When we passed thru Tucson last winter (January) we spent only a couple days. We had the distinct feeling that we were not there at the best time…it RAINED every day. Not the best circumstance to appreciate the desert! So this time we chose to spend almost a week, and had a full list of “must-do’s” from friends and online resources.
We have not been disappointed!
First impressions being what they are, we dined with snowbird friends Jack and Heidi Wells to help shape ours. They described a town sort of “Stuck” in maybe the 50’s or 60’s as far as commercial development and infrastructure is concerned. Intentionally, according to Jack. A resistance to change and modernization in the interest of keeping things as they were.
It’s a common phenomenon…the default answer to any urban “update” proposal seems to be “NO.” Sometimes followed by “What is it you want to do?” But always NO first!
In Tucson they seem not to have gotten past “NO!”
Fitting that one of the largest employers in the area is the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, originally opened by Charles Lindbergh; and where one can find one of the largest Aircraft “Boneyards” in the world – acres and acres of old military aircraft mothballed in the dry desert air. In addition to guarding unused and unusable relics, D-M is home of the A-10 Ground Attack planes, which are already mostly mothballed at D-M and which the Air Force wants to retire, leaving D-M with nothing extant to look after. Meaning the base will likely close. NOT GOOD for Tucson.
And some of that age and decay is readily apparent…not a particularly vibrant downtown area. A SLOW pace of life. A place where there is so little night life that bars have to have TWO happy hours to survive. One from 2-7 to catch all the snowbirds and senior citizens on a budget. And what they call “Reverse Happy hour” (which does NOT mean “sad hour”) from 9-10 to squeeze out that last bit of business before the bars close. Yes. I said close, @ 10 for the most part.
There is a VERY low cost of living in Tucson. VERY casual in all regards. An example: Heidi tells a story of picking up Jack at the airport one evening. A quick run, late, so in her pajamas and a car-coat. Not so abnormal yet – we may all have done this once in our lives! But wait! They stopped for a late snack at a local restaurant/institution, Heidi still in her pajamas! And feeling not particularly out of place! According to Jack, who is certainly one of, if not THE most dapper dresser we know, ANYTHING goes in Tucson. He has seen Cargo Shorts and Tank tops at funerals, and did not feel at all uncomfortable dining out with his pajama-clad wife!! [For the record, Heidi made me promise I would emphasize she was still wearing the car coat…and that the “pajama-all-day-look” is now all the rage with the millennials!]
BUT, it would be totally UNFAIR to solely describe Tucson as a cultural and commercial backwater!
Indeed, Tucson is a VERY BLUE DOT in the sea of Arizona-Red, politically speaking. This has a lot to do with the University of Arizona (more below), but even that isn’t the whole explanation.
We went to a Ballroom Dance on Friday with Jack and Heidi, and there were the usual couples like us, plus some gay, lesbian, trans and just plain weird attendees. There was a 70-something fella with a greying pony tail, and a Chinese fella (who turns out to be from Evanston, Il.) who was an exquisite dancer. Attire ranging from the aforementioned cargo shorts to a very sophisticatedly-clad young lady whose emerald-green lipstick exactly matched her slinky cocktail gown.
This folk-diversity may be related to the U of Arizona, but some of the local wildlife are just ex-but-still-hippies and people who live and fly their freak flags here having found an open-minded community.
The University of Arizona Campus is the oldest in Arizona and 40k+ students and supporting professors and academics on campus provide a VERY bright light of sophistication. Lots of theatre, lectures, sports, and the surrounding student-oriented bars and restaurants and vibe. U-Arizona is a premier institution in the fields of mining, and space exploration…and especially astronomical instruments. They built the Hubble Mirror (and, yes, the corrective optics to fix the incorrectly ground first mirror…something of a local embarrassment). They manufactured mirrors for the Webb Space Telescope (the Hubble Replacement) and for a HUGE new terrestrial telescope. Kitts Peak Obervatory is not far away, placed here because of the IDEAL weather conditions (dry, and little light pollution).
A new surface tram between the University Campus and Downtown has spurred more than a little development; including downtown apartments, coffee shops, bicycle stores etc.
Speaking of Bikes, Tucson is VERY Bike friendly. They just completed about 120 miles of dedicated (or nearly-so) routes and loops around town. Most roads have a pretty wide shoulder designated for bikes. And, of course, it rarely rains here, making for ideal biking conditions (if 140 degrees in the summer isn’t an impediment). One day we took our bikes out to the Pima Air and Space Museum (about 30 miles round trip). It was an easy ride on a separate paved trail along roads and through wild land next to dry rivers. We saw Road Runners and Coyote and lizards. We were told to watch out for Rattlesnakes; should I be disappointed that we didn’t see any?
Speaking of the Pima Air and Space Museum…what a FANTASIC PLACE. I guess I am a sucker for such museums. The one here benefits from the nearby aircraft boneyards, which are here because of the dry climate. The Pima Air museum has all sorts of artifacts and weird one-offs, in addition to a really good representation of front-line aircraft of all types. They even have the first flying prototype of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. MANY are indoors and immaculately restored, including a very complete selection of WWII examples. There are some weird NASA planes, including the bizzarro-Super-Guppy Transport. Some are outdoors (dozens, actually) and not particularily restored, but still fascinating.
