So I came to Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, hard by the Colorado River, for illumination. Nothing epiphanic, nothing metaphorical at all. Actual illumination, as in the nightly laser “show” that is supposed to send twin beams across the low-lying river rim, a visual representation of the Yuma Crossing that put this place on the map when the Spaniards rode in late in the 1700s.
I know, I know. Cheesy, right?
But it illustrates how doggedly and creatively Yuma has tried to market itself as a tourist destination, using its two abiding assets, the river and the city’s rich Western history, as lures.
Also, the lasers, which are advertised to alight in the evening at 10 minutes past the hour (a winking nod to the movie, “3:10 to Yuma,” released in 1957 and remade in 2007), look way cool arcing across the inky expanse of the Colorado at its narrowest point. At least, the lights looked splashy on the Visit Yuma website, where downloadable, high-resolution photos of said lasers encourage reprinting. And my guide earlier that day on a walking tour of historic Yuma, the encyclopedic Steve Cook, assured me that, yup, this is something not to be missed by anyone visiting the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
I make a concerted effort, therefore, to finish my evening repast at downtown Yuma’s hip new craft brewery in time to take a leisurely postprandial stroll a few blocks down to Pivot Point, a lovely park where a 1907 Baldwin locomotive sits next to a parking lot for guests at the 8-year-old Hilton Garden Inn, at five stories a significant addition to Yuma’s modest skyline.
Cook had whetted the tour group’s already well-lubricated appetite for history by showing us the Yuma Crossing National Historic Landmark by daylight. We took in sweeping views of the Yuma Territorial Prison, the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, the Quartermaster Depot from that spot at Pivot Point – all the while listening to the audio, piped in via discreetly placed speakers, of train whistles, the horns of steamboats navigating the river and the crank of swinging rail bridge opening, as the twang of banjos and fiddles added period-appropriate musical accompaniment.
Now, at nightfall, I count down the minutes to illumination.
7:10 p.m.: On comes the sound recording, and I move close to the railing, where a cascade of water flows where once the banks of the Colorado stemmed the flow. I wait. And wait. I look out over the darkened river, index finger poised over the button of my smartphone to capture on video the exact moment when the beams shine. They never did. I did, however, get much footage of car headlights approaching and receding on the Interstate 8 span in the distance.
8:10 p.m.: Back at Pivot Point, listening for the first tell-tale whistle and, when it comes, nothing. No laser beams, just more car headlights. I stick around until the aural assault concludes, just in case, but nada.
9:10 p.m.: The blackness of nullity.
I slink back to my hotel, already mentally forming the email I will dash off to Ms. Ann A. Walker, Visit Yuma’s media relations specialist. I check the website once more before hitting “send” and the only laser caveat listed is that, in summer months, it gets too hot to flash the beam. This being winter, no problem there.
Ms. Ann A. Walker is prompt and thoroughly professional in her response in the cold light of morning. The absence of bright green light, she said, had something to do with state licensing of lasers and a change in policy on annual renewals that caught everyone in the office up short. Ten days after my visit, the lasers were turned back on, Ms. Walker kindly informed me via a follow-up email.
Great, but a lot of good that did me.
Actually, the laser letdown was my only disappointment during a two-day stay in what many consider as the Arizona city best used as a place to gas up and catch a bite to eat before heading east to Tucson or west to San Diego.
Yuma, light show or no, is illuminating to those whose expectations are out-modedly low.
This is a city of 91,923 strivers who both celebrate their colorful past – from the Quechen natives to the coming of the Spaniards in 1540 and again in 1774 to the Gold Rush crossover for Easterners to its Mexican-American War Army outpost to civic incorporation and statehood and the damming of the river that stopped periodic flooding but also greatly reduced the river’s volume – and have remade their downtown to attract visitors who just might want to stay awhile.
It’s not so much that Yuma has added more tourist-friendly attractions; it’s just that now, after visiting the Arizona Territorial Prison and the Quartermaster’s House and lounging on the river banks at Gateway Park, there are reasons other than abject hunger and desperate bodily function needs to linger.
Yuma’s Main Street (arches on each end proclaim: “Yuma: Gateway of the Great Southwest”) now boasts a rooftop nightclub, the Kress Ultra Lounge, which on weekends features DJs providing throbbing house music and periodically hosts concerts featuring bands with instruments far more techno than the banjo-and-fiddle music leaking from the Pivot Point speakers. (The Ultra Lounge is the anchor of the refurbished Kress Building, originally owned by the Kress Family – a.k.a., of S.H. Kress Co./Kmart fame.)
