So far the vacation is off to a perfect start. The weather is cold, specifically, forty degrees cooler than when we left Charlotte, and overcast with occasional sprinkles. But there could be a blizzard and I would still be happy. It’s vacation after all!

Last night, when we arrived in the Portland airport, I knew immediately that I would like the city. In the baggage claim area, there was a woman donned in full hippie attire, with a flower, literally, in her hair. We were off to a good start.

Our rental car company didn’t have a car for us, but assured us one would be ready by this morning. That was fine by me because it meant that I would get a relaxing morning. Otherwise, my husband is sighing, pacing around the room, and otherwise rushing me, usually by offering helpful suggestions like, “You can do that later,” until I’m slightly annoyed by the time we leave the hotel room. Vacations are for relaxing, but that’s not something that seems to get scheduled into our days. Not that I’m complaining. We always have a great time. It’s just that sometimes, one is grateful for the forced slow start.

Sometime after breakfast, at a perfectly reasonable hour, we procured our car and headed for downtown Portland where we spent the entire day. I liked it instantly when I discovered that we were following an Utz truck. A whole truck of Utz. Here! I foresee a recurrent theme during the rest of our vacation.

Once parked, we walked several miles (or what seemed like it) through the Historic and Arts districts. Characterized by brick sidewalks and privately-owned shops with quaint store signs, the area is tourist heaven. Numerous Irish pubs, clothing shops, interesting knickknacks, restaurants, a Life is Good (and way expensive, Dude!), bookstores, and a tasteful sex shop provide amusement for hours. There wasn’t a single chain store apart from Starbucks. For entertainment during rest stops for weary feet and old, aching backs, there’s plenty of people-watching. In addition to the tourists, the streets are lined with hippies, and sadly a few homeless people, making for interesting street scenes.

The first thing you notice about Portland, with gladdened heart, is the hippies. Then, the second thing you notice, is the smell of the salty ocean air. Portland is a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. While there isn’t a waterfront walkway or park, there are a few piers that afford a view of the very unaffordable parked yachts. It’s mind-boggling the amount of money some people have for recreation that the rest of us don’t have for our primary residence. And what I want to know is why I am not related to any of those people. Believe me, I’ve done a comprehensive genealogical search to verify this disappointing fact.

My favorite part of any vacation is the people I meet. Everyone here is friendlier than I think anywhere else I have ever visited. Case in point, today, utterly disgusted with my hair, I stopped in an Aveda hair salon and desperately asked if I could be fit in for a conditioning treatment. I don’t usually frequent fancy hair salons, especially on vacation. I’m a cheap, simple haircut kind of gal. The few times I have visited a fancy salon, I found the personnel to be snotty and regretted spending my money or time there. Today, though, was the best salon experience I have ever had, which is to say that it was downright enjoyable. My stylist Thomas was a hair genius. Not only did he fix my sad hair, but, a really good and kind person, he provided the most interesting conversation for the hour and a half that I was there. I loved him. Loved him. He refused my offer to accompany me home and straighten my hair every day, but nevertheless, I still loved him. I actually hugged him before I left the salon. I have never once been so overcome with a salon experience that I felt such an uncontrollable urge to hug my stylist. But there you go. That’s Portland for you. The other personnel at the salon were just as huggable, but I showed some self-restraint. I can, you know, on occasion.

We rounded out the day by enjoying a free “Live at Five” concert in a city square, and then split some fish and chips and a lobster roll. Now, we’re warm and cozy back in the hotel, resting aching knees and sore tootsies.

I’ll end with this tidbit of information. My husband checked the forecast, “We’re in the coldest place in the country right now.” There was unmistakable pride in his voice. There will be also an unmistakable charge on the credit card tomorrow when I need to buy a new sweatshirt.

Despite the cold, we’re loving it here and rate it two thumbs up each.

See pictures of this excursion here.


We’re in the Charlotte airport and are experiencing a bit of delay. We’re on the new terminal, a beautiful one, completed last year, yet still somehow there aren’t enough gates. At our last gate, a different flight was boarding to Austin, but the digital display read, “Portland, ME.” While making the boarding announcements, the gate attendant omitted the flight destination, so several people destined for Portland embarked on the Austin flight. The attendant seemed unaware that the digital display above the gate door read anything other than “Austin” so made a rather irate announcement, “This flight is boarding for Austin. Austin only! I just had someone from Portland board my plane. If you are on the Portland flight, please go sit down.” She pointed up at the sign again to indicate that only the Austin flight was boarding. It was all rather comical.

Eventually we were moved to a different gate, where we sit patiently now waiting while yet a different flight, this one to Jackson, Mississippi, boards. For a change, I’m not in any particular hurry. It’s just vacation and since I’m not headed to Cooperstown, I don’t have to worry about missing any Cal Ripken events. A few minutes ago I found my Orioles bucket hat in my backpack. I thought I had forgotten to pack it, so now, everything is good and the vacation is officially underway. I’m rather enjoying the people watching, one of my favorite hobbies, especially when I see things that challenge my assumptions.

Standing at our first gate was a young thirty-something, bald man with tattoos on his arms that extended passed his short-sleeve shirt. He looked like a real tough guy. I couldn’t quite make out the tattoo pattern, but they resembled flames. I’m thinking it was something of a “devil” or “hell” theme. He was leaning against a rail intently reading a book. I recognized the cover instantly, “The Seven Principles for a Happy Marriage.” A couple of times, he flipped back a few pages, reread them, and then flipped forward again. As he approached the gate to board (he was on the Austin flight), standing close enough to other people that they might be able to read the title, he opened a different book of substantial size with a brown leather cover (maybe a bible) and tucked Gottman’s book in the middle, squeezing the outer book closed around the Gottman book. A classic case of never judge a book by its cover. “Mr. Tough Guy” was making an effort to protect his marriage that many a clean-cut, less “threatening” looking man would and do refuse to do.

