Hello again from the Sonoran desert, where we’ve gotten used to daily 90 degree temperatures much faster than I’d have expected, considering we were snowbound in Santa Fe just a few weeks ago. Life is different in a real city after a month in Adobe Disneyland, and we’re making the most of it.
I know I usually open our blogs of a new place with a little paragraph or two about the ride here, but to be honest, it kind of flew by. We’ve basically got trucker-level tolerances for long drives at this point, and I think it’s hard for people who haven’t done this to understand how an eight-hour drive can pass in no time at all. Don’t get me wrong though – southern Arizona is beautiful. There’s a distinct moment somewhere just after crossing the New Mexico-Arizona border where you suddenly realize the mountains are different, the sand is bright white, and off in the distance, you might spot a cactus, though maybe it’s a mirage. Meantime, the mountains are practically prehistoric looking. Toto, we’re not in the Chihuahuan desert anymore.
If you look it up, Arizona is in Mountain time – which, generally speaking, is two hours earlier than the east coast of the United States. However, for reasons not entirely clear, the Grand Canyon state doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time. This means that, from March through November, it’s functionally on Pacific time – or Mountain Standard Time, if you want to be pedantic. The upshot for us is that we’ve once again time-traveled, and it’s finally starting to get weird. With Central time, things are just a little off. With Mountain time, it’s starting to become significant, but at least you’re still in the same part of the day. Out here, it’s finally become weird. When I’m sitting down to work with a cup of coffee, our friends and family in Washington and New York and Florida are heading to lunch. For the first time in a while, Morgan is up earlier than me every day. Linus has absolutely no idea what time it is and is therefore asking for food at all hours in a futile effort to squeeze another meal out of the day. Not happening, buddy.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Morgan and I need to keep traveling, if for no other reason than to help solve droughts around the country. On our second day in Tucson, in what’s supposed to be one of the driest times of the year, it absolutely poured rain. Like, the kind of thunderstorm that would make Floridians turn their heads, with some hail to boot.
The flip side of it being so dry here all the time is that the ground is incredibly hard from being baked by the sun 90% of the time. This means when it rains like this, it also floods extremely easily. This is another one of those New Orleans-style moments where I found myself wondering – are people really supposed to live here?
Perhaps I’m extra salty about this as I was caught out downtown during these storms, foolishly believing they’d be mild and brief. I had headed downtown to check out the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum, in keeping with my string of local history museums. This one tells the story of the original Tucson settlement, a military presidio or fort built in 1775. That may be old by most standards, but coming from Santa Fe, it felt practically modern. The museum was set up in a reconstructed portion of the fort that showed off the basics of 18th-century Spanish colonial life.
But the Tucson area’s history goes a lot further back than the current city – thousands of years further, in fact. I got a good sense of this (and a good workout) this week when I climbed Tumamoc Hill just west of town. It looks and sounds easy and appealing – a 1.5-mile walk up a paved path through Saguaros and other desert landscapes to hilltop archaeological sites and incredible views of Tucson. There’s even a free app with an audio tour that synchronizes the narration to your location on the hill. Pretty fancy stuff.
But even after a month of living at 7,000 feet, I was still huffing and puffing down here at 2,500 as I wound my way up the 750 feet of elevation gain to the top. I was told living at high altitude would give me physical superpowers, and not just through an ability to drink more. Perhaps we didn’t stay long enough. In any case, I was about halfway up when I started regretting my decision to wear jeans. Fortunately, this was also right about the time when the most spectacular views of Tucson and the hillside cactus forest began to reveal themselves.
About halfway up, there’s a nature and historic research station that’s been working to understand the hill and its current and former occupants for more than a century now. In fact, the cacti on Tumamoc are some of the most studied plants in the world; researchers have been keeping an eye on them and how they change for decades. The hill was also the site of multiple Native American villages, which, frankly, I can’t imagine was an easy spot to visit considering the climb. There’s no faulting the views, though.
Speaking of science, one of the weirder noteworthy attractions in the Tucson area is Biosphere 2. My fellow 90s kids may remember hearing about this in elementary school science class, as an experiment in sustainable living and ecology research that was also a test run for space colonization. The idea was to find out whether eight people could successfully grow their own food, recycle their own water, manage their oxygen levels, and generally not murder each other when sealed inside a supposedly self-sustaining facility. There’s some top-notch reality show potential here, which makes it a shame it existed before that became a thing.
Just a note – It’s called Biosphere 2 because, as they’re apt to remind you, technically speaking Earth itself is Biosphere 1. I feel this is important to clarify because some people (definitely not me, no way) may spend far too much time online trying to locate “Biosphere 1”, thinking it may be a better choice to visit than 2.
