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July/August Issue

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Featured Stories / President's Message / Government Relations / Membership Affairs Committee Report / Veterans Benefit Update / Ask The Parliamentarian / Region 5 Report / Veterans Against Drugs Task Force Report / SHAD/Project 112 Task Force Report / Government Affairs Committee Report / Chapel of Four Chaplains / AVVA Report / Homeless Veterans Task Force Report

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BY MICHAEL KEATING

Hard, sharp, and clear. The landscape around Tucson has a draftsman’s beauty. Its about line and form and clarity. Nothing fuzzy. Things end with sharp points. Beware of those sharp points, visitor.

The light is so clear, it threatens to shatter. The morning sun rises with a modest blush; warm tones spread across the ridges. And it often sets with a glorious riot of reds and blues and purples, rays penetrating huge pile-ups of clouds in rococo tableaux. But in between, it is harsh and probing and clinical. Its examination of the landscape is remorseless, relentless, dispassionate. High temps in the July desert, according to the National Park Service, hover just over 98 degrees.

First seen, the view from Gates Pass is never forgotten. An alternate reality, a different evolution, a different course spreads out to the west. It’s a lunar landscape, forbidding and desolate, and yet it’s home to a vast forest—albeit a forest devoid of leaves or shade. As far as the eye can see (and it can see pretty far from that promontory) is a vast forest of saguaro cactus.

The other thing, uncanny and unexpected, is that this desert is not barren. In fact, it’s lush. Lush in a thorny, thick-skinned, water-coveting sort of way perhaps, but certainly lush. The profusion and variety of plant life makes it difficult to walk in the Sonoran Desert. Eventually, the eyes adjust to the terrain like they do to the dark, and all is not chaos. Most everything seems arranged in lovely groupings.

These arrangements, though charming and elegant, are certainly not arbitrary—little is in the unforgiving desert. Rather, these botanical clusters are so beautiful, the internal shapes complement each other so marvelously, it all harmonizes so perfectly because it must. The saguaro seed flourishes under the branches of palo verde, one of many “nursing” trees. And a mesquite growing amid prickly pear is less vulnerable to passing grazers. The jojoba shades the young cholla. Clustering helps mitigate the harshness of the climate.

This alternate landscape, this lunar lushness, pushes even our definitions of life and death. In a drought, plants shrivel and die. And yet, when rain comes, they flower.


Death and transfiguration are the themes, too, at the San Xavier del Bac Mission, seven miles south of Tucson, off Route 10 on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. Often considered the finest example of Mexican colonial architecture in the United States, the Mission’s whiteness, its beauty, its delicate curves have earned it the sobriquet “White Dove of the Desert.” After the Grand Canyon, it’s Arizona’s most photographed site; both Timothy Sullivan and Ansel Adams have aimed their lenses at it.

In chaste austerity, the Mission rises above the impoverished village around it. But step inside. Inside is a baroque vision of heaven. The figures of more than thirty saints pray, beseech, and gesture from niches and under arches. A huge retablo in the front of the church rises from floor almost to the dome, topped with God the Father in benediction. Carved and painted drapes and swags are pulled open by cherubs to reveal saints and madonnas. Two full-sized angels flank the altar.

After standing in the silence for many minutes, a blind man standing under the central dome turned to his wife and said, “Oh, this was worth the whole trip.”

The cumulative effect is one of extreme holiness and reverence. It conjures both awe and delight. In its cross-cultural swirl, mixing Spanish with Mexican sensibilities (most of the sculpture was carved in Mexico) and Native American artistry (members of the Tohono O’Odham built and painted the mission), all under the supervision of the Franciscans, the church was built in the shape of the Latin cross in a Moorish style.

Go see it. It’s one of Tucson’s treasures, and one of which they are justifiably proud. An old woman visiting the church described how different and drab it was 25 years ago when she first visited. All the florid arabesques and filigree, all the putti and saints had been muted by more than two centuries of votive candles and neglect. Now the interior restoration is complete. Outside, the bell tower is wrapped in scaffolding and cloth.

There’s no admission fee.


Continuing down Route 10 another hour brings you to Nogales. As you come down off the hill and into the town, you’ll see the wall—sometimes in masonry, sometimes in corrugated metal—that separates the United States from Mexico. Pull into one of the parking lots, pay your four dollars, and with an eerie ease you cross a street, walk down a few steps and along a concrete walkway, and through a turnstile. Without effort, without ceremony, without interference, you’ve left your country.

