First month in Tucson: December 1-31, 2011

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

We met a nice couple in Astoria, OR in July this year – Bruce and Jenna Brod. They are full timers who have a home base in central California and spent a large part of their time volunteering in state and national parks. They are the first full timers I’ve ever met from – drum roll – New Jersey! That’s the state of my birth and early years (until age 25), and I can’t ever remember a single Joisey soul who thought that camping was a good idea! Everybody went to The Shore . . . like Snookie.

At the time, we knew Arizona was our winter destination this year but we had made no arrangements. This would be the first time we signed up for multiple months without seeing the place first. Bruce and Jenna told us about their winter hideaway in Tucson. It backed up to the desert, had very large sites, had a laid-back attitude and was very reasonable. We contacted them, dropping the Brods’ name, and got a prime site. Whew! Problem solved.

It was to Justin’s Diamond J that we drove on December 1. And it was everything Bruce and Jenna promised. Our site is about 2000 square feet – unheard of. We don’t back up to the BLM land, but it’s only about 200 feet away, filled with javalinas, coyotes, roadrunners, pack rats, mourning doves, rabbits and about a thousand Saguaro cacti per acre – along with every other species you could imagine. There’s a small dog run in the arroyo behind our site. Utilities are excellent, and electricity is included in the price — unusual for monthly renters. There are about 30 prime sites down here fringing the desert, and about 100 “inland” on the other side of the office. A few regular activities occur, including donuts/coffee on Monday, a bonfire on Saturday night, hikes on Thursdays and a monthly pizza party – along with other ad hoc events.

The owners – Doc and Christine Justin – are a story all their own. He is about 70; she is about 55. They have been married for 15 years or so. Doc has been an institution around here; he owned a larger campground next door and sold it about five years ago. He started building this place, intending it to be more of a trailer park, populated by park models and mobile homes that were owned or rented. That market didn’t evolve; they have fewer than a dozen and the rest are transient trailer and motorhome sites. The design for permanency, however, led to the large sites. Christine runs the place, completely without electronic tools, managing all in and out movement of tenants with a big chart. They live in a large adobe house about five miles away, and she is here perhaps 4-8 hours a day. There’s a big laundry but no public showers or bathrooms. The main building is designed for large or small gatherings and has a complete kitchen. The activity equipment is primitive but consists of a badminton/pickleball court, a miniature golf course, a putting and chipping green, and a horseshoe court (if you can find it). There’s nice natural and created landscaping as well.

The entire park is very laissez-faire; we campers manage well pretty much on our own and with the help of several repeater snowbirds who absorb many chores (I hope they’re paid!). Doc has had a colorful life — once ran for the Senate in Florida – and is a world traveler who now runs photo-safaris to Africa and the Far East for large parts of the year. Perhaps that’s why they want a self-tending campground. Christine accompanies him on some, especially when she gets to visit family still in Vietnam.

Fortunately, there are important stores – grocery, home improvement, pet supplies, office supplies, etc. – with 12 miles. Beyond that, a lot of travel is required. Most stuff is on the east side of Rte 10, while we’re out in the desert on the west side. Most stuff is in central and north Tucson, while we’re out in the desert on the south side. One goal of these winter layovers is to get our medical issues updated. Our doctor, my audiologist, my dermatologist and my referral specialist are all 25 miles away!

We are far enough out of town so that the only local TV stations we can get are NBC, CBS and PBS. Fortunately, we have a satellite system, but we’re still missing favorite shows and sports. The campground-supplied Wi-Fi is great – until more than ten people log on. Then it gets slow and squirrelly. Our Verizon air card is far away from the nearest tower and it, too is spotty. So we’re a bit electronically challenged! Another problem: we arrived to much-below temperatures and much-above rainfall. On multiple occasions over the first two weeks, we had to disconnect our external water supply and rely on our fresh water tank (fortunately the underbody of our rig is heated above freezing). We also saw a new phenomenon. Even with moderate rains, every dip in the roads became a lake, requiring a slow drive-through and, on a few occasions, an alternate route. Despite the fact that there’s only 14 inches of average rain per year, the ground is so solidly dry that it absorbs and evaporates slowly.

Nevertheless, we plowed ahead with vigor. We attended all events that didn’t involve much walking. At that point, my back and hips were exuding pain, and we were both short of breath. It’s not that we were up high – only about 2500 feet. But we’ve come to learn that the low humidity and ever-present dust both have negative effects. On some days, there are even warnings about staying inside and keeping doors and windows shut. We set up our campsite for the long run, including erection of our 10 x 10 canopy to protect us outside from sun or rain so we could do projects – especially my weaving – outside. While over 90% of campgrounds provide picnic tables, there were none to be found here, so I hopped off to Home Depot and spent two days building one (which we’ll have to leave behind) stiff enough to mount weaving tools. We put up lights around our dog enclosure and around the canopy and were one of the shining sites at night. Multiple trips took care of the balance of Christmas shopping, and we started to reap all the packages of stuff which could be sent directly to our campground rather to our mail forwarder.

