Wednesday, March 30, 2011

They’re real and they’re spectacular

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CORNVILLE, AZ — “Wow” was the word of the day today, as we drove northward from our RV park into Sedona and on to Flagstaff. If this is a hint of what’s to come when we get to the Grand Canyon, we’d better start looking for new words! “Wow” isn’t going to do it!

Under a sparkling blue sky, towering upwards in majestic silence, the rock formations in stripes of red, tan, peach, and white provided a stunning backdrop for the bustling town of Sedona. It almost seemed sacrilegious to have a McDonalds or a Safeway store going about its mundane business at street level with such other-worldly monoliths behind them.

The town of Sedona appears to have taken its spectacular setting into some consideration, because the popular hamburger chain displayed only a small, green pair of arches in front of this franchise instead of the massive golden ones we see in other locations. So there must be some kind of street design code to keep the commercial expressions from upstaging their extraordinary natural environs.

Val and I were reminded of Banff and Jasper, where the Rocky Mountains loom behind the day-to-day activities of souvenir-selling, tour-arranging and tourist-trapping. There was a very similar feel here! We stopped at a couple of tourist information places and scooped up pamphlets and maps to help us plan our stay. There is a lot to see; we’re booked at LoLoMai Springs for a week for starters, and we’ll go from there.

Day One in the area was more or less a survey visit. We drove from the south end to the north end of Sedona and then followed the scenic Highway 89A along its winding, narrow route toward Flagstaff. As we continued, constantly climbing from 4,500 to 7,000 feet, we understood why we’d been given the advice, by a tourist we had chatted with in Tucson, not to take the trailer with us along this route. The hairpin turns and steep grades would have been next to impossible with the trailer in tow! Especially toward the end when the road maintenance seemed to have deteriorated to the point of potholes.

Nevertheless, the trip in both directions offered amazing vistas of mountains and rock formations and even, as we got to the higher elevations, patches of snow by the side of the road (you should have heard Val groan!). The air became much fresher, dropping from 74 degrees in Sedona to 63 once we got to Flagstaff.

Val said Flagstaff had a northern feel to it. It has a charming old town centre with little shops and restaurants, and the buildings are what we’re accustomed to seeing at home, as opposed to the many adobe structures with tile rooves that we saw in Phoenix and Tucson. There were lots of tall Ponderosa pine trees, and daffodils and blossoming fruit trees in people’s gardens.

We treated ourselves to a leisurely browse in a huge Barnes & Noble bookstore, as we’ve both been enjoying time to read in the evenings and needed to replenish our supply. We also tried to pick up some RV supplies at a brand new Camping World store that had just opened, according to the flyer Val had picked up, but when we reached it, past the northern outskirts of Flagstaff, we found a sign on the door that said “store temporarily closed”. Oh well.

Our reward for the trip north was the trip south, back to the campground, seeing all the wonderful sights from the other direction that we had passed earlier. Spectacular doesn’t begin to describe it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Water in a parched land

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CORNVILLE, AZ — We’ve only traveled about 140 miles today, and it’s as if we’ve entered a different world. Our resting spot is the LoLoMai Springs Resort, which is a 15-minute drive south of Sedona, with an elevation of 4,500 feet. Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, is the nearest city, another 20 miles or so beyond Sedona.

It was a beautiful drive today after we left the busy freeway ringing Phoenix and headed out into the countryside. For the first leg of the trip, the land was rather flat, with a few rolling hills, and still dry and gravelly with prickly pear and saguaro cacti scattered across the landscape. The tall saguaros seemed to become more numerous after a while, which surprised me, because our guide for our desert tour last week told us they usually give each other quite a bit of space because their root system is shallow and widespread and they don’t like to compete for the little water that’s available.

All the while, the highway climbed, and the rolling hills became higher as well. Off in the distance we could see more mountains, and behind them, other mountains fading to the horizon. Then, you could almost say suddenly, we went through a pass cut into the rock, and on the other side, the landscape had completely changed.

The land was fairly flat, but instead of gravelly soil, there were huge expanses of grass – lots of it pale yellow, or almost white, and some of it actually green. No more saguaros anywhere – instead, there were evergreens spotting the landscape! They weren’t tall, but there were a lot of them and there was a lot of green.

We stopped at a rest area for lunch. It was the first one we’d seen that took us from the north-bound lane of the highway around and under an underpass and back to the south-bound side. After we ate in the trailer, we went out to see the view. There were several look-out points from which to see a huge valley spread out below us, ringed with mountains all around it. A couple of guys admiring the view were kind enough to snap a picture of us together – a rare happening, with a decent result, as you can see!

Back to the north-bound side of the highway, we continued our journey, awed by the vistas ahead of us. There were flat-topped mesas and off in the distance we caught sight of a craggy mountain-top that was white with snow. In front of it were mountains with purple at the top, greenish tan in the middle and brilliant red stone at the bottom. I tried to take a picture of them, but the result hardly did justice to what we were actually seeing.

Finally we arrived at our new campground, the LoLoMai Springs. It’s a Hopi name which has the same sort of meaning as “aloha” and also means “beautiful”. There are tall sycamore and cottonwood trees, some with enormous trunks, and red soil, and the rushing Oak Creek on one side, as well as a tranquil, spring-fed pond on the other. Dozens of ducks have made the pond their home, and robins are chirping and hopping around. There are tenting spots, cabins, and spaces for trailers such as ours. It has a nice, summer camp kind of feel.

The creek has been designated a “unique waterway” by the federal government, and the camp itself lies above an ancient aquifer, a stratum of earth or porous rock that contains water which nourishes the many trees around us. It’s really quite lovely, and such a change from what we’ve seen lately!

One shortfall of this resort is that we don't get internet at our trailer, so I've had to stroll over to the office area to post this. As I sat on a chair by the office door, I heard a rustle behind me, and there on a big stump next to the building were three racoons staring at me, and two skunks lurking around the base of the stump! I have moved operations slightly further away to complete this, but I won't be lingering here for long!!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Grass, clay, fibre and stone

Monday, March 28, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ – The history of this area and the rest of this country dates so far before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, his arrival could almost be cited as a recent event. We saw the legacies of ancient native cultures depicted in an amazing array of artifacts at Phoenix’s Heard Museum today.

The germ of the museum dates back to 1892 when Dwight and Maie Heard went on an exotic journey to Egypt and the Sudan. This was the beginning of many trips by this intrepid couple, who began to accumulate a wonderful collection of artifacts. They settled in Phoenix and decided to build a museum to display their souvenirs, and from that grew the beautiful building that is now considered one of Phoenix’s chosen “points of pride”.

The white adobe building has a terra-cotta tiled roof and graceful archways around several small quadrangles, where benches and yucca plants provide a peaceful setting for visitors. Inside are several galleries devoted to different aspects of native art and culture.

While most of the museum’s collection focuses on tribes in the US southwest, other native cultures, including the Inuit, are also represented. We admired clay pots and bowls, exquisite jewelry crafted from silver and copper, decorated with turquoise and other semi-precious stones, Navajo rugs and baskets and the museum’s signature collection of Katsina figures. There were hundreds of the figures, most about eight to 10 inches tall, dressed in native costumes and wearing grotesque masks.

Val and I strolled through the first section of the ground floor and then went back to the truck to get our bag lunches. An excited couple in the parking lot called out to us, asking if we were leaving, because there were no more parking spaces left. We had to say no! There was quite a bit more to see, so we sat in a shady spot on one of the benches to eat and then resumed our visit.

Lots of hands-on activities were set out for children who might be visiting the museum, with crayons and crafts materials to encourage them to try their hand at making a paper canoe or decorating a button blanket. One section showed handicrafts from all the tribes in the Arizona area, of which there were dozens! We knew the Navajo and Hopi names but there were so many that were completely new to us.

The pain and challenge of assimilation of native peoples into western civilization was portrayed with sensitivity in the section of the museum devoted to the boarding school experience. Recorded voices of people who had left their homes to attend school thousands of miles away spoke of homesickness and the loss of their identity. They were forced to abandon their language and even their names by educators who were trying to ensure the young people would be able to make their way in modern society. Like the descriptions of our Canadian residential school survivors, these stories left us with a feeling of sadness, mingled with admiration for their strength and resilience.

The museum was one of two places we visited today; we also stopped in to look at St. Mary’s Basilica, a Franciscan church which stands on the site of the original adobe building from the late 1800s. It’s another “point of pride” for Phoenix, and has a wonderful series of stained glass windows depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary.

It was good to have a chance to see some of downtown Phoenix, with wide avenues lined with royal palm trees and sleek modern buildings. The city is so spread out that there is no sense of congestion at all. On our 19-mile drive back to the campground, however, we did see a brown layer of smog in the air from the thousands of cars that zoom along the city’s many freeways. The sight of the stately Superstition Mountains marking the eastern boundary of the greater metropolitan area, where our campground is, was a welcome one.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Opry, Arizona style

Sunday, March 27, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ – We’ve just come back from a terrific evening at Barleens Arizona Opry, a dinner theatre venue just down the road from our campground. It’s a family-run business that has been running for 30 years, and it was founded by Mr. Barleen, who still lives in Mesa at the age of 9o.

