Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Weekend in Las Vegas

On our last weekend in Arizona we headed for Las Vegas. I managed to get a good package deal with USAir, which meant a two hour early morning drive to Phoenix to pick up our flight. We checked into our LV hotel, Harrahs, via their airport facility, got the shuttle into town and went straight to our room. Then we headed out in the 44 degree heat to explore.
The Venetian Hotel has a wonderfully kitsch shopping mall modeled on the Grand Canal in Venice. We wandered the “streets”, watched the gondolas ply their trade and had lunch at a nice restaurant, “el fresco” in “St. Marks Square” all the time entertained by wandering minstrels, jugglers and operatic singers. You just have to suspend reality for a while and go with the flow.
Then it was across the road to The Mirage to pick up our tickets for “Love” and do some gambling. The entry to this hotel is through a huge tropical jungle complete with streams and water falls. Closer inspection reveals that every tree, plant and flower is not real, just plastic and cement. Maybe that is why they call it the Mirage. We had a really good run on the machines. We won $200 which would pay for dinner.
We had cravings for an Asian meal but you have to be careful in the USA as Americanized Asian food can be a disappointment. We decided to try the unfortunately named Tsunami Asian Grill which turned out to be excellent. Spicy sate chicken as a starter and seared tuna salad with soy and sesame oil and seaweed wrapped sambal rice (with a huge kick) filled the bill exactly. All this washed down with a bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio.
What can I say about “Love”? It’s a musical tribute to the Beatles performed by Cirque du Soleil. Presented in the round with digitally remastered music coming in surround sound from 6000 speakers including in your seat, huge screens with high definition projected images, and the most mind bending acrobatics, trapeze, free dance, amazing props and seamless changes in mood you become completely immersed in the experience. It’s impossible to keep track of everything that is going on. It sucks you in and then spits you out. With the permission of the remaining Beatles, George Martin has remixed a number of songs. Are they better? Maybe they lack the rawness and spontaneity of the original but it does them no harm.
If you grew up with the Beatles you can see a subtle history of their lives interwoven into the performance and it’s a little poignant to hear John Lennon and George Harrison talking and fooling about during their recording sessions, the former with his sarcastic wit and the latter with his quiet reason and ongoing attempts to keep the peace.
I doubt whether it will ever come to Australia because of the huge mechanical infrastructure and the necessity to put lots of bums on seats to pay for it all. But if you ever see a special deal air deal to Las Vegas, take it and go see “Love”
Next day we did a bit more gambling, a bit more eating and a lot of people watching. This is the place to do that.
We were delayed on the flight back because it was so hot at Las Vegas Airport, the air compressors used to help start the jet engines could not build up enough pressure. We had to wait for auxiliary units to be brought in.
During this flight it was announced that “it is illegal to congregate around the flight deck door. For the information of passengers the flight deck is at the front of the aircraft”
This gets the “bleeding obvious” award for the entire trip.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Mission Trail, Tucson

We debated whether to go into Mexico through Nogales or not. Apparently the border crossing can be a bit of a hassle. The only thing you go into a Mexican border town for is cheap grog and medicines as well as local food. We didn’t think we could eat better mex than in Tucson so gave Nogales a miss. As it was on our way out of Tubac on Interstate 19 (a major route from Mexico), we were stopped at a border patrol checkpoint. The car in front had Mexican number plates and the four occupants were given a good old going over. The same officer merely looked at us and waved us through. A blatant example of ethnic profiling?
As the USA is the last world bastion of the imperial measurement system (in some cases their own eg. volume), I was surprised to see that that the I19 was signed (distances/exits etc) in kilometers. American cartographers however couldn’t seem to get their heads around this as a note on my map read “mileposts are in kilometers”. But it must be only a matter of time until they catch up. Road speed signs in some states have both and most grocery items have weight and volume in both.
The Spanish from New Spain (Mexico) came into what is now the USA as conquerors, colonizers or converters or a combination of all three. They were soon joined by the English, French, Portuguese and others as well as eventually Americans themselves to explore, map, exploit and subdue the North American continent. To quote Golay and Bowman “The Exploration of North America” (2003), the stories of these explorers contain elements of heroism, willpower and fortitude in the face of extreme hardship and physical endurance almost unconceivable in today’s world. They contain too elements of lust, greed, meanness, betrayal, rapacious exploitation, armor plated arrogance and unimaginable, sometimes genocidal, cruelty. South West USA has more than its fair share of fascinating stories of exploration including those of de Vaca, de Niza, Coranado and Kino et al.

In 1691 Jesuit missionary, Eusebio Kino founded the Tumacacori mission along with others, Calabazas and Guevavi, on the banks of the Santa Cruz River to convert the Pima Indians to Christianity. The area had an often turbulent history with an Pima Indian revolt, the banning of Jesuits and their replacement by Franciscans, Indian attacks (mainly Apache), Mexican Independence and the Mexican Wars.
At Tumacacori, the original Jesuit mission church was being replaced when the area, under constant Apache attack, was finally abandoned in 1848. The church was never finished.

Tumacacori National Historic Park has the remains of this mission church, San Jose’ de Tumacacori, an associated cemetery, mortuary chapel and portions of the convento area. There are also the remains of Calabazas and Guevavi but these are not generally available to the public.
We had this place to ourselves and spent a couple of pleasant hours investigating the church, its mortuary, graveyard, storage and living areas. It is a great place for pictures with the clear desert light, high blue sky and shining yellow adobe.
It was here that we saw our first roadrunner. No wiley coyote or acme dynamite in sight!

Tubac is the site of an old fort (presidio) built after the Pima Indians revolted at Tumacacori in 1751, killing more than 100 settlers. Nothing much of this building remains except for some foundations. It was from Tubac that de Anza set out on a number of overland expeditions to California eventually determining the site for the future San Francisco. The town is now an artists’ centre with about eighty specialty shops and restaurants.

Many of these establishments have very classy furniture, jewellery, pottery and artworks. I really liked the $US5000 (gulp!) mesquite timber table for eight but unfortunately it would not have fitted in the overhead locker of the aircraft. The eight chairs were of course extra.
After a cup of cappuccino we headed north with a small detour through to look at the Longhorn Grill (a favorite John Wayne haunt) with its unique entryway.

Next stop was San Xavier de Bac an active Franciscan Mission on the Tohono O’odham Reservation just outside Tucson. This church was completed in 1797 on the same site as a Kino mission and is considered to be the finest example of Spanish mission architecture in the USA.
Unfortunately half the exterior was covered in scaffolding due to an ongoing restoration project so it was difficult to appreciate the symmetry of the building so check out the web site to get a better picture than I could get.

Inside where much restoration had been completed was another matter.
When you enter the massive, carved mesquite wood doors of San Xavier you are struck by the coolness of the interior, and the dazzling colors of the paintings carvings, frescoes and statues. The interior is richly decorated with ornaments showing a mixture of New Spain and Native American artistic motifs. The floor plan of the church resembles the classic Latin cross. The main aisle is separated from the sanctuary by the transept with chapels at either end. The dome above the transept is 16m high supported by arches and squinches.

At least three different artists painted the artwork inside the church. No record of the architect, builders, craftsmen and artisans responsible for creating and decorating it are known. Most of the labor was almost certainly provided by the local Indians and many believe they provided most or all of the artisans as well.

Friday, July 07, 2006

More Tucson

Some more observations on life in Tucson so far.
First off the drivers. Most drive with a mobile phone stuck in their ear so concentration levels are minimal. Speed limits seem to mean nothing, double yellow lines mean cross and pass, stop signs mean only slow down and indicators are auto decoration only. You really have to be careful at major intersections with red light runners. Tucson is number three in the USA for this type of auto death. Phoenix, also in Arizona is number one and Oklahoma City is number two. There are plenty of cops on the road but they never seem to be at the right place at the right time.
The Mexican restaurants are great with cheap, plentiful food and a huge choice. Even this form of fast food is worth trying.
Wine is sold in supermarkets and specialty shops. There is plenty from all over the world to choose from. Australia is well represented but I will avoid “Little Boomey” Shiraz and Chardonnay with its Yellowtail clone label. Chardonnay dominates the white shelves but there are more Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blancs than last year. Semillon hardly gets a look in. The reds are more evenly distributed over the regular varieties.
The Urban/Kidman wedding got huge coverage here. Now Nicole is an urban mithuth. One amusing news coverage thoughtfully provided English sub titles whenever Australians were speaking. There was even an hour’s program on the Rockhampton girl who disappeared and then reappeared during her murder trial. No sub titles with this one.
I am into baseball again supporting my adopted team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. They are hopeless! I must be a jinx. When we were in Minneapolis I supported the Twins who hardly won a game while I was there. The look on the Diamondback’s coach as his team lurches from disaster to disaster is something to behold. Think the Rabbito’s coach.
I watched the Australia v Italy World Cup match in Spanish. It seemed to me that the Mexican commentator was more upset about the outlandish penalty at the death than any Aussie could be even though the referee was Spanish. I wish I knew what he was saying but I think the ref’s ears must have been burning.

