Episode 59 – The Book Cellar

I love to read. Always have. In elementary school, my nose was always buried in a book. I was never happier than when discovering a new favourite author: Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain were supplanted by Irving Stone, Thomas B Costain, Agatha Christie, and JRR Tolkien when the high school library revealed its treasures.

When I met Ted, he introduced me to science fiction; Asimov and Heinlein in particular. I soon started reading Philip K Dick on my own, as well as fantasy series like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern, and David Eddings’ wonderful Belgariad.

When the boys were young, I’d read books – always more than one – to them before bed, and then I’d read my own after they’d gone to bed. I read while supper was in the oven. I read while the laundry was in the dryer. I probably would have read during their baseball and soccer games if I hadn’t been the team mom and scorekeeper. (As an aside, I absolutely love that number 2 son has carried on the bedtime reading tradition, and that our eldest grandson is already a voracious reader at 8 years old.)

By the time both boys were in school, Ted was working for Random House, the huge publisher. One of the employee benefits was access to a semi-annual warehouse book sale. Soon our home was filled with books. In addition to those in our many bookcases, there was always a pile beside my “reading chair” ready to be devoured. It was a fantastic way to discover new authors, and reading was an inexpensive hobby while we were on a tight budget.

When the boys were old enough to have summer jobs, and I was still working at elementary schools and got laid off every summer, I would read a book a day during July and August. I was never too fussy about what I would read, although it was always fiction (or cookbooks), and I only rarely set a book aside without finishing it – it had to be REALLY bad.

Retirement has meant lots of time to read, but Ted is no longer able to be the supplier for my “fix”, so I’ve had to find other solutions. Around this same time last year I was writing about using e-books, and the phenomenon of used book exchanges in some of the condos in which we’ve stayed – there was even one on the Viking Sun cruise ship!

I’ve also shopped used book stores and flea markets, but this year in San Antonio we’ve discovered a somewhat unique used book store: The Book Cellar. Literally a “cellar”, it is in the basement of the central branch of the San Antonio Public Library. While many libraries have occasional sales of their de-listed books, what makes The Book Cellar unique is that it is open 7 days a week, is constantly being replenished, and is run by a group of volunteers who are true book and music aficionados.

There are many reasons why libraries de-list books. In the case of non-fiction, they may simply be outdated information. In the case of fiction, it’s more about keeping the collection current and relevant within the space constraints of the building. Space needs to be made for new authors, for new releases, for current prizewinners. Those things are what keep readers coming in to the library – and explains why my beloved Thomas B Costain, so readily available in the 1970’s, is nowhere to be found 50 years later.

Sometimes fairly new books get de-listed to make room for more popular reads. At this particular library, a fiction title has been taken out fewer than 4 times in its first year on the shelf gets removed to make space for something new. New titles are occasionally stocked in multiples, either due to their popularity or as book club sets; after a while, the “extras” are de-listed.

All of this means that The Book Cellar has a really great, well-curated selection of books, almost all offered at $1 or less.

We’re expecting rain all this week in San Antonio, so we won’t be walking the River Walk, exploring nearby towns, or heading out birding, but it’s the perfect weather for reading! Since our visit to the store Ted has been working on a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle bought there and I now have a stack of books, each chosen from the shelves at eye level (the selection was daunting, so I’m saving the other shelves for future visits) and bought based on cover blurbs that sounded intriguing. I finished the first book on Sunday while the Oscars were on TV (Death of a Hollow Man, an Inspector Barnaby mystery by Caroline Graham), devoured the absolutely excellent From the Kitchen of Half Truth, by Maria Goodin, on Monday and Tuesday, and have now moved on to The Arriviste by James Wallenstein. It’s still grey and rainy.

When I’m done with them, I can return the books for resale to benefit the library one more time, or leave them in the condo for the next tenant – the one certainty is that we’ll head back to The Book Cellar at least once more during our stay. Although we’re leaving San Antonio before the true rainy season hits in May, eight books aren’t going to last me 3 months!

Episode 58 – Fashion and fashion faux pas while travelling

I come from a very mixed fashion culture.

