Places: Bisbee, Arizona

In my mind, Bisbee, Arizona’s center of gravity is located somewhere between the wild west days and the shutdown of the Copper Queen Mine in the ’70s. Those challenging and violent times, particularly early in the 20th century, still have a hold on the town and on my imagination. Even though Old Bisbee has rebranded itself as an arts community and tourism more or less thrives, there is tension between the visible past–decommissioned mines, and buildings that exist, other than a coat of paint, like they did 100 years ago–and the present.

Bisbee is a compact town, but you don’t walk around it so much as climb around it. Homes, which often are converted mining dorms, sit mostly on hillsides and are accessible by hundreds of sets of stairs that have been constructed throughout town. Beth and I once entertained thoughts of buying a house in Bisbee. We fell in love with a 1918 bungalow sited on a small plateau that overlooked town. Getting there required a short drive up a street with twentyish percent grades, followed by a hike up 99 stairs. We imagined watching sunsets from our plateau. We thought about climbing stairs every day. The realtor warned us about scorpions. We didn’t buy.

Bisbee is seven miles from the border with Mexico, where Naco (AZ and Mexico) straddle the fence. One afternoon we crossed into Mexico with a group of school kids on their way home from class. US residents routinely cross the border for inexpensive dental care. While waiting to reenter the US we talked with a Bisbee local about where to buy the best mango-jalapeno ice pops in Naco (Mexico). The vibe is relaxed and belies the area’s well-deserved identity as a smuggling hub. It’s a pinpoint on a desolate border. I’ve driven the International Highway, a lane and a half dirt road that follows the border fence, for mile after mile without seeing anyone. Aerostats, carrying ground radar, float overhead. There are occasional watch posts on hill sides. Flashes of light suggest binoculars are turned our way.

A tangent: Naco has also been a hub of revolutionary activity. During a short lived rebellion in 1929, where citizens of Bisbee would gather to watch the action and occasionally dodge a bullet, American aviator Patrick Murphy became the first American national to bomb US soil. While conducting freelance bombing runs for Mexican rebels, he managed to hit both sides of the border, causing mayhem and casualties until American troops eventually dropped by the local airport and disabled his plane.

The remote location, the many narrow and winding streets, the stairs that invite–or are obstacles to–exploration: Bisbee feels like a place where you can deliberately get lost. Our many trips to Bisbee included aimless wandering and searching for sites that bridge the divide between past and present: Lowell’s main street, which is a 1960’s time capsule; the Art Deco architecture of the Cochise County Courthouse; Brewery Gulch and it’s colorful houses.

We typically visit in November. Tourists are few and the weather–cold in the evenings, chilly or warm in the day–suits us. There are a few events–the annual coaster races and Bisbee 1000 Stairclimb are the big ones–that can make a visit challenging.

Downtown Bisbee
Downtown Bisbee, Tombstone Canyon Road

 

jonquil motel
Mural on the Jonquil Motel

 

bisbee art
Art abounds in Bisbee

 

Big flys in Bisbee. It’s a yearly part of the arts scene

 

Step back in time in Lowell, AZ

 

Mexico/USA border fence

 

Naco, Sonora Mexico

Eat, Drink, Stay

Shady Dell, a grouping of vintage travel trailers turned motel, gets all the press, but the location isn’t ideal. We’re partial to the Jonquil Motel; downtown is only a short walk down Tombstone Canyon Road. If you’re feeling decadent, the Letson Loft is comfortable and convenient.

For breakfast, drive to the Bisbee Breakfast Club, about ten minutes from Old Bisbee. It’s an Arizona institution. Get the Blue Wally Cakes.

Chicago hot dogs in Arizona? Yes, really. Go to Jimmy’s and fight the crowds.

The High Desert Market and Café offers smoothies, sandwiches and espresso. Some nights they have a dinner special, which we’ll typically grab to go.

Screaming Banshee for pizza and beer. Because you can’t go wrong with pizza and beer. Or margaritas and tacos, in which case you want to go to Santiago’s.

Speaking of beer, we’ve spent some afternoons in the Old Bisbee Brewing Company, where we once watched a dog take his place on a stool at the bar. “Waiting for his owner,” we were told. Apparently this was a near-daily occurrence. By the way, the beer is good and if you want a treat try the Salut. I can also recommend the chili.

