Thursday, October 30, 2014

Small Arizona town boasts impressive museums to a pair of singing cowboys

Willcox, Arizona, appears to be a town that life has pretty much forgotten. Several motels and lots of houses are boarded up in this community between Tucson and Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Sidewalks in the small downtown area roll up pretty early. Travelers who venture away from the freeway exit will find limited options for dinner.  Life, just as I-10 does, appears to have passed Willcox by.

But wait! Willcox is well worth a detour if you’re a fan of Western music. Tucked away on Railroad Avenue are museums devoted to two of the finest singing cowboys who ever strummed a guitar while riding the range: Rex Allen and Marty Robbins.

Rex Allen and Koko
Rex Allen is the hometown boy who made it to the big time, singing and riding his way across the West. He is probably the only cowboy who insisted his horse, Koko, receive star billing after him in the movie credits. In his later years, he narrated a host of Disney films, including Run Appaloosa Run because, one of my favorites because it was filmed in Omak, Washington, where I lived for four years.

The museum is filled with his costumes, movie posters and other memorabilia related to his entertainment career. There’s even a framed check he wrote to Field and Stream for a subscription in 1997, two years before he died. Across the street, at Railroad Park, is a statue of Rex Allen strumming on his guitar. The remains of his beloved Koko are buried just a few feet away.

The Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame is located inside the Rex Allen Museum. It’s a room filled with dozens of pictures of local cowboys.

Some of the 71 albums Marty Robbins made
Two doors down from the Rex Allen Museum is the Friends of Marty Robbins Museum. Marty Robbins is another Arizona boy (he was born in Glendale, however) who made a name for himself in show business. It’s about half the size of the Allen museum, but just as impressive when you consider most of its contents came from the private collection of one woman, Juanita Buckley, and her son Shawn Ring.  

Robbins recorded 71 albums during his lengthy career, but is his signature song is El Paso. Posters from his movies cover the walls. One of his early hits had the lyrics, “a white sport coat and a pink carnation.” Sure enough there’s a white sport coat in the collection.

A highlight of this museum is a documentary on Marty Robbins’ career. It’s narrated by John Schneider and features some of the biggest names in country western music reminiscing about this talented singer.

Both museums are open on a limited schedule, but it’s worth rearranging your travel plans to visit them.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tucson museum preserves southern Arizona history

Arizona History Museum
Saving Arizona history is the task of the Arizona Historical Society and it does a mighty fee job of that at the Arizona History Museum in Tucson.

The museum concentrates on the history of southern Arizona, starting with the early Native Americans to the Spanish explorers and finally to territorial days.  Outside the front entrance is a marvelous statue of Father Kino, who build Catholic missions at Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac.
The museum is packed full of artifacts from such diverse places as the bar from the Birdcage Saloon in Tombstone, an old stagecoach and a recreation of an Indian home. The museum does an excellent job of blending artifacts with photos. In the first building a brick wall leads into a photo of brick-making facilities.

A good portion of the second building is devoted to the mining history in Arizona Staff has even recreated an old mining tunnel, dark and narrow, to give you an idea of what working conditions for miners were like. A beautiful hand-stitched quilt stars in a display of vintage clothing and items of daily use. There’s also a stagecoach and an oxcart to show how people got around. One room is devoted to the Apache Indian chief, Geronimo.

The museum is located at 949 E. Second Street, near the University of Arizona campus. Free parking is available at the society’s parking garage one block west of the museum Be sure to take your parking stub with you so museum staff can validate the parking. 

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Plan on spending at least two hours here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Old Tucson: where the West was filmed

Ricky "the Colorado Kid" Nelson drove
cattle down this street in Rio Bravo.
If you’re a fan of Western movies, you’re going to love Old Tucson, a movie studio and theme park, as more than 300 Western movies and television shows were filmed here. Over the decades, some of filmdom’s biggest names have walked the dusty streets: John Wayne, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Michael Landon, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara to name a few. Even today, the streets ring out with gunfire as staff re-enacts gunfights for visitors.

Re-enactment of a gun fight
between bank robbers
This is one attraction you’ll want to be there when the gates open and plan on staying until closing time. Even then you may not be able to take everything in. Programs allowing visitors to experience the Old West take place every 30 to 45 minutes during open hours. Besides gunfights, there’s can-can dancing at the Grand Palace Saloon, a man hawking his magical miracle elixir and a chance to learn about sheriffs from the days of yore, to name a few presentations.

The best way to start your visit here is with a free guided tour; your guide will walk you through the streets pointing out buildings that were featured in specific movies. You’ll learn such trivia as the night the wedding scene was shot for 1993’s Tombstone, the temperature was 92 degrees outside, yet Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp) and Dana Delany (Josephine Marcus) were dancing in the snow. The “snow” was plastic.

Old Tucson got its start in 1939 with the Columbia Pictures’ filming of Arizona starring Jean Arthur and William Holden; 50  buildings simulating 1860s Tucson went up in 40 days.  A few more movies were made here over the next two decades, but it wasn’t until 1960 that Western movie making began here in earnest. More buildings were added for each movie, but tragedy struck in 1995 when an arson fire did $10 million in damages. Movie-making continued as replacement buildings went up.

John Wayne rules at Old Tucson. There’s McClintock! Mercantile, Big Jake’s BBQ, and you can see a 20-minute documentary on his association with Old Tucson down at Rosa’s Cantina. It’s almost as if the Duke were elevated to sainthood or, at the very least, crowned king of the Western movies. Wayne made 118 Western movies during his acting career, including four at Old Tucson: Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, McClintock! and El Dorado.

