At least that’s what our friends said when they climbed in our car to be ferried to the airport. They were off on a 2+ week adventure to our favorite places – Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla – while we were reduced to sending them off and jealously living vicariously. To be clear, it was our choice to remain cautious, particularly in lieu of China’s decision to unleash its hordes on the world for the Spring Festival. Normally, this would be our time to be boarding a plane, instead, it would be our time to board our auto.

To make up for our deep sense of loss, we thought it would be nice to head over to Tucson for some very overdue visits with friends and family. As shocking as it sounds, it’s been 3+ years since we crossed our state border, in any direction and by any means. So we loaded up and headed down south for the 7-hour haul across the Great Southwest.

While it’s not nearly the same as kicking back in a Business Class seat and watching the world go by, a road trip has its own rewards. The scenery here in New Mexico is always a delight to the eye. I’ve often said that this state has more just plain average places that would be National Parks than any other I’ve lived in. The high Chihuahuan Desert is beautiful, particularly in the winter when the palette is muted browns, grays, and oranges. As we make our way down I25, with the Rio Grande just off to our east, it’s a good time to reflect on what it must have been like 500 years ago when the Spanish left the relative comforts of Mexico and set off on foot to “settle” this place that, of course, had been actually settled, 25,000 years earlier. There are a lot of politics and valid resentments about what happened here, but for the moment just thinking about 300 people walking behind two-wheeled ox-drawn wagons through this harsh, nearly water-free environment for months on end makes you appreciate the comfort of moving along at 75 miles per hour in heated seats. After all, they called it “The Jornada de Muerto” for a reason.

Three hours from home, we turn right and head across the Las Uvas Valley on a diagonal road that will eventually take us to I10 and Arizona. The scenery changes here – more Chile agriculture and dairies, but it’s still the desert. Hemmed in on three sides by rugged mountains which incredibly showed a lot of snow on this particular day. The road does a dogleg at the midway point, passing by the Macho Springs Renewable energy project, three dozen wind turbines, and what seems to be about a million solar panels. It’s grown since we last went by, and that growth shows no sign of stopping,

From there it’s across the Playas, those dried Pleistocene lakes where the threat of killer dust storms keeps on on edge for the duration of the crossing, and then past the Chiricahua Mountains, the last redoubt of Cochise, that great Apache chief whose profile is clearly present along a ridgeline to the south. Then down into Tucson where the trip ends.

We love old cathedrals. We’ve spent so much time soaking in their ambiance in places like Sevilla, Segovia, Toledo, Paris, Barcelona, Valencia, Rome, Milan, Zurich, Girona, Avila, and Cadiz. Since we’d foregone the opportunity to visit those, we thought we’d do a mini-tour of big churches in the valley of the Santa Cruz river, south of Tucson. So the next morning, off we went in search of Spanish ecclesiastical culture.

The first stop was the abandoned church at Tumacacori. The story here begins with Father Eusebio Kino who first visited the O’odham people in 1691. Kino was a Tyrolean Jesuit, with extensive experience exploring the American southwest, or Pimeria Alta as it was known then. He had been a part of one of the first expeditions to Alta California, establishing a mission in Baja in 1684. His travels and extensive mapmaking proved conclusively for the first time that Baja and California were not islands off the west coast of North America. Over his career, he established more than 20 missions in the region.

Work began on the church in 1757 and continued continuously for the next 80 years through the expulsion of the Jesuits and their replacement by the Franciscans in 1767 and the Mexican War of Independence in 1821. Following a particularly brutal winter in 1848, the last of the O’odham families abandoned the site and moved north to more prosperous at San Xavier.

The first thing that came to my mind when entering the church was just how much effort went into making it look like a miniature version of the cathedrals we’d seen in Spain. The same elements – cross shape, nave, apse, side chapels that you find in the grand versions. In the case of Tumacacori, the original design was much more grandiose, but funding and turmoil forced this smaller version. Today, the main chapel remains, along with a small circular mortuary temple out back, and a tiny graveyard whose last internment was of a child in 1916. While most of the graves are today marked by weathered mesquite crosses, someone still tends to Juanita’s final resting place.

Heading back north, we were off to San Xavier, locally known as “The White Dove of the Desert” for reasons that are obvious. Still in use, and in far better shape than its southern sister, San Xavier is the closest thing to the European cathedral Baroque aesthetic that you’re likely to find north of Mexico City. In fact, it’s the only truly surviving mission in Arizona.

The mission was founded by Father Kino in 1692 and work on the church began in 1783 by a Basque Franciscan priest, Father Velderrain. Funded with 7,000 pesos borrowed from a prominent Sonoran rancher, it was designed by a Spanish architect, Ignacio Gaona, and built by the O’odham people who lived at the mission. Father Velderrain died in 1790, and the work was carried on by  Juan Bautista Llorens who was personally responsible for the decoration and completion of the interior. The money ran out in 1797 and the work stopped. The church was consecrated and opened for services in its unfinished state. San Xavier became part of the Republic of Mexico following independence in 1821. The newly formed Mexican government provided no support for the remote missions, and in 1837, the final assigned missionary left and was not replaced. The Franciscan administration ended in 1843 and secular clergy took assumed responsibility for the regional churches, visited perhaps annually by a circuit-riding priest from Mexico. The region became part of the United States in 1854 following the Gadsden Purchase and at that time was assigned to the Diocese of Santa Fe, before becoming its own bishopric in 1866.

We’ve been here once before, and I was hoping that the construction of that time would finally be completed so that we could fully appreciate the church. No such luck. While the exterior scaffolding is now gone, the interior remains a nest of steel pipes, severely limiting what you can see and appreciate. Again, the traditional cross design, it’s in far better shape than Tumacarcori. Many of the paintings and statuary have been nicely restored and the altar is a sight to behold, even if via a tunnel of steel pipes. Someday, it’s going to be a fully restored wonder.

To add some interest to the trip back to town, we took a long detour out to the edges of the western section of Sahuaro National Monument. It’s been years for me since I last parked and beheld the wonder of all those cactuses. The view never disappoints.

Finally it was time for dinner, and so off to our favorite pizza joint in Tucson – Falora We’ve been going there for years and it’s always a great meal. Ari, the owner was not in that night which was a shame, because it would have been nice to say “Hi” after our too-long absence.

The table next to us was made up of 5 or 6 African students, having a fun loud conversation about languages. I sat eavesdropping when they came to the minute details of French, interested mainly because I’ve been studying it for the last couple of years. While listening, I was once again reminded just how parochial the American education system is, with most students barely learning their native tongue, let along a second or third. When we paid and stood to leave, I thought I’d have some fun so I turned around and asked –

“Parlez-vous combien de langues?”

The loudest guy at the table looked stunned, and then smiled, and then everyone chimed in with their own numbers.

I replied with,

“Je parle un peu Francais, un peu Espanol, mais aussi , un peu de Chinois.”

The guy closest to me asked, “How the hell did you learn Chinese?” so I told him my tale of being an ex-pat. In closing, I addressed them with the problem I always had when I would leave China, come home, and head to Mexico. My brain couldn’t keep up with my rate of travel, and so on my first night in San Carlos, having my first meal, I inevitably asked for it like this, a munge of Putonghua and Mexican Spanish –

“Wo yao yi ge Cerveza.”

That line really broke out the laughter.