Archive for the ‘Tucson places’ Category

Time to fix

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Walking tour of Tucson

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Although these days we’re focused on getting ready to launch the Airstream, it can’t be all work all the time.  To get a break from the long list of “to do” items and a little exercise, I planned a day out to explore downtown Tucson’s historic sites.  We’ve been living here for four years, on and off, and I am still constantly surprised by the many hidden corners of Tucson that I’ve never seen.  It has quirky neighborhoods everywhere, oddball homes, tons of cultural artifacts, great museums, surprising restaurants, and historic buildings.  For a small city, it has a surprising amount to offer.

We used the map provided by the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation for our tour.  The entire walk they recommend is about 2.5 miles, which is pretty mild by our street hiking standards especially since downtown is mostly flat.  The catch, however, is that this is mid-May, and so daytime temperatures are pretty consistently in the upper 90s or low 100s.  I tried to get Emma out early with dire warnings about hiking in the heat, but ultimately she decided that snoozing on a Sunday morning was more important than avoiding the heat.  With the 30 minute drive to downtown, our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m., and the air was already well into the 90s by then.

Oh well.  We’re used to it.  I know to a northerner the idea of walking around on asphalt in 100-degree heat would be horrendous, but of course it was the famous Arizona “dry heat”.  You put on light colored clothes, apply sunscreen, wear a big hat, and carry a water bottle or two.  With all that prep, my only problem was a burning sensation through the soles of my sneakers …

The first stop on the tour is the best.  Right in downtown there’s a recreated presidio, which is a sort of fortification from the Spanish Colonial era.  Spaniards needed to migrate from Mexico to California through some pretty tough country inhabited by the Apaches, and they were not on good terms.  So Spain established a line of 17 presidios, of which Tucson’s was the largest (11 acres) and and last.  Almost nothing of the original presidio still exists, but on part of the original site a very good recreation has been installed, and it’s well worth a visit.  Being a hot Sunday, we found ourselves the only visitors and so got a private guided tour from the volunteer who was on duty.  Fascinating and free.

The tour ultimately passes 22 sites, including statues commemorating the Mormon Battalion, Pancho Villa, and a Spanish “soldado de cuera” (leather jacket soldier, wearing a sort of armor made from deerskins), two footbridges, historic houses, cathedrals, parks, gardens, a historic hotel, a shrine, and even an elementary school from 1930.

We particularly liked the little shrine called El Tiradito (“The Castaway”), a.k.a. “The Wishing Shrine,” which is said to be the only shrine in the US dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.  It’s obvious that many people still visit this shrine regularly to light candles and leave notes for those who have departed.  It’s hard not to be struck by the poignancy of this site and the offerings.

(There’s also a public water fountain nearby, which was great for us since we had already used up most of our supply.  In 2.5 miles of 100 degree+ heat we drank about 24 ounces of water each.)

I was most impressed by the fact that walking the streets of Tucson, we encountered no “bad neighborhoods” and discovered several areas that I never knew existed.  There’s really nothing like walking or bicycling a city to get to know it.  I was also pleased to connect the dots between several old neon signs that I’ve documented over the past couple of years.  Some are gone, others have been restored as a result of the new Historic Sign Amendment, including the famous “diving girl” sign.  (She used to advertise the Pueblo Hotel, but now the building houses a law firm.  Thanks to Piccaretta Davis for investing the money in having her restored.)

Of course, being a hot Sunday in downtown, we also encountered very few people until we got to the Congress Street district where retail is concentrated.   It seems few are interested in street hiking when it is over 100 degrees — go figure.


Toward the end of the tour we found ourselves on familiar ground at the Hotel Congress, famous for being the place that John Dillinger and his gang were caught in 1936.  The Hotel Congress has managed to survive by adapting, still offering hotel rooms that hark back to the 1930s, but also offering a nice little restaurant downstairs, a bar, and live music regularly.  We have so few historic hotels left in Tucson that we treasure those that remain. It’s a huge neon sign on the roof that I’ve photographed several times.

