All Souls Procession

dsc_3613.jpgIn the southwest, the dead are very much with us, as they reputedly are in southeastern cities like Savannah and New Orleans.  Influence from south of the border brings the dead close to us, particularly at this time of year, when the Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos, or The Day Of The Dead.

The dead are not scary here.  They are remembered as loved ones who have moved on, and even in their skeletal form they are looked upon fondly.  It can be a little startling to a northerner to see altars in shops and homes featuring little skeletons dressed in their best clothes, alongside incense and gifts and remembrances.  But to many people here, the dead are still family and their graves are places to visit.

Between October 31 and November 2, Mexican families in southern Arizona will go to their relatives’ gravesites and honor them.  They’ll sweep the site and decorate it with gifts and flowers.  They’ll repaint the name of the deceased on the cross, and perhaps spend the entire day visiting.  The dead are remembered well, and their final resting places are not neglected.

So it is not surprising that Tucson (along with some other western cities) has several cultural events around this time. The biggest is the All Souls Procession, a 20-year tradition that looks like a mashup of Mardi Gras and Halloween, with a touch of Burning Man thrown in.  At first impression it is a parade, with a route starting in Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue district and winding through downtown Tucson past the historic Congress Hotel and Rialto Theater, for a mile and half.

dsc_3582.jpgBut the All Souls Procession is more than a parade for many people.  Those who walk in the route run the gamut.  There are artistic displays, actors on stilts and unicycles, fantastic costumes, and even a “dead” array of marching bagpipers.  There are also individuals waving photos of dear friends now gone and shouting out a description of their good character, and people waving posters of their dearly-departed cats.  There are families pushing strollers, with even the children wearing skeletal face paint, and slackers slouching along with clove cigarettes in their street clothes.

Good wishes to the dead can be written on a form provided by the organizers, and burned in an altar at the end of the procession, but there is no formality at all to the proceedings.  Whatever sort of remembrance or mourning you wish to do is generally accepted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people.

dsc_3693.jpgWhen we arrived at the parade route along Congress Street we were reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but then the differences began to appear.  The streets are not littered with drunk celebrants. There’s no screams of “throw me something, Mister!” or people flashing their body parts for trinkets.  All Souls is a subdued celebration, and a family event.  Anyone can participate.  Dozens of people walked the parade route pushing baby strollers. There are signs of respect for the dead, and respectful protest (“Iraqi war dead,” “Death of the Pima County Library,” “Men, Women, and Children Killed By AIDS”).  And just when it starts to feel like a carnival, somebody walks by with a somber look carrying a photo of a friend mounted on posterboard, with a list of that person’s wonderful attributes.

In this culture, people die three deaths. The first death is when bodies cease to function, the second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground and disappears from sight, and the third death is when there is no one left alive to remember.

I think there’s something in that.  It is habitual for some to forget the dead and never speak of them again.  But when you forget someone, all the lessons and experiences that person brought to your life are just as easily forgotten.  El Día de los Muertos reminds everyone, especially the children, that the dead are more than markers in a graveyard; they are the people who made us who we are.  I can see why the Latin American culture respects them every year.

More photos here.

Copperstate Fly-In

Traveling via Airstream is great, but I also love being able to park at an event and spend the night.  At the end of a day at the fair, jam, balloon fest or rally it’s really nice to just retire to your home rather than getting in the car to drive away.  When you’re camped at the event, you’re usually away from the general parking crowd and close to the action, too.  That’s why we took the Airstream to the Copperstate Fly-In rather than just making a long daytrip out of it (80 miles from our home in Tucson).

The Copperstate Fly-In is not so large that access is a problem even for casual visitors, but still it was nice to be camped just a few feet from the flight line.  The RV camping area is just a dusty parking lot with white chalk lines to delineate sites — nothing fancy at all.  No hookups, just blue porta-potties and trash cans.  For $10 a night it was a decent value because of the proximity.  We could see the aircraft taking off without even leaving our site, and easily hear when some warbirds were starting up for some formation flying.


The only downside for us was the generators.  Quiet hours were posted for nighttime, but during the day several RV’ers left their generators running up to six hours.  We were unlucky enough to be parked near several of them, and the fumes were constant.  I’ve seen many cases where people did this in hot weather because they (or their pets) needed air conditioning.  Dealing with heavy generator use seems to be a regular factor when we attend these sorts of events.

