What Makes Phoenix Better Than Tucson?

A fun bit of Tucson funk.

People from Phoenix love to shit all over Tucson by saying things like "It’s dirty" and "the roads are terrible."

(Disclaimer: I am an Arizona State University graduate. But I also have little regard for silly-ass tribalism. I also like Tucson more and more with every visit.)

While those who bash Tucson run their mouths, downtown Tucson gets steadily more interesting. I’m not ready to proclaim it "Portland in the Desert."

But that day could come.

During my most-recent visit to Tucson (May 2014, as of this blog post), here’s what I did:

  • I visited a museum that is literally a one-of-a-kind in the entire world. I didn’t visit the Pima Air Museum this time, but that’s also a better museum than anything in Phoenix. And yes, that includes the Musical Instrument Museum. That gives Tucson two museums that are better than anything the Phoenix area can offer.
  • I walked -- and saw interesting things. Yeah, Tucson is a sprawling desert city kind of like Phoenix. But it has more pockets of densely packed interesting stuff like art studios and  independent restaurants than you’ll see in Phoenix. Scottsdale is by far the worst offender of useless space – you can walk for miles in that city without seeing anything interesting. And no, "Old Town" Scottsdale and its rubber tomahawk shops don’t count. Sadly, downtown Mesa currently out-cools downtown Scottsdale, and would comprehensively throttle its snooty neighbor to the north if it could convince businesses to stay open later.
A look at the tidy-but-cool downtown Tucson area.

My perception of Phoenix is that it erroneously believes everything has to be fancy and "high end" to be interesting and viable. It only embraces the funky and weird – like the 5th Street and Roosevelt area – under duress and as a last resort. Tucson mixes it up nicely, especially downtown and near the university.

It’s kind of funny to me, also, that Phoenix and its stepchildren position themselves as great places to shop. I scratch my head over this. I see the same old stuff here, with few alternatives. Let’s put it this way: A few years ago, I was in a band and looking for a new amp. I couldn’t find the one I wanted in Phoenix. I drove to Tucson and found it at one of the several independent music stores down there.Tucson also has Miller’s Surplus, which appeals to my love for surplus stores. Right now, it’s hard to find a decent surplus store in Phoenix.

Inside a cool Tucson coffeehouse.

And let’s talk food. Phoenix gets overlooked nationwide, and I absolutely hate listening to people from Chicago overrate its greasy, cheesy artery-clogging fare. And Tucson is no slouch, either. For the past few years, I haven’t considered a visit to Tucson complete without a visit to the Time Market. And during my last visit, my friend and former co-worker Will introduced me to 47 Scott and its accompanying speakeasy Scott & Co. We started out at the speakeasy, where I had a cocktail made with a whole egg and hoisin sauce -- it came off a bit like an aggressive White Russian, which means "completely delicious." I don’t always drink cocktails – but when I do, I prefer for them to be like that!

As for 47 Scott, we slid in just about 15 minutes before it closed and had a stuffed bell pepper, a burger of ridiculously high quality and a crusty bread & olive oil appetizer with some fresh mozzarella. And yeah, I made my ritual visit to the Time Market. I started off with a slice of pizza made with locally sourced lamb sausage, and took a few chocolate bars to go. Yeah, Tucson sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Look, I can understand giving Tucson a hard time. It’s our neighbor to the south, and smaller, to boot. And I laugh every time someone calls the University of Arizona "Nogales Tech." But I can’t honestly say much bad about Tucson. Phoenix is losing its edge over Tucson.

Here’s how I see it: Tucson has awesome mountain bike trails. It has caving. It has shopping, a viable art/music scene. Personality through independent businesses. Great scenery. It’s even a few degrees cooler. Phoenix offers a few more culinary options, sure. Employment might even be a wash. And the airports? Hell, every international trip I take requires a stop at LAX before I can get anywhere cool – so Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has little more than Tucson International Airport to offer.

So, can someone remind me why Phoenix is that much better than Tucson?

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Titan Missile Museum Tour Taps Cold War Memories

Titan Missile Museum Tour
You’ll get a good look at a Cold War relic during the Titan Missile Museum tour.


The Titan Missile Museum tour is perfect those of us who have forgotten – and for those of us who never knew – the Cold War. Some of us (not me!) will recall the "is this the end?" tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. People my age will think back to Regan-era rhetoric, the Star Wars missile program and countless other NATO versus Soviet mini-conflicts that could’ve spiraled out of control.

Some people on the Titan Missile Museum tour, like the tweens in my one-hour tour group, will realize that people in America had a legitimate fear of nuclear annihilation. It seemed to be their first exposure to the notion, and their reaction was far stronger than I expected. I was impressed that they felt the gravity of the situation.

Maybe it’s because the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson, Ariz., has an unmistakable end-of-days vibe with its foam-green paint and steel construction. Maybe it’s because Hap, our tour guide, had served in a Titan missile installation and was able to relate first-hand knowledge in plain English, with just the right mix of technical jargon tossed in. His knowledge and delivery elevated the $9.50 entry fee from “good deal” to “cheaper than it should be.” Consider that the entry fee to the Desert Botanical Museum in Phoenix is $22, and you see what you get with the one-of-a-kind Titan Missile Museum tour.

I really don’t want to tell you too much about what you’ll learn and see during the Titan Missile Museum tour. Why spoil your trip by revealing some of the most-interesting facts? I’ll just walk you through what to expect from the one-hour tour -- and I’ll add that there’s a five-hour tour that I definitely mean to take in the future.

Step One – Watch the Video

The one-hour Titan Missile Museum tour starts with a video. It’s about 15 minutes long, and frames what you can expect once you descend into the missile complex. It also gives a hint of the the concepts and conflicts that fueled the Cold War. If you’re tall like me, you’ll have to pick up a hard hat after the video; trust me, it’ll come in handy.

Titan Missile Museum Tour
The Titan Missile Museum tour concludes on the surface, where you can get a look at the engine nozzles.

Step Two – Into the Silo

This is where the Titan Missile Museum tour takes you to the launch control center. You’ll also get a good look at the silo and the missile itself. The size and scope impressed me, and I wondered what it would be like to be down there alone for a length of time (OK, here’s my lone semi-spoiler: Crews served a 24-hour rotation.).

Something about the walls below seem to drink in sound and light, which adds to the somewhat creepy atmosphere. I could spend days lurking about and poking my nose into every corner of the silo. If you have a tour guide as good as Hap, you’re going to find out some astounding facts about life in the center -- and about exactly how much punishment it can withstand.

Step Three – Back Topside
You’ll return to the surface and get a look around the site. You’ll be able to look down into the silo, which brings me to one of my few gripes about the Titan Missile Museum tour: It’s hard to get a good photo of the missile. There’s a Plexiglass barrier that reflects, and the upper reaches of the silo are well-shadowed.

You’ll also get to see the engine nozzles topside, which adds a pretty interesting perspective.

Titan Missile Museum tour
You’ll see the business end – the warhead – before you begin the Titan Missile Museum tour.

Final Thoughts

Since the Titan Missile Museum tour take you through the the last Titan II missile silo in existence, you might feel like the world is a whole lot safer in regard to nuclear weapons. Well, let’s remember the successors to the Titan II missile program: the nuclear ICBM-carrying submarine. There were 50 Titan II installations during the Cold War – today, there are 18 missile submarines in the US Navy, each carrying 24 missiles.

There’s something else that makes me scratch my head: Missile technology in World War II mostly consisted of the German V2, which could barely hit targets in England with much accuracy. Twenty years later, the Titan II could strike within one mile of a target 6,000 miles away. Bringing it forward today, public perception is the NASA is, at best, stuck in neutral. It hasn’t scored a major win in the public eye. That’s somewhat unfair considering the Mars rovers and many other space probes and an avalanche of technological derivatives we use every day.

But by the measuring stick of human spaceflight, all the nations seem to have regressed. The Titan Missile Museum tour sticks that point home for me. Add this to your “to do” list the next time you’re near Tucson.

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Scenes from Arizona: 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo

My friend Danielle (L) and her quad team The Go-Go Girls - happy before the wind and rain.

There are lots of lessons on my mind now that it’s the day after the 2011 Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.

For example, desert plants can rip the ratcheting buckles clean off your right shoe. And that a fire can and will melt your left shoe while you’re drying it out. (I have to thank the guys at Tucson-based Fairwheel Bikes for extricating me from the clutches of my shoe – even though they’re a Trek dealer, the crew put in some after-hours time removing the offending shoe: Well, some of them did. The others laughed and took photos.)

The indignities heaped on my poor Specialized shoes were just the beginning. It was an event complete with tent-destroying winds, person-soaking rains, teeth-chattering temperatures – all a perfect concoction to make people flee the event.

Our camp started with eight people on four duo teams. We ended with two teams and four people.

My bike is ready to go. And Ryan Zilka (R) is ready for a lap, too.

It was really the wind that started breaking us all. It made everything harder – steering, picking a line, even the simple act of breathing. And slap on at least 5-10 minutes of extra time per 16-mile lap to deal with it. And extra depletion of the energy in your legs, lungs and mind.

The rain started just as I was returning to hand the baton to my teammate, Harry. He got soaked and frozen during his lap. He expected to be back before he’d need lights. The clouds made night show up early, and he had to walk the final downhill into the infamous 24-Hour Town.

Harry’s misfortunes were pretty epic. The storm destroyed his EZ-Up tent, plus bent and broke several poles of his REI tent. He wound up sleeping in his CRV, while I was holed up in my Subaru Forester – and yes, a 6’2

Arizona sunset over 24-Hour Town.

guy can stretch out fully and comfortably in a Forester (as if that car doesn’t already have enough superpowers). Many cars and even RVs left before sunrise.

Yes, this post reeks of woe, sorrow, misfortune. But in some twisted way, it was still fun: eating freeze-dried Chili Mac, shivering my way through Sunday’s first lap, dogfighting through the starting pack, shotgunning 16-ounce cans of coconut water. Speaking of that dogfighting, one woman was unfortunate enough to get pitched into the cholla cactuses within 30 minutes. I felt so bad for her – nothing like that needs to happen. All I can wonder is if someone with too much aggression made a dangerous pass and caused that accident. Who in the world can think endangering another rider is worth a few extra seconds?

24-Hour Town ... you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

That first Sunday lap was actually a thing of beauty, despite the cold. The wind abated, and the previous rain made the trail beautiful and grippy. My wheels stuck to it like glue. By my final lap, though, the wind was back. It wasn’t quite as Book-of-Revelation-awful as the previous night’s wind, but is was no picnic.

Harry and fellow duo rider Ryan Zilka (possibly one of the most relentlessly upbeat people I’ve ever met) met me at the finish with a can of Guinness to celebrate our second year camping and racing together. It was just a nice gesture that really underscored what 24-hour racing is all about to the pack fodder – solidarity, spending time with good people and going home safe.

You can also read my 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo recap at Examiner.com.

Awesome helmet decoration
The dudes from Mountain Flyer make a visit.
Humor goes a long way.
Ruined camp sites - a sign that the weather hit hard.
The expo area before it got storm-squashed.
Our happy 24 Hours of Bromance camp before the storm hit.

Desert Museum is Worth a Drive to Tucson, Ariz.

Visitors to Phoenix probably don’t give enough credit to Tucson. That’s a mistake – the Tucson area has some great cultural attractions, and the outstanding Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one you shouldn’t miss.

