Fun With Missiles And Mythical Creatures In The Desert Southwest

It turns out that there are lots of things to do in the Phoenix area besides getting a new knee, golf tournaments, Super Bowls, Spring Training, NASCAR racing, and live music. We made a short trip to Las Vegas, I went to the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson, and in Phoenix, there are always friends and relatives to see as well.

Titan Missile Museum

Last week, I described how I finally visited and enjoyed the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale. For the last 10 years, the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson, about 2 hours drive away, has also been on my radar, so to speak. The museum features the only remaining Minuteman II missile defense silo, a relic from the Cold War which operated from the mid-Sixties until the mid-Eighties.

The Titan II missile originally in the silo (the current one was never operational) could deliver a 9-megaton atomic warhead to any of 3 pre-programmed locations. Each bomb had a blast radius of up 20 miles, enough to wipe out many cities around the globe. The power of the warhead evidently terrified the Soviet Union enough to bring them to the bargaining table and lead to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II), which was formalized in 1979.

Per the terms of SALT II, all 54 Titan Missile sites, clustered near Tucson, Little Rock, and Wichita, were to be imploded. It took nearly two years of negotiation for the US to be allowed to keep one site near Tucson as a museum. The terms included that the roof of the silo had to be locked half-open so that the Soviets could confirm it was incapable of being a threat.

Although there are some interesting artifacts, the real prizes are the missile in the silo and the control room, which are only accessible by a good 45-minute tour for $20pp. Aside from getting a lot of info about the installation and its place in history, the docents go over what it was like to be part of the 4 member crew. Then they lead the group through a reenactment of the launch sequence. For a space nerd like me, it was definitely worth the 5-hour round trip drive from Scottsdale.

Vegas Side Trip

We chose to spend a couple of nights in Las Vegas for a very specific purpose: to reclaim Diana’s grandfather’s passport, which we had left in storage. She believed it would allow her to acquire an Austrian passport, which would give us tremendous travel privileges. Alas, once she got it, she learned it wouldn’t work for that purpose. At least our trip to the storage box was less challenging than our prior visit, even though it rained on us. And a side trip to Vegas is seldom a total waste.

The 5+ hour drive to Las Vegas is not to be taken lightly. Less than half is on Interstate highways. The majority of the roads are two lanes and you need your wits about you as you try to pass laggards or someone else is coming at you head-on in your lane. The route has some scenic parts, but I’m not aware of anyone taking it for that.

Diana got us a room via at The Jockey Club timeshare resort in the middle of the Strip. We enjoyed the fountain show next door at the Bellagio and some uncooked fish at Sushi Roku in Caesar’s Palace. We also went to Pizza Rock in Henderson, which makes great pies in many different styles (think Naples, NY, California, Detroit, Grandma…). They have ovens set to different temps to dial in the right conditions for each. The only style I didn’t see on the menu was Chicago Deep Dish.

Bighorn Sheep Exist!

For probably 20 years, we’ve been taunted by various viewing platforms on mountain highways. Come here, they say. Use our free binoculars to view bighorn sheep in the wild, they say. So, we pull over and scan the hills. Nothing. Nada. Rien. We had pretty much reached a conclusion that it was all some cruel hoax foisted on unsuspecting tourists to lure us out of our cars to steal the contents. Either the sheep were in cahoots, snickering, hiding behind some boulders, kicking rocks at us. Or these were in fact mythical creatures, like unicorns.

Returning from Las Vegas, at Hoover Dam, we encountered another area where such cruel deeds were perpetrated. While we enjoyed going out on the new-ish dam bypass bridge, we were taunted by the sheep yet again. We drove off, chalking it up to another being another con. But… just as we were getting back on the freeway, I spotted them! Actual bighorn sheep, not far away! Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop for long as I was about to be blocking traffic. We were able to snap off a few shots, shown below. You may not believe me, maybe we’re now in cahoots. Maybe I’m just presenting a deep fake. You can decide whether to embrace my tale or file it next to those big foot photos.

Car Rental

I think it may be helpful to tell a bit about our car rental experience in Phoenix. We don’t own a car, and the Valley Of The Sun is not really conducive to public transport. Like many airports, the facility taxes they charge can be quite high. Since we were going to be renting cars for 2 months, I chose another path you might benefit from.

Although the rental rate I was charged was the same, by choosing to rent from a local office in Scottsdale versus renting at the airport for the whole time, I was able to cut 30% of my rental by not paying the airport tax. In this case, I rented for 2 days at the airport and turned in the car at the local office, and planned to pick a cheaper, consecutive rental there. As it happened, we really liked the original car, and the local office was willing to let us keep it, even though it would have cost a lot more to reserve it directly. I should add that we did something similar in the Bay Area in December. In that case, we took an Uber to the local office to avoid drop-off charges from SFO. Again, big savings.

Our G80 was a sweet ride for 2 months.

Couldn’t Stand The Weather

Although the weather wasn’t as bad as a Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas storm, it was certainly colder than we expected. The first week with Super Bowl and the Phoenix Open was decent and a bit deceiving. Subsequent weeks had near-freezing mornings and snow-capped hills by our condo.

Unless we are seeking out some snow to ski on, we prefer warm weather. 85F is ideal if the humidity isn’t too high. Even a dry 100-110F is fine, as we have experienced in the summer. For this stay, typical daily highs were in the low 60s. The weather didn’t start to turn nice until it was time to leave. Note to future self: bring warmer clothing if we wanna catch more Spring Training ball games.

Cost of Housing and Food

Another bit of a gut punch came from the housing and dining costs. Our unremarkable 2 bedroom Scottsdale condo was quite expensive. Snowbirds have returned and many places are chasing higher dollars via AirBnB. Cheap hotel rooms are hard to come by, as well. Off-season is looking better to us all the time.

The same was true with dining. Some of the menu prices were downright shocking. Prices in the grocery stores were generally better than I have seen elsewhere in the US. And although many places offer happy hours daily, I’m less enticed about saving $2 on a $14 cocktail than they might expect. Still, we were able to find some good food that didn’t feel like we were breaking the bank.


Another benefit of staying in a vacation spot for an extended time is getting together with folks. We enjoyed catching up with friends and relatives. We are also active in a Facebook group of active or even nomadic travelers, like ourselves. Staying a spell in this vacation spot allowed us to make or renew friendships with this group. These are people we wind up sharing experiences with as we all cross the globe. We all learn and grow from these relationships as we meet up. It’s a great benefit of our lifestyle.

One encounter worth mentioning is a get-together we had at Pizzeria Bianco, which was made recently made even more famous in the Netflix series Chef’s Table: Pizza. The owner, Chris Bianco, is credited with seriously elevating pizza in America with his original shop in Phoenix. We met some friends there and oohed and aahed over the pies we shared. While you can now get a great pie in many places, visiting Pizzeria Bianco seemed similar to having a meal at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It’s always great to experience a trend where it started. Mangia!

What rare creatures have you spotted in the wild?

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  1. My son Scott and I visited the Titan II silo last year. For a person who lived through the entire Cold War/ Nuclear war drills it was really worth the time. This was the real deal. It was ready to carry out its Mutual Destruction duties 24/7. The real thing, not a training mockup.
    While rafting down the Colorado River I woke up one morning and went down to the river to brush my teeth. Directing across the river in full sunshine ( I was on the shady side) was a full curl Desert Bighorn ram in full broadside. Have you ever tried to call to the others on the trip with a mouthful of toothpaste? Everyone eventually got to see it.

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