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Arizona March 2000 Previous

Fort Huachuca

My first night in Gertie was chilly. The bedclothes were warm enough, but when I got up the next morning, it was something like 48° F. inside. I fired up the furnace and the catalytic heater under the table (being careful to open a couple of vents so the catatytic heater wouldn't eat up all the oxygen and leave none for me), and within about twenty minutes it was much more comfortable—around 60°.Bathroom It doesn't take long to heat a space this small! The cat heater is of course silent, but the furnace blower is surprisingly noisy; I hope it didn't wake the neighbors! I'll have to see how loud it is outside the rig one of these mornings.

Taking my first shower was something of an adventure. Of course the bathroom is pretty small to begin with, and Gary and Judie had never actually used the shower—they always took sponge baths or used campground showers—so they had been using the shower stall for storage. So before doing anything I had to remove all the stuff from the shower. Then I turned on the faucets in the tiny sink and got the water to a comfortable temperature. That wasn't hard, since the water heater is only a few feet away and it produces very hot water, albeit only six gallons at a time. But I have yet to run out in mid-shower, so I must be doing OK.

Maybe someday I'll learn to take sponge baths when boondocking, but right now it's hard to imagine getting really clean that way...and what about washing my hair? I have never been able to adequately wash my hair in a sink (even a normal-sized one, let alone the midget sink in Gertie's bathroom), and with my oily scalp it's something that has to be done daily. I don't know whether sponge bathing will ever be practical for me—but then I'm speaking from a whole three days of experience living in an RV, so what do I know? ;-)


Up and about

One thing I like about Sierra Vista is that there's always a blimp in sight when I wake up. In fact, the Fort Huachuca aerostat always flies at about 10,000 feet, a large white shape resembling a barrage balloon with a big belly. The belly bulge is a radome—the aerostat is a surveillance radar system used to watch for drug runners coming across the Mexican border, or so I'm told. Be that as it may, I'm cheered by the sight of that bulbous white blimp hovering morning, noon and night. It doesn't look very big at that distance, but it's a whopper—my friend Bev says that it's at least 175 feet long, twice the size of the Goodyear blimps! (You can read more about the "Tethered Aerostat Radar System" if you're curious.)

The US Army's Fort Huachuca is the main employer in Sierra Vista—though at the rate the town is growing, service-industry employees may soon outnumber those who work at the Fort. It's home to the Army's Intelligence Center and the 11th Signal Brigade, which specializes in electronic intelligence gathering.

Bev Parks

Beverly Parks, a friend of Judie's and mine from the Digital Camera Resource Page and proprietor of the Desert Aura website that documents the towns in this part of southeastern Arizona, works at the fort as manager of a software project. Late this morning Bev met us in her SUV and took us out to one of the more remote parts of the Fort—Garden Canyon—for a picnic lunch that Judie had put together.

It was so quiet! Oh, there were a few birds singing, but not the incessant chirping-and-twittering din of New Jersey wildlife. I loved the stillness and the view of the mountains—still white-capped from a recent snowfall.


As we were driving into the hills, someone asked me how all this looked to the eyes of an easterner. It was a legitimate question. My hosts are used to the broad, dry expanses of desert here. (Bev, for example, has lived here for more than twenty years, although ironically she came from a town in New Jersey not twenty miles from where I live.) They were naturally curious about how this looked to someone who's used to a very different kind of terrain. I was unprepared for the question and didn't have anything very profound to offer, I'm afraid.

Part of my reticence was because my immediate reaction was the clichéed adjective "barren." I'm not sure why I felt this way...after all, I have visited and photographed the American southwest before (though not since 1975), and I'm not unaware of the desert's peculiar beauty. But somehow I was having trouble seeing it this morning.


Let's look at the bottom half of that mountain picture above...the foreground that I cropped out. To my eyes, this is pretty bleak, scrubby land. (Click on either panorama to see the whole picture.)

Prickly thing

It's easy to like mountains, with their spectacularly varied terrain, biomes and weather. It's also fairly easy to like rolling desert dunes (as at White Sands), although they don't hold one's interest as long as mountains do.

It's a lot harder to like chaparral and scrub. To an easterner, this scene carries connotations that are uniformly negative: parched, denuded, barren, dried up. The reaction is natural and understandable—where I come from, any patch of land that looks like this is in deep trouble. To an easterner, this arid vista of sand and dry, stunted-looking plants says "Something's wrong here!"

To Gary, the east looks "infested with plants." To me, the southwest looks denuded of them. Both points of view are wrong, of course...but it's hard to throw off the influence of my normal surroundings and see this place for what it is: a land that has minimal rainfall, with plants, animals and people that prefer it that way—just as I prefer New Jersey's lush vegetation to the few and often hostile plants here. Perhaps a few seasons spent here would change that, as the desert ambience slowly sank in...I don't know.

Ration stamps

The Fort Huachuca Museum

After we finished lunch, Bev took us back into the populated part of the fort and we spent a couple of hours in the Fort Huachuca Museum. I was surprised by how interesting it was. I'm not generally a big history buff, but the everyday artifacts from the past were fascinating: combs, toothbrushes, letters to families and sweethearts back home, ration stamps from WWII...

The soldiers here mounted a number of unsuccessful expeditions in search of the Mexican bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa, but they never caught him. His gaudy silver spurs ended up in the Fort museum, though—a trophy of the one that got away.

Pancho Villa's spurs

One display was devoted to Geronimo (the troops here spent a lot of time fighting him), and impressed me by offering a variety of widely divergent viewpoints. Some white military men said Geronimo was a rascal; some said they had great respect for him as a cunning warrior and strategist. Some native Americans said he was the savior of their people; others that he was nothing better than a gangster and an opportunist. It made me wonder where the truth lay.

In the Museum store I found a pleasant older woman behind the counter, whom I took for German from her accent. Accordingly, I dropped a German word here and there while counting my change, and was soon able to engage her in a limited but enjoyable conversation. My German, like my other foreign languages, is really quite poor (though my accent is still good)—but I get such pleasure from using it! Mindful of the cold night in Gertie, I bought a t-shirt to sleep in, and a couple of ceramic tiles decorated with hummingbirds (common hereabouts)—one for myself and one for Carol Phillips, as a gift for taking care of Marie while I'm gone.