We had read some pretty good reviews of the show, and when we arrived there was a lineup of cars going in and a lineup of people at the box office, so we figured it should be good. We were not disappointed. Luckily for us, when we called for reservations, they told us two people had canceled for tonight, leaving excellent seats in the third row near the middle.

There was a big piece of chocolate cake sitting at each place when they brought us to our table – a very good omen! We introduced ourselves to the two ladies across from us and after chatting with them for a while, a delicious chicken dinner was placed in front of us. (I managed to resist tasting the chocolate cake until I had dutifully consumed my vegetables and the rest of my first course. I noticed some other patrons had not!)

Then the entertainment began. A huge array of instruments were set out across the stage – saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, flutes, fiddles, guitars, banjoes and even a pair of Alpine horns! The performers, eight in all, used all of them throughout the show and regaled us with jokes, nostalgic medleys from the fifties and sixties, country songs and gags (like the arthritic Elvis who had to give his wobbly legs a lift after getting too enthusiastic with his gyrations!).

The surprise of the evening was a rendition of the old sixties favourite by a group called the Tokens: “Wimaweh”, otherwise known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” — because it was sung by the original Tokens singer, George Staerkel (pictured here), who is now the master musician of the show.

He was the real thing, but his colleagues did some great imitations of John Denver, Sonny and Cher, Willy Nelson and, of course, Elvis, that kept us clapping and laughing. We had a great time!

It was a lovely ending to a very pleasant Sunday, which began with the high church service at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in nearby Mesa — complete with bells chiming during the eucharistic prayer, and holy water at the entrance.

After chatting with some parishioners over coffee, we headed out again to Camping World, where we had seen a very interesting Class C motor home yesterday. We wanted to learn more about it, because it looks like a viable alternative to our fifth wheel when we are ready to downsize and simplify. With the sleeping quarters and driving end of things all in one piece, it becomes much simpler to manoeuver and more compact for fitting into provincial campgrounds and the like. It can also tow a small car, if we wanted to be able to take short jaunts around town and leave the camping unit behind. Something to consider for the future!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mesa musings

Saturday, March 26, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ – Today was one of those get-things-in-order days, starting with Val heading for a nearby Ford dealership for an oil change and me changing sheets and towels and getting laundry done. Those are chores you usually save for a rainy day, except we aren’t having any of those around here! It was also a day for some relaxing – always nice when on holiday.

We took a little jaunt over to Camping World in Mesa – one of those huge specialty places devoted entirely to RV and camping activities, where you can find little gizmos for your trailer, camping cookbooks, travel games for the kids, or even a $250,000 motor home if the fancy strikes you.

We were looking for something a bit more mundane: trailer anti-freeze, a vivid pink liquid that you pump throughout the trailer’s plumbing system in winter to prevent the pipes from freezing. Not exactly what you’d think of when we’re basking in 80-degree sunshine in Arizona, but only three days ago, the coldest temperature of the day in continental USA was recorded in this very state, according to our USA Today newspaper’s weather map.

We’ve been watching that map closely, because we are working our way northward, and there have been plenty of below-freezing temperatures in high-altitude locations such as Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. We have to figure out how to see those places without having our pipes freeze in the trailer overnight. We’re not too worried about ourselves freezing, because we have a wonderful down-filled duvet plus a propane furnace (plus each other!), but the plumbing is something else.

A strategy that we applied in Santa Fe, when we did experience freezing temperatures, was simply not to use the water system at all. We have two water jugs, which we filled during the day when it was warm, and for dish-washing and the like, we just heated water in our kettle. We also have a plastic basin, and we send all the grey water down the toilet where it stays in the black water tank till we dump it. There’s no worry about cracked pipes in the tanks, so that works fine. Not the most convenient set-up, but it works!

Still, to avoid this problem in the coming days, we’ve picked a lower-altitude destination where weather records show overnight temperatures above freezing, but which is still close enough to the sights we want to visit.

Another tool we have just acquired to enhance our trailer life is a special adapter for the laptop that boosts its sensitivity to the internet signal from the wi-fi system at the trailer park. There have been some internet sessions in our travels this time that have been totally frustrating because the connection is constantly being broken or lacks the strength to allow the uploading of photos for our blog, or the opening of attachments in incoming e-mails.

So far, and it has only been 24 hours since we started using it, the difference is fantastic. We had thought that in the four years since our trip to Alaska, when we first ran into this problem, RV parks might have improved their wi-fi amenities, but that is not the case. The (self-described) geek at Best Buy told us that more often than not, RV park owners will expect a router intended for home use to provide adequate signal to dozens of guests across acres of property! Happily, our new accessory seems to be compensating for this very nicely.

Friday, March 25, 2011

This place is a zoo!

Friday, March 25, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ — Today we learned that the March break is on different weeks for different schools. It’s March break week for a lot of schools in Phoenix, because half the population of the city and their kids decided, as we did, to visit the zoo today.

Fortunately, the zoo itself and the parking lot are both very large, geographically speaking. We did end up having to park in the school bus zone, since every other type of space was already taken, but having done so, we found virtually no line-up for tickets. Once inside, there were lots of people, but there was plenty of room for them all.

The Phoenix Zoo opened in the early 1960s and, with 125 acres of land and more than 1,300 animals, it is the largest non-profit zoo in the US. One of its claims to fame is the successful re-introduction into the wild of the Arabian Oryx, which had virtually disappeared. Today, any oryx found in the wild has an ancestry that goes back to the Phoenix Zoo. We saw the ones still at the zoo, with their long, handsome horns, pointing almost three feet above their heads.

The zoo also has programs to rescue animals, such as Reba the elephant, a mature 40-year-old that came from an unhappy life in the circus. She doesn’t play nicely, as the zoo attendant put it, with the other two elephants, so she has outings when the others are inside.

We had almost as much fun watching all the excited kiddies with their long-suffering parents, who were pushing strollers, doling out sticky snow-cones, pointing out animals asleep in the shade, supervising the duck-feeding, or consoling tantrum-throwers, as we did watching the animals.

There were lots of activities for kids, including an entire loop of the zoo geared to that age group. In addition to looking at and learning about the various animals, kids could go on a paddle-boat in the pond, hop on a carrousel with endangered species instead of painted ponies, ride a real camel, pet a stingray, feed a giraffe, or climb on any number of oversized concrete animals to their hearts’ content.

It was a lovely, fresh day, and there were plenty of trees providing shade, water-fountains to help us keep hydrated, and placards to inform us about the exhibits. There wasn’t a single enclosure where we could not see the animal or bird, even if some had chosen shady spots to rest in.

The large African enclosure had, co-mingling on one large grassy hillside, giraffes, ostriches, vultures, gnus, gazelles and Watusi cattle with huge, lethal-looking horns — and all mostly peacefully, although I caught sight of the vulture rushing a surprised gazelle that quickly scampered out of range.

We saw turtles and flamingoes, monkeys and bighorn sheep, lions and rhinos. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Denizens of the desert

Thursday, March 24, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ — When we booked a desert tour by jeep, we weren’t aware that the rendez-vous point was in a ghost town not far from our campground. It really seemed like one when we pulled in a bit after 8:30 this morning; lots of old wooden buildings, falling-apart wagons and a sleepy train station, but no people. Not even the jeep tour people.

It was a clear, fresh morning, only about 60 degrees, and the sun was still climbing from behind the Superstition Mountains in the east. A few other people had arrived, and then a dark red jeep pulled in. Our tour was about to begin!

Five of us climbed aboard, and our driver, a young man named Jake, started the engine and suggested we buckle up our seatbelts; this would not be a smooth ride! For two hours, Jake drove us through the desert just north of the Apache Trail, stopping every now and then to take in the view or to explain about the flora and fauna around us.

The definition of a desert, he said, doesn’t have to do with vegetation or a lack of it, but rather with the amount of rain in a given area. If it’s under 10 inches a year, the area qualifies. The Sonoran Desert supports an amazing variety of cacti, flowers and trees, and some vast stretches before us were predominantly green, but desert it was, none the less.

Jake showed us what the inside of a saguaro cactus looked like, after finding one that had been struck by lightning and had fallen over. It has long, straight sticks inside that provide the structure for the spongy flesh. Birds sometimes burrow into the cacti to make a home – and idiots sometimes shoot at them for target practice when nobody’s looking. Saguaro cacti only begin to develop the characteristic arms after 75 years.

He also pointed out the teddy-bear cholla (I learned this is pronounced “choya”), and its cousin the jumping cholla. By just touching the latter with his hunting knife, Jake made a prickly ball pop off the end of a branch, and then he shook the ball off over his arm and the pricks grabbed his skin! When he tugged it, the barbs pulled his skin but the ball wouldn’t come off. The cowboy’s essential tool for predicaments like this, he said, is a simple plastic comb. He used it to scrape under the prickles and lift it off, and quickly pulled down his sleeve – but not before Val spotted a drop of blood. We were impressed at his enthusiasm for his work.