We’re boarding now so I’ll have to save any other musings and observations for a different time.

When I chose the Spencer Inn for my stay in Cooperstown, I had two criteria: a hotel with a vacancy and a room for a rate that someone like me who isn’t among the rich and famous could afford.

The Spencer Inn was my first stay at a bed and breakfast and I fear that it will make any future B&Bs pale in comparison. The Inn is run by the owner Karl and his wife Christina. It is situated at the top of a long unkempt grassy hill that emerges into a neatly manicured lawn that eventually culminates with the Inn standing tall above the road. The red walkway to the house greets visitors like a welcoming red-carpet, bordered by trim landscaped trees and flowers. Mature rhododendrons line the perimeter of the wrap-around deck that provides ample seating for guests wishing to drink in the peaceful view. The best part is the hosts who operate their Inn with love and care. Friendly and accommodating, they are dedicated to ensuring their guests are comfortable and enjoy their stay.

The Inn itself is decorated with antiques and has the charm of your best friend’s guest room. Our small bathroom was shared by the guests of an adjacent room, with a small shared hallway between us. The bedroom was decorated with a small antique vanity very much like one I used to own, a small television, two night stands and a double bed. In the morning, the skylight allowed the sun to illuminate the room, waking us to sunshine instead of an alarm. One night, during a fierce thunderstorm, the skylight delivered flashes of light that danced into the room as the rain pounded the glass above, reminding us of mother nature’s awesome power. It was a delicious way to be in nature while still remaining dry, snuggly, and protected.

The charm of the Inn and it’s owner would have been enough for me to love it, but with the breakfasts, I considered squatting, never leaving, requiring law enforcement to forcibly evict me. From the Czech Republic, Karl delights his guests with a delicious European, old world talent for homemade, fresh food. The first day we were greeted with a delicious moist homemade cake, a quiche, sausage, a side of fruit salad, coffee, and our choice of orange or grapefruit juice. The second morning was even better: including the juice and coffee option, we had a choice of omelet or banana pancakes, a homemade strudel, and a side of fruit salad. I opted for the banana pancakes and they were delicious, moist in the right places and just a little crunchy around the outside. Yum-yum-yummy. (You’re beginning to see why I didn’t want to leave now?) By the third morning, when it seemed impossible that there could be an improvement, it got even better! We had a choice of banana pancakes again or one of three kinds of omelet. I can’t tell you what two of the choices were because everything left my mind after I heard the word “crab.” This Baltimore-raised girl’s mouth started salivating immediately, as is programmed in my DNA from the several generations of native Baltimoron ancestors who preceded me. And I praise heaven that they bestowed on me the great gift of growing up in that fine crab and Orioles oriented city. My crab omelet was filled with chunks of crab meat (but no Old Bay – you can’t have everything), and was accompanied by a fruit-filled crepe.

Do you see how much willpower it took to vacate? I returned home to breakfasts of jam-covered English muffins, something that I found to be a perfect upgrade to toast until my stay at the Spencer Inn revealed just how sad and inadequate my weekday breakfasts are.

Another one of my favorite things about staying at the Spencer Inn is that, because of it’s proximity to Cooperstown, all the other guests during our stay were also there for Induction weekend. The intimate atmosphere of the dining room affords the chance to become acquainted with the other guests. When we were done talking about baseball, which we all had in common, we discussed our other interests, a smooth and easy transition after bonding immediately over America’s greatest past time. The leisurely conversation over breakfasts reminded one of how we used to live our lives before we allowed someone to convince us to go at such a hurried pace day after day. By our departure on Monday we had made some new friends and were sad that we didn’t have more time to get to know each other.

While I believe my husband enjoyed the vacation, it will take a lot of bribing with a reward of which I cannot at the moment conceive to convince him to return to Cooperstown again. When and if we do return, I hope to stay at the Spencer Inn again, and I hope that our new friends from San Bernandino and the other Orioles fans from Baltimore are all there together. I hope we have time to enjoy some of the delicious Ommegang brews while chatting lazily on the deck, taking in the scenery, and just enjoying life the way it was meant to be lived, with time to catch a breath.

Pictures of the Spencer Inn here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008, Cooperstown, NY. Induction Weekend.

Visiting Cooperstown this year wasn’t just a different experience than for Cal and Gwynn’s induction, it was a different city. This year, at 10:00 a.m., a handful of people milled about and cars traveled Main street. Last year, at 7:30 a.m., there was already a twenty minute wait for a table at breakfast and Main street, closed to traffic, was crowded with swarms of fans wearing orange (and some wearing brown and gold). Last year, 75,000 fans descended onto little Cooperstown, far more than the previous 50,000 record. This year, there were only 6,000 fans. On this visit to the Hall of Fame, there was room to stand with arms akimbo, to stand leisurely looking inside the display cases, to move more than a few shuffling steps at a time. This year there was no rushing, no waking at obscene hours to hurry into town in order to find a parking space, no worrying (much anyway) about missing anything. As we wandered lazily into stores we enjoyed the copious space in the aisles, had the luxury of browsing unhurriedly through stacks of baseball cards, took our time finding souvenir t-shirts. For lunch, we were seated without a wait, and ate leisurely on Lake Otsego, no pressure to rush to free up our table, no long lines outside the restaurant. There was no navigating through crowds, no pulling arms and packages tight to the body to not bump into others. Saturday night, Cooley’s Bar was unrecognizable from the party venue of last year. Instead of elbow to elbow Orioles, and a smattering of Ys fans, there were a handful of patrons and empty seats.