Besides the tip of carrying water and dressing correctly, there’s one other thing you must do if you are to street hike here in the summer:  find covered parking for the car.  On Sunday most of the lots were free, so we chose the main Public Library’s underground garage and were glad we did.  Parked underground, the car was only about 102 degrees inside, whereas parked in the sun it would have been unbearable for a while.  The Honda Fit is a great car but its dinky AC really can’t handle desert heat.

What do you do when you’ve conquered downtown on a day that even the lizards are seeking shade?  You go to one of our many cheap and wonderful Mexican restaurants, in this case El Guero Canelo (“the blonde guy”) and you get a Mexican Jarritos fruit soda and a burrito. At least that’s what we did.  Your mileage may vary.

We’ve got a few more days of heat and then we’ll saddle up the Airstream for points north and higher altitude.  By Saturday, the Airstream will be up around 7,000 feet and we’ll be looking for our long sleeved shirts again.

Spreading out

Friday, January 6th, 2012

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101″ booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

Tucson neon hunt

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Road honeymoon in Arizona

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

A commenter on the blog last week asked if I was Temporary Bachelor Man or Temporary Honeymoon Man.  Yes, I must admit that we are treating this little three-week summer visit as a series of romantic getaways.  Our goal has been to just have as much fun as possible, exploring places and things that we might have skipped with a child in tow.

We began preparations some months ago, collecting ideas for travel and searching out deals on hotels and restaurants so that we could take fullest possible advantage without spending ridiculous amounts of money.  Summer travel in southern Arizona and the desert portions of California, New Mexico, and Texas is a bargain if you take the time to look for the deals.  Our options would have been broader with access to one of the Airstreams, but we’ve managed to do pretty well nonetheless.  For example, Eleanor has completely mastered the intricacies of the coupon system, to the point that we are eating out at posh restaurants three nights a week for cheap.

Tucson is great for restaurants.  Within a few miles of our house we can find virtually any cuisine, and we never have taken full advantage of that just because when we are home we tend to eat in.  This little “honeymoon” period is different, so now we are exploring restaurants with complete abandon.  Last week we tripped over a fairly unusual find, a real Cajun restaurant (run by folks from a family that settled in Louisiana in the 1600s).  Normally you can’t get good Cajun food outside of Louisiana — I don’t care what those fancy nouveau chefs in major cities think — but this place is the glorious exception.  I’ll be back there for a little jambalaya after Eleanor has left, I’m sure.

Our specialty this past week has been restaurants in the resort hotels.  A few days ago we tried Azul at the Westin La Paloma, which was fine, and this weekend we may go to Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass. These are mostly fun because we never go to the local resort hotels, and so we’ve got an excuse to dress up for dinner and check out the elite scene.  (We also went up to the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain but didn’t eat there since we were just dropping off our niece who was in town for a business trip.)

Before you get concerned about the idea of me dressing up, relax.  This is Tucson, so dressing up only means I wear slacks instead of shorts with cargo pockets, and I pick a silk Hawaiian shirt that has been ironed.  Nobody wears a jacket and tie when it’s over 100 degrees outside, even at night.  I have not worn a tie since sometime in the mid-1990s.  I’m waiting for the ones I bought in 1991 to come back into style …

This time of year the thunderstorms cool things down for a few hours after the rain, but it’s still nice to get away from the heat for an extended period.  Looking at my work schedule I realized I could escape on Thursday and Friday, so on Wednesday we booked a hotel up in Show Low AZ, up in the pine trees above the Mogollon Rim that divides northern and southern Arizona.  It’s about a five hour trip up to there from Tucson, and even longer if you stop and enjoy the fantastic scenery along the way.  The route, pictured above, brought us up and around the Santa Catalina mountain range through Oracle (past Biosphere 2), through lots of rolling desert, past the ASARCO copper mines at Winkelman, and then to the town of Globe — famous for turquoise mining (B on the map).

From there the road starts to get very interesting as it gradually gains altitude and loses it again, three or four times, finally descending through a series of hairpin turns down to the beautiful Salt River Canyon.

