Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wandering in the Desert - Part 1: Kearny, AZ

When we all got the final tour schedule, there was a bit of grumbling about the scheduled lay-off week between Tucson and Orange County. A lay-off with just two weeks to go seemed like kind of a bummer. As we got closer, though, most everyone started to warm to it. Normally, I would have been happy for a free flight home; but with just two more weeks until I'd be home for good, I decided to enjoy a week in the desert!

Scotty, our Prop man, invited a bunch of us up to his folks' house in Kearny, Arizona for the day on Monday. Kearny is just two hours north of Tucson and is home to the Ray Mine and the Hayden Smelter. The town was built in the 1950's to accomodate the employees of the Kennecott Mining Company and to relocate the residents of Ray, Sonora and Barcelona as their towns would be swallowed by Kennecott's giant open-pit copper mine. When I say that three towns would be swallowed by the mine, that gives you some idea how large the operation is.

From this vantage point, the Ray Mine stretched nearly as far as I could see in 3 directions. The pictures simply cannot do the scale of the mine justice.

Each of those terraces is big enough to allow giant dump trucks to drive along. Whole mountainsides have been removed.

Kearny sits on the Gila River. (Fun fact: the Gila was the southern border of the US from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 extended the territory southward.) Once again, it was strange to see so much water in the desert - just yards from giant cactuses! The Gila is a wide shallow river in Kearny, but farther west so much of its water is diverted that it is a dry river for much of the year.

Scott, Berg and Cuz dip their toes in the Gila

After everyone got settled, we met up at Scott's parents' house and prepared to go four wheeling! We slathered up with sunscreen, filled coolers with beer, piled into a couple of trucks and headed out into the desert. Scott's former in-laws own a sizable cattle ranch across the river and we went exploring!

Scott's dad pilots the truck while Cuz and Miss Suzanne enjoy the ride

All of us (Berg, Suzanne, Scott's Mom, Myself, Cuz, Scott, Dumas and Scott's Dad) take a break

We visited an abandoned silver mining claim, roared up dry washes, chased off a rattlesnake and a few of us even climbed up the windmill that keeps a supply of fresh water pumped for the cattle in the middle of the desert. It was a grand afternoon out in the sunshine!

The cattle were not impressed

Dumas at the base of a giant saguaro

Yup, that's a ball of cactus stuck in my knee. I was explaining how the cholla cactus drops off parts of itself and how these balls attach to passing animals to spread the cactus, when one of the balls attached itself to me. Not to worry, I'd had several beers by then and thought the whole situation was HILARIOUS. Before I could grab it and pull it off with my hand (which would only have gotten the cactus stuck to my hand AND my leg), Scotty came to my rescue with a couple of sticks and popped the little bugger off.

As the sun started to get low in the sky, we headed back toward town.

Scott's former in-laws hosted us for dinner. As his father in-law is a cattle rancher, there was no question what we'd be having for dinner! He grilled us up some amazing steaks that had, not so long ago, been part of the herd we'd been bothering all afternoon.

A cattleman's barbecue is not a trifling thing

Both the company and the food were wonderful at the ranch. We sat and talked about Scott's exploits as a kid in Kearny while we listened to the coyotes howl in response to the whistles of the Copper Basin Railway in the mountains. It was a great way to kick off my weeklong adventures in Arizona!


Wednesday, February 16, 2011


The trip from San Jose to Tucson marked our last full-company travel day. So many Mondays spent in airports with our merry band (so many Bloody Marys hoisted in airport bars). While I never loved the airport, the Spamily at least made it diverting! We also had pretty good airport karma: in all those flights, I was only seriously delayed once and my luggage arrived with me every time but twice. I really did have it pretty good!

Once we arrived in Tucson, I picked up a rental car and headed for the house I shared for the week with Gurr, Paula, Matt, Satine and Patisse. Matt and Paula almost never stayed in the company hotels - since they drove the tour and traveled with two french bulldogs (Satine and Patisse), it was almost always more convenient and economically advantageous for them to find a house. Paula had the house hunting down to a science and was constantly coming up with some real finds. So, when she asked me to share a place with them in desert, I jumped at the opportunity. I'm so glad that I did - the house was a winner!

Tucked in behind all those cactuses, was our rental house.

