The First Visit
We first heard of the Arizona Sky Village at the Whirlpool Star Party in Birr last year (2002), and decided we would like to be a part of it. We reserved some lots but wanted to see it for ourselves before making a final commitment. I had been to Arizona many times when working for the Royal Greenwich Observatory, but wasn't familiar with Portal or the surrounding area. Lesley had not been to the USA before. Our trip lasted a week and included a bit of sight-seeing, partly to give us time to get over our jet lag and partly to check out other attractions that would appeal to visitors to the sky village.
Arizona is a great place to visit and these are just a taste of the things on offer. We recommend it strongly for anyone who likes a holiday with lots to do. Apart from being a Mecca for astronomers, bird-watchers, aircraft enthusiasts and sun-seekers, it offers a wide range of activities for the whole family.
We flew to Phoenix with British Airways from Heathrow. This is a very convenient flight, leaving at lunch-time and arriving in Phoenix just in time to collect a hire car and get to a nearby hotel as it gets dark. Our flight was in a Boeing 777 and was very comfortable.
We stayed one night in Phoenix at the Hampton Inn, then left early the next morning to drive down to Tucson. This takes about an hour and three quarters but we took a detour to visit the Biosphere. We had booked a light aircraft for a sight-seeing tour in the afternoon so didn't have time to take a tour of the Biosphere. We just stayed long enough for a few photos, coffee and Danish, and decided to return the next day.
Flying with Double Eagle
I had flown several times with Double Eagle, a flying school based at Tucson International Airport, but my US licence had lapsed. I knew I wouldn't have time to renew it so we booked an instructor to fly with us. Our instructor was Bill Pfeiffer who had recently moved from New York to Tucson. We asked him to take us to Kitt Peak so we headed west over the enormous mines and across the Indian reservation. Being new to the area, Bill was a bit cautious about flying too close to Kitt Peak but we got some good photos.
The Boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base
As we headed back to Tucson, Bill asked air traffic control if we could overfly the boneyard. This is an enormous military park where spare and retired aircraft are stored in the open. The view from the air is most impressive with hundreds of aircraft lined up like Dinky toys. As we flew between Tucson International and the boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base we could see the Pima Air Museum. This is on a similar scale to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and we decided to go there after landing.
Before going to the air museum we needed to eat, and Lesley wanted a photo of a Wendy's restaurant for her daughter Wendy, so we ate at Wendy's. I first visited the Pima Air Museum about 15 years ago when it was little more than a scrap yard. It's been interesting to watch it develop and it's now a first-class visitor attraction.
Where did you get that hat?
It was Rodeo week in Tucson so when we went out to eat on Saturday night at Pinnacle Peak, a cowboy restaurant, we found the main street in Trail Dust Town was filled with stalls and a stage where country and western music was being performed. We booked tables at Pinnacle Peak then bought ourselves cowboy hats while we waited for our tables.
Pinnacle Peak serves enormous steaks cooked over Mesquite wood. They are delicious but if you go there, don't wear a tie. The rafters are festooned with ties that have been cut off by the staff and hung as trophies. Several people had their ties ritually removed while we were there.
The next day, Sunday, we returned to the Biosphere and took the tours, including going inside the glass houses and around the 'back-stage' area. In case you haven't heard of the Biosphere, it is an enormous green-house that was set up as a sealed environment in which half a dozen people would attempt to live. It was meant to be a prototype of the kind of habitat that might be created on the Moon. It is now used as a controlled environment where scientists can study plants whilst varying the climate.
After leaving the Biosphere we drove to the Old Tucson Studios. The road passes through a mountain pass with spectacular views over the desert so we stopped to take photos on the way. Old Tucson is a western style town that has been used for many years as a film set and you will almost certainly have seen it if you've ever watched a western. It is still used for filming occasionally but is mostly a tourist attraction where gunfights are re-enacted and western style music shows are performed live in the Grand Palace Saloon. Great fun, especially for kids of all ages.
On Sunday evening we ate at a Sushi Bar then turned in for an early night.
I10 through the Dragoon Mountains
On Monday morning we set off along Interstate 10 for Portal and the Sky Village. Once clear of the cities the highways are not too crowded and driving is easy. Cruise control makes it all seem so effortless, and it also helps you keep to the speed limit. Most people did stick to the speed limit but one car overtook us at speed just where a police car was hiding in a dip in the central reservation.
