Lost souls and doomed lovers make pilgrimages to a spot near the corner of South Main Avenue and West Cushing Street, not to pray for divine intervention, for there sure-as-shootin’ is nothing holy about El Tiradito, but rather to wish upon a crumbling adobe monument devoted to what legend has it was an unrequited sinner.
Isn’t that just so Tucson?
No one knows the precise genesis of this city’s so-called “wishing shrine” to El Tiradito (The Fallen One). In fact, more than 100 tall tales have been documented since the late 1800s, most having to do with love gone wrong and copious amounts of alcohol being consumed, but all end violently with hangings or gunshots or well-placed knife wounds. El Tiradito is, really, whatever you want it be, which is why, daily, the burned-down nubs of candles spread out in a semi-circle at the makeshift altar, where crumpled, hand-scrawled notes are tucked into the adobe cracks.
Whimsical, ironic and self-deprecating, yet also charming and steeped in history, the shrine encompasses everything that makes plucky Tucson the much cooler cousin to pretentious, yet strip-mall-saturated, Phoenix two hours north.
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There’s more, much more, of course.
Whereas sprawling Phoenix may be the big-box-store capital of the West, Tucson counters with its 4th Avenue shopping district, a diverse expanse of blocks between downtown and the University of Arizona campus with shops running the gamut from locally manufactured clothing to a quirky boutique whose wares are “upcycled” – alchemical use of found materials.
Whereas Phoenix boasts a big-city lineup of performing arts venues – symphony, national-touring theater, arenas for rock concerts – Tucson has quietly (check that, loudly) developed a pop and alternative music scene on Congress Street that some say rivals Austin in its formative years.
Whereas Phoenix’s Old West history is arguably dwarfed by its seemingly civic need to be trendy and modern, Tucson has honored its Indian, Spanish and Mexican heritages by preserving the El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson for tours and educational events and tastefully turning an elegant 150-year-old adobe building into a ring of art galleries, studios and a cafe in a Spanish courtyard.
And whereas Phoenix can rightly point to desert trails and vistas within an hour of town, it doesn’t have anything as vast, grand and vertical as Saguaro National Park, only half an hour from downtown, and studded with the stately, open-armed cacti that greet you on hundreds of miles of hiking trails.
Yet during the spring, prime Arizona vacation season, Tucson doesn’t draw nearly the touristic masses of Phoenix for one major reason: no major-league baseball.
Spring training, never very big here to begin with, left for good a few years back. Many Tucsonians will tell you they don’t miss it, but fans who swoop in to watch the Giants, A’s or other big-league teams miss out. They don’t get to experience this city’s understated delights, full of character and characters with a reputation for social diversity and tolerance diametrically opposed to their northern cousin.
The good news is, you can always hop in that overpriced rental car and embark on a road trip south on Interstate 10 for a baseball-free day trip. Warning, though: You might like Tucson so much you’ll stay a few days and miss Tim Lincecum’s latest start, or something.
Positively 4th Avenue
All right, so it’s 4th Avenue. But you’ve still got to credit the folks at the Hippie Gypsy, a ’60s throwback store (bongs, black-light posters, Indian cotton print skirts and patchouli incense wafting onto the sidewalk and clear over to the old-school pinball arcade across the street) for playing Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” on a bustling Sunday afternoon where U-of-A students mingled with pale, middle-aged tourists with fanny packs and aging hipsters with graying soul patches.
It kind of made the whole scene.
Fourth Avenue, for decades, has been the shopping district for those who eschew the malls or even newly manufactured clothes. Its vintage street cred is unimpeachable, as is its high dosage of liberal inclusiveness. Longtime book store Antigone, the anchor on 4th Avenue and East 7th Street, has cultivated quirkiness while adhering to its motto in T-shirts, “Keeping Tucson Feisty since 1973.” It may be the only bookstore in the United States with both Lesbian Body Love and Steampunk book groups.
Such a retail aesthetic lured 30-something entrepreneurs Anthony Hinckley and Laurie Miller to Tucson from Cleveland and Baltimore to open their junk shop-cum-vintage boutique, No Where to Land, two doors down from the local Wiccan supply store, Celestial Rites.
“We’ve been to a lot of different cities, but 4th Ave. has always been a unique place,” said Hinckley, who sells ’70s-era furniture, “Mad Man”-era liquor flasks, curios such as ships built inside glass lamps. “Like, it’s the grit here. That can be a negative word, grit, but it’s not like that. It’s a homey, grass-roots grit, an energy. It’s neat because Tucson is this little blue dot in this giant sea of red. Believe me, Tucson does not represent the entire state of Arizona. And within Tucson, there’s even bluer niches like 4th Avenue.”
