Arizona is a state of contradictions.
On the US political map, most of it is a deep shade of red, but it’s also home to some of the most diverse cities in America. Most of the place is a desert, but it’s lush enough to grow vineyards. It’s a modern state, but with a more than a touch of the Old West about it.
And I was ready for an old-fashioned American adventure. I landed in Phoenix, hired a car, and took a road trip through the southern part of the state.
Hitting the road
I visited three cities: Phoenix, Arizona’s largest city, and its capital; Bisbee, a tiny former mining town about 3.5 hours’ drive from Phoenix; and Tucson, about halfway between the others, the former state capital, and home to the University of Arizona. Thanks to the ease with which American interstates can be tackled, you can comfortably navigate this route in a week.
As mentioned earlier, Arizona is pretty darn lush. There were a couple of days of belting rain when I visited in December (it’s sunny about 85% of the year), but if the state got any more rain, it would lose desert status altogether. This makes the Sonoran Desert feel more alive that you’d ever expect.
A note about driving in the USA. This was my first time doing so and it was the easiest thing I ever did (and, driving along the Gate Pass Road towards the Desert Museum, of the most beautiful).
My only advice is to make sure you have a satnav and, if you can, consider getting a car that’s a step up from the economy model. The distances are vast – I traveled a little over 700 miles in a week – so you’ll want to know exactly where you’re going, and you’ll want to be sat in something comfortable.
The best way to experience the deserts is to get into them. By night, I made for the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix for Electric Desert. This is an immersive experience, where the desert is brought spectacularly to life using lights and music. Seeing a mountain (a small one, admittedly, but a mountain’s a mountain) illuminated while a Mexican band sang Christmas songs was a spine-tingling experience.
I started my time in Tucson with a tour from Tucson Bike Tours. Spending just a couple of hours with my guide, Jim, brought the whole of the city to life. This included the huge, just-like-the-movies University of Arizona campus and an accompanying frat house, where I may’ve imagined I was in House Bunny.
It’s a fantastic way to get under the skin of Tucson’s history, see some super-pretty houses, and explore the city’s relationship with the desert. At two hours long, I thought I’d build up an appetite for dinner (or at least burn off breakfast) but, as we stopped midway for the very best empanada I’ve ever eaten, my calorie deficit remained non-existent.
Sufficiently biked-out, I headed to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is a veritable treasure chest of life in the desert. Reached through the Gateway Pass, probably the prettiest road I’ve ever driven along, it’s less a museum and more a zoo.
I got up close and personal with the surprisingly large number of critters that call the Sonoran home. My favorite was the mountain lion who was clearly used to tourists, and gave zero f***s about being on display. I was also very much there for the river otters (…not for that reason) and the hummingbird aviary was breathtaking. The museum also offers a selection of nicely thought-out trails, so you can lose yourself in the desert without actually getting lost.
Desert-based, but not desert-related, the PIMA Air & Space Museum, outside of Tuscon, is essentially a giant parking lot for old planes. I gaped at the Air Force One that ferried JFK around the world and stood in awe at the permanent exhibition on women in flight.
A particularly poignant moment came as I admired a B-52 that flew over Germany during WWII. The elderly guide, Richard, started telling me his story. He was based in Norfolk, UK, during the war, flying B-52s. An attack of food poisoning meant he couldn’t fly one morning, but the rest of his crew set off.
Their plane was shot down over Germany in 1942. There were no survivors.
Eating through Arizona
Arizona was once a part of Mexico, (it didn’t become part of the US until the mid-1800s), and where you’re most likely to feel this Mexican history is in Arizona’s food.
Forget the usual Tex-Mex mush, you’ll find some truly delectable tacos at Contessa’s Cantina in Bisbee and Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails in Tucson. The latter has a mouthwatering locally and seasonally based menu. I also loved Tucson’s Barrio Bread. Its hand-crafted loaves are obscenely delicious; trust me when I say that you’ve not tasted bread until you’ve tasted a warm jalapeño-cheddar loaf.
The culinary highlight of my trip was Phoenix’s Barrio Café. Run by Silvana Esparza, who gave up everything at the age of 41, bought a backpack and set off on an adventure through Mexico. She visited every region, finding out what they cooked and how they cooked it, before opening Barrio (no relation to Barrio Bread) with her then-partner, Wendy, in 2002.
The food is magnificent; far, far removed from the nasty tacos and yellow cheese you associate with Tex-Mex. Everything I tasted at Barrio was an explosion for the senses. The colors and flavors left me longing for a stomach twice the size of my own. Whatever you do, leave space for the churros.
Scouting the scene
Given that you’re reading Gay Star News, there’s the chance that you’ll want to sample the scenes in some of the places you visit.
More importantly, you’ll want to know you’re safe doing so. Here I bring good tidings. All three of the destinations I sampled were liberal, welcoming and, in my opinion, very safe. (While we’re chatting about bigotry, it’s also worth noting that no one I spoke to in the Arizona thought Trump’s wall was anything other than a bad idea.)
Phoenix and Tucson have thriving LGBTI scenes; there’s a wealth of bars and restaurants, and a live and let live attitude that permeates both cities. Indeed, the LGBTI people I spoke to felt just as comfortable in ‘straight’ bars and restaurants as any space on the scene.
The biggest surprise, however, was Bisbee. Officially the City of Bisbee, it’s really no more than a large village, with just over 5,500 full-time residents. You’d be forgiven for thinking that small-town, southern America would be just what you expect.
It isn’t. It’s like a desert version of Brighton. The very first thing I saw as I drove into the town was a rainbow crosswalk. This was followed, almost immediately, by a shop proudly flying the rainbow flag. The city’s probably the the smallest place I’ve ever visited that has its own pride – every June.
Beyond the queerness, it’s a wonderful, bizarre place; like someone’s mixed small-town America with a winding hill town in Italy. There are over 1,000 stairs in Bisbee, making exploration more of a hike. If, like Mariah and I, you don’t do stairs, you can book a jeep tour. They’re big, purple versions of the jeep Stuart Jones from Queer as Folk drove.
The tours take in the smallest bar in Arizona – the Silver King, an establishment with four seats – and the old town jail, which John Wayne converted into a home. I also headed to Erie street, just outside of the town. It’s been preserved as it was in the 50s: with an old-school diner and classic American motors littering the sidewalk, and was easily the most Instagrammable man-made stop on my trip.
Friends in the desert
I left Arizona on a high. It’s easily one of the prettiest and friendliest states I’ve visited so far. The food is divine, the landscape magnificent and the people warm. I don’t feel like I’ve begun to scratch the surface. I’ll be back for sure.
Plan your trip to Arizona at visitarizona.com.
Author: Andrew Gonsalves
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