The Ultimate Road Trip

An excerpt of a story from the June 2018 issue of Arizona Highways. To read the full story, pick up a copy of the magazine. | By Matt Jaffe | Photograph by Randy Prentice

The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip

EDITOR'S NOTE: It’s been almost 60 years since we first did a story like this. The original, which was titled When the Open Road Calls, ran in our September 1960 issue. The tour that year began in Monument Valley and ended at Gila Bend. It was a 10-day trip, and we gave it 20 pages. This time around, we’ve set aside the entire feature well — 36 pages — for Matt Jaffe’s re-creation of the ultimate Arizona road trip. Although many things have changed since Joyce Rockwood Muench and her husband, Josef, made their journey, the theme remains the same: There’s nothing like a summer road trip in Arizona. So, throw the kids in the station wagon, buckle up and hit the road.

Rolling down U.S. Route 60, past the old gem store and an abandoned two-story building in Morristown, my wife, Becky, and I recognize the mix of wistfulness and exhilaration coming over us as the Arizona outback gives way to Outback Steakhouse and the other unsurprising franchises of suburban Surprise.

It’s the end of a 12-day, 2,100-mile road trip up, down and across Arizona. The inspiration for the drive came from a September 1960 Arizona Highways article by Joyce Rockwood Muench about an epic journey through the state that she and her husband, acclaimed photographer and magazine contributor Josef Muench, took six decades ago.

Becky and I were born to the road trip. She used to come to Arizona in a two-tone Oldsmobile Super 88, her mother behind the wheel and chain-smoking Newports, during annual 2,500-mile summer drives from New Jersey to visit grandparents in Prescott. Starting when she was 8, Becky kept a detailed ledger of gas purchases, hotel costs and spending on meals. She still writes the checks in our household.

With destinations from Colorado to Quebec City, my family would set out from Chicago, first in a series of battered Buicks, then in a Ford Galaxie 500 (Dad was auto agnostic). I was packed in the back seat with my brother and sister, while Mom rode shotgun. She was a fine woman but the world’s worst driver, and in an era when kids actually walked to school, she took an extended driving hiatus, leaving my father to cover the hundreds of daily vacation miles by himself.

Becky and I didn’t set out to retrace the Muenches’ route, but we hoped to recapture the spirit of their adventure by sticking to two-lane highways whenever possible as we hit icons such as the Grand Canyon and traveled to obscure pockets of the state. Roughly six times as many people live in Arizona now as lived here in 1960. But plenty of other things just don’t change within a lifetime.

Part 1: The Borderlands

Day 1: Squeegees, UFOs and a Mining Town

The outskirts of Phoenix skirt a lot farther out than they once did, and we don’t fully break free of the city until we turn south onto State Route 85 past Buckeye. It’s a familiar road: the bypass around Phoenix on the drive to Tucson from Los Angeles. So we tick off the landmarks: the broad, tamarisk-clogged channel of the Gila River (we always check for stream flows); the state prison, a little farther south; and Holt’s Shell, in Gila Bend. 

We so love this gas station.

People rarely rhapsodize about gas stations in their odes to the romance of the open road. But when you’re traveling, there is poetry in the practicalities. At Holt’s, the bathrooms are spacious and clean. The squeegees, their rubber blades eternally firm, are attached to extended rods for easier debugging of windshields. The squeegees wait at the ready in buckets perpetually filled, as if directly fed by upwellings from an aquifer of Windex.

Then there’s the art. Near the gas pumps, oxidized metal sculptures of velociraptors stand next to life-size replicas of the famous Western statue End of the Trail. Look around and you’ll find perfectly decent Mexican pottery and copious Kokopellis, too. But it’s the sheer randomness of the collection that proves positively hypnotic as your eye scans from shelves of Bud Light-swilling chimpanzees wearing cowboy hats to a beatific Our Lady of Guadalupe, and finally to lifelike iguanas gazing from rocks alongside beaming Minions.

Still far from the end of our trail, we quickly return to the road, bound for the old copper mining town of Ajo. The drive south across the creosote flats is largely uneventful, except for a brief passage through the craggy volcanic spires of Crater Range at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Becky has never been to Ajo, but I have a special affection for it. Back in March 1997, I experienced maybe the most cosmic 12 hours of my life when I witnessed the Phoenix Lights, the UFO phenomenon observed throughout the state, then Comet Hale-Bopp at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument south of town.

