A Tucson Reunion Affords Opportunity to See 3 Unique Attractions

by Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

Our invitation instructed us to pack our “Western” clothes, while bandanas and straw hats would be supplied. This was the dress code for our friends’ daughter’s bat mitzvah reception in Tucson, Arizona.

Out-of-the blue a few years ago, our friends, the O’Neill family, decided to sell their home in central New Jersey and move to Tucson. Nancy informed us that it was “love at first sight” with this desert town that sits in a valley lined to the north and west by craggy mountains that are remnants of an ancient volcano. Like the majority of our many friends who flew out from New Jersey, this trip was our first opportunity experience Southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert vistas, warm, dry winds, and its rich Western, Native American, and Hispanic history. What better way to bring old friends together for an affair in Arizona, if not with an Arizona outdoor barbeque, mechanical bull riding, and old-style, sepia digital photos?

Coming for the Bat Mitzvah turned out to be the perfect reason for a friends’ reunion, and an excuse to visit three unique points-of-interest.

The Desert Blooms in Phoenix

We kicked off our trip with a day at the Desert Botanical Garden to acquaint ourselves with the unique flora of the Southwestern United States. Nestled amid the red buttes of Papago Park in Phoenix, literally minutes from the airport, the Garden boasts 50 acres of plants from the various world deserts with an emphasis on the native species of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The Garden is extensive, with six major paved trails of permanent exhibits with probably the most extensive collection that we’ve seen of live succulents and cactus, and flowering desert shrubs and trees. Other sections along the trails included an herb garden and butterfly and hummingbird flowering shrubs.

Organic glass sculptures created by renowned artist Dale Chihuly at The Desert Botanical Garden (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

Our visit was enhanced by the beautiful, organic glass sculptures created by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. The temporary exhibition featured new and unique works of glass that were strategically placed in and around the flowering desert cacti, wildflowers, and plants.

The Garden offered interactive programs with paid admission, such as docent-led garden and bird tours, and hands-on activities for children. We stopped to talk with a group of docents who stood under a large shade tree and shared stories about the local residents of the Garden, including a feisty roadrunner who was spotted regularly on the trails, the Cactus wrens we saw perched on the Saguaro cactus flowers, and the shy squirrels we caught running under the plants. For an additional nominal charge, a temporary butterfly exhibit allowed guests to walk around hundreds of live butterflies. This exhibit returns every Spring.

We strongly recommend coming prepared with sunscreen applied, a hat, sunglasses, and cold bottles of water. We found it difficult to find water around the Garden, and could only refill our empty bottles at the cold water fountains near the sparsely placed bathrooms. Luckily, the Garden had a few well-placed trees and benches that afforded us some shade as a respite from the hot Arizona sun.

For an alternative to a hot morning or afternoon visit, look into “Spiked!Thursdays” ($25/non-member with ID). One Thursday evening each month through September, guests that are at least 21 years old enjoy Garden admission, appetizers, a cash bar, frozen cocktails, and entertainment based on a different beach destination. Check the Garden’s website ( for the “Spiked!Thursdays” dates.

This fall, from September 26 through November 15, the Garden will host a Mariposa Monarcha butterfly exhibit. For an additional charge of $3, guests will be able to walk amongst hundreds of live Monarch butterflies. The exhibit will contain interpretive displays about their life cycle, migration patterns, environmental threats, and related conservation efforts.

The Garden opens its newest, permanent exhibit, the Agave Yucca Forest, in mid-November, 2009. One of the unique attractions in this exhibit will be an overlook where you can get a “bees’ eye view” into the tall Agave stock. The next temporary sculpture exhibit will also open on the same day. The sculptures by the 20th century native American artist, Allan Houser, will be scattered throughout the Garden’s “Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert” Trail. Houser’s exhibit will be part of the general admission fee.

