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Tuesday, September 15, 2015 : Tucson and its surroundings


The hotel is noisy, we have known that since last night. Good thing we brought earplugs ! Since the restaurant serves breakfast till 9am only, we can't hang around for too long.


We are going to spend the day around Tucson, and we plan to see a lot :



It's going to be a busy day. We are staying in Tucson next night, so we do not have too many miles to drive.


Since we do not have our bags with us, we can drive with the open hood. Weather is great, so a hat or a cap is mandatory.


The history of the area is very specific. Indeed, the whole Southern part of Arizona and the Southwestern part of New Mexico were Mexican territories until 1853. The Gadsden Purchase, taking its name from the US Ambassador to Mexico at the time, integrated them into the Union. This territory purchase had several objectives :



The Gadsden Purchase was negotiated during Franklin Pierce's, the 14th President, Administration, by none other that Jefferson Davis, the War Secretary (at the time, the Department was not yet called Defense), who later made a name for himself as the sole President of the Confederate States of America between 1861 and 1865, during the Civil War.


Tucson is located in the heart of Gadsden Purchase territory. Needless to say, the traces of Spanish, later Mexican, occupation in the area are much more prevalent here than anywhere else.


Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ

Mission San Xavier del Bac


Mission San Xavier del Bac is a faithful representation of this very specific history, as well as of the missionnary calling of highly Catholic Spain in all its colonial empire in the Americas.


The very first mission was founded by a Jesuit missionnary, Eusebio Francisco Kino, who gave it the name of one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus in the 16th century, Saint Francis Xavier. In 1700, the very first church of the mission was erected a few miles from the present site. In 1767, Spanish king Charles III, who despised Jesuits, ended up banning them from all Spanish territories in the Americas, and replaced them with Franciscans.


The original church, very vulnerable to Apache attacks, was destroyed in 1770. The present church was erected between 1783 and 1797 by missionnaries, still Franciscans, thanks to a loan by a wealthy local farmer. After Mexican independence in 1821, all Spanish-born priests were eventually banned by the government in 1828, and the last Franciscan left the place in 1837. The decline of Mission San Xavier seemed a foregone conclusion.


However, after the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, whatever remained of the mission was added to Santa Fe Diocese's jurisdiction, and the church reopened. As soon as Tucson Diocese was established in 1868, it took over the mission, and services could be held on a regular basis at San Xavier.


Starting in 1872, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet added a school, expanded several times, to the mission which, as of this day, still maintains a leading educational appeal.


Inside main church, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ

Inside main church, Mission San Xavier del Bac


We arrive at San Xavier on Interstate 19 which, beyond its length of only 63 miles, has the unique distinction of being the only highway in the United States on which distances are signed in kilometers. Since enforced speed limits are expressed in miles per hour, as anywhere else in the country, the intellectual challenge of permanently switching between both measurements systems sounds very interesting.


We join a group that sets off to visit the mission, guided by a retired volunteer who once was a pupil at the school. He obviously knows the place like the back of his hand.


The visit begins with the main church, decorated in the rather over-ornate style common to all Spanish missions in the Americas, to which local Native American populations added even more lively colors. As donations trickle in, works gradually restore the mission back to the style of its glory days. The main nave is absolutely superb, but the small side chapels have not all yet been reconditioned with the same care.


Behind the main church, the visit proceeds into the cloister, onto which former classrooms opened. Indeed, in 1947, a larger school was built right beside the mission.


On the right of the mission, a small hill hosts the tombs of the Franciscan Missionnaries who died here.


Unlike other missions in the area, San Xavier is still active, for the celebration of services as well as for its kindergarten and primary school, which serves local communities.


We then leave San Xavier towards Old Tucson Studios, 14 miles away.


Old Tucson Studios, Tucson, AZ

Old Tucson Studios


We pass one first time in front of the studios and can see a crane and other props popping above. So we are at the right place. However, we are a bit put off when we see the almost empty parking lot. After checking, that's not such a big surprise. The studios are closed during the whole of September, which we obviously did not know beforehand.


That's too bad. We were thrilled to visit the studios where scenes of so many great films were shot : Winchester 73, Rio Bravo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and scores of others, and watch the living presentations.


The shop is open, which is cold comfort.


We did not make such a long detour. Our planned route was passing in front of Old Tucson Studios anyway.


