Under the Tucson Sun

Under the Tucson Sun

Martin Morrell
Martin Morrell
Tucson is a metropolitan sweep of industry, education, and speculative housing. But the Sonoran Desert provides a potent backdrop for healing and spas of all description. Here, it's possible to find some solace, a transcendental home.

1. Divine geometry. Whenever anyone in Tucson draws you a map, it's a cross. Four major mountain ranges mark off a strangely precise geometry 40 miles long and 40 miles wide. The small spiky range of the Tucson Mountains crenellates the west, the distant Rincon Mountains are to the east. At the north, the Catalinas house the spas and the resort hotels, and at the south the Santa Ritas screen off Mexico, and before them is the most beautiful mission church in the United States.

The cross, with healing on the north and Catholicism on the south, a dude ranch to the west and the Airplane Graveyard to the east, defines this town. Raytheon may make Tomahawk cruise missiles here, there may be 37,000 students at the U. of A., housing developments may nibble inexorably at the desert in quarter-acre lots, silting their way up the foothills, but the place is a strange combination of time warp, other planet, and second chance.

The American desert gives rise to the peculiarly American concept of the second chance. The immense skies create awe, promise hope, and suggest ambition for cleaner, loftier things. This includes a notion of rebirth without baptism or the baby Jesus, for the Southwest is where people start a new life after the career is over, or try a new life midstream, or simply go to vanish, like B. Traven, who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To a therapist friend, Dan Stone, it's "beautiful and scary. There are things that stick you, prick you, sting you, bite you. It's look, don't touch. But it's also a place that feels safe, that feels strong. You've got these mountains that are so big, but also so far. Instead of feeling hemmed in, you feel like you have a barrier against all the crap out there."

Arizona is the place to escape the scuffle of real life, restore the body, and hand the soul over to awe. Its true inhabitants, the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O'odham tribes, know the desert. It was here, somewhere, that the Yaqui Indian Don Juan instructed Carlos Castañeda in the uses of peyote and the dangers of "inorganic beings." The Sonoran Desert is an unforgiving place, described by the Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko in one of her angry books as "stark, chalk plains that seem to glitter with the ashes of planets and worlds yet to come." We Anglos idealize it, and this particular part of Arizona is the healing nexus, where the basic remedy for malaise is a hike in the desert. Different kinds of spas offer a host of semi-mystical journeys devised by contemporary medicine men, doctors, therapists and healers, where we can be led to find our deeper self, or selves, effect mindful change, paint our spirit, coax out the inner child, surmount drug problems, clean up our act. In the fizzy first novel by Plum Sykes, Bergdorf Blondes, the heroine points out that "going to Arizona" is the euphemism for going to rehab.

The first time I went to Tucson it was to stay at Canyon Ranch, where I resentfully jumped around in aerobics class and disagreed with the yoga teacher about how to sit when I meditated. This time, I was allowed to roam the city, and came away reborn.

2. Shape-shifting green zombies. The Sonoran Desert leaches up through Tucson's metropolitan scatter. Roadrunners scramble alongside lone cars on Silverbell Road, the smelly wild pigs called javelinas gallop in stumpy, noisy herds through people's backyards. After the rain, the smell of desert creosote bushes pervades the city. Saguaros, the entertainingly humanoid cacti that are the universal symbol for the West, stand like greeting giants in front of the best hotels. Random legions of gray-green saguaros spike straight up along the foothills. They summon a complex response, tender and a little fearful. Edward Abbey described them as "planted people." Dan Stone is almost professionally entranced by their multiple personalities. "Sometimes they're flipping you the bird, sometimes they're imploring you for understanding, sometimes they're tall and proud, sometimes diseased. And sometimes you see their skeletons."