Bearing to the right, you come to a street of arched storefronts, mostly pharmacies and barber shops. Barkers are anxious to sell you medicines, drugs, Viagra. At the end of the block, a traffic cop will help you cross. Turn right and the shops begin. The first cluster of shops is followed on the next block by a larger cluster of shops—46, I’m told, one opening onto another in a maze of handicrafts.

It’s a wild, dizzying assemblage of clutter, knickknacks, silver, and gold. Bleached steer skulls vie for attention with florid blue and yellow ceramics. Thousands of carved and painted animals from Oaxaca, star-shaped tin lanterns, copper bowls, and masks of coyotes and jaguars.

Take your time. The prices are all negotiable. Summer is the slowest time in Nogales, so shopkeepers are more willing to engage in the give-and-take of wrangling over prices. It’s serious business (they have families to feed), but it’s also good-natured sparring.

Look hard. It’s all hand made. For one or two dollars you can buy a brightly colored souvenir. For one or two hundred dollars, you can buy something rare and strikingly beautiful.

But look, at any rate. No need to buy.

Afterwards, sliding into high-backed bamboo chairs after ordering Margaritas, you can watch the parade. But even then, the shopping continues: Dark-eyed children offer baskets full of trinkets and loquacious men appear with hands dripping silver necklaces.


Another place to slide into a comfortable chair and order a Margarita (or a lemonade) flavored with prickly pear is Tohono Chul. Located just minutes from the hotel (left on Oracle, right on Ina—it’s on the right, turn onto Paseo del Norte), it offers dining inside the hacienda, in the courtyard, and on the patio out back. Breakfast, starting at 8:00 a.m., is terrific; so is lunch (see Dennis St. Germaine’s “Restaurant Guide” on p. 21). Best of all is the feeling of oasis.

Originally a family project to protect a piece of the desert ecosystem, Tohono Chul now offers a restaurant, gift shop, greenhouses for purchasing desert plants, and a 49-acre garden.

The mission statement: “To enrich people’s lives by providing them the opportunity to find peace and inspiration in a place of beauty, experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert, and to gain knowledge of the natural and cultural heritage of this region.” Its acreage contains 150 species of shrubs and trees, 300 species of cacti and succulents, and 50 species of wildflowers. Thirty-eight species of birds live in the park, as do a variety of mammals and reptiles, including gray fox and gila monsters.

The trails and displays are both beautiful and instructive. Most trails—as well as the restaurant and gift shop—are wheelchair accessible. On Thursday, July 13, the admission fee will be waived for those attending VVA’s Leadership Conference. Bring your Conference ID. Get there by 5 o’clock, and stay until sunset.


Of course, it’s perfectly lovely at the El Conquistador. Early in the morning delicate bunnies hop in profusion across the poolside putting green and among the plants. The hotel offers the relative safety provided by humans and an abundance of well-watered vegetation. Ease of pickings attracts other animals, too: an occasional coyote and sharp-eyed roadrunners. Murmuring mourning doves coo dolefully. The clean desert air, sage-scented in the desert, is here spiced with oleander and jasmine.

You will witness all these early-morning pleasures as you lay indolently in your comfortable bed, because a wide-tailed grackle has been in the palm tree outside your balcony since before dawn regaling you (and only you) with a lively variety of hoots, calls, and whistles.

You might as well get up. The fitness center opens at 5:30 a.m. ($10). Or how about a horse ride? The hotel stables offer riding in the mornings and the evenings. Rides are for either one or one and a half hours ($24-38, plus tax). The neat thing about the rides, besides being on a horse and being out in the prettiest light, is that you go out into the desert, see the cacti and the other scratchy plants, but you sit just out of their reach. If you’d rather walk, there’s a trail head (ask the concierge for exact location) outside the hotel that winds up the Catalina Mountains.

Just a couple miles north of the hotel (turn right on Oracle) is Catalina State Park. This is perhaps the best early-morning destination: It’s close and it’s grand. Early morning like 5:30 or so. Remember, Arizona doesn’t abide by Daylight Saving Time. “Why would we want to save daylight?” asks Tucson Chapter 106 President Dennis St. Germaine in mock incredulity. “We already have plenty.” The practical effect is the sun is up (and down) earlier. By 5:30 a.m., the sky is bright.

The paved road to the trailhead is frequented by roadrunners. An occasional jack—rabbit taut, big- boned, and muscled with huge ears (not at all like the bunnies at the hotel)—leaps in front of the oncoming car, then off into the brush.