My mother graduated from the Chicago School of Dress Design via correspondence in the 1960’s. I vividly remember watercolour paintings of designs being rolled in tissue paper and gently inserted into cardboard mailing tubes, and the anticipation of waiting for the critiques to come back. The long table in our basement was almost always (except when being used to stretch strudel dough!) covered with a cutting board and the sheets of tissue paper Mom used to make her own patterns, and there were bolts of fabrics in our cold cellar on the shelf above the homemade pickles. My favourite was a roll of apple green satin-backed crepe that was eventually turned into a New Years Eve gown with marabou feather cap sleeves. During my formative years, mom was always coordinated and stylish, even at home, dressing more like the moms on TV than those in our neighbourhood.

My father, though, was a bit more stereotypically German in his fashion sense. While he always owned at least one stylish tailor-made suit to wear to church (along with his highly polished black leather dress shoes), his day-to-day style was the source of great humour to my brother and to me. Socks in his sandals was the least of it. Picture my Dad in the late 1970’s looking “sharp”: all 5’9” of muscular, stocky German in plaid polyester pants, a paisley shirt (in coordinating colours of course!), white leather belt and white patent leather shoes. Or maybe you’d prefer the baby blue linen leisure suit with the flowered wide-collared shirt and jade bolo tie? Eye-rolling and suppressed giggles were a pretty standard reaction to Dad’s fashion choices.

I guess I could have gone either way. The 1980’s were certainly not a good decade for me. Velvet blazers with huge padded shoulders and a selection of jumpsuits in velour and slinky jersey were mainstays of a wardrobe best forgotten.

Travelling to other countries has made me stop and think about what we wear in a different way. Clothing is part of what makes a first impression, and we don’t want our first impression to scream “TOURIST!”….. nor do we want to inadvertently offend our hosts. Bare midriffs at the grocery store, and form-fitting leggings (unless covered to knee level by a tunic) worn in public are distinctly North American styles for females, as are tee shirts, track shorts, and running shoes for men.

I’ve seen plenty of advice online around “trekking” through Europe in Patagonia jackets and cargo pants, with a sturdy pair of shoes and a large backpack, the idea being that if I swap that out for a linen shift (artistically wrinkled from being rolled in the backpack, I guess), pashmina and sandals – and Ted puts on a long-sleeved white linen shirt – we could get in anywhere. That’s not us, nor is it acceptable city wear in most places unless we want to be identified as aging rich hippies – or maybe environmental ecotourists. Neither are bad things, but they’re not who we are.

I’ve also seen plenty of advice online that outlines, for example, the key elements in the modern stylish Parisian woman’s travel wardrobe, but fashion-forward sunglasses, skinny ankle pants, ballet flats and an “all purpose” silk wrap is not me either – and I cannot picture Ted in the men’s equivalent, despite the fact he has adopted a jaunty “chapeau” as his signature headgear.

Instead, we’re trying to incorporate our own observations into creating a pared-down wardrobe.

In Germany and Austria, we learned that “trainers” (running shoes) are not acceptable city wear and that, even in a country where nude beaches are prevalent, covered up is better than bare in public places. We also learned that blue jeans are for leisure time, not work or travel…..and worn looking blue jeans on anyone over 40 are only for gardening.

In England, we learned that sensible footwear actually makes practical sense. Forget Duchess Kate’s pumps and think more of the Queen’s low heeled footwear for navigating cobblestone streets. We also learned that hooded raincoats are better than umbrellas, as well as being more manageable in crowds.

In France, we learned that accessories are key to stretching a small wardrobe. Huge North American style walk-in closets are not the norm, nor are huge wardrobes. Better to change up your scarf, jewellery or hat and spend your money on café au lait, croissants, marons glacés, and the theatre.

In Scotland, we learned that layers make sense. It rains a LOT in Scotland. A little rain can’t stop us. Nor, apparently, can a lot of rain. Ted and I are fully appreciating our “jacket in a pouch” TresPass shells as both windproof and waterproof. I’m also loving my longer length lined Columbia jacket, which has kept me dry and warm, and dries really quickly. Shoes are another story, and this is why we pack at least 2 pair each. Once they’re wet, they take 24 hours plus to fully dry. Rain boots were never an option (too big, bulky, and sweaty). Does anybody have comfortable (and at least a little bit stylish) waterproof shoes to recommend?

In South America, we learned that when it’s really hot, less is not necessarily better. Loose long-sleeved or full length clothing that lets the breeze through works better than sweating through your sunscreen. I also – finally – succumbed to the need for a hat to protect my head from the sun. Too bad I haven’t figured out how to pack my new Panama hat efficiently while we travel around Europe. Don’t even suggest that I wear it in Germany at the Christmas markets!!