 

For a fascinating look at the 1917 labor strike that blew Bisbee apart, watch Bisbee ’17. It’s currently making the rounds at theaters.

Places: Death Valley Junction

The Amargosa Opera House stands at the corner of State Line Road and California Route 127, in a place now called Death Valley Junction. In the early 1920s it was Amargosa, a company town that supported borax mining interests. A U-shaped building contained a hotel, dining room, dormitories, company offices and a community center. The opera didn’t arrive in town until later.

When I talk to people about Death Valley Junction the word opera inevitably derails the conversation. Opera, in the middle of the desert? Far away from any population center?

In 1967 a flat tire left Marta (nee Martha) Becket and her husband waiting for repairs in Death Valley Junction. Marta explored the community center, then known as Corkhill Hall, and felt it calling her. That was the beginning of cultural institution that endures to this day. Becket rented the center for $45 a month, evicted the kangaroo rats that populated it, and rebuilt it into a performance space. Audiences were sparse to non-existent, so she began to paint murals on the walls that depicted a full house. Audiences and attention followed, as well as questions about the sensibility of building an opera house in the desert.

Am I eccentric?” she asked in an interview with The New York Times in 1999. “Is it eccentric to love your work so much that you would go anywhere in the world to do it?”

Today, the Opera House draws desert pilgrims and the curious from around the world. A new structure across the street showcases Becket’s wardrobe, the motel continues to operate and gets solid reviews, and the newly reopened café serves a very good BLT. Otherwise, Death Valley Junction is a ghost town, though the scenery has its own charm.

Death Valley Junction
A relic of the borax mining days

 

Death Valley Junction
The garage where Marta Becket and her husband traveled to fix a flat tire

 

Death Valley Junction
The Amargosa Motel

 

Amargosa Opera House
Amargosa Opera House

 

Death Valley Junction
A brief history of Death Valley Junction

 

BMW GS
A couple following their dream. Read more at nordsuedfahrt.de

Fare wars

Christmas windows and skeptical bystanders

After a relatively slow summer for airfare sales, the last few weeks have seen competition heat up. Beth and I had a list of places we were interested in visiting this winter–Vienna, Amsterdam and Portugal were top of the list, along with Paris (no, we can’t quit that place). I kept an eye on fares, including tracking a few itineraries that fit timeframes that would work for us. We didn’t have to go anywhere at anytime, and decided that if the right opportunity showed itself we would make a decision.

That opportunity landing in my inbox a few weeks ago. Crazy low fares from Raleigh–a short drive from us–to Paris and return. We jumped on it and booked travel for our entire family.

Here’s the best part of the story: Earlier this year Beth had chosen to give up her seat on a flight to Chicago, and netted a thousand dollar travel voucher. Between that and the sale, tickets for the three of us were just over $300. Total.

I’ve seen even better deals the past week, from numerous airlines. WOW, which I’ve flown a few times, had round trips from BWI (Baltimore/Washington DC) to Paris for under $250. Super economy fares, for sure, but a few hours of less-than-stellar comfort could put you in the City of Lights during Christmas market season.

And fortunately the exchange rate with the Euro is still decent. That means our cost of traveling won’t be out of control, and we were able to book a two-bedroom apartment a block from the Metro, Beth’s favorite restaurant, and the only street in Paris for much less than a hotel. Paris for a fraction of the cost of a trip to New York, Chicago or many other US cities? Sign me up.

Pro tip: If an airline asks for volunteers to give up a seat, don’t jump at the first offer. Playing the waiting game can pay off. The offer for Beth’s seat started at $400 before landing at a much higher amount.

Practical matters: passports

Last week I started the passport renewal process. The good news: If you’re a US citizen you only have to do this every ten years. The bad: 2018 is the year of delays and higher fees.

First, the delays. If you’ve been putting off renewing or applying for a passport, get on it now. For a variety of reasons 2018 is a peak year for renewals, and the State Department has been warning that processing times will be longer than normal. If you see a trip on your horizon, don’t wait and suffer undue stress or pay fees for expedited service. And, if you’re thinking, “I’ve still got a few months before mine expires,” remember that to enter another country your passport must be valid for at least three months after the date you plan to leave the country. You don’t want to learn that at the tail end of a long, overnight flight.