An owl readies for stardom at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Raptor Free Flight.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Shows Southwestern Wildlife, Plants & Geology
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson does a great job of showcasing the state’s flora, fauna and natural history. It’s also located in a very scenic piece of high desert terrain, so bring your camera.
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Scenes from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Here are a few fun scenes from a trip I took to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This was back in November, but I’m just getting around to it now. Except more about this very cool place soon.

A museum volunteer holds an owl.
The rocks and minerals on display are also pretty cool.
A falcon poses during the Raptor Free Flight show.
A closer look at the falcon.
Looking west of the museum at the open desert.

Hotel Review – InnSuites Tucson Foothills

Living in Phoenix in the fall and winter is pretty sweet. I’m just now starting to forget four months of scorching, unrelenting summer heat. I can go outside without fear of dehydration!

But still, I needed a change of scenery. That lead Sarah and me to Tucson to hike a bit and check out the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum (a post on that is coming up soon). We wanted to spend the night, and I got online to find a decent place the morning we left – the day after Thanksgiving, no less!

I quickly found the InnSuites Tucson Foothills, which is owned by Best Western. The often-handy (but sometimes maddening) GoogleEarth helped me find it. I wanted a place a little farther from the University of Arizona, and a little closer to hiking trails. Here are some bits you need to know about this hotel:

1. Hiking trails are about 10 minutes away. Not bad! And it’s actually a really good system. The Pima Canyon trail can keep you occupied all day. The scenery is striking and varied.
2. The rooms all seem to have comfortable beds and decent lighting. They all appeared to be clean and well-maintained. Each room had its own region-inspired name, which was kind of funny. Ours was the Show Low Suite, or something like that.
3. Try to get a room on the second floor. The tiled floors downstairs make a racket in the morning once all the housekeeping carts depart for their rounds.

Now, this last one is the big one:

4. Do not, under any circumstances, stay in room 146. Here’s why:
-It’s right next to the headquarters for the hotel’s cleaning staff. So you can always hear the jet engine-like whine of the commercial-grade laundry facilities. You can also hear the staff talking and loading up. And those carts I mentioned earlier on the tiled floors? Yeah. This does not equal a good night of sleep.
-When we were there, we could hear the strangest noise coming from one of the walls in the bathroom. It was almost like a dripping sound, but there was no reason, rhyme or rhythm to it. The sound would speed up, slow down, disappear for a few moments, then come back with a vengeance it’s not a big deal if you have the TV on. But it really sucks at 3 a.m.

Tucson’s Airplane Boneyard a Creepy Piece of History

Transports in the desert.

There’s this really creepy, weird place down in Tucson, Ariz. Most people call it the Boneyard. The official name is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC. In short, it’s where airplanes go to die.

I just wrote a piece about it for Associated Content. That’s where you can get all the official-speak – how to get there, what to bring, what to see. But since this is my own blog, I want to give you a little something different, plus bigger photos!

I'm guessing these are various types of C-135s.

I want you to picture thousands of acres. Then imagine rows of aircraft dating from post-WW II to practically present day. Dozens of B-52 Stratofortresses. Old Boeing 720s. Even the odd B-1B bomber! Helicopters, light transports, they’re all here baking in the sun.

This place just staggers my imagination. If this is where planes die, can you imagine how many are still flying? Can you imagine how many of these could find a second life better than being chopped up and turned into cans?

And the Boneyard is a starkly and oddly beautiful sight. If you’re riding the Fantasy Island mountain bikes trail network, the Boneyard is a backdrop for quite a bit of the ride. It makes me feel like Mad Max will soon coming roaring through the desert. No matter how many times I see it, I just wish I could spend a day walking among all these planes.

The Boneyard is a huge, impossible-to-miss piece of the military’s buying power and scope. I’m going to add a little something to that: Along I-17 and Highway 79, thousands of people pass decommissioned ballistic missile silos and never even notice them. In some ways, that’s more chilling than seeing thousands of aircraft strewn through the desert.