Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thoughts from a trip to Tucson

We spent the long Martin Luther King Day weekend in Tucson and the surrounding area.

The Sonoran Desert is spectacularly beautiful, with its Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti, its unusual animals (Javelina, Coati, Caracara, etc.), its mountains and valleys.

It does actually rain in this part of the world! An enormous storm crossed Southern Arizona on the day we arrived. Traffic was slow, roads were washed out, and there was over 6 inches of snow on the mountain tops.

People in Arizona do a lot of driving. Gas is cheap, there are no tolls, and the rental car facility at the Phoenix airport is the largest one I think I've seen. The cities are all sprawled out, with small downtown areas and literally miles of suburbs. (Speedway Avenue in Tucson, runs some 25 miles from East Tucson to West Tucson).

We flew in and out of Phoenix. Tucson has a nice airport, but there was no direct flight we could take, and the connecting flights meant that we would have had a 4.5 hour plane trip to get all the way to Tucson, as opposed to a 100 minute plane trip to get to Phoenix. Since it barely takes 90 minutes to drive from Phoenix to Tucson the choice was easy.

The most straightforward way to get from Phoenix to Tucson is to hop on the freeway, but a much more beautiful route is found by taking Arizona 79, also known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. This lovely road runs a simple straight path through a Saguaro-forested high desert plain. For large portions of the drive you are completely in the wilds, with no billboards, power lines, businesses, or much of anything else to distract you. Way out in the middle of the drive, if you pay attention, you'll come across the quiet memorial to the spot where the famous movie star Tom Mix crashed his car and died.

We took Arizona 79 because I was hoping to get to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but we ran out of time for that side trip, sadly.

The Tucson Jazz Festival is very nice. The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Big Band is a traveling competition band of high school jazz musicians who have won a number of awards. Christian McBride and Inside Straight played a great show; McBride also sat in with the TJI band for two fun opening songs and did those kids ever enjoy that!

The Fox Tucson theater has been beautifully restored and is gorgeous inside. Even sitting in the balcony we had comfortable seats with a great view.

The Desert Trails B&B is a beautiful spot in a wonderful location. John and Steffi are lovely hosts. At night the stars come out and the coyotes call.

The Casa Grande National Monument was an unexpected treasure and a lovely stop.

The food in Tucson is great, just as great as all the guidebooks and travel magazines say. We had excellent meals at the 1055 Brewing Company, at Reilly Craft Pizza, at Zinburger, and could have had many more great meals if we’d had the time

The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is just as remarkable as everyone says. The views are incomparable and the road is well built and easy to drive, with many pullouts and vista spots, even on a Sunday afternoon during peak season. After the recent storm, there were still several inches of snow at the mountain top and children were everywhere, happily sledding and making snowmen.

While driving the road, we enjoyed listening to the interesting Mt. Lemmon Science Tour, a nicely-presented audio tour of the things you see along the road. The audio tour is well-paced and timed to match your driving time, and easy to re-sync if you lose track or stop at a pull out or vista stop for a while.

You can't see the famous Davis-Monthan "Boneyard" from street level, but from the vistas atop the Mount Lemmon road you can get a great idea for the size and layout of the facility, particularly if you have a decent pair of binoculars.

The Gates Pass Road is fun too, and we enjoyed the views from the vista point at the top of the pass in Tucson Mountain Park.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is very nicely arranged with nice easy pathways and clear signs. The animals seemed well cared for and we enjoyed the quiet aviary. I think we probably should have stayed to see the Raptor Free Flight demonstration, but it would have extended our 2.5 hour visit to 4 hours and we were in a hurry to move on.

There were beautiful arts and crafts at the Casa Grande visitor center, at the Desert Museum gift shop, and at Mark Bahti's arts store. There looked to be several other fine places that we didn’t have time for.

Downtown Tucson is nice. Parking was cheap and safe. The streets are clean and people walk around comfortably.

We didn’t find time to ride the new streetcar.

If you decide to go to Tucson, mid January is a nice time. Locals told us that the gem show makes the city a bit crowded.

There is indeed a small wine growing region in the Sonoita ("Son-OY-tah") and Elgin area, mostly growing hot-weather Southern Mediterrean grapes like Tempranillo and Aglianico. We stopped at Callaghan (pronounce the 'G'). The guests at the winery had brought a collection of friendly dogs.

The Ramsey Canyon Preserve is beautiful and a vivid, startling change from the desert valley floor. Beyond Ramsey Canyon stretches the Coronado National Forest, with many additional trails to explore, though we turned back after a 2 hour hike due to time restrictions.

It was a challenge, though, to feel completely enchanted with the wilderness vistas, as the US government law enforcement blimp hovered over the forest preserve. The blimp "is an aerial platform for radar equipment used to detect aircraft illegally entering the US (Hermann Zillgens and Associates. 1991). They provide radar data for US Customs, the DoD, and the FAA. They operate year round, 24 hours per day within approximately nine hectares (23 acres) of the South Range."

There are law enforcement checkpoints on most roads south of Tucson.

Some restaurants and shops have signs asking you not to bring your weapons into the store, most don’t.

On the Mount Lemmon road a man was parked in the pullout, firing his pistol into the side of the hill.

Two patrons at a corner store were having a loud conversation about how much they hate California.

A man told us not to park our car at the Saguaro National Park trail head because our car would get broken into (we decided to go hiking elsewhere).

If you decide to take the Pinal Pioneer Parkway between Tucson and Phoenix, you'll end up passing through Florence, AZ, a small town that sits about midway along the route. I think that Florence was once a hot spot for the immense copper mining industry that is spread across Southern Arizona.

Nowadays, Florence has a county prison, a state prison, and a federal Homeland Security ICE prison. The three prisons sit one after the next on the main road, presenting nearly a full mile of heavy barbed wire and elevated guard towers. There are probably more prisons here; the first suggested Google search for "Florence AZ prison" is "How many prisons are there in Florence AZ?" I don't think there's any way to avoid this stretch of Arizona 79 unless you decide to avoid the entire scenic parkway entirely, which is probably a perfect example of the phrase "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

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