The saguaros live longer than we do: their old age begins at 200, and they can go on even beyond that. The arms that make them look like us don't appear until they are 100 years old, when the first one emerges seven feet up, on the south side. They bring forth flowers and fruit at their tips, which the desert people harvest, dry, and make into jam, and when they are dead their fibrous skeletons are used to make baskets. The original shape-shifters, they have different names according to their age and shape: fortune cookie, tuft, pincushion, blimp, torpedo, wine bottle, and crazy candelabrum. A census a few years ago counted about a million saguaros in the Tucson basin. Built to expand with the rain and contract in drought, they weigh up to 10 tons, most of it water. In a book about saguaros, a sentence stands out: "Miraculously they can hold enough water to bloom and set fruit after a year with absolutely no rain, or even after the main trunk is uprooted, making them literally the living dead."

At the Lazy K Bar, a dude ranch that belongs to two lawyers, Jim and Amy Shiner, the saguaros rise up in the hills like aliens. A short hike along dry slipping rocks, and Amy points out the young saguaros, each one growing under the protection of a paloverde tree, which is called its nurse. The smallest ones are round and hard to find, like truffles, and at 15 they are still only two feet high. At 35 they're still armless, but by then they have grown up through the nurse paloverde tree and smashed it apart. Amy has recently given up law to train as a therapist. When saguaros are about 60 years old they reach 12 feet, and then they keep growing because they have at least another 120 years in them. You understand why older people love Arizona.

Amy Shiner and the executive director of Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art, Anne-Marie Russell, who had never met, each insisted that I have a session with Eddie. Eddie is a healer schooled in a Basque tradition called sudad that goes back in his family forever. He works privately and has been known to help his patients with plants when conventional medicine could not. He is 26 years old, tall and beautiful like an idealized Geronimo, with long hair and a little knot of things tied at his neck. He came to my hotel room and administered, in a sort of trance, a massage that was as painful as rolfing. In a soft voice, he explained how he normally worked: "You walk the last mile to the house of the person you're seeing, and the plants along the way tell you about them." We looked at the plants around me. Eddie said, "You're in a hotel, it's not your home, so it doesn't count." Thank God. Outside my door a tree was raining poisonous white oleander flowers onto the lawn.

3. Time travel. I was staying at the Arizona Inn. Here, just north of the university, 14 sublimely private and controlled acres deploy a succession of gardens crazed with flowers and trees, separated by little gates and laid out with the whimsy of an English estate. It is a feat to find your room, but on your way you bump into teams of gardeners busily planting pansies and stock, trimming hedges, cutting lawn. The outer walls of the Arizona Inn are a deep pink that conveys a WASP exuberance about pastels and promises an intimate nursery world where nothing can go wrong. The reception area is casually set up, as if guests were suddenly coming to the mansion and something had to be done to greet them.

The Arizona Inn was built in 1930, in what was then the desert, by the rich and compassionate Mrs. Isabella Greenway. Moved by the number of disabled World War I veterans in Arizona, she had started a company called the Arizona Hut to give them employment making furniture. With the Wall Street crash she ran out of orders, found herself with enough furniture to fill a hotel, and built the first part of the Arizona Inn in three months, neglecting, however, to install a public men's room. It was described as "a simple home-like cottage hotel," where the very rich would move in for months at a time, along with their servants, their lapdogs, and their little habits. The Arizona Inn has been the home of old-fashioned virtues ever since, and is today a kind of nature conservancy for consideration, respect, trust, and manners. Today, 50 years after Mrs. Greenway's death, staying there is like being the guest of a vastly wealthy great-aunt with centuries of Yankee tradition behind her, who is very happy that you are there but doesn't really want to see too much of you.

Afternoon tea is served in an immense library with dark oak tables, where I found a copy of The Smart Set Reader, published in 1934. Though I sorely wanted it, I showed some manners and left it, but to be honest, in my room. Which was huge, furnished with mahogany, and where the mini-bar, in the best WASP tradition, was empty. The only correct things to find in there would have been graham crackers, lemonade, and rusks.

I became obsessed with taking breakfast by the large but curiously private pool (Auntie does love her laps). The marmalade is made on the premises, thick, sweet, and rugged with peel. I'd do the New York Times crossword, whose clues somehow that week came from the same era ("Cotton Club singer"—Lena Horne), then put on my perfect denim Chanel picture hat—you need a hat in Tucson, and frankly also summer gloves to protect your hands—and set off to find the lost world of Tucson, a past that exists in swaths between the strip malls.

