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Willcox Playa

May 28, 2010

A golden retriever puppy named "Brinkley" gave us a good excuse to get together with our best friends. Tom and Ann drove all the way from Albuquerque to pick him out of a litter of 10 puppies offered by a breeder in Willcox, Arizona. We caravaned with Kit and Ann from Tucson, stopping along the way for a warm hike to the top of Cochise Stronghold. Chris and Cher joined us for dinner at Big Tex BBQ in the old rail car in downtown Willcox. The Mother Lode, our favorite antique shop/cat shelter/coffeehouse, stayed open late so that Dennis could nab one of their killer brownie milkshakes.

Except for one sleepy cowboy bar, all the other businesses in downtown Willcox snapped shut at 8:00 pm, and we wandered the dark streets in silence except for the freight trains that barrel through every 20 minutes without slowing down, not even a little bit, for this cow town of less than 4000 souls.

I love Willcox. We stop here whenever we travel east of Tucson. So far, it's still a real town, wonderfully free of the KB Homeliness that is rapidly engulfing the rest of southern Arizona. After breakfast on Saturday, we spotted a car that could only belong to one person, and had a chance to say "hello" to our buddy Jim on his way to a Pantera rally in Reno.

Not quite ready to leave, we continued driving past the end of town and ended up on a gravel road that parallels the railroad tracks and runs straight as an arrow all the way across the Willcox Playa to the ghost town of Cochise.

In a state full of geologic oddities, Willcox Playa is still a huge mystery. The playa is technically a "graben", a depressed block of land bordered by parallel faults. Like Africa's Great Rift Valley, it's an interior draining basin with no connection to the Colorado River. Roughly eight miles long by 10 miles wide, the Playa shimmers with fine white silt and clay washed out of the surrounding mountains.

Although the Playa is critical habitat for sandhill cranes and many other water birds, to nearby Fort Huachuca, it's the "Willcox Dry Lake Bombing Range", and signs south of the tracks warn of unexploded ordnance. We darted through one of the culverts for a quick look south, where a dense mirage inverses mountain and sky. On the way back, we caught the sound of a passing freight train from inside the culvert, a feast for my audio gourmand husband.

On the other side of the Playa, we poked around the ghost town of Cochise, and fantasized about the Cochise Hotel. Originally built in 1882 to serve railroad crews passing through the town, the hotel closed in 2007, and is currently for sale.

By the tracks in the tiny town of Dragoon, we found the perfect Arizona lunch stop. The "Dragoon Cafe and Marketplace" is a handful of tables under a shade cloth ramada. From a small trailer, chef Deb serves up delicious homemade spinach tarts and burgers. The "market" also offers a selection of home-grown vegetables, homemade jams and jellies and handmade silver jewelry. We lingered over our lime ices while the regulars recounted Dragoon's heroic 2006 resistance to BHP's plans to explore 1200 acres for copper mining. Tucsonans should take lessons!