Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Around and About Tucson

Here are the results of our first few weeks’ travels around the Tucson area.
‘A’ Mountain or Sentinel Peak is just a few minutes out of town. The original name of this hill was derived from its function as a lookout point for the Spanish. In 1915, fans of the University of Arizona football team whitewashed a large "A" on its side to celebrate a victory, and the tradition has been kept up ever since. The permanent "A" is now red, white, and blue. The peak is a great place to get an overview of the town's layout as well as have a look at the surrounding desert and mountain ranges.

Sabino Canyon lies at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and the entrance is now basically integrated into the north eastern suburbs of Tucson. A sealed road runs six kilometers into the canyon, crossing 9 stone bridges over Sabino Creek. The creek begins 1800m above the desert floor, in the pine forest that shades the slopes of Mt. Lemmon. It winds its way 16km through the mountain canyons before reaching the desert, where much of it eventually sinks into the ground, adding to Tucson's supply of groundwater.
The only motorized vehicles allowed on the road through the canyon are the shuttles which run every half hour, picking up and dropping off passengers at the nine stops along the way. This gives visitors great, if fleeting, views of the creek, the riparian vegetation, Saguaro cactus on the canyon walls and towering rock formations. It is a lot easier than walking, either up or down, in the heat although there were plenty doing just that when we were there. There were even joggers. At 43°C!

Archaic nomads used the canyon area for thousands of years and hunted small game. The earliest visitors were probably of the Clovis culture 12,500 years ago, and later, as the climate changed, the Cochise culture became dominant about 8,000 years ago.
About 1500 years ago, farmers of the Hohokam culture occupied the canyon but they mysteriously disappeared and were replaced by the Pima and Tohono O'odham Indians, who still inhabit the Tucson area today.
European settlement opened up the area further and the canyon was the scene of many conflicts with the indigenous population. A few attempts were made to dam the creek (hence the road) but the various plans were soon abandoned.
Sabino Creek flows 9 to 12 months of the year, making it unique in the Tucson area. The canyon has good examples of riparian and desert flora. Riparian areas have cottonwoods, willow, walnut, sycamore and ash trees. Foothill plants include Mesquite, Palo Verde, Brittlebush, Saguaro and many other cacti.

Animal life is abundant but not always highly visible. Many birds and other mammals have colors that blend into the landscape while other animals are nocturnal and avoid the extreme heat of the day by foraging for food at night. Some animals that are often found in the canyon are the ground squirrels and White-tailed Deer, Mountain Lion, Bobcat, Coyote, Fox, Cactus Wren, Roadrunners, Canyon Tree Frog and Red-spotted Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes. In fact, due to the incursion of the suburbs, mountain lion ‘incidents’ are on the increase. The canyon has been closed on many occasions due to ‘stalking’ and sadly the offending animals have had to be shot.
The visitors’ centre has worthwhile exhibits on the geology, history and biology of the area.
The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is to the west of Tucson near the Saguaro National Park. It is a zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden wrapped up in one and covers about 10ha of Sonoran Desert. They exhibit more than 300 animal species including reptiles, mammals and birds as well as 1,200 kinds of naturally growing plants. There are almost 3km of hot dusty paths traversing the desert but there are shelters and iced water fountains (really!) along the routes. I was particular interested in the reptiles and other nasties and they didn’t disappoint with a large collection of rattlesnakes, other snakes, spiders and scorpions, all alive, but behind glass. There was also a nice collection of regional gems, minerals and fossils as well as a great collection of flowering desert plants.

Animals on display included mountain lions, black bears, deer, wolves, coyotes and javelinas. They well all housed under natural looking conditions and although I am not a fan of zoos this was one of the less cruel looking ones. There was also a walk in aviary, an exhibition of living butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. An underwater cave to watch fish, beavers and otters in their natural habitat was also well worth visiting. Anyone who says Australia is a dangerous place to live because of the wildlife should come here. I think we are way down the list!

But I guess the highlight is the natural desert with its huge number of plants. I spent a few hours wandering (and sitting in the shade) looking at and reading about these. I especially like the cacti especially the saguaro. Needless to say there were plenty of photos taken.
There are four desert regions in the USA and the museum had set aside part of their area to horticulturally replicate the other three. It is surprising how different the vegetation is and it would be quite easy to know what area you are in by identifying one or two plants. They had also laid down a cactus garden, which supposedly contained every cactus and grass growing in the four regions. All in all a fascinating 3 hours!
Old Tucson Studios are just down the road from the Desert Museum. They were originally built in 1939 for the movie ‘Arizona’ starring Jean Arthur. There was minimal usage until the 1940’s when ‘The Bells of St. Mary's’ starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman was made.
During the 1950's, such western classics as ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘The Lost City of Gold’ and ‘Cimarron’ (1959) with Glenn Ford were filmed.