Second, US passports now cost $10 more for first-time applicants. That’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things, but ten bucks is ten bucks. This means you’ll pay $110 for a passport or $140 for a passport and passport card. I sprung for the passport card because it’s REAL ID compliant; I can use it for domestic air travel, and put off updating my driver’s license to the REAL ID version. Truth be told, I’d probably spend twice the fee to avoid visiting my local driver’s license office.

To learn more about applying for or renewing a passport visit the State Department’s web site. It’s a genuinely helpful site that simplifies navigating a sometimes-confusing process. And it can point you to local events and offices where first-time applicants can start the process.

Travel’s missing ingredient

Yelp, TripAdvisor, Instagram, Google Street view and countless other always-available web sites and services have drained travel of a critical ingredient: Mystery.

How often do most of us land in a new location already knowing what we want to see, do, eat and drink? Moreover, we have strong expectations of what those experiences should be, based on a wealth of information that’s out there. In extreme cases, unrealistic expectations can lead to transient mental disorders.

I love the benefits that come with being a connected traveler. But a recent series of articles from AFAR about traveling unplugged reminded me of travel before smartphones and WiFi were ubiquitous. Traveling unplugged required flexibility and curiosity, and lacked the manic need to document every move on social media. When Beth and I traveled to Ireland many years ago we had a rental car waiting, no plans, and only a map to guide us.

We found places to stay by asking locals for advice. Over two weeks we encountered many of the same travelers again and again, so we would pause and exchange tips about places to see and things to do. The memories that have stuck with us sprang from the mystery of not knowing (sometimes literally) what we would find around the next corner. Sometimes those were dead ends, which weren’t disappointments as much as suggestions to go elsewhere.

Looking beyond those mysteries made that trip, and others, richer in a way that travel today isn’t.

Food Matters: Paris

One of the pleasures of travel is finding good, local food. And one of my favorite cities for eating is Paris, thanks to an exploding culture of creative cooking that offers more than the sauce-heavy dishes that have long characterized French cuisine. You can spend a fortune dining there, but you don’t have to mortgage your home to enjoy a good meal. The places I love range from inexpensive to slightly-more-than-I’d-probably-spend-at-home, but every one is a good value.
  • La Table d’Aki is where Beth and I had one of our most memorable meals. Every dish–and they only serve seafood–is extraordinarily creative, and the wine list is simple and excellent. Two people, Chef Akihiro and an assistant, do everything from prep to cooking to wiping down the tables. Seating is very limited and reservations are essential. (7th arrondissement)
  • La Mascotte is a Montmartre fixture. Housed in a former hotel where Edith Piaf once lived, they serve a dizzying array of seafood. Here’s my advice: Start with a very good glass of champagne then go straight to les huitres (oysters), which are available from multiple regions and are presented by source and size. Reservations are strongly recommended. (18th)
  • Holybelly has the perfect breakfast, the Savoury Stack: Pancakes and bacon, topped with eggs over easy, served with home made Bourbon syrup. Oh, and their coffee…. (10th)
  • Le Severo is a serious steakhouse owned by a former butcher who has a keen eye for quality beef. We don’t spend a lot of time in the 14th arrondissement, but the trip to this small monument to steak is worth the trip. Trust the owner’s wine recommendations–they have an excellent list at reasonable prices. (14th)
  • Seb’on has an incredible reputation, and it’s only a matter of time before a Michelin star is bestowed on it. The creative menu changes nightly. The food is stellar and a good value to boot. Reserve a table well in advance. (18th)
  • Who travels to Paris to eat fried chicken? Me, that’s who. Ellsworth serves a typical Parisian lunch (entrée, plat, dessert–pick two or three) or you can dine on small plates in the evening. Their out-of-this-world fried chicken is available at either meal. If you skip the chicken (and you shouldn’t), there are plenty of other creative dishes on offer. (1st)
  • You’d never expect to find Babalou tucked away near one of Paris’s biggest tourist attractions, yet there it is around the corner from Sacre Coeur. They serve pasta, but the main draw is pizza with perfectly charred crust. Yes, it’s a pizza joint, but make reservations if you don’t want to be turned away at dinner. (18th)
  • Cave La Bourgogne offers French comfort food in a friendly setting. If you’re up for steak tartare, escargots, sardines in butter or a cassoulet, you can’t go wrong here. Bonus: It’s located on the wonderful Rue Mouffetard, which is perfect for people-watching. (5th)
  • Soul Kitchen is our first choice for a simple breakfast, though the vegetarian lunch menu always looks good. It’s a crowded spot that always seems to be full of moms who have just dropped their kids at school. I always get the same thing: A croissant with jam, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and a latté. I never tire of this combination. (18th)
  • On a warm, sunny day find your way to Paname Brewing Company, on the Quai de la Loire, order a beer and some street food, and find a table on the deck overlooking the water. “Fine Parisian beers” used to be an oxymoron, but no more. This is a fun, friendly spot that serves excellent beer and food. (19th)

