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Desert delights in Tucson

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Sonoran desert

The pigs attacked shortly after dawn.

The first indication was a dust cloud billowing from the bushes beyond the swimming pool, closely followed by deep, guttural belching.

Javelina pigs are native to the American southwest, extremely shortsighted, and smell like skunk. Perhaps for the last two reasons, they seem to be permanently agitated. Thankfully for us, they were attacking each other in what turned out to be a short-lived domestic dispute.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated - Javelina pigs.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated – Javelina pigs.

“If they approach you on a trail, they probably can’t see you,” said our guide, Koi. “Make some noise and they’ll go away.”

Koi works for Southwest Trekking, a professional guide service that offers guests of the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Hotel free sunrise walks into Tucson Mountain Park. The 6 a.m. start might hurt a little on vacation, but the reward is a fascinating introduction to the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

This is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows wild and many were blooming thanks to nightly thunderstorms during our late-August visit.

“They’re supposed to bloom in May but something’s going on,” said Koi, who showed us another cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, the so-called jumping cholla. The cholla’s stems are easily detached and love nothing more than to reattach to anyone or anything unlucky enough to be close by. The spines are barbed and extremely painful to remove.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border an hour south, the United States’ only population of jaguars roams. I was OK with not seeing one, but we did see several deer, including a buck.

The Marriott Starr Pass: "Too nice," according to Emma Judd.

The Marriott Starr Pass: “Too nice,” according to Emma Judd.

Post-hike, we drank coffee on the Marriott terrace overlooking Tucson, a city I visit for business several times a year. This was the first time I’d been able to bring my family and I had a long list of favourite places to show them: Maybe too long.

The first problem was the Marriott Starr Pass. “It’s too nice,” explained my daughter, Emma, as we floated one more time around the hotel’s lazy river in an inflatable. “Why would I want to leave this?”

“There are wild pigs out there,” my wife, Leah, chimed in. My son, Ryan, conceded that he might be willing to get off his sunbed to play golf at Starr Pass Golf Club: in a few hours.

So it was with some coercion, the Judd family arrived at San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson. When first glimpsed amid dusty farmland from Highway 19, San Xavier del Bac looks like an oasis. Gleaming white with two towers and a cupola, the church is as old as the United States itself and the quintessential example of Spanish colonial architecture.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

Enter through the impressive carved mesquite-wood doors and you’ll find the interior is just as dramatic. Candles flicker beneath an eclectic mix of religious devotion: paintings, carvings, statues and frescoes fill the church, which was built between 1783 and 1797 (replacing an earlier version built in 1700). It has since survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, and leaky walls, and continues to host daily mass.

We lingered in the pews before heading outside to buy sweet Indian fry bread from a vendor in the car park. We walked it off by climbing Grotto Hill, a short walk from the church and the best place to snap panoramic shots.

No one seemed in a rush to get back to the lazy river. We we’re on a roll, so we headed east to the Pima Air and Space Museum. You’d need several days to fully explore the museum’s 80 acres inside and out. And I needed several hours to sort through the 500 photos I took there. Center-stage in the museum’s main hangar is the Lockheed Blackbird, a plane that will evoke childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 70s playing the card game, Top Trumps. In the aircraft issue of Top Trumps, Blackbird was a virtually unbeatable card. It flew from New York to London in less than two hours, and from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. Nothing could touch it for speed (2,193 mph) and cruising altitude (85,069 feet).

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Just a few feet from Blackbird is the Bede BD-5 Micro-Jet, which appeared in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Almost 13 feet long, the BD-5 was apparently sold in kit form but proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete. (Presumably it wasn’t flown much.)

There’s much to keep you indoors at the museum, and not just the air conditioning. Several exhibitions pay tribute to space travel and World War II, but the huge variety of planes outside on the tarmac were worth braving 40-degree heat to see. Besides behemoths like the Boeing B52 collection and oddities like Aero Spacelines’ Super Guppy (which looks like it should be in an aquarium or a cartoon), there are planes displaying from nose to tail the work of acclaimed street artists and mural designers.

