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Every cell in my sentient meat sack wanted to stay home. By Arizona standards, the weather was fugly. 

In the distance, clouds formed an opaque wall in front of my usually fantastic view. The steady rain began spitting out large snowflakes intermittently to let us know this storm meant business.

Thinking back to people who told me I’d miss seasons when I moved to Arizona, I laughed. I’d left the Midwest to get away from weather like this. But when rain or snow happens in the desert, it compliments the scenery rather than making the bleak…bleaker.

So despite my aversion to being cold and wet, I layered up, threw my feet into some boots, struggled to remember how to use an umbrella, and power walked through the rain to my adventuremobile.

After stopping for gas and road snacks, my spouse and I headed south on Highway 83, a well-trafficked route between Tucson and the small ranching community of Sonoita. 

With people traveling to wine country, going camping, or taking the scenic route to Tombstone, you encounter everything from motorcycles to towed trailers along this route. With its curves, steep grades, lack of shoulder, and blind corners, the highway can be iffy even on sunny days. Not to mention the bevy of service trucks and semis barreling down the road with various goods to support ranches and businesses in the area.

Driving toward the Santa Rita Mountains on the slippery road, fat snowflakes clogged up our wimpy windshield wipers.

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Top: Stopping at Helvetia Lookout on Highway 83. There wasn’t much to look out at on this day! Bottom: Carefully driving south on Highway 83 in a snowstorm. • Photos taken by the author

Unsurprisingly, Arizonans don’t have a lot of experience driving in inclement weather. And the ones who are somewhat skilled forget it all as soon as the sun comes out. 

They also don’t change their tires often, leaving them trying to negotiate low-traction situations with bald-ass tires, or what my spouse and I call “Sonoran Slicks.” (I lovingly poke fun at them, but I’m secretly jealous. Driving in the snow is a skill I’d love to have never honed.)

Just before the shuttered border patrol checkpoint, we turned right on Box Canyon Road. This gravel route traverses the Santa Ritas between Las Ciénegas National Conservation Area and Madera Canyon.

It’s become a favorite of ours because it’s close enough to Tucson we don’t have to spend hours getting to it. But once you’re there, you feel hours away. 

Usually, we’d spot Coues deer and have Mexican jays flying by us on the drive. This time, most of the residents of Coronado National Forest were hunkered down, waiting for the storm to pass.

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There’s not much between the road and the canyon along Box Canyon Road in southern Arizona • Photo taken by the (cold and wet) author

My Jeep has eaten every obstacle I’ve thrown at it, and it’s easy to be overconfident in lousy weather. But sliding off a mountain pass down into a ravine is a little different from sliding off into a muddy cornfield. So we took it slow and agreed to turn around if the snow got too deep.

Following a set of fresh tire tracks through the canyon in the fast-accumulating powder made me feel better. If we got stuck, there were humans around who could help. Having used our winch to pull someone out of a sticky situation in this canyon on a previous trip, I hoped my banked good karma could be called upon if needed.

But we didn’t need it. Once again, my trusty Jeep prevailed. While the snow threatened to drag our differential in a few places, 4-wheel drive and knobby tires helped us out. 

We maneuvered through the canyon without issues and stopped at our favorite feature — a towering rock wall nestled in an extreme bend in the road that often has a waterfall after rain or snow.

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The waterfall was flowing, but it was impossible to see through all that snow! • Photo taken by the author

After pausing several times to ooh and aah at the sight of snow on juniper trees and cacti, we made it to the other side of the canyon safely. Knowing the road into Madera Canyon was likely closed, we turned around and headed back to Highway 83. 

Our second trip through the canyon was a little more eventful when we encountered a group of free-range cattle walking down the road. Rather than hunker down, they seemed to enjoy the snow. 

Their deep black fur contrasted against the stark white snow, and they bucked excitedly, looking as content as a snowman-building family. 

We approached them slowly, and they moved aside to let us pass. Looking at us like they wondered what kind of cow our Jeep was, they weren’t bothered by the cliff inches from their hooves.

Cattle on Box Canyon Road in Southern Arizona
Cattle on Box Canyon Road in southern Arizona

Playing in the snow had us hankering to nosh, so we decided to obtain sustenance. By the time we rolled into Sonoita, the storm was letting up. And we could once again see mountains in the distance. 

Granite Peak stuck out against the emerging blue sky — its rocky formations covered with yellow winter grass and fresh snow. The usually bustling main road through Sonoita was quieter than a usual Saturday. Without the usual groups of thundering motorcycles gathering at The Steakout and no boats heading to Patagonia Lake, the atmosphere was almost ghostly.

Arizona is one of the only places I’ve been where you can be so deep in the wilderness that you forget what year it is, what season you’re in, and even who you are. And 20 minutes later, you can find yourself as I did — in a busy brewpub eating tacos with a Mexican cream ale. 

It’s jarring, exhilarating, and not something that will ever seem mundane no matter how often I experience it.

Prairie dogs in the snow near Sonoita, Arizona • Photo taken by the author

Stepping out in that fugly weather left me with an experience I’ll never forget and a story worth telling. We not only had the thrill of conquering the elements, but the joy of experiencing a place we love in a new way as well. 

It’s a decision that will stick with me far longer than if I’d chosen the comfort of my couch and the predictability of my usual Saturday routine.

Sometimes the best adventures are unplanned.

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