A few days earlier, Jake said they had spotted a rattlesnake, so he encouraged us to keep an eye out for it at around the same spot. We didn’t see one, but we did catch a glimpse of a jackrabbit with long, tall ears, scampering through the bush, and later on a few quail, with their funny topknots. These birds are too dumb to realize they should take flight when rushed at by enthusiastic tour guides.

The jeep lurched through some pretty uneven terrain and across some washes, or dry stream beds, as we passed evidence of early gold prospecting. There were some holes that prospectors had made with pickaxes in the hard, basaltic rock, but after hacking away a hole four feet deep, they gave up. I couldn’t imagine doing that kind of back-breaking work in 115 degree heat, which happens around here in the height of summer.

Suddenly, Jake caught sight of a mule deer up ahead, so we stopped and peered in the direction he pointed out. The deer was so well camouflaged, we had to wait till it moved to actually see it. Before long, two more joined the first, and then a fourth. It was wonderful to see them roaming free like that.

Our two-hour tour came to an end before we knew it, and we were back at the ghost town, which by this time had become a lot livelier! We thanked Jake and roamed around a bit, stopping for a bite of lunch, which was followed by a very loud gunfight in the town’s main street. The sheriff shot three cowboys, who bit the dust to loud applause, and then got up again to even louder applause.

After lunch we headed up the Apache Trail, at Jake’s recommendation, for a wonderful drive through winding roads with breathtaking vistas of multi-coloured rocks and crags, fringed with white and yellow wildflowers. Tall saguaro cacti peppered the landscape, and a couple of vultures wheeled overhead. It was hard to believe what we were seeing was actually real!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bloom where you're planted

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ — Today we got a real sense of the size of this city – or of the greater Phoenix area, I should say, which comprises Phoenix proper plus Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Green Creek and Apache Junction and probably several other communities that aren’t marked on the map I’ve got! There are about four million people in this area all told, and we read that it’s the fifth largest “city” in the US.

This morning we picked up a few groceries. Our afternoon excursion was into Phoenix proper to see the Desert Botanical Garden. The GPS routed us in via the freeway, which made for a direct trip but not a very scenic one. I will say that, even on the freeway, there is some beautification effort, in that overpasses are decorated with various patterns in the concrete, and even in the gravel on the sides of the ramps, they have made designs of stylized aloe plants or, on one of them, a giant roadrunner laid out in coloured gravel.

Our timing to see the Botanical Garden couldn’t have been better. Wonderful arrays of cacti in flower were on display, as well as wildflowers in colourful profusion and various trees in blossom as well. Laid out throughout the different pathways were placards explaining special characteristics of different plants.

It was amazing to see what incredible variety there was in the plant life, and how these plants had adapted to the dry and changeable desert conditions. Shallow roots, spongy, expandable stems and animal-proof spikes were just some of the ways cacti survive. Some sprout in the shadow of larger trees for shelter, eventually surpassing them and even killing parts of them at maturity by monopolizing the water supply.

We wandered through loop trails dedicated to desert wildflowers, the Sonoran Desert, and one explaining how native people used desert plants to make their homes, nourish themselves, prepare medicines and make furniture and baskets. There was a butterfly pavilion, a hummingbird garden and one for bees. The wildlife we saw wasn’t the flying variety — we saw a snake slithering into the underbrush, a prairie dog, a rabbit, a lizard and several different birds, some of which had made holes in the saguaro cacti for their homes.

It was close to suppertime when our visit ended, so we decided to ask the GPS to guide us to a Pizza Hut in the vicinity. We followed its instructions carefully, but when it announced that we had reached the Pizza Hut on our right, there was no such place! Just an office building. So, figuring that particular restaurant must have gone out of business, we punched in another Pizza Hut less than a mile further, and the same thing happened again!

Val had remembered seeing one this morning when we had been out shopping, so we headed back toward our campground, this time choosing a route through city streets instead of using the congested freeway. We got to see a lot of neighbourhoods and more RV parks and RV sales places than we believed possible. Finally, we found the place, and enjoyed a hearty supper.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ — Well, not exactly Phoenix. We are at Apache Junction, about 25 miles west of the city, at a very nice KOA. It’s a bit more rustic than our manicured surroundings in Tucson, which suits us very well.

Outside our trailer is an aloe cactus that has wonderful tall shoots coming out of it, with trumpet-like yellow blossoms starting to open. As we sat and relaxed, after setting up at our site, I looked over and there was a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird probing for nectar in the opened flowers! Later on, we saw a red-headed woodpecker doing the same thing; I always thought they ate insects only. Always something new to learn.

There were puddles along the roadway of our RV resort this morning from last night’s rain, and lots of large clouds with grey undersides were drifting overhead. We walked over to the main office to buy today’s papers and passed the model train display next to the building. Three of the “regulars”, wearing engineer’s caps, were seated on a bench across from us, operating the controls, as three scale model locomotives pulled box cars and passenger cars around the tracks.

“Want some candy, little girl?” teased one of the men, as he brought one train to a stop in front of us. I laughed, and then saw him pointing — on the car behind the load of miniature logs, he had placed two or three lollipops! He meant what he was saying!

We headed northwest out of Tucson on the I-10 and then turned northward on Highway 87 a few miles out of town. We passed lots of huge fields of red-brown soil, plowed in neat rows ready for planting. Others already had foot-tall plants of vivid green, thriving in their desert surroundings thanks to extensive irrigation efforts. We couldn’t quite figure out how the crops were getting their water, but it was clearly doing the trick.

The backdrop for the flat land by the highway, and the towns of Coolidge and Florence that we drove through, was a range of craggy mountains to the east and west. Between us and them were quite a few trees that were coming into leaf with the warm temperatures. There were lots of wildflowers by the roadside as well, mostly yellow, but with a few purple and pink ones mixed in from time to time. Overhead, we saw a couple of hawks circling on the breeze. Lovely.

Further afield, we could see some saguaro cacti stretching their arms skyward. But instead of a general vista of yellow grass and sand, there was a lot more green today. The Sonoran Desert, of which this is a part, is said to have an unusual amount of rainfall compared to other deserts, which would probably explain this.

To the west of the campground where we are now located are the Superstition Mountains. The name seems to come from two stories; one of a German prospector who revealed on his deathbed that he had found a motherlode of gold in the mountains (which no one was ever able to locate for certain) and the other, from Apache legend, that somewhere in the mountains is a deep chasm from which come the winds that cause so many desert sandstorms in the area. There are some wonderful photos of these mountains bathed in the red glow of sunset. Maybe we’ll take some of our own when we start to explore these parts!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ordinary things

Monday, March 21, 2011

TUCSON, AZ – On our last day in Tucson, there were some housekeeping items to look after — especially laundry, which, even when in travel mode, must be done! Visiting a new laundry room every week makes the chore a bit of an adventure. Will there be enough machines available? Will they work properly? How long will a load take? Where do I get quarters to feed the machines? Which dryer is the fastest? Will the clothes come out fried? (Some dryers virtually cook the clothes dry.)

When it’s all finished and the still-cooling clothes are stashed neatly away, there’s a great feeling knowing it will be a whole week before the adventure repeats itself in some other laundry room in some other place.

If we were in a less upscale RV park, we might have been able to hang the clothes out to dry – much cheaper, but not a sight the neighbours want to see next to the pristeen flower beds and stately palms. But today would not have been a day for that anyway; a stiff and steady wind was sweeping through the park, gusting to the point of ripping dead palm fronds off the trees. It was a lot cooler, and people were even saying there might be rain.

My last objective before leaving this area was to have a look at downtown Tucson. We’ve seen so many attractions around the city, but had never actually see the heart of town, so after a bite of lunch, we drove to the Visitor Centre next to the few multi-storey buildings we had glimpsed from the Interstate.

With a walking tour map in hand, we set out to see some sights. The wind was even worse, tunneled between the taller buildings, so I finally gave up holding my hat on my head and carried it in my hand, with my hair whipping in my eyes. We had to step over some palm debris as we went to check out some interesting statues.

The brochure explained that Tucson got its name from the native words describing the black granite foothills of the mountains surrounding the fort, or presidio, that was built here in the late 1700s. We also learned that the Mormons, who were looking for a way to establish a community in the west, had agreed to form a battalion, entirely made up of Mormons, to help settle the area and encourage the families of the troops to follow them here.

The city’s main courthouse is the showpiece of the downtown – a pink adobe building with rows of arches around the sides of a quadrangle, with a high dome over the entrance which is covered with shiny, multi-coloured ceramic tiles. It’s built on the spot where the original presidio used to be, with only an outline in darker paving stones indicating where its walls were located.

Worn out by the relentless wind, we headed back to suburbia and did some shopping and went to a movie (a new thriller called The Lincoln Lawyer – OK, but not great)! When we got out, there was a pungent smell of ozone in the air, and dark clouds hung overhead. By the time we were home, eating supper, the sound of raindrops pattered on the roof.

Towers of peace and silos of war

Sunday, March 20, 2011

TUCSON, AZ — Exactly one month ago to day, we left Ottawa on our Arizona trip. So far, it has been a wonderful experience, and there’s plenty more in store! We feel so fortunate to be doing this!

