Tucson, Arizona is more than just a city to me. It is where I go to commune with my Grandfather.
He wasn’t perfect. He was a hit with the ladies and he drank too much. But there was always something special about him, something exotic. He was the tall, mustachioed, bowlegged guy with a booming voice in a cowboy hat and leather vest – which in Minneapolis, Minnesota, makes for a noticeable character. He was an actor, and in fact, it occurs to me now that I never knew of any other job he held in his lifetime. He displayed a photo of himself with his arm slung around Ronald Reagan, and proudly proclaimed they were both in the Screen Actors Guild.
Only decades later did I get confirmation that the photo was in fact, a fraud. (However, it is important to note his limited acting career gives me Three Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)
He was the guy who drove his grandkids around Big Lake, Minnesota in a Model A, blasting the car’s Ow-OO-gah horn at passersby, to our squeals of delight. He was also the man who would scatter coins on a peninsula in Big Lake, Minnesota, then pile all of us kids in the pontoon and take us to what he called “Gilligan’s Island” to dig for buried treasure. It busied us for entire afternoons.
He was also the first to travel with me outside of the U.S., to Nogales, Mexico.
Grandpa is now gone, going on 17 years.
There are places we travel to explore, and there are places we travel to understand. I don’t know why, but when I am in Tucson I am compelled to visit my Grandfather’s haunts: the retirement community where he used to live, the places that keep alive the cowboy spirit, and mainly the taverns he used to frequent.
There’s Tiny’s, a family restaurant and saloon, where the saguaro grow thick and rocky hillsides approach the road. I once biked there from Rincon Country West, the aforementioned retirement park. The steady but otherwise unnoticeable uphill made the trip daunting on my rehabbed retiree bike, now known as The Peace Bike.
The sun burned my skin as I pedaled, turn by squeaky turn, the roadrunners hustling by me and the cars kicking up dust as I huffed along the road’s shoulder.
Tiny’s is the kind of place with red and white checkered table cloths, the plastic ones, stapled around the corners so as not to slip. A paper towel roll unceremoniously adorns each table. The wait staff are mainly women, Rubenesque, gregarious. The place is cash only. The walls are draped with animal skulls and antlers, flags, wagon wheels and neon beer signs. Burgers and wings are served, and there’s a steak special on Sunday nights. Grandma once told me she and Grandpa would visit on Thursdays for the bargain burgers. Later when my aunt and I took her to Tiny’s for dinner, the table seemed strangely quiet. Empty.
Down Mission Road is The Hideout, a townie bar that is quiet during the day, peppered with regulars, and thumping at night with Spanish karaoke and DJs who play the music too loudly.
Used to be there were no tap beers here…now they have succumbed. On occasion, I’ll ride The Peace Bike over to sit quietly in a corner and drink a beer, watching the thin crowd with faint interest, running my hands along the concrete walls. I once spent a Christmas night with family there, drinking prairie fires and Dos Equis, eating chips and salsa and listening to Spanish karaoke…ending every song with a dramatic denouement of “mi corazon.”
After grandpa passed, my beloved aunt and I traveled to Tucson to visit Grandma. She’d grown frail and nervous, never wanting to leave the gated retirement park. We broke away one afternoon to go horseback riding. On the drive home as the sun hung low and gold on the horizon, we parked the car, walked into a sandy, cactus-spiked field, cracked open two cerveza Sols, and toasted Grandpa. If he’d ever gone horseback riding in Tucson, I never knew of it. Yet somehow, I never felt closer to him.
I don’t know why I’m compelled to visit grandfather’s haunts. Surely, none of the ladies he charmed still work the bars. Where beers of his time once spilled from the taps, craft beers like Shock Top Belgian White now keep residence. The prices are different. The décor may be different, though probably not. And he is never, ever seated at a stool near the bar, laughing in that way that drew people in, telling stories that made you believe he was something charismatic and extraordinary, and you were a part of it.
If I am indeed visiting these dark halls to understand, who am I trying to understand: my grandfather, or myself? As surely as the quest to find something at the bottom of a whiskey bottle followed him, drove him to explore new cities and states and countries, surely that beat thrums through my bloodstream as well. Go, go, go. He could not stay still. Whether it was moving to California to pursue his acting career, driving the grandkids to Mexico, trekking to Hawaii or California or Tucson or Minneapolis, or walking in his broken, unsteady stride along the beach of “Gilligan’s Island,” somehow I can’t shake the feeling that Grandpa is still scattering coins for me to gather up. They are everywhere in the world. And I am faithfully following in his footsteps, scanning, looking for that telltale glimmer beneath the surface.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb