The Road to Tuscon

We drove south to Tucson today. Highway 10 just south of Phoenix crosses what must be one of the most barren stretches on the face of the earth. A picture taken from the car window is below. But all of a sudden you come to irrigated pecan orchards. This is a productive agricultural area. The soil is fertile and when water is applied things grow well. There is the added advantage of weed control. To get rid of weeds, all you have to do is not provide water and everything is wiped clean so you can start again. Arizona is also a big producer of corn, cotton and watermelons, among other things.

We stopped in a small city called Casa Grande and ate at Taco Bell – the boys’ favorite restaurant. I took a picture from the parking lot. If Clint Eastwood was to make a class b western in the 21st century it would be set in a place like Casa Grande. The funny thing is that there are all kinds of stores and facilities here in the middle of nowhere.

Just before Tucson, we set out for “Old Tucson”. It is an old movie site used in many of the western movies we all know and love. On the way, the desert is beautiful. Pictures are included. The terrain is very steep and the pictures don’t do it justice. We climbed to a little stone shelter. Out of the sun, it is cool. Actually it is still 100 degrees, but the breeze is nice. Old Tucson looks familiar because I have seen it so often. Many John Wayne movies, “Gunfight at Ok Corral”, “Tombstone”, episodes of “Bonanza” & “The Big Valley” and many others were made here. Unfortunately, much of the set burned down in 1997.

Near old Tucson is the desert museum, which is sort of a park and botanical garden. The desert is still strange to me. I can appreciate it, but I don’t think I would ever learn to love the treeless landscape. It reminds me of a giant construction site, piles of dirt and rocks laying all over the place. All the plants live precariously. At least that what it looks like to me. And many of the plants look like giant houseplants. The big ones are the kinds you find in offices and hospital waiting rooms. I saw various lizards scampering around, but no snakes. The absence of snakes does not upset me. The rattlesnakes are bad enough, but at least they sometimes warn you by rattling their tails. There is a little, fortunately rare, snake called the Arizona Coral Snake. It is a two stepper. It bites you; you take two steps and you die. It looks just like a non-poisonous “milk snake”, except its stripes are different. They both have red, black and yellow stripes, but the sequence is different. The rhyme goes, “Red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow; red touches black, you’re all right jack.” I think it is better to avoid all snakes like that rather than count the color rings after being struck by one.

The only mammals were some wild pigs sleeping under a stone bridge. I smelled them before I saw them. They are pigs after all. The only unpleasant part of the visit was the “true cave” experience. They have a dark cave you can crawl though. I bumped my head on the stalactites, tripped over the Stalagmites and generally felt claustrophobic. Big guys like me are not meant for cave dwelling. Fortunately, it was a short visit. My digital camera helped. I took flash pictures and then could consult the lighted panel. Saved by technology.

We got to Tucson in the late afternoon. It is a very pleasant city, with clean, wide streets and some nice landscaping. It is still a desert city, but there is a lot more green and nature seems kinder here than in Phoenix. The elevation is higher and it is cooler. Even when the temperature is hot, the thin air feels cooler. I like it here. We are staying at Towne Suites. They are nice for the family because we have two bedrooms and a sofa bed.

Near the Tucson are “sky islands” – mountains with high enough elevations to support forests. These islands extend south way into the Sierra Madre in Mexico. You can literally walk from the Sonora Desert to the climatic equivalent of Hudson Bay as you walk up the slopes. They call them sky islands because they are like islands of forest is a sea of desert. It is an apt comparison. The nicest part is the “montane” about halfway up the hills, which is mostly ponderosa pine. Unfortunately, it has been a dry year and the area is suffering forest fires. We can see some of the smoke from the road. It was coming up a notch in the mountains.

July 4

Independence Day is hot. The temperature is expected to reach 112 degrees today. It was already 87 by 7:00 in the morning. Fires and disasters dominate the news. Some of them are not that serious, but they make good pictures for the television news. The most interesting was the explosion of a truck carrying fireworks. There is a serious forest/brush fire near Tucson. It has already burned some homes and recreational sites. Fire has become a bigger menace in the West as people move into rural areas and lawsuits and regulations prevent the thinning of forests. In the natural scheme of things, some types of forests are programmed to burn every once in a while. That is cold comfort to the guy who just built a new house in the path of the fire and most of the fires burning now are not natural. We are going to Tucson next week. I suppose that the fires will still be burning, but I don’t think it will interfere with our plans. There is a lot of empty space around here. Hundreds of hectares can burn in the mountains and you don’t see any sign of it except a little haze.

We bought our car today – a new mini van. It is much like our previous van, although a different color. When you have five people in your family, you really do need to own a van. I don’t car much about cars in general and could never understand why people get so excited about them. If the car gets you where you want to go safely, inexpensively and in reasonable comfort, it is good. I would not bother to cross the street to look at a fancy sport car and would not want to own. Obviously mine is the minority view. Many people define themselves by the cars they drive. I have noticed that some of the dumpiest houses have fine cars parked outside and for the price of some of these cars (including insurance and upkeep) you could attend a four-year college in most states. I guess that does say a lot about the owners; a fool and his money are soon parted. I respect the point of view of my brother in law Ray, who still drives a Toyota that he bought when Ronald Reagan (or maybe Jimmy Carter) was in the White House and before my children were born. Of course he can’t park his vehicle too close to a junkyard for fear of it being mistaken from scrap metal and being brought inside by one of those big magnets. There are also practical problems. Old cars have maintenance problems and generate a lot more air pollution than newer models (a new SUV makes less pollution than an old Volkswagen), but the lack of presumption in he shows by owning a car like that is refreshing.

We went to see the fireworks in Chandler, which is close to Phoenix. They went on for a long time. We did not get close enough to see the show at the park, but we could hear the music as the fireworks went off. July 4th is much less an event here than it is in Washington. I don’t think that could come as a big surprise.

Espen introducing the younger kids to the joys of video games.
Chrissy and her sister Lisa in front of our new car.
Typical car for the area.

Phoenix Day 2

Pictures of the early morning roads.

This is the road to nowhere in particular. It ends about 100 meters out of this picture.

If you want to do anything outside, you have to do it early in the morning. One of the advantages of jet lag is that you can’t sleep very late. I went running today at 5:30. It was hot, but not too bad, like a warm afternoon most other places I have lived. A lot of people were out running, walking and biking. In fact, I have never seen so many people exercising outside a park or health club designed for joggers or bikers. I suppose they are all concentrated at this time. They know that they have only a short window of opportunity. You can count on a sunny, rain free day every day during this time of the year, but by about 7:00 it gets too hot to do anything strenuous. You just have to adjust. In northern climates, you can’t do much in the winter because it is too cold. You just assume that you will stay in the house a lot from December through March because the weather is cold and miserable. The same is true in the desert; only it applies to summer heat. Nobody goes out during the middle of the day unless they have to. In that respect it has an advantage over the cold places. During January in Wisconsin or Poland there is no time of the day when it is warm enough to go out comfortably.

The area outside the cultivation has a harsh beauty.

It is also true that the dry heat of the desert is easier to live with than the humid heat we often get in Virginia. I am not saying its not hot – 105 degrees in the shade is hot no matter what the humidity – but if you don’t move around it is not too uncomfortable and if you swim it is actually very cool as the evaporation is rapid. Below are some pictures of the early morning Phoenix streets. They are very wide and ready for a lot more cars than use them most of the time, although there are traffic jams in the downtown during rush hour. People drive a lot farther here. The city is spread out and most people will happily drive for 45 minutes or an hour to get to a restaurant of movie theater.

Alex contemplating the landscape. He is less than enthusiastic about waking up for the morning run.
I like this house. It takes a lot of work to have such nice plants here.
Kids playing in the pool at Dianne & Ray’s house. If you have a pool, the heat is not so bad. Even 105 degree weather feels cool when you get a little wet. The very low humidity means the water evaporates quickly cooling the skin. You can shiver and feel cold. The water in the pool is always warm and tastes a little salty.