Catalina has several trails. A short, easy trail runs to the Indian ruins. Another loops around the canyon. And a few wend out, then up toward and into the mountains. The first and last trails are probably best for time-short LC attendees. The trail to the ruins is a quick, easy loop (although the ruins to my inexperienced eye look suspiciously like rows of stones). The last trails wander out into the wilderness, through a broad arroyo—sandy and dry, but subject to quick flooding—and finally ascend into the Catalina Mountains. Those pressed for time can walk out for half the allotted time then turn around. The walks are easy at first but progressively more difficult. The return is easier: It’s downhill all the way with the sun at your back.

A day pass is $6.


Returning to the hotel, you’ll pass Albertson’s Supermarket, an important adjunct to hotel food best known for its expense. Also, just south of the hotel, at Oracle and Magee, is Trader Joe’s, which sells good food, cheap water, and a large variety of wines.

In south Tucson, you’ll see planes—lots of planes. Driving along Kolb or Valencia, visitors are stunned to see row after row after row of mothballed fighter planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Hundreds—perhaps thousands, although not nearly so many as could be seen during VVA’s 2002 Leadership Conference—are queued up under the baking Arizona sun, their windows painted over to prevent ultraviolet damage to the interiors.

Tucked away amid this excess bounty on Valencia Street (west of Wilmont) is the Pima Air and Space Museum. Historical planes are displayed in hangars and out on the sand. Some are famous for their wartime feats; others, like John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One, for their occupants. The World War II display is impressive. Be sure to see the spectacular supersonic SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane.

The hours are 9-5, with the final admission at 4 o’clock. Admission is $9.75, with a dollar discount for seniors. If you plan to go in a group of at least twenty, contact John Lundquist at 618-4800 for additional discounts.

Further south is the Titan Missile Site, now open to the public. Admission is $8.75, with a dollar discount to seniors and to those arriving in groups of at least twenty.


By midday, it’s time to be indoors. The Tucson Museum of Art is well-known for its paintings of the American West and for its pre-Columbian collection. It’s located downtown on Congress in the famous Historic Block. Admission: $8; seniors, $6.

But those acutely aware of the brevity of their visit may choose instead the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It has a lush collection, including paintings by Tintoretto, Hopper, Goya, Whistler, and Diebenkorn. A group of 61 plaster and clay models by Jacques Lipshitz, donated by his widow, is on permanent display on the ground floor. In July there also will be a special exhibit of French-inspired, artist-illustrated books, “Livres d’Artistes: Selections from the Ritter Collection.”

Not only does the UAMA have a good collection, it also has a good location: just steps away from other prestigious museums. The Arizona State Museum is a treasure trove of Southwestern anthropology. It is the largest and oldest anthropology museum in the Southwest, with vast Native American collections.

Also a minute’s walk is the Center for Creative Photography, originally a collaboration between UA and Ansel Adams, who was looking for a permanent place to house his archives. In addition to Adams’s archives, the Center is the custodian of the work of Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, Harry Calahan, and other well-known photographers. In July, the Center will have a special Robert Adams exhibit, Turning Back: A Photographic Journey of Re-exploration, which follows Lewis and Clark’s return, starting at the Pacific. His photographs of the Columbia River are beautiful, yet ambivalent about the blessings of progress.

These three museums together offer an amazing sweep of art, culture, and history. They’re clustered together, and they’re all free. From the hotel, turn left on Oracle, then left on Speedway. The Photography Center is on the right.

In the evening, Tucson’s grandest movie house, the Fox Theatre, is having a summer classic film festival. The 17 W. Congress Street building, including its Art Deco fixtures and ceiling mural, was recently restored to period perfection. On Thursday and Friday, July 13 and 14, the Fox will be showing King Kong, the original 1933 epic with Faye Wray. Tickets are regularly $10. VVA members with conference identification will pay only $7.


The stars on the screen, however, can’t match Tucson’s starry sky. Drive west over the Tucson Mountains into the Saguaro National Forest, away from the city lights, park the car, and let your eyes adjust to the dark. Or else drive up to Catalina State Park, just minutes away. Drive all the way up to the trailhead and park. A skunk marches off, tail raised—defiantly cautious and slow in the headlights.

Turn off the lights and the night is dark—inky dark. Bats and owls sweep by, only peripherally perceived. A single coyote calls, both sorrowful and giddy, and is soon joined by a cacophonous chorus of howling, yipping, yodeling packmates.

Then, above, you see it: the Milky Way roiling through the three-dimensional sky amid a dust storm of stars. More stars than you ever imagined. An owl hoo-hoots.

Then silence: a silence so profound you wonder if what you barely hear is the rushing of blood through your brain or the spinning of the planet, the music of the spheres.

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