And we took in several seasonal events. The Fourth Avenue Winter Street Fair in downtown was the largest we’d ever experienced; about 8 blocks of the street were closed and adorned with vendors of every possible product, from food to drink to personalized items to art to fortune telling to clothing – I’ll stop there. The side streets, also closed, included not only more vendors but entertainment stages. Of course, the merchants along the avenue also benefitted from the throng that turned out. Another night, a group of us went over to the Reid Park Zoo, which is turned into a light show and Christmas entertainment venue for the season (we didn’t see a single animal!). And we took in ASO’s The Messiah at the beautiful Catalina Hills High School Auditorium (Catalina Hills is the ritziest section of town we’ve found).

Back “home,” I produced over 21 dozen cookies, 7 varieties, that became the 7 Days of Christmas Cookies, my own miniature version of the popular carol, distributed at the office during the week before the big day. We had a delicious community dinner – Doc and Christine provided the turkey, ham, stuffing and gravy while all of us provided the rest of the fixins and desserts. And I got to read my favorite Christmas story to the ensemble, adapted from the writings of Rev. Francis Schaeffer, about why it was fitting for Jesus to be born in a stable. Ellie May Burgess, a permanent resident, entertained us with traditional carols, accompanying her beautiful voice with her autoharp.

Unrelated to the holidays, we started our foray into the state’s treasures. Two are very close to us.

The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is the epitome the Arizona expect it to be. As its promotion expounds, it’s a zoo, a natural history museum and a botanical garden all in one. Twenty one of its 93 acres are a museum and zoo, most of which is open space with 2 miles of paths, 300 species of fauna and 1200 species of flora. Some of the animals are confined to natural enclosures, while others are more free to roam within giant fenced tracts. But that’s not all – at 10 AM and 2 PM, museumgoers are treated to a free flight raptor performance. The performers are Harris Hawks. It’s mostly aerial, but there are handlers crouched down throughout the landscape to encourage the birds to perch and feed during the show. A deeply knowledgeable emcee provides advanced background and a running narrative. After the show, we swapped tales with her that compared what we’d just seen with our exposure to Aplomado Falcons in Boise.

As you head down the barren road to the Museum, you pass Old Tucson Studio. In its prime, from the forties to the eighties, it was the largest studio outside of Hollywood and the set for over 300 of the best known western-themed movies and television shows ever screened or aired. Name an actor or actress, and you’ve likely identified a celebrity who’s walked its streets and graced its dressing rooms.

It was initially built in 1939 to film Arizona, starring William Holden and Jean Arthur. It wasn’t used again until The Bells of St Mary in 1945. Four John Wayne movies were filmed there, and each required the addition of a new building. It underwent major renovations in 1959, and a sound stage was added in 1968. The Three Amigos was filmed in 1986, the same year the theme park and public tours were instituted. It has subsequently been used, mostly for TV productions, at least through 2007. A disastrous fire in 1995 engulfed much of its history, after which new buildings (but not he soundstage) were created.

Several of the buildings contain memory lanes of its heyday, including posters, chronologies of its productions, artifacts from its output and news coverage of its activities. Some sections, such as a western Chinatown, are nothing but permanent flats against which scenes were shot. Theme Park rides include a train around the property, live horseback riding, a stagecoach through its streets, a carousel, and a track where young and old alike get to drive old car replicas more-or-less unguided (they are steered but can’t leave the track). There are several serious eateries.

We got to see two shows as part of our admission. The first was a Christmas pageant of song and dance (and drunks) in the auditorium in the first floor of the hotel, adjacent to the bar. The second was an outdoor slapstick extravaganza at the old Mission, which even included actors falling from high parapets to their demise and a jail explosion that liberated the primary antagonist.

For New Year’s Eve, we took a chance on an early lupper (half way between lunch and dinner) at Fred’s Arena Bar and Steak House. Traveling 20 miles further away from Tucson, then detouring briefly south, you’re confronted with a mile-long dirt road through the desert to get to it. Oh man, what a find. This is the most authentic, rustic place we’ve ever experienced. First of all, Fred’s main businesses are horses and carriages. Surrounded by corrals and stables, it’s a huge barn of a building with a large bar dominating the front, ample seating area, and a dance floor in back. You could not go in there without visualizing a hoe-down. In the middle, a 5 x 20 foot pit, bricked up to counter height, houses the mesquite fire, fed by a hand cranked blower and a huge grate with a chain elevator actuated by a wagon wheel. It is here, in full view, that the restaurant’s incredibly tasty beef is grilled. All of the eatery websites we viewed rated it tops, so we went without concern and weren’t disappointed. In the evening, we attended the weekly Saturday bonfire, at which free hot dogs were accompanied by salads and accoutrements supplied by the campers. We stayed up until midnight eastern time (10 PM our time) and crashed.

More Tucson to come in the January episode. Happy New Year!

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