Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mission Arizona

By the time the plane landed and I'd collected my luggage and the rental car I had maybe a solid afternoon of dashing about the desert around Greater Tucson to see what there was to see after a 32 year absence from this part of the country. Tombstone and Old Tucson were out as being too kitschy for me at the no longer young age of 40-never mind. I wanted the real Arizona, the living, breathing, historic southern state late of Mexico by way of the Gadsden Purchase and more than a few indigenous cultures. I wanted the Arizona of the Spanish Missions, saguaro cactus reaching nearly three full stories in to the sky and the red rocks of the sun, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Hey, I ain't that old!

A quick bite at In - N - Out Burger by the side of the highway to buy some time to make sure the two dozen travel brochures I'd picked through would yield the right combination of things to do and I was off, roaring down Interstate I-19 towards a previously unknown bit of history - the best kind - called Tumacacori. In this national park lie the ruins of three Spanish missions, the oldest of which dates from 1691. The one pictured here is the only one really worth seeing as it is the only one still standing and largely intact. The grounds evoke an era of no roads, hard scrabble living and unyielding frontier heat as the Jesuits fought wind, weather and warrior to convert the locals. It was a perfect blue sky early afternoon to start the whirlwind tour and a great way to see a nearly forgotten attraction by the side of the highway.

Motoring back north towards Tucson and the next stop on the list of things to do I was trying to decide what to do. Should I should rush through this next one just as quickly so as to try and get in a third before the sun went down and my time-warped body clock started over-drafting energy I knew I wouldn't have later? I had my answer as I pulled in to the parking area for the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, hardly ten miles south of Tucson. It still serves the Tohono O'odham people on whose land it has sat since 1699. The aesthetic claim to fame here is the elaborate, almost overwrought decor of the interior which has led some to describe it as the Sistine Chapel of North America.

I wasn't ready to go that far, for one reason being the setting, while beautiful, was still in the middle of a desert instead of anything even close to the Eternal City. The gold, myrrh and incense of the inside serves the standard purpose of awe and intimidation but the size of the building also detracts from such a lofty claim to greatness. Just the same it was and is a beautiful example of mission architecture and survives where few had before or since. After about an hour I knew what I had left to do.

The Pima Air Museum in South Tucson adjacent to Davis Monthan Air Force Base is a permanent homage to gallant, glorious and ghostly aircraft from days gone by. The airbase itself is the final resting place of over 4,000 military aircraft going back to at least the Korean War but the main attraction is Pima. Here I saw everything from the little "James Bond" spy plane seen in "Octopussy" to marauders like F-14s, F-4 Phantoms, B-52s, one of the 707 NASA "Vomit Comets" and an impossibly enormous beast called the B-36 "Peacemaker."

A splendid example of an old "Air Force One" Boeing 707 used by LBJ was also on hand but the crown jewel for me was the Lockheed Constellation, the inimitable "Connie" in full TWA colors. I'd never seen one up close.

Three stops in roughly seven hours, including driving and I'd seen certainly more than I had expected, all of it new and beautiful, especially Pima. One wonders if a 747 will one day make it over from the nearby commercial aircraft boneyard at Marana.

Gotta go.

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