By Luis Alberto Urrea
I BLEW INTO this town a little more than a year ago with a jeepload of books, a hundred-dollar computer, and fifty bucks in my pocket. I came to research a book about my great-aunt Teresita, the Saint of Cabora. I made my way into the old barrio, where I hunkered down in an old adobe, saw ghosts, and was amazed by the endless festival of events that is Tucson. I gawked as the July 4 fireworks set A Mountain on fire. I was astounded when the monsoon hit, and when frogs rocketed out of the mud in my back yard, jumped around for an hour shouting, "What up, Dog?" then vanished. Like you, I was baffled when the bears formed street gangs on Frog Mountain and the street gangs in town apparently contracted rabies.
I enjoyed the last of the independent bookstores, The Book Mark and Coyote's Voice. I browsed the used bins at Zia and PDQ. And I made full use of the scenic wonders--Saguaro National Monument, the stunning oasis at Agua Caliente Park, the sacred hill behind San Xavier, the Frisbee golf course off the Santa Cruz. I stood in wonder before the giant carved figure at Kon Tiki. I joined the believers who shuffled past drowsing San Francisco in the cathedral, bowing my head before the sad pictures of Karen Grajeda, whispering a small word before lifting the saint's wooden head.
Still, now that I'm leaving, going off to Louisiana with the same Jeep, the same books, the same cheeseball computer, and maybe $65 in my pocket, I find myself already becoming nostalgic for some of the finer sites in Tucson. Far be it from me to tell you about your own town, yet I feel in a real way it is my town now, too. Tucson's obvious pleasures are often celebrated. But I found immense joy in weird little things that I want to thank Tucson for--things like the giant Gila monsters embedded in the traffic islands over on Irvington, or the giant red scorpion crawling over the roof of an establishment south of Broadway.
Tucson. I've never seen a place like it. Here are 10 things that made it great for me:
Valley of the Moon
Leave it to Tucson to have a home-built wonderland hidden in a suburb. It wasn't always a suburb, of course. When George Phar Legler began hauling rocks from the Rillito in the 1920s, his neighbors were javelinas and horned toads. Now he's tucked in among the upper-middle-class settlements of Allen Road, a short right-hand turn at the far north end of Tucson Boulevard.
According to the information pamphlet, a group of high school kids wandered out in 1971 and found Legler "living as a troglodyte in his cave." He'd been living in his small wonderland for 20 years. (I wish I could live there too.) Legler set out to demonstrate the "Fantasy Touch of Three" when he built the Valley--those three being Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Part botanical garden, and part folkloric sculpture garden, Valley of the Moon has small fairy houses, small caves, tunnels, crystals in the rock walls, hidden gardens, fishpools, a penny garden (where it's good luck to find a penny, but bad luck to take two). Meandering paths lead among dirt hills into odd little vales and over small bridges.
Volunteers cheerfully offer small tours and short history lessons. One young man was overheard lamenting the fact that certain religious boneheads think it's an evil cult empire festering in the desert. The Halloween ghost-walk, for example, serves to convince 700 Club members that the witch's cauldron is real, and the fairy dwellings are wicked homes to demons. (See the entry on the gateway to Hell.)
Don't expect anything slick--it's all rocks, dirt and boards. But go at night. The lights in the trees and the shadows as you go under the arches make it seem as if the fairies might just come out and play. And if you get bored, look southeast from the castle and watch the guy in the house back there look for a ham sandwich in his 'fridge.
Southern Arizona Rod and Custom, Inc.
Driving south on Interstate 10, even though I-10 lies to you and tells you you're going east, you pass Orange Grove Road. And if you're at all like me, if you had a toy chest once with a bunch of cars and trucks and tractors in it, you look west and watch for this hot-rod compound. The first time I saw it, I swerved out of my lane because I was craning my neck to stare at the candy-apple paint jobs on their unbelievable array of old cars. We have our own small Smithsonian of chopped and channeled rods, lowriders, cherry Studebakers, ancient panel trucks, 1938 bubble-fender pickup trucks.
You pull up on the frontage road and park. You step through the gate, wondering if anyone is going to say anything. Nobody does. A guy is backing out in a sparkling 1954 Chevy painted dazzling orange. "Beautiful car," you say. He looks at you like you're an idiot. You don't need to tell me this is a beautiful car, his look says, and he moves through the dust cloud like a shark and pulls away from you, glasspack mufflers sounding like coffee cans full of rocks.
You want to grab one of these babies and squat in the dirt and run it back and forth and go, Zoom! Zoom!
Along the sides of the compound is a rusty museum of amazing automotive design. Four old panel trucks sit shoulder to shoulder, looking like an art installation. Far in back there's a bemused-looking flock of VW beetles listing every which way in the weeds, a garbage truck (what a hot rod that would make!) and an alarming nightmare of twisted metal that could have been a fatal roll-over.
You could write a story about each hulk in their great yard. Who drove this '36 Ford? What happened to them? What ghosts sit in these tattered seats?