This route (between points B and C on the map) is passable with a travel trailer, but you need to be comfortable with long 6% grades (both up and down) and willing to take your time.  There are many overlooks suitable for parking an RV or travel trailer. On Thursday the road was lightly traveled, and we rarely had company at the overlooks.  We stopped at one for a big picnic lunch (our usual crazy leftover smorgasbord) and had the place to ourselves the entire time.

If a teenager holding a can of spray paint can climb it, why can’t I?

Eventually the road climbs for the last time and ends up at 6,300 feet in the town of Show Low.  We had started the day with temperatures of 100-105 but up here it was a beautifully cool 81 degrees with scattered thunderstorms.  We found our hotel and a local Italian eatery, then parked somewhere to watch the lightning bolts in the distance, as the sun set in dramatic clouds of orange and blue.

In the morning we cruised over the Fool Hollow State Park, one that we’ve heard is nice but had never seen ourselves.  The park staff gave us a 30-minute pass (they held a $7 refundable deposit), which gave us time to roll through the entire park.  It’s a fantastic spot, well worth a visit, and so now we are trying to figure a time to drop in this fall.  If you go, book early as it probably sells out far in advance for every weekend in the summer.

Having taken hours to get up here, it seemed like a shame to drop back down the Mogollon Rim into the heat any sooner than we had to, so instead we wandered west on Rt 260 toward Heber-Overgaard, staying above 6,000 feet the entire route.  We made a few stops here and there to explore, and eventually came to the point where Rt 260 begins to descend, at the edge of the Rim.  It’s tough to drive away from the beautiful air up high, so we stopped off and found a secluded place to park near the General George Crook trail, and took in the view for a while.

A tip for you photographers:  doing justice to the expansive views from the Mogollon Rim is difficult without a super-wide angle lens.  I started with my Nikkor 18-200 but couldn’t get the shots I wanted.  I pulled out the Tamron 10-24 and around 12mm I finally started getting a fair perspective. The shot above is at 10mm.

The photo above, of Saguaro Lake, is from the iPhone. Sometimes it does a decent job, especially when there’s a lot of light.  We drove a few hours down the twisting Beeline Highway to near point F on the map and checked out this little lake formed from the impounding of the Lower Salt River.  It’s in the Tonto National Forest, so a “Tonto Pass” is required to use any of the camping areas, overlooks, boat launches, beaches, etc.  (Your $80 annual “America The Beautiful Pass” and/or “Golden Age Pass” doesn’t cover this, despite what you probably thought when you bought it!)

But no pass is required to park at the Marina and take in the view from the upper deck of the restaurant, which is what we did while sipping a couple of cold ice teas.  At this point we were well back into the oven east of Phoenix, but with full shade and the outdoor misting system running at full tilt it was tolerable outside on the deck.

The photo above is another iPhone capture, entering Apache Junction and looking east toward the Superstition Mountains. Lost Dutchman State Park, another one of our list, is not far away.  (Don’t be concerned about the 45 MPH speed limit — in most places the speed limit is a more-appropriate 65 MPH.)

All together, we covered close to 500 miles in two days.  A roadtrip like this would be exhausting or at least boring on the Interstate, but despite lots of long lonely stretches, we rarely felt uninspired.  The back roads of Arizona are vast and dramatic, with variety, color, and life nearly everywhere, and well worth exploring.



Roadtrips in southern AZ

Monday, July 18th, 2011

No Airstream doesn’t mean we can’t travel a little.  In the summer heat, the best escape southern Arizona offers comes from the wonderful Sky Islands scattered all around us.  The Santa Catalina, Huachuca, Boboquivari, and Sahuarita mountain ranges are all nearby, and whether by foot or by car you can reach the cool air in piney forests at the upper elevations.

