Tasty ride along the Old Spanish Trail
Friday, January 20, 2017
Posted by: Curt Stetter (#205881)
Photos by Chuck Feil (#203990)
Ore-laden wagons and stagecoaches of the late 19th century first scribed the rutted trails linking the mining towns of Benson, Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas. It’s no coincidence each of these towns is approximately 20 miles apart, equal to a rough day’s ride by horseback. Now mounted on our motorcycles, the six hour equine journey is now reduced to a 30 minute pleasure ride on a smooth tarmac road between towns.
We've been riding motorcycles for a combined fifty years, shooting photographs and documenting stories along the way. Our paths intersected in Bisbee seven years ago, with a love for motorcycling and adventure. The two of us decided to hook up as a “band of brothers” riding the back roads in the Southwest, Mexico, Thailand, and Canada, seeking out small communities with big hearts and souls. Curt was the wordsmith, and Chuck the primary photographer.
When you get on a motorcycle and rev that engine, you connect with the machine and the road in a different way. You’re more vulnerable, subject to the elements and the unknown. Your awareness peaks. You want to go somewhere just to see where the sun sets. And with adventure, comes hunger. Hunger for food and for stories.
Officially “finished” in 1929, the 2743 mile Spanish Trail was the first national coast to coast highway system, though only 70 percent of the roadway was a patchwork pavement consisting of concrete, brick, stone and asphalt. The remaining was a combination of graded dirt, gravel, and wooden plank. One stretch near Mobile, Ala., required a ferry crossing. This route played an important role for Americans to explore and mobilize from San Augustine, Fla., to San Diego, Calif.
The onset of World War II required a domestic defense route to move materials and equipment from the eastern seaboard to the west coast, propagating a plan to link most of the Old Spanish Trail and finish paving roadways across the U.S. from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif., thus forming the transcontinental route US 80, also known as “The Broadway of America.”
The section of Highway 80 cutting through southeast Arizona served mining towns brimming with extreme wealth until the rich mineral deposits played out. The powerful copper and silver companies pulled up stakes, leaving small town residents forlorn and melancholy to fend for themselves. Then US 80 was demoted to State Route 80, a mere exit ramp from the new Interstate 10, squeezing these abandoned communities once again by rerouting traffic away from their main streets.
Reinventing a townsfolk way of life wasn’t a trendy topic back then, but a crucial need to survive existed if you didn’t relocate to another mining town such as Morenci to the north. The reinvention evolved into many forms, depending on the town. Benson turned to ranching and farming, while Tombstone looked to tourism, cashing in on its colorful, poetic past. In the mid-seventies, Bisbee’s transformation began with a crazy new breed of residents, “the hippies,” creating an artistic community. Douglas invited international commerce as a gateway to Mexico. All these reinventions were slow to mature, calling on strong individuals with pioneer spirits to create a living in the small economically challenged towns. All the people we interviewed shared a thread of commonality as to why they chose to start up a business in rural southeast Arizona: A better life for their children or themselves with an opportunity to make a difference in their community.
We motorcycled back roads off one of the longest remaining pieces of old US 80, seeking out the brave entrepreneurs who prepare beautiful food or farm using sustainable methods, plus a few other characters thrown in for fun.
Midday on Interstate 10, exiting at Benson signals a powerful urge for travelers to eat something before entering the next large metroplex. In the past, billboard advertising caught the hungry eye. Now you can surf the internet on your smartphone for guidance. As Mi Casa Restaurant owner Andy Sutton explains, the restaurant website draws travelers one mile from the freeway by making certain great reviews from patrons whet the appetites of passengers approaching the Benson exits. Santa, Andy’s wife, creates beautifully presented dishes teaming with the flavors of La Paz, Mexico, where she cooked alongside of her mother and met Andy 20 years ago. Andy proudly takes your orders and delivers Santa’s magical creations to your table. Open Monday through Friday, the owners decided long ago the weekends are for their family.
A half mile further into town, you first see a wonderful western mural and the classic neon signage of the Horseshoe Café. Patty Columbo recently took over the tired restaurant and revitalized it by improving the quality of food, restoring the building’s irresistible charm and serving up her heralded pies and cakes. During our interview, Patty quietly displayed a sense of accomplishment she’s earned by saving this classic small town café.
Heading south before reaching Tombstone, you cross the north flowing San Pedro River and enter the quiet Mormon settlement of St. David. The San Pedro River provided a trail for Spanish explorers searching for cities of gold and more recently throngs of immigrants trying to find work in the U.S.
Like many other European tourists visiting Tombstone, he wanted to experience the west as it was 130 years ago, but he got more than just a gunfight on Allen Street. Mark Duke of Oxford England became a bit of a hero by saving a building from demolition and starting Wyatt’s Café (Tombstone’s first real coffee shop), opening the boutique Wyatt’s Hotel and saving the popular Doc Holiday “Gunfight” Theater, which features a historic saloon.