Throughout December (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), the Garden will present its annual Las Noches de las Luminarias, when thousands of luminarias will light up the garden paths. Guests will be provided entertainment, food, wine, and snacks. Tickets go on sale in early October, and can be purchased by calling the box office at 480-481-8188, or online at Historically, tickets sell out quickly.

General Garden admission is $15/adult, $13.50/senior (60+), $7.50/student (13-18 years old, and college students with proper ID), $5/ child (3-12 years old). Children 2 years and younger are admitted free. Parking is also free. The Garden is wheelchair accessible. For additional information, including group rates, current exhibits dates, pricing, call 480-941-1225 or visit

Biosphere 2

iosphere 2 (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

In 1991, carefully selected soils, water, plants, fish, insects, reptiles, and a few Galapagos monkeys, were brought to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert some 20 miles north of Tucson to create Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 is planet Earth). An international team of eight researchers were expected to work together and live off the land inside Biosphere 2, the self-contained, airtight replica of seven ecological zones called “biomes.” These biomes included a human habitat area with personal rooms, a large kitchen and agricultural area; a coral reef with a mini-ocean; a tropical rainforest; a savanna; a mangrove wetland; and a coastal fog desert. The main objectives of this privately funded research program were to provide clues on how to survive in similar habitats on the Moon and Mars, and to learn what problems would arise from living in a closed system. The team lasted only two years – there seemed to have been too many technical and emotional issues to continue (if only they had brought in unconditionally-loving cats or dogs instead of monkeys… what were they thinking???). In 1994, a second team was sent in, and although they quickly achieved complete self-sufficiency, this experiment was canceled after six months.

Today, the Biosphere 2 biomes are thriving mini-environments that are now maintained by the University of Arizona. The facility is used as a laboratory to study climate change. Guided tours are available to the public. Our group of friends joined a 1 1/2f-hour tour in the afternoon between the Bat Mitzvah service in the morning and the party in the evening. While driving out to the complex, we recalled excerpts from the 1996 movie, “Biodome,” starring Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin. The movie took a satirical look at the relationship of two men in a closed, ecological system.

The first building we walked into turned out to be the reception building. We took the path outside that lead us ultimately to the actual Biosphere 2 and our guide. The path first wound through a “village” of colorful, single-story Adobe buildings that were used to accommodate UA researchers. As we came out of the village, we looked downhill at the strangely futuristic, glass and metal geometric structures that comprise Biosphere 2. With a backdrop of the bright blue sky, the desert, and the Catalina Mountains, this place reminded us of an off-world town in some of our favorite science fiction movies.

After a brief orientation, our guide, Kat, lead us through the first of many airlock doors that are still used to fully contain a biome during a research project. We first entered the savanna biome, where we leaned over the 40-foot “ocean cliff” to view the million-gallon tropical ocean that still boasted fish. Kat provided us with anecdotes about the confined researchers, including how they would scale the huge pyramid structure and jump into the ocean. Although the water was calm near the beach area, we heard sounds similar to waves: it was the filter system that was used to replicate tides and oxygenate the water.

We continued along the “trail” past the surprisingly large mangrove on one side and tropical thorn scrub on the other side, and descended onto the Savannah platform overlooking the coastal fog desert biome. Looking across the building reminded us of the 1972 sci-fi thriller, Silent Running , in which Bruce Dern played the solitary caretaker of Earth’s last forests in glass domed portions of a spaceship.

From the desert biome, we walked into what Kat called the “Technosphere,” underneath the facility. This is the heart and guts of the building, containing the mechanical and electronic systems that maintain the separate Biosphere 2 environments. It certainly looked like a basement to us!

We doubled back across the building via the Technosphere, came up to the main level, and walked through another airlock door to enter a rather steamy room filled with huge foliage. We were in the tropical rainforest biome. This biome conjured up images that initiated comments and jokes from the surprisingly quiet tour group comprised mostly of our friends. Some expected to see a dinosaur poke its head out from behind a large leaf, reminiscent of the “Jurassic Park” movie — Alan B. of NJ conjectured, “so that’s what they were really experimenting with in here,” Laurie tried to find a yellow or blue poison dart frog. Kat reassured us that even if we saw a frog, no poisonous or prehistoric animals were ever here!

