Arizona and the desert have a lot of detractors. I’ve met many of them throughout my life here, usually before they depart back East, and I’m sure I know many still. The arguments run along these lines: it’s hot, the landscape is dreary, it’s hot, there are no trees, and it’s hot. Whatever your opinion of Arizona and its politics, culture (or lack thereof) and vegetation — it’s a beautiful state. Almost anywhere you go, the view is framed by mountains, now with snow-covered peaks, and they’re sort of looking out as if waiting to finally be appreciated. During my drive up to Wickenburg, I had plenty of time to appreciate.
I wanted to go to Jerome but since the winter storm hit the High Country, it seems a lot of roads in that area are shut down. So I looked for some other location, closer to the Valley and without dangerous driving conditions. Wickenburg is about 30 miles northwest of Phoenix and perfect for a short day trip. My goals were simple: take my camera out of dusty storage and learn about a different part of Arizona. Towns, I believe, are like parts of a puzzle in a state’s history. The more I visit, they more I understand, and then the more understanding I can be to a culture which is often still foreign to me.
A map is not needed, since Grand Avenue (U.S. 60) takes you straight to Wickenburg. The road trip started out on a bad note because that Grand Ave. is a disgrace with all the construction and appallingly-bad pavement. Arizona’s “Grand Canyon State” moniker really refers to the potholes on that road.
Wickenburg was founded as a mining town, booming during wartime thanks to its creepily named Vulture Mine. To get there, you will probably drive by Calamity Wash (as if Grand Ave. was not calamitous enough!).
I like the photo above because there are these sort of ominous elements — the storm clouds, the steep hill, the solitude of the desert — and then there’s the little mail truck, persevering despite it all.
There were a few people walking around the downtown, but for the most part the town was empty. People were wisely staying at home in this freezing weather. I bought a Christmas ornament from one store, and the young man at the register was a through-and-through cowboy. At first I wondered if it was all an act, but I discounted that after talking to him for a bit. He just seemed too damn genuine. I guess I never thought Arizonians had accents, but they do have distinct accents in some of the non-metropolitan towns.
Interesting juxtaposition of the Santa and the Native American art.
Downtown Wickenburg, left, and Everett Bowman, right, the All-Around Champion Cowboy of the World 1935-1937. No, I did not just make that up — it’s on that plaque. I wonder how Mr. Bowman feels about being lassoed by Christmas lights.
I was getting hungry so I tried to find an open cafe. Remember this: Wickenburg business hours vary greatly and are usually at the owner’s whim. But I stumbled across the Pony Espresso Cafe. What followed was an interesting conversation with the cafe’s owners, who are — you’re not going to believe this — from Plymouth, England. As Rebbecca, the owners’ daughter, warned me, it’s a long story how they ended up in Wickenburg, AZ.
They essentially blindfolded Rebbecca and told her to pick a place on the map. They sold everything they owned in England and moved, quite literally, to the Wild West. Are you that courageous? Would you do that for the chance to live a very different life, if only to appreciate what you left behind? They were genuinely welcoming and helpful. The place is charming and the food and drinks are great. I recommend it in the extreme.
Rebbecca in front of the Pony Espresso Cafe in Wickenburg, left. And a Native American doll at Livery Shops
Across the street from the cafe, at an antique store, I spent countless hours looking through old photos.
The store also had an incredible collection of old, I mean, OLD cameras. Obviously, I’m a photography enthusiast, but it is fascinating to see old cameras and envisioning them not only working but producing astonishing images that, even with all our digital advancements, are hard to replicate.
Everything is cowboy, Wild West themed, even the realty agents, left. But there is this authenticity about Wickenburg — they’re not spraying the cowboy cologne all over themselves just to attract the sniffling tourists. The town and its people are not living in some fantasy themed park, and the reality of life in the West (and its struggles) is evident, even more so when you talk to the locals, when you see the empty streets on a cold winter afternoon.
The overall short trip was full of friendly, genuine faces. Next time I hope to check out the natural preserve and maybe, if I find the courage, Vulture Mine. That’s only if I’m not stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire courtesy of Grand Avenue.