Greetings to all our readers, and welcome to our latest and greatest destination: San Diego, California. I will do my damnedest to avoid too many Anchorman references, but no promises.
I arrived here on Sunday after departing from the criminally underrated city of Tucson. I’ve jokingly referred to Arizona as the Florida of the West early on in our visit here. But the longer I’ve thought about the concept, the more appropriate it seems. Consider the following:
1. The heat. Both are oppresively hot not just in the summer but also at random other times of the year, too. Arizona routinely gets into the 110s – but it’s a dry heat, you say, as they drag your mummified body out of the desert. Florida may hang more in the 90s, but existing in air that’s basically the equivalent of hot soup certainly has its downsides, too.
2. The boomers. More than once I’ve heard Florida called “God’s Waiting Room,” and Arizona is without a doubt the western wing of this facility.
3. Endless strip malls. When I think of a lot of (the worst) parts of Florida, I think of endless, ugly 1990s strip malls alongside endless, ugly six-lane roads only interrupted by walled, sardine-packed housing developments and other six-lane roads. Tucson looks largely the same, and I was prepared to hate that. But for whatever reason, it’s less objectionable out here. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous mountains forever looming behind everything.
Speaking of Florida, there’s some news afoot regarding our future, both near and more distant, and they both revolve around the Sunshine State. As you may have gathered from the “I” in the introduction, our trail has split for us temporarily. Morgan is back in Florida, while Linus and I continued west to the gorgeous and classy city of San Diego, California. The reasons for Morgan’s trip are threefold. One, just to relax; I’ll admit my pace of travel is faster and busier than Morgan’s, and she needs a bit of a break. Two, to see her family, with Mother’s Day looming along with family graduations and other events. And three, because it’s worth acknowledging publicly what we’ve been discussing privately for some time now – we’re likely to end up in Florida when this trip is all said and done.
This is as surprising to me as it may be to some of you, but it makes sense. I’ve already been a Florida resident for months, technically, as has Morgan. Both of our families are now there, and one thing COVID was good for was making us realize how important spending time with them is. From a weather perspective, we were never going to be anywhere colder than DC, and I could absolutely get used to Florida winters after spending Christmas there this past year. We can afford a real home with a backyard for not much more than we spent for our tiny condo in Washington. While I love the west for reasons that are both many and varied, being back on Eastern time just feels right and makes life much easier for Morgan, who has put up with some truly unpleasant work hours out here. And who doesn’t love Florida beaches?
Morgan is curreently staying in Crystal River on the Gulf Coast. It’s best known for the gorgeous springs, rivers, and of course the famous Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, home to Morgan’s spirit animal, the manatee. This represents close to the northern end of our potential home search area, which tentatively stretches as far south as Sarasota. While I’m thrilled to spend some time in California (a state of which Morgan and my opinions seem to differ), I’m also a little jealous that she’ll be getting to explore all these places that we could end up living before I do. Stay tuned for more details on our destinations, both near- and long-term. Anyway, here’s a adorable and slightly obscene photo of Linus to break up this wall of text.
Anyway, back to Tucson. After several days in a city where the highest point is 43 feet above sea level, I was itching to get back into some sort of geography that didn’t involve climbing over potholes and around piles of Bourbon Street debris, so I headed up back up into the Santa Catalinas to the Babad Do’ag (or Babat Duag, or other variations, depending on which site, sign, or trail marker you consult.) The name means Frog Mountain in the language of the local Tohono O’odham people, who must have had very vivid imaginations because they, for some reason, thought it looked like a sleeping frog.
Without much work to do for the day, I picked the 5.2-mile trail because I figured it would keep me busy, and because I’d spent essentially the entire previous day sitting on my butt recovering from our weekend in New Orleans (how on Earth did we live there for a month?). At precisely 0.3 miles in, I was regretting this decision. This was a steep trail – so steep that I wasn’t even initially sure I was on a trail, and not just walking up a hill on some rocks.
I’ve briefly thought about the idea of trying to go to the tallest peak in each state or at least the ones that don’t require actual mountaineering. This seemed like a particularly insane thing to even consider as I trudged up the 1,200 feet of elevation gain from start to finish on this hike, with gusts so strong my hat was carried off my head and nearly down a canyon. Thankfully, I saved Clay Henry IV from an eternity blowing around the foothills of Mount Lemmon.