Being October in the Sonoran desert, we could have gotten any kind of weather.  We were lucky enough to get near-perfect weather for a fly-in: highs in the low 80s, clear skies, and not much wind to kick up dust.  Visibility was typical for this area, about 20-30 miles.  Like most fly-ins, access to the airplanes and the owners was excellent, so we could walk up and talk to anyone about anything we saw on the field.

I spent a lot of time with the Cirrus guys and sat in the SR-22 G3 Turbo X (fantasizing), and also chatted with owners of powered paragliders, warbirds, biplanes, helicopters, and light sport aircraft.  There were also amphibious aircraft, homebuilts, and a gyrocopter.

By the way, Emma was very comfortable in the Cirrus’ back seat, and it looks pretty easy to fly.  Does anyone want to make a donation?  I just need another $600,000 to buy it.

If you want to see more pictures from Copperstate, check out my Flickr album.  I uploaded 156 photos there, enough to satisfy all the airplane buffs in my audience, I hope.

We spent three nights camped at Casa Grande Municipal Airport, so there was plenty of time for side trips to the area around Phoenix.  One stop we made was to the Queen Creek Olive Mill, to take the $5 tour.  It’s a relatively brief one, involving an informative talk about olives, olive oil, and the pressing process, and then a quick look at the room where the extra-virgin oil is pressed out.  The pressing machine itself is the least interesting thing.  It’s basically a large box from which oil and “pomace” (leftover olive bits after pressing) come out.  But the guide and informative signs all around are educational, and the gift shop/restaurant are well done. I recommend the gelato.

This trip is one of the very few times we’ve done an “out and back” short trip from our winter home base. The nature of these trips changes a lot of our assumptions about how we travel and what we do.  Most people do only these sorts of trips, but for us it is the exception, and we are still getting used to it.  Some aspects are really great, like the low fuel consumption.  In four days we used only 1/2 a tank of fuel including 140 miles of towing and about 150 additional miles not towing.  Other aspects are not so great, like the day we spent re-packing the Airstream.

If there were more multi-day events available in the area with RV parking, I think we’d do more … something for event organizers to consider.  I certainly intend to take my own advice.  Here’s a sneak preview.  Next year, Airstream Life magazine will be hosting a major event.  It should be great fun, with seminars, vendors, entertainment, a barbecue, and much more.  It will be open to all RV owners (Airstream and non-Airstream, new and vintage), but be warned, if you show up in an non-Airstream trailer we will convert you on the spot!  As to location, all I can say is that it will be east of the Mississippi.  I can’t reveal more at this time but there will be a formal announcement with all the details sometime in November.

The corollary to this is that the popular Vintage Trailer Jam will not be back in 2010.  The co-sponsors of the event have decided not to continue with it.  We all had fun but we’ve decided to let it go.  So if you’ve got time next summer, keep an eye open for the new event.

Home life didn’t last long …

We’ve been in the house for nearly a week.  Time to hit the road!

I’m serious.  We haven’t even unpacked the Airstream from our four month odyssey this summer, and we’ve already found a reason to take off again.  On Sunday I was doing what suburbanites do all over the USA: reading the Sunday paper.  (In my case, it was mostly for the novelty of it, since I haven’t read a Sunday paper in about a year.)  And there it was — an ad for the Copperstate Fly-In,the fourth-largest fly-in event in the USA.

cmp-rl.jpgTo appreciate how that hit me, you need to know that I was for several years a card-carrying member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aircraft Association. In those heady days B.K. (Before Kid) when we had disposable income from two well-paying jobs, we owned an airplane which we flew all over the east coast. My mother, father, and one older brother all have pilot’s licenses.

In the era B.K. my brother and I flew to major aviation events including EAA’s Oshkosh, the world’s biggest fly-in, and camped next to the airplane in a tent along with 13,000 other aircraft.  My brother and I also flew to the 2nd largest fly-in event, Sun-n-Fun, in central Florida, and camped there too.

The third largest fly-in is the Arlington Fly-In, held up in the northwest.  I haven’t made it to that one yet.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the fourth largest fly-in is held only about 80 miles from our home, right here in southern Arizona, this week!

It seems like the perfect diversion from sedentary suburban life.  The weather in southern Arizona is ideal right now, and it’s a shame to spend the time cooped up in the office.  I think Eleanor is not in a hurry to settle into housewife mode either.  All I had to do was mention the existence of Copperstate, and she was immediately on board.