Native Tucsonians Denise and Edward Durazo and friend Edna Gabusi, all in their senior years, say periodic trips to 4th Avenue stores keep them young. As they mingled in Pop Cycle, a store that turns recycling material into material goods (example: discarded license plates into hard-cover notebooks), they lectured an inquisitive outsider not to paint Tucson with the same red-state brush as you-know-where.
This conversation came three days after Arizona’s state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1062 that would give businesses the right not to serve gay, lesbian or transgender people if doing so would go against the business owner’s religion. (Gov. Jan Brewer later vetoed the bill.)
“Have you seen the ‘VETO: We Don’t Discriminate’ signs all over town?” Denise Durazo asked. “See how quick that happened, for all the stores to unite and put that out there? That’s what Tucson is like.”
And, unlike many big or mid-sized cities, such as Sacramento, street busking is allowed, a fact that made a soprano saxophone player on 4th who identified himself as Tommy Tooter quite happy. Tooter, who has busked all over and calls himself “a famous unknown musician,” has called Tucson home for slightly more than a year.
“Some towns, like Sacramento and really all state capitals, they don’t tolerate street music,” Tooter said. “Tucson is a college and tourist town, snowbirds, you know. It reminds me of Mallory Street in Key West (Fla.) or Beale Street in Memphis. In Tucson we got the smile rule. If there’s a dirty person and clean person talking to each other on the street and both are smiling, the cops don’t care. So keep smiling, dude.”
Feel the beat downtown
In the beating heart of downtown, the beat is so strong at the music venue on the ground floor of the Hotel Congress that its vibrations could be felt in a second-floor guest room on the other end of the hall.
On the same late February night that Miley Cyrus was playing US Airways Arena in Phoenix, Club Congress, the raucous club on the historic hotel’s southern flank, was hosting Lydia, an indie rock band from Gilbert, Ariz.; the a capella group Pentatonix, winner of season three of the TV show “The Sing Off,” was headlining across the street at the old Rialto Theater; and classic rocker George Thorogood was at the Fox Theater two blocks away.
Live music plays nearly every night of the week on a three-block stretch of Congress, and that has drawn people downtown after business hours, leading to a revival of a once-dormant culinary and bar scene and retail spaces such as galleries, artisan jewelry stores (including one that sells rings made with kiddie marbles) and the requisite coffee shops.
But the Hotel Congress, well, complex, you could call it, is the downtown nexus. Built in 1919 to serve passengers on layovers along the Southern Pacific Rail Line, the hotel used to be known as the last place famous gangster John Dillinger laid his head (Room 214) before being captured by Tucson police on North 2nd Avenue.
Now, the Congress is helping separate customers from their money by appealing to folks’ stomachs, ears and livers.
The hotel itself is like bedding down in an Edward Hopper painting (though not as depressing). All the rooms have a 1930s feel, complete with black rotary phones connecting to a lobby switchboard, period-specific furniture and lamps, lack of a TV, and plumbing with the original pipes. The lobby was described by the check-in clerk as “Southwestern Deco” and, indeed, the dark, ornate walls featuring glyphs, as well as original Western paintings by the late Tucson artist Pete Martinez, who often bedded down in the hotel.
On one side of the lobby is the Cup Cafe, which the Arizona Daily Star routinely awards “Best of Tucson” culinary honors. On the other side is the Tap Room, which the Los Angeles Times has called a “cult favorite” of the rock ’n’ roll set. You’re liable to see members of Calexico or ZZ Top belly up to the bar and punch the jukebox to a Patsy Cline ballad.
The Hotel Congress’ entertainment hegemony carries over across Toole Street, where the high-end, small plate Maynard’s Market & Kitchen dominates the renovated train depot. But please note, true to Tucson’s utilitarian nature, Amtrak trains still rumble by and stop at the depot, and the market half of the fancy restaurant lets you take sandwiches and baked goods to go.
New life for Old Town
A century or so after the Spanish built the presidio in 1775 to wall off Tucson from would-be invaders, the Mexicans built adobe structures encircling the fort in what now is Old Town, a low-rise section dwarfed by the few nearby downtown skyscrapers.
Those adobe structures remain, and the erstwhile Telles Block, originally a block of connected Sonoran row houses but later being used as affordable housing, legal or medical office buildings and other low-end retail, now has gained new life as a shopping, dining and art gallery hub called Old Town Artisans.
“This is the oldest most continually occupied building, since 1855,” said Jo Schneider, who owns two businesses there, Art House Centro and La Cocina Cantina. “Walk into our art house, you’ll see the old saguaro-ribbed ceiling, the original adobe walls, wall paper imported from china. Down the street is El Charro, the oldest Mexican restaurant in the country owned by the same family. And, of course, there’s the presidio. There’s just so much history around here.”
Not much of the original presidio still stands, said docent Bob Moser, who is eager to show visitors the two layers of adobe underground (but just barely piercing the sandy surface). “Everything else has been re-created as historically accurate as they could,” he added.
