Tucson, the “Old Pueblo”



Thanks to my late friend and most generous hostess, Adele Valois, I spent many memorable days in and around the “Old Pueblo,” the romantic nickname for Tucson in southwestern Arizona. The city, unlike Phoenix some 100 miles to the north, has preserved a flair of its American Indian and Spanish-Mexican past of a pueblo in the Sonoran Desert. The days of the Presidio de San Agustin del Tucson, the original fortress built by Spanish soldiers during the 18th century, seem not that long ago. Wandering through the recreated structure, it is easy to imagine what life was like when members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, mingled there with Spanish soldiers and early Territorial Period settlers.


Presidio Mural.


Inside the Presidio.


Casa de Soldados.

The neighborhood surrounding the Presidio, the Presidio Historic District, is an utterly charming, eclectic assembly of adobe and brick buildings in Spanish-Mexican (to which I am exceedingly partial), Anglo-American, and other architectural styles of the 1920s. Many houses have been restored to their former beauty, in brilliant colors of bright green, brick red, plum-purple, and hues of blue and yellow, and their original masonry. Surrounded by cascades of bougainvillea and abundantly blossoming roses, iris, and jasmine, early morning walks along those quiet streets seemed like a dream.


House with pink door.


The purple veranda.


Brick red walls.


Dreamy courtyard.

The jewel in the crown of the Presidio Historic District is the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. In its present appearance, it reminds me of the Guggenheim Museum in New York in that the main galleries are arranged as an open downward spiral centered on a well that connects the levels and ramps. The museum’s collections cover a wide range of cultures and periods. I couldn’t possibly take it all in, or pay the attention they deserve, but I very much appreciated the Art of the American West Collection about which I knew very little. Dear Chicago friends, Louise and Jim Glasser, who live most of the year in the spectacular environs of Tucson, are deeply involved with the museum as generous patrons and foremost collectors of Western Artists. We had a lovely time catching up over lunch and riding into the Catalina foothills.


“Hiss” by Karen Kitchel (American, 2005).

It was also lucky that my visit coincided with the colorful, lively, and diverse Annual Spring Artisans Market on the grounds of the museum. Temptations were abundant with so many fabulous sfizzi (the things you couldn’t possible do without) to choose from.


Ceramics in blue.

But Tucson has much more to offer than the fabulous Presidio District. I would have liked to have my trusty bicycle to explore the “Old Pueblo” on those long, dusty, desert-like streets and avenues that connect the most disparate and diverse neighborhoods. Instead, I took long walks, stopping to photograph some dramatically powerful murals, buying bread in an old Mexican panaderia, and discovering the attractive campus of the University of Arizona that was founded in 1885 as the first university in the Arizona Territory.


Powerful hands mural.


Gritty image.


A colorful hidden wall.



I much enjoyed visiting the two remarkable museums on campus, the first being the Arizona State Museum, devoted primarily to anthropology and archaeology, with an exceptionally large and superb collection of Southwestern Native American pottery and other archaeological and ethnographic objects. Nancy Odegaard, Arizona State Museum Professor and Conservator, points out that the pottery collection of some 20,000 vessels is “the most complete Southwest collection anywhere, representing 2000 years of pottery making in the Southwest.” The other museum, the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is also well worth a visit. Its permanent collection emphasizes European and American Fine Art from the Renaissance to the present. I was particularly charmed by an early 16th century painting, a delicately touching Pieta by Francesco di Bosio Zaganelli. As I meandered around the campus, I thought how odd, and yet marvelous, to admire pottery of the Hohokam and the Toho O’odham nations and an Italian Early Renaissance painting, and truly appreciate each artistic manifestation for its own perfection.

On my visit to Tucson last year in March, it had been unseasonably hot with midday temperatures in the 90s, and so I had to wait for cooler days for my impatiently anticipated outdoor ventures. When the thermometer dropped a few degrees, I was off with Koi Limburg , a fabulous guide from the Southwest Trekking Group, for a four-hour hike up in the Tucson Mountains. We started in the cool of early morning on a brilliant day. The ascent was easy through flowering desert, past fabulous and bizarre-shaped cacti, the most famous among them the tree-like Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). It can grow to over 40 feet tall and some reach the venerable age of 150 years.

