The End of the World ... Pretty!

Cascabel--an unincorporated area about an hour-an-a-half south of Tucson--is loosely defined by most of its residents as the land that sits between mile markers 7 and 29 along Cascabel Road. Sound like a booming metropolis skillfully plying the tourist trade? Nope. In fact, ultra-rural, self-sufficient Cascabel does anything but cater to tourists: Road signs are few and far between (and often are so faded that they're illegible), and the meandering drive to Cascabel itself--upon leaving the interstate--is marked by a sneaking suspicion that you're irrevocably lost. "You just go and go and go," said the kid at the Benson Denny's whom I asked for directions, "until the world ends."

But Cascabel, nestled in the San Pedro River Valley, is also beautiful and dotted with eccentric personalities and talented artists who make the area well worth visiting. Conundrum? Not really, since the community does welcome the masses to Cascabel once a year, on the fist weekend of December. The 24th annual Cascabel Community Christmas Fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5, featuring crafts, art, music, food and more at five unique locations.

The Christmas Fair has historically drawn crowds as large as 1,000; this year, the five locations--which will be well-marked for the event--are strung along the river from just north of mile marker 15 to just south of mile marker 21. Cascabelians hope visitors will drive slowly (that's slowly) over their gravel roads, taking time to admire the scenery while keeping dust and general havoc to an absolute minimum.

The first stop along the way is Bull Canyon Ostrich Ranch, a working ostrich ranch owned by Don and Toni Looney that provides ostrich-related products (eggs painted with the insignias of NFL football teams, eggs painted with Southwestern landscapes, ostrich-feather pens, ostrich jerky) and close encounters with ostriches themselves, who are novel and wacky at 15 feet away and slightly terrifying at 5. But don't be afraid--you'll be well protected. When I visited in May, for example, Bull Canyon employee Mike Santarsiere took time out from watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding to give me a tour of the place, and when a rattlesnake suddenly slid across my path, he was chivalrous enough to beat it to death with a 2-by-4 (see photo).

The next stop is the Lazy R.S. Ranch, where local fine artists and crafters will be concentrated to increase your chances of finding the perfect holiday gift. Also at the ranch, Sue Thatcher's "Nextdoor Kitchen" will be serving up homemade chili, burritos and more.

Further down the road is the famous--or at least, should-be famous--Sun Station, home to the best pizza I've ever eaten in my life, as well as some of the best blues and music that Tucsonans are missing. Sunny Landreth, Johnny Tanner and Jammin' Jeff all know Sun Station well; here's your chance to get to know the elegant restaurant/hobbit-like bar/country market/monster outdoor concert venue for yourself. There will be food, beer, music by Texas' Blind Dog Cooley and crafts on display in the garden; camping at Sun Station is always free.

Two more retail stops await: the Akasha Center will feature "paintings, wreaths and aura readings for the truly adventurous," and Cascabel Clayworks--that's Barbara Clark, also a project manager for the Nature Conservancy, and David Blocker, an accountant in Willcox, in a crazy, beautiful house--offers stoneware pottery, batik, jewelry, blown glass and more. "This valley is very, very special," says Clark, who's lived in Cascabel since the '70s. "And the spirit of hospitality never goes away--it just evolves."

Cascabel's Community Center--wholly built by community volunteers and featuring a fireplace, dance floor and a bulletin board on which are posted such necessities for rural community survival as "evidence of community pride," "strong multi-generational family orientation," "acceptance of women in leadership roles" and "sophisticated use of information resources"--will also be hosting a soup kitchen and raffle.

To get to Cascabel from Tucson, head south on Interstate 10 for approximately 45 miles to Benson exit 306; take a left off the ramp to Pomerane Road, and continue two miles until you pass through Pomerane itself--the whole quarter-mile of it. At the first stop sign, take a right onto Cascabel Road. The pavement will end less than 14 miles later; settle in for a nice, relaxing (bumpy) drive--you're going nowhere fast, but by that time, you'll be so intoxicated by country air that you probably won't mind.

For printable maps, additional directions and general information, visit Sun Station's Web site (www.sunstation.org) and click on "Christmas Craft Fair."