Ask Nancy Johnson or Marilyn Dresden about the benefits of hiking, and the two Tempe seniors won't talk about physical fitness. They'll talk Gila monsters.
"We were hiking in the San Tans, and we saw one - he was beautiful," says Johnson, 80. "A male, with the most beautiful orange color."
Dresden, 72, nods. "Remember that time we were hiking in the Superstitions?"
"Oh!" Johnson declares. "We saw 20 deer!"
"Twenty," Dresden says. "Out by Jacob's Crosscut trail. We counted them. You can't get that in the exercise room."
The ladies with the gray hair and the quick smiles lead a double life. When they're not living their golden years in Friendship Village, they're out treading the red rock - or the brown rock, or mountain trails - in a sturdy pair of shoes. If you're hankering to hike, the leaders of The Carefree Climbers tell you where to go.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN...
"We've done the McDowell Mountains," Johnson recalls, "Pinnacle Peak, the Goldfields, the Mazatzals, the San Tans... South Mountain in the winter. Have you ever hiked Fossil Springs?"
The Carefree Climbers are the wandering spirit of Friendship Village, pulling seniors from the routines of the Tempe-based senior community and taking them out into the desert wild.
"We started this group five years ago," Dresden says. A Pennsylvania native and veteran hiker, Dresden joined a beginner's group when she moved to the Tempe complex. "But we wanted something harder."
Johnson nods. "We wanted strenuous hikes, with more climbing." So they established the Climbers, who hit the trails twice a week, October to March, weather permitting.
They'll hit the trail in groups as small as four and as large as 10, covering between four and 11 miles per outing. "We start each season with the easier hikes," Dresden says. "Then we'll work our way up to more challenging ones."
The ladies observe strict safety criteria.
"We don't like to hike if it'll reach 90 degrees while we're out there," Johnson says, "and we can't allow (people with) physical assistance apparatus. You can carry a hiking pole, and that's it. That's for their own good."
And they don't like reruns. "We never do the same hike two years in a row," Dresden says.
"I like to scout out new ones," Johnson says. "Or attack familiar trails a different way. Like, off the Peralta Trailhead in the Superstitions, we'll hit First Water Trail, the Fremont Saddle and the Miner's Needle Summit."
...FORD EVERY STREAM
Carefree Climbers outings may best be described as part scenic, part strenuous and part social.
"Some of our members have never been hiking before," Johnson says. "And they're seeing the desert in a way you just can never appreciate from a car."
"We love to have birders along," Dresden says, "to describe the different calls we hear and the birds we see."
"But I think they get frustrated with us, because we move too fast," Johnson adds.
"And we talk," Dresden says. Both women laugh. "But we love to talk. The friendships you make are very important part of it."
Dresden raised her kids on camping and hiking. Johnson, who has lived in New England and in Washington state, says she's a veteran of local trails. "I've hiked this area for at least 17 years. It's hard to compare with the beauty of the desert."
That beauty is more accessible with an agile body, so both pursue a year-round fitness regimen to be ready.
"I lead a water aerobics and swimming class, when we're not hiking," Johnson says.
As residents of a senior community, each has friends who aren't physically able to join them. "But we have a cheering section of those that can't go," Dresden says.
"One couple, especially, were avid hikers," Johnson says. "They can't do it anymore, but they have so much experience and love to talk about it."
"They'll tell us: 'Have you tried this one?' " Dresden says.
"It makes me very grateful," Johnson adds, "that I'm still able to do it."
The coming month will find the Carefree Climbers chasing wildflowers as they bloom across desert trails and state parks. And they'll return with a lot more than just exercise.
"To be able to get outdoors, and see all this beauty up close," Dresden says. "It adds a lot to your life."