My husband worried about me sporting my orange and black on an induction weekend honoring a Y. “Are you sure that’s okay?” I assured him that there was nothing that would persuade me to wear anything else, though I expected to be one of the few in Orioles attire. Surprisingly, I was just one among many. We greeted each other with cheery smiles and simple nods of appreciation. We stopped each other in the street and discussed how long we had been following the team, how we became fans, and who made the deepest impression on us. We asked each other, “Were you here last year?” and we all were. Couldn’t miss it, of course. “Bit different, isn’t it!” we agreed.

My favorite Orioles fans were the ones I met at Doubleday Field. Father Bob and son Bob. Father Bob has followed the Orioles since they became the Orioles. He’s elderly now and a bit hard of hearing. I wish he lived down the street so I could visit with lemonade and listen to his memories. Son Bob reminisced about Memorial Stadium and an ice cream shop on 34th Street. (I don’t remember an ice cream shop, but I remember the bar at the corner. (It’s not what you think, a friend had an apartment near there while a student at Hopkins.))

One thing about Cooperstown was the same, the freedom to be me. I can be a rabid baseball fan openly. It’s the one place where I can meet other people who understand, who don’t say, “Um…yeah..I don’t really like baseball.” In Cooperstown, there’s no guilt about being a fan, no need to put a lid on it, to remember one’s manners that most people find a conversation about the state of the Orioles bullpen boring beyond belief. In Cooperstown, I am reminded that some people find being a fan an asset. In Cooperstown, I can just be myself. In a crowd of people outside the Hall of Fame, I can theoretically jump up and down when a trolley carrying Cal Ripken appears. No one inches away, looks worried, or thinks I’m a mental-institution escapee. They’re just as excited as I. In fact, they’re worse. They know every Hall of Famer coming off the trolley and shout their names enthusiastically. They are serious about baseball.

Being in Cooperstown is like being in a town full of soul mates, especially to someone who has spent two decades withering away in a tragically baseball-less town.

Another thing was the same this year, of course, the Hall of Famers. At the commencement of the annual Hall of Fame dinner, somehow, despite a smaller overall crowd, there were just as many people waiting for the attendees to arrive. Once again I was edged out and had no hope of getting anywhere near Cal Ripken. I suppose I have no right to complain too vehemently about this considering how often I saw him before he was nationally famous. I suppose I also have no right to complain when earlier in the day, arm’s length from me inside the Hall of Fame was Hank Aaron. His family (grandchildren, I think) were receiving a private tour, accompanied by two guards. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know him by sight (these guys age), but once I learned who he was, I had to wipe away tears, I was so blown away at being so lucky.

There are more details to report, but for this post, I have one final observation about what I love about Cooperstown. Let’s face it. Men who love baseball are sexy. They are real men. Nothing is a greater turn-off than a man who thinks that by touting his football fandom, by being “tough,” by liking a contact sport, he is somehow more masculine. Men who love baseball don’t have anything to prove. They are secure with themselves and their masculinity. They do not need to define themselves to themselves or to anyone else in a way that mistakes aggressiveness for maleness. They appreciate the athleticism and endurance that baseball requires. Cooperstown is full of these men, who can spend hours discussing the Orioles bullpen. It’s just another reason to love the place.

Pictures of this excursion:
The city of Cooperstown
Hall of Fame

The last time I visited New York City, it was for my ex-brother-in-law’s winter wedding. The bride was from White Plains and had a master’s degree from Columbia. Her childhood bedroom was bigger than the first floor of my home and was largely covered by a collection of pricey porcelain dolls. In short, her parents were loaded and the wedding was an elegant and expensive affair. Most notably, it was an occasion that required, in true New York fashion, a dress that risked as much skin as possible to the frigid temperatures. You know the saying, “It’s not a wedding in the North until someone loses digits to frost-bite.”

The following day, the visiting family, free from wedding-related activities and formal and climate-inappropriate attire, bundled up and eagerly headed into the city to sight-see. My only memory of sight-seeing from the day is donning my heaviest, knee-length winter coat, standing atop the Empire State Building and wishing I were anywhere else. My back to a gusty winter wind, I held onto the border rails for stability, sure I would be blown off the top if I let go. As cold pierced through my ineffectual coat, mittens and scarf-wrapped ears, I wondered how anyone tolerated such bitter winters voluntarily. After returning immediately to the car and blasting the heat at the highest fan setting for the next two hours, I spent the entire ride back to Baltimore scraping the frost-bite off the dead, blackened tip of my nose, and encouraging circulation in my extremities. At that point I made an observation that I henceforth adopted as a personal rule…”New York is a summer destination, or it’s not a destination at all.”

This visit was considerably different from all my previous visits. For starters, it a lovely, hot summer day and it wasn’t raining. (Abide by intelligent rules.) Secondly, instead of exhausting myself by spending fully half my tourist time retracing steps after heading off in the wrong direction, as on every one of my previous visits to New York, I enjoyed the benefits of touring with a reincarnated homing pigeon.

My husband has a combination of skills that make me wonder about his somewhat murky history before moving to Charlotte. The fact is, no one could have such refined orientation abilities without military training or an illicit past. Vacation after vacation we’ll emerge from a subway station onto an unknown street and my husband will point, “This way” as if a needle in his brain always leads him to Magnetic North. There’s more though and his ability runs deeper than just having an internal compass. He is able to memorize entire city maps, remembering the order of streets and whether they run north/south, east/west or in some crooked fashion snaking around monuments or natural features. Sometimes he looks up to the sky, perhaps to a Mother Ship, and says something odd like, “The car is 10 degrees that way at a positive elevation of 10 feet.” He can tell where the sun is even when it’s obscured behind a layer of clouds. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I am. Each time he mutters words about degrees and elevation and uses stars to navigate, I am amazed. I bet he would know where to find the underground utilities if the need arose (and somehow I suspect that at some point, it has).