The easiest place for us to reach is the Santa Catalinas, arrayed just north of us and forming the northern border of Tucson.  Hikers in Phoenix are jealous, because we Tucsonians can pop up into the mountains in about 30 or 40 minutes, whereas the nearest escape from the brutal Phoenix summer heat is at least 90 minutes away.  From our house, it’s a quick drive up the twisting Mt Lemmon Highway.  In 25 miles we’re up above 6,000 feet and in 35 miles we’re in the little village of Summerhaven high atop the Catalinas at about 8,000 feet.

That’s where we decided to hike last week, along the short (2.4 miles roundtrip) Marshall Gulch trail that starts just below Summerhaven in the Catalina National Forest.  The trail follows a perennial stream through the forest, with shady gorges, the sound of trickling water, and lots of dry clear air scented with pine.  Every time we hike such a trail I have a moment when I’m taken back to long-ago hikes in the northern New England mountains (Adirondacks of New York, White Mtns of New Hampshire, Green Mtns of Vermont).  Although the plants and animals are different, the little cues of summer are overwhelming.  This is something I love about being here: the ability to move from hot desert to cool northern forest just with a short drive up a Sky Island.

The photo below is one of those poorly-composed self portraits we sometimes take by balancing the camera on a rock.  We were at the peak of our climb and utterly alone, looking at the intersection of a few other trails and wondering if we should continue onward for a longer loop.  We have so few pictures of ourselves that even the fairly lame ones like this end up being keepers.  Eleanor and I have been hiking together for twenty years now, but I think we have less than two dozen photos of the two of us together on a trail.

Our original roadtrip idea was going to be pretty major: San Diego, Palm Springs, and maybe even San Jose, but with all the things we want to do here and the constraint of not having our trusty Airstreams on hand, we decided to stick closer to home and focus on what’s great about this area.  So this weekend we took a long round-robin drive out to Kitt Peak National Observatory (about 7,000 ft at the top) to see the incredible telescopes and take in the views from the top.

There was almost nobody there, which surprised me because it’s a great –and free– destination only 90 minutes drive from Tucson.  It was 106 degrees in Tucson on Sunday, but a lovely and breezy 88 degrees at the summit of Kitt Peak, with scattered clouds blowing by and monsoon showers visible off in the distance. In the photo you can see the aboveground portion of the McMann-Pierce Solar Telescope (the big white thing), and a rain shower off in the distance.

The drive out to Kitt Peak has changed a little since the last time I was out there.  Yet another Border Patrol checkpoint has been established, which you’ll go through on the eastbound side of Hwy 86.  Once fairly rare, Border Patrol checkpoints have become the norm on every road south of Tucson.  The procedure for passing through one is simple enough, usually just one question:  “Are you all US citizens?”  A simple “Yes,” and we’re always waved through.  But it really strikes me every time we pass through one, as a reminder that southern Arizona is just behind the front of a war.  Along the back roads you’ll see huge Wackenhut buses staged in strategic locations for detainee transport, and the white pickups of the Border Patrol are parked along the roads in many places, observing traffic or chasing down illegals.

I have to remind myself that the people who are staffing all these trucks, buses and checkpoints are there for our protection.  They aren’t interested in hassling Americans, they’re trying to plug a porous border.  It’s an impossible goal to achieve fully (and everyone here knows it) but without the massive quasi-military presence the drug-runners would own southern Arizona.  Still, the sheer numbers of people, vehicles, and dollars involved are absolutely incredible to see.  Anyone who thinks that we are not fighting a third war (a sort of “cool war” as opposed to hot or cold), or who thinks the border can readily be “secured” really should come down here and see for themselves.

And yet, there we were, spinning our wheels down a lonely two-lane road that has almost no services along it and poor cell phone coverage, without much care.  We do not travel armed, nor do we feel the need no matter wherever we go around here.  Southern Arizona is safe.  Living here is like living next to the DMZ in Korea, I suppose.  We are tourists to the edge of a war zone, a peculiar concept.  It’s like looking into the grizzly bear habitat from the safe side of a fence, or tapping the glass on the rattlesnake’s enclosure.  The Border Patrol guys are providing the glass.

