By FRED BROCK
Published: April 4, 2008
NO question we were way off the beaten path.
The rutted dirt road we had been creeping along in southern Arizona
near the Mexican border the perfect setting for some over-the-top
S.U.V. commercial suddenly vanished into a murky creek. Skeptical
that our rented sedan could slosh through, we used a stick to test
the water's depth before inching across.
Then, our amateur fording complete, a United States Border Patrol
helicopter that we had noticed earlier in the distance suddenly
swooped out of the sky and hovered in front of us. We felt as if we
had just become characters in some cut-rate thriller.
The pilot and a spotter with binoculars were clearly visible through
our windshield. When they finally lost interest in us, after a
quarter-mile or so, the helicopter thump-thumped away toward the
border, just a couple of miles south. A bit shaken but determined, we
pushed on, heading east toward a paved road that would take us back
to Interstate 19 and Nogales.
An Indianapolis friend, Richard Beach, and I were on this backcountry
road as part of a trip to explore some of the smaller towns on either
side of the 70-mile I-19 corridor between Tucson and the Mexican border.
Most tourists driving south out of Tucson stop at a strikingly
designed Native American casino, a couple of Spanish Colonial Mission
churches, or the arts and crafts center in Tubac. Many are going to
Nogales, where they can park and then walk across the border for a
day trip to Nogales, Mexico.
For the more adventurous, though, there are any number of tiny, funky
towns surrounded by a visual feast of high desert, mountains and
rolling grasslands. Then there's the region's vibe, its strangely
attractive desolation. There are ghost towns, and living towns that
seem to be on their way to becoming ghost towns. It's a place for
lovers of deserts who crave the yelp of coyotes at night, a fading
hippie haven that serves up stirring vistas of a kind of Southwestern heaven.
Our journey started in Green Valley, about 25 miles south of Tucson,
and snaked through towns like Arivaca, Sasabe, Nogales, Patagonia and
Sonoita. Along the way, we took in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife
Refuge and the Madera Canyon Recreational Area, and crossed the Santa
Rita Mountains. Total distance traveled: 212 miles.
The entire loop can be driven in a day if you don't linger. But the
region is full of hiking trails and other temptations like bird
watching and bar-hopping. Plus, a more relaxed two- or three-day trip
allows time to hang out at the local coffee shop or general store and
meet the people who give these towns their quirks, charm and funk.
One warning: The border area of southern Arizona is ground zero for
drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Many back roads, especially
near Arivaca, should be avoided after dark. It's also open range
country, so watch out for wandering cattle.
Arivaca, with its rustic wooden buildings and commercial emphasis on
ceramics, art, yoga, meditation and herbal remedies, is like
traveling back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, except the hippies
are grayer and heavier. During those years, Arivaca was discovered by
the counterculture, some of whom established a nearby community
called California Gulch. Many later moved into town and stayed on.
About 1,200 people now live in and around Arivaca.
Mary Noon Kasulaitis is a local historian and the librarian at the
Caviglia-Arivaca Library; she has deep roots in Arivaca. Her family
arrived during the 1870s silver-mining boom; her great-grandfather
was a local doctor and prospector.
"The hippies came here in the '60s and early '70s because it was a
pleasant, warm place and isolated," she said. "By buying up mining
claims, which many of them did in California Gulch, you could get
cheap private land protected by national forest land. Isolation,
self-reliance, anonymity and peace that was what they came for.
Those who stayed are now the mainstays of the community."
One who stayed was Jeanne Ferris, the associate librarian. Her first
son was born in a tepee in California Gulch. "I was part of the
antiwar movement," she said, "and wanted to do something different."
Another was Tom Shook, who runs the Gadsden Coffee Company on the
eastern edge of town. He roasts and sells about 1,000 pounds of
coffee beans a week. He came to live in California Gulch in the early
1970s after organizing chapters of Students for a Democratic Society
in Texas and Oklahoma and later selling flowers in Tucson. He is a
Libertarian and a Tibetan Buddhist. He ran for state mining inspector
on the Libertarian ticket in 1982, getting 5 percent of the vote.
"Arivaca is a place where you can do your own thing with no
interference from others," Mr. Shook said, stroking his long, ZZ
Top-style beard. "I don't look back; I live in the present. Hell, I
never thought I'd make it to 30. It's a real thrill to be looking at 60."
FROM Arivaca to Sasabe, the road cuts through the Buenos Aires
National Wildlife Refuge, which is well worth a stop. The refuge has
a permanent herd of about 60 pronghorn antelope and is popular with
bird watchers and hikers. The refuge also operates the Arivaca
Cienega, on the east side of Arivaca. It's a rare desert wetland
featuring a two-mile handicap-accessible trail fed by a spring that
makes it a haven for migratory birds; it also attracts local critters
like coyotes and deer.
Sasabe is an eye blink of a town of about 30 residents, with a post
office and a general store that sells everything from gasoline to
clothes to shots of tequila there's a bar in the back room. The
town is also the site of one of the smallest border-crossing
facilities. Some 150 cars come through each day, and the crossing is
closed at night.
