Desert Solitaire: 3 Serene, Small-town Escapes into the American Southwest

american southwestIf your image of the American Southwest is still dominated by visions of tumbleweed blowing through ghost towns, Old West saloons, and prickly cactus, it may come as a surprise to learn that this vast region has undergone dramatic growth in recent years, with many cities experiencing a decades-long housing boom and relentless suburban sprawl that only the Great Recession could put the brakes on. A quick pass across the Southwest on the Interstate these days offers up more views of housing developments, crowded city streets, and newly-built shopping centers than Old West towns and historic main streets. But don’t fear: you can still capture the essence of the old Southwest in the well-preserved, visitor-friendly small towns that are tucked far away from big city life in this part of the country. These towns are a good drive from the Interstate, but well worth the trip if you want a serene desert escape that puts you at the heart of traditional Southwestern culture.

Bisbee, Arizona. For a period in the early 1900s, this historic Southeastern Arizona mining town, about 90 miles from Tucson, was the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, boasting a diverse population of over 20,000. Today, the population lingers around 6,000, but the town feels smaller as you wander the rambling alleyways of this tight-knit community of artists and ranchers. The biodiversity of the high desert is in full bloom here: Bisbee and surrounding areas are world-famous for rare hummingbird sightings, shimmering cottonwoods and willow trees, and showy wildflower displays that last throughout the relatively cool summers.

Borrego Springs, California. This desert village, in the far reaches of Northeastern San Diego County, represents the most western point of the vast Sonoran Desert and is emblematic of the striking landscape found throughout the Southwest. Although only a short drive away from Palm Springs, you’ll feel far removed from the pricey resorts and tourist traffic of that glitzy desert metropolis. Situated in the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, this hamlet is surrounded by 600,000 acres of wild desert beauty, including hidden palm grove oases, desert washes, and majestic mountain vistas surreal in their scope. A few small motels, cafes, and shops line the main drag, filled with hikers, nature-lovers, and locals who are drawn to this low-key desert gem. A great place to absorb the stillness and essential quiet of the desert.

Silver City, New Mexico. Billy the Kid’s hometown and the gateway to New Mexico’s great Gila wilderness. Silver City is another example of an ex-mining town that has transformed itself into an artsy, Southwestern hideaway. The main street is lined with antique shops, bookstores, bars, and cafes, but don’t expect to find a Starbucks in these parts. There is a definite dusty, ramshackle-feel to the hilly streets, perfect for exploring on foot and escaping big-city life, if only for a day or two. Take the short drive north to the neighboring community of Pinos Altos and listen to the whispering forests of towering Ponderosa Pines.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 15: American Southwest

Location: After four weeks of glamorous international travel, Tony returns “to his roots” with an adventure in the American Southwest, road-tripping it across the arid desert stretching from Southern California through Arizona to New Mexico and on to a final stop in Texas.

Episode Rating: One-and-a-half bloody meat cleavers out of five. Given that this summer has seen one of the more memorable strings of No Reservations episodes in recent memory, the American Southwest has to be one of the blander installments. It’s not that Mr. Bourdain ever makes for uninteresting television or that his destination is uninteresting – far from it. It’s just that compared to trips to Laos, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, it was kind of a letdown.

Summary: OK, so last week we were in Uruguay. And before that Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Laos. Where to this week, Tony? The American Southwest? Aw gee, well I guess that’s OK – there’s still plenty of cool stuff to see. To get things started, Tony rents a BMW for an old-fashioned American road trip and peels off into the sunset. The car choice was certainly a departure from Tony’s usual vintage car selection, but an appropriate one nonetheless. Things get going just southeast of Palm Springs at the Salton Sea. Read on after the jump to find out what happened.Although it appears to be a marvel of nature, the Salton Sea was formed by a man-made accident in 1905, flooding a low-lying desert plain near the Colorado River. For a short period the area was a vacation boomtown, though lately it’s largely become a ghost town. Tony makes a pit stop at the local hangout, the Ski Inn. After working up an appetite chatting with the locals, Tony orders the house specialty, the patty melt. It’s gooey and cheesy with a nice hamburger patty in the middle. Nothing spectacular, but certainly tasty.

Not wanting to relish his patty melt too long, Bourdain speeds onward towards Indio, California to visit the Shields Date Farm. After learning about the “fascinating” history of dates, Tony gets rewarded with a date-flavored milkshake. This looked delicious. Remind me to try one the next time I’m in California.

Like any good roadtrip, it was soon time to move on, and Tony crosses state lines into Arizona, eventually pausing in Phoenix, Arizona. In one of the more contrived moments of No Reservations, Tony has lunch with rock legend Alice Cooper, who owns a sports bar in Phoenix with baseball great Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson. Tony’s meal at the sports bar? The house specialty – “Randy Johnson’s Big Unit,” a two-foot hot dog smothered in chili and cheese. Let us not speak of this ever again.

Next on the Southwest itinerary was a remote ICBM missile silo. Tony gets a guided tour from a woman who used to work in the facility. Seeing this sort of thing doesn’t evoke the same sense of dread that it once did during the Cold War, but it’s an imposing sight nonetheless. And you know, missile tours can make you thirsty. That’s why Bourdain finishes his tour with the house’s special cocktail, the Titan-tini made with pomegranate, grain alcohol and vodka. How’s that for explosive?

Bourdain just keeps wracking up the miles though, and soon he’s in New Mexico, where he has a chance to sample the world-famous chili peppers in Hatch, New Mexico. To cool off from this spicy experience, the crew takes an invigorating run whitewater rafting. That’s all that happened in New Mexico. Sorry citizens of New Mexico, I’m sure there’s more to your state than Tony gives you credit for here.

At last, after numerous hours on the road, plenty of antacids and ample bathroom breaks, Bourdain reaches the “promised land” of the American Southwest in Texas. After doing a few blatantly stereotypical things like boot shopping and eating a 72-ounce-coma-inducing steak, I was about ready to turn off my television set. But then things took a turn for the better when Tony drops in for a visit with America’s favorite right-wing bad boy and Texas resident Ted Nugent.

Ted and Tony might not necessarily agree on politics, but they had plenty to talk about when it came to meat and guns. The two tool around Nugent’s huge ranch outside Waco, Texas, stocked with the world’s largest herd of African Oryx and a private firing range. In addition to shooting some of the world’s most deadly automatic weapons like the M60 as well as a sawed-off shotgun, the pair enjoy plenty of barbecue. At Ted’s house they grill some freshly-slaughtered specimens, including venison and wild-boar bacon. And because they didn’t eat enough barbecue, they have a second Texas-style meal of brisket and ribs at the Rusty Star.

Certainly a gratuitous ending to a gratuitous episode. The American Southwest is a place of great beauty and plenty of interesting cuisine, but I came away with the feeling Mr. Bourdain did not do it justice. Sometimes your destination takes care of itself. But other times you have to work for it a little. I think this particular installment falls into the latter category. Oh well, there’s still plenty of new episodes to go this summer – stay tuned dear reader, stay tuned.