Strolling down Allen St. on the wood planked walks will bring you back to the mid-1800’s, when the town was bustling with gamblers, wranglers, horse thieves, miners, and shady ladies. The characters still exist but in actor form only.
Again we fired up our mounts and headed south toward Mexico on our way to Bisbee, the sky island with the history of staking the richest copper mining claim at the turn of the twentieth century. The winding mountain pass from Tombstone rises 1800 feet before reaching the famous Mule Pass Tunnel, one of two in the state. Once on the other side, you drop into a village type setting very similar you’d expect to see in Europe. The quaint downtown is surrounded by miner’s shacks and restored houses perched high on the canyon walls. Main Street is lined with unique shops and restaurants. The other main boulevard is Brewery Gulch where in the past bars and brothels were open 24/7, accommodating three shifts of miners extracting the copper ore from the Queen Mine.
Today Victor Winquist, creator of the Old Bisbee Brewing Company, brews six different beers on site along with one wine beer and a darn good rootin’ tootin’ root beer. To take the weary edge off a long day in the saddle, have a brat, a beer and a cup of chili. Guaranteed to put a snap back in your step or put you down for a nap. Something is always going on in this crazy town, so always check out the Discover Bisbee website (www.discoverbisbee.com) to see what’s happening.
Saturday market in Bisbee (actually in Warren), spawned heavenly greens lovingly grown within the 40-acre Sacred Garden Sanctuary, a sustainable organic farm located about 10 miles north of Douglas. Edwin, the owner, invited us to visit their farm but warned us of the rough road once leaving State Route 80. Both of us ride 1200 GS bikes, but once we began to wind our way back to the Garden, we paid close attention to the ruts, sand, boulders, and loose rocks challenging us to stay upright. A hearty welcome was earned, and I immediately took notice of everyone’s Cheshire cat smiles. These long grins continued throughout the interview, making me realize these resourceful guys love what they do, and soon after touring their operation, there was no doubt they know how to grow. An explanation for their Spartan lifestyle was summed up by Chris, Edwin’s partner: “We eat and live well here because we do it ourselves and want people to come and look at Sacred Gardens as a model.” We left the gardens as carefully as we rode in, but this time I left with a great thought offered up by Chris: “Most people think we’re farming plants. We’re not, we’re farming dirt. The dirt we have makes everything possible.”
The boys at the Sacred Sanctuary suggested we stop for a coffee at a new coffee house in downtown Douglas. This city laid out by John Slaughter then built by Phelps Dodge Mining Company for the purpose of processing copper ore mined from Bisbee has a trove of great architecture on G Street (main street) and scattered throughout the residential neighborhoods. This main avenue sports the attractive Galliano’s Coffee House and Restaurant, owned by Robert Uribe and his wife Jenna Sanchez and named after their young son. Robert wished to bring something different and creative to Douglas that would be beneficial to everyone…a place to “hang out” and have fun. The shop is very comfortably furnished and offers wonderful, healthy salads, sandwiches and smoothies. The rich coffee is imported from Chiapas, Mexico. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, Robert never dreamed of living on the border but now is looking forward to expanding by offering beer, wine, and jazz in a separate space to be named after their daughter “Madison.” But while they put together their additional venture Robert has decided to throw his hat into the political arena and run for mayor of Douglas.
Another highly recommended point of culinary interest in Douglas is Janella’s Mexican Hot Dogs food truck set up alongside a lovely green park on the corners of 8th Street and Florida Ave. Living in Arizona most of my life, I never ventured chomping down on a Mexican Hot Dog, but truck owner Andres Munoz handed me my first MHD along side a freshly squeezed lemonade. Now I am a true believer that bacon and dogs should sleep together. For 24 years Andre’s 11 days on and 3 days off schedule has proudly served the Douglas dog lovers.
Continuing on SR80 east out of Douglas, the road takes you north. As you drift out of Rodeo, turn left onto RT 533, aka Portal Road. Due west takes you to the town, cafe, country store and lodge all sharing the same name, Portal. Comfortably nestled at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains, Loni and Mitch Webster’s Portal Peak Lodge is a logical base to begin your day hikes, bird watching or mountain biking. Return to the café for a wholesome meal and a choice selection of libations. These unique mountains have the highest bio-diversity of invertebrates in the world and are home to the Southwest Research Center, affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
As we work our way home toward Bisbee we realize this almost forgotten road is a treasure trove of hearty people, richly beautiful countryside, edible delights, and new exciting futures for those who reach out.
So mount your steed, twist your throttle and spend a couple days exploring historic AZ 80.