Roadtrips in southern AZ

No Airstream doesn’t mean we can’t travel a little.  In the summer heat, the best escape southern Arizona offers comes from the wonderful Sky Islands scattered all around us.  The Santa Catalina, Huachuca, Boboquivari, and Sahuarita mountain ranges are all nearby, and whether by foot or by car you can reach the cool air in piney forests at the upper elevations.

The easiest place for us to reach is the Santa Catalinas, arrayed just north of us and forming the northern border of Tucson.  Hikers in Phoenix are jealous, because we Tucsonians can pop up into the mountains in about 30 or 40 minutes, whereas the nearest escape from the brutal Phoenix summer heat is at least 90 minutes away.  From our house, it’s a quick drive up the twisting Mt Lemmon Highway.  In 25 miles we’re up above 6,000 feet and in 35 miles we’re in the little village of Summerhaven high atop the Catalinas at about 8,000 feet.

That’s where we decided to hike last week, along the short (2.4 miles roundtrip) Marshall Gulch trail that starts just below Summerhaven in the Catalina National Forest.  The trail follows a perennial stream through the forest, with shady gorges, the sound of trickling water, and lots of dry clear air scented with pine.  Every time we hike such a trail I have a moment when I’m taken back to long-ago hikes in the northern New England mountains (Adirondacks of New York, White Mtns of New Hampshire, Green Mtns of Vermont).  Although the plants and animals are different, the little cues of summer are overwhelming.  This is something I love about being here: the ability to move from hot desert to cool northern forest just with a short drive up a Sky Island.

The photo below is one of those poorly-composed self portraits we sometimes take by balancing the camera on a rock.  We were at the peak of our climb and utterly alone, looking at the intersection of a few other trails and wondering if we should continue onward for a longer loop.  We have so few pictures of ourselves that even the fairly lame ones like this end up being keepers.  Eleanor and I have been hiking together for twenty years now, but I think we have less than two dozen photos of the two of us together on a trail.

Our original roadtrip idea was going to be pretty major: San Diego, Palm Springs, and maybe even San Jose, but with all the things we want to do here and the constraint of not having our trusty Airstreams on hand, we decided to stick closer to home and focus on what’s great about this area.  So this weekend we took a long round-robin drive out to Kitt Peak National Observatory (about 7,000 ft at the top) to see the incredible telescopes and take in the views from the top.

There was almost nobody there, which surprised me because it’s a great –and free– destination only 90 minutes drive from Tucson.  It was 106 degrees in Tucson on Sunday, but a lovely and breezy 88 degrees at the summit of Kitt Peak, with scattered clouds blowing by and monsoon showers visible off in the distance. In the photo you can see the aboveground portion of the McMann-Pierce Solar Telescope (the big white thing), and a rain shower off in the distance.

The drive out to Kitt Peak has changed a little since the last time I was out there.  Yet another Border Patrol checkpoint has been established, which you’ll go through on the eastbound side of Hwy 86.  Once fairly rare, Border Patrol checkpoints have become the norm on every road south of Tucson.  The procedure for passing through one is simple enough, usually just one question:  “Are you all US citizens?”  A simple “Yes,” and we’re always waved through.  But it really strikes me every time we pass through one, as a reminder that southern Arizona is just behind the front of a war.  Along the back roads you’ll see huge Wackenhut buses staged in strategic locations for detainee transport, and the white pickups of the Border Patrol are parked along the roads in many places, observing traffic or chasing down illegals.

I have to remind myself that the people who are staffing all these trucks, buses and checkpoints are there for our protection.  They aren’t interested in hassling Americans, they’re trying to plug a porous border.  It’s an impossible goal to achieve fully (and everyone here knows it) but without the massive quasi-military presence the drug-runners would own southern Arizona.  Still, the sheer numbers of people, vehicles, and dollars involved are absolutely incredible to see.  Anyone who thinks that we are not fighting a third war (a sort of “cool war” as opposed to hot or cold), or who thinks the border can readily be “secured” really should come down here and see for themselves.

