Day Five: Southern Arizona and a Walk into Mexico (1975)

RetroSign4-Mission San Xavier del Bac

On Day Five (Aug. 29, 1975), my family drove about 10 miles south of Tuscon to Mission San Xavier del Bac . This is an historic Spanish Catholic mission founded in 1692. During our 1975 visit, my old Journal notes that the neglected church was “a real mess. We also saw big red ants and striped lizards.” Whether the creatures were running amok inside the dilapidated church or outside, I don’t recall.

San Xavier del Back (Photo Credit: Jeffrey M. Dean)
The restored San Xavier del Bac (Photo Credit: Jeffrey M. Dean)

The original church was built in 1700 and razed in 1770, when it was overrun by Apaches.  The mission, rebuilt between 1783 and 1797, saw decades of decay when the Mexican Government, in 1828, ordered all Spanish-born priests to leave. The last resident Franciscan left in 1837 for Spain. The Franciscans did not return to the Mission until 1913, decades after the United States had acquired the vast southwest territory in the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.

So fast-forward to 1975: The church was still in decay and neglect when I first saw it. Fortunately, extensive renovations in the late 20th century have restored the church to its former glory.

A museum next door features several dioramas, which I wrote “were real neat” (whatever that means). I was probably more fascinated by “the big red ants and striped lizards” which had free run of the Mission.

The Mission, about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, Arizona, is on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation (formerly known as Papago).

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Mission San Xavier del Bac

My Journal notes that we visited “another museum 3 miles away”, but I was too lazy to describe it. Could that have been the Titan Missile Museum, documenting the 54 Titan II missile sites, standing on alert, from 1963 to 1987, across the United States? Once a top secret place, the museum compound is now a National Historic Landmark.

Nogales, Mexico

Driving further south on U.S. route 19, you hit the U.S.-Mexican border and the border town of Nogales, Mexico – my first toehold visit to another country.

Even though my old Journal doesn’t name the town, a quick look at the map tells me my family and I entered Nogales, Mexico, as it lies an hour south of the Mission San Xavier del Bac. The lack of narrative details in my journal entry tells me that Nogales really didn’t impress me that much:

We then went to Mexico. We walked instead of taking the car because we would be more better off. We looked around and had a Coke and then came back to our car.

So there are a bunch of things left unsaid that I can only answer, four decades later, with conjecture – or in the case of the donkey and the beggar woman – a good memory:

1. Why did my family walk across the border instead of driving when it was so darn hot outside? Was it to save money or the hassle of a U.S. Customs car inspection at the U.S.-Mexican border? Or was there a secret family death-pact that somehow failed?

Current reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites note that it’s fairly common to park your car (about $5.00) and walk across the rather porous border. Wait times to re-enter the U.S. can be anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the day/hour of the week and capacity.

2. What does “we would be more better off” mean, besides the bad English? Did my parents feel unsafe?

Since 2009, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory warning of “public shootouts during daily hours” in the various border towns, all connected to the drug-gang turf wars. [Compared to the near-daily mass shootings we experience in the United States, one wonders which side of the border is the more dangerous.] In 1975, no such thing existed.

3. I do remember my family walking past a bunch of beggar women (today we might call them panhandlers) sitting on the sidewalk. One had a tired-looking infant or toddler in her lap. My dad tried to keep walking past, but Mom stopped him and asked him to give the lady some coinage, which Dad did.

4. I also remember a donkey covered in a colorful blanket with bangles or weird crotcheted-yarn thingies. Except you couldn’t take a photo until the man standing next to the donkey uncovered the donkey’s head or removed the sign. My dad surreptiously tried to take a photo anyway.

5. It was a short stroll into Mexico, and then we turned back – which, my older, far more adventurous self would now say, “That’s a pity. I’m sure there were some cultural or historical sites we could have visited, or at least tried some local cuisine.” But in 1975, Mom and Dad, with two little boys in tow, followed their instincts.

Again, if you read the reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites, you will see a mixed bag of reactions: “Everyone we spoke with recommended ‘La Roca,’ the restaurant built into the rock cliff of Nogales” versus “Don’t waste your time … We parked the car, walked across, walked two blocks and was disgusted. Turned around and went back” and “I didn’t feel safe, and that’s coming from a person that lives in the New York City area.”

You’ll have to weigh your own risk-tolerance versus chasing the bargain shopping or cultural pursuit.

Patagonia, Fort Crittenden and Sonoita (Arizona)

Heading (north)west on Arizona state route 82, we hit the tiny town of Patagonia (population: less than 1,000), determined “they have a messy park“, dropped off a letter at the post office, and sought out Fort Crittenden.

CampCrittendenSignFort Crittenden was a U.S. Army post built in 1867, primarily to protect area settlers and for campaigns against the Apache. The Fort was closed June 1, 1873. All that remains now are some dirt mounds, deteriorating adobe walls and a lone plaque – or, as my disappointed 11-year-old self wrote 41 years ago, “There was no fort or anything. There was just a sign.”

About 3 miles further down the road is the small town of Sonoita. (“It was a place with some shops and houses.”) So we called it quits and “We tried to go back to the Ramada Inn but turned off the freeway at the wrong time. This happened about 3 times . . . We’ll probably go swimming tonight. The trip was kind of fun.”

Interactive Google Map of the places mentioned above:

Map-TucsconToNogalesMexico

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