An unexpected extended stay – Tucson, AZ

Palo Verde

Yellow blooms blanket a Palo Verde tree

We are continuing to enjoy a pleasant springtime in Tucson.  We’ve been wandering through the desert daily as early as possible to avoid the unbearable daytime heat – wow, the sun is hot down here!

During those wanderings we’ve been able to view the progress of the desert flora blooming on a daily basis.  This is our first spring here, and we’ve been enthralled by the various cacti and other desert plants displaying their colorful beauty.

Between those walks/hikes we’ve checked out a few attractions that have been on our to-do list for years.  We were happy to get them done during the past two months, with plans to head north any day now.  Or so we thought.  But doctor’s orders have changed things, and now we’ll have plenty of time for more fun in the sun.  More on that later, but what have we managed to get done so far?

Just as we thought all of our friends had moved on to cooler temps, we got a message from Debbie and Steve of Down the Road.  These folks are avid hikers, and Debbie proposed a hike together earlier this year which we never quite put together.  We’re always eager to meet new friends, and despite short notice we met at Thunder Canyon Brewery for some good conversation with food and beer.

Down the road

Two Steve’s, Debbie and I

Tucson Botanical Garden

A visit to a botanical garden is always refreshing and inspiring for me.  I just love being surrounded by the vibrant colors and fascinating plant collections at the many exhibits I’ve visited.  On this day I came early so I wouldn’t have much competition taking pictures while admiring the flowers, the cacti collection, the butterflies and of course the fascinating birds.

During my visit, the garden was featuring the New York Botanical Garden’s blockbuster exhibit – Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.  The centerpiece of this exhibit is the re-creation of the gardens that Frida Kahlo maintained at her home in Mexico City, La Casa Azul. Within this space was a replica of the Meso-American inspired pyramid, which showcased a diverse collection of cacti and succulents:

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life

A replica of a Meso-American inspired pyramid

I was  attracted to the Paper-Spined Cactus shown below, something I’d never seen before:

Paper-Spined Cactus

I wouldn’t hesitate to get close to this cactus, no thorns at all!

And then there were the butterflies!  Unfortunately, a group of brats (I mean cute little children) were at the butterfly greenhouse on an early field trip.  I quickly took as many pictures as I could of the beautiful butterflies before leaving the high-humidity building full of excited screaming kids.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

One of the landmarks visible from just about anywhere in the Tucson area is the Mayall 4-meter Telescope that juts out of Kitt Peak at an elevation of 6,875′.  The telescope is one of a group of astronomical telescopes collectively known as the Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s a national astronomical observatory that is permitted to occupy the top 300′ of one of the most important mountains in the cultural heritage of the Tohono O’odham indian nation.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

The Mayall 4-meter telescope crowns Kitt Peak and can be seen from many miles away

The drive up to the peak is along a narrow twisty road, and of course it gets cooler as you ascend the mountain.  With a 20-degree difference between the city and Kitt Peak, it’s a great place to visit on a hot, clear day.  There’s a picnic area near the top with an awesome view, so don’t forget lunch when you go!

Mayall 4-m Telescope

A large collection of telescopes here, with the prominent Mayall 4-meter installation on the right

We took one of the guided tours that visits three telescopes.  Having toured the McDonald Observatory in Texas previously (click here for that post), we wanted to see something big and were excited to visit the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the world’s largest and most sophisticated solar telescope.  It’s the only ground-based solar observatory capable of studying the sun at mid-infrared wavelengths, due to its all-reflecting huge mirror design.

McMath -Pierce Solar Telescope

Standing under the wedge-shaped 200′ above-ground portion of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.  There’s another 300′ of tunnel extending down into the mountain.

The telescope’s tower stands nearly 100′ high and connects to an angled shaft that protrudes into the ground, where the imaging is collected.  A 3-mirror heliostat system collects light and reflects it through the tunnel.

Several mirrors installed in the shaft are placed at angles to reflect the convergent light into the underground observation room

We weren’t able to get into the observation room to view the collected image, but at the end of the tour we observed the sun from another small observation dome.  There were two telescopes here to view the sun; one was a filtered visible-light unit which revealed the presence of sunspots, and the other allowed viewing of the solar atmosphere in a very narrow range of red light (Hydrogen-Alpha) which showed several large prominences that were currently occurring.

Getting a great look at the sun

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

My visit to Buenos Aires NWR was a bust because a) the visitor center was closed, and b) there were more Border Patrol agents in the area than birds 😦

Well, it was still a beautiful drive to a remote, quiet and peaceful place.  I guess that’s never a bust!

The refuge is less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border

There are two areas here that can be explored.  One is near the visitor center, where the Pronghorn Scenic Loop leads around a grand expanse of rippling grasses and mesquite groves stretching far and wide toward majestic Baboquivari Peak.  I was alone on the road here, and with only the tinkling notes of a Horned Lark and the whistling of a light breeze I was in perfect tranquility.

Baboquivari Peak

Baboquivari Peak, a sacred mountain to the Tohono O’ogham, towers over Altar Valley

Horned Lark

A Horned Lark fleets from branch to branch

A family patiently waits for me to drive by and leave them alone

The other area to be explored is east of the refuge and is one of Arizona’s important bird areas at Arivaca Cienega and Creek.  These wet habitats are just a small part of the refuge, and a rare desert cienega with a connected creek system in southern Arizona.

Arvivaca Trail

Arivaca Cienega Trail

Cienegas, Spanish for “a hundred waters”, are spring-fed marshes, particularly rare and precious in the deserts of Arizona.  They attract an abundance of birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, I caught only a few glimpses of the birds, perhaps it was a little late in the day by the time I arrived.

So why are we still in Tucson?

After several months of increasing pain in Steve’s throat, we were shocked to learn that he has cancer at the base of his tongue.  After several diagnostic and imaging visits, he is scheduled for Trans Oral Robotic Surgery (TORS) at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, one of the finest cancer centers in the country.  We’ll know more about his prognosis and follow-up treatments soon, but it’s clear that our traveling days are temporarily on hold.

In the meantime we’ve moved Betsy out of the desert and she’s now a city-dweller, sitting comfortably in the shade under a huge solar panel array at Lazy Daze KOA.  This puts us closer to the medical facilities we’ll frequent until the doc says we can move on.  The silver lining is that we’ll be here to see all of the cacti blossoms this year!

Together we’ll fight this disease!