We’ve been eating some interesting stuff lately, thanks to a few experimental meals out and a few really great meals at home, so Eleanor made a picnic out of our leftovers, which we ate at the summit of Kitt Peak.  For you foodies, we had thin-sliced marinated flank steak, French bread, hummus, fresh figs with goat cheese and a little fruit vinegar, grilled sweet peppers, green olives, and some sort of little Italian pastry that we picked up at Viro’s in the morning (the name of which I can’t remember).  Emma’s chai tea washed it all down.

After the drive back down the mountain, we felt like exploring a little more.  I had long wanted to take the drive down Sasabe Road (AZ-286) to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  This is a beautiful and underappreciated area of grassland and wetland.  There are dozens of free primitive camping sites scattered all over the refuge, and the birding is reported to be excellent.  I think we may plan a Caravel trip down there sometime to hike around and take in the wilderness.

After the Refuge, we took the rolling Arivaca-Sasabe Road east to the little town of Arivaca, another place I’d wanted to check out for a while.  It’s sort of an “end of the road” town, populated by ranchers and folks who seek out funky remote places.  There’s not much there but it makes a good destination for a driving day, and the scenery between Arivaca and I-19 is terrific.  There are a few small cafes and cantinas to visit for lunch or a drink before you head back home.  And of course, not long before we arrived at the Interstate in Amado, we encountered another Border Patrol checkpoint, where the agents expressed some surprise at seeing us. Apparently not a lot of people come through on Sunday just for the drive.

Amado, by the way, is slightly famous for this roadside curiosity: The Longhorn Grill.   We didn’t go in, but I have it on my list (along with the Cow Palace, just across the street) as places we should check out the next time we are coming down I-19.  There’s something about odd roadside stops that begins to attract you, when you travel by road a lot.  I think the mere fact of someone being an individual, bucking the norm of food chains and square boxes by building something unusual despite added expense and (no doubt) hordes of nay-sayers, appeals greatly.

Our travel this week will be a bit limited due to various appointments are have made, but we are making up for that by exploring restaurants all over town.  I’ve noted before that Tucson is one of the best cities I’ve ever encountered for eating out.  We have been here four years and barely scratched the surface of all the great & strange places to eat, so we are doing our best to try places while respecting a reasonable budget and the risk of expanding waistlines.  I’ll talk more about that in the next blog.


… and the funny part was …

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

I like to see businesses advertising that they are going to do a promotional trip with an Airstream.  Why wouldn’t I?  It means that I’ve got another article to commission for a future issue of Airstream Life.  That’s my bread and butter.


So I was pleasantly surprised to see in the pages of our local “community living” magazine that the Tucson restaurant called KingFisher is advertising some sort of “Road Trip 2011,” and in the ad appears a little Airstream being towed by a vintage pickup truck.

I wonder what that means?  I could not find details about this promotion on their website, but it sounds intriguing.  It would be great if the road trip actually included an Airstream.  All too often the graphic design folks snag a bit of clip-art featuring an Airstream when the planned promotion involves no trailer or all or (far worse) some sort of “white box” trailer instead.  I’ll try to find out.

kingfisher-tucson.jpgBut if they are towing an Airstream, they’ll need to carefully review their towing setup.  The trailer in the picture has a significant problem — can you spot what it is?  (Click on the image for a better view.)

Yes, it’s being towed backwards.   The first tip-off is that the entry door is on the wrong side of the trailer.  Look more closely and you can see that the little lip on the left end is actually the bumper, not the hitch.

Now that I think of it, perhaps it’s a better idea that they not take an Airstream …

Lessons learned at the County Fair

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Being former Vermonters, we are inclined to believe in perennial traditions such as late winter harvesting of maple sap, April snowfall, and the fall county fair.  Where in more urbane settings the county fair might be considered a hokey and archaic gathering of yokels and hooligans, Vermonters know that the county fair is one of those places where you can count on meeting your friends and seeing their children proudly displaying the heifers they raised from calves.  Rather than being an opportunity to eat fried Twinkies and shop for hot tubs, the Vermont county fair is an occasion for adults to exchange sociable greetings between the display of New Holland tractors and the 4-H tent.

