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Cascabel 

Where ostriches and furry cows roam--just be sure not to call it a 'town'

If you drive the road to Cascabel alone, you will, at some point, suddenly realize you're lost. You're not just lost--you're frighteningly far from where you should be. You're so lost that if you get a flat tire, you'll be dead in two days, taken down by thirst and loneliness.

But you're not really lost. That's how you know you're almost there.

Start your journey by heading south on Interstate 10 for approximately 45 miles, to Benson (exit 306). Take a left off the ramp onto Pomerene Road, and two miles later, you'll be driving through the quarter-mile-long metropolis of Pomerene itself. At the first stop sign you come to, turn right.

Unless all of my visits to Cascabel took place during Hang-Some-Hides-on-Your-Fence Month, your first conversation (assuming you have a companion), upon taking a right onto Cascabel Road, will probably go something like this:

"What kind of skin do you think that is?"

"Uh, I don't know. Maybe buffalo?"

"Pretty small buffalo."

"Yeah. Maybe some kind of furry cow?"

"Pretty small furry cow."

Are hides hanging on a fence intrinsically funny? Yes, they are--if you're an urban-dwelling, non-vegetarian visitor to the self-sufficient world of a rural community, which is full of sights and sounds (or lack thereof) that constantly remind you that you, yourself, are not self-sufficient. You're out of your element--furry cow? Coyote, more likely--a feeling that inspires many city folk to take refuge in hilarity at the sight of, say, a man in overalls.

Ostriches, too, are intrinsically funny, until a 9-foot-tall male starts screaming at you from 6 feet away while straining against a fence made out of three pieces of wire.

Bull Canyon Ostrich Ranch is located around mile marker 16, about three miles past the end of asphalt and dawn of gravel. (Cascabel is defined by most residents as the land that sits between mile markers 7 and 29.) At the ranch's gift shop, you can buy ostrich plumes, ostrich handbags, ostrich jerky and giant ostrich eggs--even eggs emblazoned with the logos of NFL teams.

Further down the road--around mile marker 20--is Sun Station, a grocery store/restaurant/music venue responsible for most of the visitors Cascabel receives. The blues are strong at Sun Station--Sunny Landreth, Johnny Tanner and Jammin' Jeff are all recent visitors.

What looks like an unremarkable little grocery store opens up into a tiny bar described, accurately, on Sun Station's Web site (sunstation.org) as "a veritable fantasy of gnarled burlwood, creating a hobbit-like ambiance." The restaurant has an elegant, airy, greenhouse feel to it, but just outside the garden doors lurks a serious party vibe.

The food, too, is serious.

"If you don't think this is the best pizza you've ever had," said owner Jeffrey Dean, "you don't have any fucking taste."

If you're like me--kind of a contrarian--that statement would doom every pizza on Earth to a level declaration of, "Yeah, it's pretty good." But after one bite of Sun Station pizza, you, like me, would suddenly find yourself helplessly overwhelmed by the powerful joy and despair that comes from experiencing something absolutely perfect. (Burgundy wine, fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, while wine, romano cheese ... )

Mesquite trees canopy the outdoor venue; camping is always free; showers are always open, and Sun Station's four casitas are reputed to have restorative powers. Hippies and hippie-smells and hippie-feelings are everywhere on a concert weekend; it's astounding that VW buses full of college kids from Tucson don't descend on Sun Station regularly. How much does it cost to rent a casita? "Give me a call," says Dean. "We'll see what's going on." Want to talk about the past? "We're here, and we're happy to be here," says Dean. "What happened before doesn't matter."

But the future will. Sun Station brings in big names that should command the attendance of any serious blues or music enthusiast, and they actively advertise in Tucson--in short, they spend money. They face, however, the ever-increasing unwillingness of Tucsonans to leave the city and drive for an hour, and they're somewhat at odds with the community of Cascabel, because Sun Station requires exactly what many other residents in the unincorporated area don't want--lots and lots of visitors.

"Please, please, don't call us a town," says Barbara Clark, owner of Cascabel Clayworks and a project manager for the Nature Conservancy. "People are trying to urbanize us fast enough already."

On the wall of the Cascabel community center is a document entitled, "20 Clues to Rural Community Survival."

From "realistic appraisal of future opportunities" to "sophisticated use of information resources," it inspires respect for the people who chose to live in such an isolated place, yet have a greater appreciation for community than do denizens in a city of millions.

"People come here as strangers," says Mary Taylor, "and everyone's so generous and outgoing that soon they're the same way. Everyone has their own talents; each has a place."

Cascabel resident Jacquie Dale, a community archaeologist with the Archaeological Center for Desert Preservation, has similar feelings. "Everyone here is different," she says, "but they love the same things: privacy; no one tells you what to do ... and they help each other."

I got lost a lot in Cascabel; what signs there are--mostly faded, angled strangely or single-sided--aren't intended to enlighten anyone who doesn't already know. When I (frequently) ended up at the end of the wrong driveway, I was asked in, offered water and, once, asked to run an errand.

The most comfortable I ever felt in Cascabel was while running that errand, because--for about 10 minutes--I had a purpose there. And the truth is, unless you're hanging out at Sun Station or buying up ostrich eggs at Bull Canyon, your presence in Cascabel is met with ambivalence. Though it seems to enjoy some cult status among Germans who visit American ghost towns and post pictures on the Web, Cascabel isn't a ghost town--it's just not your town.

Happily, there's an exception. The first weekend in December is Cascabel's Christmas Fair--an event that has historically drawn crowds as large as 1,000. Five different venues--including the ostrich ranch, Sun Station and Cascabel Clayworks--host craftspeople selling work of their own. Information is available on Sun Station's excellent Web site, where you can also get information about upcoming events and--very important--directions.

When traveling the road to Cascabel, take water, a full tank of gas, a friend, and have faith that you're probably not lost. Once you start seeing the "curves ahead, next three miles" signs--which operate on the Disneyland principle of making you think there's really only three miles of curves ahead, until you see the next sign, three miles later--you're on your way.

If your car starts to sputter and lurch, comfort yourself with these words, again from Jacquie Dale:

"When I first moved here, I was like, 'Oh no, my cell phone doesn't work, and I'm miles from anyone,' but later I decided that I'd rather break down on Cascabel Road than anywhere else. At least I can walk to someone's house; it's not like they're going to greet you with a gun."

And, if it should come to walking, be on the lookout for small, furry cows.

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