On our first ever cruise we learned that when the restaurant dress code for men says “no jeans”, they mean it – even if they are not blue, and even if you try to fancy them up with a dress shirt or jacket.

In the southeast U.S. we learned that anything goes…. as long as you are staying in the southwest U.S. (and yet golf courses still require collared shirts on men – it’s a strange world).

In Arizona we learned that you don’t walk barefoot, or wear open sandals, in the desert. (And don’t grab a cactus for support – OUCH!)

In Texas we are learning that, when in Texas, cowboy boots go with everything – even a wedding gown!

I’m sure that Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus will have more lessons for us next year.

So in the end, here’s what’s working for us… so far:

Jeans, yes, but they are new dark unfaded ones without worn knees, and they are supplemented by a pair of dressier pants and a pair of lighter weight pants for each of us. Ted REALLY likes his mosquito-repelling pants from Marks) For me, also 2 packable dresses (one short and one long) and a scarf that can double as head covering if needed.

Running shoes, yes, but only for the fitness room or hiking – not to be worn downtown or into restaurants. I actually prefer my walking boots to runners, since they don’t have mesh that can let sand into the footbed, and I don’t use the gym anyway! We each need a pair of “sensible” walking shoes, since tiny heels and slippery soles are just asking for trouble on cobblestones. Flip flops get packed for public pools and the beach. One pair of pretty flats or sandals needs to be enough for me for dressier occasions. Sigh. Life is tough.

Tops that are modestly cut (forget spaghetti straps in public) so they’re acceptable even when sightseeing includes religious sites – and in quick-dry fabrics that can be rolled without wrinkling too badly. A few collared shirts for Ted, since crew neck shirts are not acceptable in all the places we might want to eat or take in a show.

It’s all about being both comfortable AND appropriate.

I purged a few more items post-cruise while we were in Arizona, so we now have a small suitcase labelled “cruise” that contains Ted’s lightweight suit, my white linen pants and silk tops, a couple of long dresses, and a pair of dress shoes for each of us. I don’t expect we’ll use those items except on cruise ships, but we’ll lug them back to Canada and hang on to them while son #2 has room to store the suitcase. We loved our first cruise, so more are definitely in our future…

…. and hopefully our fashion choices won’t be the source of too much amusement for those around us.

Episode 57 – On A Mission in Arizona

It’s amazingly beautiful.

To put things in perspective, you need to remember that Ontario’s first Catholic Mission (there were earlier ones in Acadia), Sainte Marie Among the Hurons, was founded in 1639 by the French Jesuit Fathers Lalemant and Brébeuf. We visited the site last summer: recreations of the buildings, simple church, European settlement with its perimeter of pointed tree trunks fashioned into fencing, and neighbouring Wendat/Huron village. The original mission buildings were made from cedar posts, with birch bark roofing and clay interior walls. It was all very plain. It also did not last; in 1649 during conflicts between the Wendat and Iroquois Nations, the 8 priests working in the mission were martyred and the mission itself burned.

In South America, we visited several churches established by Catholic Missions: the gorgeous Catedral San José in Antigua Guatemala built in 1680, Lima Peru’s Cathedral dating to 1622, the stunning Santa Catalina Monastery founded in 1580 in Arequipa Peru, and San Agustin church in Las Serenas Chile built in 1672. The difference between those gorgeous, ornate, icon-filled churches and the simple chapel at Sainte Marie is almost indescribable. Of course, the Spanish had been in South America since the 1490’s, and had had lots of time to overrun the original South American inhabitants and “convert” them to Catholicism. Additionally, building materials and methods were far different than what were available in Canada. Adobe clay bricks last much longer than wood, don’t burn easily (although they are susceptible to earthquake damage), and require much less manpower to create than cutting stone. Once the solid church exteriors were created, there was an abundance of exotic wood, and precious metals, with which to create awe-inspiring interior decorations. Many of the South American civilizations already used gold, silver, and jade in their own places of worship, so the ornate Spanish churches must have at least “made sense”. It’s hard to imagine that Canadian Indigenous peoples would have been equally impressed by gold leaf adorning brightly painted statues of the saints and the Madonna, but who knows?