For kids, the attractions are more basic.  Sugary sweets (cotton candy, funnel cakes, flavored ice) and rides that spin your head off are the reason to go.  We adults pretend to tolerate this because we want our children to grow up to appreciate the finer aspects of the county fair later, but in reality we still wish to recapture the simple thrill of the midway and its colored lights, barkers, and rigged games as remember them from our own childhoods.  By holding the hand of an excited child tugging our way to the Tilt-A-Whirl, we can at least touch the memory briefly.

So once in a while, we take Emma to the county fair.  Here in Arizona, the season is upside down in an attempt to beat the heat, with the Pima County Fair happening in April rather than the traditional northern schedule of August or early September.  This disconcerts us a bit, because we associate the fair with the coming of pick-your-own apple season, and the quickening of chill in the evenings.  The ground should be damp from the last of the summer thunderstorms, and hearts should be bittersweet with the knowledge that the preponderance of summer is gone but a last thrill awaits.

Dusty air and a sense of intense sun are the hallmarks of an Arizona county fair; after all, the heat of summer is just around the corner. In a month we will hit 100 degrees for the first time and, as they say locally, the ice will melt in the Santa Cruz River.  (That is definitely a tongue-in-cheek statement, since the Santa Cruz bears no surface water for much of its length and ice is only found in drinks around here.)  So here the County Fair represents the impending turn of seasons, as snowbirds flee and Arizonans call for their annual air conditioning checkups.


County fairs come in all sizes and persuasions, from the tiny Stalwart County Fair (Michigan) that features agricultural exhibits and not much else, to the extra-large events in major urban areas that are primarily a mix of rock concert venue and carnival.  A nearly-universal attraction of modern fairs, however, are the rides: slides, coasters/flumes, spinners, and drops are the basic tools of the amusement park ride developer, and once in a while you can mix up a few elements to come up with something like the “Disk-O” (above).  There is little that can be called new, but then love is nothing new and yet people still practice it.

In the section of the park that is oriented to big kids and childish adults, the rides are almost always the same as I remember from my childhood but with louder music and stranger airbrushed graphics.  The spinning “Himalayan” that Emma loves is called the “Rave” here, and it features a giant King Neptune as disk jockey wearing sunglasses and an audio headset.  On a nearby ride I see airbrush art of clowns bearing machine guns. Nothing makes sense but it all somehow fits in an absurd, Alice-In-Wonderland sort of way.

pima-cty-fair-2.jpgThe aluminum handrails of the “Moscow Circus” are sticky with thousands of hands that have recently been handling greasy corn dogs, gooey nachos slathered in cheese, pizza slices, turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Snickers bars.  I think about handwashing or applying Purell, Emma thinks, “Let’s go again!” — and the adult part of me fades away, the child wins out, and we go again, and then find another ride until the sun has long been behind us and the lights of the fair have come on to create a new world that bears exploring yet again. You can’t compete with that sort of magic, and pretending it isn’t there is a very “adult” thing to do, which in kid-speak means stupid.  Just let it wash over you, because escapism is something most of us don’t practice often enough.

I think the best aspect of the county fair is its transience.  It happens only a few days each year, and then it slinks away on trucks to find a home elsewhere.  You have to participate when it is ready, like eating a chocolate chip cookie hot out of the oven.  Wait a little while and the little chips aren’t melted anymore.  Wait a few days, and they’re gone.  This small window of opportunity forces you to rise up out whatever doldrum you may be feeling and taste the experience at its very peak, which is a good lesson for all of us.  Life doesn’t wait, any more than the county fair does.