Without a doubt, I am convinced that he spent some significant portion of his past eluding authorities and/or snipers and the reason he enjoys watching “Bourne Identity” so much is because he identifies with it personally.

So, there we were in New York with no need for maps or GPS devices. I walked where my husband lead, to each of the tourist sites on our mental list. We walked along Fifth Avenue, did a quick pass through FAO Schwarz and the Apple store, peeked briefly inside St. Paul’s Cathedral, strolled through Times Square, trekked up the steps inside the New York Library, then down (and had our backpacks checked no less than thirty-six times), and enjoyed the lovely scenery in a jaunt through Central Park. Lunch was a sandwich of prehistoric proportions after a long, sweaty walk to Carnegie Deli. (The blocks running east/west are much longer than those running north/south.) We finished our day at the Rockefeller Center. Just south of Central Park, it sits centrally between the lower Manhattan business district and the upper (Northern) residential district. Thus situated, three levels at the top of “The Rock” afford visitors a magnificent view of the island in all directions, abetted for us, by a day of clear, blue skies that extended the normal range of visibility.

Even the residents are different than I remember from many visits as a young adult. No one attempted to steal my camera, injure, or urinate on me. In Central Park, a woman set aside her bicycle, offering to take our picture. Then she chatted amiably with us, suggesting tourist spots and answering my many questions about her life as a New Yorker. Later in the day, weary with aching, blistered feet, my face betrayed confusion as I pondered the answer to my husband’s question, “Should we hoof it or take the subway back to the car?” (My husband, of course, had previously memorized each line of the subway and all their access points, in order.) A passing New Yorker stopped to ask if we needed help or directions and then insisted on leading us directly to our subway stop.

I asked both of these warm people if they were native New Yorkers, assuming from my previous experiences in New York and with Ys fans all over that all New Yorkers were forced by court order to be impolite, gruff, crude, and yell loudly and unpredictably over insignificant things. In fact, my mother was partly right about assumptions, the part that “they make an ass out of me.” Both of these kind people were New Yorkers from birth and easily mistakable as residents from a city with a friendlier reputation. Turns out New Yorkers are the new Southerners, except with an appreciation for good public transportation.

I don’t envy the cost of living or housing in New York, or small condo closets, but I do envy the transportation system (which all American cities should model) and I would love to have their choices of events and arts. Mostly, I’d like the figure and health benefits gained from living in a pedestrian-friendly city.

The pigeon returned us to the car and we started our journey to Cooperstown…

Pictures of the excursion can be found here.

When we picked Tucson on a map, we didn’t know what we might find. We just wanted to go somewhere new that wasn’t too expensive. Before our trip, I told a few coworkers where we were going and their response was invariably, “Why?” Early in our visit, passing one residential street after another landscaped with pebbles, only pebbles, I scribbled a note to myself, “I’m beginning to see why I received so many raised eyebrows in response to my vacation destination.”

It was easy to jump to that conclusion. We drove downtown. It was about a block long. We drove through the “historical district.” Again, a couple of blocks long. “What’s the industry here?” we wondered. The parks we visited had acres of cacti and dry land. Lots of questions come to mind about the region’s future in sustaining a human population.

If we had made such a hasty judgment about Tucson, we would have missed out on its charms, and experiencing so much that Tucson has to offer. As I quickly learned, there was much more to Tucson than first meets the eye. For one, we met the nicest and warmest people. On our tour at Fred Whipple, we met Jim, volunteer at the Tucson History Museum. He spent at least half an hour filling us in on Arizona’s history. Four “C”s marked Arizona’s settlement: cotton, citrus, copper, and climate. Water intensive crops like cotton and citrus replaced the traditional crops grown by native Americans like squash and beans. Next cattle were shipped to the area from Texas, considerably changing the landscape, destroying native brush and allowing cactus to take over. All that and more we learned from Jim, a wealth of knowledge. We could have listened to him for the rest of the day.

At the Tohono Chul museum, we met another gregarious docent. He hithered from my parts, D.C., and I liked him even though he wasn’t much of an Orioles fan. He talked to us for at least twenty minutes. Even at the drugstore, I spent twenty minutes talking with the cashier. Only one man at the entrance to Pima Space Museum was rude. Everyone else we met was extraordinarily warm and friendly. In a community of retirees, there seems to be a culture of slowing down and appreciating life. Instead of always rushing off to do the next thing, these are people who know how to enjoy the moment and connect with others. So many people we met left me wanting more, to spend more time with them, to get to know them better, to learn from them, to listen to more of their knowledge and wisdom.

Tucson was one of the most interesting vacations we’ve had. The visits to the observatories rank among my favorite sight-seeing ever. The University of Arizona, which graduates many of the nation’s astronomers, is heavily involved in the space program and is tied to the observatories. We were lucky enough to be there the night the Phoenix Lander, completely a U of AZ project, successfully touched down on Mars. Even though we weren’t at the U of AZ the night the Phoenix landed, we still felt excited to be in Tucson on such a momentous occasion.

Beyond sight-seeing, Tucson has much to offer as a city of considerable intellectual capital, both from the retirees, and the U of AZ. While I joked about reaching a CSP threshold, in reality, there was so much more to see in Tucson than we had time for. And even the heat, it’s true, is tempered by a breeze.

It was an unexpectedly fun vacation and I unhesitatingly recommend Tucson as a tourist destination. Just make sure you have water, sunscreen, and a hat.