I watched the police car in the rear-view mirror as he pulled onto the road and gave chase. He quickly overhauled the speeding car and was booking him by the time we passed them. We decided we would continue to obey the speed limits.
Approaching the ASV
We stopped for a late breakfast at the Desert Rose in Wilcox. This is close to the Dos Cabezas Mountains which are a significant landmark along the way. Portal lies off the interstate highway and there is a short cut along the Foothills Road from San Simon. However, we had been advised to stay on the interstate as far as the town of Road Forks then to take Highway 80 to Portal. As you drive down Highway 80 there is a long straight stretch that points straight at Cave Creek Canyon and the Sky Village. We stopped here to take photos.
Portal Peak Loodge
The turning for Portal was well signed and we turned at 'the Corner' onto the Portal Road. This was being resurfaced but we weren't held up by the roadworks and soon reached Portal. Portal is a very small place with a population of 80 according to one of the local Realty companies (estate agents). At first sight this seems like an exaggeration as Portal mostly consists of a general store, a post office and the Portal Peak Lodge, where we were staying. However, there are houses dotted about in the woods.
Entering the post office is like stepping through a time warp, but the staff were friendly and helpful. We checked into the lodge then had lunch at the restaurant attached to the general store while we waited for Eugene to join us. He took us for a ride into Cave Creek Canyon to show us the first view point and the nature research station. The valley is really beautiful with lots of bird song, even in the middle of the afternoon. The rock formations are superb and it is a great place to go walking and birding.
Back at the Village
After our brief visit to the Canyon we went to see Jack and Alice at the Sky Village. They are living in the house that will become the community centre for the Sky Village. Jack has his 16" LX200 there at present but he plans to install a 30" computerised telescope in due course. We also met Leigh-Ann who is the financial controller for the project, and Phil from Tampa who will have a house at the Sky Village.
Eugene had a Coronado H-alpha filter mounted on a TeleVue 101 so we spent some time looking at flares on the Sun's surface before having Dinner at Jack's. It had been cloudy most of the day and we'd had to watch the Sun through gaps in the cloud, but by the time it got dark the sky had cleared. We had a good view of the Zodiacal light which stands out very clearly against the dark sky background.
As we browsed the sky it was amazing to see Praesepe looking almost as bright as we normally see the Pleiades. We spent some time observing with Jack's 16" before returning to the Portal Peak Lodge
Drilling for water not oil
The next day we had a late breakfast then went back to Jack's for discussions with Eugene and a visit to the plots that we've reserved.
We then went to see Jack's plot and his new house that was sitting on the backs of two enormous trailers. The house is factory-built and is virtually complete, with a fully-fitted kitchen and curtains at the windows. It was to be installed the following week and would be set on raised foundations and finished in 'adobe style'.
Nearby, a drilling rig was sinking a well for water. It had reached 220 feet but the local 'water witch' had predicted water at 280 feet.
On the way to Portal we had seen what looked like an air-strip, more or less where one was marked on my chart, so we went to investigate. The strip seemed to be deserted until a rather large Alsatian dog came out to meet us. At first we decided to stay in the car but the dog came up and wagged its tail, so Lesley opened the window and allowed it to lick her face. It proved to be very friendly, as did its owner who was working in the hanger.
The dog's name is Taggart and his owner is Rick Chamberlain.
Rick and his wife are both flying instructors and had just moved from Tucson. They maintain aircraft and offer scenic flights and flying instruction. On our next visit I plan to revalidate my licence with Rick then hire his two-seat Cessna 152 to explore the area. He also has a six-seat Cessna 307 that he uses to take people on scenic flights. Prices are very cheap compared with the UK.
Afterwards, we drove to Douglas on the Mexican border for a meal. We passed two monuments to Geronimo which reminded us that this is Apache territory and the stomping ground of many notable Indian chiefs, including Cochise, after whom the county is named.
Along the way we came across two coyotes in the road. They loped off into the scrub but we didn't manage to get their photos. Having seen road runners already we were delighted to see coyotes to complete the set.
In Douglas we drove alongside the border which is marked by a flood-lit high metal fence, but we didn't cross into Mexico on this occasion. We rejected the usual fast food restaurants and chose a small Chinese restaurant which turned out to be very good.
The trip back to Portal was uneventful and we arrived back at the lodge about 10:30 pm.
