Desert, sky and history await visitors to Tucson

Destination Arizona

March 19, 2006|By ROBERT CROSS | ROBERT CROSS,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TUCSON, Ariz. / / I went for the warmth, of course, and because Tucson's sprawl embraces classic scenery and classic places. The nickname, "Old Pueblo," hints at that.

Yet there's a city here, too, with a bit of downtown arts culture and a university, both commanding space that might otherwise be taken up by yet another lending institution.

After I arrived, I drove directly to a residential neighborhood only a few blocks away from the commercial eyesores that neighborhoods need -- gas stations, dry cleaners, convenience stores and fast-food emporia.

The classics of Tucson typically hide behind or beyond the strip malls and parking lots. That especially holds true for the Arizona Inn, an urban oasis and my initial hideaway. The Inn celebrated its 75th anniversary in December. The pink buildings, broad lawns and colorful flowerbeds had been in place long before the strip malls arrived, but they huddle together in such a pleasing way that nothing outside can intrude.

Long ago, the "outside" was mostly raw desert and Old West discomfort. Inside the Arizona Inn, lodgers could find refuge from all that.

Isabella Greenway, Arizona's first congresswoman and an Eleanor Roosevelt confidant, built the Arizona Inn as an antidote to the Great Depression, so the story goes. Greenway's furniture factory, The Arizona Hut, faltered alarmingly after the 1929 stock market crash. She feared she might be forced to lay off workers, many of whom were disabled World War I veterans.

Building an inn, she figured, would alleviate the unemployment problem. An inn needs chairs, beds and tables, right? So the factory kept going, making the hotel's furniture, and the inn flourished as a retreat. Lodgers included Hollywood's rich and famous since the dawn of talkies. Spencer Tracy stayed there. So did Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.

Show business luminaries still arrive, according to tight-lipped staff members, but their identities cannot be revealed, because the inn's specialty is "privacy, quiet and sunshine," with an emphasis on the privacy.

Before taking lunch on the Audubon Bar patio, I explored the premises. Nicely restored ladderback chairs from the old factory still graced the dining room. The leather furniture, wood beams, polished wood and immense fireplace in the library exuded dignity.

My room had the rather small dimensions of the old days, when visitors didn't require large televisions, desks for their laptops and refrigerated minibars. Somehow, the Arizona Inn has gracefully squeezed all the modern conveniences into units that appear more spacious than they really are.

But the bath gleamed white with luxury. You could picture the tub surrounded by candles and scattered with rose petals.

Anyway, Arizona is more about the outdoors, so one day I headed for Old Tucson and the Desert Museum.

Those are two separate entities that happen to be in the same vicinity. And they are not far from Saguaro National Park, where I could get a surfeit of cactus if the need arose. That park is magical, full of the iconic Arizona giants as far as the eye can see.

Old Tucson is a movie-set town -- fake but realistically dusty -- that functions primarily as an amusement park, now that Canada serves as the Old West for filmmakers daring enough to re-try the old genre.

Plaques here and there remind visitors that Ronald Reagan filmed The Last Outpost there in 1950. John Wayne was practically a fixture in Old Tucson, where he starred in Rio Lobo, El Dorado and McLintock. Movies, TV series and commercial makers still use the sets from time to time.

I walked the unpaved streets for awhile and admired how authentic the buildings have been made to look -- weather-beaten, slightly askew, boards unevenly nailed. The old mission looked especially realistic from the front. After it made appearances in Tombstone and Three Amigos, a fire in 1995 nearly destroyed it. Now only the facade remains, propped up by framework in the back.

The genuine old Tucson in the 19th century was a struggling, hard-scrabble burg that began to improve, fitfully, only after the railroad came through in 1880.

In the outskirts of town, the desert still isn't hard to find, but only one place makes total sense out of it -- the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, a few miles west of Old Tucson.

It's less a museum in the usual sense than a chunk of desert laced with trails, abloom with native plants and shelter for a variety of indigenous wildlife held in captivity but surrounded by nature.

In fact, I could scope out miles of desert from there, an endless vista that can look disheartening at best and threatening at worst.

But up close, within the confines of the Desert Museum, visitors get a full explanation. They learn about the botanicals involved, the interactions between plants and climate. They see reptiles, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, coyotes, peccaries and a mountain lion in what appear to be genuine habitats.

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