Mission San Xavier Del Bac is just south of Tucson. Here is the area’s connection to Father Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit priest who founded the mission in 1692, and who was represented in many of local artist Ted DeGrazia’s paintings. Father Kino was sent to work with the people living in New Spain; first in Baja California and then in the Sonoran Desert: 16 different agricultural tribes with whom he shared European farming techniques as he converted them to Catholicism. He was involved in founding more than 20 other missions, but San Xavier is the largest. It seems that in many cases the natives sought him out, as opposed to him looking for them. Some of that might have had to do with his reputation for speaking against Spanish interests – opposing both slavery and native peoples’ working conditions in Spanish-run silver mines – and the fact that he brought along livestock as well as seeds for peaches, olives, drought-resistant Sonoran wheat to add to their traditional crops.

Interesting (to me) is Father Kino’s heritage. He is often referred to as either Italian or Spanish, but he was born in the Bishopric of Trent while it was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (it’s now Trentino, Italy), his father was a German nobleman named Franz Kühn (changed to Chini in Italian and Kino in Spanish), his mother was an Italian noblewoman named Margherita Luchi, he was educated in Austria, and he took his religious training in Bavaria. There are German connections in South America and the southern United States almost as far back as the Spanish ones.

Ted DeGrazia’s 1952 mural of Father Kino arriving in the Sonoran Desert. The mural is painted in the entry to DeGrazia’s chapel on his property in Tucson’s Catalina Hills.

San Xavier Del Bac did not originally have a large church. In fact, by the time Father Kino died in 1711, and even up to when the Jesuits were recalled to Spain in 1767, they were using a smaller adobe church, which was destroyed during an Apache attack in 1770. The current building, nicknamed The White Dove of the Desert by photographer Ansel Adams, and recognized as the oldest surviving European structure in Arizona, dates back only to 1783 when the Franciscans took over the mission. The interior is decorated with a mixture of Native American and New Spain artistic motifs. The church is still used by Tohono O’odham Nation (second in size only to the Navaho in the U.S.), the Wa:k community, and Yaqui tribal members.

The building is in a constant state of restoration, the timing of which takes place around regular masses, based on availability of specialty craftsmen and artisans, and of course money. That said, the interior has been largely magnificently restored, and the exterior holds evidence of its former glory.

On the exterior of the church you can see vestiges of red, blue, and gold paint over the doorway and on the statues.

The interior is in the Churrigueresque style, also called Ultra Baroque or “Mexican Baroque”, with ornate carving, trompe-l’oeil effects, gilding, brightly coloured decoration, sculptures, and symmetry. The three-dimensional tile effect on the lower walls is paint, as are all the surfaces that look like marble.

The main altar is decorated to look like the Franciscans’ image of heaven: God at the top centre, giving a blessing with his right hand and holding the earth with his left. Angels are at his side, with a shining gilded Mary a couple of levels lower. The figure in priestly vestments just above the altar and behind Jesus on the cross is Saint Xavier. saints Peter and Paul are in the two upper niches.

There are 147 different angels throughout the church, but these two were my favourites – they look ready to take off!

One of the newest additions to this active church is a wooden statue depicting Saint Kateri Tekekwitha, “The Lily of the Mohawks”, the very first Native American saint, canonized by Pope Benedict in 2012. Fitting since this church is in a Native American community.

Having seen this mission, I’m excited to visit the San Antonio Missions next month. Your “mission”, should you choose to accept it, is to follow along with us!

Episode 56 – THIS is a museum??

mu·se·um | \ myu̇-ˈzē-əm

Merriam-Webster dictionary definition: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value

We spent a day this week at the Sonoran Desert Museum, which, while devoted to the preservation of objects of lasting value, has an interesting concept of what “objects” are. It’s really more like what we’d expect from a zoo/botanical garden than a traditional museum.

The grounds of the “museum” are untouched desert wilderness, with the exception of identification signs beside some of the vegetation, and the walking path itself with its warnings to stay ON the path. Although various rodents, coyotes, and javelinas might cross the path (mostly at night) apparently rattle snakes prefer to stay on the desert floor.

The site even incorporates a large living natural cave complete with dripping stalactites, along with a more traditional mineral exhibit.

We observed several animals native to this part of Arizona: pudgy javelinas, a feeding black bear, a majestic mountain lion (all pictured below),

plus well-camouflaged lizards, rattlesnakes (safely behind glass!), a pair of Mexican lobos (wolves)….

… and BIRDS!!!