I refused to allow the family back to the hotel until we’d visited my favourite place to eat in Tucson, the Guadalajara Grill on Prince Street. Hand-made tortillas, salsa prepared table-side, a roaming mariachi band, and fresh margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls – the Guadalajara Grill by itself is worth visiting Tucson for: Especially if you don’t have to go to work the next morning.

Tucson view

Good morning Tucson!

Back at the Marriott the next day, the male half of the family followed in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson at the Starr Pass Golf Club. Golf is a huge lure for Tucson visitors, with the city boasting numerous award-winning courses. Many of them cut their prices on mid-summer afternoons for those willing to bear Arizona’s heat. (Tucson is drier and generally a few degrees cooler than Phoenix, 90 minutes’ drive north.)

Starr Pass is no exception. The club features 27 holes divided into three nines played in three different 18-hole combinations. We played the Roadrunner nine, the club’s shortest circuit, which was just as well, having lost all our original balls by Hole 8. The afternoon thunder clouds seemed to be beckoning us inside and at the first sign of forked lightning, we called it a day.

That evening we ventured downtown to Reilly, which combines pizza and craft beer in a century-old building that used to house a mortuary and funeral home. Any morbid thoughts were soon banished by parm truffle fries, roasted crimini mushroom pizza, and Brussel sprouts in sherry, hot sauce and pecan brittle crumbs. Reilly epitomizes the resurgence of Tucson’s downtown, which features numerous bars and restaurants with inventive menus in historic premises restored to former glory. Perhaps the classiest of them all is the Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

A great way to see downtown and learn some of its history is by bicycle with guide, Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Dive bars, food trucks, a pinball arcade and downtown’s historic neighbourhoods feature in the sunset tour, which I did in April. I enjoyed it so much I rented a bike and covered much of the same ground by myself the very next day.

Jimmy turns kayak guide elsewhere during Tucson’s summer months, but he’s back now. The city is home to a growing bicycle network, including The Loop – more than 100 miles of trail shared with skaters, joggers and horse riders. In the foothills and mountains beyond the city is an extensive network of mountain bike trails.

And for the ultimate in relaxation, there’s always the lazy river at the Marriott Starr Pass. Just give the pigs a wide berth.

yo ma dawgs

If you go:

  • Marriott Starr Pass offers deals starting at $129 a night. Visit or call +1-520-792-3500.
  • For more on the Pima Air and Space Museum, visit
  • Details of Jimmy Bultman’s bicycle tours are at
  • Desert hiking and biking tours are available through Southwest Trekking at
  • is a good resource for anyone planning a visit to the city.

Written by nevjudd

February 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

Rattled, but OK

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Lack of a zoom, not to mention bowel-shrinking fear, prevented me from getting a better shot of the Diamondback rattlesnake. My golf ball is in that bush somewhere.

The Diamondback rattlesnake can be a nasty piece of work. Get bitten and you can expect pain, bleeding, severe swelling, bruising, blistering, and necrosis, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness, and convulsions. (I’m guessing there’s probably a nasty rash in there, too.)

If you’re a Canucks fan, think Game 7 versus Boston, with a reasonable chance of death thrown in.

So when I trod on a Diamondback rattlesnake last week, I didn’t really have time to think about any of that. I was looking for a golf ball; my third lost golf ball in as many holes at a Tucson, Arizona course. The first I heard was a hiss, or maybe more of a ‘shush’.

(I would learn later that in Parseltongue, ‘shush’ means: “Prepare to die”.)

I looked down.

I leapt backwards.

About six feet.

I’m not sure the experts recommend that response, but then looking a cougar in the eye never struck me as realistic. Or are you supposed to look away. Can’t remember.

Shock gave way to curiosity, and with my bowels under control, I edged a little closer to the dusty, brown coil of fury. And like any dumb tourist would, I slowly reached for my cell phone and snapped the lame, off-focus photo you see above.

