March 2009


America’s First Archaeological Reserve

Arizona’s casa-grande-with-sign3Casa Grande National Monument preserves the remains of structures built by the Hohokam people in the 1300s. In the Gila River Valley these ancient people built over 1,000 miles of  irrigation canals, successfully growing corn, beans, squash, cotton and tobacco. Today several Native American tribes believe they have ancestral links to the Hohokam. The O’odham people of Southern Arizona still use the ruins for ceremonials and special events.

Spanish missionary, Father Kino, rode through the valley in 1694 and refered to the deserted structure as Casa Grande, or Great House, in his records. The site became the nation’s first archeological reserve in 1892 – the fifth oldest unit in the National Park system. Casa Grande was designated a National Monument in 1918.

We watch a 15-minute film and browse the compact but informative museum relating background on the Hohokam people and Casa Grande before taking the short walk out to the ruins. The largest structure – four stories and 11 rooms – has a metal roof protecting the ancient walls from weather damage. Signs along the self-guided path relate informative details.

casa-grande-doorway1Unlike most of the ruins we see in the Southwest Casa Grande was not built with stone or adobe bricks. Caliche is a concrete-like hardpan found several feet below the surface in this region. The Hohokam mixed ground-up calice wth water to procude a sticky mud for building walls, sealing roofs and plastering walls.

No one knows why the unusual structure was built or how it was used – center of government, education, religion or trade are speculations. I’m fascinated with how architectual details signify astronomical occurances. A small circular window in the west wall aligns with the setting sun on the summer solstice. A square hole in an upper wall aligns once every 18.5 years with the setting moon at an extreme point in its cycle. Additional windows and doorways align with the sun or moon at significant times of the year. Was this an observatory? We believe the Hohokam devised a calendar based on the motions of the sun and moon and incorportated that calendar into their architecture. Did it relate to their crops and farming?casa-grande-big-house2

Casa Grande was part of a much larger community. Excavated walls and unearthed mounds indicate several compounds comprised of houses, work areas, courtyards and storage rooms. In the center of the compound an oval ballcourt was used for community activities.

We don’t know the reasons Casa Grande was abandoned – disease, drought, flood, social or political issues. By 1450 the Hohokam culture, that had lasted 1,000 years, had come to an end. Today agriculture is still key to the region; irrigated casa-grande-cotton1fields support Arizona’s cotton industry. Standing in the shadow of the ancient walls and gazing across wind-blown fields one is almost transported into a world as the Hohokam knew it.

When You Go: Casa Grande National Monument is open 8am-5pm every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The monument is located in Coolidge, Arizona about an hour’s drive from both Phoenix and Tucson.

Wiser About Wisdom’s

We now know what all the regulars are wise to about dinner at Wisdom’s in Tumacacori, Arizona. The doors open at 5pm. On a March Tuesday night there will be a full house by 5:05. They haven’t even had time to remove the “Closed” sign.wisdoms-outside

The day before, on our way to Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company we noted the number of cars at an adobe roadside restaurant. The sign above the door read, “Wisdom’s.” That’s all it took for me to be intrigued, I did a bit of Internet searching and decided we couldn’t leave the area without partaking of a little Wisdom’s for ourselves.

In search of birds at Madera Canyon we made lunch a Drumstick ice cream. We were saving ourselves for an early dinner at Wisdom’s and ordering dessert – the fruit burrito they’re credited with “inventing”. We literally pull into the parking lot at 5pm – WWV time according to Bob’s watch. By the time we make it to the front door every table is taken – inside and out.

wisdoms-herbWe’re lucky to grab a couple of seats at the bar where owner/family patriarch, Herb, sets up a steady stream of drinks. I start on a margarita served in a pint glass fruit jar. Before long I’m in conversation with two ladies from Green Valley (20+ miles north), they’re absolutely rapturous discussing Wisdom’s menu. They tell me Tuesdays are 2-for-1 margarita night and you need to get in line 20-30 minutes before opening.

While I’m getting the low down on what to order one of Herb’s sons comes over and asks if we’re willing to share a table. A couple at a four-top feel guilty since so many are waiting and they have two empty chairs. We join a charming retired couple from East Lansing, Michigan who winter in Arizona. They too are Wisdom’s regulars and highly recommend the tortilla soup. It looks delicious – I so badly want to put my spoon in their bowl and try a taste, but I resist. We’re also told to order the dessert fruit burrito as we order the meal and mini-margaritas are available.

wisdoms-diners1We decide on one cherry burrito – split in half with a scoop of ice cream for each of us. Bob selects the bacon wrapped shrimp served with salsa, guacamole, sour cream, tortillas, rice and beans. I want to try a half-dozen items but settle on a chile relleno, turkey enchilada, rice and beans. Food arrives hot, tempting and oh so good. No wonder people drive for miles to eat at Wisdom’s. Our dinner partners introduce us to Herb’s granddaughter, Sasha. I’m guessing she’s about 10 years old and already a charmer.