And, something we have not seen in any other air museum…a few are actually hulks taken directly from the boneyard…and painted by local artists.
Hint: If you plan to visit Tucson and want to actually SEE the Air Force Boneyard (not just the planes that live at the museum but HUNDREDS more), you can book online for a tour with the Pima Museum. But, you MUST do this at least 10 days in advance. Apparently, the Air Force does full background checks on everyone prior to allowing anyone near their cast off garbage!? We were not out ahead of this, so it is on our list for “next time.”
Historically, Tucson is at the epicenter of a lot of the events that shaped the Southwest and indeed the USA. From the original Spanish Presidio, to the War with Mexico (the one in the 1800’s, not the current one), resulting in the Northern part of Mexico becoming Arizona/NM/California.
But NOT Tucson, which remained south of the border until negotiations with (i.e payments to!) Santa Anna moved the line south to its current location several years after the war.
The area around Tucson and south to this day still has interesting ambiguity with regard to our Southern Border. The Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal lands butt up to the border and extends into Mexico. The tribe has absolutely NO appetite for the Wall or the recently-announced National Guard presence to police that particular part of the transition between Mexico and the USA.
Jack and Heidi did not speak highly of the culinary atmosphere here, mainly referring to lack of sophistication and modern and international fare such as one might find in Chicago. But, I would say that the Mexican Dining options — especially featuring Sonoran-style cooking — are AWESOME. We had some of the best burritos ever – comparing very favorably to the place in Chicago we love so much. So I would simply say that one should not plan to eat French, Thai, Italian or even Modern American…but you could eat Mexican every night…and it would be CHEAP and GREAT!!!!
And, during our week here, we did spend some time exploring the various desert and cultural spots that make this area unique. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a spectacular place, presenting Sonoran plants and animals in a thoughtful and accessible way. The Sabino Canyon National Forest area is spectacular. We even took a city tour with a local History Professor, which really expanded the depth of our understanding of this sleepy, backwards place. The DeGrazia “Gallery in the Sun” presents the work of an Italian-immigrant Artist, a contemporary of Freda Calo whose work depicts and embodies the Tucson area, its cultures, residents and landscapes in his original studio and garden setting.
The artist DeGrazia is perhaps most famous for his protest against the IRS and US Tax Code Changes in 1976. Apparently (can I get validation from my accounting-friends?), the code was either changed or proposed to be changed to require valuation of art passed down to an artist’s family at Fair Market Value.
DeGrazia was SO ANGRY about this that he took several hundred of his works (valued at hundreds of thousands of 1976 dollars) into the Superstition Mountains and BURNED THEM to prevent the taxes that would otherwise have been due from his heirs. He could not imagine, much less be a party to the arbitrary taxation of what he viewed as nothing more than family artifacts (not his fault he was famous and they were valuable) in such a way as to benefit the government and penalize his family.
We even found our first WAFFLE HOUSE in over 6 months! This is a road-food breakfast favorite for us, though mostly in the South-eastern USA. It has been a LONG TIME, and Lo and Behold, there are THREE in Tucson!!! Though the hot sauce was distinctly Tucson!
And, finally, what would a blog post be without reference to bus-mechanical issues. Tucson turns out to have a highly regarded CB Radio shop (among truckers) – Comm-Tech. It figures that a town “stuck” in the 60’s would have a CB Radio shop! Who uses CB Radios these days..we all have our cellphones! Well, WE use the CB. And truckers, of course. It helps with weather and unexpected road conditions…and as an added benefit, one can learn new and VERY blue vocabulary from the truckers.
Anyway, I took our old Motorola Radio there…it has always received but does not transmit (we thought). Paul examined the radio and said it transmits just fine, but no modulation. I asked him if he could translate that into English. He said, “The microphone doesn’t work…dry rot!” He said “You can talk all you want, but no one can hear you.”
I said that is how it works in our house…I talk, Liz hears nothing. Or at least WANTS to hear nothing.
He said with a twinkle in his eye, “This is the perfect radio for her, then!”
After trying for a couple of days, he eventually said he could not fix the microphone. It is not standard, parts are not available, and even though he tried with a comglomeration of newer parts, he said he could get it to work but could not squeeze all the bastardized parts back into the case.
I asked him for his opinion on a couple of new radios I could buy. He said “JUNK. No one makes good radios anymore.” He had a used one which he had tuned up and could vouch for as being from an era that you could still maintain and fix it, and it was actually worth doing so. And, it was $40 less than the new “junk!” I bought it (with Liz’s blessing based on saving $40, even though she preferred the one where no one could hear me); it’s vintage-ess fits perfectly in our dashboard!
I would say that Liz and I came away from Tucson thoroughly impressed in many ways. Even the oppressively HOT summer months were described to us as EXCEPTIONAL because of the spectacular monsoonal thunderstorms that occur almost daily. Note to self: Worth seeing and experiencing, from the shade, with a cold margarita.
From here it is on to Austin, Texas, whose local Chamber of Commerce’s Motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” In between we plan a stop at Marfa, Tx. where more ex-hippie artists reputedly reside and which is famous for the “Marfa Lights.” These are either UFOs, seen with an impressive or even ominous regularity, OR atmospheric reflection of headlights on nearby I-10. Either way, given the ex-hippie factor, I am thinking there might be cannabinoids involved, but rest assured, we will report back on our analyses.