Hey, what’s not to like?  Dry RV camping for ten bucks a night, right by the action.  Aerial demonstrations, rides, exhibits, and all kinds of aircraft.  We’ll see warbirds, ultralights, historic aircraft, plenty of home-built aircraft, helicopters, and who know what else.  When the action slows down, I can return to the Airstream to do some work, take a nap, have lunch — or we can drive a short distance to Tempe and Scottsdale for some retail action.  (We’ve got a few things on our list at REI, IKEA, and other places up there.)

One of the really great parts about camping at a fly-in is that you can always hear the sound of engines coming and going, all kinds of different engines.  Old rotaries radials on the antique fabric bi-planes, pistons on the modern single-engine craft, turbines on the big boys, little 2-strokes on the ultralights, and lots of variants.  Pilots love aircraft noise. It is part of the fun of being on the field.  I remember one damp morning, very early, at Oshkosh when we were overflown by a low-altitude diamond formation of WW II bombers.  I’ll never forget it.  The sound was so thunderous and menacing that we all were shaken from a sound sleep and rolled out of our tents thinking (in our half-awake state) that we were going to die.  It was great.

So I hope for a few exciting moments like that, this week.  Feeling the ground shake as 50-year-old warbirds fly over gives you a tiny taste of the fear of war.  In that moment when the bombers passed by, I suddenly knew the terror and helplessness that people must have felt in Europe when the machines of World War II visited them.  I think that’s an experience that would be good for anyone, to have perspective on what it means to go to war.

And during the rest of the time, I hope Copperstate causes us to meet some local aviation folks, and maybe a few RV’ers.  I’d like to explore the possibility of getting back into aviation in the next few years.  It would be fun to do a little flying again, perhaps in an ultralight like we used to do in Vermont.

So now we are re-packing the Airstream.  Since we took very little out of it, our re-packing efforts are more about removing things than loading up.  Eleanor has unloaded some heavy items like Emma’s schoolbooks and her sewing machine, and we’ve taken out the things that we were transporting from Vermont.  We’ve filled the fresh water tank and defrosted the refrigerator.  Tomorrow I’ll toss my office bag back in there and hitch up.  That should do it.

Still, I’m keeping a lot of stuff in the trailer that, strictly speaking, we don’t need for a three day trip.  I can justify this because it’s more trouble that it’s worth to remove those things, but the real reason is that I want to leave the option open to extend the trip.  What if we suddenly get the brainstorm to keep wandering, say, up to Roosevelt Lake for a few days?  It would be a drag if we couldn’t only because we left some piece of equipment behind.  So we are packed as if we are going out indefinitely.  I doubt we will stay out more than three days, but anything could happen …

Up and away, in a tent

When it gets hot in southern Arizona, there’s an easy escape.   All around are “sky islands,” which are mountains that pop up from the desert to reach cool air high up in the atmosphere.   Some, like the Santa Catalina range just to the north of Tucson, are easily summited by car, and there are campsites dotted all over the National Forest lands.

Most of the campgrounds are tight for our 30-foot Airstream, but we’ve been wanting to use our tenting gear anyway.   A couple of weeks ago we took the little Honda and scooted up the Mt Lemmon Highway to the General Hitchcock campground at 6000 feet elevation.   This little campground has only about a dozen sites, all tucked into a small canyon and shaded by towering Ponderosa pine trees.   It seems much farther from Tucson than it really is.   On a day when the air was scorching the desert sand in Tucson, the camping at General Hitchcock was just fine at about 15 degrees cooler.


From any campground in the Santa Catalinas, you can find a hiking trail.   From General Hitchcock the Green Mountain trail ascends 1.8 miles to a saddle near Guthrie Mountain, and along the way you can get a spectacular view all the way back to Tucson with the famous “Thimble” in between.   The climb is occasionally steep.   You have to go further than the saddle to get a summit view, but we were not hiking with the goal of bagging peak on that day. Our goal was just to get a hike in and then return to camp to set up for the evening.

Kids always seem to like tenting, and so do I.   There are always things to do: setting up the tent, unpacking the bedrolls, fetching water, cooking, and all the other little simple tasks that kids can help with.   In addition to the jobs, there are bugs and critters to discover, rocks to climb, and running around to be done.   Everything’s an adventure in a forest campground like this one.