It was a leisurely beginning to the day, since the mass at the San Xavier de Bac mission didn’t start until 11 o’clock. The mission is an early Spanish church, with brilliant white towers, one domed and one not, and we could easily see it from afar against the dusty sand of the desert. It was built in the late 1700s and is still an active parish, as well as a popular tourist destination.

There were lots of cars in the parking lot and people in the pews when we arrived. I managed to find one seat against the wall with just enough room for my feet, if I tucked them in behind the base of a pillar. Poor Val had to remain standing behind for the whole service! Behind the altar was a heavily decorated alcove with figures of Christ, San Xavier and others, and the walls and ceiling displayed decorative patterns, angels, and biblical scenes. The church is called the Sistine Chapel of North America, but I think Michelangelo would be spinning in his grave if he knew his masterpiece in Rome was equated with these interesting but far more primitive paintings.

We had packed a lunch, which we ate in the parking lot before continuing south to Tubac, the site of Arizona’s earliest European settlement, established in 1752 by Spanish explorers. The ruins of the Tubac Presidio, or fort, are there, tended by local volunteers who staff the small gift shop and museum. Archeological digs located coins, pottery and other artifacts from the early days, and we were able to see, in the underground museum, parts of the original foundation.

The area had been inhabited by natives who subsisted through farming, and were later invaded by Apaches. Spanish missionaries tried to establish a settlement and convert the natives but, with the Apache threat, soon realized a fortification would be necessary to protect the community. Tubac had its ups and downs, but managed to survive, and is now a thriving place for artisans and artists. Many shops and boutiques are clustered near the former presidio, selling jewelry, pottery, mesquite furniture, paintings, glassworks, quilts — the whole range. I laughed when we passed one place, a cigar shop, with two signs that said “Daddy Day Care” and “Husband Drop Off Point”; they clearly know who the shoppers are and who they aren’t!

Our final destination, as the sun moved toward the west, was the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, just south of Tucson. It is the only remaining nuclear missile launch silo of the more than 50 that were set up during the Cold War to defend the free world. We caught the last tour of the day, and saw the now-disabled rocket, sunk deep into the earth in a concrete-and-steel lined silo where the walls are eight feet thick and the rebar that reinforces the concrete is up to two inches in diameter. Our guide explained the elaborate precautions set in place to guarantee that no launch could possibly occur by accident. Everything required at least two people to set things in motion, and codes within codes ensured an extremely high level of security.

It was an impressive facility, but sobering at the same time, to think that humankind had reached a point in its recent history where the complete annihilation of the world was within its grasp. It was sad that millions of dollars and months of designing, conception and construction had to be devoted to such a totally destructive end, but for the United States at least, it was done in a spirit of self-defense and preservation. I wonder if our present generation has any idea how close we came to the brink in the early 1960s.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Legends walked these dusty streets

Saturday, March 19, 2011

TUCSON, AZ — Try and think of any cowboy movie or western you’ve ever seen, and in all likelihood, it was filmed against the backdrop of Old Tucson, where we visited today. More than 150 movies and TV shows, including Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie, were filmed on this set, which has been here for 70 years.

Movie makers in the late 1930s were looking for a place to make the film “Arizona”, and decided to build a replica of the original town of Tucson in the desert, using plans of the town from historic records. When the film was completed, they abandoned the place and it languished for a while until someone decided it might be fun to fix it up as an amusement park.

It opened in the mid 1940s to tremendous public response. Before long, the owners realized it could be rented out for better revenues as a movie set, and the merry-go-round began. Year after year, big name actors like John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Hara, Robert Duvall, James Garner – the list goes on and on (including Ronald Reagan) – walked the dusty streets of Old Tucson, which were adapted to look like Mexican mission towns, mining boom towns, prairie homesteads and more to feed the insatiable appetite for that genre of film.

Today, Old Tucson Studios still serves as a movie set, but in addition, it brings in the public for tours, shows and amusements and can even be rented for parties or special events. There’s a stagecoach, a mini-railroad train, panning for gold, gunfight re-enactments and can-can girls in the saloon of the Grand Hotel.

Inside some of the buildings you can see slide shows of famous actors being filmed in front of the courthouse, the train station, the saloon, or the magnificent mountains behind with tall cacti here and there and “movie magic” that can make the sun set on the east side of the property if need be!

At one time, Old Tucson Studios also housed the most complete wardrobe of western costumes assembled anywhere, but a fire in the mid 1970s destroyed all but the costumes on the backs of actors in another part of the town that day, as well as several buildings. These have never been rebuilt, because current fire regulations have made the prospect too expensive. So they use what they’ve got.

Val and I caught the can-can show, watched a rope trick performer, and rode the little train around the property, passing mini-sets with old covered wagons and skulls of horned cattle lying in the dust. It was a fun visit to yesteryear!

Our route back to the RV resort was through Gates Pass, a twisty road through the mountains with wonderful vistas (or they might have been on a less hazy day) and stands of saguaro and prickly-pear cacti on the roadsides. Hey, was that the Lone Ranger and Tonto I glimpsed behind that rock formation?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bumblebees and bombers

Friday, March 18, 2011

TUCSON, AZ – Val was in his glory today as we toured the Pima Air and Space Museum and the famous “bone yard” at the neighbouring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, located southeast of Tucson. It was a good thing we arrived early-ish, since lots of March break families were in line when we got to the facility.

Air Force veterans were the docents and tour guides at the museum, which made everything more interesting, because they weren’t shy about adding their own experiences from Viet Nam or even the Korean war to bring the static displays to life. We started out by learning all about the Wright brothers and the first flight in 1903. We stood under a replica of the plane, a wooden framework covered in muslin that lifted Wilbur into the air, powered by a tiny engine and guided by subtle shifts of his body weight and levers manipulated by his hands. Humans had been airborne before that, but in hot-air balloons or gliders, not something that generated its own power.

We learned that, because there wasn’t a great deal of US interest in these flying machines in the earliest years, the brothers turned to France as they continued to develop their invention, which explains the French origins of such aircraft terms as ailerons, or fuselage.

The museum covered 100 years of aerospace history, in the largest privately-owned collection of aircraft, and third largest of all collections in the US. It included ridiculous items like the Bumblebee, the smallest aircraft ever to actually fly, up to massive cargo planes and fighter jets. On display were planes seen in movies such as Top Gun with Tom Cruise, Jet Pilot with John Wayne and a tiny jet that was actually flown through a hangar in a James Bond movie, in a time before computer generated imaging was available.

We saw home-made planes made from styrofoam pieces coated in fibreglas, and the fastest jet in the world, the Blackbird, that had to be made with titanium because its incredible speed would heat an aluminum body to the point of melting! The irony of that was that it was built during the Cold War when the only source of titanium was in the USSR, which had to be acquired by undercover US purchasers. We also learned that the US keeps three of these planes in running order because their surveillance capabilities are accurate enough to fill the breach if satellite sources of such information should ever fail.

The bravado of World War II pilots was evident on the sides of planes from that era, marked off with tallies of bombs dropped, and illustrated with pretty girls or monstrous teeth and humorous nicknames. Chris, the guide who took us through that section, was nine years old when the war broke out, and 15 when it ended, and was chief of a ground crew during his 20-year air force career. He reminded the group that many of the flyers were only 18 or 20 when they joined up, and the paintings of pretty girls were as close as they ever got to a normal romantic relationship.
He included many insights like these while pointing out features of the various planes. For example, he said the crew member who drew gunner duty had to curl up into a tiny bubble at the tail of a plane for up to eight hours in a position that was so cramped, he had to be lifted out because he was too stiff to walk normally.

We too were feeling a bit stiff from standing for two hours gawking at all the exhibits, so a quick lunch break was welcome before we headed outside the hangars for the tram tour of the grounds. The veteran who gave this part of the tour knew every quirk and feature of the scores of planes, large and small, set out in rows around the building. They were painted all kinds of colours and had straight wings, swept wings, hinged wings, pointed noses, bulbous noses, gun-mounted noses, tall tails, double tails, triple tails — the variety was incredible.

Our final portion of the visit was to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) area, the bone yard where thousands of retired air craft are parked across a huge expanse of desert, waiting to be cannibalized for parts or refurbished for sale to foreign countries or reactivated for domestic use if needed. They are stripped of their engines and sealed from dust and wind to make this possible. Val remembered a dusty opening scene from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was filmed in this bone yard!

How green is my garden?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TUCSON, AZ — Green was the colour of the day today! Lots of trailers in the RV resort here are festooned with shamrock lights, banners and sparkly green garlands in honour of St. Patrick’s Day. The attendant at the park gates had a green plastic bowler hat and shamrock tie on as we drove past, and I caught a few bars of “Danny Boy” drifting out the window of his guard hut!

Val and I (suitably attired in green tops) headed for Biosphere2 today, north of Tucson, to tour the facility that had been the sealed-off home of eight scientists for a two-year experiment in self-contained living back in 1991.

The original premise of the experiment was to see if humankind could create a viable mini-world so that, when Planet Earth became too polluted to inhabit, the race could survive on Mars instead. The scientist-developers managed to convince a Texan oil magnate to fund the construction and operation of the three-acre facility to the tune of millions of dollars.