And yet, there we were, spinning our wheels down a lonely two-lane road that has almost no services along it and poor cell phone coverage, without much care.  We do not travel armed, nor do we feel the need no matter wherever we go around here.  Southern Arizona is safe.  Living here is like living next to the DMZ in Korea, I suppose.  We are tourists to the edge of a war zone, a peculiar concept.  It’s like looking into the grizzly bear habitat from the safe side of a fence, or tapping the glass on the rattlesnake’s enclosure.  The Border Patrol guys are providing the glass.

We’ve been eating some interesting stuff lately, thanks to a few experimental meals out and a few really great meals at home, so Eleanor made a picnic out of our leftovers, which we ate at the summit of Kitt Peak.  For you foodies, we had thin-sliced marinated flank steak, French bread, hummus, fresh figs with goat cheese and a little fruit vinegar, grilled sweet peppers, green olives, and some sort of little Italian pastry that we picked up at Viro’s in the morning (the name of which I can’t remember).  Emma’s chai tea washed it all down.

After the drive back down the mountain, we felt like exploring a little more.  I had long wanted to take the drive down Sasabe Road (AZ-286) to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  This is a beautiful and underappreciated area of grassland and wetland.  There are dozens of free primitive camping sites scattered all over the refuge, and the birding is reported to be excellent.  I think we may plan a Caravel trip down there sometime to hike around and take in the wilderness.

After the Refuge, we took the rolling Arivaca-Sasabe Road east to the little town of Arivaca, another place I’d wanted to check out for a while.  It’s sort of an “end of the road” town, populated by ranchers and folks who seek out funky remote places.  There’s not much there but it makes a good destination for a driving day, and the scenery between Arivaca and I-19 is terrific.  There are a few small cafes and cantinas to visit for lunch or a drink before you head back home.  And of course, not long before we arrived at the Interstate in Amado, we encountered another Border Patrol checkpoint, where the agents expressed some surprise at seeing us. Apparently not a lot of people come through on Sunday just for the drive.

Amado, by the way, is slightly famous for this roadside curiosity: The Longhorn Grill.   We didn’t go in, but I have it on my list (along with the Cow Palace, just across the street) as places we should check out the next time we are coming down I-19.  There’s something about odd roadside stops that begins to attract you, when you travel by road a lot.  I think the mere fact of someone being an individual, bucking the norm of food chains and square boxes by building something unusual despite added expense and (no doubt) hordes of nay-sayers, appeals greatly.

Our travel this week will be a bit limited due to various appointments are have made, but we are making up for that by exploring restaurants all over town.  I’ve noted before that Tucson is one of the best cities I’ve ever encountered for eating out.  We have been here four years and barely scratched the surface of all the great & strange places to eat, so we are doing our best to try places while respecting a reasonable budget and the risk of expanding waistlines.  I’ll talk more about that in the next blog.


… and the funny part was …

I like to see businesses advertising that they are going to do a promotional trip with an Airstream.  Why wouldn’t I?  It means that I’ve got another article to commission for a future issue of Airstream Life.  That’s my bread and butter.


So I was pleasantly surprised to see in the pages of our local “community living” magazine that the Tucson restaurant called KingFisher is advertising some sort of “Road Trip 2011,” and in the ad appears a little Airstream being towed by a vintage pickup truck.

I wonder what that means?  I could not find details about this promotion on their website, but it sounds intriguing.  It would be great if the road trip actually included an Airstream.  All too often the graphic design folks snag a bit of clip-art featuring an Airstream when the planned promotion involves no trailer or all or (far worse) some sort of “white box” trailer instead.  I’ll try to find out.

kingfisher-tucson.jpgBut if they are towing an Airstream, they’ll need to carefully review their towing setup.  The trailer in the picture has a significant problem — can you spot what it is?  (Click on the image for a better view.)

Yes, it’s being towed backwards.   The first tip-off is that the entry door is on the wrong side of the trailer.  Look more closely and you can see that the little lip on the left end is actually the bumper, not the hitch.

