Travels With Two Sisters:  EXPLORING THE BIG SKIES

Under a clear blue sky, a variety of telescopes shine in the sunlight at Kitt Peak National Observatory west of Tucson.

Sometimes, for one reason or another, life works out entirely different than we planned. For example, how did two ladies born and raised in New England end up living in the southwestern desert, surrounded by mighty Saguaro cacti, sand storms and monsoon rains?

When we arrived in Green Valley in November 2010, our plans included a six-month stay to avoid snow and to experience the spring bloom in the desert. After the bloom, we would be on the road again, heading to Yellowstone National Park for two weeks and driving north to British Columbia. We were looking forward to exploring the Canadian provinces and the National Parks on our way back to New England.

Our travel plans did not materialize! We fell in love with Green Valley, the desert and the big sky. Two months after we arrived, we purchased a place. It was obvious from the very beginning that this is where we belong.

We love the big blue sky with its white puffy clouds in a variety of shapes and sizes; to this day, we are still amazed by the clouds that look like feathers, paint strokes and baby sheep. On occasion, we have had the privilege to see (and photograph) some rainbow clouds. From our living room window, we watch the monsoon clouds change color, build and prepare to dump their water on our valley. Here, in big sky country, we have felt honored to view some of the most magnificent sunrises and sunsets.

In the last 11 years, we have enjoyed the sky in all the seasons; we have enjoyed viewing the spectacular full moons rise above the Santa Rita Mountains and, on some nights, we have counted one million stars. (There could be more that one million, but that is as high as we can count!)

Shortly after we arrived we noticed a round, white structure sitting atop Mount Hopkins and soon learned it was an observatory. Being curious and adventurous, we put some of Arizona’s observatories on our list of places to explore.

Whipple visitor center & observatory

In 2012, our curiosity got the best of us and we had to check out the brilliant, shiny, white golf ball that sits atop Mount Hopkins. We grabbed our camera and map, packed a lunch, filled our cooler with water, and off we went down East Frontage Road in search of Mount Hopkins Road. What a beautiful desert drive with a magnificent view of the Santa Rita Mountains. We were amazed by the amount of ocotillo we spotted on the way.

Soon, we arrived at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory Visitor and Science Center. We spent a significant amount of time at the center looking at the photographs, reading the information panels, enjoying the exhibits and viewing their videos. On that day, we were totally amazed watching the video of a flatbed truck bringing a telescope mirror up the side of the mountain. Before leaving the site, we took photos of the surrounding area, the administration building, the visitor center, the sculptures on the patio and the telescopes.

Travels With Two Sisters:  EXPLORING THE BIG SKIES

The outdoor patio at the popular the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory Visitor and Science Center in Amado.

From the visitor center, we decided to head up the winding, narrow dirt road toward the top of the mountain. We stopped at the many pull-offs, enjoyed the views of the Santa Cruz Valley, took pictures of the road, the flowers, the sky, and each other standing on the “edge” of the road. Three-quarters of the way up the mountain, we arrived at a locked metal gate, turned around, took more photos of the incredible views and headed home. Arriving home, we immediately put the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab on our list of places to see.

Over the years, we have driven up the dirt road to Mount Hopkins on several occasions and, in 2014, we decided that it was time to head to the top of the mountain to explore the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory that is owned and operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. We scheduled our daytime tour (no night tours are available) and, on that chosen date, we boarded the tour bus at 9 a.m. and rode up the winding, narrow, dirt road to the top. We toured the entire facility, had the opportunity to enter some of the structures, asked many questions, and took dozens of photos.

Travels With Two Sisters:  EXPLORING THE BIG SKIES

A bird's eye view of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Atop Mount Hopkins, the view of the Santa Cruz Valley was breathtaking! We could see for miles! We boarded the bus for the trip down the mountain on the winding, narrow, dirt road and arrived at the visitor center at 3 p.m. Today, when we look at the tiny, round golf ball on the top of the mountain, we remember that day and how surprised we were: the huge structure atop the mountain is actually square!

UA Mirror Laboratory

In May 2015, we headed to the University of Arizona campus to explore the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory on North National Championship Drive. At this facility a team of scientists and engineers makes lightweight, giant and powerful mirrors for optical telescopes. That morning, we located the entrance to the Mirror Lab under the football stadium. We sat on a wooden bench by the door and eagerly awaited our tour. Our guide was knowledgeable and welcomed our many questions.

On that day, we learned about the materials used in the manufacture of the mirrors, the preparations, the rotating furnace, the polishing process, and the length of time from beginning to finished product. We were able to view all of the steps, and photos were permitted. This was a very interesting and educational tour we would recommend to those interested in telescopes.

