The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2002
A FEATURE STORY
   
 

Tucson:
A User's Guide To Arizona's Second City

BY GREGORY McNAMEE 

Tucson. The name, a Spanish rendering of an Indian name meaning black spring, so confused Anglo pioneers that, along about the middle of the nineteenth century, they began to refer to the dusty desert hamlet as the "Old Pueblo." The nickname fits, for Tucson (say it "TOO-san," and you=ll be taken for a native) has a long and storied history, and at its heart lies an ancient riverside village whose origins stretch back a thousand years and more. 

But Tucson is also a resolutely modern city that numbers nearly a million inhabitants. One way to get a handle on the place and orient yourself to this now-sprawling metropolis is to drive the thirty-mile length of Speedway Boulevard, which bisects the city. Speedway=s western terminus is Gates Pass, a notch in the snaggle-toothed Tucson Mountains to the west of the city, near the western entrance to Saguaro National Park. Heading east, the road passes well-appointed mansions, falls to the valley floor, crosses 200-year-old neighborhoods and the University of Arizona campus, and then winds past strip malls, parks, apartment complexes, and residential neighborhoods until, miles later, it finds nearly open desert once again, this time at the eastern extension of Saguaro National Park.

Longtime residents of Tucson use Speedway as a yardstick for the city=s growth, fondly remembering when a trip to Mount Lemmon took a day. The 9,200-foot-tall mountain can now be reached from downtown Tucson in an hour, a journey that begins in saguaro cactus-covered canyons, progresses through forests of juniper and cedar trees and a jumbled wilderness of boulders, and ends in dense ponderosa pine forests, with astonishing views at every turn. An added plus: the summit is a full 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, no small blessing in a Tucson summer. 

Closer to the city lie two institutions dedicated to local ecology. The first, Tohono Chul Park (7366 N. Paseo del Norte, 575-8468), bears a name that means "desert corner" in the language of the Tohono O=odham, Tucson=s first people. Dotted with small ponds, ramadas, and native plants of all kinds, the park is a wonderful place to get away from the big city and learn a thing or two about the way things are supposed to work out this way. It=s just a short distance down Oracle Road from the El Conquistador Hotel, site of VVA=s Leadership Conference. The second, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Rd., 883-1380), is one of the world=s premier research institutions devoted to arid-lands ecology, and it houses a fine zoo and interpretive exhibits as well.

Just south of the city along Interstate 19 lies the San Xavier del Bac Mission, a Spanish church built in the eighteenth century. Known as La Paloma Blanca ("The White Dove") the colonial mission recently has been restored by Italian and Tohono O=odham artisans and has regained the luster befitting a must-see landmark. So, too, in an odd way, is the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, just a few miles south of the mission. (Take I-19 to the Duval Mine Road exit and go half a mile west. The museum=s entrance is clearly marked.) A decommissioned missile installation, Complex 571-7 in Pentagon parlance, the museum lies right across a busy road from the booming retirement community of Green Valley.  Deactivated in 1982, the installation is the one place in America where the average tourist - average, that is to say, in lacking security clearance to sensitive death-dealing bits of technology - can get a firsthand look at the weapons that once gave people around the world the willies. 

An hour=s drive south of Tucson is Nogales, Mexico, where Tucsonans have long gone to shop, dine, and get into trouble. Nogales=s edges are a little tattered, but you can find some fine bargains there--leather goods, textiles, and, of course, tequila. Equally distant to Tucson=s southeast, but of more interest to Old West fans, lies small but storied Tombstone, "the town too tough to die," famed as the site of the 1881 shootout at the OK Corral, where Zack Earp=s grandfather faced down the Clanton gang. (A slightly less toothy taste of the Old West can be had at Old Tucson, once a movie and television set where Gunsmoke, Rio Bravo, and other oaters were filmed - but now a theme park that lacks the magic of the John Wayne/James Arness glory days.) The Mining and Historical Museum, in nearby Bisbee, affords a window into that mining town=s past, as do tours of the city=s vast Copper Queen Mine. 

