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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road

READERS' PICK: Founded in 1952, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located out past the western edge of Tucson city limits, is not only a world-class museum but a world-class experience. We recently took some visiting Texans there, and everyone knows how hard it is to impress residents of that large state. From the "can you find 'em?" lizard exhibit at the entrance gate, through the authentically rendered cavern, to the spanking new javelina enclosure, our friends couldn't have been more impressed or excited. The number and variety of flora and fauna in the Sonoran desert is truly astonishing; there are 140 species of cactus and other desert plants in the Cactus Garden alone, for example. Our friends couldn't wait to walk up to a saguaro and learn firsthand how one felt. Their curiosity and questions were ably answered by the museum docents located throughout the park, who offered brief educational displays and talks. A favorite activity for everyone was watching the otters at play. Another was experiencing the serenity and bird songs of the aviary. Just as a walk in the desert would illustrate, there are small miracles everywhere. (Hint: look for the tadpoles.) Paying attention to where you put your feet can be plenty rewarding.

Despite an occasional detour caused by a new project under construction, the museum offers an easy, self-guided visit along two miles of xeriscaped desert pathways, and is wheelchair accessible. Animals in natural habitats are readily photographed if you get an early start. You'll also want to visit the architecturally acclaimed restaurant (by Tucson architect Les Wallach), and the museum's gallery and gift shop, whose many offerings include plants and cacti grown on location. If you haven't visited the museum recently, you owe yourself a trip--with or without an out-of-town posse to impress. It's open daily. Call 883-2702 for information.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Sabino Canyon, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road.

CLUE IN: The way mainstream America depicts its native sons and daughters seems to have come full-circle, from romanticized and fictionalized to rebellious and troublesome. Now the romantic version is back in vogue, with a certain chic attached to all things indigenous--not to mention more than a few slot machines.

Through all this ebbing and flowing of favor, however, remain the people themselves. Just like the rest of us, they fail to fit into neat slots. Offering a more accurate version of the continent's original dwellers is the task of the Arizona State Museum (located at the corner of Park Avenue and University Boulevard), and its ongoing Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest exhibit.

The display depicts Indian cultures as living societies rather than dusty anachronisms, vividly capturing their struggle to protect ancient traditions against a split-second world. One photo depicts the Tohono O'odham yucca harvest; another describes the O'odham's recent battle for water rights. East central Arizona Apaches are shown in traditional villages, and at their Sunrise Ski Lodge. A vibrant mural captures the Yaqui creation myth, followed by a photo of Tucson's New Pascua Yaqui Village.

It's this unadorned juxtaposition of past and present that gives the exhibit its power. The stories are told from both indigenous and Anglo perspectives, and Native American help was sought from the beginning. "We wanted their views on their origins, history and lives today," says curator Bruce Hilpert. "And we tried to break stereotypes."

Paths of Life is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, in the Arizona State Museum, located on the UA campus, just inside the main gate east of Park Avenue. Admission is free. For information, call 621-6302.

Case History

1997 Winner: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
1996 Winner: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
1995 Winner: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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