Pro tip for Paris dining: Reservations are the rule, and it’s good manners to make them and show up exactly on time. That said, many restaurants will do their best to create space for you if you show up and politely request a table. Starting with “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” will go a long way toward breaking the ice.

There’s no substitute for time

Harry Middleton, who wrote books and essays mostly about fly fishing before dying too young, gave me an important lens through which I view travel. On the Spine of Time chronicled his numerous trips to western North Carolina rivers. He lost more trout than he caught, ruminated on the history of his surrounding, was forced into a tree by a rising river, and met a gallery of quirky characters who populate his book.

Each time I picked it up I had a vivid image of the world speeding past an oblivious Middleton who was focused on one small, fascinating corner of the world. The things he wrote about weren’t obvious; he needed time to tease out details. Middleton taught me that If you want to dive into a place as deeply as he did, there’s no substitute for time.

New places overwhelm and ask questions: Where are you going to go? What do you need to see? Is there time for all of it? Any of it? Do you understand?

Understanding a place only comes with time. Time spent watching, time spent asking questions, time spent thinking. That’s why even when I feel the need to experience something new, I love to return to places I’ve been before. So I can watch, ask and think. That where I find value in travel – getting to know places in ways that a quick stop can’t allow.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Middleton, from The Earth is Enough:

“It’s been said that we pass through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasms. My problem is having had so many to start out with. Now, at the age of fifty-six, I have painting, my four beautiful children, fly casting, writing, friends, wing shooting, printing, family and extended family, cooking, and Marusia, the light of my life, not at all necessarily in that order. The problem, if you want to call it that, is there is no time left for things that don’t matter. Years ago, after watching someone waste endless hours on some pointless project, Tom McGuane observed that the fellow obviously believed the average human lifetime to be ten thousand years. I’m treating it as if there were less than a minute to go.”

Here’s to using time wisely.

Turin, Eataly, and catching a ride with a stranger

I had only a vague idea where we were, which wasn’t comforting since we were sitting in the backseat of a stranger’s car. After getting in the car 30 minutes earlier we had gone in what seemed like the right direction, but with all the u-turns and backtracking I was a bit nervous. Not to mention that our apartment was only a 10 minute drive. While we chatted with the driver I surreptitiously checked the map on my phone.

Our strange “cab” ride started at Eataly. You may have visited one of their five outposts in the US. Earlier this year I walked into the one in Chicago. It was…okay. Maybe that’s a contrarian opinion because lots of people swoon over the place, but I’m happy to stand by it.

Eataly in Turin was completely different.

It’s the original, and is next door to 8 Gallery, a former FIAT factory that’s home to hotels, restaurants and a shopping mall. 8 Gallery has a rooftop test track that was a minor setting in the original Italian Job.

After visiting the gallery and walking a lap of the track, we were ready for lunch and went next door to Eataly where we were greeted by a woman sampling sparkling wines. She wanted our opinion about two wines–which did we prefer? We agreed that we liked a more complex, bolder wine she had offered us. “Bene!” she cried, and let us know that we were absolutely right. She might be selling two different wines, but only one was worth our time and she wanted us to know the difference.

Okay, if you haven’t experienced Eataly, it’s important to know that each store includes several restaurants that serve specific types of food–fish, meat, pasta, pizza, and so on. We opted for pasta. In my case, a giant bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella. Everything, including the cheese, had been produced within a hundred feet of our table. I washed it down with a bottle of acqua frizzante and a glass of red wine.

This was our first of two trips to Eataly that day. After lunch we visited the Museo dell’Automobile and saw a biennial exhibition that had just opened. Then we walked back to Eataly to shop and have a drink.

Our second stop was much longer. We bought risotto and olive oil for the local charity drive, lavender dog biscuits for Ben and Rox, and other odds and ends. We paused at an enoteca (wine bar) while making plans for that evening.

It was time to get a cab.