Tucson is located about 60 miles north of the Mexican border, a mere stone’s throw by our new standards of Western distance. So naturally, I headed down this week for a little daylong excursion into southern southern Arizona. The first inclination I had that perhaps this would be an interesting trip was shortly after exiting I-10 onto I-19, the only-in-one-state interstate highway that connects Tucson to Nogales. I was driving so I didn’t take any photos, but you tell me if you notice anything unusual on these, which I grabbed from Wikipedia and the Arizona Department of Transportation:
Interstate 19’s 63 miles are the only ones among the nearly 47,000 in the system that use the metric system. It’s a relic of the abandoned 1970s push to do this throughout the United States, along with the proximity to Mexico, which does use metric. This is more troubling as a driver than you might think. You see a sign for your exit 750 meters ahead. In you head, you start trying to convert meters to feet (close to 1 to 3, right?), then divide that by the number of feet in a mile (5,000-something, I think…), and suddenly you realize you passed the exit ten seconds ago. This was all theoretical for me, of course; all I had to do was keep driving until the road dead-ended at the Mexican border.
About an hour after leaving Tucson, I pulled into the Nogales Border Plaza, a quiet little park surrounded by a variety of off-brand department stores selling cheap versions of everything under the sun. I counted about a half-dozen of these types of stores in a block or two of Morley Avenue, but an equal number seemed to have closed up shop in recent years. This is the case in every other small town in America too, as we’ve discovered.
Walking around, it already felt like I had accidentally crossed the border. Store signs were almost universally in Spanish rather than English (the notable exception being Nogales Tactical, a police-supply store), and even the general architecture felt more like Mexico than any other spot of Arizona I’ve seen.
This makes sense, as the city on the other side of the border is also Nogales. The US-Mexico border is arbitrary in a lot of ways, but it’s particularly notable here, where homes and businesses literally sit within feet of each other on opposite sides of an imposing fence. There’s even a heavily-fortified gate for trains to pass through. Contrary to what some might have you believe, it was a pretty peaceful and orderly situation – other than the border cats, who had no respect for international boundaries and slipped back and forth through the fence at will.
Overall, the American side felt mostly like an extended shopping mall for Mexicans crossing over to buy $7 khakis and American auto parts. I strolled around the almost unsettlingly quiet streets for a while and did some browsing, feeling exceedingly out of place. I intended to do a little more exploring along the border fence, but Nogales is oddly designed to funnel you out of the city, and before you know it, you’re back on the highway, 100 or so kilometers from Tucson.
My route back basically traced the path of Eusebio Kino and other early Spanish missionaries exploring Arizona from what was then New Spain. Their first stop (and mine) was at a Native settlement called Tumacácori, now known as Tumacácori National Historical Park.
The first Spanish mission was built here in 1691, though the current and most famous church dates to the early 19th century. It’s striking visually inside, not to mention mercifully cool. The church has seen better days in some spots, not the least of which because it was used by traveling miners and U.S. and Mexican troops as a temporary camp after it was abandoned.
The mission and the settlement that surrounded it were built a short distance from the Santa Cruz River, one of the few running bodies of water that we’ve encountered since leaving Texas. It’s beautiful, and looks almost impossibly tempting to cool off in on a hot spring day…until you read the signs. The Santa Cruz River flows from Arizona into Mexico and then back into Arizona, at which point most of its actual water has been used and replaced by, you guessed it, treated wastewater from Nogales. At least it was a nice picture, right?
This short little path is part of the much longer Anza National Historical Trail, a 1,200-mile international trek through Arizona, Sonora, and California. The route follows the path of the first settlers who arrived in what’s now San Francisco, and is extremely appealing to people who enjoy walking long distances, history, and the border (just in case you know any.)
I had one more stop on my metric-denominated way back to Tucson. I didn’t stay long, but even from the outside, San Xavier Del Bac – “The White Dove of the Desert” – is pretty breathtaking. In a landscape that’s almost entirely brown and tan, the incredibly vibrant white towers are visible miles away. I was never really an “old churches” kind of guy as a tourist activity, but this has certainly changed in the Spanish southwest.
The Spanish may have been here first. But I would argue that perhaps the most widely known event in Arizona history took place during its time as a U.S. territory in a little mining town in southeast Arizona. You may have heard of it, it’s called Tombstone.
