Saturday, February 27, 2010
Snow, Missiles and Gunshots
Yes, I know I promised to make these shorter. But dammit, I keep not doing it in time and want to make sure I write everything down for ourselves at least—even if most of you just skim through. That’s OK, I’m not offended.
You know it’s not a good sign when the park ranger who’s there to take your money warns you that you won’t see anything interesting in the park. It’s also not a good sign when there’s a sign on his window saying “Poor weather. No refunds” and he proceeds to tell you why you shouldn’t go visit the Grand Canyon.
Nevertheless, despite warnings, we knew that we’d gotten that close, we had to at least try to see something. We paid our park admission fee and drove on, leaving the park ranger shaking his head and rolling his eyes, likely muttering “Canadians!” to himself. We hopped out of the van, walked up to the edge of the canyon, looked over and…admired the fog and snow. But then, just as we were about to leave, a cloud moved to the side and we had about 90 seconds of a beautiful view of the canyon. Pretty impressive but to be honest, I think we’ll have to go back some day to get the full effect. Still, we were glad to have been there and given it a shot.
From there, we went on to Phoenix, Arizona. I love all the cactuses in the area—they are truly the quintessential symbol of Arizona. The tall ones with arms that most people tend to think of apparently don’t start sprouting their arms until they’re 50 years old. It’s another 50 years before they bloom flowers. Arizona is in the midst of record-breaking winter rainfall at the moment so cacti are extra swollen and bloated from retaining water. Luckily, none of them asked me if they looked fat or I might be picking thorns out of my butt.
My newly-retired parents are in Mesa at the moment so we gave them a call and met up with them at the Hall of Flame, a museum dedicated to all things firefighting related, including some impressively old fire trucks. This was a fun stop. Jaxon got all dressed up in a firefighter’s garb and climbed aboard a real truck and pretended we were fighting a fire at his school (wishful thinking? I hope not).
From there, we ventured on to Tuscan, Arizona and visited the Titan Missile Centre to get a look at a real missile up close and learn more about the program. I knew these missile centres were scattered underground throughout the deserts, but I never really thought about the operation of them before. During the Cold War, these centres were operated by 24-hour shifts of four people at a time. The crew would inspect the entire centre from top to bottom at the beginning of every shift and then spend the rest of their time waiting for the call to launch that never came.
The security measures taken were strict and thorough. In every area except the kitchen, there was a “two-man” policy meaning you were not allowed to be alone, lest you decide to sabotage the operation. The code needed to launch the missile was not kept anywhere onsite and was not given out to the personnel. Instead, in the event of an attack, the president would call in and give the code just before launch. And there was a series of characters that the president would have to say at the beginning to verify that he was actually the president, not some angry teenager playing a prank. There was even a code word that would be used if something was being said under duress to discreetly warn team members.
Our guide used to work in the centre himself and was proud of the program. He said a few times that while some people may scoff at the millions of dollars spent on missiles that were never used, they were actually used, even if they never launched. Without the missiles, he said, we surely would have been destroyed by other countries who had the missiles and weren’t afraid to attack.
For something a bit lighter, we drove on down to Tombstone, Arizona, home of the OK Corral and the inspiration for numerous Hollywood movies. The movies, Tombstone folks will tell you, are far from factual (although they are entertaining). Still, in the town too tough to die, Allen Street remains true to its roots with cowboys, wagons, and old buildings still standing tall. From Big Nose Kate’s Saloon to a recreation of the famous gunfight with the Earp brothers, it was fun to immerse ourselves in the Wild West for a day or so.
Yesterday morning we got up at 6:30 to get in line for our chance to get a spot on a tour of the Kartchner Caverns. Spots are often reserved several months ahead of time and the park worker told us that if we weren’t there by 7:30, we wouldn’t get a ticket in.
The caverns were discovered in the 70’s by two spelunkers out for a leisurely day of exploring. When they creeped into a sinkhole and looked around, they couldn’t believe the find they’d come across. They were so paranoid about keeping the caves safe from others, that they kept them secret from everyone except the owners of the land for 14 years. When they finally decided the caves needed to be carefully preserved and opened to the public, they took their secret public and told the State of Arizona who then promptly purchased the land and spent four years developing it into a park.
And wow! This park was definitely worth getting up early for. This cavern was different from the caves I’d gone through on Vancouver Island the last couple of summers. No muddy crawling and squeezing necessary here. Instead, the State called in experts to make the caverns accessible yet strictly protected. The result? A series of air-tight doors at the entrance, an easy pathway with handrails, a de-linting misty shower, and strategically-placed dim lights throughout the cavern—and strict instructions not to touch anything.
All of these precautions were put in place to protect one of Arizona’s incredible wonders. Fantastic rock formations were everywhere—soda straws, popcorn and drapery protruded all around us. The lights cast eery shadows from the formations onto the walls and the dripping of water reminded us that the cave was continually changing slowly over time. So cool and so humbling.
Yesterday afternoon we headed to El Paso, Texas. And of course, in a town like El Paso, we had to go out for some Mexican grub. Julio’s, winner of several awards, was our destination for the evening and it didn’t disappoint. Chocolately mole sauce, cold drinks, fresh salsa, and perfectly fried chimichangas all delighted us with their extra little kick added to everything. Yummers.
After supper we went to a place called Lynx Exhibits: Deep Blue Sea (or something to that effect). The marketing materials were pretty slick but when we arrived at what looked to be a previously-abandoned warehouse, we started getting sceptical. The exhibits themselves, with mock-ups of mini-submarines, touch pools of stingrays and displays of undersea wonders were lots of fun and well-done. However, it seemed like a fly-by-night operation as the shaky, hastily-painted walls looked like they’d fall if you leaned against them and some of the piping near the concrete ceiling was disguised by black garbage bags. Not overly professional. My theory is that Lynx set up the space in an attempt to sell a traveling exhibition to other science or marine centres but I’m not sure. It seemed very odd and incredibly temporary.
Of course, none of that mattered to Jaxon, he was just thrilled to try his hand at operating a robotic arm and dressing up in scuba gear. And last night, when he came back from the bathroom, he told me that we couldn’t see the big dipper but the view of the city lights was still beautiful. Right he was.