Native son Mario López-Cordero returns home to the Sonoran Desert to find it all grown up—world-class vineyards, smart B&Bs reclaiming old adobes, and a food culture both earthy and full of surprises.
It's a bright morning in the Sonoran Desert. The light has a liquid intensity, a magnifying quality that picks out details in the landscape and casts them into high relief. I can see knobby limbs of cholla, spindly blades of yucca, distant tawny peaks. It's as if the world itself is an HDTV, almost too sharp and perfect to be real.
I'm driving south on Interstate 19, a short highway that begins in Tucson and terminates 63 miles later at the border of Mexico in Nogales. It's a road I've been on thousands of times. Although I live in New York, I grew up out here, "out" being a fitting way to describe it. As in out in the middle of nowhere.
The vast valley, covered in mesquite and prickly pear cactus, is stunning and dramatic, and these days it never fails to take my breath away. But this wasn't always the case. Growing up, the last place I wanted to be was in this isolated brown valley. The geography filled me with dread. Nogales, population 20,878, is a town that straddles two countries. There is a Nogales in Arizona and a Nogales in Sonora, Mexico—and a 20-foot-high steel fence separates them. Crossing it was less of a hassle pre-9/11, but even these days, with a passport, you can technically walk from one downtown to the other. (In high school, when the border patrol didn't ask to see documentation, my friends and I used to cut across on our lunch break; we'd head over for cantina enchiladas and be back at our desks in time for English class.) Mexico's streets are potholed and frenetic, with curio-shop owners hawking pewter picture frames on the sidewalk; on the American side, the flow of pedestrians in and out of the 99¢ stores is a mere trickle. Aside from the neither-here-nor-there cultural flavor that the duality lends Nogales—where 94 percent of the population is Hispanic and a monolingual person is at a considerable disadvantage—the place has just enough small-town traits to alienate a 16-year-old boy enchanted with Judith Krantz. It's sheltered and insular, and everyone knows you. Rather, not just you, but your whole family, and your whole family's history. To this day, when I walk into a restaurant—like Zulas, for example, which at lunchtime is like the town commissary (and where you should go for the club sandwich and pecan pie)—I get kissed hello by strangers who recognize me because I have the "cara de un Cordero."
Now, after living in New York for 10 years, that kind of kissy familiarity—combined with the pin-drop desert stillness—is precisely what draws me back. Over the past year, I've been spending weeks at a time at my mother's house working on a novel. I look out the window, and the stark landscape exhilarates me. I've also begun to notice intriguing changes that build upon what I've grown to love. The recession and recent border violence have hit the area hard, especially because tourism, mostly in the form of day-trippers from Tucson and Phoenix, has always been a major economic driver. Nonetheless, Nogales and the surrounding towns of Tubac, Patagonia, Sonoita, and Elgin have started to grow worldly. Sophisticated B&Bs are cropping up in historic ranch haciendas and boardinghouses. There is a burgeoning wine industry that's as remarkable as the neighboring grasslands. And the food, which was typically either good, rustic northern Mexican or forgettable, is getting inventive. Even better, all of this is happening slowly, in small, considered ways, spearheaded by mom-and-pop businesses that have a vested interest in preserving the area's distinct character.
When I daydream now, I find my fantasies have suddenly moved back West, to thick adobe walls and shaded Saltillo-tiled courtyards and a flood of high desert light. They look a lot, actually, like the Hacienda Corona de Guevavi, a bed-and-breakfast set on an 18th-century ranch outside Nogales that used to belong to the family of one of my closest childhood friends, Ian Wingfield.
The house, with its corrugated tin roof and façade of café au lait adobe, was built in 1938. A low wall encloses a front garden planted with sage and agave, and a walkway leads to the main courtyard, where original murals of Mexican villagers still decorate the walls. The current owners, Phil and Wendy Stover, greet me and my boyfriend, Rob, in the foyer. Phil and Wendy grew up in Tucson but worked for much of their lives in California and Connecticut—he ran restaurants, she was a film company exec—before returning to Arizona in 2002 and buying and renovating the beautiful Spanish colonial pile. When it was just Ian's grandfather's house, I used to spend afternoons hanging out here, watching Ian leap into the pinto-bean-shaped pool from the pool-house roof. The place is almost as I remember, though lightened and brightened; windows that were shaded by overgrown vegetation now offer clear views of the Santa Cruz riverbed. What was the master bedroom is now a grand suite with a tufted headboard, an original fireplace of massive stone blocks, and pink toile curtains dressing a large window overlooking the surrounding ranch land.