Hike to Picacho Peak

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

The first and only time I hiked Picacho Peak, that impossibly towering mountain alongside I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, I did it with Brett on a 100-degree day.  That was perhaps not the best choice for a steep rocky climb that offers very little shade.  This time, I vowed to do it in the ideal season, which is about now, when we are getting lots of days in the low 70s.

picacho-peak-1st-half.jpgAlex and Charon have been visiting Tucson for about a month in their 1960s Airstream Safari, and they wanted to take on the challenge of Picacho, so I said, “Let’s do it now, before it gets much warmer.”  I had wanted to get Eleanor and Emma up there too, since they’ve never hiked all the way to the peak, and Emma is now tall enough that she can make it up the tough spots.  We had hiked to the halfway point back shortly after Emma’s seventh birthday, which is hard enough, but now it was time to go for the gusto and bag that peak.  (The full hike is not recommended for kids under age 10, for good reasons.)

The Hunter Trail is 2.1 miles.  The first half is an ascent composed of many switchbacks up the steep eroded slope of the mountain’s south side.  It is in some ways the hardest park of the hike only because the slog up is fairly dull, and this presents a psychological challenge to some.  But if you get discouraged, you need only pause and look back down at the increasingly vast view of the desert floor for a little encouragement.  You’ll see the dual ribbons of Interstate 10, the parallel Southern Pacific railway, and a wriggling stretch of the Central Arizona Project canal that feeds water to Tucson.  Most people will need to pause frequently, just to catch their breath, so the excuse of “taking in the view” is pretty useful.

picacho-peak-steep1.jpgThe mid-point of the hike is a spot called “the saddle.”  From this point, you face another psychological challenge: after all that climbing, you must now begin to descend the north side along an extremely steep and rocky “trail.”  It is so steep that a cable line is provided, and you quickly give up a couple hundred feet of hard-won altitude as you proceed.  Just a look at this descent is enough to scare people into deciding that they’ve done enough for the day, and to begin heading back to the car.

The second half of the trail has nothing in common with the first half.  It’s mostly solid rock, jagged and rough, with many ridiculously steep sections that are closer to rock climbing than hiking.  Cable lines are everywhere, and for good reason.  Those prone to vertigo or fear of heights should stay home. But spectacular views and the exhilaration of overcoming the tough spots are the rewards for those who persevere.

picacho-peak-steep2.jpgThere were a few points at which I wondered if our entire group was going to make it.  Of all of us, I think Emma did the best.  She showed no fear at any of the tricky stuff, never ran low on energy, and managed even the most technical bits with little help.  Eleanor had to deal with asthma on the way up, and Alex was having some pain in his knees.  But we all made it:  We reached the summit in about two hours without loss of life or even minor maiming.

picacho-peak-eleanor-top.jpgCharon seemed the most psychologically stressed by the hike, yet she was the one who suggested we make this an annual ritual.  That’s the kind of person she is.  Faced with something that pushed her personal boundaries, she decided not only to finish it, but also commit to going back for more.  Admirable.  I understand how she feels about it.  Climbing Picacho next year will be kind of a reminder to all of us to keep challenging ourselves.

The summit of so many mountains is nothing special, usually just a view and a chance to eat a few snacks while cooling off, but it’s a great feeling to bag a peak that you’ve worked hard on.  Even little Picacho, at about 3,300 ft, is a great achievement if you weren’t sure you could make it.  I think that it doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, or how easily other people have reached it.  Getting there is your achievement, forever.  Well worth a Saturday and a little sweat.


Car and trailer shows

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Although much of the rest of the country is frozen solid right now, it’s car show season in southern Arizona.   Every couple of weeks there’s a small car show somewhere around Tucson, and about once a month there will be a fairly major one nearby.  California has the reputation as being the state most crazy for collector cars, but here in southern Arizona we’re not far behind.  We’ve got a lot of old retired guys with classic rides, and they love to show them off.

This weekend the big show was the Santa Cruz Valley Car Nuts’ annual show at Tubac Golf Resort, which is about 50 miles south of Tucson.  I decided to enter the old Mercedes 300D because it was a way for me to get into the middle of the show with a picnic lunch and watch all the action. I didn’t think many people would give a hoot about a slow and squarish 1984 Mercedes, since at these shows most of the attention seems to go to hot rods, American muscle cars, and exotics.

tubac-car-nuts-300d-reflection.jpgAnd I was right.  The car was mostly ignored, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my folding chair and read a book while occasionally glancing at the parade of people going by.  Once in a while someone would point and smile at the car and I could hear them relating a tale of the “one we used to have just like that.”  A lot of people used to have Mercedes cars like mine, which is not surprising since 2.7 million of them were made worldwide.

