Day three, Monday

Daniel F. Smith in Arizona

As I woke up, two things became immediately obvious. One, it was hot. Two, the builders of this particular chalet weren't particularly concerned with the bits fitting together, as evidenced by the bright light sneaking its way into the room through the cracks in the walls. But at least the refrigerator worked, and even if I couldn't open the door to the bathroom properly (there was a sink in the way) everything more-or-less worked.

Biosphere 2 is (or rather was) a massive pressurized miniature ecosystem in the Arizona desert. It cost $150M to construct back in the 1980s. The buildings look splendid---all based on a standard length strut, bolted together in a tetrahedral framework and covered in glass and lightning conductors. It could almost be on Mars, which I suppose was kind of the point. It is run by Colombia University, although it's owned by the guy who originally built it.

Walking onto the green landscaped grounds, I was met by a small herd of pig-like things. They are called javelina, and depending on who I talked to, they were either very common, with 40 or so visiting a day, or quite rare and therefore they must be hungry. I was also told not to get too close to them because they will either run away or turn nasty; again differing opinions. I could conclude that not much is known about these creatures, but I think lots is probably known, and they just don't like the guy in the hat as much as the lady in the gift shop.

Biolandscape: the area around the Biosphere 2 is breathtaking. Biolandscape 2: five layers of ecosystem, according to the audio recording. And prickly pears too.
Buzzsaws: if you ever wonder what the loud buzzing is in the desert, look for these inch-long noisy flying insects. Javelina: they aren't pigs, but they are common visitors to the Biosphere 2.

I also learned that the majestic cacti that appear all around the desert are called sorawo but may be spelled differently. [Later note: I have been informed that the usual spelling is saguaro, though several spellings seem to be in use---presumably because, as I found out, it's difficult to put down when heard phonetically.] They have wooden spines growing inside, confirming my observations the day before, and they also provide lots of shelter for the creatures that live in them. I should mention that they have spikes too.

But anyway, I digress.

The Biosphere 2 is rather fascinating, not just because of the flora. Our tour group was mostly tourists, and many of them foreign. The enthusiastic guide, Yurina, was keen to show us everything, but that keenness was tempered by knowing that she had to do the 1.5 mile trek in 110 degree heat another two times today. We wondered into the tropical rainforest. At first, the 85 degree interior was pleasantly cooling, but the illusion soon wore off as our bodies noted that the cooling was provided by water evaporators and hence the humidity was total. We sweltered past angel trumpets, money plants, spiny kapok trees and pools of water from the dripping irrigation system. At last we emerged into an area devoted to quumquaats (however it's spelled), cocoa, coffee, bananas and other edible things. There was a rather fetching plant called broken heart, or burst heart, or gushing heart or something like that. It had white flowers with a deep red flourish on the end. Towards the end of the nursery, we got to see Bob the catfish. I got the feeling that Bob was rather indifferent to seeing us.

Test module: they built this small prototype Biosphere to test the cooling systems and building materials. So I guess this place is called Biosphere 1.5? Stuffed with stuff: how much can you fit in your greenhouse? These were the old staging greenhouses, to make sure the plants were okay before going into their new biosphere. Flowery stuff: the greenhouse was full of different flowers---like these.

And so we went into the Biosphere enclosure itself. It's not pressurized any more (so the huge dome lungs are no longer necessary, but they look pretty and are still functional) and part of it has been opened to visitors. The living quarters have been converted into a miniature museum full of corporate exhibits and countless items begging us to stop making so much carbon dioxide. (Ironically enough, the massive air conditioning needed to keep the interior of this glass house at 75 degrees is kept running from the local power grid.) More exotic plants, lots of harried students running about, and some spectacular clouds in the sky, and then to the ocean viewing stage. Ah, fishies. Finally we were allowed to wonder round.

The Biosphere rainforest: this structure is a photographer's dream. The Biosphere glass houses: some of the smaller habitats. Striking: they say lightning doesn't strike twice, but the Biosphere builders weren't taking any chances.
Lungs: one of the two enormous domes housing the rubber lungs, that let the air in the building expand and shrink in response to temperature. Peeking desert: a view through the glass into the desert habitat. High life: the living quarters for the eight Biosphere 2 workers when they were locked inside. The high room is the library.
On tour: Columbia University has opened up some of the areas within the Biosphere to the public. Top banana: this banana and it's strange-looking purple cone, is apparently used for cooking. Violet: there was no shortage of flowers inside.
Ocean fish: the ocean area was full of little yellow fish, although the signs said there were other colors as well. Hmm. Plans: if you have some time to spare, why not build your own Biosphere 3? Spaceframe: the isometric space frame is made with pin joints. And, although you can't see it well in the picture, the place is crawling with tiny black ants. But these aren't just any ants. These ants removed all the other insects from inside, and live in communist cooperatives!

