I find myself in a rare state: alone, and with little to do. Eleanor and Emma are off on a trip without me, and they’ve left me alone in the house with a stack of ready meals in the fridge. I’m hardly ever left on my own these days, and for the past month I’ve contemplated what I would do with the time.
My first thought was to pack up the Airstream and go somewhere, but at the moment I’m actually finding Tucson more appealing. This is spring in Tucson, meaning excellent weather, lots of local events, and no reason to leave. This is peak season for hiking, camping, bicycling, browsing, and projects. So instead of the Airstream, I’m trying a “staycation” here.
I do still have work to do, but I’ve settled into a routine: up at 6:30 or so, work steadily until after lunch, do some projects around the house, then go out for some air and exploration. Each day I try to examine some previously-unknown aspect of Tucson, preferably something that nobody else in the family would enjoy being dragged around to.
Tuesday’s expedition was to the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which is where world class telescope mirrors are being made. These days all the big telescopes use gigantic mirrors to collect light from the very edge of the universe and literally the beginning of time. Making a perfect mirror of perhaps 8.4 meters across such as the Large Binocular Telescope project requires, takes a couple of years and about $23 million dollars.
The tour is conducted in a white box that is hunkered down in the shadow of the U of A football stadium. It’s rather academic, and I felt like I was back in college. The docent started in a conference room with a 40 minute discussion about how the mirrors are made, with bits of astronomical fact tossed in, until I felt that I was prepared to make a mirror myself. It turns out that you don’t need a fancy “clean room” at all, you just need a big warehouse and a gazillion dollars of specialized equipment, plus a staff of couple dozen wizards. Far more important than dust control is temperature and humidity control. We were welcome to just walk in and stare without any special concern for cleanliness, which surprised people on the tour, considering that the polished surface of the mirror will be accurate to a few atoms when it is done. In the photo you can see an 8.4 meter off-axis paraboloid mirror (part of the future Giant Magellan Telescope) being slowly polished. That’s one of seven such mirrors to be made.
I can recommend this tour to geeky folks like me who get a kick out of science projects. It’s a bit too long and too academic for younger kids (unless they’ve got a Science Club badge on their shirt and a pocket protector).
Wednesday’s outing was to explore Tucson’s camera shops. As you may have heard, Ritz Camera, the nation’s largest camera chain, is closing hundreds of stores across the country. In many towns, the local camera shop is a thing of the past, and with them have gone many of the knowledgeable staff. Now people mostly buy cameras at Ritz (or Wolf, which was part of the same company), Best Buy, or online. It’s hard to get the same level of service and information from the chain stores, so I’ve always been a bit disgruntled at the homogenization of camera stores.
Now, with Ritz shutting down both locations in Tucson, we were left with a bit of a vacuum. So I went out to check the local places that deal in cameras to see who would fill the gap. Our local Tucson Camera Repair has stepped up to become a Nikon dealer (full retail price across the board, but at least they have selection and service). Monument Camera is sticking with its specialty of used and often ancient gear, so no joy there. Greg’s Camera And 1-Hour Photo is stocking a small amount of Nikon and Canon gear, and Jones Photo is still just a film-processing shop. Overall it was a bit disappointing but still better than Ritz. If I want a large camera store with tons of selection, I’ll still go to George’s Camera in San Diego, or try to find something suitable in Phoenix, and for low-low price via mail order or Internet it’s hard to beat the prices of the NY stores (of which Adorama and B&H Photo/Video are the majors).
I’ve found that exploring the city is best done slowly. In each category of shopping or entertainment I am methodically working through as many options as I can and making mental notes, as I did with the camera shops. Partially this is because we have a lot of guests from out-of-state and they always want to know where to go for things. I’m expected to know the best pizza place, the best camera store, the best hardware store, RV repair, auto service, Mexican lunch, steakhouse, hike, bike trail, RV park, etc.
I also want to explore slowly to find the best places for our needs. For two years I’ve been trying different places to get my hair cut. I’ve tried barber shops, chains, swanky salons, and hole-in-the-wall hacks. I haven’t been the same place twice in two years, and finally I think I’ve found the right place. The guy who cut my hair is named “Nino” and right there he’s got approval from Eleanor, who believes that only Italian men can give really good haircuts. Nino is friendly but not too talkative, mature but not too old to deliver a stylin’ cut, helpful but not pushy with “product.” Best of all, when I come home with a fresh haircut I get fast approval from the ladies of the household, rather than the disdainful, “Who cut your hair this time? Don’t go back!“ (To which I usually reply, “Hey, it was only six bucks!” Nino is $20, which is way over my usual cheapskate limit, but if it makes the wife smile then I guess it’s worth it.)
Thursday’s outing was to the International Mariachi Festival, which is held annually in Tucson in April. This is a unique and fantastic opportunity, so I had to go. (I’ll bet they don’t have a mariachi festival in your town!) I love mariachi. It’s fun, colorful, and always makes me think of good times on the road. When I hear mariachi on the radio I know I’m near Mexico, and the sun is shining and the air is dry. It makes me want some roasted chiles for lunch.
On Saturday they have a big concert with all the professionals, which costs $40-84 for a ticket. This year Linda Ronstadt will be there. On Thursday they have the concert of students who have attended the festival, and that’s just $10, which is more my price range. The mariachis started very small, with kids who appeared to be as young as six or seven years, and gradually worked up in age to the more accomplished musicians. No matter — all were entertaining and the costumes were spectacular. Mariachi is much more varied than I had thought, so each musical presentation was a pleasant surprise.
Photographically, it was a challenge to get usable shots. The lighting was fairly dim and the colors kept changing. I shot over 200 images at ISO 1600 and considered myself lucky to get a couple dozen worth keeping. (What I really needed was a long lens faster than my f/4-5.6 200mm zoom, but the pro f/2.8 version weighs three times as much and costs as much as a used car.) Still, some of the better shots can be seen on my Mariachi Flickr album here, if you’re interested.
I have a week to go before the ladies return home, so that means a lot of time left in my staycation. I wonder what else Tucson will have to show me?