Friday, June 12, 2009

Weekend Assignment #271: A Thousand Words

This week's Weekend Assignment is inspired by photo challenges in which we show people around the world pictures of our own little piece of it. I'm about to ask you to do the same thing - only without the pictures!

Weekend Assignment #271: No matter where you live, the daily sights you take for granted are bound to seem exotic to someone who lives in very different surroundings. Describe your home town, city or whatever to that theoretical someone, entirely in words. You don't have to write the proverbial "thousand words," but do not post a photo to aid you in conveying a sense of what the place is like.

Extra Credit: Summarize your description Twitter-style, in 140 characters or fewer.

Tucson, Arizona fills an oblong of partially-obliterated desert, its flat sprawl limited by mountain ranges to the north, south, east and west. Tucson itself has an elevation of about 2300 feet. The highest of the mountain ranges is the Santa Catalinas to the north, which rise nearly 7,000 feet above the city and are its most distinctive landmark. By day, everyone in Tucson can always tell which direction is north, just by looking at the mountains.

Although Tucson has its share of curved neighborhood streets, cul-de-sacs and oddball streets that change names or direction, its major arteries are rationally laid out at one mile intervals. The main east-west roads include Grant Road, Pima Street, Speedway Blvd, Fifth Street, Broadway Blvd, 22nd Street and Golf Links Road. The north-south ones nearest me are Kolb Road, Wilmot Road, and Craycroft Road. Inevitably, lots of people pronounce and even spell Wilmot as "Wilmont."

Aside from newer developments at the edges of town, houses in Tucson are mostly one story ranches, mostly brick, and mostly larger than they were when first built. Rooftops are generally flat, and may be covered with shingles, ceramic tiles or a rolled, white Latex-like plastic known as "Kool Kote.” Tucson has basically two skyscrapers, one downtown and one at the corner of Broadway and Rosemont. Because the surrounding buildings are mostly just a few stories tall, each can be seen from miles away. Even Tucson Medical Center, which is one of Tucson's largest hospitals, is only one story high, with corridors that go on for miles. That layout was a condition specified by whoever gave them the land (I think) to build it, so as not to spoil the view. It started out as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

Tucson lies in the Sonoran Desert, named for the state of Sonora, Mexico, directly south of Arizona. The signature plant of the Sonoran Desert is the Giant Saguaro, the tall, several-armed cactus most people associate with Roadrunner cartoons. Yes, we have roadrunners. No, it's not the state bird. The state bird is the cactus wren. Aside from saguaros, cholla, prickly pears and other cacti, the Sonoran Desert features green-barked trees called Palo Verde, and, at a slightly higher elevation, the Mesquite.

Proper, domestic grass does not grow well in Tucson. On the other hand, Bermuda grass, buffelgrass and certain other weeds do annoyingly well, crowding out both native and cultivated grasses. Rather than struggle to grow a green lawn, some people either try to fill their yards with a patch of tamed desert or just cover it with colored stones, accented by a few palm trees or cacti.

Tucson is famously hot in the summer, although, as the joke goes, "it's a dry heat." This is only half true. In late spring and early summer, as the temperature climbs well past 100 degrees, the humidity tends to be around 11%, making it more bearable than 100 degrees and humid would be. That doesn't make it pleasant. Around early July the monsoon arrives. For about six weeks it rains nearly every late afternoon and occasionally at night, giving Tucson about half of its 11 inches of average annual rainfall. The storms can cool the air in minutes. In the increased humidity, Tucsonans' evaporative coolers, also known as "swamp coolers," cease to be an effective alternative to air conditioning.

The exciting, sometimes dangerous summer storms amount to almost a spectator sport. "When everyone at the office rushes to the window," a book called Arizona 101 advises, "that means it's raining." (I'm quoting from memory.) The summer heat, dry and otherwise, is offset by extremely mild winters. Snow on the ground here, even for a few minutes, is a rare and exotic thing, and may not happen for several years at a time.