I followed the tour backwards. Back in the nursery I met with Isabell, who was feeding the iguana. She invited me inside his cage to take photographs and we chatted. It seems that the iguana is nearly always asleep, but when no one is looking he changes the rafter that he sits on. If Isabell didn't come in and feed him mustard leaves he might starve from lack of movement. He's a vegetarian, though he looks like he could eat fingers if he was hungry. Isabell also showed me the bearded dragon lizard, a rather prickly and fierce looking thing. He was a bit scaly, but the spines were soft. Apparently, there are two skinks running around in the nursery proper, though they seem to disappear when the visitors troop through. I couldn't find them afterwards. Isabell has been working at the Biosphere for eleven years now. She started out as a catering manager, but for some reason or another switched into landscaping. After the woman who used to look after the nurseries fell sick, she put down her weed whacker and wheelbarrow and became a gardener; a position she seems to adore. Her lizards seem to like her too.

In the greenhouse: the thermometer twisted away as I took the photograph, but the alcohol read 80 degrees. At first this was a relief from the 100 degree temperatures outside. Then my body discovered the joys of 100% humidity. Here be dragons: well small ones, anyway. This is actually the iguana after being fed, and posing for this photograph.
Isabell: with her companion, the bearded dragon. Bearded dragon: this friendly and soft fellow came from Australia.

The Biosphere was interesting. I'm glad it's still being used for ecological research---it's big science and they seem to be testing a lot of climate theory. Their favorite result was that during the ice ages, coral grew faster.

And so down towards Tucson. As I approached, the temperature moved from 99 to 115 degrees. All that pavement, air conditioning and plant watering makes this a sweltering city. I didn't stay long enough to take note of the town's finer points but headed down to Green Valley to see the Titan Missile Museum. It turns out that it's closed until Wednesday during the summer, so stay tuned. The road back up to Tucson was lined either side with pecan orchards. A big change from the usual scrub and cactus. I headed out the Vail, which my guide book said had a Flintstone Bedrock City.

Stragglers: more desert, more cacti, but subtly different. At the bottom is the prickly pear. I don't know what the tall things are. Sunbeams: the light manages break through some of the clouds, giving me a brief light show. Sun down: can you believe it? A sunset every evening at dusk!
Blacktop canyon: is it really surprising that Arizona has so many canyons? This was carved out not long ago and, even with minimal rainfall, is already eroding. Passersby: some cars go past, and probably wonder what I'm doing, standing on a sand hill.

My guidebook was wrong. Vail did have a Massive Cave (in Massive Cave Park) but I arrived too late to see it. A friendly postal worker agreed that there didn't seem to be much evidence of Fred and Wilma, but if I could supply a street address he'd check. He was serious too. Upon checking the book again, it mentioned that Vail was close to the Grand Canyon. Well, that would be slightly more than a stone's throw away, and the seven hour drive will come on Wednesday. But Vail will remain a mystery.

Roadside mountain: the landscape keeps popping up surprises like this mountain on the way into Tucson. I'm sure that the Arizona State government has decreed that anywhere there's a view, there must be a power line. This upset Frank Lloyd Wright so much that he would have demolished Taliesin West if his wife hadn't stopped him; or so the story goes. Vail valley: there was no Bedrock here, but lots of homes in the desert, looking arid and rather out of place. Store: the town had one store, but no Flintstones.


Next project, Tombstone. I need a hat, and if I'm going to get a brimmed piece of headwear, where better than steps away from the O.K. Corral. This is a tourist town now---pure and simple. I came in pretty late. Everything in Arizona seems to close before 8pm, although luckily there was an historical restaurant which served decent food. I walked up and down the wooden sidewalks, occasionally glancing into the rowdy bars and seeing men in fake cowboy hats and women in fetching, though not particularly covering, evening wear. All tourist stuff, though with a sense of humor. (One store had a notice that read "If closed, please slide money under door", another "How's it hanging?" with a dangling pair of feet.) If you want a cow skull, this is the place. There is some nice stuff though; and I want to find a hat tomorrow.

Parade: will the soda can that exploded in the back of the Tahoe please step forward. At least I've finally found a use for face flannels. Also, hand towels make very good place mats in a tight situation.

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