“You know, they can move pretty fast,” said one of my playing partners, from about 100 feet away.

I don’t like golf much. Unfortunately it shows.

But I will say this: You’d be surprised how straight you hit a ball after stepping on a snake.

Written by nevjudd

May 17, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Arid Zona: Keeping cool in the Grand Canyon State

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Guilt and my own two legs prevented me from renting a mule at the Grand Canyon.

At Pima Point, on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, they say you can hear the Colorado River a mile below. It might have been the breeze or the din of countless unfinished conversations in the air, but we couldn’t hear it.

First sight of the Grand Canyon tends to cut conversation short.

“Whoa …” said my son, Ryan.

“Holy …” said my wife, Leah.

“That’s a mighty big ditch,” said a man nearby in a deep Texan drawl.

“Uh-huh,” replied his wife.

We had come by train from Williams, 100 kilometres away. The local historical society had staged a Wild West shootout before our departure. A Navajo singer had serenaded us on board. And the dusty desert flats passing our windows had lulled us into a midday doze.

Perhaps that’s what added to the spectacle. It’s not until the last minute that the Grand Canyon reveals itself. Set against such an epic backdrop the sky seems only more infinite. And it’s just as well there’s so much room on the rim because tourists like us are everywhere.

Ryan's nabbed by a wild west outlaw for looking too cute.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon, like Arizona, is big enough to absorb the crowds. Better yet, it’s cooler than the cauldron of Phoenix, where we’d arrived and rented a car a few days before. It had been 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and even the locals were complaining.

“It makes you wonder who showed up here all those years ago and thought, ‘Hmm, this looks like a good place to settle,’” said the car rental rep, not quite looking at home in a suit and tie.

I had to agree. Phoenix no doubt has its attractions, but with only six days in Arizona we’d headed north after one night in Tempe, a suburb near the airport.

Phoenix’s urban sprawl leeches north for about an hour’s drive but eventually the two-lane Highway 17 set us among cacti and rolling desert hills on our way to Montezuma’s Castle in Verde Valley.

The Disney-sounding name is misleading. When early settlers first saw the five-storey fortress somehow built into a cave 30 metres up a cliff they assumed it had been built by the Aztecs and called it Montezuma’s Castle. In fact, Sinagua farmers using ladders and gravity-defying courage are now known to have carved out 20 residences in the limestone recess. Support beams – cut from white-barked Arizona Sycamore – are still visible 900 years after the Sinagua erected them.

Literally meaning ‘without water,’ the Sinagua culture all but disappeared in the 1400s, likely because of drought or warfare with the rival Yavapai people.

Until midway through the last century, visitors could still use a series of ladders for a closer look at Montezuma’s Castle. However, when Highway 17 was completed those visitors became hordes and concerns about safety and damage prompted the U.S. National Park Service to remove the ladders.

You'll be glad of the air conditioning at Montezuma's Castle.

Despite being treated to the sight of one of North America’s best preserved cliff dwellings, we were constantly distracted by something much more down to earth: lizards. Among the mesquite and saltbush growing around an empty riverbed, lizards were always on the move, but occasionally stopping for photos.

We were less hardy. The unrelenting heat beat us back to the car and higher into Arizona’s Black Hills. Thanks to a tip from a friend in Vancouver we found the town of Jerome, a place cool in both senses of the word.

About 32 kilometres from Montezuma’s Castle and 145 kilometres from Phoenix, Jerome calls itself both America’s largest ghost town and it’s most vertical city. A mile above sea level on Cleopatra Hill, prone to disastrous fires and once home to a thriving copper mine, Jerome probably doesn’t disappoint on either claim. But to me Jerome’s charms lay in its narrow, winding streets and the fact that its funky bars, restaurants and galleries don’t so much perch but cling to the 30-degree incline. (In the late 1930s blasting at the mine triggered a slide that sent the town’s jail 70 metres downhill while still in tact!)

