Back in the ‘Bago in Southern AZ

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After leaving Phoenix, we spent a night at Catalina State Park, just outside of Tucson. Aside from our sleepness night at Walmart, this was our first night back in the ‘bago with no power or water. It was a reminder of how lucky we are to be doing this—sitting in a remote desert site with nothing to do but spend time with each other—and also how challenging it can be to live in a small space. Out of practice, we knocked into each other, bumped our heads on the cabinets, and tripped over shoes, legos, books, and grocery bags full of stuff we acquired over the holidays (for obvious reasons, we take far fewer pictures of the bad times, when kids are hitting and parents are yelling). Bigtrip has been a good trade—more time for less space—but we won’t be joining the “tiny house” movement anytime soon. Living in small quarters isn’t really so quaint; more than once, I’ve escaped to the car to hide from my favorite people (it occurs to me that we may all be doing this and at some point may overlap).

The next morning we traveled 30 miles up Oracle Road to the Biosphere2, a glass-enclosed living lab that includes 5 biomes (rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean and marsh). It gained fame a few decades ago when a group of scientists were sealed inside the dome for nearly two years, growing their own food and living on recycled air and water. But it’s surprising that it doesn’t get more attention now, since its mission could not be more important. It is essentially a mini replica of Biosphere1 (Earth), meant to help us study and sustain life on our planet. The kids think someday they’ll live on Mars or some other planet but we all agree it would be nice to have this one still around.


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We took a tour, which included visiting the various biomes and one of the facility’s two “lungs” that were originally created to allow the biosphere to expand and contract in changing temperatures.


It was really hot in some areas, and then really windy when the sealed doors opened back to the outside.


Now we are at Kartchner Caverns State Park, just an hour from the Arizona/Mexico border and filled with retired snowbirds from Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Alberta. Plenty of South Dakota license plates dot the campsites too, but we know by now that South Dakota is where the full-timers register for tax purposes, not really their homes. Named for the family who owned this rugged and desolate land where its now famous caverns were discovered, Kartchner is a quiet and peaceful spot in the world. At night, we hear coyotes yapping and squealing in the distance and in the mornings we watch and listen for the desert birds that we are slowing coming to recognize.  

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The closest town to Kartchner is Benson, a small town where we soon find the library, the laundromat, the post office and the Safeway. We eat at a cafe, Reb’s, where a local guy wanders up to check out our cartop carrier, now full of travel stickers, and then, just to be nice, cleans our headlights. We go out to offer him thanks and whatever else he might need but he just shrugs it off. He just does that sometimes, the waitress tells us. 20160115_160621


20160114_140223We also find one of the most eccentric bookstores we’ve come upon, the Singing Wind Bookstore. Getting to it was half the adventure–passing Prickly Pear and Trail Dust roads, crossing over the railroad tracks and bumping over a few cattle guards, driving along miles of dusty road with nothing but yuccas and mesquite scrub before finally reaching Singing Wind Road, where the gravel turns to dirt and a sign welcomes you to the “headquarters for books about the southwest.” Queen of Sheba, the bookstore’s burro, is also there to welcome you, along with Chester Einstein, the resident dog, and the owner, Wynn Bundy.

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Wynn Bundy is a small, elderly woman who padded around the store in a big woolen sweater and slippers to match, leaning on an aluminum cane as she carefully explained each section of her book collection. Her tour of the 3 small rooms was nearly a half hour, and plenty entertaining. “These are the mustaches (westerns written by men, she explains), and over there is Jewish Western Frontier, and over here, watch your step, is Latin American, Japanese, Afghanistan, and then to your right is Brain, Education, and the start of general fiction, the Civil War, fire, and Paleontology. She also told us how and why she’d started the store, decades earlier, to disprove the misperception of some graduate students at the University of Arizona, where she was studying library science, that ranchers and cattle men don’t read. “They read more than you ever will,” she recalls telling them. “I hate smug people,” she said smiling. We loved her, and exploring the amazing store she’s managed to create, an extension of her own home.

We have another week here before moving along to New Mexico, where the weather is likely to be very much the same–sunny and sixties, maybe 70, during the day but thirty degrees colder when the sun sets. We will visit the famous caverns, take a trip to Tombstone and its artistic neighbor, Bisbee, and try to get a few more days of school lessons in. We hear it’s snowing back home, and we are all sorry to miss it. But the clear skies of Arizona are excellent for star- and planet-gazing and this morning we all woke up early to witness Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter all at once (Mercury was still hidden in the sunrise). 



P.S. All but one of us (yours truly, who is growing increasingly claustrophobic from the tin-box experience) toured the caverns. A wet, living cave, Kartchner is highly protected from the elements, which means every visitor has to pass through several doors and go through a misting station to remove any dead skill cells before entering. Like Luray in Virginia, the caves are full of illuminated stalagtites (hanging down) and stalagmites (growing up), including a 58 foot tall column named “Kubla Kahn” after the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.

We also visited the towns of Tombstone and Bisbee. Both are touristy but in very different ways. Flat, dry Tombstone is decorated by a boardwalk of bordellos, saloons and gift shops, and the town hosts hourly gunfight reenactments. We rode around in a stagecoach listening to a taped recording about the history of the town, which is most famous for the OK Corral shootout between the Earp brothers (with Doc Holiday) and the Clanton and McLaury brothers. Just 30 minutes away, Bisbee is a former mining town turned artist colony, bright with colorful houses, sculptures, and murals and set into a mountainside that is still covered with snow from a recent storm. After a delicious vegan lunch, we walked the art galleries and hung out at the coffee shop. Bisbee is for Bernie, as Tombstone is for Trump. Or at least that was the vibe we got that day.

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About Elena Silva

Out here on the road, trying to make the most of a year in close quarters with my three favorite people...
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