The Biosphere would be sealed off from the earth by a stainless steel platform and from the sky by a series of triangular laminated glass plates. Inside, biomes of a tropical rainforest, a desert and an ocean environment were established and humidity, air pressure and temperature were carefully regulated. The four men and four women residents would be expected to grow their own food, and take turns preparing meals for the group every day.

Our tour guide took us through the various environments, and we were enveloped in warm humid air in the rainforest first, where vines and ferns flourished and miniature waterfalls trickled down. I could actually feel my skin tingle as we passed into the desert environment, with its dry air sucking the moisture out of my pores!

A mini-ocean, complete with fish and coral, had its own wave producer so the coral could survive. We were told that a couple of species of birds were allowed in, as well as bees and cockroaches, worms and snails to ensure pollenation of the plants.

We got to see the basement section, where huge diesel-fueled generators provided power to run all the systems in the Biosphere, and enormous tanks gathered water from condensation and re-circulated it for efficient consumption. Two huge dome-shaped buildings were the “lungs” of the structure, allowing the sealed unit to “breathe” when sunlight heated the air and caused it to expand.

The complexity and expense of the facility were impressive, but both of us were left with a sense of malaise. Scientists had tried to play God as they chose various elements to populate their world, but there was no way they could possibly conceive of all the inter-dependencies of living creatures, plants and organisms. For example, they failed to consider the effect of wind on the trunks of trees; without it, the trees’ bark didn’t develop enough resilience, and some of them began to sag. They used glass on the dome that filtered out UV rays, so they had to consume vitamin D to compensate. The bush babies they introduced into the rainforest escaped into other areas and tampered with some of the equipment. After they chose Arizona for its high proportion of sunlit days, El Niño caused cloud cover to deprive them of it to the extent that they actually had to break the seal of the Biosphere at one point before they ran out of oxygen, since the plants weren’t producing enough!

Since the two sequential missions, which ended in 1994, Biosphere2 has undergone three changes of management, the most recent being the University of Arizona. Scientific experiments still take place there, but the facility is no longer sealed off, so it’s not functioning the way it was originally intended. We heard that its next life may be as a theme park! It was an interesting, if unsettling visit to a Garden of Eden with a few fatal flaws.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rattlesnakes can't jump

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TUCSON, AZ — It’s so easy to get ready for a day in Arizona in March; expect sun and warm temperatures! Never fails! Our destination was the Arizona Desert Museum, an outdoor facility, so on went the Tilley hats, sunscreen and shades, and bottles of water went into the backpack.

It took less than half an hour to reach the site, to the west of the city in rolling desert terrain. What struck us most en route was the appearance of hillsides covered with tall saguaro cacti. At first glance, it reminded me of a northern Ontario hillside that had been ravaged by a forest fire, leaving blackened sticks of tree trunks, only these sticks were green and prickly! It was quite a sight.

There were crowds of people lined up at the entrance to get in; we had forgotten that this is the week of March break, so lots of families with kiddies were there, but it didn’t take long to get to the front and buy our very reasonably priced tickets.

Two events we didn’t want to miss were the reptile demonstration and the Harris hawks, so after a bite of lunch we headed for the auditorium to learn about Gila monsters and rattlesnakes. Two staff members were on hand with live specimens, whose venomous accoutrements were still very much intact. They handled them with hooked metal sticks after removing them from locked boxes. Each presentation was very informative!

For example, we learned that Gila monsters can survive up to a year without eating, and that their tails are where they store reserves to help them do this. Their bite can be very painful but will not kill a human, and their forked tongues allow them to determine from which direction a particular scent is coming.

The rattlesnake’s tail was already rattling when the handler took him out of his box, but he settled down when placed on the table in front of us. We learned that there is a difference between venom and poison – the former has to be injected into the victim, and the latter is simply present in an animal. Rattlers are not poisonous, they’re venomous. But if you leave them alone and stay at least three feet away, they won’t strike. If they do strike, it can take up to 20 vials of anti-venom to make you well again, at a cost of $3,000 per vial! They can move in several different ways – serpentine, straight or in a crab-like fashion, but they can’t jump on you. Good to know!

We headed along the desert path toward the raptor demonstration next. The museum is beautifully laid out with landscaped areas highlighting bees, or hummingbirds, or cacti, or rock creatures, and the plants are all labeled. Along the paths are posts with questions on them, and the answers are available by lifting the flap. There are plenty of shaded spots with benches where you can step out of the sun, and even drinking fountains in several locations in case you forgot your water bottle. We drank and drank, and plain old water was so refreshing!

The Harris hawks appeared right on schedule, swooping above our heads and landing on the tops of the saguaro cacti, or on the gloved hands of the handlers. They had black and brown feathers on their backs and wings, and white tail feathers. We learned that they are the only raptors that work in groups, and that they delineate their territories by circling in the sky. Even though there were lots of people, everyone got a great view of them overhead and on the handlers’ gloves. It was fascinating to watch.

We continued our stroll through the desert path, catching glimpses of a coati and a pair of javelinas (distant relatives of pigs) resting in the shade. The pens are so natural, and the animals are separated from visitors by stainless steel netting that is hand-knotted by inmates of local prisons! It’s very effective and hardly noticeable.

We were really impressed by our visit today, and if we have time, we’ll probably go again, as we couldn’t cover everything in one day. When we got into the truck, the thermometer read 91 degrees, but the breeze and our frequent water stops made it quite bearable.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Moving on to Tucson

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TUCSON, AZ – This morning we battened down the hatches on the RV and said farewell to our desert vista at Benson KOA, and headed for the big city of Tucson. It was a very short drive, only 43 miles, but even in that short distance we saw new types of vegetation by the highway – a fuzzy plant called teddybear cholla that apparently has some pretty nasty spines on it – and those distinctive tall cacti that look like people with crooked arms, more commonly known as saguara cacti.

The part of the city that we have seen so far is spread out, with lots of low buildings and homes. The population is about one million, and we’ve only seen the few roads that brought us to our new RV park, so we can’t say much yet!

The Rincon Country RV Park is a gated community with manicured grounds. The entry is a wide avenue with boulevards in the middle where stately royal palm trees sway in the breeze, ringed at their bases with flowers and green grass. There are more than a thousand individual sites, mostly for snowbirds who stay for months at a time, but a few are set aside for transients like us. However, they did ask the make and year of both our trailer and truck, so if we had said anything much older than what our rig is (2002) we might not have made the grade!

Facilities include pools, hot tub, sauna, hair salon, mini golf, shuffleboard, and lots of social events such as potlucks, bingo and some shows in the assembly hall. I’ve developed a sudden urge to paint my nails and pick out my most presentable outfit before we head out tomorrow!

After settling in our site and a bite of lunch, the first thing we did was head off to get the truck washed. We didn’t want to look like dusty riff-raff from the boonies, after all. The Octopus Car Wash was the answer to our wishes; a veritable army of cleaners descended on the truck when it came out of the soap-and-water part of the process and polished every square inch, inside and out, including a coat of shine on each of the tires! It took more than an hour to complete the process, while we waited in air-cooled comfort in the office area, where coffee and snacks were available for purchase, as well as greeting cards, toys, and car accessories.

We whiled away a good portion of the time chatting with Tom, another customer, who is from Michigan and has been wintering in Tucson every year since 2002. Not content to sit back in his retirement, he was working on schemes to promote use of nuclear power, generate interest in aquaducts from Mexico to bring water to this area, where supply is dwindling, and encourage young people to participate in apprentice-type activities before graduating from high school so they will be ready for the workforce. It was an interesting conversation!

Val was delighted when we went to get the truck, gleaming like new, and the attendant confessed it was his dream vehicle. The thumbs-up he got from the driver next to us at the stop light, looking at our shiny finish, added to his pleasure. We have a fine truck indeed. Tomorrow, when we head out to see the sights, we’ll be doing it in style.

Arizona rocks!

Monday, March 14, 2011

BENSON, AZ – On our last full day in Benson, we headed east and south to visit the Chiricahua National Monument, known for its amazing rock formations.

As we headed eastward, we had another chance to see the formations we had passed on the way to Benson last week near Dragoon. In the midst of the normal prairie landscape, for about a mile, are the most incredible, enormous rocks piled on one another or spilled across the ground like giant building blocks. Then the terrain resumes its prairie appearance again. It would be great to get a geologist’s explanation for this anomaly.

When we got to Willcox, we turned off the I-10 and headed south, through the town and into the desert beyond. It was another clear, sunny day with a perfect temperature. One could get used to this! We passed several ranches and glimpsed, among the grazing cattle, a few longhorns with their lethal-looking headgear.

The national monument – really a state park – brought us in to hilly country where there were actual trees of considerable height, able to grow in higher elevations where water was more accessible. Apache Indians had long inhabited these areas, and for a period of time tolerated the arrival of European settlers before they began to confront them, under the leadership of Cochise and Geronimo. They surrendered in 1886 and were removed to a distant reservation.