Phoenix Day 1

Arrived in Phoenix yesterday. It is hot here even at night. When we arrived it was 105 degrees. Today it got to 110 degrees. The sky is perfectly clear and everything is dry. Arizona, at least the Valley of the Sun, where Phoenix sits, is a different world. We will be in Phoenix for the next couple of days. Then we are going down to Tucson and Tombstone.

Alex and Lisa, Chrissy’s sister and brother in law, are putting us up. They have a nice Phoenix style house. The boys are sleeping in the living room. We have an upstairs place.

Nothing much lives in the desert without the help of irrigation and few people lived here before the invention of air conditioning. Phoenix is comfortable only because of 20th Century technologies. The temperatures are a lot like those in Iraq. Alex& Lisa have done a wonderful job of landscaping. Last time we were here the yard was nothing but rocks and dirt. Now there are trees and desert plants. There is a short moss-like grass. It is very green and has to be watered every day or two. Below are some pictures from today.

Above is Alex & Lisa’s back yard. It took a lot of work to make it this nice. The tree is a palo verde. It has very small leaves, but the trunk remains green all year and allows photosynthesis.

Above is the neighbor’s yard. This is what it looks like when you do nothing. Unlike in more humid climates, the grass doesn’t cover the sins of the landscaper. This guy’s idea of landscaping is evidently to leave the dirt and rocks and put on a layer of dog shit. (those are the specks you see in the picture)

Saguaro cactus grow only in the Sonora Desert in Northern Mexico and Arizona. Phoenix is on the northern edge. It takes many years fro the Saguaro to grow “arms”. They are protected species and are registered. This one in Alex’s yard was given to him by a lady he worked for. It would be worth about $2000.00 if he had to buy it.

In the distance is what the landscape looks like without irrigation. The hills are pretty and pretty dry.

No matter where they are, the kids engage in the usual recreation – video games. Note the determined expression on the boys’ faces as they overcome the threat to the universe.

Alex made a nice playground for his two kids, Christiana and Roman.


We have a five-hour wait in O’Hare, then on to Phoenix. O’Hare is a busy, but fairly comfortable place to wait. My favorite airport in the entire world is Orlando, which is actually a pleasure to visit. Reagan National is also nice these days. This one is not bad.

Wisconsin was interesting, although not surprising. We didn’t stray far from Lacrosse, although we did drive up to Chrissy’s parents and her sister in Blair Wisconsin. Wisconsin is really a pretty place, its green fields interspersed in greener forests of oak, basswood and white pine. Water in lakes and rivers is clean, mostly. Wherever you look, nature is returning, taking over old farmsteads. Cities are also expanding, also taking over old farmsteads. Soon this particular part of Wisconsin will resemble Loudon County – forest and exurbs. I am looking forward to looking out the window as we fly to Arizona. I hope it stays light long enough for me to see the mountains.

Alex wants the computer to play his video game. I suppose I will give it to him. It is 3:00 on June 30, 2003.


Western Wisconsin is nice enough – clean and pleasant. There is almost no crime. People don’t lock their cars. They even leave the keys on the dashboard sometimes, and they leave valuable things such as bikes unlocked in their back yards. Although I bet the local people would tell me their particular harrowing crime stories, you can’t be too afraid to walk around in a town where barking dogs and aggressive littering are reported on the police section of the local newspaper. I ran for about a half hour through north Lacrosse. I have never actually set foot in that particular neighborhood, but I have been there before. This type of human geography extends from New England to the Pacific Ocean. Adjust for regional variations in vegetation and you could easily find this in Buffalo or Boise, Sioux Fall or Spokane. Norman Rockwell could set up shop here. Millions of Americans still live his lifestyle.