Our last few hours in Tucson were spent being one of the 150,000 annual visitors to the Pima Air and Space Museum.

The Pima Air & Space Museum bills itself as “one of the largest aviation Museums in the world, and the largest non-government funded aviation Museum in the United States.” Built in 1976, it now stands on 200 acres and is second only to the Smithsonian in the size and diversity of its collection.

The museum has over 275 air and space craft from military, commercial, and civil aviation, including Russian MIGs, a B-29 Superfortress, the SR-71 Blackbird, a rare World War II German V-1 “buzz bomb,” the Air Force One used by President John F. Kennedy, and the presidential planes used by presidents Johnson and Nixon.

On the museum grounds are five enormous hangars and a Memorial Museum to the 390th Bombardment Group. A paid bus tour takes visitors to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), known as the “Boneyard, ” across the street at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

When we arrived at the museum, the first thing we did was take the bus tour to the AMARG. Well worth the cost, it takes an hour to weave through the many rows of planes as a guide rapidly explains what they are and how they were used.

Like astronomers, the military chose Tucson as the site for the AMARG deliberately because of its climate. Low humidity reduces rust and the ideal weather, low precipitation, and low threat of natural disasters make it possible to store the planes outdoors, eliminating the need to build many expensive hangars. The desert ground is also hard enough without paving to drive the planes across. Even though the planes are stored in open air, they are protected. Each is coated with several layers of spray latex that is easily removed if the plane is sold or returned to action.

If you’ve always wanted to own an old fighter jet, the AMARG is the place to buy it. Though it’s called a “boneyard,” many of the planes are still in working order or can be with little work. Most of the purchase orders come from other countries who use them for their military. Australia, for example, supplies its Air Force with Ardvarks and consequently pays for one-third the cost of operating the AMARG through its purchases. There are also private buyers, who I guess buy the planes to be cool, because what’s cooler than inviting a friend for a spin on a F-15! The only thing you can’t buy is the F-16. Iraq uses them, so the U.S. has been destroying every plane or part of one (even buying them off of Ebay) that it can get its hands on. For every dollar the military spends in operating the AMARG, it receives $2 to $3 back in profits. Finally, a profitable government program!

While I admit that I didn’t expect the Museum to be one of the highlights of our trip, I was impressed with how much I enjoyed it. The boneyard had more planes than I’ve ever seen in one place. While I’m not brave enough to confess just how ignorant I was/am in the ways of military aircraft, let’s say I learned a lot, leaving me with still very little knowledge.

When we returned to the museum, we headed for the hangars and a walk around the planes stored on the museum grounds. The best of these was the Air Force One used by Kennedy. Visitors are allowed to board the plane, still well-preserved by Plexiglas covering most of the interior. Whatever I expected it be like, it wasn’t. For one, the sixties décor was almost comical. More than that, the interior was striking in its simplicity. Not ornate, not opulent, and in fact, not even comfortable, with one narrow aisle and few amenities. Maybe for its day it was nice. Even so, what was so notable was that the décor didn’t just reflect the taste of a different era, but revealed a less complicated age. Maybe I’m wrong, but I imagine that the modern Air Force One is outfitted with the best of our time, sophisticated equipment, conveniences, all designed for maximum comfort and show, proving the status of our president in its gadgetry. Kennedy’s plane reflected an age when the average home was only 1500 square feet to house bigger families, with fewer appliances, and without things that today we consider necessities, like air-conditioning and dishwashers. How our expectations have changed!

The absolute best part of the day was when we happened upon John Day. Looking up inside the belly of a “Flying Fortress,” I asked my husband a question. The elderly gentleman standing beside us answered, and went on to share details about flying it, using words like “we” and “I.” He seemed too spry and looked too young to be a WWII veteran so I tried to make sense of his sentences. I asked incredulous, “Were you in World War II?” “Yes,” he nodded. At 83 years old, he was living history.

John had three other brothers who also served in World War II. He admitted to having some guilt, “While my brothers were having a miserable time stationed in places like Asia and Germany, I was living it up in London.” His face broke into a broad grin as he laughed, “What was it that the British complained about American soldiers? ‘Too much time, too much money, too many women.’” All of John’s brothers survived the war. John went on to extol the benefits of the GI Bill, which was an opportunity for someone like him from a small town in Maine to get a college education.

I have spent a lot of time pondering that, imagining Day and his brothers settling in at a college after being at war, what life must have been like for them, the ups and downs after they returned to the States.

I stood before him in awe and appreciation. There’s a lot of rhetoric today about the soldiers in Iraq fighting for “our freedom.” I have the utmost respect our soldiers who enter our military with the intention to protect our country, many of whom are sacrificing their lives, limbs, relationships, and mental health in Iraq for a war that some don’t even believe in. What I take exception with is Bush’s campaign of deception. We know that Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Hussein is evil, there’s no question about that, but he’s not stupid. Before he invaded Kuwait, he gave us warning, and when we said nothing in reply, he perceived our silence as tacit approval. Iraq was no threat to the US. We had no more reason to invade Iraq than to invade Darfur, or Myanmar, or any of the other beleaguered and tragic places on earth. Standing before John Day though, I was in the presence of someone who really did fight for the freedom of our country, and for the free world at large, from real and menacing threats, that had they been the victors, would have created a much grimmer life for us all. I was choked up then as I am now writing this. I thanked him for serving, but the words seemed empty. How can “thank you” capture the gratitude of generations, millions who have been the beneficiaries of these veterans’ selflessness, enjoying a world of peace, freedom, and prosperity because of them?