In any case, Biosphere 2 is located about 45 minutes north of Tucson near the town of Oracle, on the other side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It’s pretty much a picture-perfect place for going off the grid and has become my new number 1 spot to go in the event of some kind of zombie invasion.
The Biosphere itself very much looks like a building of its time, like what someone in 1985 thought architecture was going to look like in 2015, which gives it a bit of an EPCOT feel. The pictures may not do a good job of showing just how vast this site is – 3 acres above ground, and more below.
Inside, you enter through the kitchen. I’m not going to lie – this was kind of my favorite part of the tour. The logistics of planning and growing your own food, how to preserve and ration it, how to cook healthy and delicious meals without manufactured ingredients we take for granted like sugar or cooking oil. Despite a relatively low amount of calories, the Biosphere residents stayed healthy and mostly just reduced their body fat with a high fiber, mainly vegetarian diet. What would have been most troubling to me, however, was that cooking was a rotating duty, and if a bad chef ruined the meal, there were no replacement ingredients and certainly no ordering out.
Other than the former food growing area and apartments for those staying inside, most of the facility is made up of a group of artificially created and managed environments, including a desert, mangrove swamp, savannah, ocean, and rainforest.
I feel compelled to note that the Biospherians were also responsible for growing their own coffee, which they were lucky enough to drink once every two weeks when enough beans were gathered for everyone to have a cup. Stuck in a giant greenhouse with declining oxygen levels, low calorie levels, and almost no coffee? I’m thinking it would have turned into The Shining pretty quickly. I won’t spoil how it actually turned out if you don’t know or don’t remember, but I’d highly recommend checking out the documentary Spaceship Earth (available on Hulu.) Overall, it was a great visit that certainly did nothing to discourage the off-grid schemes that have been brewing in my head since we saw the Earthships near Taos.
We’re having a great time in Tucson. At least for me, an unexpectedly great time, as I didn’t have as high expectations for here as our last few stops. It’s even making this old DCer feel at home with the thunderous helicopter and fighter jet traffic from the nearby military base. But it’s the only place so far that I’ve both enjoyed greatly, but also know that there are no circumstances in any universe where I could live here. I mean, it gets to be 115 degrees in the summer, and will regularly be topping 90 by the time we leave in a few weeks. Morgan, on the other hand, is living her best life as a creature of the sun. And even as I drink my fifth water bottle of the day and acquire my third sunburn of this stop (I promise I’m wearing sunscreen, Mom), I have to admit it’s pretty nice to be able to sit outside comfortably for the first time since New Orleans back in December.
But life in the desert remains utterly bizarre and fascinating to me. So much of it revolves around water, a troubling thing considering Tucson’s water table has dropped nearly 60 feet in the last century. If you look at a map, you might think there are several rivers here, little streaks of blue next to lots of gray and brown. In reality, these are basically just dry ditches most of the year, which can be a little confusing when trying to navigate looking for an actual river. Still, you’ll run across some outrageously green lawns out here, all the more striking because of the hardscaping everywhere else. How is this possible? Aside from generally irresponsible water usage rates, part of it is linked to a huge and very cool effort to reclaim water.
Based on the river situation, you might understand why I was a bit dubious when I saw something nearby labeled “Sweetwater Wetlands Park.” But it was relatively close to our Airbnb, so I drove out, fully expecting to find maybe a puddle or two, if that. What I actually found was probably the lushest square mile of greenery we’ve seen since leaving Mobile back in January.
It’s a weird feeling to be genuinely shocked by grass! But two months in the desert will do that, I suppose. This is, at its heart, sewage water. It’s been semi-treated to remove smells and the ickiest of substances, but it’s still certainly not the kind of water you’d want to take a dip in. Tucson uses these wetlands to naturally clean sediment and harmful substances out of the water, while at the same providing a unique habitat for birds and other local animals. Periodically, the water is released into massively deep nearby ditches, designed to help funnel the naturally-treated water right back into the water table as quickly as possible. After this final filtration, it’s then pumped back out of the ground, and used for irrigation, landscaping, and other non-potable uses. It’s a pretty ingenious and efficient way to recycle water while also providing a nice, free park for Tusconans.
Another inescapable force in Tuscon life is the University of Arizona, located on a sprawling campus a bit outside downtown. The Wildcats (who oddly use the motto “bear down”) unfortunately let me down in my March Madness bracket; I had picked them to win, hoping they could at least stay in the tournament until we arrived here, but they couldn’t even handle that. Nevertheless, it’s hard to hold it against them when you’re strolling through the beautiful campus.
I know I’m over 30 and lived in cities for almost half my life now, but my eyes still bulge sometimes on the campus of big colleges. It just seems preposterous, when my only experience is humble little American University, a school people sometimes mistake for one of those for-profit online operations. For example, there are multiple museums on the University of Arizona campus, covering everything from art to photography to Arizona history. I visited the State Museum (LINKSS) one afternoon, which was smaller than the name might imply, and may be worth skipping unless you’re particularly into exhibits about textiles or masks.