Things are decidedly more earthbound as we slowly orbit Ajo’s Spanish Colonial plaza. Ajo certainly has the dusty margins of a mining town, as well as an ample selection of places selling Mexican auto insurance. Its center, however, embodies grander ambitions. With its whitewashed arcades, palm trees and broad green lawn, the heart of Ajo is as romantic a small-town setting as you’ll find in Arizona. 

Mining towns are not typically thought of as beautiful cities. But Ajo has roots in the City Beautiful movement, the philosophy that emerged in the 19th century and sought to uplift the lives of residents through planning that emphasized public spaces and inspiring architecture. It was John Campbell Green-way, a mining manager and member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who, along with his wife, Isabella (founder of Tucson’s Arizona Inn), encouraged the development of the town center as the nearby New Cornelia copper mine boomed.

“The concept in Ajo was that you would come in to the train depot. That was the moment of arrival,” says Aaron Cooper, executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting economic development in the area. “Then you would walk out and see shopping and the churches and the schools, all in one vision, and think, I could see having a family here. As opposed to most of the mining communities at the time, where you would arrive and think, There’s the bar, there’s the brothel, and there’s the bunkhouse. All of those things were still in Ajo. But at least you wouldn’t see them right away.”

When the mine and smelter closed in 1985, Ajo pretty much shut down with them. After peaking at around 10,000, the town’s population dropped to around 2,000. By the early 1990s, the Curley School, the grand cupola-topped structure built as part of the original town design, was shuttered and began deteriorating. What becomes of a mining town when there is no mining? 

Cooper gives us a tour of the old school, where, as part of a $9.6 million renovation project, the ISDA converted classrooms into 30 artist spaces for living and working. We’re staying at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center, which has stylish, contemporary rooms that open onto a courtyard with a community garden. With mining long gone, the idea, Cooper says, is to find a future for Ajo centered on its Sonoran Desert setting, the creative energy of an emerging arts community, and the intersection of rich cultural influences — American, Tohono O’odham and Mexican — in this part of Arizona. In September, the ISDA sponsored Ajo’s annual International Day of Peace, a celebration that included a parade featuring folklórico dancers; a cheerleader troupe from Puerto Peñasco, Mexico; and federal Border Patrol agents.

“It was a celebration of being good neighbors and sharing the same desert,” Cooper says. “I always tell people that the farther you are from the border, the more black and white it is. The closer you are to the border, the more nuanced the issues become. It’s not a simple challenge.”

Day 2: A Glorious Stretch of Nothing and No One

The coyotes howl through the night, and in the morning, we take a meandering walk around town, past the old hospital and the mine overlook, then back to the plaza. A block away, we wander into Artists’ Alley, where vibrant, socially conscious murals, many created during a 2015 weeklong paint-in, adorn the walls.

Establishing a pattern that will increasingly haunt us as the trip progresses, we get off to a late start, forcing us to forsake Organ Pipe. Passing U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Ajo Station as speeding Puerto Peñasco-bound traffic continues south, we follow the signs for Tucson, heading east on State Route 86 and into the Tohono O’odham Nation. 

If you want to imagine yourself in the Arizona of 1940, albeit while driving an SUV with keyless ignition and satellite radio, then this is your road. Between Why and the edge of Tucson, it’s a glorious stretch of nothing and no one, through desert sufficiently isolated to support a population of Sonoran pronghorns, one of North America’s rarest mammals. 

We pass an intersection — Hickiwan to the left and Gu Vo to the right. The mesquites and creosotes are leafed out, while the ocotillos, their leaves glowing gold, offer a bit of fall color, Sonoran Desert style. A few westbound cars roar by, but no one appears in our rearview mirror for a good 45 miles. 

The road runs beneath the observatories high on Kitt Peak before we fight our way through construction on the edge of Tucson, a shock to the system after so much emptiness. So is southbound Interstate 19, although the 70-mile drive to the border is one of the more intriguing sections of interstate in Arizona.

In a bit more than 40 miles, you can go from the grandeur of an 18th century altar, at Mission San Xavier del Bac, to the front lines of the Cold War, inside a silo at the Titan Missile Museum. Then you can time-travel back to the arrival of the Spanish at Tubac and Tumacácori National Historical Park as the highway signs count down the distance to Mexico in both miles and kilometers.