Rattlesnake, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Rattlesnake, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


Little over 3 miles further, our next stop is at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which I will simply call the Desert Museum. At the same time  zoo, aquarium, botanical garden and fossil and mineral exhibition, this museum showcases the beauties of the desert on less than 100 acres


Plants and animals are shown in conditions close to their original environment, with the most dangerous species, like snakes, obviously kept out of visitors' reach.


The purpose of this museum is to introduce the visitor to the many aspects of life in the desert, without spending too much time looking for them in vain in the whole region. We are safely guessing we can see most of the animals hosted here.


This museum mixes indoor exhibitions (fossils, minerals, some animals), outdoor activities and some live presentations by rangers. About 85% of activities are outdoors, so it's good to be ready to walk under the searing sun of Southern Arizona.


Owl, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Owl, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum


After visiting the rattlesnake room (and I certainly was not previously aware there are so many species of them), we watch while a ranger shows a small owl. The animal curiously looks at our camera, like it was suddenly woken up. Speaking of a theoretically nocturnal bird, this is no major surprise.


The ranger shows it in various positions. Oddly enough, the animal bends its head, so as to always be looking at the same point.


Sand storm in the middle of giant saguaros, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Sand storm in the middle of giant saguaros


We have now left the main building for a walk in the middle of the desert. Signs logically emphasize the need for water and decent sun protection, to the point of providing sunscreen dispensers in restrooms.


Visiting all offered exhibitions means accepting a slightly less than 2 mi. walk. It may not seem that much, but let's not forget that, even staying within range of civilization, we are in the middle of a desert. For that matter, we have our backpacks with ample water supply.


At a time, between yuccas and giant saguaros, wind suddenly picks up into a brief sand storm that abates almost as soon, as if nothing had happened.


Yucca and saguaros, Sonoran Desert vegetation, Tucson, AZ

Yucca and saguaros, Sonoran Desert vegetation


A large part of the park is minimally developed, in order to respect natural ecosystems and environments as much as can be. It is the case with the botanical garden, which showcases cacti and yuccas.


Dummy bats in their cave, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Dummy bats in their cave


At a point, we cross a cave with a complete colony of bats, a pretty common flying animal in desert areas, hanging from the ceiling. At that time (it's early in the afternoon), they seem to be having a nap and they absolutely ignore us. That makes sense, for they are dummy bats, belonging to the decoration of the cave. No need to wait, they won't be taking a flight at dusk !


Local rock crystals, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Local rock crystals


Another indoor gallery showcases the geology of the area, which was rather animated, these last 2 billion years, with major volcanic eruptions, lava flows, flooding, sediment covering, continental drift and so forth. The variety of crystals and precious stones is a direct consequence of this tormented history.


Young white-tailed deer, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Young white-tailed deer


After the geology gallery and the mineral exhibition, we are back out to visit the zoo. In a large pen, we see this young white-tailed deer.


In theory, there should not be any cervids in the middle of the desert. But the museum's vocation is larger than that. It showcases the ecosystems of the whole extended region, not just the southernmost part of Arizona. In the north, where we drove from, altitude, forest cover and the abundance of their favorite food allow the sustained existence of many deer. By the way, we crossed a few when we left Grand Canyon.


If there are births in this zoo, that means animals must be feeling good.


Black bear, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Black bear


In theory, there are no black bears either in Southern Arizona deserts. They too are more likely to be found in the North, around Grand Canyon, where milder temperatures helps them find a more appropriate environment, along with their favorite food. This confirms the park's vocation, more inclusive than we thought.


Marie notices that this female paces her pen back and forth, like she feels cramped inside. Perhaps. Another possibility is that, basically, she has a hard time coping with the heat. Fortunately, her pen's designers have added a large pond, so she may bathe anytime.


Coyote, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ



The coyote is really a local desert animal. However, it is very hard to see it in its natural habitat. First, it is a rather stealthy animal. And then, during the hot hours of the day, it remains well hidden, only going out at dark.


Indeed, this one wisely chose the shade of a tree to have a rest.