John Wayne starred in four movies at Old Tucson Studios and each production added buildings to the town. ‘Rio Bravo’ added a saloon, bank building and doctor's office; from ‘McLintock!’ came the McLintock Hotel; ‘El Dorado’ left a facelift on Front Street; and from ‘Rio Lobo’ came a cantina, a granite lined creek, a jail and Phillip's ranch house.
Other movie productions during those early years include ‘Lilies of the Field’ starring Sidney Poitier, ‘Have Gun Will Travel’; ‘The Outrage’ and ‘Hombre’ with Paul Newman. TV episodes of ‘Bonanza’ and ‘High Chaparral’ were also made there.
In 1971-72 the studio hosted 15 film productions including ‘Dirty Dingus Magee’ with Frank Sinatra and ‘Joe Kidd’ starring Clint Eastwood. Paul Newman returned in ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’. Other films during this period include ‘Death Wish’ starring Charles Bronson and ‘The Frisco Kid’ starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, fresh from ‘Star Wars’.
From 1970 to 1980 Old Tucson Studios and its Mescal property hosted 77 film and television productions including, most notably ‘The Three Amigos’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Mark of Zorro ’.

The nineties brought ‘Tombstone’, ‘Lightning Jack’ (aaaaahhhhhh!!!!) and ‘The Quick and the Dead’.
All in all this is quite a CV
Unfortunately there was a devastating fire in 1995 and many historic film sets and relics including wardrobe were lost. But is was rebuilt and today the lot is more a theme park than a film set but it is still fun to do the “tour” with a Bill Collins clone who will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about every film made there. I will be watching for the bloopers from now on.
Much of the park was ‘shut down’ due to the season (the temperatures in the dusty streets were brutal). However there were a couple of corny saloon shows, a really good montage of classic western scenes (Westerns were really all the same but who cared) and a really realistic gunfight to finish the day. There was certainly enough going on to fill in three hours.
I decided to head home along Gates Pass Road which leads directly into Tucson rather than take the highway. This was a very spectacular narrow, windy road that snaked through some very beautiful Sonoran Desert countryside.
Kitt Peak is a sacred site on the Tohono O'odham Reservation about 90 minutes west of Tucson. The mountain rears just over 1500m out of the desert with a steep 19km climb to the top. The landscape changes as you climb with trees and thick bush taking over from the desert. The 360° view from the top across the desert and other mountain ranges is stunning. At the summit, sits the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the largest optical observatory in the world with 25 optical and 2 radio telescopes.

One of particular interest is the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. This structure includes a tower nearly 33m in height from which a shaft, parallel to the earth’s axis, slants 60m to the ground. The shaft continues deep into the mountain, forming an underground tunnel where the sun is viewed at the prime focus. It is used mainly for the study of sunspots.
We were told to get there around an hour before sunset when we were we given a nice ‘box’ dinner that we ate outside in the cool evening air (yes, at 2150m above sea level it was finally cool) and got to know some of the other 30 participants. Following that, we were given a brief talk about the observatory, astronomy, the universe and our evening’s program.
Then it was up to “sunset point” where we watched the most amazing sunset and predicted green flash. From there we were divided up into 3 groups and given powerful binoculars for an introductory ‘tour’ of the northern hemisphere heavens. They even predicted exactly when and where we would see a communications satellite traverse in a bright quick flash. Then it was up into the dome for a look through our computer controlled 0.4m optical telescope.

Our instructor was a professional astronomer, full of knowledge, enthusiasm and humor.
Among many things we looked at were Saturn with its rings and one of its moons, Titan, Mercury and Jupiter with the red spot clearly visible. Out of our solar system we saw, M104 (a spiral galaxy with 200 billion suns, 45 million light years away), M51 (a whirlpool galaxy at 38 million light years), M57 (the Ring Nebula, a remnant of a dead star about one light year across and 2,000 light years away) and finally Albireo consisting of two stars, one yellow, one blue that have formed a binary system 410 light years away.
At around 11pm we lined up our cars caravan style to be lead down part of the mountain by a guide, headlights off so as not interfere with the real scientific work that goes on there. This was a bit of a surreal experience seeing how pitch black the desert is but not at all as nerve racking as it sounds.
Kitt Peak is one of the great unsung tourist attractions of Tucson. Even if you don’t think you are interested in astronomy, you could not help being amazed at what you see and learn here. One thing that stood out was how insignificant us earthlings really are in the scheme of things.

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