How do you introduce the first-time visitor to a place as big and history-choked as Southeastern Arizona? How best to help that traveler find what he's come here to see--plus things he'll enjoy but never would have found on his own? Above all, how do you put a whole region in some sort of context?
Travel guides walk a tightrope between presenting too little information--why didn't it say the museum is closed on Tuesdays?--and too much. Nobody wants a 10-pound book in the suitcase. Besides, the more a guide has in it, the harder it is to find a particular piece of information, unless the authors and editor are very clever. The more you put in there, the more carefully you have to think about organization: If your structure is strictly geographic, then do you have set categories--like art, shopping, outdoors, etc. --inside each area? And how do you decide what an area is, anyway? Or do you list everything anyone might want to see from west to east? Why not from east to west?
What we all want is a guide that addresses our interests, period. But even if through some Internet-esque miracle, you could order up your very own custom guide--one that would take you only, say, to quaint bed-and-breakfasts, tequila bars, rock-climbing venues and not-too strenuous nature trails and old crime scenes--you'd miss stuff you might be interested in if you knew about it.
There's a lot of thought, as well as a ton of legwork, that goes into these things.
With West of Paradise, Arizona native Carolyn Niethammer finds a way. This nicely thought-out guide to the country east and (mostly) south of Tucson is readable, useful and extremely attractive. (Yep--yet another beautifully produced book from Rio Nuevo Publishers.) The friendly text supplies enough background on subjects like the Apache wars and the natural history of the sky islands to enlighten a traveler without any previous knowledge of authentic Arizona, while dozens of glowing, crisply reproduced photos and landscape paintings make their own argument for getting out there. (The alternation of gorgeous panoramas with sparkling close-ups of birds, insects and flowers is especially good. An image of a male vermilion flycatcher is never out of place.)
Niethammer gives a brief historical introduction to each area she covers, and gives concise, evocative descriptions of such extremely cool places as Fort Bowie and Las Cienegas, plus clear directions. There's lots of information for birders and some original sightseeing categories like "Ranch Houses You Can Visit" and "Hotsprings." For the beaten-path traveler, she provides the necessary lists of golf courses and advice on things like what to see in Tombstone and where to shop and eat in Nogales. There's also a good starter bibliography and a map.
A particularly thoughtful feature is low-key, trustworthy advice on important subjects, like how not to break your heart photographing the desert. "If you take a picture of that scene that looks so wonderful at noon, you'll find that the shadows are black and the colors washed out. Wait until late afternoon when the light is less harsh, or get out shortly after sunrise." So simple. So true.
Niethammer grew up near Prescott and is a prolific, respected writer of books on Southwestern foodstuffs, cooking and history. Years ago, after graduating from the UA, she moved to Paradise, Ariz., with a group of friends to establish a utopian community. The project failed, but she got to know and love the area.
Paradise, by the way, is a re-animated ghost town out on the other side of the Chiricahuas, hence the book's memorable if initially puzzling title. (Southern Arizona is west of paradise? Since when is New Mexico the promised land? South of Hell or East of Chaos, on the other hand, would make sense.)
This pretty 75-page introduction to the southeast corner of the state is an all-Tucson production worth owning. It could keep your winter visitors happy and busy for days, and is also packed with fresh weekend-jaunt ideas for us locals. It's handy bouncing around the back seat but looks great on a coffee table. This one's a winner.