Cactus variety, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Cactus variety


We walk all Desert Loop Trail, the slightly less than 2 mi. trail that circles the park, looking for the animals mentioned on the map. We just saw the coyote, we are now looking for the javelina, a kind of wild black pig belonging to the family of peccaries, not to be confused with a warthog. Its pen is kind of large, we watch carefully, mostly in the shade, under the shrubs, then near watering holes, where we assume we stand the best chances to get a glimpse of it.


Bad luck, the javelina is nowhere to be seen. Let us say that its dark color allows it to cleverly hide under the vegetation. Perhaps we passed very close without seeing it. If it can hide away from predators, it sure can hide from a couple of visitors merely armed with a photo camera.


Bobcat, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ



Back from Desert Loop Trail, we visit Cat Canyon, the feline gallery, dug underneath our upper viewing path and covered with wire netting, just in case. We can see bobcats, in a large pen mimicking their natural environment, complete with trees and rocks.


From the upper path, Marie can take a few pictures of the bobcats underneath.


Coati, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ



After looking in its pen for a few minutes, we end up seeing the coati, a mammal belonging to the same family as raccoons. If the picture is to be trusted, it is looking for food. This is not a major surprise, since this omnivorous animal spends most of its time in search of something to eat : grains, insects, fruit, eggs, roots.


Bighorn sheep, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Bighorn sheep


When they setup the park, its designers astutely used the hilly landscape to reproduce the animals' natural habitat. Here, a small cliff has been carefully made into a rock moutainside for bighorn sheep.


Bighorn sheep are supposed to be rather common animals in the West. We have nonetheless seen a few only here and, very briefly, on the road to Carlsbad Caverns, which we will talk more about in a few days. And it's not for lack of looking carefully !


After visiting almost all of Desert Museum, we walk back to the main building and leave the park.


At the end of the day, the greatest virtue of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is to show all aspects of life in the deserts, which are pretty diverse, without having to risk wandering around in an actual desert. It is a really great compromise.


Giant saguaros, Saguaro National Park, Tucson District

Giant saguaros, Saguaro National Park


Our next stop is at Saguaro National Park, which of course takes its name from the giant cacti, especially pervasive in the whole area. This park is made up of two sections, one east of Tucson, Rincon District, which we will see tomorrow, and one west, Tucson District, where we are going to spend the end of the afternoon.


We make a stop at the visitor center, where we watch a film about life in the deserts.


We definitely talk a lot about deserts, today. That makes a lot of sense, for most of Southwestern USA is actually made of deserts, from West to East :



The three first ones are plain deserts, warm, and even very hot. The latter is a high plateau desert, mostly warm, but at times quite cold in winter. Combined, they cover an area almost three times the size of France. For that matter, we are not done with our crossing of the desert, literally speaking.


After the visitor center, we walk Desert Discovery Nature Trail, a relatively short trail, about 1/2 mi., which showcases plant life in the park in a quite educational way, most notably the famous giant saguaros which gave it their name. We thus learn that a saguaro can live more than 300 years, that it grows vertically for a few decades, and that the arms that spin off its main trunk are a rough indication of its age.


We can also see a few fallen dead saguaros. Inside is not only soft material, but also some really hard wood. The tallest saguaros can grow way beyond 40 ft.


Saguaro National Park, Tucson District

Saguaro National Park


A litlle further, the loop road that circles the park begins. Unfortunately, this road is not paved and the first section, in really bad condition, quickly turns us off.


We leave the park, without forgetting to take a picture of the entry sign, and we slowly take the road back to Tucson.


Twin rainbow on our way back, Tucson, AZ

Twin rainbow on our way back


This morning at San Xavier, the weather was kind of fine, but during the day, the sky gradually got obscured by clouds, and is now getting really dark. By pure chance, only a few rain drops fall, just enough to draw the twin rainbow on the picture.


Back to Tucson thru Gates Pass

Back to Tucson thru Gates Pass


We drive back to Tucson across Tucson Mountain Park, a large protected area west of the city. We are no longer on the same road as this morning, we cross Tucson Mountains, the mountain range on the picture, thru Gates Pass (no relation with Bill !), after making a stop just below the pass. The viewpoint on the plain and desert is gorgeous, this beautiful road really made our miles worthwhile.


The sky has cleared up, weather is fine again, and still as warm. We enter Tucson on a wide avenue that takes us almost straight to the hotel. As yesterday, we enjoy the pool and jacuzzi for a while before having dinner at the hotel restaurant.

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