Not that we’re at all hungry for dessert but we both dive into the cherry burrito – yummy! Local legend has it that one afternoon a tortilla spread with jam fell into some hot cooking oil. Quite by accident the fruit burrito had its start to becoming famous. Apple, peach, cherry and blueberry always appear on the menu plus a daily special – banana cream the night we were there. I was curious but stayed with the cherry choice. The hot, crisp fruit-filled burrito is rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Wisdom’s has been owned and operated by the same family since 1944. It ‘s the kind of place that feels like everyone is a regular yet you’re not out of place as an outsider. Before the Green Valley ladies left they came to our table to see what we ordered and how we liked it. The food is worth waiting for and the margaritas strong – there’s no way I could have two and not peacefully fall sleep for the night.

When we’re anywhere in the Tubac area we’ll become regulars and now we know – get there early!

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When You Go: Wisdom’s Cafe is located at 1931 E. Frontage Road (off I-19), Tumacacori, Arizona – 4.5 miles south of Tubac, 15 miles north of Nogalas, AZ. It is a short distance north of Tumacacori National Historical Park. Open year-round, Monday – Saturday lunch is served 11am-3pm, dinner 5-8pm, closed Sundays, daily specials, excellent childrens menu.

 

Down Under and More

Curiosity about Colossal Cave Mountain Park propelled us to the longtime Tucson area attraction that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We joined a cave tour with several family groups. As we waited kids stayed busy finding the Discovery Tour stations and collecting the different paper punches on their maps. Aftccmp-ramadaer completing all 18 they receive a “Treasure” from one of the two gift shops.

 Because Colossal is a dry cave the formations don’t have that moist sheen frequently seen on “cave bacon” or “draperies.” No beads of water gather on the stalactite  tips waiting to be the next drip.

ccmp-caveOur guide was pleasant if not exactly animated. She shared human history at the cave as well as natural history. In the late 1800s the cave was a reputed bandit hangout. Imagine the wide-eyed expressions on the youngest tour members’ faces. Early in the 20th century a local dude rancher encouraged visitors to explore the cave and bring back a formation piece to prove they had been inside.

For a dramatic ecology lesson visit Colossal followed by a tour at Kartchner Caverns State Park. It’s a graphic demonstration of abusing an environment verses protection and preservation. There are two other caves in Colossal Cave Mountain Park that are carefuccmp-windmilllly protected and used for research.

I don’t regret visiting, however, it goes on the list of “Been There, Move On, Don’t Need to Go Again.” That list is much shorter for me than the “Want to Repeat” one. For those who had never before been in a cave seeing the underground world was a treat.

After our cave tour we drive to the La Posta Quemada Ranch section of the park – a working ranch for more than a century. We didn’t have time for a horseback ride but a ride in the Rincon Mountains along the National Mail Stagecoach Route would be very scenic.

ccmp-cccThe Civilian Conservation Corps were largely responsible for development of Colossal Cave Mountain Park in the 1930s. The adobe CCC office building has been renovated, housing a museum recalling their efforts and the men who served. From developing the tour route through the cave to the limestone buildings and ramadas the CCC deserves great credit.

The ranch house serves as a museum with exhibits covering topics from ancieccmp-human-sundial2nt Hohokam Indian culture to modern cave research. I was most intrigued with the Analemmatic Sundial which I renamed the human sundial. The horizontal calendar grip is unlike any sundial I’ve ever seen. I tried to get Bob to stand still long enough to serve as the gnomon (vertical rod).

Cave, museums, natural areas, horseback rides, picnic area, and mining sluice –  a family can easily fill an entire day at Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

ccmp-whoaWhen You Go: Colossal Cave Mountain Park is open every day of the year. The park is located about 17 miles southeast of Tucson. Saguaro National Park – Rincon Mountain District lies north of Colossal Cave.  The basic cave tour lasts about 50 minutes covering a half-mile route with numerous stairs, temperature inside the cave is a consistent 70° – a pleasant relief in mid-summer. Reservations are not required, tours are not pre-scheduled; they promise you’ll never wait longer than 30 minutes after purchasing your ticket. There are also Ladder, Wild Cave and Candlelight Tours – these do require reservations. They also suggest reservations for the trail rides.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park participates in the Tucson Attractions Passport program (see blog). The Passport covers the park use entrance fee. Regular fees for cave tours and trail rides apply.

All Maps Aren’t Created Equal

Bob and I are both map people. I don’t want a Garmin, I want a map. Eons ago when we were dating we’d spread National Geographic maps on my parents living room floor and travel the world.

