our lunch, then spent some time playing around the creek. We discussed Sky Islands and their biome layering, of which the Sonoran Desert has some of the most extreme. The high altitude holds fewer molecules of oxygen per breath, requiring an individual to take more breaths to attain the same levels of o2 they are used to at lower elevations. The dispersal of molecules aides in the cooling of climates, making these high elevation zones ideal for mixed coniferous forests. Nearly every major biome in the world is represented in the Sonoran Desert, and our Sky Islands hold a majority of them. This has been beneficial for humans for a very, very long time. The students were impressed by their local mountain, of which looks over them every day, and of which they had no idea was so diverse, unique, and important.


We began our hike back. Now knowing so much, the path back was inevitably different. Students were seeing things from a whole new perspective. The ability to seek refuge in natural places for activities such as reading is paramount for youth. To feel safe, and to have a basic understanding of the natural place that is also their local ecosystem is a necessity. We learned so much, but we also spent so much time in silence, just letting nature do the things it does. Occasionally glancing up from our books to admire its doing, before returning to our stories.