For insurance reasons, we have had to swap over rental cars every two weeks. This gives us an opportunity to ‘test drive’ a few. So far we have had a Chrysler Sebring, the same model convertible (too hot to have the hood down) and now a Chrysler PT Cruiser which is very retro but very cute. The first two had interior boot releases and all doors automatically lock at a certain speed. A sign of the times, I guess. You have to pay before filling at most petrol stations unless you use a credit card at the pump when you get hit with a surcharge. I hear this is just coming in at home and is a bone of contention. Petrol is around $A0.95L. Cheap huh?
Just thought you would like to know that the minimum federal wage in the USA is $US5.15 (A$6.90) an hour and hasn’t been increased for 8 years! State minimum wages vary but not by much more than an additional $US2/hr. With the majority of hospitality staff on these levels, it takes the pain out of tipping, just a little.
Went to the ‘Outback’ restaurant the other night. One of the items on the embarrassingly kitsch Australian menu was Prime Minister’s Ribs. If only that were true!
Despite the Australiana, the food here is really good!
The ‘monsoon’ officially arrived on 28th June. This is heralded by three consecutive daily average dew points above 54°F. Humidity is certainly up, around 30%, and we are subjected to severe afternoon thunderstorms. Rain comes in isolated heavy short downpours and is accompanied by spectacular lightning (4000 strikes were recorded in the city one afternoon) and very loud thunder.
And now for more sights.
Mount Lemmon is in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The small town of Summerhaven sits near the top at 2500m, an hour’s drive from the city. In summer the mountain is a major camping and hiking area as well as a place to go to escape the summer heat. It can be 20C cooler up there. In winter the area is a ski resort.

The drive up is very spectacular climbing quickly through a variety of environments from desert to cool temperate forest to thick pine forest. They say that the short drive to the top is equivalent to the change in scenery driving from the Mexican to the Canadian borders.
There are many places to stop along the way to enjoy the view over Tucson far below. Unfortunately bad bushfires in northern Arizona had cast a pall of smoke over the whole area and this spoiled the view a little.
The top half of the mountain had been devastated by bushfires in 2003. Summerhaven was all but destroyed. Reconstruction is still continuing and the whole town is a building site. We stopped at a building that had been spared, The Summerhaven Café, for a coffee and a piece of one of their famous fruit pies. Neither was great and the service was appalling, so much so that we did not leave a tip. A first for us!
Pine trees don’t regenerate after fire like the Australian bush so parts of the normally lush forest were quite bare. There is a huge replanting project going on. This is bear and mountain lion country too and there were plenty of warning signs along the road. The ‘nutters’ that ride their bikes up this steep incline and then madly coast back down could be considered the animal version of meals on wheels.
Tombstone lies about 90 minutes south east of Tucson in some pretty desolate country. Even the cactus and the Palo Verde don’t grow here. This is Apache country too. Cochise’s stronghold is only a few kilometers away in the Dragoon Mountains. We didn’t know what to expect here, a genuine historical western town or Disneyland. It turned out to be a bit of both.

The town was established in 1879 after silver was discovered nearby. It was soon a boomtown with a pretty wild history and became famous for the gunfight at OK Corral between the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clanton and McLaurey brothers.
Allen Street has been closed off to traffic and has been returned to its original dirt state. Many famous old buildings stand there including the Bird Cage Theatre, Big Nose Kates and the Crystal Palace Saloon.
A lot of buildings cater to the tourist trade with souvenirs or questionable reenactments of historical events. Sadly the OK Corral has been “cordoned off” and you have to pay to get in to see a “shootout” show. But this does not detract from the atmosphere of the town which, if you have enough imagination, still belongs to the Wild West.

