Monday, August 18, 2014

Roadboy's Weekend In Tucson - The Old Pueblo

A Spectacular 27 Mile Drive
San Xavier Del Bac - The White Dove
The Hotel Congress, Cup Cafe and Dillinger's Downfall
A Summer Evening Visit to The Arizona Desert Sonora Museum

I have always loved Tucson.  One of America's oldest cities, Tucson is filled with history, is home to lovely resorts, creative restaurants and the much cherished Arizona Desert Sonora Museum.

It is an amazing bargain to visit Tucson in the summertime when spectacular 4 and 5 star resorts (that have no problem selling rooms in winter for  $350 / Nt) offer rates that flirt with $100 / Nt. Now, having said that, beware, many of the resorts add hidden charges (like absurd $29 / Nt. "Resort Fees").

We left Phoenix Friday after lunch as I wanted to begin the visit with a drive on one of America's most scenic highways, the Catalina Highway. Officially, it is the General Hitchcock Highway that extends from the Tanque Verde area of Tucson up to Mt. Lemmon.

The highway, begun in 1933, was a dream of the former Postmaster General of the US Frank Harris Hitchcock. Hitchcock secured the approval for the road and its funding at the height of the Great Depression. 

The execution of the project began when a prison camp was established at the base of the mountain to supply construction labor to build the road. 

Sadly, during World War II the prison camp became an "Honor Camp" where Japanese Americans were incarcerated and forced to continue its construction. 

After 17 years of construction the highway was completed in 1950.  The highway was widened and greatly improved in 2007. 

The completed project delivered 27 spectacular miles of highway climbing to 8,000 feet while visiting several micro-climates. The views at every turn are truly breathtaking and the temperature at the top in Summerhaven was a refreshing 63° (it was 100° at the base of the road in Tanque Verde). 

Summerhaven, after more than a decade of rebuilding is coming to life. The community suffered almost complete destruction in the 2003 Aspen Fire. The Aspen fire burned about a month and destroyed over 84,000 acres. The price of the fire? Firefighting: $17,000,000. Erosion control: $2,700,000. Reconstruction of utilities: $4,100,000. Plus the loss of 340 structures.

The acrid stench of the Aspen fire drifts all the way to Washington DC. One year earlier, recognizing the fire risk, the Coronado National Forest requested $2,000,000 to implement practical fire prevention measures. Of course, Congress in 2002 was focused only on spending requests for the Iraq war. And, like nearly all upkeep related requests from the National Parks, National Forests and National Monuments during that time, the request was ignored. 

Midway To the Top 

 Spectacular Rock Outcroppings Along the Way

The Hitchcock Memorial
(Oddly - No Longer Accessible?)

The Plaque Dedicating the Highway 

A View to The North Among the Aspens 

Saturday morning was spent visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac (the White Dove of the Desert).

I had read that in summer the best time to visit the Mission is in the morning and that proved sage advice.  Construction on the church began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. At that time it was part of New Spain. Following Mexican independence in 1821, the mission became part of Mexico. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase resulted in the Mission becaming part of the United States. 

The church suffered earthquake damage in 1887. Lightning struck its west tower in 1939. Leaks in 1989 resulted in beginning of an ongoing restoration which continues to this day. 

San Xavier del Bac remains the oldest European structure in Arizona. 

Note The Restoration of West Tower
(The East Tower Awaits Full Restoraton) 

The Baroque Facade

An Exterior Detail

I had not visited the church since the Interior restoration was undertaken and it is spectacular.   Hundreds of years of grime have been removed from its frescoes and its statuary has been painstakingly been restored. The last time I visited the church its golden lions (flanking the altar) were missing (they were stolen in August 1982. Today new lions are in place. Thanks to Spencer and Gloria Giffords (parents of former Tucson Representative Gabrielle Giffords) who commissioned replacement lions from artisans in Mexico in 1983. The Lions, completed in 1985, were then aged in Gloria Giffords studio for 2-1/2 years prior to reinstallation.

The Chancel
(With One of the Golden Lions)

The West Transept

The Transept Dome

For lunch we visited downtown and ate at the Cup Cafe in the historic Hotel Congress. The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 along with the Rialto theater across the street from Tucson's 1907 Train Station. It is perhaps most famous for its fire on January 21, 1934. As it happened one of its guests was John Dillinger. He escaped the fire via a ladder and was identified by a firemen who went back to retrieve his luggage. He was arrested, escaped custody in Indiana and was killed 6 months later in Chicago on July 22, 1934.

Front - The Cup Cafe's Dillinger Menu

Back - The Cup Cafe's Dillinger Menu

Light in the Hotel Congress Nightclub

Dance of Death Mural 
Nightclub Hotel Congress

The visit was sequenced for an afternoon and evening visit to the 98 acre Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.  The complex is part museum, part aquarium and part zoo (with 230 different species of animals). It is only open for evenings on a few Saturday nights each summer. And it is a special time to visit. The animals are more active, there are musicians throughout the grounds and the nightly monsoons frequently create something completely magical.

The Drive to The Museum
(Crossing Gates Pass)

Looking North Toward the Museum

A Mountain Lion

A Fox

An Ocelot

Bighorn Sheep

The Surrounding Views At Sunset

A White Lined Sphinx Moth
(Flies and Behaves Like A Hummingbird)

As if by Irony - A Chance Sighting of Gabrielle Giffords
(Taking a Selfie With Her Husband Shuttle Astronaut Mark Kelly) 

A Summer Storm Roared in Capping Our Evening

Tucson is an on-going story. It is a land of extremes. It owns a rich history filled with heroic people sometimes just living everyday lives. A history filled with joy, music, art and heartache. It offers centuries of myths and legends. And, despite its amazing growth, it remains a true one-of-a-kind.

And it is something very special in summer.

Roadboy's Travels ©2014

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