Sunday, December 22, 2019

From Swords to Plowshares: The Vista Sunwheel in Catalina, Arizona

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, or Yule, in the Northern Hemisphere.  I went to the sunwheel at Vista de la Montana United Methodist Church in Catalina, Arizona, to watch the sun set.  It’s a tranquil area behind the church with a few benches on the perimeter.  I was there at the Spring Equinox as well.

When I was there in the spring, Jim, the person who constructed the sunwheel, explained its purpose to me.  (There’s also brochure about it that’s available in a box attached to a signpost.)  He explained that this sunwheel is modeled after Native American medicine wheels.  They were, Jim said, astronomic tools used to highlight the passage of the seasons.  They are sacred structures and are found in many Native cultures, according to Jim.

Find out what a sunwheel is & why there is one in Catalina, Arizona | PicturingTheWest
Sunwheel at sunset
As with others, the sunwheel in Catalina consists of an outer stone circle with a diameter of 61 feet.  Emanating inwards are lines of stones, which meet at a center cairn, measuring 11 feet in diameter.  Depending on the time of year, when the sun rises or sets, the rays line up with one of the lines in the circle of stones.  I have to confess that I didn’t quite understand how it all works.

Nevertheless, it’s a very impressive site.  What makes it even more remarkable is that it is built on top of a missile silo.  The center cairn was the opening through which a Titan II missile would have been launched if the United States had been under nuclear attack. 

Southern Arizona was home to 18 Titan II missiles during the Cold War.  These intercontinental ballistic missiles, housed in underground silos around Tucson, were part of a network of 54 nuclear-armed warheads that were in operation from 1962 – 1987.  Site #18 was the missile in Catalina; it's the one just above the text that says "Mt. Lemmon."

Find out where a Titan II missile silo is now a sunwheel | PicturingTheWest
Location of Titan II missiles in Tucson; click here for an interactive map
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson operated the silos, which came online here in 1963.  Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas also hosted 18 missiles each.  The ICBMs in Tucson went offline in 1982.  Below is a map of where all 18 missiles in the Tucson area were stored.  At one of them, in Sahuarita, you can visit the Titan Missile Museum, which is a National Historic Landmark and education center.  I haven’t visited yet but will get there eventually.

Fortunately, none of the Titan II missiles were ever launched and now the site in Catalina has been transformed into a place of peace.