We exited Eataly and were met by a young, well-dressed guy who asked, “Can I give you a ride anywhere in the city?” He pointed us toward a line of new Renault SUVs, and explained that Renault and Eataly had teamed up for a promotion. The ride was on them.

Ten euros (the cost of cab fare) is ten euros, so we hopped in.

And so a few minutes later I was consulting online maps and looking for landmarks I recognized. “This is my first time doing this job,” said our driver. “I know your address. My girlfriend lives two blocks from there.”

I wondered about that, but after one more u-turn I caught a glimpse of our street off to the right. Our driver turned left.

I was about to point out the missed turn when our driver said, “Ah, these streets are so confusing. I need to go around the block.” Two minutes later we were parked in front of our apartment, and I was signing documents that freed me of any obligations if the driver killed a pedestrian or wrecked his shiny new vehicle. We turned toward our apartment and he shouted, “Wait!” and opened the boot of the car. “I have a present.”

He handed us a small bag from Eataly, filled with food samples. “This is my last one,” he said, “and I’m nearly done for the night.”

We said our goodbyes, and before driving off he said with a smirk, “Maybe I can go to my girlfriend’s and get a quick kiss!”

Turin restaurant notes: While in Turin we stayed in a quiet section of town near the Po River, a few minutes walk from Centro, where many of the famous palazzos are located. A’Livella, located on Corso Belgio around the corner from our apartment, serves fresh, tasty Neopolitan pizza. Expect crowds. Restaurant Tefy, also on Corso Belgio, is operated by a hospitable couple who focus on Piemontese cuisine. We ate a traditional multi-course meal that started with two antipasto courses totaling seven dishes, then featured pasta, a meat course and dessert. We did not leave hungry. Ask for advice about wine–they offer several local, inexpensive choices. The bottle of Nebbiolo we drank was a bargain at 20 euros.

Go when you want, see what you like

Whenever I run across the question, “What should I see when I visit [blank]?” I can guess most of the answers. Helpful folks will respond with a list of the usual landmarks, often with tips about avoiding crowds.

There are a lot of people who want nothing more than to shoot a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower. There’s not anything necessarily wrong with that. But Greatest Hits tours of places, particularly major cities, can lead travelers to miss a lot. A lot.
Fiat 500
So here’s a tip: Throw out the guidebooks and steer clear of TripAdvisor, travel when you want and see what you like.

Years ago, my wife Beth and I traveled to Ireland in early October. We booked flights to Shannon and had a rental car waiting. We had a map, but no plans. We had a rough idea of places we wanted to visit, but no hard and fast itinerary for the ten days we would be there. The best experiences we had weren’t in a guidebook–they came from asking a lot of questions and turning down a lot of two track trails. We picked up student hitchhikers, bought drinks for locals in pubs and always asked, “Where should we go next?”

That led us to castles that perhaps one to two people a week visited. We stood five feet away from Chieftain’s flautist Matt Molloy while he played a set with friends in his pub in Westport. We had an impromptu meet up at dinner with acquaintances from the trip including some innkeepers, a Welsh couple and a retired CIA agent. And, we had tea at a house where Charles de Gaulle spent part of his retirement.

Since then, we’ve traveled mostly during the fall and winter. We miss the crowds (well, we don’t really miss them), and we have opportunities to experience things that don’t take place in the crush of summer. Like Nuit Blanche in Paris, where we traveled around the city at night, playing in the fog sculpture at Place de République and running into marching bands that took over city streets.

In the same way, we focus on what we want to see. Like the morning I hung out at Cycles Alex Singer, talking shop in a place that shaped bicycle culture in France since 1938. It’s not in the guidebooks, but to me it’s a bucket list item. There’s a connection, however small, between that shop and my life around bicycles. I can’t say that many of the monuments make the same connection.

In the same way, our visit to Italy this year was guided by one thing: To see as many of Bernini’s works as possible. That’s been Beth’s longtime dream, and though it didn’t rule out visiting the major landmarks–and in fact, many Bernini sculptures are in famous monuments–it took precedence over them.

Everyone’s list of places that matter is different. What stokes your imagination?

Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in architecture or automobiles look at this album of my photos from the Museo dell’Automobile di Torino. Cars and car culture are interests of mine, and if they’re yours this is a must-see place. Beth, who is more into Bernini than cars, admitted that it was far more interesting than she expected.