Arizona - Where Wild Meets West

Flower of the desert? Stick that in your bridal bouquet!


I’ll be honest, I never had a burning urge to visit Arizona, it seemed a little on the uneventful side. But with a burgeoning bump and a work schedule that made Gordon Gecko look like a waster, uneventful sounded very appealing indeed.

You need a car to get around Arizona (we started in Tucson), as a European who’s always lived in cities with good transport I keep forgetting the American preference to drive, drive, drive. But we had learnt our lesson from a visit to Texas (for tales on Texas click here) so we were vehicled up to the max. Ok, I’m just gonna come straight out and say it, the drivers in Tucson were atrocious…Within our first 15 minutes of driving we saw a car skip across 4 lanes to make an illegal u-turn, then get stuck! Two cars broke red lights. A lady straddled 2 lanes as she crawled along wondering which way to go -she wasn’t even in a car! (Of course she was, I jest). Welcome to the Wild West!

Once you have a car, other drivers aside, Tucson is easy to get around, it’s very low rise, quite spread out and in a similar way to Salt Lake City (click here for SLC low down) it’s surrounded by mountains and quite sparsely populated. The people are very friendly; while we were waiting to have our breakfast a couple beside us leaned in to say they had seen us about town. It was nice… slightly terrifying, but nice. If you’re looking for a hearty brekker I’d recommend Mother Hubbards, it’s bizarrely nested within a parade of shops off a highway, but it’s good eatin’. Oh and it’s less than half the price of extortionate San Francisco. Plus for authenticity it’s got some biker dudes out front eating their grits and biscuits.

Not many people know this, and putting the politics of ‘who got there first’ aside for a minute, Arizona was founded by an Irishman, Hugh O’ Connor (good ole Hugh). He had left Ireland to join the Spanish army who were fighting the Brits but, between the jigs, the reels and the flamencos, he ended up in America fighting Apaches! He set up a fort (five quid says he set up a pub too) where soldiers could reside, this presidio became the birth place of Tucson, Arizona!

After Hugh (Hugo to his Spanish mates) set up the presidio, decades passed and really important things like carparks had to be built, right over his very fort (outrageous!). A local historian and a lovely little old lady thought this was bad show, so they kicked up blue murder in the press or as they like to say ‘spearheaded a campaign’, tomayto, tomaato.

Dom steps back in time for a chinwag

The site was dutifully restored, alas the historian did not live to see it, but the little old lady did and it was this very woman who greeted us as we entered the presidio and told us her interesting story. I was so disarmed by her delicacy and determination that I wanted to scoop her up and keep her in my pocket. I recommend you to go Tucson, head straight to the presidio and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be lucky enough to meet this five foot 80year old tea cup of passion.

Once you’ve swept the grounds of the fort (it’s preeety small) knock around the artisan shops and cafes that have stapled themselves into the neighbourhood. It’s a very chilled out and happy vibe.

We stayed in a place called the Arizona Inn. It was a drive from town and on a street called ‘Elm St’ so I had my reservations but I was pleasantly surprised. It was very refined indeed, the lobby leads to a beautiful library room where you can read, have tea/coffee, lounge on the antique furniture as you wait for the cast of Downton Abbey to flutter in. The other guests were older and monied. If you want to get active but keep up the pretense of being terribly posh, they cater for that too, there’s a fancy pool, a badminton court and a croquet lawn. I may have even let out a little yelp when I saw the croquet lawn, as I pointed out to Dom I had played a game or two in my crazy youth (yes, I went to the school of hard knocks, ba-dum-tish).

Every room contained a booklet on the history of the hotel, ya know what, I actually have no idea if every room had a booklet, let me rephrase, the hotel especially produced a book just for me on their history. The founder was such an interesting woman, Isabella Greenest, she moved from the badlands of North Dakota to the parties of 1920s New York, then on to the politics of 1930s Chicago, finally settling in the desert of early Arizona. When she wasn’t tearing her way through moments in history she made time to be Eleanor Roosevelts bridesmaid! I would die to have an epitaph like that ;)

Some dive downtown

It’s hard to get a feel for a city by peering out of tinted windows, so park your car downtown and start following the Turquoise Trail. It’s a turquoise line that has been painted on the ground, you follow it to places marked with historical signs and numbers. To be honest, some of the things are less than overwhelming, for example a local high school (?!), but it’s a great way to feel like you’ve trampled all over town and know the lie of the land.

Congress St is well worth a nosey down, it’s the ‘hip’ street – cutting edge funky furniture stores, impressive music shops, a curiosity shop, cafes, vintages stores, etc.

You can’t help but notice how many elderly folk shuffle around Tucson. One old chap was telling me that people like to retire to Tucson and keep a house ‘up north’ for when it gets too hot in the summer. We were there in January and it would boil the backside off a bumblebee (I just made that up but it sounds like something a Tucsonan might say).

The city has an exceedingly relaxed vibe so I thought it would just be downright rude if I didn’t pop off for a massage, mani, pedi and other disgraceful indulgences. Dom preferred to slip off to the Pima Air and Space museum. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, its nick named the bone yard and home to retired airplanes. Apparently there were thousands of them including the original Air Force One. I think one of us dodged a bullet.

JD's ghost top left

The Hotel Congress is a must see, it’s been around for 100 years but flew to notoriety in the 1930s when the famous Chicago gangster, John Dillinger, rented rooms there with his gang. While staying there the Hotel caught fire so the gang paid firemen to carry their bags out. The firemen became suspicious of the excessively heavy bags. One of the firemen recognized the gang from the True Detective Mystery magazine. The men were arrested and the bags opened to reveal submachine guns and bullet proof vests! (Try getting that through in carry on luggage these days).

The historic railroad depot is worth a peek around. It's got a great deli where you can have lunch, as you walk back in time through the old station you come across an old traffic control center dashboard which you can play with, erm, at least I think you can play with it, (more fun than you’d imagine). Yikes, how embarrassing if it is in fact an operational one and I sent trains all over the place, although I’m not sure reciting the phonetic alphabet then roaring laughing actually means anything in train speak “Delta, Bravo, Foxtrot, roger, over and out, hahaha”.

Who's up for croquet?

As you leave the station there is a statue of the famous wild west men Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, marking the spot where Earl killed Frank Stilwell. Afterwards, Earp drew a diagram of where precisely the man was killed (ookkaayy).

Tucson houses a museum of miniatures which Dom found weird and I found enthralling. I think it’s probably meant more for little kids but it’s astonishing how people have taken the dolls house with little furniture idea and created every scene in miniature that you can imagine. I have a rampant childlike imagination (perhaps that’s a kind way of saying a childlike brain) so I lost myself in "Halloween town", "Christmas Ville", a London street scene, a Paris mansion, a massive tree where little bears lived. It won’t be for everyone but it will give you chills one way or the other and is certainly a different museum experience.

Btw, I found out what all of Tucson does on a Saturday night, they go to the cinema. The queue was round the block, zig-zagging through the carpark, up the mountain side, round the bend, inbetween the train tracks and so on. I was sure there was a wilder side to the West so we galloped on to the infamous town of Tombstone where I was not disappointed! 

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