Saturday, January 12, 2008

Arizona – January 2008 part 1

As promised, here's the first of two posts on my trip to Arizona this week. I actually went to visit our plant in Agua Prieta, Mexico but it’s absolutely beautiful country and I don’t get to go out there very often so I made a special effort to enjoy and document it. In between work stuff, I did a couple touristy activities. Warning! There are a LOT of pictures in the full post. I went a little bit crazy.

But first as a teaser, here’s the San Antonio Airport at O’Dark-Thirty in the morning.

Full post discusses Kratchner Caverns/StatePark and Queen Mine Tour in Bisbee AZ OR “Things to do in Cochise County When You Have a Day to Kill”.

I’ll admit I was a bit concerned when I first boarded the plane for AZ. The flight used the same type of aircraft (Embraer Emb145) we use to go to Monterrey Mexico and those suckers are always really noisy (in an “I can’t sleep b/c it sounds like the plane will fall out of the sky any minute” kinda way). However, ExpressJet apparently keeps them in a bit better condition because it was a nice, quiet flight.

Unfortunately, I got to Arizona a little early. I couldn’t check into my hotel until at least 11am. So I stopped on the way to Sierra Vista at Kratchner State Park and took a tour of the caves there. They have two cave tours (The Big Room & The Throne Room/Rotunda). I did the first one available, the Throne Room/Rotunda.

Kratchner caverns are apparently quite special because they are still “growing” (ie - wet). You have to travel through 3 sets of steel doors just to get in. In one of these sections you have to remove your glasses off so they don’t fog up due to the moisture added to the air. They also did something interesting in that lights were only turned on for very short stretches at a time in order to minimize their impact on the cave. And, for the Throne Room, instead of just pointing and lecturing, this tour had some rows of benches built in and they just played music while the lights went on and off all around the cave. This gave you a real appreciation for the structures without being preachy. In a couple of spots, all the lights were out for brief moments which I found a little disconcerting. Overall, the tour was very cool and the tour guide managed to be interesting, funny and knowledgeable. However, they don’t allow cameras in the caves so you’re just going to have to trust me.

To make up for the lack of cave pictures, I drove around the park for about 10-15 minutes getting pictures of the scenery. Most of the park is only accessible via hiking trail. I actually considered hiking a bit until I came to the bulletin board at the trail base. “How to Survive In Mountain Lion Country” was all the convincing I needed to snap pictures within sight of the parking lot. From a little past the trail base, you can look into the main mountains of the park:

Along the trail, there were tons of rather large prickly pear cacti. We have these in Texas but the “leaves” don’t get quite so big. Here’s one with my hand for scale:

As is typical the hiking trail was lined with rocks. But someone (perhaps intentionally) included several rocks with flecks of mica. These sparkled wonderfully in the sunlight and I expect it would make them easier to find in the dark.

From the park to Sierra Vista, there’s a panoramic dream of scenery. I snapped a few photos while driving (which I in no way recommend and only should do it when there’s not another car in sight). Arizona State Highway 90, going South:

In a weird change of pace, the upholstery in my hotel room was pretty tame. Perhaps Southwestern aesthetics lean toward some restraint in this area? The only potential candidate for my pattern collection was this golden bedspread:

Even the drapes were drab. I can usually count on those for absolute interior decorating insanity.

After checking in with the plant, I had a whole afternoon to kill. So I decided to drive about half-way to the US border which just happened to be the town of Bisbee which just happened to have a tour of the historic Queen Mine which just happened to be starting about the time that I got to Bisbee. Yep, that’s my story...

Bisbee is a former mining boom-town that now makes its bread and butter in tourism. It’s certainly picturesque.

And due to the ores present, the surrounding hills are all the colors of the rainbow.

The Queen Mine Underground Tours
is in Bisbee right off the Hwy 80 (less than 50 yards from the road). The visitor’s center is the embodiment of rustic inside-&-out. It doesn’t even have restrooms inside; they’re in a separate building (and when I say “building” I mean “unheated brick construction of indeterminate age”).

They do have some historical markers and old-school prospecting equipment lying around outside if you want to wander the parking lot.

This is not a tour for the faint of heart. You have to sign a safety waiver when you purchase your ticket and they hand out equipment for you to wear during the tour. You don’t even get to put it on yourself; they do it for you! For example:

I’m really glad they give you hard hats. I hit my head twice. No damage or anything but those things are 100% necessary (no matter how dorky they make you look).

The railway you ride into the mine isn’t your typical tourist set-up either. It’s on rails but you have to straddle a padded bench seat that runs the length of each car. Why? Because the tunnels aren’t wide enough for a regular-sized tram. Going into the mine, you can definitely understand why the railcars are so thin:

There’s 3 stops inside the mine. Each is at a deeper point. The first isn’t that impressive to look at:

It’s just a side tunnel. But what makes it interesting is the tour guide's explanation. This is a type of tunnel called a "mildred"; it is a hand-made tunnel of quite specific dimensions. Very rough cut looking and it goes back a good distance.

The second stop involved getting off the tram something like a lo-tech subway station (all wooden timbers and rock walls). You go up a flight of stairs to enter into a “stope”. These openings are man-made, where ore was removed over the years until it forms a huge room. The guide pointed out different types of rock and explained how the miners worked. Here he is explaining a type of drilling device:

This is a close-up of the rock formation you see behind him in the above picture.

The center gray material is something called galena, a lead-rich ore. The outer layers are hematite, an iron-rich rock (I think). I couldn’t get a picture but they also had some beautiful streaks of green malachite in the ceiling. Here’s the stairs back to the tram:

Along the tracks, there were occasional side tunnels or shafts leading down.

The final stop was at a large branching off point. Our guide pointed out one tunnel labeled “for tour guides only”. He said it was the evacuation/ventilation tunnel in case something caved in while we were down there which was..good to know. Several other side tunnels were roped off:

I’m not quite sure they needed signs to tell them that there was no track in a tunnel? Also, at various points they had signs up reading “Surface This Way” (just in case you get lost).

At the last stop, we walked down a side tunnel with tons of different kinds of equipment which the guide explained how was used when the mine was operational. Here’s him explaining how they set charges to blast out a new tunnel:

And here’s a picture of the cage elevator used to lower 8 men at a time down almost half-a-mile!

There’s a side room to the left of the cage which had different kinds of loading equipment and something that got a real laugh. Here’s an early 1900’s version of the porta-potty:

Seriously, if you were in a freezing cold mine would you really want to use a metal toilet? That could not be comfortable. Off to the side was another tunnel which had caved in about 80 ft in. Then our guide asked us to all turn out lights off so we could understand how someone could go blind working down there. We were in total darkness for about a minute with the guide talking and then we all quickly turned our Edison lamps back on.

On the ride out, I noticed lots of streaks of yellow (sulfur) in the walls of the tunnels but I couldn’t get a good photo because we were going too fast.

I would just like to that the Queen Mine tour-guide was exceptional. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t get his name. At first he was a little hard to understand but once he got going, WOW. He had worked for 30yrs as a miner so in addition to the required knowledge about the older equipment and the history of this mine, he made a lot of comparisons between older versus modern practices and provided lots of historical context for this particular mine’s history. He also handled questions very well.

Overall this tour was just a little bit scary but well worth it. While the Kratchner caverns were perfectly satisfactory, this tour was easily the best experience of my trip (and less expensive at $13 with tax).

So ended my first day in Arizona...

In my next post for this trip: La Frontera, Bisbee’s Lavender Pit Mine, Scenic Arizona and Wacky Hotel Patterns from Tucson (jackpot!).
Link to part 2.

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