Day was only one of the volunteers at the museum. There are over 250, who serve over 66,000 hours as docents, tour guides, and aircraft restoration technicians. All of the volunteers we met were veterans and each one warm and kind, answering our questions and sharing stories eagerly. I asked another veteran to explain the Nose Art. “Well, when you get a big group together, there’s always someone who knows something, so we could always find an artist.” The paintings were often done by someone in the squadron and the name of the plane was decided collectively, though the pilot had final approval of the naming and artwork. He went on wistfully, that many of the planes were named after the pilot’s wife or girlfriend. I smiled and replied, “That was a different era, huh?” to which we both got a little misty-eyed, he maybe in reverie, and me, I can’t say why exactly, except some combination of respect and a longing for simpler times myself.

Whatever I expected to experience at the museum, it wasn’t that it would be one of the highlights of our visit to Tucson. We left the museum for the airport and I felt grateful to have been reminded of one gift we seldom remember. It was the day after Memorial Day. Our visit couldn’t have been a more fitting end to our Memorial Day vacation than by having first-hand contact with veterans who made me remember, feeling humble in their presence, and grateful for the lives their service has granted us.

My pictures of this excursion
Pima Air and Space Museum
Nose Art

The Tohono Chul Park located in North Tucson was founded when the land owners, repeatedly approached by commercial developers, finally turned the land they acquired bit by bit into a park.

It was our last day in Tucson and we still had the Air and Space Museum to visit, so we arrived early on Tuesday morning. The sun was already blazing hot. While we waited in line at the ticket booth, we listened as a mother with two children discussed her admission options. Ultimately, she decided on the season pass. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I couldn’t help but think, “WHY?” It was at that point that I realized I had reached my CSP, or Cactus Saturation Point for those of you unfamiliar with Tucson. The park was lovely, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I didn’t fancy myself going more than once, even if I did live in Tucson. Unless, of course, iTunes, the Internet, and the printed word failed to exist. Not that there’s anything wrong with cacti, but think about it. They grow so slowly, so the truth is that you could forego visiting the park for ten years and when you went back, it would look exactly the same.

My husband had reached his CSP too. Just when I found some plaques in the park describing everything you would want to know about Saguaros, for example how long they take to grow, and, well, something else that was interesting, but I’ve forgotten now, my husband came over and hurried me, “Let’s go!” he said impatiently.

We hurried through the rest of the park, seeing a lot of interesting things, but mostly looking forward to ice water and air-conditioning. All kidding aside, the park really was lovely and well-worth the admission cost. The pictures will prove it (most of them are from the park, but some are from other sites, grouped here, because. Just because).

My pictures of this excursion.
Tohono Chul Park

Of all the interesting places we visited and all the surprises that Tucson offered, our visit to the Kitt Peak Observatory topped it all. My husband, always thoughtful and a masterful trip planner, reserved our visit as a surprise to me. We were originally meant to visit the day after we arrived in Tucson, but because of the overcast weather, we had to reschedule to Memorial Day.

The Kitt Peak Observatory is administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). Indirectly it is supported by tax dollars: our taxes support the National Science Foundation, which supports the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which in turn supports NOAO. While one night at an observatory like Fred Whipple may cost $8,000, the Kitt telescopes can be rented for a mere $75 per night, including the dormitory stay, and food. At that cost, you can understand why, even though it’s one of the smaller telescopes, it’s still quite appealing as a research tool for astronomers who don’t work for an institution like the Smithsonian. Like other observatories, astronomers have to apply for telescope time. Between one-half and one-third of the applications are accepted and the wait time is typically twelve to eighteen months.

The Quinlan Mountains on which the observatory is built are located on land owned by the Tohono O’odham Indians. As the Tohono tribe owns the mountain, the telescope could not be built without their permission, something they would refuse to grant if they perceived the building as defiling the mountain in any way. The astronomers obtained the tribe’s consent by sharing with them the wonders of studying space. A night spent peering through a telescope was all that was needed to convince the tribe that the mountain they considered sacred would not be misused. Since the observatory was built, NOAO works in cooperation with the Tohono O’odham tribe, renting electricity from them and giving them first priority for all jobs, such as working the gift shop or performing janitorial tasks. The gift shop also sells objects made by the tribe members.

The Kitt Peak Observatory has 26 telescopes in all, more than any other observatory. As we drove up the mountain the famous image of the four meter telescope stood tall above the nearly seven thousand foot mountain, like the building itself is reaching into space to unravel its mystery. In fact, one reason telescopes are built on mountains is to reduce the amount of atmosphere and subsequent distortion that the light has to travel through to reach the lens.

Our night program started at six p.m. It consisted of a box dinner, twenty minutes watching the sunset, a tour of a telescope, and an explanation of how to use binoculars and interpret a star chart. When it was dark enough, we went into the night, freezing at our high elevation, the dark sky glittering with stars. There our guide taught us several key constellations and stars to use for orienting ourselves for our own amateur study.

Finally, the highlight of the night was our chance to look through a telescope. Fourteen of us rode in a van that used only running lights to ensure that no additional light interfered with the astronomers data, somewhere through the darkness to one of the available telescopes. We climbed up two flights of narrow steps inside a small telescope building and sat in a circle around the telescope dome. For the next two hours, our guide programmed in one distant starry location at at time, allowing us to take turns adjusting the dome opening and viewing objects millions of light years away from earth through the eyepiece.

Unlike the pictures of space that we often see from Hubble, when you look through a telescope, there’s no color, only black and white. The color in the pictures comes from computer generated light-shifting to help us interpret the part of the light that isn’t in the visible spectrum. The color variations are there, just not visible to the human eye.