The site of the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral was just over an hour away, so how could we not pay it a visit? In preparation, I watched the 1993 film, which is free to stream for Prime members, and coincidentally shot at Old Tucson studios near Saguaro National Park. Days later I remain unsure whether Val Kilmer’s performance and Kurt Russel’s mustache are the best or worst things I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory. In any case, Powers Boothe and Sam Elliot were delightful, as always.
Anyway, back to the real Tombstone. We arrived on a hot, dusty Saturday afternoon, which felt extremely appropriate for a visit to an Old West town. Stagecoaches rolled down the “dirt” streets (really pavement covered in gravel) and actors in period costume roamed the sidewalks. It brought back some very fond memories of Wild West City, an Old West-style amusement park near where I grew up in New Jersey. Explaining the concept to Morgan, and then where it was located made me suddenly feel like this may have been one of those underrated weird and out of place things of northwestern New Jersey (see The Land of Make Believe or Gyro Bob’s.)
We hustled over to the OK Corral to catch the day’s third scheduled gunfight show, which went off promptly at 1 o’clock. The acting was basically community theater-level, which was all you really need for ten minutes of cowboys hurling insults at each other, followed by 30 very jarring seconds of gunfighting. Personally, I still felt like Doc Holliday should have been drunker, but you really gotta hand it to the guy who has seemingly crafted his entire personal appearance and professional career around a vague resemblance to Sam Elliot. It was a very good time.
I’m going to take a brief detour here to explain why we even know or care about the events of the OK Corral, which surprised me when I read it at an exhibit at the Arizona History Museum (also a great spot to learn about Barry Goldwater’s ham radio career, apparently). The short version of it is that Wyatt Earp, the only Earp to survive significantly past the events in Tombstone, wasn’t a very good guy! He alternated between lawman, hustler, and small time crook for most of his life, and somehow wound up refereeing a high-profile boxing match in San Francisco in 1896, 15 years after the gunfight. When it became obvious that Earp had fixed the fight, this nationwide notoriety is what led a national audience to learn about his past in Tombstone. When Earp died in 1929, this fight is what he was best known for – NOT the OK Corral. Now, he’s the hero of tourist reenactments and gets played by Kurt Russell. Talk about a reputation rehabilitation!
During a tasting of some local wines, the store owner suggested we take a tour of the Good Enough Mine, the extremely productive silver mine that first brought settlers to the Tombstone area. Perhaps it was the flight of dry reds she was drinking, but I was surprised to hear Morgan’s enthusiasm for going underground. We got tickets and after donning our hard hats and listening to a safety lecture, headed on down.
I think it was right around the point we started descending the low-ceilinged stairs that Morgan began to think this was a mistake. Just moments earlier, she’d be musing about the possibility of how cool a three-hour tour would be. Ten minutes into our 45-minute tour, she was ready to get out. I’m making fun of Morgan a bit here, but I was also equally freaking out, although more quietly for once. I’m confident I can follow the rules – but I get nervous when our tour guide explicitly asks us not to touch the century-old wooden supports as one of maybe three rules, and then people go and do it immediately anyway.
The tour was interesting enough to almost fully put my fears of mine collapse out of my head, explaining the insanely dangerous life of a miner, from unpredictable explosives to potentially lead-poisoned coworkers swinging sledgehammers toward you in the dark. The pay was good though, about four times the average salary those days – and double that for the guy with the especially unpleasant job of pushing around the miner equivalent of a port-o-potty.
We survived the tour, despite some heart-stopping moments like when our guide turned the lights off to demonstrate what it looked like for actual miners. No thank you.
One of Morgan’s new acquisitions on this trip has been a brand new camera, to hopefully help step up our photo game from my garden-variety iPhone (which has served us well, I’ll grant it.) So we headed out to the other side of Saguaro National Park, this time on the east, to take some pictures one lovely Friday evening. We set out on the Tanque Verde Ridge trail about an hour before sunset, with the goal of exploring as far as we felt like and (hopefully) turning back before it got too dark.
There’s simply nothing like the desert at sunset. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking, and hopefully we can share Morgan’s camera photos sometime soon as well.
