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Quiet refuge

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By Keith Rosenblum

A small chapel in Elgin, near Patagonia and Sonoita.

PATAGONIA – It is a telling sign when news of a Gray Hawk’s return to flight following an injury takes precedence over discovery of a border drug tunnel.

Yet, that juxtaposition of stories in the Patagonia Bulletin (headline: Raptor Spreads its Wings and Soars Away) optimistically underscored how wonders of nature still upstage the follies of man.

Nature and history are ways of life – in fact, they are the economic lifeblood – in this village of 1,000 year-round residents, 175 miles south of Phoenix and 50 miles from Tucson.

Discussions outside of the town’s single (non-chain) Gathering Grounds coffee shop, post office or two groceries are more likely to touch on sightings of Dusky-Capped Flycatchers and Yellow-Rumped Warblers than on what dire events are unfolding in Mexico, all of 20 minutes away.

The greatest dilemma facing the visitor to Patagonia, a 4,000-foot-high haven for birds, hikers and historians, is just how much he or she is willing to be seduced. Got a day, weekend or a month? It is easy to see how the visitor, alone or with family, will find himself asking, “Do I really need to be back on (fill in the blank.)?”

Make the answer “no” — and devote at least two days to becoming familiar with a pristine, secluded refuge. This is a great hub from which to visit nearby ghost towns, vineyards and conservation areas.

Start by taking the self-guided walking tour of Patagonia and following the pointers contained in a cute guide produced by middle-schoolers here. (It is available at www.patagoniaaz.com.)  There are also guided walking tours offered periodically.

An hour’s walk takes the visitor along wide, generally empty streets to artisan shops, the famed Stage Stop Motel, a theater, a cemetery and a cultural center. Architecture in this roughly square-mile pueblo ranges from two-foot-thick adobe structures from the 1800’s to midwestern-style homes, an RV court and, of course, newer ramshackle trailer courts.

The town shares little with Nogales (15 miles to the southwest), with a population of 20,000 and the capital of Santa Cruz County. While it is beholden to county government for parts of its budget and services, Patagonia receives little traffic from its neighbor. Early last century, earnings from mining, cattle grazing and trade with Mexico created a prosperous, autonomous economy which continues today. The town’s racial breakdown — more than 50 percent Anglo — resembles Sonoita to the northeast.

Clouds roll over fields outside Patagonia. PHOTO: CHARLES SANDERSON

As Patagonia evolved into a year-round international bird-watching destination (there were some 300 species sighted here at last count) so has an arts-and-drama community prospered. Several galleries dot the town, including a studio that shares space with the visitor center where two dozen artists exhibit together. Many of these artists show at the Patagonia Fall Festival, whose 19th annual show is to be held Oct. 13-14 from10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Lodging in Patagonia is limited, especially during high season, where an unprepared visitor may wind up in Nogales, Rio Rico or Tucson. Accommodations in Patagonia include a few small hotels, a rejuvenation center, a dozen bed and breakfasts, cabins and private homes that visitors can rent by the day or week. Information, including maps and brochures, is also available at the visitor center or online.

Visitors with kids — who may not care as much about birds or history as their parents — will find a public pool at Patagonia Union High School (520-394-3000) and there is also swimming and boating at Patagonia Lake, a 2.5-mile-long lake midway to Nogales. (More information is available at www.azstateparks.com.)

Children will also revel in visiting the area’s ghost towns and speculating about where exactly life occurred in the once-vibrant (now vacant) San Rafael Valley settlements of Harshaw, Mowry, Duquesne and Washington Camp. All these sites are within 30 minutes drive along graded roads south of Patagonia.

Visitors will also enjoy seeing what used to be a border crossing at Lochiel and Santa Cruz, Sonora, Mexico, closed in the 1980’s. What is surely one of the least-visited monuments is this area’s site commemorating the 1539 entry by Fray Marcos de Niza, who was vice-commissary of the Franciscan Order and delegate of the Viceroy in Mexico.

Lochiel is populated today by a couple of families, but its church and numerous abandoned homes bespeak an earlier, informal day when locals crossed into the other’s nation to conduct business and visit family.

The Patagonia Public Library, equipped with internet access, also offers a respite to the road weary. It is located at 346 Duquesne Road, tel. (520) 394-2010.

There is more than enough in Patagonia, but for those interested in exploring yet another region, the Sonoita and Elgin areas, about 1,000 feet higher and 15 miles to the northeast, now boast a half-dozen vineyards with a regular wine-tasting circuit. (More information is available from www.sonoitaelginchamber.org.)

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