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Tucson Rising: So Hot it's Cool

622-8848), in the Hotel Congress. Monday night brings the Funkin' Disco party. It bills itself as a video shop, but the highlight of the Pink Motel (3226 E. Speedway Blvd.; 520/318-3500) is its 1950's-style Java Juke Joint café, with the town's best jukebox.
Tuesdays swing with Kings of Pleasure, a band that plays at the lava-lamped and leopard-wallpapered Shelter Cocktail Lounge (4155 E. Grant Rd.; 520/326-1345). Your choice, window or aisle, at the kitschy new Airport Lounge (20 E. Pennington St.; 520/882-0400).
Saturdays sizzle at Toma! (311 N. Court Ave.; 520/622-1922). Sip a margarita while lingering by the sombrero fountain.

Missions Accomplished

As the Spanish spread Catholicism throughout Arizona in the 17th and 18th centuries, they blanketed the desert with missions. Two of the most evocative are a short drive from Tucson. Nicknamed White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier del Bac Mission (1950 W. San Xavier Rd.; 520/294-2624) is usually jammed with sightseers, so the best time to go is 8 a.m., before it officially opens. Driving south from the city, you'll see San Xavier in the distance, rising like the Taj Mahal from the flatness.

A few workers may be scurrying about, finishing up the $2 million, six-year renovation spearheaded by a joint team from New York City's Guggenheim Museum and from Italy and Turkey (some of the techniques used to restore the Sistine Chapel's paintings were applied here). The inside of the church is unbelievable: gleaming statues and up to 60-foot-high walls covered with murals. It's cool and quiet, save for the whispered prayers of a worshiper or two. In the tiny mortuary chapel next to the church, hundreds of colorful saint candles burn. Two of the area's early missionaries are buried under the chapel's stone floor.

An hour south of San Xavier del Bac, Tumacacori Mission (1891 E. Frontage Rd., Tumacacori; 520/398-2341) lends itself better to long, introspective visits. That is, if you can find it: even though it's right off the highway, Tumacacori is tough to spot.

Outside the adobe mission, birds flit through the tree-shaded courtyard. Inside, chants echo through the otherwise silent chapel and paper flowers peek from the nave.

Wonder Walls

Nothing shows Tucson's Latin American heritage more than the city's Diego Rivera-inspired murals. The trend started in the 1950's and 60's, when several local banks commissioned artists to paint their interiors; 20 years later, artists took to the streets; in the 1980's, the city began to offer financial support. Tucson now has more than 150 murals. Keep an eye out for . . .
Nuestros RaÌces Humanas and Nuestra Futura by David Tineo and Antonio Pazos (Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.). The evolution of Latino culture, depicted in the city's most famous installation.
Share the Bounty by the Tucson Arts Brigade (400 N. Fourth Ave.). The agricultural process, from planting to harvest.
Homage to Tucson by Lydia D'Amico (300 N. Fourth Ave.). Food and women, representing rural and urban Tucson.
A Show of Hands by Eddie Dominguez (Martin Luther King Jr. Apartment Building, 1 N. Fifth Ave.). Created by the artist and 500 schoolchildren.
The Thinkers by Eleanor Kohloss (Fourth Ave. and Sixth St.). After interviewing passers-by, the artist painted them with thought bubbles over their heads.
Cats by Monika Rossa (36 E. Congress St.). Huge felines playing in the desert.
Truly Nolen by Jamie Metz (3620 N. Speedway Blvd.). Chosen as readers' favorite mural in last year's Tucson Weekly best-of-the-city poll. A display of bright yellow cars, sunflowers, and bees, on-of all things-the offices of a pest-control company.

For a guide to murals in the city, published in 1994 but still a valuable resource, call the Tucson/Pima Arts Council; 520/624-0595.

A Ghost-Town Drive

Imagine the archetypal ghost town: tumbleweeds rolling down dirt streets past burned-out saloons and the half-crumbled walls of an old jail. You certainly don't expect women in flouncy skirts and trampy makeup, men duded up in holsters and cowboy hats, and regularly scheduled gunfights. But that's what you get in Tombstone, Arizona's most famous ghost town. "The town too tough to die," it's called, though these days it's more touristed than tough. The smartest way to avoid the throngs is to take a 90-mile drive along the Ghost Town Trail, which branches off Route 80 at Tombstone. While you won't get the theme-park experience, you will see genuine ruins of three old mining towns backed by green and umber Arizona desert.