Now that I think of it, perhaps it’s a better idea that they not take an Airstream …

Lessons learned at the County Fair

Being former Vermonters, we are inclined to believe in perennial traditions such as late winter harvesting of maple sap, April snowfall, and the fall county fair.  Where in more urbane settings the county fair might be considered a hokey and archaic gathering of yokels and hooligans, Vermonters know that the county fair is one of those places where you can count on meeting your friends and seeing their children proudly displaying the heifers they raised from calves.  Rather than being an opportunity to eat fried Twinkies and shop for hot tubs, the Vermont county fair is an occasion for adults to exchange sociable greetings between the display of New Holland tractors and the 4-H tent.

For kids, the attractions are more basic.  Sugary sweets (cotton candy, funnel cakes, flavored ice) and rides that spin your head off are the reason to go.  We adults pretend to tolerate this because we want our children to grow up to appreciate the finer aspects of the county fair later, but in reality we still wish to recapture the simple thrill of the midway and its colored lights, barkers, and rigged games as remember them from our own childhoods.  By holding the hand of an excited child tugging our way to the Tilt-A-Whirl, we can at least touch the memory briefly.

So once in a while, we take Emma to the county fair.  Here in Arizona, the season is upside down in an attempt to beat the heat, with the Pima County Fair happening in April rather than the traditional northern schedule of August or early September.  This disconcerts us a bit, because we associate the fair with the coming of pick-your-own apple season, and the quickening of chill in the evenings.  The ground should be damp from the last of the summer thunderstorms, and hearts should be bittersweet with the knowledge that the preponderance of summer is gone but a last thrill awaits.

Dusty air and a sense of intense sun are the hallmarks of an Arizona county fair; after all, the heat of summer is just around the corner. In a month we will hit 100 degrees for the first time and, as they say locally, the ice will melt in the Santa Cruz River.  (That is definitely a tongue-in-cheek statement, since the Santa Cruz bears no surface water for much of its length and ice is only found in drinks around here.)  So here the County Fair represents the impending turn of seasons, as snowbirds flee and Arizonans call for their annual air conditioning checkups.


County fairs come in all sizes and persuasions, from the tiny Stalwart County Fair (Michigan) that features agricultural exhibits and not much else, to the extra-large events in major urban areas that are primarily a mix of rock concert venue and carnival.  A nearly-universal attraction of modern fairs, however, are the rides: slides, coasters/flumes, spinners, and drops are the basic tools of the amusement park ride developer, and once in a while you can mix up a few elements to come up with something like the “Disk-O” (above).  There is little that can be called new, but then love is nothing new and yet people still practice it.

In the section of the park that is oriented to big kids and childish adults, the rides are almost always the same as I remember from my childhood but with louder music and stranger airbrushed graphics.  The spinning “Himalayan” that Emma loves is called the “Rave” here, and it features a giant King Neptune as disk jockey wearing sunglasses and an audio headset.  On a nearby ride I see airbrush art of clowns bearing machine guns. Nothing makes sense but it all somehow fits in an absurd, Alice-In-Wonderland sort of way.

pima-cty-fair-2.jpgThe aluminum handrails of the “Moscow Circus” are sticky with thousands of hands that have recently been handling greasy corn dogs, gooey nachos slathered in cheese, pizza slices, turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Snickers bars.  I think about handwashing or applying Purell, Emma thinks, “Let’s go again!” — and the adult part of me fades away, the child wins out, and we go again, and then find another ride until the sun has long been behind us and the lights of the fair have come on to create a new world that bears exploring yet again. You can’t compete with that sort of magic, and pretending it isn’t there is a very “adult” thing to do, which in kid-speak means stupid.  Just let it wash over you, because escapism is something most of us don’t practice often enough.

I think the best aspect of the county fair is its transience.  It happens only a few days each year, and then it slinks away on trucks to find a home elsewhere.  You have to participate when it is ready, like eating a chocolate chip cookie hot out of the oven.  Wait a little while and the little chips aren’t melted anymore.  Wait a few days, and they’re gone.  This small window of opportunity forces you to rise up out whatever doldrum you may be feeling and taste the experience at its very peak, which is a good lesson for all of us.  Life doesn’t wait, any more than the county fair does.