Heading to our car, we spotted one completed mirror on a flatbed. It was beginning its trip to its new home in Chile after a two-year manufacturing process. We wondered if this mirror would also be transported up a steep mountainside on a flatbed truck.

Adventures at Kitt Peak

Kitt Peak National Observatory lies atop Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains. It's on Route 86 near Baboquivari Peak, a granite monolith, that is the high point of the mountain range. Both the granite monolith and the National Observatory lie within the boundaries of the Tohono O’odham Nation. To the tribal members, Baboquivari Peak is the home of I’itoi, their Creator and Elder brother. Pilgrimages to I’itoi’s cave still occur and offerings are left at the cave. The Sacred Peak can be seen from miles away and it provides an ideal location for the Creator to watch over his people.

We love the drive along Route 86, headed towards the observatory. The scenery is beautiful, the view of Baboquivari Peak is stunning and the white buildings of the observatory can be spotted from a distance. On our way there, we start watching the road after we pass Ryan Airfield. On the right in the desert, someone has painted some trees. We have found a red, yellow, purple and blue tree. They brighten up the area and make us smile every time we see them.

The Kitt Peak National Observatory offers visitors the option to drive up the mountain in the daytime or take scheduled evening tours. Over the years, we have visited this site on several occasions and have always chosen to drive up to the observatory in the daytime. The road is well paved, with guardrails, and the drive is pleasant. Along the winding road are many pull-offs and we have stopped at all of them. The scenery of the valleys, the desert, Baboquivari Peak and the mountains is breathtaking.

In 2014, we were surprised when we arrived in the parking lot. We were greeted by a huge, beautiful mural by Michael Chiago, a world-class Tohono O’odham/Pima-Maricopa watercolor artist. We spent the day viewing the exhibits in the visitor center, enjoying the informational videos, walking around the campus, and taking photos of laboratories, telescopes, residences, petroglyphs, and the unbelievable views of the surrounding area. On that day, we also saw a sign that made us smile: “Shh! Scientists Sleeping.”

Travels With Two Sisters:  EXPLORING THE BIG SKIES

Midge Lemay views an outdoor exhibit at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Quinlan Mountains.

We returned to Kitt Peak in the spring of 2018 with friends and, of course, we stopped at all of the pull-offs along the road to look at the spectacular scenery. On this trip, it took us a long time to reach the parking lot due to the thousands of spring flowers we had to stop and take pictures of. An unexpected surprise! Arriving at the top, we were eager to show our friends the Chiago mural, but the rock was painted white. At the visitor center, we learned that a new mural was scheduled to be painted in the upcoming week. On that visit, we explored the visitor center, walked around the campus and scheduled a tour to view one of the telescopes up-close and personal. The tour was informative and offered us the opportunity to ask many questions.

Outside Stewart Observatory

On one of our exploratory trips to the University of Arizona, we located the Steward Observatory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We found the campus landmark, on North Cherry Avenue, by its bright, white dome. Once set in an isolated area of the University, this observatory, established in 1916, is currently surrounded by campus buildings. We spent some time admiring this stately structure with its cream-colored tile and exquisite architectural details. We viewed the observatory, currently used for public outreach and undergraduate general education, from every angle and walked around the grounds. It felt sad that this building is currently obscured from view. Its beauty deserves to be admired.

Travels With Two Sisters:  EXPLORING THE BIG SKIES

A landmark on the University of Arizona campus, the Steward Observatory, with its bright, white dome, was established in 1916 and is, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As noted in a previous article, we also had the opportunity to explore the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. We were thrilled to visit this famous site where Pluto was discovered and where the stuffed Pluto currently resides.

At the moment, we do not have any observatories on our “Places to See” list, but this can change. There are more observatories in close proximity: Mount Graham International Observatory in Safford, a research arm for the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona; Mount Lemmon Sky Center Observatory on East Ski Run Road; and the Tumamoc Hill Observatory, maintained as a student observatory by the University of Arizona.

Watching the sky, night and day, will remain a priority. We will continue to be awed by the spectacular sunrises/sunsets, we will continue to take pictures of the variety of cloud formations, and we will smile every time we see clouds that look like tiny sheep. Oh, and by the way, we will continue to howl at the full moon!

Travels with Two Sisters is a series of adventures in Arizona with Green Valley residents Marie “Midge” Lemay and Suzanne “Sue” Poirier. For more discoveries, check out their first three books: “One Mile at a Time,” “A Gypsy in Our Souls,” and “Connecting Dots.”

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