We left the rainforest biome through another airlock door and walked down a narrow tunnel into a large room that was literally one of the lungs of Biosphere 2. The guide demonstrated how the lung’s movable ceiling was adjusted up and down to regulate the air and pressure in the geodesic domes. This demo, by itself, was an awesome experience.

We completed our visit by going outside the building and down to the ocean biome’s underwater viewing area that also housed a very small aquarium exhibit. This is also where we found the public restrooms.

A section of Biosphere 2 is currently being transformed into a hillslope experiment that will be used to answer questions about how vegetation, climate, water, and other factors affect soil.

Tour prices are $20/adult, $18 for seniors (at least 62 years old), AAA members, and Military; $13/child (6-12 years old). Children under 5 are free. The tour path is not fully wheelchair accessible, as sections of Biosphere 2 are steep and narrow or have stairs. For tour reservations of groups of 20 or more, call 520-838-6200 or email Half of the tour fee goes to support research at Biosphere 2, and qualifies as a tax-deductible charitable contribution – keep your receipt.

For hearing impaired visitors, the University of Arizona Disability Resource Center provides sign language interpreting services, which must be requested prior to the visit.

Biosphere 2 is open every day of the year from 9 am – 4 pm, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For additional information and to request sign language services, go to the Biosphere 2 website,

The “White Dove of the Desert”

One of the rare, historic charms in America has to be the San Xavier del Bac Mission. Just nine miles southwest of Tucson in the vast, rugged desert on the large Tohono O’odham Indian reservation, looms this elegant, Moorish-style, white-washed mission. Construction of San Xavier (pronounced as “hauv-e-air”) began in the early 19th century on the location of a Catholic church that was originally founded by a Jesuit priest in 1692. Its graceful Spanish lines are accented with flowering cactus gardens. The chapel is a lesson in Canonic art, as it is adorned from ceiling to floor with brilliant murals, symbolic motifs, original painted statuary, and (of course) the shrine of the saint himself. Lynn K. from NJ commented about this living, historic church, “For me it was a glimpse at inspired Spanish Colonial architecture and restoration. As we were leaving, local Native American families were gathering to attend a wedding.”

One of the rare, historic charms in America has to be the San Xavier del Bac Mission (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

We followed the self-guided tour through the building, where printed information and photos provided a history of the mission and its relationship to the local Indians. A video about the mission and the recent restorations that were made to the chapel and the mission structure runs continuously throughout the day.

If you arrive at the mission mid-day, you will have the opportunity to purchase delicious Indian Tacos. Tohono O’odham Indian families prepare them fresh underneath thatched roof stalls at the edge of the parking lot. None of us had lunch yet, so this was an opportune and tasty surprise. Indian Tacos are made with Indian frybread, which is thick dough that is formed into a round disk and dropped in hot oil — it comes out similar to flat pita bread. The bread is topped with your choice of red chili, beans, cheese, and lettuce (the cost of the tacos varied slightly from stall to stall, family to family). You can also request the flatbread in a dessert form – the frybread is topped with cinnamon, powdered sugar, or honey. Tables and chairs were unavailable, so we sat on the wooden ties that lined the edge of the parking lot.

Before we left, we walked over to the small Indian craft mall that was directly across the parking lot. The shops and stalls offered local Tohono O’odham and other Native American Indian jewelry, baskets, and blankets.

The mission is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gift shop is also open every day of the year except Easter Sunday and Christmas Day. Parking and entrance is free (donations are accepted). For more information about the mission, mass schedule, and directions, check online at, or call 520-294-2624.

Monday, 12 October, 2009

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