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Discovering Patagonia, AZ

Charles was right. Patagonia is a very interesting place.

From one perspective, Patagonia is severely divided by economics. At least one-third of the community is fairly poor. You see their homes in the midst of town, sometimes neat but careworn, other times ramshackle and cluttered with decades of now-worthless possessions. It seems nearly every tiny town lot has an old travel trailer in it parked next to the house, with expired plates and cracked windows, yet often these trailers are still being inhabited full time by an in-law or cousin.

Another significant slice of the community is very wealthy. They own substantial ranches around town, and tucked up in the hills. These are multi-million dollar properties, but most are merely second homes for their owners, who fly in from California, northern Arizona, and even Austria. For some, raising cattle on these “show ranches” is probably a sideline that allows the owner to say he owns a working ranch. Others have dispensed with even that pretense and live in elaborate glass-sided architectural creations perched atop hills, surrounded by acres of mesquite trees and tall grass.

But the real story of Patagonia is its history, which permeates the place so thoroughly that a walk down the block brings up a thousand stories. Nothing in Patagonia seems new. Thankfully the town was never large enough to suffer the scourge of “urban renewal” and modernization in the 50s and 60s. Some of the locals live in adobe houses that are probably 50 or more years old. Almost everything standing is historic, and just a few miles out of town you can find the remains of abandoned mining towns that held 1,000 or more people for a few brief years.

The library, where I walk each day to borrow their free wifi, is housed in the former Patagonia Hotel, built by a former solider, John Cady, starting around 1900. He wanted to build the finest hotel of its type west of the Mississippi, and after years of expansion, he finally did it.

Across the street is a marvelous old western-fronted building with “Lopez Pool Hall” in faded paint on the facade. Next door is a beautifully restored home that has become a B&B, and across from that is the Dos Palmas “vacation home”, a restored 1958 Spartan Imperial Villa permanently parked behind a fence. It’s pretty cool looking from the outside. (See the website for pictures). Patagonia is a funky amalgam of artistic vision, American history, and graceful decay.

People come here for that. There are adobe houses and wonderful western-fronted storefronts are filled with artists and accomplished “dropouts” from all over the world. Late at night we see the glare from a welder who is making incredible sculptures from reinforcing steel bars. Charlie tells us stories of nearly everyone who is here: the chef from New Orleans (displaced by Hurricane Katrina), the fellow who dropped out so thoroughly his friends held a funeral for him and placed a gravestone in the local cemetary (he’s still alive), the heiress with the dude ranch, the Austrian Count’s wife who loves giant concrete balls, and the local fresh-vegetable cult. This place is a writer’s dream, stories everywhere.

I’ll post photos from all over town in a day or two. Meanwhile, I’ve got to catch up on the Spring magazine issue and work out some plans for our next few weeks. We will be heading to the Tucson area next week, then traveling through southern New Mexico and heading to a rendezvous in west Texas.