Hike to Picacho Peak

The first and only time I hiked Picacho Peak, that impossibly towering mountain alongside I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, I did it with Brett on a 100-degree day.  That was perhaps not the best choice for a steep rocky climb that offers very little shade.  This time, I vowed to do it in the ideal season, which is about now, when we are getting lots of days in the low 70s.

picacho-peak-1st-half.jpgAlex and Charon have been visiting Tucson for about a month in their 1960s Airstream Safari, and they wanted to take on the challenge of Picacho, so I said, “Let’s do it now, before it gets much warmer.”  I had wanted to get Eleanor and Emma up there too, since they’ve never hiked all the way to the peak, and Emma is now tall enough that she can make it up the tough spots.  We had hiked to the halfway point back shortly after Emma’s seventh birthday, which is hard enough, but now it was time to go for the gusto and bag that peak.  (The full hike is not recommended for kids under age 10, for good reasons.)

The Hunter Trail is 2.1 miles.  The first half is an ascent composed of many switchbacks up the steep eroded slope of the mountain’s south side.  It is in some ways the hardest park of the hike only because the slog up is fairly dull, and this presents a psychological challenge to some.  But if you get discouraged, you need only pause and look back down at the increasingly vast view of the desert floor for a little encouragement.  You’ll see the dual ribbons of Interstate 10, the parallel Southern Pacific railway, and a wriggling stretch of the Central Arizona Project canal that feeds water to Tucson.  Most people will need to pause frequently, just to catch their breath, so the excuse of “taking in the view” is pretty useful.

picacho-peak-steep1.jpgThe mid-point of the hike is a spot called “the saddle.”  From this point, you face another psychological challenge: after all that climbing, you must now begin to descend the north side along an extremely steep and rocky “trail.”  It is so steep that a cable line is provided, and you quickly give up a couple hundred feet of hard-won altitude as you proceed.  Just a look at this descent is enough to scare people into deciding that they’ve done enough for the day, and to begin heading back to the car.

The second half of the trail has nothing in common with the first half.  It’s mostly solid rock, jagged and rough, with many ridiculously steep sections that are closer to rock climbing than hiking.  Cable lines are everywhere, and for good reason.  Those prone to vertigo or fear of heights should stay home. But spectacular views and the exhilaration of overcoming the tough spots are the rewards for those who persevere.

picacho-peak-steep2.jpgThere were a few points at which I wondered if our entire group was going to make it.  Of all of us, I think Emma did the best.  She showed no fear at any of the tricky stuff, never ran low on energy, and managed even the most technical bits with little help.  Eleanor had to deal with asthma on the way up, and Alex was having some pain in his knees.  But we all made it:  We reached the summit in about two hours without loss of life or even minor maiming.

picacho-peak-eleanor-top.jpgCharon seemed the most psychologically stressed by the hike, yet she was the one who suggested we make this an annual ritual.  That’s the kind of person she is.  Faced with something that pushed her personal boundaries, she decided not only to finish it, but also commit to going back for more.  Admirable.  I understand how she feels about it.  Climbing Picacho next year will be kind of a reminder to all of us to keep challenging ourselves.

The summit of so many mountains is nothing special, usually just a view and a chance to eat a few snacks while cooling off, but it’s a great feeling to bag a peak that you’ve worked hard on.  Even little Picacho, at about 3,300 ft, is a great achievement if you weren’t sure you could make it.  I think that it doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, or how easily other people have reached it.  Getting there is your achievement, forever.  Well worth a Saturday and a little sweat.


Car and trailer shows

Although much of the rest of the country is frozen solid right now, it’s car show season in southern Arizona.   Every couple of weeks there’s a small car show somewhere around Tucson, and about once a month there will be a fairly major one nearby.  California has the reputation as being the state most crazy for collector cars, but here in southern Arizona we’re not far behind.  We’ve got a lot of old retired guys with classic rides, and they love to show them off.