A local coolhunter named Curtis James Marshall guided me through it. He showed me streets with alignments of 19th-century territorial houses that demonstrated what the West looked like before the war, and houses made of bricks, in dollhouse proportions, huge courtyards behind rammed earth walls, low sidewalks, an exiguous "Teatro Carmen." He made me peer inside the windows on Convent Avenue, where the architect Rick Joy has disseminated an aesthetic that is uniquely Tucson's: a post-industrial recycling of humble houses and walls of rusty corrugated steel panels. Nothing quaintly Southwestern, no references to Santa Fe here; the adobe is painted white, and there are few of the Southwestern garlands of mummified chile pods called ristras next to front doors. "We use ristras as target practice," said one local.

The Hotel Congress, where John Dillinger and his gang were apprehended (and extradited to Illinois, so the drama stops there), advertises itself as a piece of the past, "where the summer spends the winter since 1919" with a flier in hues of cappuccino and blue. It's like a set for a Coen brothers film, all murky paint and startled details. The bleary and dense Tap Room bar suggests a fine historic context for blabbering at the barman while drunk. The hotel was built for the passengers of the Southern Pacific Railroad; now, it's as much of a magnet for nostalgic art types as for desperate people just off the Greyhound bus. At the hotel's Cup Café, the artist Dave Lewis, asked if he had any tattoos, blushed and confessed. "I was nineteen," he says, "and I wanted an image that I would regret the least on the other side of thirty. I looked in my kitchen. Arm and Hammer?Too manly. So..." He rolled up his sleeve to reveal the iconic Morton's Salt girl, peeking from behind the Morton's Salt umbrella, on the curve of his bicep.

The sick, the fragile, and the old have always come to be restored in Tucson, and despite many cures, no one makes it past the final hurdle. Their clothing can be found in immense shops, and their books at Bookman's, a secondhand store arranged like an extremely neat Borders, where the aisles are electric with cruising. Near the university, legendary thrift shops called Value Village, Desert Vintage & Costume, Buffalo Exchange, are daily scoured by style freaks and Japanese mercenaries for Go-Go this and Mod that. At a huge shop on a corner where the mealy fug of secondhand clothes grabs you at the door, Curtis Marshall spies two tall girls with pink hair slouching at the far end of an immensely long rack of slightly used khaki pants. "Sugarbush!" he says, "they're a band."

4. Tucson by night. This city has the two things necessary for a thriving young music scene: cheap rent on places in which to rehearse, and a real downtown in which to perform. The band Calexico was formed here in 1996, and others—among them, the Fashionistas—perform, often outdoors on the lip of a warehouse called Lucky Street Studios at night. The Tucson night is a soft and tangible presence, dark beyond velvet. The streetlights are kept to the hush level of mercury vapor so that Kitt Peak, 60 miles away, the largest observatory in the world, can have a clear view of the stars. The open-air shows seem to be held in some immense private space in an industrial neighborhood with no sleeping neighbors and no night traffic, until the train comes by, a momentous rumbling interruption that dwarfs the buildings, shakes the ground, and transforms the scene into an O. Winston Link photograph.

There are mid-century motels lined up on Miracle Mile, and they shine. Against the black sky, the sign for the Tucson Inn vibrates, each letter a different square and a different color, skewered like hairpins into the roof; there's also Mountain View, Ghost Ranch, Wayward Winds, Tropicana, Riviera, Sunland, Tiki Motel, and what is perhaps the original No-Tel Motel, which advertises "Wa Wa beds." A journalist from the local giveaway rag was assigned to spend a week at the latter, and fled in horror at the seaminess. He had it wrong, and Curtis, who worships these signs, has it right: it's the signage, the flat surface of electric color saturated by the blackness of the night that makes the magic, and that's all. Look, don't touch.