TVFMHRW - Tucson
The Santa Catalina Mountains beyond the saguaro

Gurr put together some photo collages that show off the house:

The giant back porch that overlooked:

The pool, the hot tub and the barbecue!

We were all in the pool or the hot tub most every night after the show. As we were a ways outside of town, we could listen to the coyotes in the surrounding hills as they howled at night and the bats would swoop down to drink from the pool while we sat with cocktails on the covered porch.

That house really reminded me what a charmed life I lead on tour. While not every city was a lot of fun, I often got to combine work with vacation. Spamalot let me see a lot of North America on the company's nickel and afforded me a lot of free time to enjoy it. I really felt lucky in Tucson.

The theatre in Tucson was another civic auditorium: the Tucson Music Hall. The Music Hall was part of the city's convention center complex downtown. The the theatre was fair-sized but short on dressing rooms. The Stage Managers and Company Managers made offices for ourselves in the local symphony's rehearsal hall and lots of the performers had to double and triple up in dressing rooms. There's not a lot of theatrical work in Tucson, so our crew was sort of a mixed bag of "been there and done that" alongside "what d'ya mean by stage left" types.

The Tucson Music Hall

I wasn't sure what to expect from Tucson, beyond some really good mexican food, but had a really great time! As Tucson is tucked in amongst the mountains of the Sonoran Desert and only 60 miles from the Mexican border, it has a strong mexican flavor. Cafe Poca Cosa, downtown, was real find. The menu changes daily (even between lunch and dinner) to take advantage of whatever is fresh or strikes the chef's fancy. We enjoyed an amazing load-in lunch there and I revisited during the week.

On Monday night, I met up with the Maestro, Paul Baron and Michael Gribbin for a local specialty: carne seca (air dired beef). The beef is marinated with lemon juice and left to air dry/cure, often in a cage on the roof. The result is something like beef jerky that is often stewed or can be eaten alone as a snack. We had a great evening of margaritas and mexican food to welcome us to Arizona.

Between shows on Sunday, I made Roy ride out south of town with me for another mexican-influenced local specialty: the Sonoran hot dog. We hit the roadfood recommended BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs for these beauties:

A Sonoran Hot Dog is wrapped in bacon before it's fried on the grill or the griddle and plopped into a closed-ended bun with all manner of tasty toppings. I could eat those things for a long time! Roy and I always joked that I only took him to eat in the classiest places (we hunted food trucks and ate on the sidewalks of L.A., hamburgers in the burger-dive Hodad's in San Diego, and enjoyed greasy diners all across America) and BK's was no exception. We drove out into the less than desirable appearing suburbs of Tucson past auto-parts places to find BK's and parked alongside a bunch of motorcycles to eat at picnic tables. Roy was always game for an adventure!

The other couldn't miss Roadfood adventure in Tucson was a diner: Gus Balone's. Before we even left San Jose, I had the outing all set with Tera-Lee, our resident baked-goods sweet-toothed swing. Gus Balone's serves up enormous & delicious sweet rolls:

Ben Davis and Tera-Lee with their sweet rolls.

Happily, there was plenty to keep me busy in Tucson (and to work off some of those sweet rolls and bacon-wrapped hot dogs). The Saguaro National Park lies on either side of Tucson and is home to thousands of its iconic, namesake cacti. They are truly amazing plants. I wasn't prepared for how large they are: they grow up to 50 feet tall and can live for 150 years. The desert outside of Tucson is studded with these amazing plants - as thick as trees in a northern forest in many places. The Maestro and I visited the western unit of the National Park and took a leisurely walk among the many-armed giants.

Here I am, providing some scale beneath a giant saguaro

The saguaros flower once a year (after the rainy season in the spring) and produce a seed-filled fruit. We arrived just after the fall rains had tricked this cactus into a few flowers.

Maestro Ben on a cactus-studded trail in Saguaro National Park

Ben and I also visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac south of town. Founded in 1699, the mission is nicknamed "the White Dove of the Desert". The modern building was actually constructed nearly 100 years later, after the original mission was destroyed by the Apache. The mission was built to serve the native people of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham Nation, by the Jesuits but was taken over by the Franciscans. Today the mission stands on the Tohono O'odham San Xavier Indian Reservation and is still an active Catholic parish.