A much better choice also on the U of A campus would be the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. I’ve always been a fan of planetariums and space, but there’s something especially satisfying coming in out of the achingly bright, oven-level heat of the outdoors into a cool, dark theater.
Morgan and I caught an afternoon show of “The Tucson Sky and Beyond”, which gave a pretty fascinating virtual visual tour of the constellations currently visible over Tucson this time of year – quite a few, since the city is thought to have the darkest night skies of any city its size in the entire country.
We’re also lucky enough to be visiting during one of Tucson’s most popular annual events – the 4th Avenue Street Fair. For a handful of blocks downtown, the streets were filled with small vendors, booths from local businesses, and food stalls with some of the most preposterous cooking setups I can remember.
We strolled and shopped with some drinks from bars along the way for a few hours, but you can only walk in a crowded area in Tucson for so long. It was hot – and I mean HOT. Good thing that, in a moment of inspiration that once again reminded me why I love her, Morgan had bought us an inflatable pool for our backyard the previous day. Before long, we were cooling off in our own private pool – a major upgrade for an already excellent backyard, if you ask me. This is the kind of thing I could get used to.
Lest you think we’ve spent all of our free time lounging in the sun poolside, we’ve already made two visits to the unquestioned central attraction of Tucson – Saguaro National Park.
Saguaro National Park is unique in that it’s made up of two completely separate zones, one to the east of the city in the Rincon Mountains and the other to the west in the Tucson Mountains.
I made the first visit on my own on our third day here, taking the quick drive over to a trailhead in the Rincon Mountain District, which is known for having older and bigger saguaros. In some national parks (like Congaree, for example), the trails are so obvious that you need to have some special skill or determination in order to get lost. This is not the case in much of Saguaro, however. On a given hike, you might criss-cross a half-dozen other trails (some more than once), along with any number of washes, arroyos, and things that look like trails but turn out not to be. And orienting yourself can be more difficult than you’d think – after all, it’s pretty much just cacti and mountains in every direction.
Fortunately, I got to meet a few new cactus friends along the way.
Morgan and I went for a sunset hike to explore the Tucson Mountain district of the park, because that’s apparently what you have to do if you don’t want to fry while out on the trail here. It’s our best option at least, since neither Morgan nor I are the type of person to wake up for one of those pre-dawn hikes. This part of the park is much easier to navigate, with fewer trails but a landscape much more densely packed with the cacti.
We took it pretty easy, hitting the mile-long Valley View Overlook trail, home to some of the most ridiculous cacti we’ve seen and some of the most breathtaking views out over the Indian reservation and farms west of Tucson. I could probably post 100 interesting, funny, or weird cactus photos, but you’ll all just have to wait for my Top Ten Cactuses of Arizona™ rankings when we leave.
We also took a little detour to check out some of the park’s best petroglyphs, located along a short trail to Signal Hill. They might not have matched Petroglyph National Monument in number or variety. But even writing that sentence, I was conscious of quite how much of a “good problem” that is – we’re seeing TOO MUCH incredible, ancient American history. Somehow, despite this hardship, we go on.
We headed out of the park as the sun began to set, and what a sunset it was. I’m talking something straight out of an Old West movie here. My usually trusty iPhone camera is, unfortunately, letting us down here – there’s just no comparison to the colors in person. Perhaps Morgan’s new camera will do better (more on that to come!). Among the best parts of our excursion? It’s so close to home, we were back just minutes after dark.
We ended our first two weeks in Tucson not, in fact, actually in Tucson. For the first time, we retraced our steps and returned to one of our previous haunts – New Orleans. My good friends Sam and Margy were getting married – and there’s nothing quite like a New Orleans wedding. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends (most of whom we haven’t seen in at least six months) and relax off the road for a bit. That’s not to say it wasn’t weird and little disorienting, yet strangely comforting returning to one of our previous stops and finding things humming along as if we’d never left. It was also chilly! At least by Tucson standards. I never thought I’d get used to the 90s so fast. Naturally, I brought a little of the west back to the Big Easy with my shirt and boots.
Despite the impact on our bodies and minds, we had a wonderful time. We’re back in Arizona now, swapping crawfish for cactus and the Mississippi River for the Sonoran Desert. We’ve got about another two weeks here before the trail splits, so to speak. We’ll reveal more details on that next week. In the meantime, we’re readying to host my parents for a few days – a welcome vacation for them I’m sure, as they deal with the logistical hell of getting a new house built in Florida. We’ll do our best to help clear that up with some fresh Arizona air and perhaps a few tacos.
Nick and Morgan