Arizona the Way It Was
History runs deep in Southeast Arizona, but you don't have to dig to find it.
The heat is like a slap in the face. When my husband and I left the East Coast it was 40 degrees and raining; here in Tucson the temperature is above 90, even though it's late October. Not that Jason and I are complaining. The rental car has A/C and we haven't seen the sun in weeks.
The southeast corner of Arizona is a land of extremes: mountains that top 9,000 feet and are covered in Douglas firs; dry, dusty basins that sprout cacti and seemingly little else. The flavor is a wild mix of the Old West and Old Mexico--from the architecture (wooden ranch houses and adobe casitas) to the food (mesquite-grilled steak and carne asada). Toss in quirky attractions and a 75 mph speed limit and you have a road-tripper's nirvana.
Day one: Tucson
Even though it's Arizona's second-largest city (after Phoenix), Tucson doesn't feel all that big. With a few exceptions, the things you'll want to see are concentrated in and around downtown. We land mid-morning and head straight to Mission San Xavier del Bac. Completed in 1797 and still the center of a functioning Roman Catholic parish, the enormous adobe church can be seen for miles around. Its blinding exterior leaves no mystery as to why it's called the White Dove of the Desert. Upon entering, I'm struck by the serenity: Worshipers and tourists stand in quiet awe, marveling at the colorful murals and statues that adorn each wall, all recently restored to their original beauty.
Back in the car, we head to Pico de Gallo, a little taquería in South Tucson. It isn't much to look at, but the soft corn tortillas are amazing. The namesake dish isn't what you'd expect--instead of watery salsa, you get spears of mango, pineapple, coconut, and jicama served in a Dixie cup and topped with red chili powder and salt. It sounds odd but tastes heavenly.
Nearby in the Barrio Histórico is El Tiradito, a small wishing shrine dating from the 1870s. The ground around it is littered with colorful candles--evidence of the hundreds of prayers offered here in recent weeks. This remnant of the late 19th century stands in stark contrast to the modern convention center a block away.
Downtown Tucson is a warren of one-way streets; you'll want a good map. We circle the Hotel Congress a few times before figuring out there's parking in back. Built in 1919, the hotel served as a high-class rest stop for ranchers and mining tycoons, maintaining its genteel reputation until John Dillinger and his gang rolled into town. They were holed up here in 1934 when a fire broke out. Firefighters recognized Dillinger, and he was captured nearby. The rooms haven't changed much since. They're small, a bit ragged, and the door hits the toilet as you enter the bathroom. But they have character, with vintage beds and rotary phones. Ask for a room far from the popular nightclub or you'll feel the booming music until 1 a.m. No matter where your room is, you'll hear the cargo trains. I found the noise soothing; you might not.
From the hotel it's a short walk to the 4th Avenue shopping district. There are enough thrift stores and import shops to keep you busy for hours. Don't dally too long. Up in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas is the late Ettore "Ted" De Grazia's Gallery in the Sun. Best known for his paintings of children and landscapes, De Grazia created a unique space to show his work: The adobe gallery is decorated with colorful murals, brightly painted tin flowers, and a cholla cactus walkway.
We head over to the El Presidio Historic District for dinner at the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the country, El Charro Café. We come for the famouscarne secaplate and aren't disappointed. The beef is perfectly spiced with lime, garlic, and green chilies, and dried outdoors for several days. Shredded and served with fresh tortillas, it's unlike anything I've ever tasted. Except maybe beef jerky, but thecarne secais much better.
- Hotel Congress311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com/, double $39-$72
- Taquería Pico de Gallo2618 S. 6th Ave., 520/623-8775, taco $1.25
- El Charro Café311 N. Court Ave., 520/622-1922, carne seca $11.95
- Mission San Xavier del Bac1950 W. San Xavier Blvd., 520/294-2624, donations welcome
- Gallery in the Sun6300 N. Swan Rd., 800/545-2185, free
As you drive southeast on I-10, the ubiquitous saguaros and mesquite give way to willowy cottonwoods--you're crossing the San Pedro River. After so many miles of highway, the Ghost Town Trail comes as a shock. This unpaved road from Pearce to Tombstone is quite rutted in places and so isolated that you'll be tempted to turn back. Stick with it and you'll pass through remnants of once-booming copper-mining villages.
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