Biomes to baklava in Arizona |

Biomes to baklava in Arizona

American Indian dance performers at the Tucson racetrack attract tourists with their colorful costumes and informal, spontaneous performances.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Second of two parts

Tucson proved to be a fitting mid-point of our winter escape from the Sierra Nevada foothills.

There is a “historic Tucson” in the downtown area that also has several shops featuring native art, but the action can be quite slow on a Sunday. We dropped in at the tourist center, which was painted in a riot of colors, as was the plaza around it.

The central part of Tucson is small and concentrated. A good view can be had from Sentinel Peak, just to the west of the city, particularly as the sun shines on the modern office and government buildings.

We spent the morning of Dec. 31 at the Biosphere II, which has operated under the direction of Columbia University since 1996. This unique laboratory, research institute and visitor attraction is some 20 miles northeast of Tucson.

It was originally designed a decade ago to serve as an experience for 20 people to live in an enclosed and hermetically sealed environment for two years. I don’t recall the outcome, but there was a second attempt made to do it, which was aborted some time into the project. Then Columbia took it over.

We went on a guided tour of the facility, which has different “biomes,” such as a desert, an ocean, a rain forest and so forth. It seems that the big research issues deal with the environment, particularly the increasing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. As a one-of-a-kind project, we felt it was worth the time and cost.

We attended an American Indian ceremony at the city racetrack in the afternoon. We watched a procession of dancers and drummers, all very colorful in their native costumes and feathers.

Even though it was a free event, it was only sparsely attended. Maybe it’s not a big deal for the local population, but we were quite impressed by the atmosphere, the informality and spontaneity of the participants and the audience.

New Year’s Eve proved to be a disappointment. Desperate for something special to do that night, we went to a dinner and dance given by the ” Paint Horse” convention folks at the next-door hotel, and so we learned more than we ever knew – or cared to know – about paint horses! We really missed being in our hometown to celebrate this night with a small group of good friends.

New Year’s Day was the time to turn around and head for home. So far we had driven well over 1,200 miles, and by the end of the trip, we had racked up some 2,600 miles. We made it all the way to Quartzsite that day.

Quite close to the Colorado River, this place is dead in the summer, but boasts up to 50,000 folks who come in RVs, motor homes and pickups, primarily to buy, sell, or swap all kinds of stuff, most of it used or one of a kind.

There is a BIG gem and rock show every January, that draws something like a million visitors, we were told. Fortunately, we got there some 10 days before the big crowds arrived and were able to stroll leisurely about. We bought some small, fancy rocks for our home.

I don’t think there were more than two restaurants in the whole town. Hamburgers were the deluxe item on the menu! But when we got to Baker that night, we came across a rather interesting and unique cafe: the Mad Greek Cafe.

I couldn’t believe it. Here in this itty-bitty town in the middle of nowhere, we were able to buy a real Greek meal, including usso and baklava.

We again traversed Death Valley, but along a different route. Just outside the park, we accidentally stumbled onto a very plain hot spring at Tecopa (48 miles north of Baker on State Highway 127). It’s a very small community, mostly RVs, and features free public bath houses for men and women.

It’s even possible to stay at a little motel, with the grand name of Tecopa Hot Springs Resort! Once inside the park, we drove through the well-known, 20-mule-team canyon, the old Borax Works, then all the way to the northern end to visit Scotty’s Castle.

They offer two tours. One is to see the inside of the castle. Instead, we chose to take a one-hour tour of the Basement, called the Technological Tour. It was late in the afternoon, and there was nobody else around except the two of us. Thus, we had the undivided attention of the park ranger.

It was a treat. We got a good description of the unusual heating, plumbing, electrical and advanced construction and safety features that went into the building of this rather complex structure, as well as the myths surrounding this place

We were nearing the end of this wonderful 11-day trip. We now traveled mostly north on U.S. Highway 95, which goes through Tonopah, where we spent our last night before continuing on through Hawthorne, Fallon, Reno and home.

The weather on our trip had been near perfect. We never ran into rain or snow, except for the last night in Tonopah (elevation 6,200 feet), when it snowed during the night. Our car was covered by 4 inches of snow the next morning.

Of course, we really chose a good time of the year. If you think of heading to this area of the country, you had better do it soon. I would say no later than April, before the weather really starts getting too hot.

We were very impressed with the natural beauty of all the places we saw and the many fascinating attractions of Tucson and southern Arizona.

Walt Fraser lives in Grass Valley.

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