As you backtrack to Arivaca, heading for the Interstate and
Patagonia, you may be tempted to take what looks on the map like a
shortcut to Nogales. It's called Ruby Road and runs southeast out of
Arivaca past California Gulch and Ruby, one of the best-preserved
ghost towns in Arizona. The town came into being with the mining boom
of the 1870s and had a population of about 1,200 at its peak in 1930,
when its mines were producing gold, silver, lead and zinc; it was
abandoned in the 1940s.
Despite the temptation, avoid Ruby Road unless you have a
high-clearance vehicle or an S.U.V. and the weather is dry. It is
no shortcut timewise, though it runs through stunning reaches of the
Coronado National Forest. It was where we had to test the creek and
said hello to our buddies in the Border Patrol helicopter.
Patagonia is an old mining and railroad town of about 900 the train
station has been transformed into a town hall that is a bit more
trendy and accessible than some others of these towns. With a
well-run visitors center, it takes extra steps to cater to tourists
and welcome retirees.
Don't miss the Wagon Wheel Saloon, a popular late-afternoon gathering
place whose walls have no shortage of antlers, horseshoes and vintage
firearms. It's a spot that's agreeable to the novelist and poet Jim
Harrison, who has maintained a winter home in Patagonia for 17 years.
Mr. Harrison, whose works include "Legends of the Fall" and "The
Shape of the Journey," his collected poems, was taking an afternoon
break from editing the proofs of his new novel, "The English Major,"
which is scheduled to be published in October.
MR. Harrison says he likes Patagonia because of its sparse population
and proximity to Mexico. "I first came through here in 1970 when I
was reading poems on Indian reservations through a National Endowment
for the Arts program," he said. "I liked the area, and thought if I
ever had the wherewithal to have a second home, this would be it.
Both here and in Montana, where I live in the warm months, I can't
see any neighbors. So I don't have to think about the population
explosion. And I like Latino culture."
Mr. Harrison is a legendary eater and drinker who manages to keep up
that tradition in Patagonia. "I don't suffer for lack of good food
out here," he added as he downed icy vodka. "I'm a cook myself." He
orders specialty foods via FedEx and every two weeks drives up to
Tucson for what he can't get locally.
From Patagonia, it's an easy high-country, open-sky drive to
Sonoita, an affluent region full of ranches and retirement homes that
sit on lots as big as small farms. There's also a network of wineries
complete with wine-tasting rooms. Southern Arizona's best wines tend
to be from varieties of grapes that grow in the Mediterranean region,
especially grenache, mourvèdre and tempranillo.
Then it's over the mountains on Box Canyon Road unpaved but
civilized to Madera Canyon Recreational Area, one of the best
bird-watching spots in America for both its resident and migratory
species. Visitors come to catch glimpses of elegant trogons, elf
owls, sulfur-bellied flycatchers and painted redstarts.
If you're not up to clambering over steep trails looking for birds,
there's a big feeding station with nearby benches. Just sit still,
and many of the birds will come to you kind of like the Border
Patrol helicopter that came to us.
YOU seldom need specific street addresses and directions in these
small southern Arizona towns. Most places stand out in an obvious way
and sit on one of the few streets in town. It is, however, a good
idea to call ahead; posted hours are sometimes more goal than reality.
If you use Green Valley as a base, there is a Holiday Inn Express
(520-625-0900) at Exit 69 off Interstate 19, as well as a Best
Western (520-625-2250) and a Baymont Inns and Suites (520-399-3736)
at Exit 65. The Holiday Inn's rates for a double begin at $96 with
advance booking; Best Western's begin at $79.95; Baymont's rates begin at $99.
In Patagonia, the Duquesne House (357 Duquesne Avenue; 520-394-2732)
is a well-regarded bed-and-breakfast. A former rooming house for
miners, built in 1898, its rooms are $125 a night and include
breakfast. The Patagonia Visitors Information Center (888-794-0060)
on McKeown Avenue can help you find lodging.
For those with vehicles that can handle the Ruby Road and who want to
visit the ghost town of Ruby, it's best to call in advance
(520-744-4471) for hours of operation. There is a caretaker and a $12
The Gadsden Coffee Company (520-398-3251; www.gadsdencoffee.com) in
Arivaca is a local hangout where you can also get sandwiches and pastries.
Shelby's Bistro (520-398-8075) in Tubac is a popular spot for lunch
(every day) and dinner (Wednesday through Saturday) with a
Southwestern flair. Lunch entrees are $9 to $18 and dinner entrees
are $9 to $33. Signature dishes include Southwest bouillabaisse and
lavender-rubbed grilled chicken breast stuffed with Gorgonzola.
Another popular place to eat is the Longhorn Grill (520-398-3955) in
Amado at the Arivaca Road exit of I-19. The entrance is through a
giant Texas longhorn's skull. Open every day, the Longhorn's prices
are moderate, with lunch entrees from $8 to $10 and dinner entrees
from $12 to $19. The owner describes the fare steaks, as well as
Mexican and Italian dishes as "spaghetti western."
For wine tasters, a good place to start is Dos Cabezas Wine Works
(3248 Highway 82; 520-455-5141; www.doscabezaswinery.com) in Sonoita.
For $5, you get a glass and a taste of six wines. Hours are 10:30
a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday only.