South of the town of Tumacacori, we stick to the frontage road, the old Nogales Highway, and travel past ranches as we parallel the Santa Cruz River. It’s almost dark by the time we rejoin the interstate. First, a coyote dashes across the lanes. Then, a mile up, we see an unfamiliar silhouette: an animal low to the ground, with a long snout and tail. The surprisingly fast coati sprints in front of us. 

In the hills outside Nogales, we cross the sandy channel of the Santa Cruz and climb to our inn, the Hacienda Corona de Guevavi. Arriving after dark is hardly ideal, but it adds to the dreamy feeling as we enter a courtyard where delicate frescoes adorn adobe walls nearly 2 feet thick. There are scenes of Mexican village life — women in embroidered peasant dresses, men wearing sombreros and serapes. One man leads a burro; another balances on his head a cage filled with green parrots, some fluttering freely, as the women sell calabacitas, flowers and a basket of doves.

We’re greeted by owner Nisa Stover, who shows us to the John Wayne Room, which the actor used as a getaway after discovering this part of Arizona while filming Red River. Wayne befriended and went into business with Ralph Wingfield, whose ranch here was one of the most historic in Arizona.

Stover puts together an impromptu dinner, its centerpiece a crusty loaf from Tucson’s Barrio Bread, and does her best to convey both the ranch’s long history and the events that led to her unlikely move to the Arizona borderlands. Originally 2,000 acres, the ranch dates to a Spanish settlement at the end of the 17th century. It was here that Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established his first mission in the present-day United States. The site later became one of Southern Arizona’s most influential cattle ranches. 

While her parents had deep ties to Arizona, Stover mostly grew up in Connecticut. Her mother, Wendy, worked for Orion Pictures in New York City, while her father, Philip, at one time an aspiring singer-songwriter, owned a restaurant. The Stovers had always wanted to operate a bed and breakfast, and as they looked for an opportunity on the East Coast, her mother heard the Guevavi property was available. 

She went to Arizona and sneaked onto the property to make pictures. “My mother came back and said, ‘Look at this gem!’ ” Stover says. “It was not a gem. But a few weeks later, my dad came out and said he thought it was all just meant to be. I thought they had lost their marbles — that this is what a midlife crisis looks like.”

The Stovers bought the house in 2002. Wisteria grew across the walkway and up the walls of the entrance, and when the couple began pulling away the vines, they began to realize how extensive the murals were.

An artist named Salvador Corona began painting the murals in 1944. Corona longed to be an artist but planned to go into bullfighting. Fate, in the form of a bull’s horn, intervened when Corona was gored in the leg. “His father really encouraged him to pursue art, because he knew it was something that Salvador liked and that he would be good at,” Stover says.

After extensive work on the house, the Stovers opened the hacienda within a year and a half. They designed a brand for the property that captures the ranch’s history: A cross, symbolizing the old mission, sits atop a crown honoring Corona, which rests on a curved line representing the ranch’s hills. 

Stover, who had moved to the San Diego area to work in high-end interior design and be within driving distance of her parents, never expected to live out here. But following her father’s death, and with her mother ill with cancer, she moved to the hacienda and stayed for more than two years. When Wendy passed away, and with foreclosure looming, Stover made the quick, life-changing decision to take over the historic hacienda. 

“No way in hell did I think I was going to be in Nogales,” she says. “But this place is a gift that my parents left to me and my girls, and to my brother and his children. I can watch my kids running around and catching frogs and riding horses. And the most important thing is, I wanted my kids to know who my parents were. What it means to have a vision when everybody else says you’re nuts. To work really, really hard to achieve that goal, and for each other. To hold on to what you’re given. And there’s just something about this property that draws people at different times, for different reasons.”

Day 3: A Stagecoach on a Side Street, and a Harlot on a Harley

State Route 82 travels past the turnoff for the terminal building and lone runway at Nogales International Airport, the Sky Harbor of Santa Cruz County, on its way to Patagonia, 17 miles from the hacienda. With our night’s destination, the Dreamcatcher Bed and Breakfast near Chiricahua National Monument, 200 miles away, we move into trip triage mode, trying to plan a manageable day during a drive packed with destinations.

On the edge of Patagonia, the highway reaches Sonoita Creek’s cottonwood bosque, the first real forest we’ve seen during the drive. The trees are just beginning to show their fall hues, but the play of colors is more vibrant outside Sonoita. Billowing, fast-moving clouds cruise the cerulean sky, casting shadows that race across the golden rangelands stretching east, toward the Huachuca Mountains.

SR 82 drops to the San Pedro River on the approach to Tombstone. Confession: Although I’ve watched John Ford’s Tombstone classic My Darling Clementine multiple times, I’ve never actually gone to see the re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which actually happened a few doors down, but “the Gunfight in a Vacant Lot on Fremont Street” doesn’t quite have the same ring). 

I’m also more intrigued by a gunfight’s coda than by its forensics: Wyatt Earp outlived the Clantons, the McLaurys and Billy Claiborne by more than 40 years. In 1929, the 80-year-old Earp finally rode off into the sunset, in Los Angeles of all places, before the onetime Dodge City lawman’s ashes were interred at a Jewish cemetery outside San Francisco.

Earp stuck around long enough to see stories like his inspire dime novels, then silent movies. He even went to Hollywood himself and worked as a technical adviser on some early Westerns, befriending movie cowboys William S. Hart and Tom Mix (killed in a 1940 car accident outside Florence), who served as Earp’s pallbearers. When the legend becomes fact, film the legend.

We won’t make it to the shootout today. High noon has already come and gone, and after getting stuck behind a stagecoach on a Tombstone side street, we leave town, continuing south and through the looking glass of the Mule Pass Tunnel, with Bisbee waiting on the other side.

I’m from Chicago, but Bisbee is my kind of town. It’s all brick and stone walls, with staircases climbing toward hills so red, they appear to have rusted. Faded advertising signs cover the sides of buildings, while inlaid tile mosaic entryways for long-forgotten businesses survive as ghostly reminders of Bisbee’s boom days. Legend has it that Bisbee was the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, which isn’t true. But considering the productivity of the local copper mines and the solidity of Bisbee’s architecture, it’s easy to see how that myth took hold.

Becky and I walk around Bisbee, then up to the courthouse area to see the heroic “Copper Man” statue, before meandering back to the car. There’s a woman wearing a period bordello costume and riding on the back of a motorcycle — a harlot on a Harley — and musicians carrying guitars and rolling a drum set through an alley. Something’s happening in town. Or maybe it’s just another Friday afternoon in Bisbee.

Past Pirtleville (for the record, named for founder Elmo R. Pirtle), we turn south, down Pan American Avenue in Douglas, toward Mexico, then drive along International Avenue, which parallels the border and might be the southernmost city street in Arizona. The avenue’s modest homes look toward a mesh fence, a trench and a higher iron barrier with tightly spaced vertical slats. Through the gaps, we catch broken glimpses of the trees and buildings in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

Pan American Avenue is lined by the greatest hits of U.S. franchises: first O’Reilly Auto Parts, then AutoZone, Carl’s Jr. and McDonald’s. After this anonymous Americana is the downtown’s Gadsden Hotel. Opened in 1907 and older than the state of Arizona itself, it offers some welcome Douglas history. It’s the old smelter town’s most famous landmark, and while I had expected the faded glory of past visits, as we enter the lobby, the hotel is alive with the sounds of norteño music.

A local family has rented the entire hotel for a weekend party to celebrate the matriarch’s 95th birthday. She’s retired from her job working for the justice of the peace, but we’re told she still likes to get out on the dance floor. The band — sharp-dressed men out of Agua Prieta, three in white cowboy hats and two in black, but all wearing boots tapering to points that could cut diamonds — rehearses a set of standards. 

We walk up the white marble staircase, the only surviving feature from the original hotel after a fire in the late 1920s, and listen from the mezzanine, where sunlight pours through a 42-foot-long stained-glass mural depicting a Sonoran Desert panorama of saguaros, ocotillos and prickly pears. 

The musicians step down from the stage with their instruments, the drummer with just his snare, and launch into Ramón Ayala’s Que Me Lleve el Diablo (“Let the Devil Take Me”) for three family members sipping beer while lounging on sofas set between the lobby’s pink marble columns.

North of Douglas, on U.S. Route 191, the late-afternoon sun shimmers on the silver grain silos outside Elfrida as a flock of sandhill cranes, in their “V” formation, wings overhead, bound for the wetlands at Whitewater Draw. A few miles from the inn, a ringtail runs across the road. We’re happy to settle in just before dark, even though a planned hike in Chiricahua National Monument will have to wait until morning.

There's more to this story. A lot more. To read it, pick up a copy of the July 2018 issue of Arizona Highways.