5. Shining colors in the dark. But sometimes when you look something touches you.

Until I sat at one of the pews at Mission San Xavier del Bac, I had never seen a retablo mayor, the sculpted, painted, gilded surface that fills the sanctuary behind the altar of Spanish Baroque churches. Here, a multi-colored hierarchy of saints and columns and angels surrounds the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis. A jubilation of color and details, the glowing shapes palpitate in the gloom. Your eyes try to read the statues, the architecture of it all, and gradually decipher a sculpted, red-haired God the Father, hand raised in a blessing, in the center of the upper arch, surrounded by two angels holding cords that raise the flowered blue draperies around the niche in which Mary prays below him; five more angels, you find, occupy the arch below her, two of them as caryatids, two others pulling up the draperies with more cords over the niche of Saint Francis, these draperies in turn held up at their gilded hems by more angels, perched on golden curves. The cord is the emblem of the Franciscan order.

To look at the main altar is to be drawn into a rare kind of worshipful daze. The paint, applied over silver leaf, makes the Prussian blue and cinnabar red shine, and then you discover rough-hewn painted Baroque angels hanging on the corners of the chapels and a pattern of mottled blue spots on some walls that are said to be the fingerprints of the original Indian painters.

No one knows who drew up the plans or sculpted the saints or painted the walls or made the doors or failed to finish the second bell tower of San Xavier del Bac. It was founded in 1691 by a Jesuit priest from South Tyrol named Eusebio Francisco Kino, at the Tohono O'odham desert village of Wa:k, which he called San Xavier del Bac. The Franciscans built the present mission in 1797.

There is a presence there: the Catholic church, holy ground, or the faith of the Tohono O'odham, Catholics since the late 17th century, who lost their priests many times to the succession of wars with the Apaches and the changing politics of the kings of Spain, and carried on worshipping the statues unaided by the Vatican. Arizona joined the Union in 1912, which is when the Franciscans returned to San Xavier after many generations away.

You expect to hear Spanish at mass. But San Xavier is the parish church of the Tohono O'odham; their land begins six feet from the mission door. Father Stephen Barnufsky, who came from Oakland to be the pastor of San Xavier last March, says, "I'm living on their land and trying to learn about their culture. I would not hold a mass in Spanish, it's not their language."

After each mass, a line forms to the reclining wooden statue of San Xavier in the west chapel, which like the east chapel is as dense with ornament and color as the altar. On a pale blue blanket over his torso and legs are pinned little silver effigies of legs, arms, hearts, and photos. It is a shrine, a parish church, a museum. The millions necessary for the careful and expensive restoration of what is known as the Sistine Chapel of America were raised by the Patronato, a committee founded to preserve the mission.

"This is the first parish I've been in where I don't have to worry if the church roof is leaking," says Father Barnufsky.

6. Outside the norm. Artists, like musicians, need cheap places where they can live and work. "There is an insular quality to the desert," says Anne-Marie Russell, the brilliant and bright-eyed woman who runs MOCA, "so that Tucson is less subject to rampant growth and development. It stays authentic." I'd first become aware of her when I saw on PBS her playful and incisive documentary on the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz (his main medium is Bosco chocolate syrup). Having helped develop and run an M.A. program, "Modern Art, Connoisseurship, and the History of the Art Market," at Christie's in New York, she knows the potential of things that fall outside of categories. The space that MOCA occupies, she says, "was originally the space in between things—an alley between two buildings was roofed over, and then the two buildings on either side were torn down. It was briefly a produce warehouse, and then Mr. Walsh started a business equipment company called Walsh Brothers. He had a fleet of Harley-Davidsons with sidecars, and when someone's rented Walsh Brothers typewriter jammed or broke, he would dispatch one of his drivers on a hog with a new typewriter in the sidecar. The hogs ran right up the ramp into MOCA and parked at their station—the letters of the motorcycle bays are still on the walls."