Driving around Tucson we had a handful of different maps – AAA city map, State of Arizona, Benchmark map of Southeast Arizona, and an assortment of local tourist maps with advertisements. I don’t remember which map we were following the morning we wanted to get from Pima Air & Space Museum to Colossal Cave Mountain Park. Whichever one it was showed an almost direct route that would deposit us just north of the park entrance. We headed east, the road went from a busy four lane to two with less traffic, soon it was gravel. Before long it was a narrow rutted dirt road climbing a hill. We were deposited into a sub-division. Following streets to the southeast – the direction the park would be in – didn’t work.

It didn’t take long to realize we’d been at this corner before, we were driving in circles. Reading street signs we became aware all the streets were slightly different versions of the same name. Consulting the more detailed maps didn’t work, we were out of their coverage. Homes were spread out with some acreage between each one with not a lot of activity at 9:30 on a weekday morning. I’m driving with a determination to find my way out of the maze to the Old Spanish Trail. Bob’s saying, “Stop, and ask directions.”

We try following a UPS truck thinking he might lead us out – we were confident he wasn’t going to exit on the road we came up. He was making a number of deliveries. I’m still  not wanting to ask directions. We spot a black SUV that seems to know where he’s going and decide to trail him. Through turns and twists I almost can’t keep him in sight. Fortunately we did stay behind him and end up at the Old Spanish Trail intersection not far from the park.

Bob absolutely declined returning by the same route. That map was relegated to the backseat the rest of the trip.

Night Lights on the Desert

flw-sun-on-logoFrank Lloyd Wright created Taliesin West as the winter home for his school of architecture. The campus sits on the flank of the McDowell Mountains overlooking Scottsdale, Arizona. Protected acres of pristine Sonoran desert surrounds the Wright designed buildings as suburbia creeps ever closer. Visitors from around the world come to tour Taliesin West and learn more about Wright’s design philosophy.

On past visits we’ve taken the 90-minute Insights and the 3-hour Behind the Scenes Tours, each time learning about, perhaps, the best known of 20th-century American architects. This time we made reservations for the Night Lights on the Desert Tour.flw-sculpture-in-sun1

Beginning just before sunset, the two-hour tour includes everything on the daytime Insights Tour plus a stop for refreshments. On most evenings participants are also treated to colorful sunsets followed by star-studded skies and the lights of Scottsdale/Phoenix in the valley below.

Before the tour begins Bob scurries to catch photos as the late afternoon sun warm buildings, sculpture and landscape. As our guide gives background on Wright and Taliesin West we keep eyes focused westward, not to be rude but to watch the kaleidoscope of changing colors – from pinks, violets and lemon yellow to bronze, burnt orange and deep purple.

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When the color show fades we visit Wright’s private office and the living room. Labeled the Garden Room by Wright, this was the social center for family, guests, associates and students. We sit in Wright-designed furniture while the guide tells us about construction methods and materials. This evening we are guests in the Wright home, perhaps his dynamic spirit hovers there with us.

flw-sun-on-studio1After stopping in the bedroom wing the group partakes of tea, lemonade and cookies in an alcove outside of the dining room. Wind prohibits the fire-breathing dragon from staying lit but an outdoor corner fireplace nips the slight chill in the air. The tour concludes with visits to the Kiva, Cabaret Theater and Music Pavilion.

Although there is some duplication, each tour we’ve taken has offered new information and insights. Every guide has been extremely well versed with an obvious dedication to accuracy, however, you do get a slightly different view as the guide’s own interest, knowledge and background come through. We plan to take the Desert Shelter Tour the next time we’re in Scottsdale

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When You Go: Taliesin West offers the Insights and Panorama Tours Daily except Easter, Thanksgiving Christmas and New Years. Other tours are available either seasonally or on particular days of the week. The website gives tour details and rates. Reservations taken by phone at 480-860-2700 Ext. 494. Tours often fill to capacity, especially those not given daily, reservations are strongly advised.

New in Benson – Gracie’s Station

I was thrilled when I heard a new restaurant had opened in Benson, Arizona. With much to explore in the area we’ve frequently stopped for meals, never finding one that especially excited us for a return visit. There was no question we would have dinner at Gracie’s Station.

It got even better when we discovered Gracie’s was next door to our hotel. We didn’t have to get back in car, we could stretch our legs and walk to dinner – yea! A red stagecoach sits out front, the building facade reminds us of an Old Western town movie set. The interior is fashioned after a late 1800s railroad station and decorated with railroad memorabilia and historic photographs. Each of three dining rooms reflect unique atmosphere – Jenny’s Hotel, TJ’s Round House and The Brothel. Of course, there’s The Saloon for before and after dinner beverages and Makena Kate Goods & Needs Store for a bit of shopping.benson-gracies-2

The menu presents a potpourri of choices. There are sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads, steaks and pastas. Station Stop Favorites include good old fashioned comfort food such as meatloaf, turkey dinner, chicken pot pie, catfish and chicken fried steak. Each entree accompanied with soup or salad, homemade bread and two side dishes. Skillet corn bread, pueblo pinion-pumpkin bread and forge fry bread fills the enticing bread basket. Gracie’s offers an all you can eat fish fry on Fridays and prime rib on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

We’re impressed to find gluten free items on the menu and a note that gluten free pasta can be substituted in any of the pasta entrees. What a nice option for those who need such consideration.

After dinner at Gracie’s we knew that new can be better. Welcome to Benson.

When You Go: Gracie’s Station is located just west of Hwy 90 south of I-10, exit 302, on the west side of Benson, Arizona. Open seven days a week 4-10pm.

One Negative: When we approached the Gracie’s hostess stand a half-dozen employees were grouped around a waitress who was having a hissie fit about something. My impression was that it was a conflict with the kitchen. Whatever the cause it was the wrong place to deal with the issue; not a good first impression for the customers. Hopefully this was an isolated instance and management is wise enough to remove such tantrums from the public view in the future. Our waitress was very pleasant and service oriented.

Guest Satisfaction

What do you do when you’re dissatisfied with a lodging? Do you complain, fill out the comment card or go away vowing never to return?

The Holiday Inn Express in Benson, Arizona has been rated the #1 HIE hotel in Arizona for 10 years in a row. They hold recognition from the parent company with the Quality of Excellence and Torchbearer Awards and are ranked in the top 17 HIEs in the country. This is not a cookie cutter of every other HIE, we see evidence in many areas of this being a cut above.

We’ve stayed at this hotel on other trips and included them on this year’s itinerary because of past satisfaction. During our visit in late February I became extremely frustrated, especially with the Internet service. It was slower than molasses during an Alaskan January. I was trying to post nightly travel blogs which was impossible from the Benson facility.benson-hie-exterior-h

I, of course, filled out the comment card and turned it in upon check-out. It’s a month later and the phone rings today, it’s the general manager of the Benson HIE calling.  From my comment they had some testing done and did find a problem in the area of the hotel where our room was located. Their Internet provider had failed to notify them of the problem but I was assured corrections have been made. I was amazed he took the time to make a personal phone call, to him I was only a name on a card. Although we’re repeat guests our stays are far enough apart that we’re not remembered from one trip to another. And, he has no idea I write a travel blog and may put my opinions out to the world via cyberspace.

Benson is located on I-10 east of Tucson. The incredible Kartchner Caverns State Park is 10 miles south, an excellent reason to stop in Benson. Also nearby is the Singing Wind Book Shop (see blog), a must visit for book lovers of every genre. Benson can serve as a hub for touring many highlights found in Cochise County - Tombstone, Chiricahua National Monument, Cochise Stronghold, Armerind Foundation, Bisbee, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Sierra Vista, Fort Huachuca. Cochise County fills the southeast corner of Arizona and offers a long list of reasons to visit.

benson-hie-roomFrom the warm cookies at check-in to the specially selected carpet and materials in a tasteful Southwest theme there’s been attention paid to detail throughout the hotel. I love the cowboy boot fabric covering the valance. In the bathroom we find not only the obligatory bath mat but also a sparkling white throw rug – perfect for bare feet in front of the sink. New flat-screen televisions are wall mounted. A wood cabinet holds the microwave and mini-frig; they’re not just plopped in an available space as an afterthought.

Conveniently located at exit 302, the hotel is set back far enough to eliminate much of the road noise. Grounds, fountains and landscaping are kept well maintained as are the heated outdoor pool and hotel interior. There’s an obvious commitment to excellence.

I still have a couple of things I would like to see addressed. In place of a desk they’ve chosen small square tables in the guest rooms. I suspect that’s sufficient for most guests – which I assume to fall into the tourist category instead of business. I would much prefer a desk.

benson-hie-lobbyThe lobby is a large lovely space with stone fireplace and deep cushy chairs. The breakfast area is not large enough to accommodate the number of guests wishing to eat at one time. It wouldn’t be quite as eye pleasing but adding some tables would increase convenience and comfort. One of the problems is that a fair percentage of the guests are retirees (at least during winter months) who tend to have little morning agenda other than socializing and the crossword. They claim a table and sip coffee for the duration. I understand the hotel can’t ask them to move along but more space and tables are needed for a successful breakfast buffet experience.

There’s no doubt in my mind that management does care about guest satisfaction. We’ll have to return to check on that Internet connection.

When You Go: Holiday Inn Express, Benson, Arizona is located at I-10 exit 302 and Hwy 90. They’re often filled to capacity, make your reservations before heading to Benson.

 

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