Koi, my guide, was both entertaining and very knowledgeable about what grows, flies, hops and crawls in the Sonoran environment. To add a little frisson, he instructed me how to react in case we should come across a rattlesnake that is, in fact, abundant throughout the area and the Southwest in general. To my relief we neither saw nor heard the much-feared rattler or any other venomous critter. The views across the valley unto the Santa Catalina Mountains and the blue, shimmering Rincon range were worth every bit of sweaty effort. I loved the experience.


Perfect Saguaro cactus.


Great desert vista.

Taking further advantage of the perfect out-of-door weather, I booked a Desert Ecology Jeep tour with the Traildust Adventure “wranglers.” While I definitely prefer to walk, it was certainly worthwhile to drive into a different part of the Sonoran Desert. We headed into the Rocking K Ranch trail across washes and seriously rocky paths, strewn with boulders and large dry branches. I held on to my hat and enjoyed the breeze. The driver/guide made us taste some unusual, and I hoped harmless, bits of plants—for example, one that acts like novocaine. My tongue felt numb for the rest of the ride, and I thought of taking some plants home to my dentist. He also explained how to extract moisture from certain cacti and how this knowledge helped the ancient original inhabitants survive in this fiercely dry environment. For me the most fascinating aspect of this excursion was to ascend a steep lava outcrop to view ancient Hohokam petroglyphs.


The “wrangler” and his cactus.


Don’t touch!


Rincon Mountains.


Hohokam petroglyph.

A little adventure of a different kind was a day tour to Nogales, about an hour drive south of Tucson. I was particularly interested in getting a glimpse of La Linea, the hotly debated border fence/wall between the US and Mexico. Nogales, Arizona, borders the city of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, sometimes also called Ambos Nogales (Both Nogales) and is Arizona’s largest international border community. I chose not to cross into Mexico, for no particular reason, but stayed on the US side of the border. I had a look at one of the ports of entry, the Dennis Deconsini Pedestrian and Passenger Vehicle Port of Entry. Folks just seemed to go back and forth carrying grocery bags, stopping to chat with friends or acquaintances, minding their own business.

Two knowledgeable ladies, volunteers in the small local museum that depicts the early history of the Arizona Nogales, pointed me to the best vantage point from which to see La Linea. From a distance it looks like a textured dark red curtain following the contours of the land. They told me that in former times they would have picnics and neighborhood gatherings with friends from Ambos Nogales near The Line before it became a fence of rusted steel tubes. On the Mexican side, they told me, this wall is also made of rusted steel tubes but reinforced with concrete, with steel plates on top. There are 4-inch gaps between the bars, wide enough for people on opposite sides to hold hands through the openings.


La Linea.

As is my wont, I just cruised through the main streets, lined by taco places, taverns, and old warehouses, crossing several railroad tracks, marveling at super-long freight car trains that moved back and forth, unhindered, between the US and Mexico. I climbed some stairs to the imposing looking courthouse and sat for a while pondering the absurdity of walls, fences, and borders. And I agree with what a cattle rancher in Nogales had to say about the wall: “I love the fact that I can live on both sides of the border and be OK with that; I think it’s a fair deal. I think we are fortunate as a country to have a country next to us that is our friend. It could be a lot worse.”


Adele, at right, and Lord Peter Wimsey.

On my last day in Tucson, my friend Adele, accompanied by her adorable dog, Lord Peter Wimsey, invited us for goodbye libations. We went to a cheerful courtyard restaurant with fun music and twinkling lights and toasted to friendship and said au revoir. So very sadly, I will not see her again, but I will remember her with great affection and gratitude for having introduced me to Tucson’s discreet charm and the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.


An unparalleled view.

Suggested reading on La Linea:

Francisco Cantu, The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border. New York: Riverhead Books. 2018.

“A beautiful, fiercely honest, and nevertheless deeply empathic look at those who police the border and the migrants who risk-and lose their lives crossing it. In a time of often ill-informed or downright deceitful political rhetoric, this book is an invaluable corrective.”