An hour southwest of Tucson, ochre hills of desert grassland surround the small town of Arivaca. Baboquivari Peak rises to the west, a sacred mountain considered the center of the universe by the Tohono O’odham. Arivaca Cienega flows close to town, a critical feature of this otherwise dry and desolate landscape. This precious water gave the town its name: “Aribac,” an Akimel O’odham word that means “little spring.”
To reach Arivaca, head south from Tucson on I-19. Take Exit 48 through Amado, passing the famous cow skull storefront at The Cow Palace, and follow Arivaca Road for another 23 miles. Look right for the Gadsden Coffee Company, a café with a 20-year coffee roasting legacy started by Tom Shook. Shook named the café after the Gadsden Purchase. He thought the territory should break away from the state.
“He was kind of an anarchist,” says current roastmaster Bradley Knaub, who learned from Shook.
The café serves shade-grown coffee as well as food and drink, including peach-pear-apricot smoothies for sweltering summers. Visit Friday evenings and enjoy live acoustic music.
On your way out, grab a copy of Arivaca’s community journal, The Connection, for a listing of upcoming patio concerts, celebrations, yoga sessions, and other events.
Follow Arivaca Road another mile and look for the Arivaca Cienega trailhead, a section of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, on the left. Known for its endangered masked bobwhite, an endemic rust-red quail found in a limited range within the Altar Valley, the national wildlife refuge preserves prime grassland and wetland habitat in southern Arizona. Outside the refuge, cattle ranching has disturbed grassland ecosystems, transforming native grass savanna into mesquite thickets with swaths of invasive grass.
Walkers on this easy trail should keep eyes and ears open for yellow-billed cuckoo, gray hawks, javelina, white-tailed deer, coyote, and more.
Continue into town before noon to visit Marian’s Farmers’ Market, marked by a painted sign easily spotted on the short drive through town. The farmers’ market includes vendors from nearby farms as well as the community garden.
Conditions in this landscape are harsh, characterized by soaring summer temperatures and crop-raiding grasshoppers. Those farming in Arivaca consider their hard-earned paradise a group effort. Residents band together to support their community in creative ways. “Everybody’s concerned about everybody,” says Jay Rivett of Jay’s Garden Variety. He sells dried herbs, seasonal specialties like white pomegranate, and sticky buns made from local honey.
“You have to be fairly independent to live here,” says Bill Stern, manager of the Arivaca Community Garden. “At the same time, there is a pretty cohesive community.” Residents volunteer to run the community garden table at the market, which includes an assortment of seasonal produce, with roasted green chiles in September.
The four-acre community garden, located outside of town on a dirt road, produces about 15,000 pounds of produce annually. A quarter of this produce goes directly to the Amado and Green Valley food banks. Those who volunteer are invited to take home a small portion.
“We generate all this stuff ourselves,” says community garden volunteer Ari Ellis. “It’s really fulfilling that way.”
Rivett and Ellis also participate in a local grassroots group, Regenerating Arivaca, which gathers monthly to talk about growing, group buys, and opportunities to donate excess produce. “We’re trying to make the town sustainable. We’re trying to help ourselves,” says Rivett.
A short walk down the street, the outdoor restaurant La Rancherita offers another kind of community. Owner and cook Virginia Engle has set her kitchen among stone ruins. Blue chairs and tables are surrounded by potted flowers and a birdbath. Butterflies sip from orange blooms. Engle offers bread for visiting sparrows and chorizo breakfast burritos for visiting humans.
Engle grew up in Obregón, moved to Arivaca 32 years ago, and started La Rancherita in 2006. Though most customers come in winter, she continues to cook in midsummer heat for the occasional passersby. Open on weekends, her menu offers dishes from both sides of the border, with a bacon cheeseburger and carne asada burro.
“It’s a restaurant for the people, it’s a restaurant for the birds, it’s a restaurant for the butterflies,” says Engle.
Across the street, the Arivaca Artists’ Co-op Gallery displays a sampling of local artwork available for sale, including stone sculptures, gourds, leatherwork, clay, and stained glass. From October through May guests to the gallery will meet at least one artist.
Courageous adventurers with a sturdy vehicle may wish to visit Ruby, a ghost town 12 miles south of Arivaca on a pothole-riddled, paved road that later gives way to dirt. The scenic vistas and tour of the land prove worth the bumps. This winding drive reveals wide-open views of rolling knolls, like folds in a giant blanket.
Ruby began in the 1870s as the Montana Mine for gold and silver, transitioning to lead and zinc. In 1912, postmaster Julius Andrews renamed the town in celebration of his wife, Lillie Ruby. Though the camp population peaked at 1,200 people in 1937, with 300 men employed through mining operations, ore production dwindled in 1938 and residents left for work elsewhere. The mine closed in 1940. A cluster of eerily well-preserved buildings remains today, including a one-room school, post office, playground, and mercantile.
Returning to Arivaca, be sure to stop by Arivaca Lake, a wildlife viewing area maintained by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Visitors can canoe, fish for catfish or blue gill, and admire the rocky bluffs.
Stand on the side of Ruby Road and listen to wind through grass and buzzing insects. All seems calm. Indeed, a wave of 1970s “flower children” shunned city life to revel in this remote, off-the-grid quietude. Whether delving into history or participating in Bikram Yoga at the community garden greenhouse, day voyagers to Arivaca can expect a friendly, delightfully quirky small town experience. ✜
Saraiya Kanning is a freelance writer, silk painter, and birder living in Tucson.