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Tucson: A New Look at the Old West

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

The Spanish came to the American Southwest in 1539 in search of gold. Missionaries followed in the early 1600s in search of natives to convert to Christianity. Today, snowbirds flock to Tucson for the warmth of a golden sun. Whatever the draw, the “Old Pueblo” has enticed visitors for centuries.

Tucson is diverse in its geography as well as its history. While the area is well-known for its abundant saguaro cacti, a drive to the top of nearby Mount Lemmon offers a snow-covered peak with a pine forest and the southernmost ski area in the United States. Arizona’s second-largest city is surrounded by five mountain ranges.

The colorful landscape, rich history and pleasant autumn temperatures drew us to Tucson. When our friends Judy and Michael bought their first RV, we agreed to spend several weeks traveling with them. Arizona seemed like the perfect place to introduce them to the joys of the RV lifestyle.

Our visit to Tucson began by setting up camp at Voyager RV Resort. Voyager is a gated age-55-plus community on 186 acres in southeast Tucson just off Interstate 10. It’s easier to say what Voyager doesn’t have than to list all of its amenities. Eat at the restaurant, play golf or billiards, get a massage or learn to line dance, all without leaving the facility. A large activities building includes rooms dedicated to making stained glass, quilts and glass fusion, just to name a few. With hundreds of scheduled activities, there is something for everyone.

The vast selection of offerings at Voyager includes writers’ workshops, diet support groups and pickleball lessons. Judy was even able to arrange for a pet-sitter to walk her dog twice a day when we spent time off site. There’s also an on-site wellness clinic, staffed by a certified nurse practitioner and a registered nurse, which offers flu shots.

I met Al Martens, a snowbird from South Dakota, in the resort’s Silvercraft Shop where he and five others were making sterling silver jewelry. He stays so busy here that he jokingly says he looks forward to going home in the spring to rest.

Tucson has some amazing attractions, interesting enough to lure us away from the RV resort.

Our first stop was the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the largest aviation museums in the world. The collection of about 300 planes includes the world’s smallest, the Starr Bumble Bee with a 61⁄2-foot wingspan, and the world’s fastest, the SR-71 Blackbird with a top speed of 2,500 mph, which is Mach 3.5, or more than three times the speed of sound. The one that caught my eye was the B-377 Super Guppy, a large, wide-bodied cargo plane. Not to be missed is the bus tour of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), also known as the “Boneyard.” A storage facility for more than 4,400 aircraft, it’s also a moneymaker. Between sales of parts and aircraft put back into service, there’s a return of $22 for every dollar spent.

Many of the 300 museum volunteers have a military or commercial airline background. Our guide on the Boneyard tour, Chuck Osborn, spent more than 30 years as a pilot. Although he claimed to volunteer at Pima “to get out of nasty chores around the house,” his passion for aviation was evident.

Late one afternoon we drove through Saguaro National Park East. Cactus Forest Drive is a combination one- and two-way eight-mile loop. We stopped to hike the paved hiking trails, although plenty of unpaved trails exist. The saguaros stood like giant stick figures with arms raised to a watermelon sky. The only thing missing was a cowboy riding off into the sunset.

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends who starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park. We watched Billy the Kid in a shootout with two other actors, rode in a stagecoach and watched a show in the saloon.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is just a few miles past Old Tucson. “Museum” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s as much zoo and botanical garden as it is natural history museum. About 85 percent of the museum is outdoors, with exhibits re-creating the natural landscape. Native plants and animals, including American black bears, mountain lions and endangered Mexican wolves, roam in enclosed desert habitats. The Earth Sciences Center houses a fascinating collection of minerals from the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona, Sonora and Baja, California. The cool air in the center’s artificial cave offers a welcome respite from the warm desert temperatures.

When I saw a photograph of Mission San Xavier del Bac, I added it to my must-see list. Also known as the White Dove of the Desert, this magnificent building blends Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance architecture. In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Standing in the plaza, I could imagine generations of baptisms, marriages and funerals being performed there.

Given the pleasant climate, we were eager to play golf. Golfers have many options in Tucson. We tried three courses. Voyager RV Resort has a nine-hole par-3 course, perfect for a quick game. The city-owned Fred Enke Golf Course is a few miles from Voyager. The Preserve Golf Club at SaddleBrooke was about an hour away, but it was worth the drive. Online, we booked a reasonably priced twilight tee time (after 2 p.m.).

I was reapplying sunscreen on the 14th hole when my cell phone rang. Our neighbor, back home in Colorado, called to say 8 inches of snow was covering our driveway. I smiled at our good decision to spend a few weeks lounging in the Arizona sun before heading home for the holidays.

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