Once we arrived, bone-weary after 25 hours of driving, to our little oasis in the southern Arizona desert, it soon became apparent the drive was worth it. (For the record – I think we will definitely book a flight next time, however!) At least we arrived on schedule Saturday evening. My parents’ Saturday flight to Tucson got cancelled and the soonest they could fly out again was Monday afternoon to Phoenix! We managed to have some fun without them the first two days.
Our actual accomodations were in Oro Valley, about 15 miles north of Tucson. Oro Valley is nestled at the base of the ruggedly gorgeous Santa Catalina mountains, and the town is barely visible until you drive the streets. Incorporated in 1974 (ahem – younger than this writer!), the buildings and homes must adhere to strict codes of low heights, flat roofs, and desert tones. All the construction seamlessly blends in with the desert landscape. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
There was a bit of a cloud cover on Sunday so we took advantage of the cooler weather to hike the foothills at Catalina State Park, which lies in the Coronado National Forest. We hiked the Romero Ruins interpretive trail, the site of an ancient Hohokam village later turned Spanish hacienda in the 1800’s.
There weren’t many ruins but we marveled at the giant saguaro cacti (which are unique to the southern Arizona desert), looked for flecks of micah glittering in the dusty trail, and kept track of all the lizards scurrying over the rocks.
The second hike, the Canyon Loop trail, showcased impressive views of the craggy, chiseled spires and rocky backbone Santa Catalina mountain. Flowering prickly pear cacti and other wildflowers offered bolts of color along the way.
Once we made it to the creek, lots of golf-course green trees contrasted the arid landscape.
Even in the mid-70′s degrees the kids’ Oregonian webbed feet were getting hot – how convenient for us that a store sold ice cream bars at the parking lot. It’s so gratifying (not) to get them out in the great outdoors and then buy them a reward at the end. If I’d had my way, they could have waited till we got back to our unit for a popsicle, but nobody asked me!!!
Even though we had a full week, it was hard to choose how to spend our time – there’s so much to do in and around Tucson! Our mode of operando was an outing in the morning or early afternoon, and then pool time to beat the heat. For the first time in 10+ years, I could relax by the pool and not worry about one of the kids drowning! Liberating! Someone once told me these are the golden years and I definitely agree, especially when it comes to traveling.
On Monday we decided to visit Biosphere 2. Time-Life Books named it one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world. And you know me – how could I pass up something with that distinction, especially when it’s 25 minutes away? And serendipitously, we scored two 2 for 1 admissions on Groupon! So what exactly is Biosphere 2, you ask? Basically, it’s the largest environmental science experiment in the world. It was privately funded and constructed in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until 1991 when 8 people were sealed inside the enormous structure that it became famous.
The main building is the size of 3 football fields and houses replicas of 4 of the world’s biomes: rainforest, savanna, ocean, and coastal fog desert (similar to Baja peninsula.) So, over 20 years ago they brought in 300 plant species and 200 species of snakes, ants, and insects from the Amazon rainforest; and trucked in 700,000 gallons of water from the Pacific Ocean. We toured through all the biomes and learned the story of the original experiment.
The four men and women who lived there from 1991-1993 years had to grow all their own food within the Biosphere 2 in addition to adapting to and maintaining the various habitats. They didn’t live in the “wilderness” – they each had their own mini apartment and a common living/dining/kitchen area. All 8 took turns planning and cooking dinner, breakfast, and lunch every 8 days. Can you imagine not leaving a place like that for 2 years??!!
Today, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona and besides tours, conducts continual environmental experiments. In the savanna biome we saw how they are studying global warming’s effects on certain plants. One of the wildest parts of the tour was walking through a wind tunnel to one of the “lungs” – gigantic, cavernous structure that regulated the oxygen for the entire setting.
I can’t really think of a tidy way to summarize Biosphere 2, so I’ll end it with William’s comment as we drove away:
“It’s like a world within a world!”