A few people took note of the car, but I wonder if any of them noticed that mine was the only Mercedes on the line bearing a “250,000 km” badge on the grill.  That’s an honorary badge awarded by Mercedes Benz USA for very high-mileage cars.  My next badge comes at 500,000 km (310,000 miles) and I hope to get that one someday too.

I was flattered when a guy came by and asked if I wanted to sell the car, because he wanted a nice example of an old Mercedes to drive around in Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had a house.  I declined. I wasn’t looking to sell, just to have fun.

tubac-car-nuts-show1.jpg It is fun, just to be a small part of the spectacle.  There were over 500 cars on display, ranging from a Nash Metropolitan to an Aston Martin Vanquish.  You name it, it was there.  Most of the cars were in excellent condition, but I was pleased to see that even people with interesting cars in poor condition came out to show the world what they had.  It wasn’t just a show of garage queens.  Some were obviously daily drivers.

Eleanor had made me a huge picnic basket with lunch, suitable for about five people. I had grilled chicken skewers, Israeli couscous, a sort of marinated tomato/zucchini/onion salad in a homemade dressing that I can’t even begin to describe adequately, a delicious homemade chutney, and Emma’s “rainy day” brownies with chopped nuts on top.

Since I had the opportunity for elegance, she also packed me a big blue tablecloth and cloth napkins.   When lunchtime came around, I spread my tablecloth and hauled out the wicker basket, and invited my friend Charlie and his friend Flash to join me on the grass.  More than a few people spotted our little picnic on the golf course next to the Mercedes cars and said, “Now, that’s the way to do it!”


Ken and Petey showed up with their 1955 GMC pickup and a 1947 teardrop called a “Tourette.”  Most teardrop trailers were made of wood, but this one was made of aluminum.  It’s remarkably intact and in good condition.  I believe it was the only travel trailer at the show, and it got a lot of attention.  Teardrop trailers were mostly made from kits, and there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of teardrop kit manufacturers over the past decades, so if you’ve never heard of a Tourette, join the club.

With spectacular weather (about 70 degrees and all sun), a fine golf course setting, hundreds of interesting cars, many more interesting people, and a fine picnic lunch, the day passed very quickly.  I was surprised to realize it was 3 p.m. — I had been there for five hours.  It was rather a shame to pack up and head out, but at least I had the compensation of a leisurely drive of 50 miles to get back home in a fine old German sedan on a beautiful day in beautiful southern Arizona.

I am really getting into this show thing.   That’s part of the reason why I’ve been working for the past few months to curate another show, the Modernism Week “Vintage Trailer Show” sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.  We are expecting 19 very interesting vintage trailers at that event:

1935 Bowlus Road Chief

1960 Airstream Caravel

1959 Airstream Globetrotter

1962 Airstream Flying Cloud

1962 Airstream Globe Trotter

1961 Airstream Bambi

1960 Holiday House

1950 Airfloat Landyacht

1973 Airstream Safari

1969 Airstream Tradewind

1957 Catolac DeVille

1948 Spartan Manor

1958 Airstream Caravanner

1936 Airstream Clipper

1948 Westcraft

1960 International Harvester Housecar

1965 Airstream Caravel

1955 Spartan Manor

1948 La Cosse Vacationer

If you are coming out to Palm Springs for Modernism Week this February, tickets for the Vintage Trailer Show can be purchased on-site at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa, Saturday and Sunday Feb 26-27. It should be quite a spectacle, with some very rare trailers open for tours, an Airstream “bar,” presentation of the new Airstream Life “Wally” award, vendors selling cool stuff, and a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll see you poolside at the Riviera?

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine