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Wednesday, June 14, 2000

On the open road to Tucson


Favorite travel fantasies come in many forms -- not everyone dreams of a deserted white-sand beach on Maui.

Mine was driving down a long, straight road through the American West, with the speedometer needle leaning far right. The reason should be obvious: The desert is everything that crowded, noisy, dirty Tokyo is not (unless you count sand storms as "dirt").

For a long time I thought that this fantasy would involve more schlepping and spending than the beach on Maui. Then I received an invitation to a film conference in Tucson, Arizona and discovered how easy it is.

First, Tucson is only an hour's shuttle flight away from LAX. Second, once you step out of the airport and slide into your rental car, you're only minutes away from the wide open spaces. Tucson has been afflicted by the same sprawl that turned its northern neighbor Phoenix into strip-mall hell, but it's much easier to escape. Head due west and in 15 minutes you're in the San Xavier Indian Reservation looking at the San Xavier del Bac Mission, a church completed in 1797 that stands in Late Baroque splendor amid the cacti and tortilla stands.

The real blowout for overstressed Tokyoites, though, is on Route 19 -- a four-lane highway five minutes from the mission. One Sunday morning, at an hour when only a few early rising iguanas were awake, I drove it to Nogales, a border town an hour south from Tucson. The main attraction of this road, other than the copper mine slag heaps that line it for kilometer after kilometer, is its 120 kph speed limit -- a license to wind it out while turning the radio up head-splittingly high (I'd forgotten my "Born to Be Wild" tape).

Arriving in Nogales before seven, I parked, walked across the border and found myself in a real Mexican town (also, conveniently, called Nogales), which meant that nearly everything, save for the church and the tortilla stands, was still closed. It also meant that my Hawaiian shirt was wildly inappropriate, a fact driven home by the stares I was getting from every second person on the street.

In any case, my purpose in coming here was not the dozens of stores selling Mexican crafts (the guidebooks all assured me that I could get the same stuff, for nearly the same prices, on the other side of the border) or the pharmacies selling generic drugs (which were cheaper, but not necessary).

It was just to say that I'd done it, which did not impress the U.S. border guard when I tried to cross back. As he grilled me about my hour in Mexico, I realized, first, that I should have bought something to give my excursion more legitimacy (a bottle of aspirin?) and, second, that I should have come with my passport instead of my Ohio driver's license. Mexico is not Canada, and border guards look dimly on goofy-looking tourists without the proper documentation.

After being waved through with weary irritation by the guard (perhaps the Hawaiian shirt persuaded him that I was harmless) I buzzed back to Tucson and headed for the first tourist attraction on everyone's must-see list: the Desert Museum, just west of the city and across the Tucson Mountains, on a slope that overlooks the Sonora Desert.

Founded in 1952, the museum is what the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland would be if it were set in Zimbabwe; i.e., sited in the midst of what it is presenting. Within an area than even an out-of-shape journo can easily negotiate, the museum displays a wide range of desert plant and animal life, as well as the environments in which they live, from a gurgling brook (which sorely tempted me to soak my heat-stressed head) to a stalagmite-filled cavern (which was cool enough to serve the purpose of the brook).

Unlike zoos that keep visitors at a dully safe distance from the wildlife, the museum moves them up close and personal. A glass panel at the back of a cave in Cat Canyon put me within petting distance (or rather tapping distance) of a pride of sleeping mountain lions, while I shared the path in the Walk-in Aviary with a flock of dithery quail. Outside, in the Desert Garden, one of the nearly 100 varieties of cacti was radiant with fiery red blooms, while a cluster of Saguaro cactus straight out of a Road Runner cartoon was soaring skyward, just a prickly touch away.

A short drive down the road from the museum was another desert landmark -- Old Tucson Studios, a movie set and theme park. First used for the making of "Arizona," a 1939 western starring Jean Arthur and William Holden, the park later hosted hundreds of films and TV programs, featuring everyone from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to Kevin Costner and Leonardo diCaprio.

A fire in April 1995 destroyed nearly 40 percent of the sets, as well as millions of dollars in movie memorabilia, but the studio quickly rebuilt and Main Street now looks much as it did when Duke strode down it.

For me, it was an uncanny experience -- instead of climbing down from the screen, as Jeff Daniels did in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," I felt as though I were climbing into it.

To enhance the you're-in-the-picture illusion, the park presented a constant stream of live entertainment, from the musical review in the midway tent (pop from Elvis to Celine Dion, but no "My Darling Clementine") to a western shoot'em up at the corral. The latter was particularly impressive, featuring as it did authentic-sounding dialogue (transmitted with disconcerting clarity by hidden mikes) and authentic-sounding gunfire (which was much louder than the usual movie bang-bang).

So I got my money's worth and gained a new appreciation for the work of movie cowboys, who may look cool ambling down the streets of Tombstone, but are nursing a powerful thirst in the desert dust and heat.

And for Tucson itself? It's the Mexican restaurant capital of North America -- yet another reason to hop on the next flight out of Narita, sombrero in hand. Not to mention the Desert Diamond Casino, the Titan Missile Base, the Pima Air and Space Museum and all the other neat stuff I missed the first time around. Next year, I intend to spend less time discussing the semiotics of Steven Seagal's oeuvre and put more kilometers on that Avis Pontiac.



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