South of Bisbee, where the famous Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company serves up authentic Chicago hot dogs, Naco Highway makes a beeline through the mesquite grassland for the U.S.-Mexico border. A dark line bisects the twin communities of Naco, one in Arizona, the other in Sonora.
The place is shot-through with history.
On the Arizona side, just north of town, take West Newell Street to Turquoise Valley Golf, the oldest continuously operated golf course in Arizona.
“We’ve been going strong for 109 years,” says Jim Soriano in the pro shop. “Since they used oil on the greens instead of grass.” Gone also are those early days of gravel fairways and hazards made of cactus and ore cars. Today, green grass and pines reach toward the distant Mule Mountains. Call ahead to schedule a tee time (520.432.3091) to play 18 holes where Pancho Villa marched and Black Jack Pershing camped.
If golf isn’t your thing, try The Rattler—named after an infamous 747-yard hole on the course—for breakfast, served all day at the Turquoise Valley restaurant. Pancakes, eggs, and three slices of bacon, served with photos of Jackie Gleason and Arnold Palmer, and a ceramic rattlesnake.
Farther west on Newell Street find what remains of Camp Naco, a U.S. Army post built in 1919 as part of a “human fence” along the border. There’s no public access while preservation work continues, but you can still see the camp’s 21 buildings, one of the best examples of adobe architecture of the Mexican Border Defense Construction Project.
Naco, Arizona, is the only town in the continental U.S. to be bombed by a foreign power. It happened in 1929 during the Escobar/Topete Revolution when rebels had trapped the federales against the border. A one-legged Irish barnstormer named Patrick Murphy agreed to blow them from their trenches using suitcases loaded with dynamite. The problem was that Murphy also frequented Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch. On several occasions, he flew over the wrong Naco, tossing bombs through the roofs of a mercantile and a garage, blowing automobiles and canned goods from their trenches.
The buildings still stand. Park your car on South Towner Avenue and walk around the abandoned mining store, past the boarded up windows and doors. Where the stucco has slipped away, look for chips the size of silver dollars in the red brick. Bullet impacts? Hotel Naco once advertised bulletproof rooms for $2 a day.
When you cross, take note of the hand-painted tile art, especially the wall giving tribute to the 1929 Naco Blitzkrieg.
Studio Mariposa is a short walk along Avenida Libertad. Look to the left for a building with bright blue colors. Bisbee artist Gretchen Baer worked with Naco children for six years on a mile-long, border-wall mural. Although the artwork was destroyed when officials replaced the painted corrugated metal, Baer has moved on with an art center for local youth. “Art doesn’t stop,” she says. On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, you can find Baer and her “Hillary car” parked outside as she teaches art and music to as many as 70 children.
Next, you might visit the Historical Museum of Naco (Tuesday-Friday, 9-12 a.m., 3-6 p.m.). Walking south along Avenida Francisco Madero, you’ll pass the excellent restaurant Asadero los Molcajetes and the statue of Father Miguel Hidalgo with his bald head, crazy eyes, and fists holding the broken chains of Mexican independence. Continue past the children selling candy (bring lots of $1 bills) and the old men pushing food carts under red and blue umbrellas. The museum is in the white government building across from the Super Mercado.
Check out the murals in the courtyard and then wander through the museum’s three wings to peruse the old photos of the Revolution, exhibits of Naco’s past native cultures, and the fossil tracks and mastodon bones dug up in the area. The newly remodeled museum, which is nonprofit and citizen-run, “tells the story of the community,” says its director, Elena Maria Borquez. “The border wall doesn’t divide the history of the region.”
Restaurante el Coyote is two blocks south of the museum. Order the carne asada, but if you start in on the chips and salsa, you’ll need two people to finish it. The plate is piled with fried potatoes and a whole roasted green chile, with the freshest guacamole this side of anywhere. Eat it all with warm tortillas so thin you can almost see through them.
After lunch, you’ll want a dozen more tortillas to take home, so slip next door to Jireh’s Fabrica de Tortillas de Harina and meet Aida and Agustin Fuentes, owners of the flour tortilla factory. They’ll happily hand you samples and tell you that their flour is non-GMO from Hermosillo and that they sell their tortillas to Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant in Bisbee. Maybe buy dos docenas.
When you return to Naco, Arizona, step inside the Gay 90’s Bar and check out the photos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Leonel Urcadez, the Gay 90’s owner. Then, peek into the backroom that’s big enough for a Mexican quinceañera, slide past the pool tables, and have a seat at the bar. Someone may buy you a beer.
Someone like Jaime Valenzuela, who has lived in Naco his whole life. Bartender Teri Tumbleweed will spread out old photos of the Army general Black Jack Pershing, along with others of Pancho Villa, Brigadier General Tasker H. Bliss, and a rapid-fire cannon called Panchito.
Urcadez will tell you about when the Reagans arrived. “We always took the day off for it,” he says. “They came several times. They taxidermied the horse that threw Ronald Reagan. They still got that stuffed horse at the ranch in Mexico.”
They talk about the way it was when you could leave your door open and people took care of your place while you were gone. “We had family across the line,” Valenzuela says. “My great grandmother was from Mexico.”
The Gay 90’s Bar is Naco’s oldest watering hole (since 1931), and continues to be the center of the community in more ways than location. True West Magazine called it the “Best Name for a Hetero Bar in a Redneck Border Town.” But you won’t find many rednecks here, just friendly people. On both sides.
Ken Lamberton’s latest book, Chasing Arizona, was a 2015 Southwest Book of the Year.