True West: True Tucson

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THERE’S NO BACKDROP THAT SAYS DESERT quite like 100 square miles of towering saguaro cacti

 By: Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones        

Park ranger Jeff Wallner has seen changes over the years in his workplace, Saguaro National Park on the outskirts of Tucson. “I call this the Arizona rainforest because this is a desert dominated by trees,” he says. But with rainfall and weather patterns shifting due to climate change, desperately needed moisture is scarcer than ever. “If this continues this desert may change from a tree dominated desert to a cacti dominated desert. As far as animals go, this is a kind of forest. This is home to javelina, coyotes, coati, mountain lion, Gila monsters and 20 types of snakes.”

Saguaro cacti – the multi-armed sentinel of the West – are only found in the Sonoran Desert, a region that stretches from northern Mexico into southern Arizona and parts of California. It’s just one of the unique features that make Tucson a singular destination.

In its history, Tucson has been at a crossroads; in addition to the one-off desert ecology it was a route travelled by Spanish conquistadors and American settlers, both seeking riches of different kinds, both leaving their own marks on the region. Much later along the arc of history, astronomers and scientists discovered that the dark, clear desert skies are a key that opens doors to the stars and planets.

AND NOWHERE DO THEY UNROLL THE STORY of the dry, but life-teeming, surroundings better than at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The fusion experience of this particular desert is splayed out along walking trails twisting through stands of cacti and clusters of mesquite and palo verde, in gardens filled with hummingbirds and the unexpected shock of desert blooms, and at indoor displays where kids cheekily press noses against the glass to get inches from a venomous rattler.

Encircled by the Santa Catalina and the Rincon Mountains, surrounded by desert and touched by several unforgiving months of summertime heat, one has to ask: What was the appeal for so many different groups? For the ancestral Puebolans, the Tohono O’odham, this land is sacred. Even today the Tohono O’odham Indians will never burn the wood of a saguaro; they believe the giant cacti hold the souls of their ancestors. The Spanish explorers were on the hunt for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. Settlers of the American West came in search of land for ranching and riches to be mined from the surrounding mountains.

“OUR ATMOSPHERE IS WHAT IS BETWEEN US AND A PERFECT PICTURE,” explains David, a guide at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the world’s largest collection of research telescopes perched atop a 2,097-metre peak. “And this is certainly a very unique place to have a public program.”

It’s a harrowing half-hour drive on a narrow roadway hugging rock walls to get to the observatory’s visitor center and nighttime star gazing program. But the drive is worth every white-knuckle moment.

“When they chose this site, they were looking for dark skies, a dry climate and elevation to get to a higher atmosphere. There is minimal white light here as it interferes with the data being taken by the astronomers,” he explains, handing out tiny red flashlights to be used as we move from one telescope to another. Over the course of the evening we watch the sunset’s green flash, darkening skies, Jupiter, Mars and several constellations through large telescopes as well as high quality binoculars. At the end of the evening we slowly inch down the mountain road – headlights off – in a convoy to keep the white light to zero levels.

THERE’S AN INTERESCTION OF CULTURES at the Mission San Xavier del Bac (“White Dove of the Desert”), a National Historic Landmark established in 1692 by Jesuit missionaries. The current church dates back to the late 1700s (making it the oldest intact European structure in Arizona) and is considered the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States. The interior is alive with original, wood-carved statuary and rustic, colourful murals. Built on lands belonging to the Tohono O’odham Indians, the mission is still very much a working church.

At the opposite end of the serenity spectrum, the hard clay ground of Tucson proves a perfect storage surface for retired aircraft at the country’s Pima Air & Space Museum. Walking the grounds and exploring the three hangars covers the entire history of flight from Kitty Hawk to supersonic across 80 acres of displays of American aviation technology. From propeller-driven to jet engine fighters, cargo, reconnaissance, transport and bombers – if American aviation made it, you’ll find it here. Just south of the city, the sobering Titan Missile Museum recalls the height of the Cold War, when the simple act of turning a key would have initiated potential annihilation. Today, it’s the only remaining, deactivated missile silo open to public tours.


RV travellers will find the Lazydays KOA to be spotlessly clean and well located. Great long-term rates for snowbirds.

We loved the Spinach and Queso Dip – artichoke, mushrooms, spinach, poblano and Mexican cheese – at the famous El Charro Café in the historic El Presidio District.

Who’s writing

Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).