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 that the towns are strung 20 miles apart, equal to a rough day’s ride by horseback.
We’ve been riding motorcycles for a combined 50 years, shooting photographs and documenting stories along the way. Our paths intersected in Bisbee seven years ago, with a love for motorcycling and adventure. We’ve ridden on back roads in the Southwest, in Mexico, Thailand, and Canada. Curt is 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 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.
So we set out to find an edible adventure along historic Highway 80.
During World War II, domestic defense precipitated the need for a direct route to move materials and equipment from coast to coast. The transcontinental Highway 80, known as “The Broadway of America” was built to link Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California. In southeast Arizona, this section of highway served mining towns, which brimmed with extreme wealth—that is, until the rich mineral deposits played out and powerful copper and silver companies pulled up stakes and left towns to fend for themselves. When U.S. Highway 80 was demoted to State Route 80, the once thriving roadway became a mere exit ramp from the new Interstate 10, squeezing these abandoned communities once again by rerouting traffic away from their main streets.
As their mines closed up and the traffic stopped coming, these abandoned mining towns sought to reinvent themselves. Benson turned to ranching and farming while Tombstone looked to tourism, cashing in on its colorful and poetic past. In the mid-’70s, a wave of hippies settled into Bisbee, transforming the town into an artistic community. Douglas invited international commerce as a gateway to Mexico. But these inventions and reinventions are still evolving. All the people we interviewed shared a common thread about why they chose to start up a business in rural southeast Arizona—to create a better life for their children or themselves by making a difference in their communities.
We motorcycled the back roads off one of the longest remaining pieces of the old U.S. 80 seeking out the brave entrepreneurs that prepare beautiful food or grow bountiful farms (plus a few other characters thrown in for fun).
So mount your two-wheeler or put down your top, and spend a couple of days exploring the edible delights along historic Arizona 80.
Just one mile off I-10, in Benson, Mi Casa Restaurant draws travelers off the freeway not by billboard but by reputation, says owner Andy Sutton—online reviews from patrons whet the appetites of passengers approaching the Benson exits. Andy’s wife, Santa, creates beautifully presented dishes filled with the flavors of La Paz, Mexico, where she learned to cook alongside her mother—the place where Andy and Santa met 20 years ago. Open Monday to Friday.
732 W. Fourth St., Benson. 520.245.0343.
A HALF-MILE farther into town, after you pass a wonderful western mural, you’ll come across the classic neon signage of the Horseshoe Café. Patty Columbo and Michael Fagan took over the restaurant in 2010 and revitalized it by improving the quality of food, restoring the building’s irresistible charm, and started serving Columbo’s delicious homemade pies and cakes.
Open Monday to Saturday. 54 E. Fourth St., Benson. 520.586.2872.
Continuing south along Highway 80, before reaching the Mormon settlement of St. David, don’t miss the roadside stand emblazoned with the sign D&D Pecans. As the story goes, in the mid ’90s, Donna and Donny started selling pecans out of a small trailer. A woman from a nearby RV park wanted a pecan pie with fresh pecans from Donny’s orchard for her Thanksgiving dinner. Donna assembled the ingredients but, running behind, apologized to her customer that she wouldn’t have time to bake it. The customer insisted that she sell her the pie anyway, saying, “I’ll bake it myself”—and the freshly baked pie was the hit of her holiday dinner. The next day, new customers were lining up outside Donna and Donny’s home, requesting unbaked pies. Today, the pies are a piece of history, but their fresh pecans are as tasty as ever, along with a large selection of pistachios and seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Open daily. 2302 W. Patton St., Benson. 520.720.4675.
Venture behind The Gift of Giving Thrift Store and you’ll find Tombstone residents Del (Doc) and Mary Roach tending a state-of-the art aquaponics growing system. Years ago, Doc, a former clinical psychologist, decided that a combination of global warming and drought would drive up food prices, leaving behind people on fixed incomes; the large geodesic dome behind the thrift shop is Doc and Mary’s answer to the problem of food accessibility. Their aquaponics system, which produces both tilapia fish and fresh vegetables, uses 10 to 20 percent less water than a standard garden while producing nearly four times as much food. The Roaches are planning to build three more domes for production, allowing them to market locally produced fish and vegetables for their community in Tombstone.
Open daily. 312 W. Allen St., Tombstone. 520.457.2442.
Like so many people who visit Tombstone, Mark Duke wanted to experience the Wild West as it was 130 years ago. He got more than just a gunfight on Allen Street. Hailing from Oxford, England, Duke became a bit of a hero when he saved a historic building from demolition, starting Wyatt’s Coffee Saloon, Tombstone’s first real coffee shop. He also opened a boutique hotel called Wyatt’s Hotel and saved the popular Doc Holiday “Gunfight” Theater. Stop by for coffee and ice cream confections, with brick oven pizzas coming soon.