Here’s a list of some of the objects we saw:
Omega Centauri, 17,000 light years away.
Whirlpool Galaxy
Cigar Galaxy M82

The most spectacular object of the night was Saturn, bathed in bright, white sunshine, the rings as clear as in the Hubble photographs we’ve seen.

It was a romantic night that’s hard to put into words. I felt wonderfully small and insignificant. Our concerns are so trivial and fleeting. In the expanse and age of the universe, our lifespans cannot be measured in any way that is meaningful. It’s all too big for us to comprehend, to fit into a logical slot in our brain. Words like “forever” have no meaning. We grapple with spirituality. How did it start? What started the thing that started it all and what started that? We think linearly, but could it be circular, each thing creating itself? We can’t conceive of something so different, our imaginations always somewhat limited by our experiences.

In all that we’ve studied to date, a small portion, but yet a significant amount, we are still the only life in the universe. Whether we ultimately are or ever have been shouldn’t be as important as acknowledging and appreciating how rare life is. We would do well to treasure it more than we do. Life, such a gift, in all its forms and diversity from bacteria to whales. Yet we treat it with such disrespect, so little awe for the process that whether through eons of incremental changes or punctuated equilibrium, depending on your leaning, though it is most likely both, evolved us into the various realizations of where we are now. Why do we not revere all planetary life knowing how unfathomably long it took? Knowing from a practical standpoint how interdependent species are for sustenance, for a habitable world, knowing that without this interaction we would not exist now and we will cease to exist.

Ah, but we do not know this, do we. We fail to recognize the wondrousness of it all in our era that equates science with opinion. The ever-present fear resurfaces that our hubris will destroy us, a tragedy given what it took, the magic, the coincidence, the complexity, to make it all happen in the first place. We never want to be more of the nothingness of the rest of space, yet, our current course seems to be assuring that this will be our fate.

My pictures of this excursion.
Kitt Peak Observatory
JPL Nasa

In between our visit to Sabino Canyon and the Kitt Peak Observatory, we stopped at the San Xavier Mission. The mission is located somewhere south of Tucson, in the middle of, and this may surprise you, desert. All the descriptions of the Mission describe the “lofty white towers,” which they are, but as half the church was hidden behind scaffolding, we felt like we missed out on something. Still, it was pretty, and a stark contrast to long stretches of nothing. It’s such a grand church that it’s visible along the highway from a distance, the lone building surrounded by miles of land.

Like all missions, San Xavier was built to eradicate diversity. Why? Because, ‘the Church,” self-decreed ruler of thought, was troubled that somewhere on earth, there were people who dared to exist by a unique manifestation of the human spirit, and unimaginably, were not contributing in some material way to the church’s coffers. When you’re running an institution the size of the Vatican, you can’t go letting a bunch of Indians that you would never meet, living as they were in a remote area of desert that could not be reached except by traversing vast distances through great hardship and risk to personal health, go practice their own form of worship. It’s just not done. So by way of sealing the deal of forcible conversion and convincing these silly, earth respecting nomads, who managed to survive well for thousands of years in a land that’s even challenging for cacti to thrive, that they were wrong, the only sensible thing to do was spend untold sums of wealth building an edifice that proves your God is better than their Gods. If they’re not convinced, then there’s no choice but to assert your Christian right to violate the most important commandment and, assist them in shuffling off their mortal coil. And that, my friend, is the story of how the Mission was built.

Okay, maybe that’s a slightly cynical view, though I’m not entirely sure an inaccurate one.

The original mission was founded by a Jesuit in 1692. Sometime after 1768 the mission was destroyed by “less friendly Indian tribes,” as one website characterizes them. The Indians didn’t realize that when a bunch of pompous, self-important people invade your land and tell you what to think, you’re supposed to welcome and defer to them. At any rate, another mission was built two miles from the original location in 1783 and is the mission that remains standing today.

All kidding and sarcasm aside, the mission really is stately, beautiful, and worth the time to visit. In addition to its history, the church itself is ornate and features statues dressed in actual clothing, a point that, and I mean no disrespect, I found hilarious in its unusualness. It’s the only church I’ve ever visited that has dressed statues, though I think the gesture is sweet.

Anyway, you don’t need anymore of my sarcastic commentary. Here’s some information directly from the plaques in the museum. I’m not bothering with indenting, so everything from this point forward is a quote unless otherwise noted…There is also more information in the pictures section. It’s a lot so if you’re not a museum or history kind of person, just skip to the end to find the picture link.
Padre Kino was probably the first European to visit the Piman rancherias around Wa:k. His northern explorations between 1687 and 1711 pushed into new territory – the Pimeria Alta—which has been labeled the “rim of Christendom.”

Kino was escorted by Lieutenant Juan Manje on his journeys to the northern frontiers of New Spain. Spanish colonial policy relied heavily on the mission as a frontier institution. Colonial officials depended on the missionaries to concentrate scattered native groups at a relatively few mission sites. The missionary’s role, perceived by the Spanish, was to “pacify” the natives and make them loyal vassals of the crown of Spain. It was Kino who founded San Xavier Mission at the village of Wa:k in 1692.

This policy caused many problems between the Europeans and the Piman groups occupying the Pimeria Alta. Not the least was centuries old seasonal migration of the Pimans—traced back ot the Hohokam lifestyle. The natives remained in large rancherias during the summer and fall while tending and harvesting crops of corn, beans and squash. After harvest, they traveled to small camps to collect wild foods such as acorns and agaves, and to hunt rabbit and deer.

The Europeans failed to understand this lifestyle. They condemned mobility as “heathen vagabondage” because of their misunderstanding of the Pimans cultural and ecological adaptation to life in a sometimes harsh semi-arid environment.

Spanish missions were established in New Spain to serve as centers for the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith among native groups. The purpose of a mission was to Christianize and “civilize” the Indian population.

Along with the messages of salvation, the missionaries brought a new language, ideas, metal tools, livestock, and crops. The dog and possibly the turkey were the only domestic animals known in the Primeria Alta prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Horses, cattle, goats, chickens, and sheep were foreign animals to the Pimans and must have caused considerable excitement in the rancherias when they arrived. Fruit trees and vegetables, and especially wheat, played a major role in changing the Pimans centuries old diet and subsistence pattern.

The Spanish also brought a construction technique unknown to the Pimans—adobe brick making. With this new technology, the Pimans, under supervision, constructed structures several times the size of their humble grass huts.

Spanish occupation lasted until 1821, when Mexico declared herself a republic. The Mexican government was now in control of the Spanish built missions. In 1854, the United States ratified the Gadsden Purchase. This transaction made all of Arizona a U.S. territory. Wa:k and Tucson were now part of the United States.

The Hohokam, ancestors of the Tohono O’odham, lived in this area from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Pieces of their beautiful pottery, shell and stone work are still found along the Santa Cruz River and other drainages in the Tucson Basin.

Jesuit History, the Blackrobes
The Jesuit Order was founded in the sixteenth century by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits were called “blackrobes” because of the garb, or habit, of followers was the black frock or cassock of the lower clergy of the day.

Jesuits were first sent to New Spain in the fall of 1572. Father Pedro Sanchez, fifteen companions from Europe, and Jesuit survivors from Florida missions, arrived in Mexico City and began an unbroken chain of work that lasted almost two centuries.

Father Euseblo Franciso Kino was a Jesuit missionary who established a chain of missions in northwest Mexico. He was born in the Tyrolean Alps near Trent in northern Italy on August 10, 1645. He was educated in Trent, Austria and Germany and dedicated his life to St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits after recovering from a severe illness. Kino wrote:

To the most glorious and most pious thaumaturgus and Apostle of the Indies, San Francisco Xavier, we all owe very much. I owe him, first, my life, of which I was caused to despair by the physicians in the city of Hala of Tirol, in the year 1663, second, my entry into Company of Jesus, and third, my coming to these missions.

Kino received his first mission assignments in 1681. He had hoped to be sent to the Orient but instead was sent to New Spain. He was assigned to be Missionary and Royal Cartographer for an expedition to Baja California. Padre Kino worked with native groups on Baja—which was thought to be an island—and then was assigned to Sonora in 1686.

Kino was a traveler and an explorer. During his 24 years of residence at the mission of Dolores between 1687 and 1711—he made more than fifty journeys inland, and average of more than two per year. These journeys varied from a hundred to nearly a thousand miles in length—all made on horseback. He kept careful record of his travels including the drafting of maps.

Kino will forever be remembered as a great missionary, ranchman, mathematician, explorer, historian, and geographer of the Pimeria Alta.

Franciscan History, the Grayrobes
The terms “grayrobes” and “blackrobes” stem from the different religious garb worn by two distinct missionary Orders. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscans in the thirteenth century, favored simplicity of life and dress with the resulting robe, or habit, woven of strands of wool in its natural colors—white and black—without the sophistication of artificial dyes. The resulting color of the robe was gray.

Franciscans explored the Southwest long before the Jesuits arrived in Mexico, or New Spain in 1572. The first Franciscan to travel the Arizona-Sonora desert was Fray Marcos de Niza in 1538. He then guided the Coronado expedition in 1540, and one of his fellow Franciscans on that journey. Fray Juan de Padilla, was martyred on the plans of Kansas in 1542. Franciscans became permanent residents of the Arizona-Sonora desert only in 1768, after Royal suspicion and intrigue exiled the Jesuits from all Spanish lands. The movement was known in Europe as Regalism, and for nearly a century, its negative force continued to work likewise against the Franciscans in their subsequent efforts to extend the mission frontier beyond the last Spanish settlement at Tucson, north to the Gila River and the area of modern Phoenix.

In late 1780 and early 1781, four Franciscans, twenty-one soldiers, and a group of settlers with their families, totaling 160 people in all, established two Spanish colonies along the Colorado River and two missions for the Yuma Indians, upon whose the colonies were located. The colonies were called Concepcion and San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner—both located near modern day Yuma, AZ.

For six months, the Spaniards and Yumas tried to coexist. But the Spanish took Yuma land, allowed their livestock to forage through Yuma crops, introduced the whipping post, and made no secret of their contempt for the Indians. Understandably, the Yumas initiated an uprising against the intruders in July 1781.

Fathers Garces and Barrenche were martyred at Concepcio, and Fathers Juan Diaz and Joseph Moreno were martyred at Bucuner. The friars, along with the settlers and the military were caught in the middle of an uprising of 3000 Yumas, 250 miles beyond the last Spanish garrison. Seventy-four persons, mostly women and children, were held captive and 104 settlers and soldiers were killed.

Fray Francisco Garces was born April 12, 1738, in the town of Morata del Conde, in Aragon, Spain. He was ordained a priest at the age of 25 and three years later entered a seminary for missionaries, the Colegio de la Santa Cruz at Queretaro, Mexico. He was sent to the frontier mission of San Xavier del Bac in 1768.

Garces was pleased with his appointment to San Xavier. He enjoyed the people and the environment and was able to pursue his love of travel. Through the next decade, he stitched his name prominently in the fabric of history by crossing and recrossing the trails of the western desert. His treks carried him beyond Yuma to the Mojave and northwest to California. He was the Franciscan version of the Padre Kino.

Pictures of this excursion can be found here.
San Xavier Mission
Arizona Leisure

March 2023