Christmas Week in Tucson

Our route from Carlsbad, NM to Deming, NM took us through El Paso, TX. We skirted by on the north side, and my big impressions of the area after driving through were of the massive and very Army-looking Fort Bliss, the almost as massive (and fragrant) dairy farm northwest of town, and the somewhat steep climb and descent over the Franklin Mountains. At least now I know that the Jeep EcoDiesel + Lance 1985 combination seems to handle a climb of 7% without overheating and 7% descent without using the brakes much. Towing what is effectively a big parachute behind you has its advantages.

After dodging an impending blizzard in Carlsbad, we had originally planned to spend one night dry camping at the Deming, NM Walmart. But we realized that this would be on Christmas Eve, and the store would be closed Christmas Day. Although we could probably park there without a problem, in the event we needed a bathroom in the middle of the night it would not be available (we decided to travel with empty fresh water tanks rather than haul it around New Mexico; in a future similar situation it might make sense to carry 5 gallons to have a bit of flexibility).

So instead we set up for one night at the 81 Palms Senior RV Resort in Deming. The reviews on rvparkreviews.com were spot on. It is a clean, well-kept, whimsically-decorated little RV park, and the traffic on I-10 across the street did not keep us awake. However the freight trains on the other side of I-10 came roaring by about every 30 minutes. It was not our best night’s sleep, but it was adequate.

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PVC Pipe Saguaro

I’m a bit conflicted about the “Senior” part of the park’s title– feels like I’m too young to be eligible to stay here (55+) – but them’s the facts, and there are compensations: the price was right, and the “no kids” policy means that things were quiet (other than the aforementioned rail traffic). We broke camp early and got back on I-10.

When we arrived at the gorgeous Catalina State Park, I was pleased to see that the campsites had recently been updated in November, completely redoing the water and electric hookups. It would be hard to imagine a better location for a campground – right up against the Santa Catalina Mountains, with hiking trails right outside your door.

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Spectacular Santa Catalina Mountains

If you didn’t know by now, Maureen seems to have many friends in pretty much every place we stop, and we were able to meet up with a few of them while we were here. Our friend Wendy from New York was visiting her mother who lives in the area, and she clued us into an insider’s event: the Winterhaven Festival of Lights. This holiday light show has been going on for 66(!) years, and it really is unique. It’s much more than a typical “candy cane lane” of nice decorations, but rather an entire neighborhood where almost every house is decked out with lights, quirky sculpture, music and more (it also supports the local community food bank). The fact that it happens right in the place where Wendy grew up made it even more special.

For a long time the festival was a mostly car-based experience (slow drive through the displays – sort of like the “It’s a Small World” ride, except you’re the one driving and the music is less annoying), but the organizers now allow vehicles in on only one night. For better or worse, that was the only night Wendy had free to show us around. It was slow getting into the neighborhood, but once we parked the car and started walking around it really did become magical. My favorite display was of an animated elf with signaling flashlights guiding Santa’s sleigh in for landing on a very properly lighted runway. I think the homeowner must be an air traffic controller.

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Santa Comes In For A Landing

Wendy pointed out that over the last few years the displays have become “selfie-driven”, meaning they are explicitly intended for you to take your portrait in front of some item using your smartphone and then post to social media. I suppose it was inevitable that technology has infiltrated something as once-simple as a holiday lights show.

Next, we got together with our friends from back home in Indiana, Jean and Lionel, who spend the winter in a section of Oro Valley (north of Tucson) that was originally a Del Webb Sun City development. They fed us an elegant lunch and then Jean took us on a bird walk through nearby Honey Bee Canyon. We saw plenty of desert birds, but also spied javelina. They resemble wild boars and had their babies with them, so we gave them a wide berth.

Finally, we met up with Maureen’s friend Mary who works at the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. We found a happy hour at a restaurant just outside the state park’s entrance and got more tips on things to do in the Tucson area.

Not incidentally, Maureen loves a bargain and is the undisputed Queen of Happy Hours. We recently discovered the Happy Hours app and have used it frequently to find half-priced drinks and appetizers – although we seem to use up the savings buying more drinks and appetizers! It hardly seemed like roughing it when several large malls and dozens of restaurants were just a few miles from our campsite.

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Happy Happy Happy Hour

Lastly, during our stay we really enjoyed the bird walks sponsored by the state park. Twice a week a knowledgeable guide takes a group on a 3-hour hike through the foothills to identify and discuss the local birds. I did not know this before, but Tucson is home to a rich variety of birds, some of which live only in this area. And because our campground was close to a wash that frequently has water in it from rain or snowmelt, birds flock to it. The walks started at 8 am, and it was pretty frosty at the start with temperatures in the 20s, but it quickly warmed up to the 50s or 60s by early afternoon.

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Great Birding Trails

We aren’t serious birders, but are slowly getting involved with this fun activity. All you need are a good pair of binoculars and maybe a bird guide. I’ve also enjoyed trying out birding apps like BirdsEye and Merlin (based on a database from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), which can help you identify birds based on their location, color and behavior. During the walks we spotted over 40 species, but our favorites were (apologies in advance for all the dashed-adjectives):

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Crummy Photo of Rufous-Backed Robin (no telephoto!)

Apparently some people travel the world and pay big dollars to bird guides to see some of these animals, and we got the experience for free!

We loved our time in Tucson and definitely plan to spend more time there on the way back to our permanent domicile.

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I am super jealous of your birding! One more item for my bucket list! Thanks for sharing.