Hotel Congress: Tucson, Arizona

Youthful exuberance and historical resonance don’t often find themselves in the sack together. But there are few hotels that arrange just such a tryst as seamlessly as Hotel Congress, the social cornerstone of Tucson’s scruffy downtown core.

It’s the chameleonic character of this 90-year-old gem that makes it so appealing. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a wide lobby that connects to a hair salon, a gourmet café, and a lauded live music venue. The walls surrounding a bar/lounge area feature work by a revolving cast of local artists, and the ceiling beams are flagged by the Congress’ signature souvenir: a series of tearaway calendars depicting iconic Mexican themes and figures. The check-in desk is buttressed by a compartmental shelf for keys (which you leave at the desk while coming and going) and a 1930s switchboard (which is operational, tapped to the rotary phones inside guestrooms), with a couple of closet-style phone booths to one side and a fridge-sized safe on the other. Upon my arrival, the hostess behind the counter was a perfect match to this modernized vintage pastiche, wearing grey wool shorts with rolled cuffs and tights underneath, a white tank top under a red cardigan, and thick-rimmed glasses peeking out from her black fedora.

Eclectic style flourishes on the second floor, too. The carpet weaving past the hotel’s 40 guestrooms is faded pink with a green, black and yellow quasi-vegetative motif, and book ended by orange and cream walls with a pattern borrowed from south of the border in grey, green and red. There are moody photos and kitschy prints hanging about, and leather- or velour-skinned wooden-framed chairs for hanging out. A small suntanning courtyard is accented by a medley of cacti in giant blue clay pots, and you’ll pass the only television on the premises to get to it (in the meagre common room, which also has a public PC if you’re not using the free WiFi).

Inside the creaky, humble rooms are relic radios, plain antique furniture and fixtures, and beds with wrought iron frames. Each has a private, black-and-white-tiled bathroom (rather than the communal ones that are often found in hotels of this era), and a few even have claw-foot tubs. If it all sounds a bit antiquated, add another sense to the picture in your mind: this time warp setting is often usurped by the thumping, thrashing, wailing and/or crooning of whatever band is on stage in the Club Congress downstairs—you’ll be told upon check-in that you’ve come to the wrong place for peace and quiet before last call.

The Club was hatched in 1985 as a venue for showcasing local talent once a week, and has evolved into a lightening rod for range of near-nightly performances that rivals what you’ll find in any large U.S. city. Bookings run the gamut; during our stay, there was a homegrown rock band one night, a free World Aids Day celebration the next (a sidewalk-sprawling bash boasting everything from a cabaret troupe to an African drumming juggernaut), followed by The Vic Chestnut Band featuring Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion. The Club is also connected to the smaller, kitsch-infused Tap Room, which spills onto a patio where you can often find droves of University of Arizona students getting sloppy. All told, the Congress’ various venues host 300-plus events and shows over the course of a year, from album releases to dance parties to art openings to poetry readings to community fundraisers to full-on festivals—including Labor Day weekend’s five-year-old HOCOFest, which mashes up an eco-fair, a farmers’ market, record bazaar and dozens of bands, headlined by the likes of Calexico and the Meat Puppets.

The Congress’ other marquee festival pays homage to perhaps its most enthralling historical curiosity: a hotel fire in 1934 that led to the capture of infamous bank robber John Dillinger and his crew, who were incognito upstairs with more than $20,000 in cash. January’s annual Dillinger Days commemorates their gloat-worthy arrest with reenactments, throwback bands, a classic car show, historical tours and lectures, a 1930s-themed carnival and an arts and crafts bazaar.

By: Eric Rumble

Agua Fria National Monument: Arizona

Agua Fria National Monument
Badger Springs Exit #256, Interstate 17

Arizona is a magical state. In no time at all, a traveler can move between ecosystems, leaving the Ponderosa Pines and cottonwoods for the saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert. When one lives in Prescott, Arizona, a town that is not quite Northern Arizona and not quite Central Arizona, a day trip can bring one to the snowy ski slopes of Flagstaff or to the shimmering blaze of Phoenix. Or, one can stay in the woods and granite of the Prescott National Forest.

Agua Fria National Monument, a generous parting gift from President Bill Clinton, is midway between Prescott and Phoenix. As one pulls off of I-17, dusty pickups are likely to roar past, towing four wheelers and dirt bikes. It is easy to feel like a minority as a hiker- so many Arizonans seem to prefer mechanized transport. But a gravel road will lead to a parking lot and a government issue pit toilet and soon, a hiker is off into the Agua Fria.

Agua Fria means cold water in Spanish. The water doesn’t feel cold on a spring day, as the sun pushes on your shoulders and singes your nose. The water is not deep and allows for multiple crossings as you wander. Canyon wren calls echo off of the rocks as you stare at willows and, for the first time since leaving Prescott, you notice saguaro cacti on the southern face of the hills. The water slides over rocks, pours through narrow channels, and seeps into sticky mud. If you are lucky, a rattlesnake may have left its shed skin for you to find. Or perhaps you’ll spot sacred datura or desert tobacco near the edge of the water.

You are not the first to enter this area. Ancestral Pueblan peoples have left their thoughts and designs on the rock walls. Don’t be fooled, however. There are an equal amount of counterfeit pictographs and petroglyphs, undoubtedly drawn or chipped into the stone by bored teenagers or other visitors with something to prove.

One of the great joys of the Agua Fria is a sense of solitude not provided by the ant farm of Phoenix or the din and roar of Interstate 17. Sit on a sun-warmed rock and lean back into the water-worn wall. You can hear that canyon wren and the whoosh of the willow leaves in the breeze. A raven will gurgle its call and you’ll be able to hear the feathery flap of its wings.

How far you go down the Agua Fria is up to you. But you need fresh water, and lots of it, so plan accordingly. It would be possible to do a multi-day backpack trip or an overnight campout. But perhaps what the Agua Fria is best for is an afternoon of re-centering and renewed focus on the environment that surrounds you. The office or a lingering school assignment can wait; take a moment to put your feet in the water and stare at the sky.

By: Celeste Roberts