Arizona is known for having lots of hummingbirds, which love to feed on cactus blooms, but it’s hard to get photos of them in the wild. Not only are they tiny and fast, but it’s really hard to sneak up on a cactus! An enclosure with available food and enough room to allow for these very territorial birds to maintain their own personal space makes for terrific photo ops. (That said, Ted has gotten a few pretty great pics as we walked along the Rillito River near where we are staying.)

Clockwise from top left: male Broad-billed Hummingbird; hummingbird taking flight (MAYBE a female Rufous); male Rufous Hummingbird; female Broad-billed, or maybe an Anna’s Hummingbird? They’re just so small!!

Not only is there a hummingbird pavilion, and a walk-through aviary, but we got to take in an absolutely amazing display of raptor free-flight. The magnificent Harris’s Hawks flew so low that the wind from their wings ruffled my hair! In addition, there was a gorgeous Gray Hawk (aka Mexican Goshawk), a stunningly beautiful male Barn Owl, and a Peregrine Falcon (the fastest member of the animal kingdom on earth, clocked at 240 mph/385 kph when diving downward on its prey). It was fascinating to hear about how these birds are trained using 100% positive reinforcement in an environment where they could fly away any time they want to – and yet they don’t!

Clockwise from top left: Gray Hawk perched; one of the hunting group of 5 Harris’s Hawk in full downward wing swoop; male Barn Owl coming in for a landing; Peregrine Falcon in flight (you can see the thin radio transponder wire above his tail, that allows him to be tracked if he decides to go exploring)

The Harris’s Hawks were particularly interesting because of the dynamics within their hunting groups. There is a real “pecking order” (pun intended). Groups range from 4 to 7 birds with the leader always being the female, who is also the biggest bird in the group. Next comes her mate (the alpha male), then the beta male, who is an unrelated bird; he lives and hunts with the group, but does not mate with the female unless the alpha male dies. The remaining birds are offspring of the matriarch. In this group, birds 4 and 5 were both males.

The pecking order is evident in who eats first (always the female and any fledglings), but also in how they perch: if there is more than one bird on a cactus or in a tree, the higher ranking bird always sits highest, and the others below it in their “order”. We watched as the beta male landed on a tall saguaro and was fairly quickly – but gently – moved off by the alpha male. Their handler told us that occasionally two or more of the males will tussle over a choice bit of food, but when they do, the female simply flies down and inserts herself between them. No further action needed. If only it were as easy for human moms!!

Once again, we learned something new by visiting a new place.

Bottom line: one of the liveliest “museums” we’ve ever visited!

Episode 55- Tucson Tales

We’re very conscious that our time in Tucson is too short to see and do everything, since our first month “here” was actually spent cruising up the coast of South America. As a result, we’re trying to do as much as we can in our remaining January weeks.

The past 4 days alone have been filled with new places and experiences.

On Sunday, I rediscovered the art of Ellote (Ted) DeGrazia at the museum that was his home and studio in the Catalina Hills. Ted was not familiar with his work at all, and I knew it largely as the simplistic primary-coloured black-eyed children he painted, but there was so much more: religious themes based on the ministry of Father Kino in Mexico, paintings depicting the life and struggles of poor Mexicans and the Papago Indians of the southwest, a series on bullfighters, musicians, angels, abstracts inspired by Paul Gauguin, plus bronze sculptures, decorative metal work, ceramic tiles, desert garden landscaping, and even architecture (he built his home and studio from adobe bricks that he molded and fired himself). Until touring his gallery I had no idea how prolific he was.

L to R: stained glass windows of the studio; ceramic tiled kitchen counter; glazed enamel over metal door, inset with coloured glass balls; bronze garden fountain
L to R: “self portrait”, Mexican pipe player in yellow sombrero; Our Lady of Guadalupe on chapel entrance wall; processional

Monday we spent a sunny afternoon at the Pima Air & Space Museum, touring 4 huge hangars (250,000 square feet) and another 80 outdoor acres showcasing 328 military and civilian planes, and helicopters. Seeing everything from the Wright Brothers’ plane through to the fastest military plane on record (at over 2,000 mph) to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner prototype really highlights how much, and how quickly, the technology involved in flight has progressed.

Just to demonstrate that, for artists, ANYTHING can be a canvas, several of the huge fuselages have been turned into art installations. It’s a far cry from the cartoons that World War II flight crews painted on their planes!