The white-washed church rises up, strikingly, out of the surrounding desert

The native people of the area are quite active - there was a demonstration for humane treatment of people crossing the border at Tucson court building which featured these dancers.

DVZ and I also got out to experience the desert - with a hike in Catalina State Park. We climbed about a thousand feet up into the mountains to Romero Canyon. Though we climbed past saguaros, ocotillos, prickly pears and agaves, there are pools in the canyon that hold water all year long! In the rainy season, the rocky canyon becomes a river bed. Though the river drains out into the washes that traverse the desert and carry much of the water to the Santa Cruz River, some water is trapped in the canyons rocky pools and makes the canyon a year round oasis. It was surreal to hike up out of the sandy desert and descend a bit to the lush canyon pools. Around the pools grass and trees grow while insects buzz around. Even though David and I got a (relatively) early start, the cool waters of the pools still made for a refreshing break from the heat before we turned around for the hike back.

DVZ and I in the Santa Catalina Mountains

Taking a dip in the Romero Pools

David dives in!

When we first arrived at the pools, David and I were crawling around on the rocks at the water's edge and trying to decide if we really were going to go for a swim. Something shiny caught David's eye at the bottom of one of the pools. He called me over and we both could see what looked like gold flecks under the clear water. On closer examination, there were lots of glints of gold in the pool! David leaned down, reaching into the water and in an instant had slipped and fallen, fully clothed, into the pool. Since he was already wet, DVZ dove down and came back with a tiny flake of pyrite. The bottom of the pool was full of fool's gold! Since DVZ was already all wet, the choice to go swimming was made for us - too bad David's iPhone had also gone for a swim. On our way back to town, we located the local Apple Store and DVZ found out exactly how much a few flecks of fool's gold can cost. Happily, David was a really good sport about the whole adventure and we had a really lovely afternoon in the mountains.

We even ran across this little guy - a roadrunner! I saw several of these speedy little birds (one was even eating lizards on the front step of our house) and can vouch for their ability to tear across the ground. Though they can fly, they run at speeds of up to 20 mph to escape predators.

I got a close-up look at some more of the native animals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Don't let the name fool you, the Desert Museum is as much a zoo and botanical garden as museum. I went early one morning (most of the desert creatures aren't as foolish as the humans and go sleep during the hot afternoons) to learn about the desert and its inhabitants. I saw Mexican Wolves, Ocelots, Desert Tortoise, hummingbirds, and all manner of snakes and lizards in enclosures designed to mimic their natural habitats - often the animals had their homes carved from the desert of the museum's grounds.

These guys, javelina, are right at home in the desert. In fact, I saw a herd of them out and about near our house one evening. They are "new world pigs" - related to the domestic pig, but quite different. They are aggressive and destructive. The locals all told about javelina digging up ornamental planting and rooting through garbage.

Though they don't often prowl the desert amongst the saguaro, Mountain Lions stalk the mountains that surround Tucson. This guy was getting ready for his nap, even as the museum had just opened for the morning!

The desert mountains are often called "islands in the sky"; while the surrounding desserts don't get much rain, the mountains are often much more moist. As one climbs up, the landscape becomes more verdant; trees replace cactus and many more mammals thrive. There are even herds of deer in some of the mountains! (Mountain Lemmon, just north of Tucson, is the southernmost ski destination in the US. They receive an average of 180 inches of snow per year - even while the average January day hits 65 degrees in the city.)

While the variety of desert animals was amazing, it was the plant life that really surprised me. The plants are much more varied than I imagined. Of course, everything in the desert has to defend itself and its precious water. Everything had a barb, spike, poison, or some other way to make itself uninviting. There was a beauty among the prickers, though - this barrel cactus was just finishing the end of its post-rain blooms. The brief rainy periods make everything spring to life.

Tucson was another of the cities that I had no idea what to expect from. Before we arrived, I worried about the heat and wasn't sure how I felt about being in the middle of the desert. I was, however, enchanted by the landscape and really enjoyed my week there. Though it certainly was hot - the average daily temperature in September is upwards of 94 degrees - I still managed to get out and about. Our house was spectacular; it's a lot easier to take the heat with a pool and a shady porch. The vistas were amazing. The wildlife was neat. The saguaro were awesome. The food rocked. Together, they made Tucson a great stop.

Tucson sunset as seen from the Stage Door