I fell for Tucson Arizona. I didn’t have nearly enough time there but it was long enough to know that of all the cities I’ve visited this trip, this is one I want to get to know better.
Brief history of Tucson Arizona
About 115 miles (185 km) southeast of Phoenix, the city of Tucson Arizona sits beside the Santa Cruz River on a hilly plain in the Sonoran Desert, surrounded by mountains. Back in 1692, when the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino first visited the Tohono O’odham, the place was called Chuk Shon – village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain. A few years later, he’d establish several missions in the locality, including the now famous and rather spectacular Mission San Xavier del Bac. Part of the Gadsden purchase of 1854, Tucson became part of the USA. It’s still a bilingual community with both English and Spanish freely spoken. The city had its fair share of long-term visitors and in its day has flown four flags: Spanish, Mexican, Confederate, and US. With the silver reserves in Tombstone and the copper mines in Bisbee, the city soon blossomed.
Today, tourists visiting Tucson Arizona can follow the 2.5-mile Turquoise Trail, a turquoise-coloured line painted on the footpath that leads past 23 major sites worth seeing in the downtown historic district. It’s a clever idea more cities might adopt. The Purple Path for Prague? The Burgundy Beat for Budapest? The Aubergine Alley for Austria? The potential is huge.
And it passes the fabulous El Charro Café, America’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family, the birthplace of the chimichanga. As the story goes:
While frying her now famous El Charro ground beef tacos, [Tia Monica Flin] accidentally dropped a burro into the frying pan and when the oil splashed up she was about to lash out a common Spanish cuss word starting with “Ch” but because she was amongst her young nieces and nephews, changed it to “Chimichanga”, the equivalent of “thingamajig.” Thankfully for all of us, Monica was a controlled and creative cuss.
Make your reservations online the day before or you’ll be waiting at least an hour to be seated. And be sure to look up on the roof where they still dry their beef.
University of Arizona Tucson
With a student body that numbers more than 44 000 and a payroll that includes more than 15 000 names, the University of Arizona is a mainstay in the city. It’s an impressive campus with a long green mall leading towards the mountains, flagged on either side with buildings and dorms. The gateway to the Medical Faculty suggests that for all its academic rigour, it retains a sense of humour. The Women’s Plaza of Honor shows its commitment to its gender studies program and its active promotion of women in all faculties. And its memorial wall celebrates the lives of the 1177 crew of the USS Arizona that went down in Pearl Harbor.
The unique open-space design of the citizen funded USS Arizona Mall Memorial is a full-scale outline of the deck of the iconic ship on the university mall consisting of 1,177 brass medallions spaced one foot apart, flush with the lawns and walkways and directly beneath the USS Arizona ship’s bell hanging in the Student Union tower.
It has valet bicycle parking and bike repair stalls, too. While walking through the Student Union, I was struck by how different things are today. Back in my time in Uni, we’d huddle in groups and debate the whys and wherefores of the Thatcher/Regan administrations, figuring we had all the answers if only they’d listen to us. But the students I saw sat on their own, with headphones, laptops, and smartphones for company. I found it sad.
Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson Arizona
The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church’s interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space.
I’d stumbled across Fr Kino while up in Casa Grande at the Casa Grande Ruins. Like the city of Tucson itself, the church has never moved but was once in New Spain (1783), then in Mexico (1821), and then in the USA (1854). In 1768, a year after the Jesuits had been expelled from New Spain, the Franciscans moved in. The last Franciscan left in 1837 and the order didn’t return until 1913. But they’re back, and working, and serving the local community and the hundreds of thousands of visitors to come to see it each year.
One of the most interesting pieces in the church is a wooden carving of St Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks, the first American Indian to be canonised by the Catholic Church. Hers is a fascinating story.
There’s so much more to Tucson Arizona that I missed – or perhaps saved till next time. It’s a city definitely worth going out of your way to see.