The city hall is a quaint Victorian Western Territory style building that still houses the Marshall, albeit now driving a V8 Ford. The courthouse is very grand and the Tombstone Epitaph Newspaper building still looks like it should. We had breakfast in the Nellie Cashman Hotel. It survives the 1880’s graciously. Nellie Cashman, the Angel of Tombstone, was quite a person. Check out the web site:
A highlight was a visit to Boothill. This cemetery had been considerably neglected for many years and had almost returned to nature. Some enterprising people had done considerable research and have restored the area. They haven’t tried to tart the place up at all but simply reestablished where the original graves were (within 0.5m) and placed on many of them copies of the original headstones some of which make amusing reading.

For $2 you get a descriptive list of more than 250 graves, who is in them and how they died. You learn more about the area here than you ever would at the reenactments in town.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Bisbee, located just east of the Mule Mountains in southeastern Arizona, was as one of the premiere copper mining towns in the world. The Mule Mountains hid a wealth of gold, silver and copper until the late 1870’s, when a government scout, Jack Dunn, discovered rich ore deposits while chasing Apaches. By 1908, Bisbee, with a population of over 20,000, was Arizona's largest town and "the liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco." Homes sprouted from the steep canyon walls and forty saloons and numerous “houses of ill repute” lined Brewery Gulch. The hills surrounding Bisbee produced copper and impressive amounts of gold, silver, lead and zinc. Eight billion pounds of copper were mined. Finally, the deposits were exhausted and with operations were no longer economic, the shaft mines shut down.
However open cut mining started in 1951. They extracted 46 million tons of overburden before reaching the ore bed. It is estimated that over a billion tons of copper was mined from the pit, with good amounts of gold, silver and lead also being extracted. Turquoise was also a by-product of this mining activity. Bisbee turquoise also known as Bisbee Blue, is amongst the finest turquoise found anywhere in the world. Mining operations in the pit ended in 1974.
The remaining hole, Lavender Pit, covers an area of 120ha and is 275 m deep. Vast tonnage of dump rock is spread all around Bisbee and the southeastern Mule Mountains area. This dump material, along with the large open hole of the pit is considered an ecological disaster but it is still an amazing sight.
Bisbee burnt to the ground in 1908 but was completely rebuilt by 1910. The town we visited is that in tact 1910 town with its many fine Victorian buildings. It sits in a narrow canyon with narrow windy streets lined with what are now tourist shops, restaurants and cafés. The major tourist attraction is the old Queen Bee Copper Mine which you can visit, dressed in traditional miners garb, via the old mine train. We called in on a few of the specialty shops and spent some time in a gallery of genuine south west native American pottery, carvings, rugs and baskets. There was some beautiful work here, much of it expensive, but they managed to extract some dollars from one of us.
From here we headed towards Naco on the Mexican border and then, skirting the Coronada national park, back to Tucson.

On 4th July we headed over Gate’s Pass to Saguaro National Park West, home of the cactus of the same name and one of the few places in the USA it grows. The well-appointed visitor’s centre only had about 4 groups in attendance. We were encouraged to watch a slide show about the Native Americans’ attachment to the desert which turned out to be quite interesting. The final slide was followed by the screen rising and the curtains opening across a huge glass window looking out over the Sonoran Desert outside. Very spectacular!
The Saguaro cactus flower is a great source of sugar. Collected, boiled down and filtered, a thick red syrup is made. 15kg of flowers will make around 4L.
We did the nature walk through some huge cactus plus scurrying wildlife and then drove up a one way dusty track through marvelous desert scenery to Signal Hill. Here the Hohokam (the vanished ones) had left petroglyphs on a very rocky outcrop some thousand years or more ago.
The sign at the beginning of the track warned us of prickly cactus, rattlesnakes, scorpions and Gila monsters and not to put our hands or feet under rocks or hidden places and to look before you step. At the base of the hill another sign said “Rattlesnake Area”. I think they were trying to tell us something. But we soldiered on to the top and it was worth the climb. There were a huge variety of ancient pecked ‘signs” on the rocks. For obvious reasons we didn’t pull up a rock and sit down.

The word is rattlesnakes are active in the cool of the morning and evening and that they “hide” in rock crevices during the heat of the day. The diamond back can grow up to 2m and is very aggressive. So despite the fact they may be hiding you don’t want to disturb one.
Then it was more dusty track and more wonderful desert until we hit the main road. And all this is within 30 minutes of Tucson.