Deer in Portal
That night it snowed on the Chiricahua Mountains so we took lots of photos next morning. We also had a wander round Portal taking photos of birds, including two bright red cardinals that posed for us.
Two deer came clattering down the road then turned off into the scrub where they settled to graze. We got close enough to get some good photos.
After a light breakfast we went back to Jack's where we observed several stars in full daylight, including Vega, Deneb and Albireo. I could only make out the brighter component of Albireo but it's reassuring to see that the stars really are there all the time!
In the afternoon we visited Hatch Realty to check local land prices. This confirmed that the prices being asked for plots at the Sky Village are very reasonable.
In the evening we had dinner with Eugene, Leigh-Ann and Janet. Janet is a designer who had just arrived after a delayed flight into El Paso. After dinner we paid our bill and bought a few last gifts so that we could get an early start the next day.
The deer are quite used to people and were just on the outskirts of Portal when this picture was taken
Heading for Home
When the next morning arrived we were surprised to find the car iced up and the deck between the two rows of lodge rooms treacherously icy. As the Sun came up the ice quickly disappeared. We took the short cut along the Foothills Road back to San Simon. This saves about half an hour if you don't keep stopping to look at spectacular birds of prey like we did.
As we passed through the Dragoon Mountains we stopped for a few last photos. The rock formations are impressive but it was a bit cold and windy so we didn't linger long.
We had allowed plenty of time for the return to Phoenix but hadn't planned anything to fill in the spare time. As we drove through Tucson I offered to show Lesley the Gemini Project office as she had often dealt with people there. We had intended just to drive by but decided to call in to see if anyone was still around that we knew.
We were delighted to find that Larry Stepp was still there as the manager of the 30m Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope project which is housed in the old Gemini offices. Larry was the manager responsible for the Gemini optics so we had worked very closely with him. He seemed just as pleased to see us and gave Lesley a quick tour. There were a few old friends in the office, including Naomi who had only been a voice on the end of a telephone for Lesley. She was very pleased to meet her at last.
We had chosen a good day and Larry was able to join us for lunch at Eric's, one of our old haunts close to the university. Larry was very interested to hear about the Sky Village as he has always been a keen amateur astronomer and his wife is a keen birder. After lunch we still needed to get some presents so Larry left us at Miller's Store where we spent too much time and money before heading off for Phoenix.
We didn't have the Phoenix map to hand as we approached it and planned to stop to get it out of the boot (sorry, trunk). Before we had the opportunity we found ourselves at the Skyport where we followed the signs for Dollar car rental return. The courtesy bus soon had us in the terminal where we checked in then did some more shopping. (Some people never know when to stop!)
The flight back was as comfortable as the flight out and we managed to get some sleep before arriving back at Heathrow on time the next day. Lesley's husband, John, met us and we arrived home in the late afternoon.
The trip only lasted a week but we managed to fit in a lot and to achieve all our aims. We confirmed that the Sky Village was everything that we had hoped it would be and more. There is a lot to do in the area around the Sky Village so it will prove a popular destination for couples and families that want to combine astronomy with other activities such as walking and birding.
Because it was Lesley's first visit to America we were able to assess how easy it would be for a first-time visitor to cope with the driving and other novel experiences. We also collected a lot of useful information and experience that will allow us to give first-hand advice to customers visiting the Sky Village.
Our visit confirmed that Green Witch will have a presence in the Sky Village and will be able to offer holiday accommodation for anyone wanting clear dark skies in one of the world's best observing areas. We plan to develop some plots, each of which will have a single-storey, high-quality house fitted out for comfortable living and high-quality astronomy.
Our timescales depend on the rate at which the village develops, but we have started looking at houses with a view to taking delivery of the first one to coincide with the arrival of the road and services at our plots. This could be in a year's time so we may be able to offer holidays from next summer (2004).
Don't forget that the Sky Village is a lot further south than the UK and there is a lot less difference between the length of summer and winter nights.
In the meantime we are looking at the option of renting some of the first houses to be built in the sky village. This would provide us with a base when visiting the village to check progress and deal with local arrangements, and would allow us to offer holiday accommodation much earlier. Watch this space!!
If you are interested in taking a holiday with Green Witch, we have lots of photos of the area and you are welcome to visit the showroom to see these.
Arizona has long been a Mecca for astronomers and there are many major observatories in the mountains, including Kitt Peak which used to be known as the astronomy capital of the world. Here are links to some interesting sites: