There seemed to be a crossroads to our Arizona fun, Tucson. We kept passing through on our way from one place to another, so we decided to stop and check it out.
Back in 1692 Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino explored this area, and a few years later founded a mission near what became Tucson. Soon after, the Spanish built a walled fortress, Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, and the town was on its way.
Even though growth was slow out here in the arid boonies, Tucson became the largest settlement in Arizona. The territory changed hands between Spain, Mexico, The U.S. and even The Confederacy before becoming a state. But when Phoenix was named the capital, it quickly outgrew Tucson. Several factors kept the town growing, most notably the establishment of the University of Arizona and then the Veterans Administration hospital, originally made for World War I gas victims to recover in the clean, dry air. The fresh air and that famous “dry heat” have continued to keep both Phoenix and Tucson among America’s fastest growing cities.
We started our excursion at the Garden of Gethsemane. This odd collection is the work of Felix Lucero and some divine inspiration. Wounded in World War I, Felix thought he was dying and he called on The Virgin Mary to make a deal. If she would save his life, he would dedicate it to creating Christian art. Mary held up her end and so did Mr. Lucero.
Times were tough in 1938 and Mr. Lucero found himself living under Tucson’s Congress Street Bridge, but he nevertheless decided that this was the place to hold up his end of the bargain with The Mother of God. He started sculpting, using damp sand and debris from the Santa Cruz river. Over time Felix created his masterpieces, including a life sized crucifix and last supper.
It really is quite impressive.
The works have suffered over the years, since they were not made of the finest materials. But they have been restored several times and are now displayed in this lovely little park.
Across the river is the oldest part of Tucson and we figured that warranted a look. The historic district around the Presidio is home to some of the city’s finest examples of the adobes from days gone by. The Cathedral of Saint Augustine shares this neighborhood with them as it has in one version or another for nearly three centuries. The latest incarnation, in a “Mexican baroque” style should stand for centuries because if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it. Ba-da-ching!
Further into the heart of the city we found The 4th Avenue Shopping District, which basically everyone we talked to told us not to miss.
The area around Fourth Avenue was originally known as Barrio Tiburón and was once Tucson’s red light district. We found an artsy shopping strip, not a red light in sight, other than for traffic control. We parked and walked along 4th between 9th Street and University Boulevard to take it all in before deciding which spots to hit.
Several things grabbed our attention. It was impossible not to notice the clanging antique trolleys as they rumbled down the avenue. We followed the tracks to an old garage just off 4th that houses the Old Pueblo Trolley Museum. The idea is for the museum to be an operating transit method and it is working. The restored old street cars run to the University on weekends, with a Sunday special of rides for just a quarter.
Tucson has a long trolley history, dating back to 1906 when the first electric street cars began to run here. Unfortunately, these aren’t those original cars, but ones of the same type that the museum has bought from all over the world to restore and put back into service. We both agreed that they add to the overall groovyness of the district.
Back on Fourth Avenue catchy signs are the order of the day, but we were getting a little hungry so one “had to check out” sign really caught our eyes, Solar Pizza. That’s right, pizza cooked by solar power at the Brooklyn Pizza Company. Tucson is a very “green” city, so this doesn’t seem out of place at all.
We had visions of an old science fair tin foil oven barely warming up some unlucky pile of dough and cheese, but the pie was quite good. It is not cooked in a solar oven, the electric ovens run on solar power. Nearly 25,000 kilowatts of solar power per year generated by panels on the pizza parlor’s roof. This saves about 25,000 pounds of coal and 12,000 gallons of water per year. Now that’s pretty groovy, too.
With our bellies filled, we dropped in next door at the Sky Bar. In the dry, clean air of the desert the stars are amazing. So much so, that even in the middle of a big city like Tucson, great views are obtainable on a telescope. That’s what the Sky Bar is all about.
Inside, astronomy programs and deep space images from Sky Bar’s own telescopes are displayed on large screens. Outside on the patio, local astronomy buffs set up telescopes for live viewing of celestial objects.
While we waited for it to get dark enough for viewing, we grabbed a seat and a beer and caught a set from one of Tucson’s troubadours. Behind the stage, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters floated by. Before we knew it, it was viewing time.
A six foot reflecting telescope was set up in a fenced in courtyard, not twenty feet from Fourth Avenue. Big polished mirrors inside the scope magnify the distant objects hundreds of times. We waited for our turn at the eyepiece and in spite of streetlights and headlights, we got great views of The Moon and Jupiter.
Back inside we found that the coolest aspect of the viewing was the conversations about space, life, creation and our place in the universe that it sparked. Groovy. We went back out for another look.
The next day was the kind that draws the snowbirds to Arizona, warm, sunny and dry. The sort of mid-winter day that we could spend by a pool somewhere, but we had a different idea. Skiing, not water, but snow. How could we do that on an eighty degree desert day? By driving the short stretch up Mount Lemmon to America’s southern most ski area, Ski Valley.
High enough in the Santa Catalina Mountains that it gets several feet of snow each year, the ski area opens whenever conditions are right. Fortunately a big storm had just dumped about three feet of the white stuff a few days ago. So much that the road up the mountain had been closed for a while and this was the first day that skiers could get to the fresh trails. It was packed. But packed for Mt. Lemmon is not like most ski areas, it just means a few hundred folks showed up.
The drive up the mountain is gorgeous, going from hot arid desert to alpine winter wonderland in less than an hour. At the top, the views are spectacular, stretching out hundreds of miles.
Veronica could hardly wait to revisit her fear conquered skiing prowess but fate threw her a curve ball. At 9,000 feet above sea level, it can be a little tough to breath. Never having done too well with high altitude, before she could finish her first run down the bunny slope she was dizzy and seeing stars. This time without a telescope. She decided that being a snow bunny with a toddy by the fire at the Iron Door lodge might be a good idea for her.
David, who grew up at over 8,000 feet high, didn’t seem to notice the altitude and took a run down the slopes. It’s a small area, just one main lift and a half dozen runs, so he had covered the mountain in time to join Veronica back at the lodge for a late lunch.
The Iron Door takes its name from a legend that buried gold hidden by the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries in an underground vault behind an iron door is somewhere in this vicinity. The treasure hasn’t been found yet, but we did find some pretty good soup.
David took one more schuss down the slopes before we headed back down the mountain and back into summer-like climate. It was like passing through all of the seasons in one day.
Now that’s groovy.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com