Surrounded by eager interns, she schedules shows by local and international artists, and works within, or despite, an awareness of what you can only call the cultural contradictions of art. At MOCA, a sign over the (small) gift shop says "Commerce," and a sign pointing to the exhibition space says "Art," and both signs are in German.

Anne-Marie Russell takes me to hear Ken Shorr, artist and professor, give a lecture at the U. of A., where she also teaches. The campus, 357 acres set in the middle of Tucson, with some five million books in the library, has the perfect look of something beamed to another planet to tell them how well we are doing. Perfect students move across green grass from one hunk of architecture to another, shaded by small and interesting trees. Trundling alone through a crowd of perfect young people with big smiles, a dusky overweight boy wears a T-shirt printed with the word PARIAH.

In the school's Museum of Art, Ken Shorr's lecture is about his installation of a hundred 33-rpm album covers that form a square on the wall, 10 albums by 10. We sit on the floor, our hats carefully placed in front of us. "Nostalgia," he says, "is a powerful tool. People can always find something lovable in it." The album covers date from the fifties and sixties and have been amended, corrected, appropriated. He describes his work as "very superficial, the result of endless self-absorption." His key, he says, for responding to all things, art included, is: "You get three choices: Deny, Absorb, or Purge."

7. Deny, absorb, or purge. If art can reference healing, what metaphors can healing use?

The pioneering Dr. Andrew Weil has installed a program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, and the state itself is only one of three in the United States that licenses and certifies homeopathic physicians. He became famous with the publication of The Natural Mind in 1972. Right now he's at work on a book about aging, a lengthy process. "Arizona is a haven for alternative medicine," he says as he sits in his well-concealed house surrounded by cacti, small ones indoors and large ones out. "The desert is why I'm here. In 1970 when I first came, to lecture at the university about marijuana, it was like another planet. This is the most interesting and stimulating natural environment I have ever lived in. There's a fitness-conscious population here, people are more active, closer to nature, and smoke less than in the East. I'd like to see Tucson as a health tourism destination."

Of course it already is.

"Desert people are maybe a little more eccentric," says Dr. Weil, and hands me a saguaro fruit that he has dried himself; with its tiny black seeds and red flesh, it resembles a fig. I nibble at it very slowly.

"There's a tradition, after all, of people going into the desert to find enlightenment."

I went into the desert to find enlightenment, abandoned the cozy reaches of my imaginary great-aunt's house and drove north to Miraval, deemed by universal suffrage the best spa on earth. After the discreet if noble proportions of the Arizona Inn, Miraval's high ceilings and gigantic serial lobbies were astonishing. I asked when, and why, it had been built. "It used to be Sierra Tucson," I was told.

Sierra Tucson has a reputation as the cushiest rehab on earth, and now I understood why. When the health insurance companies stopped reimbursing the $1,000-a-day cost of rehab, the real Sierra Tucson moved across the dirt road, and Miraval, which caters to a less anxious clientele for whom repeated visits imply no failure, was born.

I signed up for the most redemptive treatment on offer, the Equine Experience, in which a man named Wyatt Webb, with a gravelly past (music, drugs, alcohol) and an interesting voice, teaches you that "It's not the horse, it's your own fear and self-doubt."

Out under a tent in a field, with horses looking on, the charismatic Mr. Webb, impeccable in denims, announced: "The language of the horse is the language of energy, which is the language of all living things. That connection to present-moment time is what we long for. Pay attention to what you're thinking and feeling."

We stood in the paddock looking at the backsides of horses, each trying to choose which one would be our nemesis. We had to clean out four hooves, groom and brush a coat. I figured that Bo, a large chestnut gelding, would be a rewarding task: he already had a thick winter coat, caked with dried mud. I marched over to him, and then froze.

"What are you afraid of?" asked Mr. Webb.

"Basically," I said, "that I will hurt the horse and then it will kill me."

The articulation of this belief, common sense to me but neurosis in the view of Mr. Webb, freed me to pick up Bo's hooves and scratch away at them much as if they were dirty dishes. A victory.

At breakfast on the last morning at Miraval, it appeared that Deny, Absorb, or Purge was everywhere. It couldn't be food deprivation; the food was the best in Tucson, and the night before we'd had sake to go with our ahi tuna. But a blonde, clutching her sweater and handbag, announced to a table as she approached: "We're going to stay separated when we get home, but work toward a recovery." The table nodded approvingly.

Two women at a table eating cereal, one very worried: "Some of my fundamentalist friends say be careful, it could be a cult."

"This place certainly doesn't look like a cult," said her friend. "If it's a cult, it's a pretty expensive one."

"You've got to be careful of those places that focus on You, you know?" said the worried woman.

In the spa, a young woman came out of the beauty salon and introduced herself to a man in a polo shirt:

"I'm Kim, I'll be doing your pedicure for you."

"Don't hurt me," said the man.

I wondered if Sierra Tucson had moved back across the road during the night, but finally understood: when family members visit their loved ones at Sierra Tucson, they often stay at Miraval, so as to take care of themselves while enduring the confrontations and psychodramas necessary for the recovery of the person in the rehab. In Tucson, even the healthy can be cured, and the size of the skies and the green gods in the hills will help.

The Facts

Some 50 miles north of the Mexican border, in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is known for its mild weather. But beware of summer, when temperatures can climb as high as 113 degrees.

Canyon Ranch Health Resort DOUBLES FROM $5,560; FOUR-NIGHT MINIMUM STAY, INCLUDING ALL MEALS AND ACTIVITIES. 8600 E. ROCKCLIFF RD.; 800/742-9000 OR 520/749-9000; www.canyonranch.com

Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch DOUBLES FROM $340, INCLUDING ALL MEALS AND HORSEBACK RIDES. 8401 N. SCENIC DR.; 800/321-7018 OR 520/744-3050; www.lazykbar.com

Arizona Inn DOUBLES FROM $259. 2200 ELM ST.; 800/933-1093 OR 520/325-1541; www.arizonainn.com

Hotel Congress DOUBLES FROM $59. 311 E. CONGRESS ST.; 520/622-8848; www.hotelcongress.com

Miraval Life in Balance Resort & Spa DOUBLES FROM $1,040, INCLUDING ALL MEALS, ACTIVITIES, AND ONE SPA SERVICE PER PERSON EACH DAY. 5000 E. VIA ESTANCIA MIRAVAL, CATALINA; 800/232-3969 OR 520/825-4000; www.miravalresort.com

Barrio Food & Drink Fusion spot serving such dishes as chicken with dried papaya and mango in a chipotle-Chardonnay cream sauce. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 135 S. SIXTH AVE.; 520/629-0191

Martíns South of the border-style dive. DINNER FOR TWO $20. 557 N. FOURTH AVE.; 520/884-7909

Café Poca Cosa Inventive upscale Mexican. The menu changes daily. DINNER FOR TWO $45. 88 E. BROADWAY BLVD.; 520/622-6400

Taquería Juanitos Taco joint popular with artists. LUNCH FOR TWO $12. 708 W. GRANT RD.; 520/623-2222

Bookman's Used Books, Music & Software 1930 E. GRANT RD.; 520/325-5767

Zee's Gallery Giant crystals on display. 1 E. TOOLE AVE.; 520/624-2081

Museum of Contemporary Art ADMISSION FREE. 191 E. TOOLE AVE.; 520/624-5019; www.moca-tucson.org

Kitt Peak National Observatory Daily guided tours and nighttime observation programs. TOURS FREE; PROGRAMS $36 PER ADULT. TOHONO O'ODHAM RESERVATION 520/318-8726; www.noao.edu

Mission San Xavier del Bac ADMISSION FREE. 1950 W. SAN XAVIER RD. SAN XAVIER DISTRICT; 520/294-2624 www.sanxaviermission.org

Airplane Graveyard Weekday tours of this haunting resting ground for planes. ADMISSION $6 PER ADULT. DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, 6000 E. VALENCIA RD.; 520/574-0462; www.pimaair.org

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