On the second Saturday of the month, October through April, Moser and other volunteers dress in period garb and re-create life in the presidio (both under Spanish and Mexican rule) for visitors as part of Living History Days. Highlights include cooking bread in a wood-fired oven, tortillas atop a crude cast-iron stove, the hourly blast from the bronzed howitzer cannon and men dressed as regiment soldiers “firing muskets and pistols whenever they get the urge.”
A 21/2-mile walking tour, called the Presidio Trail, gives a newcomer a deep sense of history. You can ogle everything from a statue of Pancho Villa given to Tucson from Mexican authorities in 1981 – ironic since Villa often ventured this far north with his outlaw gang – to the Barrio Viejo row houses of the late 1800s, a block away from El Tiradito.
Among the saguaros
The Tucson area’s real trails, the ones so popular with hikers, beckon in the Sonoran Desert mountains in every direction. In the east part of Saguaro National Park lie the Rincon Mountains and the well-used trails of Sabino Canyon. To the north is Picacho Peak and Catalina Park. But if you have only time for one trek, it’s best to head west less than 30 minutes from downtown to do the 7.5-mile trip to the top of Wasson Peak in Saguaro National Park.
Because you’re scaling a mountain, gaining 2,340 feet in altitude and summiting at 4,687 feet, it’s not easy. But the views, both up-close of the giant saguaros and the desert valley below, make it worth it.
If you start from the Kings Canyon Trail head, and follow Kings Canyon to the Sweetwater Trail, you get all the rocky, technical parts out of the way in the 3-mile ascension. On the longer loop back on the Hugh Norris, Sendero Esperanza and Gould Mine trails, it’s much smoother going and mostly gentle downhill to the car.
Once finished, drive back only a 10th of a mile to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, almost entirely outside featuring animals native to Southern Arizona you might not see on the trails (deer, kestrels, gray foxes) or don’t want to see on the trails (mountain lions, black bears, rattlesnakes).
Make sure to time your visit to coincide with the 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. Raptor Free Flight demonstration, in which trainers unleash hawks, horned owls and falcons, who soar and swoop, sometimes within inches of visitors’ heads, before perching on command and receiving a treat from the handler.
This is about as close to a raptor as you’ll likely to get, but before the show most people didn’t believe how close. When docent Jan Hollack warned parents not to put their little ones on their shoulders and for visitors to keep their cameras below the top of their head, people chuckled. Those chuckles turned to astonished gasps when a great horned owl or a Ferruginous hawk nearly clipped the tops of people’s heads with Hitchcockian intent.
“One came right between us,” said Massachusetts tourist Ron Zimmerman, forced to duck with wife Susan from a speedy prairie falcon. “At one point, it almost got part of my head. But I got some great photos. This is the second time this week we’ve been here, so I knew where to point.”
Indeed, the smart tourist, in Phoenix for spring training or just a vacation, knows which way to point for good time. That would be south.
• Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. (520) 622-8848; hotelcongress.com
• The Cup Cafe (inside Hotel Congress)
• Maynard’s Market and Kitchen, 400 N. Toole Ave. (520) 545-0577. www.maynardsmarkettucson.com
• La Poca Cosa, 110 E. Pennington St. (520) 622-6400. www.cafepocacosatucson.com
• La Cocina Cantina, 201 N. Court Ave. (520) 622-0351 lacocinatucson.com
• Club Congress (inside Hotel Congress)
• Rialto Theater, 318 Congress St. (520) 740-1000
• Fox Theater, 17 W. Congress St. (520) 624-1515; www.foxtucsontheatre.org
• The Screening Room (foreign, independent films), 127 E. Congress. (520) 882-0204
• Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road., Tucson; www.desertmuseum.org
4th Avenue Shopping
• Antigone Books, 411 North 4th Ave.; www.antigonebooks.com
• Hippy Gyspy, 351 North 4th Ave.; (520) 624-0667
• Celestial Rites, 420 East 7th St.; (520) 344-4203
• No Where to Land, 414 East 7th St.; (440) 527-3844
• Pop Cycle, 422 North 4th Ave.; www.popcycleshop.com
Wassen Peak Loop (7.5 miles), Saguaro National Park: Trail head is 0.1 of a mile northeast of the entrance to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson. Hiking directions: Starting from the Kings Cayon Trail head, go northeast and continue on Kings Canyon after the junction with the Sendero Esperanza Trail at the 1-mile mark. After a further 1.3 miles, turn left on the Sweetwater Trail. Take that 0.8 of a mile and turn right on the Wassen Peak Trail. Take that 0.3 of a mile to the summit. Return to the junction, and turn right to go on the unmarked Hugh Norris Trail for 1.6 miles. Turn left and take the Esperanza Trail (look for arrow to the Mam-A-Geh picnic area) for 1 mile. Turn right on the Gould Mine Trail and go 1.1 miles to the Kings Canyon Trail head.