Arizona - Tucson - A trip back in time
With the sun burnishing my skin, the skies a deep blue, and the golden land stretched out for miles before us towards the hazy mountains, we glimpsed a streak of yellow among the brush. Holding our hands up to our eyes to protect them from the fierce rays, we saw a lone coyote, furtively searching for fat-bellied little prairie dogs and impossibly long-eared desert rabbits.
My partner and I were at the Arizona-Senora Desert Museum, in Tucson, and, as you may have gathered, this is not your traditional museum. There are no gadgets, no interactive child-pleasing displays. Instead, the natural beauty of the desert is left to speak for itself.
While winding our way around the squat little barrel cacti and the deceptively beautiful prickly pears with their vibrant red fruit (don't touch – their fine bristles break off and leave you with splinters for days), we saw woodpeckers nesting in holes they had made in the national symbol of Tucson – the saguaro cactus. Saguaro are the stereotypical cacti you see in Westerns, their anthropomorphic shapes amusing for humans but vital for the desert birds who nest and feed on them in a symbiotic relationship.
Walking round we also saw tiny hummingbirds buzzing around the trees and colourful butterflies alighting on the overhanging boughs of the tress that grew in the shade.
Out near where we saw the coyote, we bumped into a ranger who told us to look out for the javelinas. When we looked at him curiously, he pointed out a sign which had a picture of what looked like a wild boar with the words “Javvy hotspot - don't call me pig!” Then we examined the brush more closely and saw a group of peccaries slumped on top of each other, trying to escape the midday glare.
When walking through the museum's desert, you are bound to see at least some creatures. But, if not, don't despair - the museum houses a menagerie of desert animals including some you might not want to see in the wild, such as rattlesnakes and cobras.
In fact, the museum is large and could more aptly be described as a zoo and wildlife park – though featuring rather more exotic creatures than back home.
We had been told Old Tucson Studios were just down the road but, as we were soon to discover, “just down the road” can mean a few miles in Arizona.
Luckily, serendipity favoured us as we faced a long four-mile walk along a dusty road in 40-degree heat – even the desert was in the midst of a heatwave. A taxi dropped off a woman at the museum and we hastily flagged it down and gratefully climbed into its air-conditioned expanse.
Old Tucson Studios was once the place to go if you wanted to film a Western. In days gone by, John Wayne would have swaggered down the main street, cocking an eye at the surrounding saloons.
In fact, the whole set is a frontier town and they still film here today - they are currently filming a pilot for a new TV show.
When you walk through the turnstile, you are transported back to to a time when men were men and women were, umm, gaudy-looking showgirls. For, after you walk past the old-style shops, some featuring artisan-ware, others boasting old posters and memorabilia, you happen across a bar. Here, we were entertained by jaunty women in tight corsets and bouffant skirts kicking their legs up in a can-can.
That's not the only taste you get of the stereotypical old West, though. Every so often, cowboys bedecked in suede with holsters, brandishing guns in each hand, squabble, fight and fall off the roof in some entertaining re-enactments of the escapades of Billy the Kid.
There is also a guide who will walk you round the set in the broad footsteps of film stars like Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster and, umm, Chevy Chase. We saw the mission in Three Amigos, now sadly reduced to a facade after a fire burned down many of the set's buildings. We also saw an old-style railway, featured in the original 3:10 To Yuma.
Most entertaining, though, was the ghost walk. A stooped old guy, dressed like an old fairground barker, beckoned us into a dark tunnel and we are assaulted at every step with dusty displays, faded dummies leering out of us from old mine shafts and raggedy skeletons hanging from the ceiling.
The old barker pointed at once such bag of bones: “Did you know old Brad here?” he drawled in his gruff Southern growl. “Can't say I did!” I replied. “Well, he sure knew you!” cackled the old man. “Still, I guess an old mine shaft is the best place for an old flame, don't you say?” the guy said with a wink.
All too soon, our day was over. As we wandered along the dusty tracks, we overheard one of the guides talking to an English couple. “Come again soon, we appreciate your custom!” he called, with which came their sad reply: “Don't worry, we'd move over here in a second if we could.”
And we share their sentiments. Throughout our trip to Tucson, we met some amazing people with old-school manners that seem forgotten back in Britain. It's worth spending some time with these folk.
For all the timeless beauty of the desert museum and the trip back in time to the era of Old Tucson, the locals have a laid-back charm that is hard to find nowadays. Arizona is an essential destination for anyone who likes blue skies, friendly people, and amazing vistas – I'd say that means all of us.
The Arizona-Senora Desert Museum and the Old Tucson Film Studios are at North Kinney Road, Tucson, Az. Visit desertmuseum.org and oldtucson.com for further information. Flights to Tucson in February cost from £400 from Gatwick Airport.