This weekend the big show was the Santa Cruz Valley Car Nuts’ annual show at Tubac Golf Resort, which is about 50 miles south of Tucson.  I decided to enter the old Mercedes 300D because it was a way for me to get into the middle of the show with a picnic lunch and watch all the action. I didn’t think many people would give a hoot about a slow and squarish 1984 Mercedes, since at these shows most of the attention seems to go to hot rods, American muscle cars, and exotics.

tubac-car-nuts-300d-reflection.jpgAnd I was right.  The car was mostly ignored, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my folding chair and read a book while occasionally glancing at the parade of people going by.  Once in a while someone would point and smile at the car and I could hear them relating a tale of the “one we used to have just like that.”  A lot of people used to have Mercedes cars like mine, which is not surprising since 2.7 million of them were made worldwide.

A few people took note of the car, but I wonder if any of them noticed that mine was the only Mercedes on the line bearing a “250,000 km” badge on the grill.  That’s an honorary badge awarded by Mercedes Benz USA for very high-mileage cars.  My next badge comes at 500,000 km (310,000 miles) and I hope to get that one someday too.

I was flattered when a guy came by and asked if I wanted to sell the car, because he wanted a nice example of an old Mercedes to drive around in Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had a house.  I declined. I wasn’t looking to sell, just to have fun.

tubac-car-nuts-show1.jpg It is fun, just to be a small part of the spectacle.  There were over 500 cars on display, ranging from a Nash Metropolitan to an Aston Martin Vanquish.  You name it, it was there.  Most of the cars were in excellent condition, but I was pleased to see that even people with interesting cars in poor condition came out to show the world what they had.  It wasn’t just a show of garage queens.  Some were obviously daily drivers.

Eleanor had made me a huge picnic basket with lunch, suitable for about five people. I had grilled chicken skewers, Israeli couscous, a sort of marinated tomato/zucchini/onion salad in a homemade dressing that I can’t even begin to describe adequately, a delicious homemade chutney, and Emma’s “rainy day” brownies with chopped nuts on top.

Since I had the opportunity for elegance, she also packed me a big blue tablecloth and cloth napkins.   When lunchtime came around, I spread my tablecloth and hauled out the wicker basket, and invited my friend Charlie and his friend Flash to join me on the grass.  More than a few people spotted our little picnic on the golf course next to the Mercedes cars and said, “Now, that’s the way to do it!”


Ken and Petey showed up with their 1955 GMC pickup and a 1947 teardrop called a “Tourette.”  Most teardrop trailers were made of wood, but this one was made of aluminum.  It’s remarkably intact and in good condition.  I believe it was the only travel trailer at the show, and it got a lot of attention.  Teardrop trailers were mostly made from kits, and there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of teardrop kit manufacturers over the past decades, so if you’ve never heard of a Tourette, join the club.

With spectacular weather (about 70 degrees and all sun), a fine golf course setting, hundreds of interesting cars, many more interesting people, and a fine picnic lunch, the day passed very quickly.  I was surprised to realize it was 3 p.m. — I had been there for five hours.  It was rather a shame to pack up and head out, but at least I had the compensation of a leisurely drive of 50 miles to get back home in a fine old German sedan on a beautiful day in beautiful southern Arizona.

I am really getting into this show thing.   That’s part of the reason why I’ve been working for the past few months to curate another show, the Modernism Week “Vintage Trailer Show” sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.  We are expecting 19 very interesting vintage trailers at that event:

1935 Bowlus Road Chief

1960 Airstream Caravel

1959 Airstream Globetrotter

1962 Airstream Flying Cloud

1962 Airstream Globe Trotter

1961 Airstream Bambi

1960 Holiday House

1950 Airfloat Landyacht

1973 Airstream Safari

1969 Airstream Tradewind

1957 Catolac DeVille

1948 Spartan Manor

1958 Airstream Caravanner

1936 Airstream Clipper

1948 Westcraft

1960 International Harvester Housecar

1965 Airstream Caravel

1955 Spartan Manor

1948 La Cosse Vacationer

If you are coming out to Palm Springs for Modernism Week this February, tickets for the Vintage Trailer Show can be purchased on-site at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa, Saturday and Sunday Feb 26-27. It should be quite a spectacle, with some very rare trailers open for tours, an Airstream “bar,” presentation of the new Airstream Life “Wally” award, vendors selling cool stuff, and a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll see you poolside at the Riviera?