One of the first families to settle here were the Neil and Emma Erickson from Sweden, who built a homestead they called Faraway Ranch. Despite their isolation, they embraced their surroundings and explored them thoroughly, eventually starting up a guest facility to show them off to visitors, especially on horseback. They showed pictures of the area at county fairs and to chambers of commerce to generate interest in the idea of a state park, which was established finally in 1924.

Almost as soon as we got past the entry gate, the road began to rise and the trees became more dense. We stopped at the Visitor Centre to learn a bit more about the area and try to get an idea about the walking trails, succeeding with the first goal. We learned that thousands of years ago the region had been covered with a 2,000-foot layer of volcanic ash that, over time had developed deep vertical cracks. These were eventually sculpted by water, wind and ice into column-like structures, some with huge boulders stacked on top of each other. Grottoes had also been carved out.

Our second goal, to find maps or brochures describing the trails, wasn’t as successful.

So we followed the park map to the first lookout point, parked the truck and ate our lunch before heading out. We changed into our hiking boots, donned our Tilley hats, and loaded our water bottles and a snack into a backpack, which Val offered to carry. We walked over to look at the sign with information about the trails.

There was a choice of a 40-minute walk or a two- to three-hour trek, so we opted for the former so we could head further in to the park afterward to see more. After only a few yards in to the trail, we became confused and went back to see where we were supposed to go. Other hikers said they had been advised to follow the trail counter-clockwise for the short loop, so off we headed again.

It was spectacular. Both of us were armed with cameras, and they were clicking at every turn. Massive boulders were everywhere, carved into incredible shapes, some leaning on others, some teetering on top of bases that were so small it was hard to figure out why they didn’t topple!

On and on we went, awed and fascinated, but wondering, after a while, why we weren’t looping back yet and why we hadn’t seen any signs. When we finally did come across some, it was clear we were not on the 40-minute trail, as we’d been gone over an hour. At this point we had no choice but to carry on, grateful for our water supply and the cool, shady sections of the trail where we could stop and rest.

The path rose to the breathtaking heights (6800 feet) and then descended to the deep valley floor, where it was as forested as any Canadian nature trail, except for the odd yucca plant! After that, we had to make the ascent to the parking lot, which we reached with profound gratitude three hours after leaving it! I was totally wasted by this time, and so thankful Val had the stamina to drive us all the way back to our little trailer, where I collapsed into bed! I wonder if our leg muscles will function tomorrow!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clean machine

Sunday, March 13, 2011

BENSON, AZ – Aside from my jaunt into town, on my own at the wheel of our big red truck, to attend the church service at St. Raphael in the Valley and pick up today’s paper, we didn’t go anywhere today.

Instead, today was appointed Grand Clean-Up Day for the Zanin trailer. It needed it! After the wind storm in Truth or Consequences, we had dirt in pretty well every nook and cranny of the entire trailer. Val set to work on the outside, scrubbing all four sides, scouring the trim around every window, cleaning all the exterior windows, tidying storage compartments, draining tanks and even cleaning the wheels.

Inside, I wiped black dirt from every surface going, shampooed carpets, cleaned linoleum, polished mirrors and sent enough brown water down the drain to fill our grey water tank to the one-third mark, although Val had just drained it this morning!

Also, it was laundry day, which involved commandeering three of the four KOA machines and a heavy change purse full of quarters. When we get cleaning, we get clean.

The result, by about four in the afternoon, was a great feeling of satisfaction and a clean tidy home on wheels for the next leg of our journey. Plus two fairly pooped Zanins, content to enjoy leftovers for supper and put our feet up for the evening.

Our teamwork serves us well for breaking camp when it’s time to move on. While Val is outside stowing water hoses and electrical cords, turning off the propane tanks, cranking up the stabilizers and stowing chocks and other materials, I’m inside tying down the dining chairs and our two easy chairs, drawing in the two room slides and bracing them with bars, turning off the furnace, fridge, and hot water heater, and making sure nothing is loose.

We’ve written out two checklists with these chores so that we can cross check and be assured nothing has been forgotten. There are so many things to remember, we’d be sure to forget something if we didn’t have them. We’ve seen people driving off with their TV antenna still up, and know that we’d be in the same boat if we didn’t have the lists. And if we had a TV.

I remember a chilling time, early on in our ownership of the trailer, when I tried to bring in the bedroom slide without having removed the bars that brace it into place for traveling. A sickening cracking sound made me stop immediately, but not before wood had splintered around the closet door. Needless to say, that’s something I have never done again. Fortunately Val and his friend Carl were able to repair the damage so you’d never know it happened.

The last item on our list is for me to stand at the back of the trailer while Val touches the brake pedal in the truck, flicks the right turn and left turn signals and the four way flashers, so we know the electrical connections are good and other motorists will know what we are about when we change lanes or make turns or stops on the highway.

There’s a lot to keep track of with the fifth wheel, but it sure is a comfortable way to travel. Having our own kitchen to prepare meals we like, and sleeping in our own bed every night, no matter where we go is as nice as can be. Especially when it’s all shiny and clean!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The scenic route

Saturday, March 12, 2011

BENSON, AZ – Before we set out from the KOA today, we stopped at the office and asked to stay here another two nights. There are so many great spots to visit from this location, we needed more time! The bonus was, we got our seventh night free.

Our destination today was Nogales, a border town that has its twin, Nogales, on the Mexican side. We didn’t have much information about the town, but we were really more interested in the scenic drive that took us there.

We headed west on Interstate 10 to Highway 83 and turned south. It was another beautiful Arizona morning, with fresh air at around 65 degrees and sun, with a few wispy clouds. Ahead of us were rolling hills and, off in the distance, several mountain ranges. At each turn of the road we had another beautiful view.

I’ve already described the kind of terrain and vegetation there is in these parts. Today I went on the internet to find out some of the correct names for them. The paddle-shaped cacti are prickly-pear cacti – some of them are pale green, but they also come in a purple shade that looks like they have been dipped in dye!

The tall cacti that look like people with up-curved arms is saguara. The ball-shaped ones that are low to the ground, with spiky ridges, and sometimes a red flower on top, are barrel cacti. Lots of desert plants have spikes coming up in all directions, like a starburst; most of these are varieties of yucca. The fleshy ones are aloes. Another plant that looks like a cluster of thorny sticks growing straight up out of the ground is called ocotillo. And everywhere, where streams normally flow (most are completely dry right now), are mesquite trees with almost black bark, brambly branches and some pretty serious-looking thorns. Most of these are not very tall, but some can reach the height of the truck. There are so many more plants, like desert broom, sage brush and tumbleweed. The variety is amazing.

We are seeing most of these plants in their winter state, but in a few weeks they will start to bloom! We’ve caught a glimpse of a few flowering trees in people’s gardens, and even daffodils, but so far, no wildflowers of any kind.

We passed a number of ranches today, and caught glimpses of cattle grazing, and sometimes horses. We still haven’t caught sight of a javelina, a pig-like creature with coarse dark hair and tusks that is known to inhabit the Sonoran desert. There are quail and roadrunners, and we hear strange bird calls that have never reached our ears at the feeders in our back yard at home!

The scenic route took us through Sonoita and Patagonia, a couple of very small towns, before we reached Nogales. We passed a depot of some kind for the US Border Patrol, and parked by the building were at least a hundred of the white and green vehicles! And those were the ones that weren’t on the road! Keeping illegals out is a serious business here.

Nogales felt very Mexican, even on the US side of the border, with many signs in Spanish and buildings painted pink or pale orange, some with tiled rooves. It lacked the picturesque qualities of Bisbee, where we were yesterday. It was a working town, and at the southern end of the main drag were the international border buildings. In today’s paper we read that the delay crossing into the US at Nogales has become so lengthy that prosperous Mexicans wanting to do some cross-border shopping have stopped coming. It’s been hard on the economy in the town.

After a quick lunch, we headed back north, forking east at Sonoita to take a different – also scenic – way home. So many times we marveled at the panoramic vistas in front of us, with yellow grasses, rolling hills, rocky outcroppings and lavender-coloured mountains off on the horizon, crowned with a huge sky. It may be boring to read about it over and over, but it sure isn’t to look at it.

Our day closed with a gorgeous Arizona sunset, pink and peach to start with, then orange and fiery red, then deep purple. Amazing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Pope and the Screaming Banshee

Friday, March 11, 2011

BENSON, AZ – Today’s field trip was to the mining town of Bisbee, about 50 miles south of Benson and eight miles from the Mexican border. We made a leisurely start, which brought us to the town of St. David at about the right time to catch the bake sale at the local Benedictine monastery.

We knew we’d arrived at the right spot when the enormous cross came into view through the trees. The road in went past a grove of pecan trees, and there were several adobe buildings, and a small gift shop where we stopped first. We picked up a bag of pecans, harvested by the monastery residents.

The lady who served us told us the story of the cross. It’s about 70 feet high, and was donated to the monastery by a man who had set it up in his yard in the nearby town of Sierra Vista. The neighbours complained about the sizable religious symbol, so the man took the case to court. But before he had a ruling, he decided to make the donation.

