Tucson neon hunt

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Road honeymoon in Arizona

A commenter on the blog last week asked if I was Temporary Bachelor Man or Temporary Honeymoon Man.  Yes, I must admit that we are treating this little three-week summer visit as a series of romantic getaways.  Our goal has been to just have as much fun as possible, exploring places and things that we might have skipped with a child in tow.

We began preparations some months ago, collecting ideas for travel and searching out deals on hotels and restaurants so that we could take fullest possible advantage without spending ridiculous amounts of money.  Summer travel in southern Arizona and the desert portions of California, New Mexico, and Texas is a bargain if you take the time to look for the deals.  Our options would have been broader with access to one of the Airstreams, but we’ve managed to do pretty well nonetheless.  For example, Eleanor has completely mastered the intricacies of the Restaurants.com coupon system, to the point that we are eating out at posh restaurants three nights a week for cheap.

Tucson is great for restaurants.  Within a few miles of our house we can find virtually any cuisine, and we never have taken full advantage of that just because when we are home we tend to eat in.  This little “honeymoon” period is different, so now we are exploring restaurants with complete abandon.  Last week we tripped over a fairly unusual find, a real Cajun restaurant (run by folks from a family that settled in Louisiana in the 1600s).  Normally you can’t get good Cajun food outside of Louisiana — I don’t care what those fancy nouveau chefs in major cities think — but this place is the glorious exception.  I’ll be back there for a little jambalaya after Eleanor has left, I’m sure.

Our specialty this past week has been restaurants in the resort hotels.  A few days ago we tried Azul at the Westin La Paloma, which was fine, and this weekend we may go to Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass. These are mostly fun because we never go to the local resort hotels, and so we’ve got an excuse to dress up for dinner and check out the elite scene.  (We also went up to the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain but didn’t eat there since we were just dropping off our niece who was in town for a business trip.)

Before you get concerned about the idea of me dressing up, relax.  This is Tucson, so dressing up only means I wear slacks instead of shorts with cargo pockets, and I pick a silk Hawaiian shirt that has been ironed.  Nobody wears a jacket and tie when it’s over 100 degrees outside, even at night.  I have not worn a tie since sometime in the mid-1990s.  I’m waiting for the ones I bought in 1991 to come back into style …

This time of year the thunderstorms cool things down for a few hours after the rain, but it’s still nice to get away from the heat for an extended period.  Looking at my work schedule I realized I could escape on Thursday and Friday, so on Wednesday we booked a hotel up in Show Low AZ, up in the pine trees above the Mogollon Rim that divides northern and southern Arizona.  It’s about a five hour trip up to there from Tucson, and even longer if you stop and enjoy the fantastic scenery along the way.  The route, pictured above, brought us up and around the Santa Catalina mountain range through Oracle (past Biosphere 2), through lots of rolling desert, past the ASARCO copper mines at Winkelman, and then to the town of Globe — famous for turquoise mining (B on the map).

From there the road starts to get very interesting as it gradually gains altitude and loses it again, three or four times, finally descending through a series of hairpin turns down to the beautiful Salt River Canyon.

This route (between points B and C on the map) is passable with a travel trailer, but you need to be comfortable with long 6% grades (both up and down) and willing to take your time.  There are many overlooks suitable for parking an RV or travel trailer. On Thursday the road was lightly traveled, and we rarely had company at the overlooks.  We stopped at one for a big picnic lunch (our usual crazy leftover smorgasbord) and had the place to ourselves the entire time.

If a teenager holding a can of spray paint can climb it, why can’t I?

Eventually the road climbs for the last time and ends up at 6,300 feet in the town of Show Low.  We had started the day with temperatures of 100-105 but up here it was a beautifully cool 81 degrees with scattered thunderstorms.  We found our hotel and a local Italian eatery, then parked somewhere to watch the lightning bolts in the distance, as the sun set in dramatic clouds of orange and blue.

In the morning we cruised over the Fool Hollow State Park, one that we’ve heard is nice but had never seen ourselves.  The park staff gave us a 30-minute pass (they held a $7 refundable deposit), which gave us time to roll through the entire park.  It’s a fantastic spot, well worth a visit, and so now we are trying to figure a time to drop in this fall.  If you go, book early as it probably sells out far in advance for every weekend in the summer.

Having taken hours to get up here, it seemed like a shame to drop back down the Mogollon Rim into the heat any sooner than we had to, so instead we wandered west on Rt 260 toward Heber-Overgaard, staying above 6,000 feet the entire route.  We made a few stops here and there to explore, and eventually came to the point where Rt 260 begins to descend, at the edge of the Rim.  It’s tough to drive away from the beautiful air up high, so we stopped off and found a secluded place to park near the General George Crook trail, and took in the view for a while.

A tip for you photographers:  doing justice to the expansive views from the Mogollon Rim is difficult without a super-wide angle lens.  I started with my Nikkor 18-200 but couldn’t get the shots I wanted.  I pulled out the Tamron 10-24 and around 12mm I finally started getting a fair perspective. The shot above is at 10mm.

The photo above, of Saguaro Lake, is from the iPhone. Sometimes it does a decent job, especially when there’s a lot of light.  We drove a few hours down the twisting Beeline Highway to near point F on the map and checked out this little lake formed from the impounding of the Lower Salt River.  It’s in the Tonto National Forest, so a “Tonto Pass” is required to use any of the camping areas, overlooks, boat launches, beaches, etc.  (Your $80 annual “America The Beautiful Pass” and/or “Golden Age Pass” doesn’t cover this, despite what you probably thought when you bought it!)

But no pass is required to park at the Marina and take in the view from the upper deck of the restaurant, which is what we did while sipping a couple of cold ice teas.  At this point we were well back into the oven east of Phoenix, but with full shade and the outdoor misting system running at full tilt it was tolerable outside on the deck.

The photo above is another iPhone capture, entering Apache Junction and looking east toward the Superstition Mountains. Lost Dutchman State Park, another one of our list, is not far away.  (Don’t be concerned about the 45 MPH speed limit — in most places the speed limit is a more-appropriate 65 MPH.)

All together, we covered close to 500 miles in two days.  A roadtrip like this would be exhausting or at least boring on the Interstate, but despite lots of long lonely stretches, we rarely felt uninspired.  The back roads of Arizona are vast and dramatic, with variety, color, and life nearly everywhere, and well worth exploring.



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.