Adults have to remember how novel the tenting experience is for a kid.   Sleeping outdoors!   In a tent!   With Mom & Dad right there, to talk to, and play checkers, and explain the strange night sounds.   Nothing to fear, all the comforts a kid really needs, and plenty of opportunity to learn from each other. Even after three years of life in our Airstream, tent camping is still fresh and exciting for all of us.   Personally, I like all the neat gear.   It just tickles me to fire up my little camp stove and boil some water for dinner.   Don’t know why, but it’s fun.

I left the rain fly off the tent so that we’d be able to see the stars.   The chance of rain was absolutely zero.   Because we were above the dust layer that often covers the low desert, we could see brilliant glowing of constellations all night through the trees.   Owls hunted up above, and we could occasionally hear them hooting at each other.   My ears got a little chilly when the overnight air cooled to about 50 degrees, but it was worth it for this night of fresh air and the rare experience of sleeping closer to the ground.   I know most Airstreamers say that they bought their trailers so that they wouldn’t need to sleep on the ground anymore, but once in a while I still crave the simplicity of the experience.


Descending the mountain road again the next day, we passed through an elevation at which the saguaros were at the peak of their springtime bloom.   I had forgotten that the saguaros were due to flower at this time of year. I suppose most people don’t know that they flower at all, seeing as how they are only found here in the lower Sonoran desert. Seeing the spring bloom is one of the little cues that tell us the seasons are changing.   It’s not all just hot and dry here … even from day to day the scenery can change, as our little overnight trip to the Santa Catalinas has reminded us.

Climbing Picacho Peak

It has been a long hot period in Tucson lately.   The heat has struck a bit early, meaning that we’ve had about 10 days straight of 100 degrees.   As summer sets in, certain outdoor activities become off-limits, and people begin to seek recreation either inside shopping malls or up in the mountain parks.

But I’ve had a certain hike on my mind for three years now, and I was determined to do it before we leave for the summer.   As one drives along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, a peculiar pointed mountain appears to the west.   It appears un-hikeable, by its steep sides and nearly jagged contours.   This is Picacho Peak, the site of a state park and a fine campground, which we’ve visited several times.

dsc_0002.jpgThere is a trail that leads all the way to the top, about 2.1 miles each way.   The climb is extremely steep, to the point that many times the only way to ascend is with the help of steel cable lines that have been bolted into the rock.   It is really more of a “climb” than a hike.

The steepness of the climb dictates that people with very short legs (a.k.a. Emma) can’t make the climb without assistance.   And people with any sense at all (a.k.a. Eleanor) quickly realize that a climb like this on a day that is destined to hit 100+ is moderately insane.   Fortunately, Brett had flown in from Denver for the weekend, so I had a like-minded (meaning “equally soft in the head”) companion.   So Brett and I left the house at 6:30 a.m., alone, in an attempt to reach the summit before the temperatures spiked as sharply as the peak itself.

dsc_9991.jpgWe completely failed in one respect.   The temperature was already well into the 80s at 7:45, when we reached the trailhead (50 miles from Tucson).   By the time we finished it was over 100 degrees.   More than half the trail is completely exposed, with no shade, and the heat of the sun bakes the steel cables to the point that they can burn your hands.   But along the way, the trail rewards you with spectacular views, which help distract you from the minor discomforts.   Of course it helped that we were prepared for the trail with leather gloves, broad sun hats, white shirts, SPF 55 sunscreen, hiking shoes, energy snacks, and lots of water.

Water is the big thing.   Brett brought 70 ounces of water in his backpack, and ran out about midway through the return descent.   I brought 100 ounces and ran out at the very end of the hike.   All of that water was evaporated through our skin — there were no bathroom stops during the 3.5 hour roundtrip. dsc_9974.jpg (Yes, in case I didn’t make the point with my previous post, the air is very dry here.)   Ill-prepared people would not be able to complete the hike in these conditions, at least not without suffering.   We groused about the steepest sections, but really, it was a fun adventure.

My advice to others would be to hike this peak between November and April, like a sensible person would.   It’s tough enough to make you realize you really did something, and yet manageable by most people with good fitness. Bring the Airstream and camp in the park to double your pleasure.   It’s worth the effort.   I can’t think of another small mountain climb quite like Picacho Peak.