As chance would have it, on the same day he contacted the monastery, another man also offered a gift. He said he was the last person in his family line, and wanted to pass on a precious heirloom. One of his ancestors had been in the Swiss Guard, and had saved the life of Pope Leopold (we don’t know the circumstances). Apparently the Pope expressed his thanks by giving the ancestor his pectoral cross, which contained a shard of wood from the cross on which Christ was crucified. The current owner of the cross had had it carbon-dated and it was deemed possible that this claim was true.

With both of these offerings coming on the same day, the abbot felt he could hardly refuse either, and now the cross stands as a beautiful landmark, with the precious relic housed in its base. The follow-up to this story was that the ruling about the large cross came in the first man’s favour, and he immediately erected another cross on his lawn, only this one was 80 feet tall!

With our pecans and homemade bread in hand, and some delicious sticky buns in our bellies, we headed on toward Bisbee. The town is nestled into the folds of a valley and up its hillsides, with lots of buildings dating from the late 1800s when the town was founded.

Bisbee has a vibrant artistic community, and as we strolled down Main Street, we could see in the shop windows all manner of pottery, paintings, sculptures, and embroidered clothing, as well as antiques and curiosities. We decided to take the Lavender Jeep Tour of the town, since it promised to show us parts of the town we’d never get to ourselves.

The hype was right. Our intrepid tour guide was Dorothy, a lady of a certain age with a black beret, large glasses and bleached hair. She knew every nook and cranny in the town, and manouvered our purple Jeep up and down the steepest, narrowest streets you could imagine. She had a story about nearly every building! So many were reclaimed from earlier times and repainted in wild combinations of colours, decorated with fences and sculptures and landscaped with cactus and aloe plants. Lots of hippies and artists migrated here when mining activity waned and houses were cheap.

In its heyday, Bisbee produced 8 billion pounds of copper, plus silver, lead, gold, turquoise and zinc. Open-pit mining had carved the hills into terraces and created a huge crater from which the copper had been extracted. It all started when the US Cavalry was looking for Geronimo and camped on a rock outcropping (still in the middle of the town). One of the men spotted a large chunk of what looked like copper, and when it was assayed and found to be of extremely high quality, the rush was on.

Houses popped up on every hillside – some of them were actually acquired by mail order from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, complete with furniture and carpets. One building on Main Street was a multi-level parking spot for horses, which were raised to the second and third floors in an elevator. Another four-storey building, set into the hillside, has ground-level entrances on each of the four floors. Actor John Wayne bought one building and often stayed in Bisbee, where folks would kindly leave him alone.

There are so many staircases in Bisbee that each year they hold “the race of a thousand steps”, where people run up one set after another. Some of the hillside houses are only accessible by steps; no roads go there. The quirkiest name we spotted was The Screaming Banshee Pizza place; we didn’t ask if it had anything to do with the number of hot peppers they use.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Thursday, March 10, 2010

BENSON, AZ – Today we went underground, into the marvelous caverns south of Benson at Kartchner Caverns State Park. It was a fairly short drive from the campground, west on Interstate 10 and then south on Interstate 90, but it was still lovely with the desert landscape and purple hills on the horizon.

The story of the caverns would make a great movie. Two university students go spelunking in the Whetstone Mountains of Arizona and find a sinkhole with an entrance into the cavern. They are so excited and fascinated by what they have found that they keep it a secret for 14 years. In their student days, they bring a third person with them to stand guard in case something happens to them underground, but that person is blindfolded from the time they leave Tucson till they get to the sinkhole. They hide their truck in the brush and crouch behind the bushes if a car goes by, only coming out to the road when the coast is clear.

They know they have found a unique and valuable treasure, so they try to find out whose land they’ve been visiting, and learn it belongs to Mr. James Kartchner, a teacher. They screw up their courage and pay him a visit, and show him slides of what they’ve found under the two ordinary-looking hills on his land. Mr. Kartchner agrees that it’s quite a find, but is not interested in selling his land. Finally, someone puts Mr. Kartchner in touch with the Arizona state government, and after considerable discussion, the land is sold to the government for development.

The two discoverers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, work closely with developers to make the caverns accessible to visitors while protecting its fragility. It takes years for them to create entrances, build pathways inside, erect lighting and prepare the above-ground facilities where the site will be interpreted, all with the greatest care.

In 1999 the ribbon was cut and the caverns became accessible to the public. For our visit today, we were required to leave behind purses, cameras, food (even gum) and any items that could be dropped. On entering, we were misted with water to contain any lint or flakes of skin, and were instructed not to touch anything inside. Great sealed doors with rubber weatherstripping scraped open to let us in to a series of airlocks that keep the moisture in and the dry Arizona atmosphere out. We could feel the humid air seep into our clothing as we stepped in!

The wetness is one of the unique aspects of these caverns, with water that seeps in between cracks of rock, causing stalactites and stalagmites to continue growing. We saw amazing formations inside, some that looked like rippled curtains, others like lumpy columns, and some called “soda straws” because that’s what they looked like! The lighting was controlled by our guide so that only the section we were passing through could be seen; this protected the formations from heat that lights give off, which could unbalance the ecosystem. In one section, needle-like stalactites jutting down from the ceiling were back-lit so you could see sparkling pearls of water at the tip of each one; it was beautiful!
We were fortunate enough to visit, on separate tours, both the Big Room cave and the Throne Room cave; after April the first one is closed to the public because that’s when the bats move back in for the summer. Their guano nourishes some 40 different invertebrates that most of us have never heard of. A lot of scientists are finding out new things from these caverns that they’ve never heard of either.

Between our morning and afternoon tours, we bought lunch at the Bat Cave Café and walked around the beautifully-landscaped grounds, where all kinds of desert plants are growing – and are labeled for people like us who have no idea what they are! There was a walking trail that we followed only for a short distance, as we weren’t quite up to doing the entire 2.5 miles in the noon-day heat.

Since we couldn’t take any pictures inside the caverns, we suggest looking at the website for Arizona State Parks at to get an idea of what we saw.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Saloons, stetsons and six-shooters

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BENSON, AZ — The legendary town of Tombstone was our destination today, a 20-mile drive from Benson through the dusty desert landscape and a few sleepy towns and villages. There were several RV parks along the way, and as we got to the outskirts of Tombstone itself, we passed a Best Western and a Holiday Inn, so clearly lots of people like to come here. Luckily for us, we are visiting at the beginning of the busy season, so there were other tourists around, but it wasn’t over-crowded. The day was perfect; clear and sunny and not too hot!

The main street through Tombstone is a business street, but already there were buildings, such as the one in which Wyatt Earp lived, and an old rooming house, that harked back to wild west days. Allen Street, the historic part of the town, is cordoned off for pedestrians only, and boasts old wooden storefronts, boardwalks, and a couple of stagecoaches that take visitors for rides up and down the street.

We heard the clink of spurs as a cowboy strolled past us, with his leather vest, gun belt and stetson. Inside the shops, salesladies in long skirts, some with feathered hats, served customers who were looking for souvenirs or admiring artifacts from the old days.

The town got its name, we learned, from Ed Schieffelin, a rough-and-tumble early prospector who roamed into Apache country in 1877 to seek his fortune. His friends told him that all he would find in that dangerous territory was his tombstone, so when he struck it rich, he used that name for his first silver mine. His second was Lucky Cuss, because that’s what his brother called him when, penniless again, he made another attempt and found a new source of the precious metal. Mining was what brought people in and made the town grow and prosper.

Probably the most famous event to take place here was the gunfight at the OK Corral, in 1881, when Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil and friend Doc Holliday engaged in a shoot-out with the horse-thieving Clanton brothers and the McLaury brothers that lasted a mere 30 seconds and left three dead (the cowboys) and three injured (the lawmen) and only Wyatt unhurt. Supporters of both groups laid the blame on the other, and it’s a point of discussion to this day.

We saw it all unfold before our very eyes at the very spot it first occurred, in a live re-enactment that happens every afternoon at 2! It’s a lot more comfortable for us than for the first witnesses, who were deprived of bleachers and a sun-shade from which to observe the dramatic events.

We ate soup, beans and biscuits for lunch at the Longhorn Restaurant and then visited the Tombstone Heritage Museum, a little off the beaten track, which houses authentic artifacts from the area’s history. We read a letter written in Wyatt Earp’s own hand, and looked at guns, pocket watches, saddles, and oddities from bygone days. The museum owner showed us a glass case where only a day or so earlier someone had lifted a revolver worth about $2,400 to his dismay. Thieves, unfortunately, are not only figures of the past.

The Crystal Palace was one of the local saloons, and inside was the original carved-wood bar, with wooden stools and pressed-tin ceiling where fans quietly turned above the patrons. The serving girls were authentically dressed in revealing costumes and fishnet stockings, and the owner wore a bowler hat.

The town’s newspaper, known as the Tombstone Epitaph, carries original accounts of the testimony by Wyatt Earp and other witnesses of the gunfight in reproductions of the original editions, which we picked up. It was interesting to see the old printing presses and cases where typesetters had to pick letters, one by one, and arrange them in galleys, upside down and backward, for each day’s paper. Did you know that the terms “upper case” for capital letters and “lower case” for small letters come from the fact that these letters were arranged in two sets of cases, one above the other? Val was most edified when I related that to him.

