Lee Tilghman from Lee from America visits Tucson, Arizona and the Sonoran Desert on an unpretentious solo getaway filled with great food and good vibes.
They’re enchanting, those saguaros. Beguiling in their size and silence. They tower skyward over the Arizona desert in stately rebuke to the idea that the Sonoran landscape is inhospitable. The cacti are old, ancient even, and they know better. And now, so do I.
I had come to Tucson not knowing what to expect. I’d never set foot in Arizona, much less this historic midsize city nestled among mountain peaks an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border. I came alone, hoping a Southwestern solo sojourn might yield a respite from the chaos of daily life in California. I wanted to drink good coffee, shop cute vintage, and immerse myself in nature. In other words, I wanted some space to be myself.
Little did I know that Tucson also wanted all those things for me, and more. The Old Pueblo, as locals call their city, swept me away with wonder. I drew energy from its color, culture, and spectacular cuisine. And I gained perspective from those mighty saguaros, some of which have stood sentinel over Tucson for 150 years.
Like the cacti, the city captivated me. It courses with the desert’s energy and power. I wouldn’t have guessed that Arizona’s second biggest city, fast by the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, would be such a cradle of creativity and fulfillment. Like the mountains after the afternoon thunderstorm during my stay, Tucson rejuvenated me.
Turns out, the Sonoran Desert is full of surprises.
My home for the weekend was the rustic adobe-style villa that abuts the Saguaro National Park’s western edge, called Posada by the Joshua Tree House. I can’t overstate how full of joy and light it was. The five-unit guesthouse is situated on almost 40 acres of pristine, sprawling desert. My rideshare the first night turned off the main road, its tires crunching along the dusty trail. As we rolled toward this idyllic redoubt, I was struck by the solitude. It was just me and stars out there.
The Posada was designed by a husband-and-wife team with a keen eye for sunbleached Southwestern style. Rough-hewn timber rafters span a ceiling above white walls and earth-tone furniture; suede-fringed pillows lounged on low-slung cream couches. Glazed tile peeked from beneath intricate rugs. The bed was all beckoning breezy linens.
Everything in the Posada was so humble, purposeful, and airy. It reminded me of my visit to Italy’s Pugliese coast last year, the way everything fit perfectly within the home and the way the home fit perfectly in the wilderness around it. I felt like I had stepped into the house of Mother Nature herself, and instead of kicking me out, she’d invited me to stay as long as I liked.
Though the saguaros are tall—some can reach 40 feet!—the tallest silhouettes on the Arizona horizon belong to the jagged peaks that rim the Tucson basin on all sides. I expected this desert city to be flat, but Tucson is actually tucked among no fewer than four mountain ranges: The Santa Catalina, the Rincon, the Tucson, and the Santa Rita.
Given that my home for these few days was just a short drive from some of the most immaculate public lands in the country, I knew I had to hike some mountains. Soaring more than 9,000 feet above Tucson proper, Mount Lemmon is the go-to peak for motivated hikers, but I had to skip it because of a rainstorm that boomed through the basin at precisely the wrong moment. I dove back into bed at the Posada for a mid-afternoon nap instead, slipping off to sleep to the sound of rain and wind beyond the thick adobe walls.
Luckily, I was able to lace up my hiking boots and head out to the Saguaro National Park the following day. Along with my photographer and guide, we were on the trail by mid-morning. The air was dry and crisp with the aroma of creosote, a pungent shrub that tufts the desert floor. Some believe its resinous leaves are medicinal.
On that hike, and especially on my following visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (more on that later), which is a combination of zoo, botanical garden, and learning space in Tucson Mountain Park, wildlife was everywhere. Hawks circled in the blue sky overhead, and hummingbirds flitted around the cactus flowers. I spotted some kind of rabbit and a gray fox. By the end of the hike, I was in a bit of a trance. My mind was still... except for a yearning for food.
I’m not sure I had any particular culinary expectations for the Old Pueblo, but I clearly should have, because Tucson’s food scene is great.
Each morning at the Posada, I rose to fresh fruit and coffee in beautiful mugs the color of desert clay. They also served a custardy, salty, sweet pie pastry that I had with fresh blueberries on the side. My solo breakfasts at this cozy desert villa felt so peaceful, private, and intentional, and gave me the purpose I needed to throw myself headlong into the coming day.
For dinner one night, I went to Penca. Located in downtown Tucson on East Broadway, this husband-and-wife-run restaurant is chic and straightforward with an authentic, yet inventive menu crafted by executive chef, David Solorzano. It’s exactly the sort of place I adore. After some of the best guacamole I’ve ever had, I ordered the champinones taco, made with wild mushrooms and salsa macha. The chef warned me that the salsa macha would make the dish fairly spicy, but no matter. I devoured the taco in short order, savoring the earthy umami of the mushroom and the sauce’s deep smokiness.
But the most shocking culinary experience I had in Tucson actually happened right before I returned to Los Angeles. Down by the University of Arizona campus sits Time Market, a funky, eclectic grocer that serves a selection of artisanal prepared foods. I popped in before heading to the airport to catch my flight, sidled up to the counter, and ordered a slice of pizza with artichoke, spinach, cheese, and onions. Now, I used to live in New York City, which qualifies me as a bona fide pizza snob. But Time Market’s slice blew my mind. The crust was unimaginably transcendent: soft but crisp, with just a hint of char around the edges. For a moment, I thought about rescheduling my flight—that’s how good it was.
So, about the weather. Most of the time it was magnificent: dry, clear, and warm. I remember thinking, This is the weather that makes people love the desert on multiple occasions.
But the Southwest is prone to occasional rainstorms, too. Besides dashing my trip to Mt. Lemmon, the rain kept me from visiting DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, the gallery and former home and studio of Tucson artist Ted DeGrazia. It’s located in the Santa Catalina Foothills area on Tucson’s northside and is on the National Register of Historic Places. I am holding space to experience those places next time.
Don’t get me wrong, though—these awe-inspiring desert thunderstorms gave me a perfect excuse to check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an ethical-captivity zoo and learning center, where I saw my first mountain lion!), and Mission San Xavier del Bac. This 17th-century missionary building is on the Tohono O'odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation. It’s a hallowed place, and I wandered its meticulous grounds and cool, dark halls with reverence. The Spanish-style church has stucco walls, imposing wooden doors, and a breathtaking ceiling painted with New Spanish frescoes and Native American artwork.
Of course, no solo trip is complete without some time to sample the local shopping options. Tucson delivers in spades. I grabbed a coffee at Exo Coffee and poked my head into Desert Vintage for a look around. I found a catch-all dish at Dust and Heritage, and killer denim at Batea Boutique.
Next time I come to Tucson, my plan is to drive—that way I’ll be able to bring all my larger furniture finds back to L.A. with me. And maybe some of that pizza, too.