So what’s not to like? I don’t like the houses, and the yards, especially the yards. Houses are small and there is almost no landscaping around them. Thanks to fertilizers, weed killing chemicals, and power mowers, the grass is neat, but people don’t seem fond of trees or big bushes, at least not near their houses. There are lots of trees on the streets – maples, ash, hackberry and linden – but not many on property people take care of themselves. That is a contrast with the East where trees sprout from even small spaces. Around here, people would complaint that shade interfere with the grass; roots clog drain and trees drop leaves in the rain gutters. I know this compulsive neatness that loses sight of goals. My father wanted grass ½ inch high and neat, although we rarely achieved it. (He was too lazy and I didn’t care about a neat lawn . . . and I was lazy too.) Strip mall & gas station owners spread little stones over the landscaping. It is neat and requires no care, but it is unattractive and predictable. I would rather have the confusion and profusion of growing plants, even ones that were not well maintained or volunteer to occupy that patch of ground. Most people call the latter variety weeds. They are better than the little rocks or the chemically induced grass.

I would not want to live here, but I understand why so many do. The Lacrosse area is growing rapidly. I might complain about the houses, but it looks like most people can afford to own one, at least in cooperation with their mortgage company. Prices are remarkable low, by Northern Virginia standards. This place has become a paradise for hunters and fishermen. The forests and fields near town teem with wildlife as farm fields revert to nature and create habitat. Fish are jumping in the lakes and the Black River across from my hotel is full of small boats. There have not been so many deer here for more than a century. Wild turkeys, which were rare in this area even 200 years ago, are common. They like the old farm fields. Eagles nest along the Mississippi. God’s Country.

This is Middle America. The citizens of Lacrosse work hard, teach their kids decent values and send them off to the local university, or maybe to the University of Minnesota at Winona not too far up the river. “The Lacrosse Tribune” carries stories of local boys serving in Iraq. Many houses fly the American flag. Most people love the USA. SUVs & pickup trucks fill the wide and well-maintained streets and most people drive near the speed limit, unlike drivers in my Polish experience. Wisconsin is a nice place to visit and a wonderful place for a lot of people to live, just not for me. It is my native state, but I can’t go home again permanently.

The boys and I are staying at the Roadstar Inn, since it would be too hard for Chrissy’s mother if we descended on her small house. It is an inexpensive 1970s type hotel, near fast food places and the Mississippi River. We are about to head out to the free “continental breakfast”. The weather is warm (about 70) and humid. It rained last night. It is 7:15 am on June 28, 2003.

Hanging in the Sky

I am not sure how much my personalities have in common. People in some professions move more often and maybe even farther from home, but Foreign Service Officers absorb more characteristics of our assignments. Diplomatic life is intense. Everyone knows who we are. We live our jobs to a greater extent than most people. We learn the language of our countries and adopt different personas to adapt to our surroundings. My Polish personality is different than my Norwegian personality and both are different than my Brazilian personality. My American core has become stronger over the years. I know a lot more about my country than I did when I came into the service, but the America I know and love is an ideal place. Now I am headed “home” to Boston, to a place I have never been before in the real America. I still can’t believe the State Department is giving me such a sweet deal. I can think of nothing that could make me happier, at least nothing I could reasonably expect to get. For all the complaining I sometimes do, this is really a great career.

It is fitting that we hang in the sky for several hours between incarnations and go down a long hall to get on and off the planes. The low roar of the jet engines creates a dreamlike atmosphere and the fact that one slips in and out of sleep during the nine-hour flight confirms it. Poland already seems like a dream. I am looking at the pictures I took of my garden on the day I left. I planted lots of trees during my time in Warsaw – tulip trees, oaks and beech – although only two in my own backyard . The garden is full of perennial plants and I improved the soil, so I expect my activities will survive my leaving for at least a couple of seasons. I will remember the good people of Poland and I hope that some of them will remember me, but we pass so quickly. I don’t think any of us leave deep footprints.

My latest American journey starts soon. We will drive all over the U.S. It should be fun. This is our fourth cross country trip, but the first one through the Southern states.

I am not sure what time it is. It doesn’t make much difference in this jet-lagging world. I think it would be morning in the U.S. and afternoon in Poland on June 27, 2003.

Both pictures are my garden in Warsaw. The ivy will eventually cover the walls and the trees will be big.