It was a very interesting day, and there are still parts of the town we didn’t get to see — including Boot Hill, where the OK Corral cowboys are buried. I expect we’ll be back again before our stay is over.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Arizona at last!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

BENSON, AZ — We made it! We’re finally in Arizona, on our 17th day of travel, with a wealth of stories from the trip here, and the promise of many more as we explore this interesting part of the world. Our literature bag is bulging with pamphlets, maps and brochures about things to see and do, and we can hardly wait to start.

We got off to a good start this morning (for some reason I woke up at five o’clock!) after a more peaceful night than we had expected with the heavy winds last evening. Nevertheless, wind was our constant companion today as well, sweeping across the vast, flat plains of southern New Mexico. We followed Interstate 25, heading for Las Cruces, but before getting there, we headed west at Hatch on a state highway, cutting a corner to connect with Interstate 10 west.

Hatch, a tiny little burg, boasts that it is the chile capital of the world. Roadside stands were in abundance, strung with ristras of dried red chiles and trinkets painted with pictures of the long, elongated peppers in red and green. They even have a 12-foot tall Uncle Sam at one corner, with star-spangled top hat and striped pants, holding a big green chile in his hand!

While the scenery today resembled what we had passed before, there were some changes and differences. The ground was still dusty and gravelly, and low shrubs dotted the landscape, but today we passed several places where bright yellow grass rippled in the wind, dense enough to hide the soil beneath it. Spiky plants, from one to three feet high, were everywhere for a mile or two, then nowhere to be seen, and then present again and even bigger in size. These plants send up a tall, thin stem that branches out with dried seed pods at the top — very odd-looking! They look like skinny periscopes, sticking up toward the sky!

The sky was huge again today, swept with a few clouds. At the horizon on either side were mountains in rusty brown and grey. Not long after we crossed the state line, we saw some large farms with trees in orderly rows; we guessed they might be pecan trees, or pistachio trees (although we don’t know what either of these actually look like; we just know they grow around here!). There were also some vineyards, as the terrain here resembles regions of France where wine is produced.

Cochise County is at the southeast corner of Arizona, where we now are, and the most interesting stretch of highway today was at Dragoon, where suddenly the landscape changed to huge rocky formations on either side of the highway. I told Val I almost expected to see cowboys darting among the rocks, chasing Indians to the sounds of ricocheting bullets! Some of the formations were huge round boulders, as big as a car, balanced on top of others. It was spectacular!

We arrived at the Benson KOA at about 1:30, and got quickly settled. It’s always easy when you get a nice, flat site without any trees in the way. From our dining area windows, we can see a wonderful desert landscape with mountains in the distance.

Since today is Shrove Tuesday, I was determined to find a place where we could have our traditional pancake supper. I scanned a couple of local papers we had picked up to see if there was anything happening in town, and there was one Mardi Gras event at a local golf club, but they were advertising New Orleans cuisine, and expecting folks to arrive in costume. I had left my sequined mask and beads at home, so we opted instead to check out the menu at Denny’s, just down the street from the campground. I was not disappointed: breakfast served all day! So I had two enormous pancakes with extra syrup and butter, bacon, and hash browns. And, to assuage my guilt, a side order of fresh fruit! Yum!

Blow me down!

Monday, March 7, 2011

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM — Yes, that’s the name of this small town in south central New Mexico. It used to be called Hot Springs – and it still has those, where tourists and residents can soak their aches and pains away, but in the late 1940s the town wasn’t doing very well financially.

That’s when they heard that the immensely popular radio show, Truth or Consequences, was looking for a community willing to change its name to their show’s name, and Hot Springs hopped to it. The NBC host, crew and actors all flew out to New Mexico in 1950 to produce the tenth anniversary show from this brave town and put its name on the map. The free advertising helped out the town and the show broadcast its first live show, coast to coast, from the town that has borne its name ever since.

We had a good drive today from Santa Fe, almost in a straight north-to-south line across a wide expanse of gravelly prairie, spotted with low shrubs, scraggly grasses, and, as we got further south, paddle-shaped cactus plants. The land was not entirely flat the whole time; sometimes it rose into hills or flat-topped buttes, and off in the distance were blue mountains, dusted on top with snow, at least closer to Santa Fe.

Wind was our constant companion today, and several times we passed warning signs about strong gusts. They even set up orange windsocks in the highway median from time to time so drivers could gauge the speed and direction of the wind. We saw what looked like plumes of smoke in the distance every now and then, but they were actually clouds of dust.

When we pulled over at a rest stop for lunch, the wind grabbed the truck doors as we opened them, and our hair flapped in all directions. The kitchen window, as I sat eating my sandwich inside the trailer, framed a beautiful landscape of tan foreground, brownish-red foothills, purple mountains and grey peaks behind them on the horizon, with a canopy of blue sky and shredded clouds above. What a view.

Val didn’t notice the sign when we went over to the building by the rest stop to see what the view was like behind it. It said “beware” in English and Spanish, and had a picture of a coiled rattlesnake with its mouth wide open, revealing its poisonous fangs! We might not have lingered for quite so long if he had seen it.

Val spotted another, more friendly, critter shortly after lunch -- a real, live roadrunner, pelting across the oncoming lane, then the median, and full speed ahead in front of the truck and into the brush by the roadside! He checked to see if Wiley Coyote was behind him, but must have missed seeing him.

Interstate 25 took us through Albuquerque (finally learned how to spell that!), a spread-out city that looks fairly industrial but which boasts a robust arts community, according to the guide book. We also passed the Trinity Site, in the White Sands Missile Range, where the atomic bomb was first detonated on July 16, 1945. We actually saw a film clip of that explosion at one of the displays in the Museum of History in Santa Fe when we were there. It was a chilling sight.

It was a balmy 70 degrees when we reached the Cielo Vista RV park in “T or C” as this town is called for short, but the wind had not let up. Our hosts here said there were warnings of high winds overnight tonight, and as we sit here, the trailer is being rocked by another gust. From our windows there is a great view of the town, but when we decided to walk down the hill to look about, we changed our minds; the air is full of dust, almost obliterating the mountains south of the town. Our countertops and floor are already gritty with sand that has sifted in through the windows and vents. It will be major house-cleaning time when we get to Arizona tomorrow.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Silver and turquoise

Sunday, March 6, 2011

SANTA FE, NM — Since today was Sunday, I did an internet search to find an Episcopal church and came up with St. Bede’s on South St. Francis Drive. We were warmly welcomed at the front door and pinned with a blue ribbon so people would know we were visitors. We enjoyed chatting with various people at coffee hour afterward, and even found one person who had been to Ottawa a couple of times.

It had warmed up a little by the time we got outside again, but as some of our new friends were saying, you have to expect cool weather in early March when you’re at 7,000 feet of elevation!

We decided to go back to the Plaza where we had been yesterday and have a closer look at the wares being sold by native artisans. They were all lined up along the wall of the Palace of the Governors, facing the square, with colourful blankets spread in front of them on which they displayed the fruits of their labours. They greeted us as we strolled along, looking at the beautiful pieces of silver and turquoise jewelry, beadwork, clay pots and figurines.

By this time we were ready for lunch, so we stopped in again at Pasqual’s, the restaurant we had visited yesterday. It was much busier this time, so we left our names and promised to come back in 25 minutes, when a table would be ready for us. This gave us a chance to walk around the block and do some window shopping. What a feast for the eyes! Belts and hats, serapes and embroidered jackets, sculptures and paintings, sparkling jewelry, dried red pepper ristras (the bunches we saw decorating many homes yesterday), furs, snakeskin boots... there was no end to the wonderful handiwork.

Back at Pasqual’s, we were seated again at the communal table, this time next to Grant and Liz and family. The couple were from New Orleans and had escaped to New Mexico, since they said their home town is overrun by people during Mardi Gras week! We also chatted with Julian and Antonia, from Bristol, England, on our other side, and heard their take about the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Our meal was another feast for eye and tongue; a ranchero omelette for me, smothered in tomatillo sauce, and for Val, poached eggs on top of black beans and green peas, with tomatillo sauce, a tortilla and a fried banana. Both dishes were scrumptious!

After lunch we went back to the Plaza vendors so I could pick out a souvenir of Santa Fe; it’s a lovely turquoise pendant, veined with brown and set in sterling silver on a silver chain. It was made by Sheila Vandever, a Navajo native, who was seated with her auntie, who sat wrapped in a patterned blanket against the cold.

We went back to the truck and headed up Canyon Road, the strip where all the various galleries are clustered. Outside the front of these adobe buildings are sculptures, banners, paintings and more sculptures of every style and description. It would be easy to spend several hours strolling up and down the street to visit each gallery.

However, we had to find a grocery store for supplies before our last 500 miles to Arizona, so we queried the GPS for a store nearby and picked a likely one. Wouldn’t you know, after several streets and avenues, stoplights and turns, the GPS proudly announced our arrival at a store that was no more! I saw the sign, but it was painted over and no groceries were in sight. Never mind; we got to see more of Santa Fe and eventually did find what we needed.