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Weekend Escape: Arizona

Hotel Biosphere

Dreaming of space travel amid the earthy charms of the Sonoran Desert

October 25, 1998|THERESE K. LEE | Lee is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

ORACLE, Ariz. — "Wake up," my husband said. "You should see the view."

It was Saturday morning, six hours after we had stumbled into our hotel room at midnight. Our flight from LAX to Tucson had been 2 1/2 hours late, and I was feeling guilty about dragging my family to Southern Arizona in the early September heat. Alex, 14, and Rebecca, 12, buried themselves deeper under their covers, determined to ignore us.

"Let's go jogging tomorrow," I said.

"Come on," Mark persisted. "You'll love it."

I got up and opened the curtains a crack. The Santa Catalina Mountains, rosy gray in the dawn, dominated the view. Half a dozen hawks patrolled the valley that swept up to the mountains. Off to the right, I could see--worthy of a science fiction movie--a large white dome, one of two "lungs" of Biosphere 2, our base for the weekend.

I pulled on my jogging clothes and we crept out of the room. The morning air was filled with the scent of the Sonoran Desert. We started off down one of the many roads and paths that make up the hilly grounds of Biosphere 2. Once a grand experiment in colonizing other planets, Biosphere 2 (biosphere 1 is Earth) now is run by Columbia University. The compound includes a hotel and conference center. To encourage visitors in the off-season, they offer an attractive package that includes room, meals and tour tickets. (Now, from October through May, the package price has gone up $50 per day.)

Finding a weekend trip for adolescents is not easy. They want "real" experiences but still don't have an adult's love of scenery. They enjoy science, but beware anything that smacks of a classroom. I was hoping Biosphere 2 would please everyone and go easy on the budget.

*

The structure is impressive: a 3.15-acre pyramid of more than 6,000 windows flanked by arches and domes. Mark and I circled the building, admiring the dense rain forest pressing against the glass from the inside, the desert habitat and the "ocean" with its coral reef. It looked like it was going to be an interesting tour. We got the kids up and walked down to continental breakfast at the compound's Cyber Cafe. Since it included bagels and cream cheese, Alex and Rebecca were happy. We dawdled to surf the Internet on the cafe computers.

The tour was a three-quarter-mile walk around the campus, starting with a film giving a brief history of the project. Funded by Texas billionaire Ed Bass, Biosphere 2 was conceived to find out if a sealed, self-sustaining environment could be built and maintained, perhaps paving the way for colonizing other planets.

The first of two crews of biospherians entered in 1991 and quickly encountered problems. They had trouble growing enough food, and the four women and four men all lost weight. Oxygen mysteriously disappeared; they had to pump in extra oxygen through one of the domed lungs. (They later discovered that microbes in the soil were absorbing too much oxygen.) A species of tropical "tramp" ants had hitched a ride on the imported plants and quickly took over, attacking other insects and disrupting the "sphere's" ecosystem.

No humans live there now, and the operation is devoted to research and education. Current Biosphere experiments are off-limits, but we went into a nearby greenhouse that has all the rain forest plants and the biospherians' former living quarters. From there we could see one of the main research projects: a forest of cottonwood trees grown under varying carbon dioxide levels to see how changes in the atmosphere due to global warming will affect plant life.

We had lunch at the center's Canada del Oro restaurant, which served up well-prepared, basic food and the same sweeping view of the mountains. We soon realized that Biosphere 2 does not offer enough for an entire weekend, but it turned out to be a great base for exploring the area. The setting, 25 miles north of Tucson, was gorgeous. The room, with two double beds and a rollaway, was spacious enough for four people not to feel crowded. The staff was friendly and eager to help. Problems such as a broken hot water faucet and a lack of towels were fixed instantly.

At about 3 p.m., we headed to one of Tucson's "must see" places: Sabino Canyon, with its waterfalls and swimming holes. We caught the last tram from just outside town to the top of the canyon, crossing the eight check dams, which are both bridges and dams, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. By this time it was 5 o'clock. We started to walk the 3 1/2 miles down as the sun set and the canyon walls turned a deep red-orange. At one point we hiked down the cliff and slid into the creek beside a waterfall, the heat forgotten.

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