One building was featured in the original 3:10 to Yuma, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Today, it houses the theme park’s movie museum and contains posters of movies shot here, costumes, news clippings and other Western movie memorabilia. A few non-Westerns, such as The Bells of St. Mary’s and Lilies of the Field also were shot here. One of the biggest shirts you may ever see is on display. It was worn by Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright in Bonanza, one of the TV westerns that shot here a few times. In the same display case is a smaller shirt that was worn by Ben ‘Pa” Cartwright, who was played by Lorne Greene.

This building was used in McClintock!
Sets are often changed for each movie, so the buildings don’t look the same. The building that is now McClintock! Mercantile was once a barn. A porch was added for the filming of McClintock! Sometimes buildings are painted and others get new signs identifying the business within.

When your feet get tired, it’s time to hop a stage for a ride out to High Chaparral, the setting for a Western television series that was filmed here from 1966 to 1971.  Other TV series that were filmed her include Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, Death Valley Days and Petrocelli. The Food Network even filmed five programs for one of its series.

Chinese Alley
Take time to wander off the man streets. You’ll be surprised at what you find: Chinese Alley: a narrow alley filled with laundry hung between the buildings; a miner’s sluice box where you can pan for gold and keep what you find, or a store selling produce.

More pictures of Old Tucson: where the West wasfilmed can be found on my Youtube channel.

Old Tucson is located at 201 S. Kinney Road in rural Tucson. It can be reached from I-19 by taking exit 99 west on Ajo Way and following the signs. A more scenic route is to take the Speedway exit off I-10 and high south through Tucson Mountain Park. Movies and TV shows are still filmed at Old Tucson; it remains open to the public when filming is taking place.

Old Tucson is closed during the summer months, and open Friday through Sunday during the fall months.
The fine print; The FTC requires me to tell you I received complementary admission to Old Tucson because I was researching for several travel articles. It's such a great place, we plan to return -- as paying customers.




Monday, October 13, 2014

Patagonia celebrates fall with arts fair

Christmas decorations made from gourds
If you’re in southeastern Arizona in October, a must-see is the Patagonia Fall Festival. It’s billed as one of the best small town festivals in Arizona. If you’re into arts and crafts it’s worth the 60-mile drive from Tucson. The festival this year was the second weekend in October.

The festival draws about 150 arts and crafts, and food vendors to its city park. The park is so crammed with booths and people, sometimes it’s difficult to get through. But try.

As might be expected the artists and craftsmen are selling wares that reflect the desert southwest. This can include cactus made from sheet metal; picture frames made from cholla cactus, which is very wood-like, and Christmas ornaments made from dried gourds and then hand painted. Across the way, a woman is selling relishes made from various peppers, while another stand is selling garlic products.

Meanwhile, at  a bandstand in the middle of the park, bands provide a variety of musical entertainment, mostly playing Western and Mexican tunes. At least one band had people dancing in the aisles.

Driving to Patagonia
 The drive to Patagonia and then on to Nogales at the border with Mexico is considered one of the more scenic ones in the state. To get to Patagonia from Tucson, head east on I-10 and get off at exit 281, Highway 83. Stay on this road until you get to Sonita, then take a right on Highway 82, that continues into Nogales.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A scenic drive up Tucson's Mount Lemmon

The view of Tucson below
If you’re looking for a pleasant drive that combines stunning scenery with the smell of pine trees, the Catalina scenic byway out of Tucson should fill the bill. It's considered one of the most scenic drives in the southwest.

The curvy road rises more than 8,000 feet as motorists scale the heights of Mount Lemmon that stands 9,157 feet in the Santa Catalina Mountains that flank one side of Tucson.  At the top, you’ll find the small village of Summerhaven with a couple of restaurants and a gift shop.

Just before dropping into Summerhaven, make a right turn to go to the Mt. Lemmon ski area. During the summer months, visitors can take a sky ride to the top of the mountain for ever more spectacular views. Be forewarned: parking is at a premium here, as well as in Summerhaven. Cars park on the

narrow shoulders and spill onto the narrow road, so caution navigating between the lines of cars is necessary.

The scenic drive through Coronado National Forest starts in the Sonora Desert; the cacti peter out about 4,000 feet in elevation. Next come a couple of thousand feet in elevation of shrubs and then tall, stately pine trees cover the mountains for the rest of the way. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the picnic areas that start after the Palisades Visitor Center. The views are marvelous and the fragrance of the pine trees that fills the air is delicious. The U.S. Forest Service compares the journey to traveling from Mexico to Canada in just 27 miles.

View from Windy Point pullout
The road has plenty of pullouts and vistas where visitors can take in the breathtaking views. Public restrooms are available at Windy Point, then just south of the visitor center and a couple of miles north at Inspiration Rock picnic area. Trailheads, some with limited off-road parking, are plentiful.

Because of its twists and turns, the road is very popular with motorcyclists, so be on the lookout for them. Again, because of its curviness, the Forest Service does not recommend traveling the road in a large motorhome or pickup pulling a travel trailer longer than 22 feet. Motorists should make sure their vehicles have good brakes for the trip down. When the brakes start heating up, it may be advisable to pull off the road for awhile to let them cool down.

To reach the highway, take the Speedway exit off of I-10 and head northeast a few miles to Tanque Verde. Turn left on Tanque Verde to Catalina Highway. Stay on this rod until it becomes General Hitchcock Highway and enjoy the ride to the top.

See more photos of the Mount Lemmon scenic drive on my Youtube channel.