Atop Cleopatra Hill, the whitewashed Jerome Grand Hotel – once an asylum to house the mine’s burn victims and TB sufferers – presides over the community. Jerome looks nothing like mainstream America; more like a European citadel.

The 15,000 copper miners are long gone and in their place is a thriving artist community of about 450 people. Which could explain the presence of so many great places for coffee. The café cubano (an espresso shot sweetened with sugar as it’s brewed) at Jerome’s Flatiron Café was the best java jolt I’ve ever tasted.

The air was distinctly thinner (and cooler) in Flagstaff, 2,100 metres up and with as fine a view of the galaxies as you’ll see anywhere. Just outside downtown Flagstaff on Mars Hill astronomers at the Lowell Observatory discovered the former planet Pluto. (It was downgraded to a ‘dwarf’ planet in 2006: Don’t ask me why.)

On a clear and chilly August evening we lined up for an hour to take a turn peering into the heavens through the same 61-centimetre telescope erected by Percival Lowell in 1894 and used to find Pluto 36 years later. Even to the naked eye, the glowing red of Jupiter was hard to miss and once inside the old wooden observatory dome we were treated to a glimpse of the Wild Duck Cluster — an estimated 2,900 stars seemingly confined to a few small inches of the sky and thought to be 200 million years old.

Parents of small children can imagine the profound bedtime conversations after such an evening. (“But why was Pluto downgraded, dad?”)

Daytime revealed more down-to-earth pleasures in Flagstaff and with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals conducting preseason training at the town’s Northern Arizona University Campus, hundreds of crimson-clad fans flooded the historic core’s coffee shops, restaurants and brewpubs. Coffee was outstanding at the downtown Hotel Monte Vista, where scenes from the movie Casablanca were shot, and the sushi at Karma was worth the trip. B.C. travellers might also appreciate the fact that pubs here welcome children.

For all the attractions and distractions off Arizona’s beaten track, naturally it’s hard to compete with the Grand Canyon. A jeep tour in Sedona came close though. About 80 kilometres south of Flagstaff, the town of Sedona lurks within rust-red monoliths and mesas. With a reputation as a spiritual mecca, Sedona is home to about 11,000 people, most of whom came from somewhere else.

Steve Williamson came from New York City with his wife who wanted to be anywhere but the Big Apple after helping with 9/11 relief efforts. A geology major and web designer, Steve is in his element working for Red Rock Western Jeep Tours; contorting a so-called iron pony up, down and over impossibly steep and rugged desert trails while spinning yarns about the area’s history, culture and topography.

Following part of the trail built by General George Crook’s soldiers in 1871-72 and surrounded by Soaptree Yuccas, Prickly Pear plants, Pinion pines and Utah junipers, Steve put names to much of what we had seen on our travels through northern Arizona. Seemingly oblivious to boulders, potholes and our occasional screams, Steve regaled us with tales of Crook’s Apache campaign and made sense of Sedona’s dramatic landscape.

But even Steve might struggle with the trails of the Grand Canyon where rented mules are the fastest mode of transport. We stuck with our own two feet and hiked about 15 kilometres over two days. We descended Bright Angel trail into the Canyon and felt the temperature rise with every narrow switchback. We also strolled the extensive network of trails along the south rim, watching bleached white clouds cast their shadows on an otherworldly landscape.

By all means buy a souvenir at Verkamp’s Visitor Centre, a drink at the El Tovar Hotel or dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge, but don’t be distracted from the main event. Put your camera down and take at least a few moments of solitude and silence here. The Grand Canyon is 446 kilometres long, up to 29 kilometres wide and 1.6 kilometres deep. For those who are prepared to get a little dirt under their fingernails and some sweat on their backs there are memories to last a lifetime.

How the Judd family managed to obtain such a prime viewing spot must remain a secret.

Written by nevjudd

December 5, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Arizona, Grand Canyon

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