Craft beer, too, has found a niche in Yuma, following the lead of college-town Tucson and trying-to-be-hip Phoenix. The well-established Pint House Brewery has done so well, apparently, that across the street on Main Street the Prison Hill Brewing Co. has opened, featuring its signature Devil Dog India brown ale.
Some upscale shops have opened, as well: artisan olive oil, designer bath soaps, a vaporium, cute upscale boutiques. Perhaps the most attention-drawing has been Yuma’s Main Squeeze, a custom winery in which customers not only pick which of the blends to make up their special order, but they actually sprinkle the yeast on their order themselves. “Then,” explains manager Jim Gray, “you come back six weeks later and you bottle it yourself (on site) and put your own custom label on the bottles.”
Each Tuesday in the non-hot season, Main Street is shut down from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a farmers market benefiting charity. Given Yuma’s renown as a lettuce provider – the bounty from siphoning water from the river – the market draws locals wanting fresh produce and tourists seeking to sample the farm-to-lettuce crisper phenomena.
“It’s very popular,” said Linda Kowalsky, of Pappardelle’s Pasta, who runs the Tuesday market. It’s interesting. They (farmers) ship a million bags (of lettuce) to L.A. and then it comes back here (to grocery stores). This way, it stays here in Yuma.”
One marketgoer, Hilda Garcia, was shocked by the foot traffic on Main Street on a Tuesday.
“I was raised here in Yuma, and moved to L.A., but my parents still live here,” she said. “And it’s changed. A lot. I remember Main Street being kind of dead. I like what they’re doing to it.”
Yet Main Street has not abandoned its old-school roots. Longtime haunts such as Lute’s Casino (not really a casino, but a tchotchke-laden bar-restaurant), dive bar Red’s Bird Cage, the Golden Roadrunner Ballroom and the Hotel San Carlos, now low-income housing but once the haunt of the Hollywood movie stars in town to film Westerns.
Yuma has been wise not to downplay its heritage in its quest for the trendy tourist dollar. As improved as Main Street has become, far more tourists come to explore Yuma’s colorful past.
The Historic Downtown Walking Tour, helmed by Cook, is a two-hour, twice-weekly immersion into Yuma lore.
It starts out lively, at the oldest remaining adobe residence (since 1869), owned by a steamboat captain, which featured a “a wide shot-gun hallway,” which Cook says “during a horse or cattle stampede, you opened the doors and let the animals run through the house, not knock it down.” You catch glimpses at many of the 54 spots that are included in the National Registry of Historic Locations, and learn tidbits such as how John Wayne boarded his horse on the roof of the Hotel San Carlos (the horse, it is said, took the freight elevator) because the actor didn’t trust anyone else to care for his steed.
Cook doesn’t massage history, either. He gives the Indians all due props for inventing the original rope crossing on the river to move annual crops. Next the Spaniards used it and then Gold Rush wannabes. He tells of the Indian uprising that resulted in the deaths of Father Garces and other Catholic officials at the Saint Thomas Yuma Indian Mission across the river in Winterhaven, Calif. “(The settlers) didn’t treat the Indians well. They let their horses go on Indians’ once-a-year crops and the Indians finally got fed up and massacred the padre and settlers (in 1781). But that’s really the only time there was a problem with the Indians here in Yuma.”
Not on the tour, but worth the $6 admission fee, is the Yuma Territorial Prison, opened in 1876 and a wild and dangerous place until it closed 33 years later. The prison is not just Yuma’s top draw, but one of the most popular tourist stops in the state.
Yet to dwell on the prison and its colorful stories is to miss the bigger picture of a Yuma on the rebound. From the prison guard tower, you get a great view of the city’s restored riverfront, with parks and bicycle paths and hiking trails and wetlands that draw birds and birders. Turn your head south, and there’s plucky Main Street and downtown, beckoning travelers off the freeway.
And, come nightfall, you can once more see the twin beams of the city lights arching over the Colorado River. Time, perhaps, for a return trip.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
Historic Downtown Yuma Walking Tour
Sponsored by Yuma County Historical Society, the two-hour leisurely walk starts each Tuesday at 10 a.m. or by special arrangement for groups. The route goes along the Colorado River and into downtown.
Cost: $15, proceeds benefit local historic preservation
Reservations: (928) 287-3879
Yuma tourist information: www.visityuma.com