Another observation from the Arizona 101 book is that "Most Arizonans believe the border should be closed the day after they arrive." Because of the mountains and Saguaro National Park, Tucson is not easily expanded to accommodate new residents, not without encroaching on the remaining desert or drifting north toward Oro Valley. Recent efforts to deal with this issue involve the concept of "infill," building on any plot of land inside the city that still has desert on it. These days, with the collapsed housing market and businesses struggling, Tucson has lots of empty storefronts and a fair number of foreclosed homes. Many times an obvious convenience store building or former restaurant becomes something else entirely, like a flower shop or a charter school. Even so, there are buildings that seem destined to house an endless series of failed businesses.

What's wonderful about the place? That depends on what matters to you. Culturally, Tucson is more Democratic than Republican, more laissez-faire than repressive, with a lively music scene, a large university community and a small but active counterculture. It is home to a number of theater groups, a world class photographic museum featuring the work of Ansell Adams, the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, and an important, well-preserved mission church, San Xavier del Bac. It has spring training baseball, although that's endangered by the greed of certain baseball teams, the reluctance of players to sit on a bus for two hours, and the issue or keeping the grass healthy at Tucson Electric Park and Hi Corbett Field.

But for me, it's mostly about the mountains and the desert, and the many creatures that live there. Southeastern Arizona is one of the most important "birding hotspots" in the entire country, perhaps the world. The variety of elevations creates a number of discrete habitats, with different plants and animals in each. And because we're just an hour north of Mexico, we get quite a few birds that are found nowhere else in what birders define as North America, which is to say the United States and Canada. The mountains and trees, cacti and rocks are dramatic enough, but add a black phoebe or a peregrine falcon and its that much more special.

There you go. 1,000 words exactly. And my Tweet version:

Tucson, Arizona is a flat, mostly brick, sometimes wet, rather hot city with cool people, surrounded by mountains, desert and exotic birds.

Your turn! Tell us about all about where you live, without resorting to photographic evidence. I really, really want to hear from many more of you this week, especially those of you who live outside the United States, and Round Robin participants in general. Write it up in your blog, and please remember to include a link back to this entry. Then leave a link to your entry in the comments below. I'll be back in a week with the results. Here, meanwhile, is last week's wrap-up:

For Weekend Assignment #270: Magic Makeover, I asked what one thing you would magically change about yourself if you could. Just two people dared to consider the fantasy makeover:

Florinda said...

I would be taller. I didn't even have to think about this one very long, because I already have. I've changed my weight, although it's gotten tougher to nudge the number on the scale downward (and Karen's not allowing it anyway). I've changed my hair color. I've changed my vision from nearly blind to functional, and if I had the money, the technology exists to improve it more, and make the improvement permanent. The one thing about myself I truly cannot change is my height, and I've come to accept that. But if I could change it, I'd jump at the chance.

Mike said...

I'd get rid of the need for glasses. I'm tired of them. They get bent out of shape after a while and become uncomfortable. You can't wear sunglasses with them, at least the kind I would like to wear. Sure, there are prescription sunglasses, and I have them, but it's a pain to change them all the time. And, no, I don't like the ones that get dark when you go outside; they never seem like they get light enough inside.

I'm still dangerously low on "guest professor" suggestions for these Weekend Assignments, so I ask again: please, please, please, email me some new ones. But more than that, I'd love to see some of you stretch yourselves beyond the photo challenges and help me out with this writing exercise. Can you do it? Will you? I hope so! Thanks!



barrettmanor said...

Sorry, I was out of town last week. Here you go:

And a bonus sunset!

a corgi said...

I enjoyed reading about Tucson; visited it a few times (mainly just driving through and spending a night there here and there). I liked your Twitter version of it too!

If I remember I'll check back weekly to see what the writing assignments are; I don't know much about the area we live in now so this could be a stretch to write an entry this week