On Tuesday, we visited Tombstone, “the town too tough to die”, where we had a glimpse into the old west: a place where the law – and the inhabitants – were both, literally, moving targets. That fact was best demonstrated by the 250 or so graves at Boot Hill, where the terse engravings on the headstones speak to many, many violent ends.

L to R: the undertaker’s advertisement; the original gold-plated “Black Moriah” used to transport coffins to the cemetery; one of Boot Hill’s tombstones
L to R: Cochise County Courthouse; part of Tombstone’s main street; the stage coach making its way through town

We didn’t take in the re-enactments of the gunfight at the OK Corral, but did tour the Cochise County Courthouse, jail, and gallows, and the Birdcage Theatre, which is the only building in Tombstone still completely original to the day it closed in 1884. Lilly Langtry was one if many famous performers who graced the stage there during the boom years of silver mining, while men with money were “entertained” by the ladies who occupied the “bird cages” (the curtained boxes on the second level of the theatre). A very young Lilian Russell premiered Arthur Lamb’s song “Bird in a Gilded Cage” on the stage here on the theatre’s opening night in 1881.

L to R: The Bird Cage; the “cages”; the original piano still in front of the stage; a room for the “other” entertainment

In the late afternoon, on the advice of a friend, we drove to Whitewater Draw, where up to 20,000 sandhill cranes spend the winter months. I’d say they are “snowbirds” like all the Canadians wintering down here, except that the birds are WAY noisier than most Canadians! Like me, they rarely stop chattering.

We stayed overnight at Tombstone Monument Ranch, in the Blacksmith Room, and had drinks at the beautiful wooden bar that was imported from Germany! We met couples from Canada (Lindsay and Fenelon Falls, Ontario) and from New Zealand, and had a fun evening learning how to play Texas Hold’em Poker with “Wyatt Earp”. Although we didn’t take advantage of the horseback riding, ATV’s, archery or shooting practice, I did take full advantage of the excellent margaritas ON TAP in the bar! We’ve added this dude ranch to our list of potential places to bring the kids and grandkids.

L to R: the the ranch rooms with porch lights on as we arrived in the evening; the saloon bar; Wyatt dealing cards; exterior of some of the rooms in daylight

On Wednesday, after a hearty ranch breakfast, we headed to Bisbee, site of the Queen Mine, one of the world’s richest mines. Active mining operations ceased at the Queen in 1943, but sister mines in the same Mule Mountains continued to yield copper, silver, gold, lead and zinc until 1975. The Queen Mine was re-opened as a tourist site in February 1976 and since then has offered underground tours to more than 1 million people. Ted is puzzled by why I want to explore caves and mines, but humoured me anyway as we travelled 1600 feet into the mine and 100+ years back in time. I think that, despite the pretty intense cold in that particular mine, he found it interesting too. All the tour guides are former Phelps Dodge (Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company) miners, so we benefited from hearing some fascinating first-hand experiences. We also learned that the Queen Mine was the one that Disney staff toured and on which the Thunder Mountain Railway ride was based!

L to R: Bisbee’s “B” on the mountainside; the tram entrance into the mine; the “cage” elevator that took 9 miners at a time down into the lower levels; alarm bell code for mine disasters warnings; a silver, copper and gold ore deposit lit up by a modern miner’s light. Originally, miners worked their 10 hour shifts using an allotment of 3 candles.

We may need to lay low for a couple of days to re-boot. More adventures await in this very interesting and historic part of Arizona. It will surprise none of our friends that I have a list!!

Episode 54 – Mountains and Saguaros

We’re constantly amazed by our surroundings. Here in Tucson, the desert and mountain landscapes are what the best jigsaw puzzle pictures are made of.

When we get up in the morning, the rocky Catalina Foothills visible from our veranda are framed against a vibrantly bright blue sky in the sunshine – and in January it is ALWAYS sunny! Monsoon season rains with their indigo skies and streaks of fork lightning are months away. As the day progresses, the mountains change colour as the light shifts, turning from sandstone, slate and green in the morning to pinkish by midday, a rich pink-gold copper in late afternoon, and then quickly transitioning through dusty rose and lilac into grey as twilight arrives. Those same colours appear on the stucco and painted brick buildings here.

About 15 miles in each direction to the east and west of Tucson are the two halves of Saguaro National Park: the Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District, respectively. Park admission is good for a week at both sites, so they were our main focus this week.