As you make your way down the precarious dirt-and-rock road, you might contemplate turning back. Don't. Follow the makeshift signs for John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts (Gleeson Rd.; 520/ 642-9207), possibly the weirdest shop ever. In 1979, owners John and Sandy Weber quit their jobs in Rockford, Illinois, hoping to leave civilization behind; they succeeded so well that they're rarely even at the boutique they opened in their RV. If you want to buy any of the Webers' wares-everything from wallets to earrings to night-lights, all made from their only neighbors, rattlesnakes-just drop some cash in the wooden mailbox.

Next stop is a copper-mining town built in 1900 and once home to 500 people. A mottled wood marker with gleeson scrawled across it tells you you're there. The wind whistles through the shell of the burned-out jail. Next door is a surprisingly intact old saloon that looks as if Mae West will come swinging through at any moment. Suddenly you notice the red dirt coating your car-it's been forever since the last paved road. One look at the graveyard's thin, weathered headstones, so old you can't even read the names, will convince you it's time to move on.

A bit down the road, you'll start seeing green street signs (the kind they have back home) that say ghost town trail-an oddly modern sight. The next town, Courtland, is a pile of concrete taken over by saguaro cacti. Situated on the edge of the Dragoon Mountains, it boomed at the turn of the century only to hit ghost-town status in 1942.

A handful of people still live on the outskirts of Pearce, at the end of the trail; in the former downtown you can see the well-preserved remains of the post office and general store. Don't leave without paying your respects to Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard (not exactly a position you'd want on your résumé), who is buried in the cemetery.

Happy Trailers

In L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger's character can't wait to move back to her Arizona hometown and open a dress shop. "The girls in Bisbee could use some style," she says. Wrong! The citizens of this artist's town two hours south of Tucson have style to burn. Cases in point: antiques dealers Ed Smith and Rita Personett, who recently opened the Shady Dell, a hotel of souped-up Airstream-style trailers on the outskirts of town.

I pulled up to the place in the middle of a massive downpour, and the gloomy weather made the row of six stainless-steel trailers look sad. Suddenly the sky cleared; everything turned cheerful in the late-afternoon light. I noticed a tail-finned Chrysler parked next to Dot's Diner (Dot is also the hotel manager). I could just picture my grandparents staying here in the 1950's, hanging out with the other couples on the Adirondack-style chairs. Guests have been known to gather at sunset and drink martinis.

Dot gave me a tour. Ed had hand-restored each of the gems, filling them with vintage housewares. The living room in the 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion looked like an I Love Lucy set. Next to the kidney-shaped coffee table was a rolling bar equipped with cocktail shakers and swizzle sticks. In the kitchenette, a fat-boy cookie jar sidled up to the old Frigidaire as if he were looking for something to eat.

August is not the ideal month to visit Arizona, so there was no one else staying at the Shady Dell that night (the trailers do have air conditioning, though). Dot told me to take my pick, but it was tough. If I'd been on my honeymoon, I would've gone for the 1949 Airstream, which had plastic flamingos and a white picket fence out front. The interior was all silver and pink, with a sweet sterling silver tea set and a hand-embroidered coverlet.

I opened the door to the 1950 Spartanette Tandem and knew it was for me: green-and-white linoleum floors, old issues of Arizona Highways on the blond-wood side table. The deciding factor was the black-and-white television, which came with a VCR hidden in the closet. Clucking cactus wrens woke me at 6:30. I didn't mind in the least and rolled into the diner for a $1.99 plate of biscuits and gravy. Good thing the coffee was strong: I had stayed up half the night watching Flash Gordon, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Blob. Wasn't that Steve McQueen dreamy?

Shady Dell RV Park & Campground
1 Douglas Rd., Bisbee;520/432-4858; doubles from $25.


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