Open daily. 109 S. Third St., Tombstone. 520.266.3344
Patty Fishlock was a sales manager for Versace when she visited Bisbee’s The Shady Dell; those vintage trailers must have struck a chord within her inner designer, as it was love at first sight. In October 2001, Fishlock and her husband opened the Big Sky Café, and Patty got hooked on a world of matching fresh food to place and people. When she was widowed two years later, “I closed up, rearranged my life [and] found myself regularly slipping into Café Cornucopia in the heart of Old Bisbee for what I’d call beautiful comfort food.” In 2011, when the owners put the café up for sale, she bought them out, and stuck with their popular, fresh-everything menu. Café Cornucopia’s lively little space and wild mix of customers suits her perfectly.
Open Friday to Tuesday. 14 Main St., Bisbee. 520.432.4820.
Margaret Hartnet doesn’t seem like a woman of international intrigue—but her past says otherwise. A former professional chef, Margaret prepared state dinners for world leaders under the careful eye of the Secret Service. Now her secrets reside in the finishing of olives. Since a major freeze hit the area three years ago, all her specialty regional trees were shocked into nonproduction. Locals deliver olives by the bucketful to her home for processing; she also buys imported green and black olives. She finishes the Moroccan, Spanish (Manzanita), and Sicilian olives with rosemary, garlic, red wine, chiltepines, and red vinegar. She also sells her secret-recipe tapenade and pesto. Enjoy a chat with Margaret and sample her olives at the Bisbee Saturday Farmers’ Market at Vista Park in Warren.
At Bisbee’s Saturday Market, you can also buy some heavenly greens to accompany your oil. Sacred Garden Sanctuary is a sustainable organic farm and intentional back-to-the-land community located on 40 acres, 10 miles north of Douglas. Even on dual sport motorcycles, we paid close attention to the ruts, sand, boulders, and loose rocks that challenged us to stay upright. Bayse owns the land, and invited a friend, Chris Willhoite, who had extensive plant and soil knowledge, to join the community. A wanderer by heart, Willhoite settled down to work with Bayse to develop the land and feed the region. “We eat and live well here because we do it ourselves, and want people to come and look at Sacred Gardens as a model for how to produce healthy food gardens,” he said. We left the gardens as carefully as we rode in, but this time thinking about Chris’s words: “Most people think we’re farming plants. We’re farming dirt. The dirt we have makes everything possible.”
SacredGardenSanctuary.com. Open by appointment. 520.445.3119.
The boys at the Sacred Sanctuary suggested we stop for a coffee at a new coffee house in downtown Douglas. Douglas was designed by John Slaughter, the lawman and rancher, and built by Phelps Dodge Mining Company to process copper ore. Walk along G Avenue (Main Street) to see the architecture that lingers from this time of great wealth and prosperity, and swing into Galiano’s Café and Smoothies. The owners, husband-and-wife team Robert Uribe and Jenea Sanchez, named the café after their young son; they serve salads, sandwiches, and smoothies. The rich coffee is imported from Chiapas, Mexico.
Open daily. 1113 G Ave., Douglas. 520.805.0122.
We were warned that a motorcycle isn’t recommended transport to the agave fields of 47 Ranch, so we substituted Curt’s 4Runner to make the trek. Deb and Dennis Moroney are well known in Cochise Country for their organically raised beef and lamb, but that wasn’t why we made the trek. No, it was a casual mention of agave that piqued our interest. Inching over rocks and climbing out of washed-out ditches, we suddenly understood why our motorcycles weren’t welcome—the agave plants were dotted over mountainsides. Dennis said he hasn’t yet figured out how to harvest the 400-pound plants, which requires extracting a plant from the ground, rolling it down the mountainside, peeling the leaves, and hauling the 200-pound piña down the road to the barn for processing. We left him pondering the harvest problem, caught between mule and machine.
14 Davis Road, McNeal. Open by appointment. 520.642.9368.
Continuing on Highway 80 east out of Douglas, the road takes you north, back to Tucson. But before you hit the open highway, a detour west along Route 533 is worth your time. Also known as Portal Road, the route takes you straight to the town, café, country store, and lodge that all share the same name—Portal. Nestled at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains, Loni and Mitch Webster’s Portal Peak Lodge is the perfect base to explore the region. After a day of hiking, bird watching, or mountain biking throughout mountains with some of the highest biodiversity in the world, head back to the café for a wholesome meal (accompanied by a nice selection of libations). ✜
Open daily. 2358 S. Rock House Road, Portal. PortalPeakLodge.com. 520.558.2223.