Heading west we drove along the Gates Pass, a winding mountain road built in 1883 by pioneer, saloon owner and rancher Thomas Gates as a shortcut through the mountains to his carbonate mine in the Avra Valley. The 15mph speed limit around the blind curves is definitely there for a reason.

Part way to the National Park is Tucson Mountain Park, with a lookout point located on one side of a bowl-shaped volcanic crater, surrounded by the mountain range. When the area became a park in 1937, several stone buildings were erected on the hills.

The Tucson range is the equivalent of “tree-covered”, only the “trees” are 20 to 30 foot tall saguaro cacti. The density of the saguaro forest surprised us; it is similar to the density of old growth forests like Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island. Where the B.C. forest floor is covered in pine needles, moss, ferns and nurse logs, here the forest floor is sand and stone with scrub grasses, bushes, and smaller cacti growing in discrete clumps. Water is at such a premium that the desert plants space themselves, sometimes by secreting toxins from their roots that keep other plants from encroaching on their territory.

Further along we reached the National Park proper, with its miles and miles of dirt roads, walking and hiking trails. The trail map suggests how much water you should carry, since the last place to refill your water bottle is at the visitor centre. There are a few restrooms in the park, but none with potable water. If, like us, you remembered your hat but didn’t think to bring a water bottle, you can buy a reusable one and fill it, but they don’t sell bottled water.

Not the biggest of the saguaro in the park, but still one I looked up to!

Since we only wanted to spend about 3 hours, the park ranger suggested we walk the Valleyview and Wild Dog Trails, where we were struck by the sheer diversity of desert plants. There were lots of giant saguaros, but also hedgehog cacti, teddybear cholla, mesquite, palo verde, bursage, burroweed, brickelbush, juniper, acacia, ironwood, ocotillo, creosote, buckhorn cholla, pencil cholla, jumping cholla, staghorn cholla, prickly pear (green and purple), organpipe cacti, and deer-grass…. and that’s just what we could identify with the help of the interpretive charts!

Clockwise from top left: Ocotillo, ironwood, teddybear cholla, prickly pear, palo verde

Later in the spring, there will be bright colours from cactus flowers, but now there is “just” green, the occasional yellow fruit on the barrel cacti, and the small dark red berries of the desert mistletoe (above).

“Just” green! Sage, mint, olive, lime, fern, pistachio, seaweed, basil, pear, avocado, jade, asparagus, army…. think of a shade and it’s here in the desert and, like the mountains, each one changes hue with the light. In the afternoon with the full sun beating down, the colours bleach out a bit – or maybe it’s our eyes that can’t handle the intensity of the light. As the sun starts to set, the paler greens turn silvery, and the darker ones seem to become even more vibrant. It’s breathtaking.

In arroyos (gullies) where water is more apt to collect after storms, the plants grow closer together; in a couple of places we even saw tufts of green grass!
At the top of the trail was a lookout point where we sat down and frankly gawked at the view.
Several birds teased us with their calls, but Ted was only able to photograph (clockwise from top left) a Gila Woodpecker, a Cactus Wren, a black-throated sparrow, and a Northern Mockingbird (thanks to our birder friend Maggie for helping us I. D. them!)

The Rincon Mountain eastern portion of the National Park is reached by a far less twisty route; since it is just outside the Tucson city limits, the drive there is through built-up residential areas. Even the roads inside the eastern park are paved, with regular lookout points where you can pull off and take photos…. or just stop on the one-way road to photograph a sunning lizard!

The terrain and the walking trails are much stonier than in the western park. Here there used to be ranches, lime kilns (below), and the Loma Verde copper mine, and you can see remnants of those enterprises scattered throughout the area.

The vegetation is similar, and yet different. There are far more trees: palo verde, mesquite, and creosote. The prickly pear and cholla are more abundant and larger. The biggest difference, though, is the saguaro. There are fewer in this park, but those that are here are much older and thus much larger. We learned that a saguaro does not produce its first “arm” bud until it is between 60 and 75 years old. A 6 foot tall saguaro is about 35 years old – there are specimens here that are 150 years old, 50 feet tall, with multiple limbs.

On our hike we crossed water twice, in the Monument Wash and the Loma Verde Wash. Both are shallow rocky creeks now in dry season, but turn into road-flooding rivers in monsoon season. On either side of the wash, plants grew closer together and were a deeper shade of green.

