• Image about Tucson
Visitors from around the world are drawn to the red rocks and rugged desert landscape of Sedona.
Photo by Allan Montaine/Lonely Planet Images

There’s an otherworldly appeal deep in the Arizona desert … but it’s not a mirage.

As I gaze in the distance, a hot blast of wind and dust whips across my face, clouding my vision. My eyes tear up as I strain to see. What is that scrawny creature tucked into the shadow? The blistering desert sun doesn’t help. I move closer, then watch a gangly coyote emerge from the underbelly of an airplane fuselage and amble away. For just a moment, this seems like his natural habitat. A typical desert scene. Until I look around and regain my senses.

I have come to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Ariz. — better known as the boneyard. It’s the American military’s only aircraft-storage site and the largest of its kind in the U.S. More than 4,000 aircraft rest here now, as far as the eye can see. No, even farther.

Covering four square miles and chosen for its dry climate and hard ground, the boneyard is an aviation lover’s dream, including everything from B-1 bombers to C-9 medevacs and aging stars: a helicopter that ferried former President Dwight Eisenhower; an A-4 Skyhawk, the type of plane once piloted by then Navy Cdr. John McCain; and the last chopper to leave Saigon, in 1975. Some will be used for parts, some will be refurbished and used again, some will be converted into drones, and others will end up in museums (including the nearby Pima Air & Space Museum).

Much like an ancient city or ancient burial ground, the Tucson boneyard transports you back in time and overwhelms you with its hard-to-grasp magnitude. Lined up side by side and nose to tail in the blinding desert light, the parked machines create an eerie, otherworldly feeling, one that can make you wonder just where exactly you’ve landed.

That landing pad is Arizona, which is both a geographic entity and a vision-inducing state of mind. This strange, often overheated locale can play tricks with your sense of reality — or at least it’s done so with mine. It’s a state that often leaves you wondering about the curious concoction of geology and history that defines its identity.

* * *

You’ve probably gathered that this is not yet another travel story about beautiful spas, fine resorts and restaurants. Yes, Arizona — just like California, Florida, Texas and other warm-weather destinations — has them aplenty. But after five years of living here, I’m on the hunt to capture the state’s less obvious magnetic pull, to identify its underlying ethos, the singular and mysterious qualities that make it unlike anywhere else.

Let’s begin with first principles: I’m drawn by the state’s uncommon rugged beauty — diverse desert vistas peppered with iconic saguaro cactus and prickly jumping cholla, painted rock and jagged mountains, petrified forests and grassy flatlands, grand and wondrous canyons. And I am inspired by the vast open landscapes that lie only minutes from population centers such as Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff — living, evolving topography that powerfully reminds you that this was once the bottom of the sea, a place where lava flowed and dinosaurs roamed, a vibrant land long before man set foot on earth. Right before your eyes is an intriguing window into a world that exists between the known and the unknown.

While Arizona’s special quality is tied to nature and geography and visions of prehistoric times, it’s also influenced by exotica of the man-made world. Not many miles down the road from Tucson’s boneyard, I begin to feel a strong sense of dread as we approach the Titan Missile Museum, a dramatic reminder of the terrible possibilities that America faced during the Cold War era — the threat of MAD, or mutual assured destruction. This silo, the only Titan II silo still open for viewing, housed one of America’s 54 active nuclear missiles. Amazingly, 18 active nuclear silos were based around Tucson.

Before our guide leads us down and inside the missile’s command center, we gaze through a ground-level glass window at the missile, 103 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, still placed in launch position. The guide explains that the missile possessed 9 megatons of firepower, “more explosive capacity than all the bombs that were dropped during World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” It’s a relief to hear that it was deactivated in 1982 and to later learn that several other of the Tucson sites now house, for example, a fitness center and a Methodist church.

We descend the steel stairs into the silo. “You are about to enter the strongest structure you’ll ever be in,” our guide says, showing us the
  • Image about Tucson
3-ton door and the 8-foot-thick walls. Our group arrives inside the launch command center, a room lined with push buttons and clocks and the green glow of 1960s-era lighting and design. A new guide takes over, then picks my 9-year-old daughter, Katrina, to sit in the commander’s seat.

We enter the alternate universe of Dr. Strangelove: The guide pushes a series of buttons, then locks eyes with Katrina. “Commander!” he barks at her. “We’re ready to launch! Turn the key!” Normally a sweet and compassionate girl, Katrina twists the key, and we all learn that 58 seconds later, the missile would be heading to its foreign target, the first stage in the final verdict of a MAD world. “The crew did not know, and we do not know even today, what the targets were,” he tells me later. “The big picture was farther up the line.”

Sumner Hayward, another Titan volunteer guide, was a commander at one of the Kansas missile sites in the late ’60s. “I think we realized the enormity of what we had to do,” he tells me, explaining that he was happy to exit the job after four years. Ironically, the crew’s main purpose was to “do nothing,” he says, not an easy task for an energetic 25-year-old. Luckily, Hayward never had to turn the key.