But the masterpieces stand along the front fence. The shiny ones, the ones brought back somehow from the dead, some of them looking brighter and more eager than new cars. The honor guard. You don't even have to get off the highway. Just move over to the slow lane and grin as you go by God's Hot Wheels set.
El Tiradito Shrine
No place captures the atmosphere of the Old Pueblo quite as well as the modest El Tiradito shrine, right next to El Minuto Cafe downtown. (See this issue's cover photo.) The story is that back in the late 1800s a philandering railroad worker was caught by a cuckolded husband and chopped to pieces. To add insult to injury, the husband then scattered those pieces along the Southern Pacific tracks leading to Mexico, thus leading to the name El Tiradito, "the little castaway," and, ultimately, to the only shrine devoted to a sinner in the entire Southwest. Light a candle there on a windswept night, and you might just catch a glimpse of him.
McDonald's on Kolb and Tanque Verde
Imagine my delight when I was driving along Grant Road, confused when it became Kolb (who, exactly, planned this town, anyway?) and I looked to my right. You all knew already, but nobody warned me. There was a T. rex eating the DON'T WALK sign in front of the McDonald's.
This wasn't your ordinary small town cement-and-chicken wire dinosaur, either: It was a Spielbergian replica, covered in neato wrinkly skin and imagined dino colors. The baddest extinct vato in town, just hangin' on the corner, apparently munching pedestrians, or possibly waiting to check out the dreaded Arch Deluxe. Way to go, Tucson.
There are dinos in Santa Fe, poking their heads out of the side of a factory, and there are dinos in Utah, plopped like faded purple icebergs in the side lots of half-dead motels. But you have a world-class monster, and you have every reason to be proud. The combination of the T. rex and what I consider Monster Row--the amazing Speedway, with its giant termite, its giant bullfighter and bull, its giant beehive exterminator building--makes Tucson the greatest collection of weird sculpture I've ever seen. By the way, drive around behind the McDonald's and enjoy a perfectly lovely duckbilled dino that appears to be bent over looking for spare change.
The Devil's Own Lumberjack
A Tucson fixture for many years, the 18-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue on the corner of Stone and Glenn has been around for as long as just about anyone can remember--so long, in fact, that its origins seem lost in the mists of time. Whatever its history, the statue is a bona fide landmark, having made guest appearances in movies like Easy Rider, Pocket Money and Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More. The behemoth used to stand in front of a hardware and building-supplies store; it remains, but the hardware shop is gone, its space now occupied by a hot-rod supplies dealer that by all appearances does a thriving trade.
With its red shirt, blue plants and ET-hued pale face that bespeaks his origins in the cold of French Canada, our Paul Bunyan wields a double-headed ax that would do Freddie Krueger proud--except at Christmas, when the ax is mysteriously replaced by a candy cane.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal has his own theory about the statue. "This is what happens," he says, "when Bob's Big Boys grow up."
I'd seen it in Tom Petty videos, and on tacky postcards. But when I got to Tucson, I never imagined it would be spread out, in all its glory, right in the middle of things. I thought you'd have to drive out into the boonies and pass through some hellish cross-country initiatory journey to get there. Dozens and dozens of dead airplanes just sitting around in the toasty Arizona sun? Acres of bombers, fighters, helicopters, transports, a mothballed air force, the biggest single collection of whizbangs ever assembled could not, I thought, be tucked in among trailer parks and backyard swimming pools. (Have you ever noticed, by the way, how alarmingly similar to the gutted planes the trailers are? Sic transit gloria mundi.)
What happened was, I was living in this old adobe, and there were all these people hanging around, and they were driving me crazy. The guy sleeping on my floor was snuffling like a bison, wanting to boink the redhead next door. I believe they were in the process of ritualized rutting when I charged out at midnight and drove off in my Jeep. A few hours later, I was heading back toward town on I-10, and I decided to take Kolb, just to see what there was to see. I was not yet aware of the fact that driving around streets south of Broadway at three in the morning could leave me with a bullet in my head. Fools drive where angels fear to tread.
So I was driving along, listening to Fields of the Nephilim, feeling a bit creepy with the gothic sounds filling the car, when I looked around me in the gloom. I was surrounded by these...these...these hulks, these giant skeletons, these abandoned sets from Alien. They were dully glowing blue in the moonlight. It scared the hell out of me.
Of course, I took every visitor thereafter out there to gawk. My friend Bonnie took one look and shook her head. "Boys and their toys," she said. Tom Petty knew a good thing when he saw it. So did I.
Titan Missile Museum
Nearly 50,000 visitors come each year to this decommissioned missile installation, Complex 571-7 on the Pentagon's roster of death-dealing real estate, a stone's throw away from Green Valley. (Yes, it's not quite Tucson, but you can see the place from the rooftop of the La Placita parking garage downtown, so we're annexing it.)
Deactivated on November 11, 1982, the installation is the only place in the United States where an interested traveler can get a close-up look at the weapons that once troubled the sleep of millions of people around the world.
Eighteen such installations--glorified holes in the ground, 146 feet deep, once stuffed full of expensive computer equipment and rocketry--dotted the desert around Tucson during the Cold War's boom years. Built in 1961, this one, called the Copper Penny because of its proximity to the nearby Duval copper mine, is the only one that remains. The others were blown up in 1982, following strategic-arms limitation talks conducted by Ronald Reagan and a succession of Soviet leaders.
Here four-man crews would sit 24-hour shifts, awaiting the day when the Reds went a step over the line and all hell would break loose, in the meanwhile babysitting a 330,000-pound, 110-foot-long Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile targeted on one of three cities inside the former Soviet Union. Just which ones, no one outside the war room in Washington could say. "The targets," says museum guide Ted Kemper, "were known only as 1, 2, and 3. I don't think the boys inside really wanted to know what they were going to vaporize."
As befits an excursion into the Cold War mindset, the Titan Missile Museum is rich with carefully posted statistics, factoids, timelines. A sign near the museum entrance proudly reports the details of construction: the underground silo and command center used 1,100 tons of rebar, 2,100 cubic yards of concrete, 120 tons of steel beams, 200 tons of electromagnetic lining, and 117 tons of steel rings. It announces, with equal pride, the stats on the Titan itself, a missile that, after attaining an apogee of 450 miles above the surface of the earth at a cruising speed of 17,000 miles an hour, could strike targets more than 5,000 miles away.
The staff of oldtimers who entertain questions with bemused and patient smiles are always good for comforting sentiments. Retired bomber pilot Jim Wilson, now a tour guide, points out such regalia as the "maximum uncomfortable" rocket-fueling suits installation personnel had to wear when servicing the missile, and the retractable radio antennae designed to rise from a case-hardened underground bunker in the event a Russkie thermonuclear missile landed atop the site and knocked out above-ground communications. "Nuclear near-miss?" he crows. "Failure to respond? Don't look for that in this part of the world." Weird stuff indeed.
The Gateway to Hell
My buddy Greg and I were sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Santa Fe around Christmas last year when a young man, all odd-angled haircut and nose-ring, smiled and said, "You guys from Tucson? Man, you gotta check out the gateway to Hell over by the UA. All the satanists know about it." So we did, visiting a sad, empty lot on the corner of Speedway and Third Avenue, marked by a couple of felled telephone poles, a patch of prickly pear, and a few weeds, but with only a couple of broken bottles as any evidence of devilish activities. A friend of ours who once lived across the street, however, remembers hearing weird shrieks coming from underground, and that's good enough for us.
Neither of us personally managed to descend southward through the supposed portal on any of our visits--nor would we especially care to--and we report it to you as a matter of local curiosity. If Sedona can have its groovy vortexes, then there's no reason Tucson should not have its express lane to Pandemonium, a feature of which only a very few places can boast.
"America," noted H. L. Mencken, "is a land so geographically tilted that everything which is loose rolls to California." But in the last few years much of the great untethered mass has run out of steam amid the cactus groves of next-door Arizona, the poor man's California and just as open to the surreal.
Thirty miles north of Tucson, near the New Age-riddled hamlet of Oracle, our area's greatest monument to kookiness has been making international news for a decade: Biosphere II, a stack of glass-and-steel pyramids the size of three football fields. Within it lies a series of carefully constructed miniature ecosystems meant to mimic the natural processes of swamps, savannas, coral reefs, jungles and deserts. In reality, these natural ecosystems were once inhabited by butterflies, bumblebees, koi and dwarf pigs--until evolutionary fate quick-marched the unfortunate creatures unto extinction. It's no petting zoo. Instead, Biosphere II is a prototype for a Martian space station, the decades-old dream of the cultists who once ran the place and who imagined a terrestrial future even bleaker than that of Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner. New Mexico communards in the 1960s (they appear, like the Paul Bunyan statue, in Dennis Hopper's film Easy Rider), the Biosphereans were, as one said, "poking among the ruins of dying civilization" in order to seed the distant planets with their kind--handsome Caucasians.
Biosphere II may once have been the cutting edge of the loopy New Age, but its present-day managers are real-world shrewd. Tens of thousands of tourists now descend on Biosphere II for a peek at the future, at a mere $30-75 a pop. And although today the legitimate science end of Biosphere II is managed by Columbia University, the ghost of Nostradamus, patron saint of pseudoscience, must be grinning from ear to ear at the good fortune of his descendants.
Whatever real science may be going on there today, it's still a great monument to gullibility.
As local public art goes, nothing quite matches the statue that once graced the now-defunct Tia Elena restaurant on the corner of Grant and Richey: It appears to have been inspired by Pueblo storyteller figurines, but it came out looking like a lump of rotting mashed potatoes. That Tucson has not yet torn it down bespeaks a certain innocence.
Westward on Grant, at the corner of Country Club, lies an unintentional monument to lost, large things: the blocked shell of an old airplane that might have seen service in Wiley Post's day. No one knows who owns the thing, and a former neighbor once posted a sign saying, in effect, "Don't ask: it's not mine." It's just one more bit of detritus in the ruins of Republican civilization, but, as with so much else of this place, we'll miss it when it's gone.
Photos by Dominic Oldershaw
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