Arizona’s Tucson, its desert and history




There may be bluer skies, but it’s hard to imagine them, when you look up from the broad sidewalks of Tucson — the Arizona city, said to have 360 sunny days a year.

Moreover, it’s surrounded by vast stretches of Sonoran Desert, sun-washed and sprinkled with green Saguaro.

It’s also just a short drive from the city to one of North America’s most history-laden sites — a church dating to the 17th century — a fine example of Spanish architecture. It’s a mission, inspired by a famed Jesuit, and the repository of a past rich enough to draw historians and travellers from all over the world.

The city of Tucson, to which we’ve been several times, has a population of about 850,000, many of whom — other than a large contingent of retirees — are employed in corporate, professional, or academic life. The academics are at the city’s respected University of Arizona, with its 350-acre campus and 35,000 students.

Downtown Tucson is a lively and affluent area embracing three districts: Barrio Historico, El Presidio, and Armory Park. The downtown is ideal for walkers. On a first visit some years ago, I remember a city guide saying: “One convenience about our downtown is that, on foot, in an hour, you’ll see great variety and diversity, from history to cuisine to culture.” You can stroll through two centuries of Tucson past, some of it adobe houses, a form of brick composed of mud and straw.

It’s natural, on a visit to Tucson, to stay in a historic inn. We stayed in what’s probably the city’s most historic, El Presidio. A century old, surrounded by the past, it was opened 27 years ago by Patti and Jerri Toci. It’s set in a lush space with a quiet courtyard and a large stone fountain. Patti is a gift; she knows Tucson’s history as if she taught it.

One day a guide who knows the desert well — dressed in cowboy garb including a holster with a pistol in it — took me on an expedition into the Sonoran. The sun was high and hot, the desert unlike the image we have of barren space void of colour. The Sonoran flourishes with life of most kinds, mammals, reptiles, 350 species of birds and more than 2,000 species of native plants.

The famous Saguaro (its flower is the state wildflower of Arizona,) grows by itself in the wild, nurtured by nature. The Saguaro is not just populous in Tucson, it’s precious to the point of almost being sacred. That’s why I’ll always remember how vivid my guide made Tucson’s attachment to the Saguaro.

“We speak of them in human terms,” he said, “they don’t have branches, they have arms.” A few months earlier, a man tried to cut down a Saguaro, it toppled on him and he lost his life. Tragic indeed. But the heading over a local newspaper article noting the incident read: “Swift Arizona justice.”

Among the most history-laden buildings in this famed U.S. desert country is a soaring Catholic Church. It was established as a mission, one of more than 20 given to history through the creativity and leadership of history’s great Jesuits.

He was a gifted man named Eusebio Francisco Kino, from northern Italy, who while still young was a theologian, a mathematician, an astronomer and a missionary.

He also wrote a book on astronomy, an account of the Great Comet of 1680, in which Kino was able to chart the course the comet took from Europe to Mexico. Indeed, a brilliant man.

The native people called him “the padre on horseback.” His mission’s striking church, San Xavier del Bac, its creation dating to the 1690s, and once called “The Sistine Chapel of the U.S.” is on Mission Road.

Barbara and I spent an hour or more simply walking around the church and through its sanctuary, which gives a sense of having risen from the desert soil beneath. It’s a moving experience, a reminder of the deep and vivid history and of native people worshipping here for centuries.

The interior is made unforgettable by paintings, statues and imaginary angels holding candles to light the way of life.

We sat in a pew and could listen to a voice taking us through the mission’s history: one of more than 20 historic missions in the area, all of Jesuit heritage; its design reflecting three cultural styles, Byzantine, Moorish and Mexican baroque, its walls, in some places two metres thick. It was, as is a visit to Tucson and the lands that surround it, an experience — like all our visits to Tucson — that we shall not forget.


Kenneth Bagnell is a travel writer based in Toronto.