Under normal circumstances, the blog would have typically ended right here. But I had a little less time than usual to prepare the blog thanks to a very welcome interruption – a visit from my parents! It had been almost four months since I’d seen them, back at their rented condo in Fort Myers. I (and they) had fully expected to be in their new house by now, but construction delays have left them still waiting and itching to get away from southwest Florida for a while.
They arrived Tuesday morning, after an ungodly 3:15 am eastern time wakeup call (12:15 am our time, or roughly when I was going to bed) for their 5 am flight. Seeming surprisingly chipper, we grabbed some breakfast at the Baja Cafe and caught up over some absolutely delicious food.
I never particularly enjoyed showing people around in Washington, but it was a ton of fun getting to give my parents the grand tour of Tucson. Our first stop was a drive through Saguaro National Park, where we discovered a gorgeous viewpoint Morgan and I had missed on our earlier visit – along with a weird little abandoned stone hut that I scaled a hill to check out.
The next day was even more adventurous. We drove from Mexico to Canada – sort of. My parents and I hopped in the car and headed up the Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway into the heart of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Through the 27-mile drive, you climb from just over 2,000 feet above sea level near Tucson to more than 9,000 feet above sea level at the top. That’s a height that would even have you looking down on Santa Fe, a city that essentially exists in a wormhole in the clouds. Along the way, the environment changes from the scorching Sonoran desert, through grassland and forest to the equivalent of Banff, Canada – a journey of about 2,000 miles.
The views were pretty ridiculous by this point – and we were only halfway up! A few more minutes up the road, and the desert and grasslands were a distant memory. We were in a full on pine forest, complete with ski slopes. These didn’t have any snow on them, but somehow, a few scattered patches of snow remained near the summit. To be clear, it had been 96 degrees in Tucson the day before. But here at the top of Mount Lemmon, it was barely 60.
From the peak of Tucson’s highest mountain, we spent our next day underground. It’s relatively little-known, but just south of Tucson lies the sole remaining silo from the Cold War-era Titan II nuclear missile program. In the decades since it was decomissioned, it’s been converted into a museum showcasing the equal parts fascinating and terrifying program, sponsored by an actual Westphalian count (and former convict) who moved to the Tucson area.
It’s hard to imagine what it must’ve been like for Air Force members manning this silo, which was then even more in the middle of nowhere than it is now (which says something!) They worked 24-hour shifts, constantly on alert for messages from military commanders to send a warhead with the equivalent of 900 tons of TNT flying 6,000 miles around the world in 30 minutes – with just under a minute required from orders to launch.
The entire process was fascinating – mostly because of how incredibly complex it is, from the multiple layers of security just to enter the bunker (not to mention actually pulling open the several-foot-thick metal blast door) to the multi-step, two-person process that actually does involve “turning your keys,” like in the movies. Our tour guide walked us through the launch process, an unnerving process even knowing it was just a demonstration.
We also got to peek into the silo, the only one of its kind that wasn’t filled in as part of post-Cold War arms control agreements. Still, it was apparently a real enough concern for Russia that the silo cover needed to be permanently kept half-open in a way visible by satellite – just to make sure.
We capped the visit off with a barbecue in our backyard, which was great. It felt nice to host my parents for once, and nice to have one last night in the lovely Tucson weather before we all went our separate ways. And just like that, our three days of time together drew to a close. It’s always so nice to see them, but it’s even better seeing them having a good time, and being able to share a place I came to love so much with them. My parents headed north toward Sedona and Monument Valley (a little jealous, not going to lie), while Morgan got an early flight the next day back to the Sunshine State. For the first time in a long time, it was just me and the cat, California bound.
Both Morgan and I loved Tucson a lot – in my case, much more than I ever expected I would. The spring weather was perfect, even if I could feel the summer heat creeping up as our time wound down. It’s one of the best cities I’ve ever encountered in terms of ease in going from the heart of downtown to the middle of the wilderness. There’s great food, nice people, and street art to rival anywhere we’ve been. What started in my head as a stopover point between Santa Fe and California became one of my favorite trip stops so far.
But we keep moving, because that’s what we do these days, for better or worse. You’ll be seeing a lot more of just me over the next few weeks – though I’ll try to get some “guest content” from Morgan, our Florida correspondent. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying some sand that’s actually near water for a change, slightly different Mexican food, and $6/gallon gas.
Nick and Morgan