The area is too dry to attract birds, so our next hikes will be Sabino and Madera Canyons, which the park rangers told us are the best birding spots. Fingers crossed!

Episode 53 – California Dreamin’

Our last 2 cruise stops were in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Ted and I have spent time in San Diego before, enjoying the Gaslamp District, the zoo, Balboa Park, the Del Coronado Hotel, and touring the USS Midway, so we didn’t feel the need to take a guided tour. Instead, since we were not sailing for L.A. until late in the evening, we decided simply to spend the day strolling on our own. The weather was glorious, and the Viking Sun docked right in San Diego harbour, so we could walk directly into the terminal and then into the city – almost like being on a river cruise!

Our “home” for the past month, anchored at Terminal B.

San Diego was just as lovely as I remembered: an eclectic yet pleasing mix of architecture from Victorian (Gilded Age) through Art Deco, and right up to glass and steel modern. Green parks line much of the waterfront, with shops and restaurants galore for browsing. Here are a few of our favourite pictures from our day in San Diego:

The art deco County Administrative building, plus detail of its mosaic framed doorway and the water carrier statue in front of it.
L: The magnificent U.S.Grant Hotel, on the register of U.S. historic sites. R: The Pacific marker for the transcontinental highway that runs from St. Augustine Florida to San Diego.
Top: Exterior of the Santa Fe Depot, built in 1915 for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, a lovely mission/Spanish revival style building, now surrounded by more modern structures and yet still somehow looking like it belongs exactly where it is. Its tile-covered domes and interior tile-work are in the railway’s blue and yellow colour scheme. Bottom left: a section of the interior walls. Bottom right: the arched wooden ceiling beams and milk-glass lights.
A sampling of the beautiful buildings in San Diego’s Gaslamp District.

L.A. was a different story. All we’ve ever done there is go through the airport, so we were happy to take a panoramic bus tour to see the highlights.

To say everything is bigger here is almost an understatement. The freeways are bigger, and 3 stories tall in places. The skyscrapers are taller. The university campuses are huger. The sports and entertainment venues are more massive. The crowds…. well, let’s just say there are crowds! The homeless problem is bigger too; we saw tent cities along the freeway, as well as lots of trash everywhere. The city is so much richer than any we saw in South America, yet litter is at least as big a concern here as in any of those countries,

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get great pictures on a bus tour, but we made 2 stops where photos were possible. The first was on Hollywood Boulevard between Orange and Sarasota, the location of the Walk of Fame, the Dolby Theatre, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Did you know that prior to his Chinese Theater, there was the Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre? It still exists further down the boulevard.

In the Dolby Theatre shopping and entertainment complex, called the Hollywood and Highland Centre, the central courtyard features two gigantic elephant pillars and a Babylonian-style gateway that is a smaller-than-life-sized replica of part of the set for the 1916 D. W. Griffith movie, “Intolerance”. It really lends perspective to the scale of those epic movies.
The center is also a great place to get a shot of the iconic Hollywood sign.
In front of Grauman’s Chinese we took in the current display of celebrity hand and footprints. As more stars get this honour, older cement tiles are removed to storage to allow newer ones to be placed. Some classics never get moved though, like the silent film star Pola Negri from the 1930’s, or Marilyn Monroe.
With so many stars embedded in the sidewalk over a length of 15 blocks, it’s hard to pick just one….. but I sure did love Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele, and I almost stepped on him when we got off the bus!(the concerned look on my face is really squinting at the sun)
Inside the Dolby Theater, we walked up the staircase that movie stars use when attending the Oscars. No red carpet on “ordinary” days, and lots of other people walking with us, but still a neat thing to do.
Naturally, there are lots of touristy gift shops lining Hollywood Boulevard. One of the biggest, LALALAND, had life-size movie figures for photo-ops around the store. Ted got to show off his guns beside Harley Quinn, and challenge Batman.

Our second stop was in downtown Los Angeles, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is my favourite Frank Gehry-designed building yet. Its satiny patina was an afterthought: it was originally glossy stainless steel, but the sun shining off its surface blinded pilots flying into LAX, and the reflected rays actually burned holes into the curtains of condos across the road!

Hidden in one of the concert hall’s upper courtyards is a Gehry-designed rose fountain dedicated to Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, who funded the over $30 million dollar construction of the building.

That, sadly, is it for this trip. Tomorrow we’re on a plane from LAX back to Tucson to continue our winter travels. Thanks for following along!