The road to Tombstone passes by Kartchner Caverns State Park, which preserves a 2.4-mile-long living cave complex of underground pools and mineral formations. Near Tombstone, too, lies the Nature Conservancy=s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, which harbors nearly all of the hummingbird species known to visit the United States. No other spot in the country offers such a cornucopia of hummers. In the prime season of April to October, amateur ornithologists crowd into the 300-acre preserve to add some elusive species to their life lists.

Back in the city, stop for a drink at the Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St., 325-1541), an elegant, coral-colored complex of cottages and apartments surrounding a lavishly landscaped courtyard. Then head to the old Barrio Historico on the city=s west side, where, on dark nights - or so legend has it - the ghosts come out to play. The narrow streets wind past buildings where strange and unpleasant things have happened through time, and apparitions emerge to remind residents of their sad fates: here a weeping woman who died at her own hand when jilted by a married lover, there a bear made to dance in a riverside grove and a man murdered by a vengeful neighbor. While you=re there, stop in at the El Tiradito shrine, which commemorates an adulterer who was hacked to pieces.

Next door to the shrine stands El Minuto Café (354 S. Main Ave., 882-4145), a longtime favorite of Tucsonans, who know a good Mexican meal when they see it - and without which no visit to the city is complete. Among the best of the city=s many good Mexican restaurants are the Café Poca Cosa (88 E. Broadway, 622-6400), extolled by the likes of The New York Times and Gourmet; Mi Nidito (1813 S. Fourth Ave., 622-5081), where an immense combination platter bears Bill Clinton=s name, the former president having eaten much of the menu there at a single sitting; Crossroads (2602 S. Fourth Ave., 624-0395), a down-home eatery much favored by local mariachi musicians and low riders; and La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill (1800 E. Fort Lowell Rd., 325-0082; 4861 E. Grant Rd., 325-2200; 7090 N. Oracle Rd., 531-1211), where the salsa bar contains wondrous concoctions ranging from mild tomato-based blends that won=t scare your inner Scandinavian to ferocious chile brews that will put your sinuses in overdrive. Don=t worry about dressing up for any of these venues: Tucson formal wear is a clean T-shirt and a not-too-ratty pair of jeans.

Serving Mexican as well as continental food, too, is the Cup Cafe in downtown=s Hotel Congress (311 E. Congress St., 798-1618), a favorite haunt of breakfast enthusiasts and local bohemians. Just about everyone who wanders into the place remarks on the heady smell of the roasted new potatoes, cooked in a bath of garlic and basil, that are the cafe=s hallmark. Other highlights are the "eggs in hell," served with chorizo and fiery salsa; buckwheat hotcakes studded with fresh blueberries; and the "boom-boom," a hearty meal of potatoes and eggs served up on a toasted baguette. When you=re done eating, go upstairs to see the room where John Dillinger, the infamous gangster, was nabbed in 1934 while hiding out from the FBI. 

On a more elevated note, Tucson=s Native American heritage finds a fine repository in the Arizona State Museum, on the grounds of the University of Arizona, also the site of the internationally important Center for Creative Photography. To build a museum of your own, visit Bahti Indian Arts (577-0290). Stuffed with artwork made by some of the best Native American artisans at work today, the gallery affords an opportunity to spend thousands of dollars - or to get out with something small, but very nice, for under twenty bucks. Along with other fine shops and restaurants, the gallery is located in St. Philip=s Plaza (4300 N. Campbell Ave.), a handsome outdoor mall alongside the city=s Rillito River. Strangely, perhaps, to those used to better-watered climes, the river carries water only after a heavy rain, and then for a few hours at most - another curiosity of life in this curious corner of America.

Longtime Tucsonan Gregory McNamee is the author of Blue Mountains Far Away: Journeys in the American Wilderness, Gila: The Life and Death of an American River, and many other books.

   

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