|A mountain view as seen from Fort Huachuca|
(c) 2022 Marcy J. Miller
I usually don't do this. I'm usually a relentless booster of Arizona's smaller cities and towns. I'm a veritable glitter bomb of positivity on most things Arizona. I'm of the "just walk/scroll/pass on by" camp if I see something I don't like. But ... let's have a courageous conversation about Sierra Vista.
The name is lovely, I'll give it that. Sierra Vista! Mountain views! And those mountain views, of the nearby Huachuca Mountains, are stunning. To the south, you've got the Whetstone Mountains - also a feast for the eyes. But those Huachuca Mountains! When the clouds are low or the fog rolls in or the winter snows frost the peaks and slopes ... oh man, they're just gorgeous! Granted, I haven't visited too many military bases across the country but I can say that Fort Huachuca has amazing views and is a truly lovely base.
But the city of Sierra Vista ... No, no, nopety nope nope. My "thing" is exploring Arizona's historical sites and researching those who've been there before me. Certainly, Fort Huachuca - established as "Camp Huachuca" in 1877, and home to the famous Buffalo Soldiers - has no dearth of history. And visiting the base is a treat, with excellent museums, a historic parade ground, and many of the original buildings and barracks. But the city itself lacks any sort of historical appreciation or historical focus. Drive through the city and just try to identify any older sites, and sense my frustration. You'll find every sort of lower-end chain restaurant, and just about every chain retail outlet that you need, but don't look for charming older buildings. Drive through downtown, and - wait! That's another issue.
|A fine example of public art honoring area history at Fort Huachuca (on base). The surrounding city would benefit from more such works. (c) 2022 by Marcy J. Miller|
Sierra Vista doesn't have a downtown. Literally. There's no charming center square. There's no municipal complex. There's no row of older buildings - no "old town" - you'll find in so many cities or small towns. No place to congregate with people you like, or to avoid those you don't. No pedestrian-heavy streets where you can window-shop while toting your pricey Starbucks confection, and no little downtown cafe where you can sit at a yellowed Formica counter and look out upon the street scene. No downtown, folks! None. It's funny how you don't miss a downtown until you realize there isn't one to be had.
The lack of a downtown also entails a lack of walking points. For those who enjoy leisurely walks through town, Sierra Vista will make you rethink your pastimes. For the profoundly committed walkers, you'll pass by an occasional street denizen and making your way around the occasional overladen shopping cart, but nothing like the gauntlet you'll run in the Portland or San Francisco urban hells. You'll have some lovely mountain views but the street views? Gah. The weather is usually terrific, but just try to find a streetscape to match it. No lovely, sculpted medians. No public art. No appealing landscapes. No tree-lined boulevards. No nicer neighborhoods. Just grungy, themeless byways.
Themeless. That's Sierra Vista's theme, overall. The city isn't "tied together" by a unifying motif. It's a military town, and the "Purple Heart City" signs are a welcome sight, but that's about it. What a difference some bronze sculptures of military figures would make. (There are some outstanding bronze statues on the base, but I'm talking about the rest of the city.) Imagine a trio of bronze, life-size Buffalo Soldiers at the city's western edge, or a pair of early lawmen at the north-eastern gateway to the city. This is an area that could easily capitalize on some very real historical charm ... but nah. You get a crazy quilt of businesses and residential areas and a particularly off-putting street layout that prides itself on a plethora of "No U-Turn" signs, which are particularly frustrating since the street medians prevent you from making left turns.
But that's not all! Sierra Vista is peopled with weirdness. Weird people offering sub-standard service in grungy businesses. For a real-time example of this weirdness and retail hell, try to pick up a prescription at the local Walgreen's. I kid you not. You'll want to stab yourself in the eye with a pencil while standing in the long, long, slow line. Or visit Denny's on a holiday when nothing else is open and you're desperate for a bite. There are bright spots, for sure: the Vietnamese restaurant, Peacock Restaurant on Fry - one of the very-rare independent businesses in town - which offers excellent fresh cuisine. (Cuisine is a word I rarely attach to Sierra Vista.) And of the many, many soulless chain restaurants there, I recommend the Native Grill and Wings, the Texas Roadhouse, or Panda Express. (Many of the businesses in town haven't figured out "If you can't be competent or pretty, you can still be friendly!") I absolutely adore the staff and facility at New Frontier Animal Medical Center (one of the few businesses that has a lovely landscaped front and a grassy expanse). Top-notch customer service, outstanding veterinary care, and pleasant surroundings (because of course, its founder is Dr. Prevatt - who also co-founded the once-amazing Animal Health Services in Cave Creek).
One of the best feed stores I've frequented is on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, as well. Jem's Feed on Moson Road is fantastic. And Sierra Vista also boasts a Tractor Supply outlet and the queen-mother of rural chain stores - CAL-Ranch. There's something to be said for the convenience and predictability of having chain stores in your town - but they'll never have the special nature of independent, locally-owned businesses. Sure, there's a Home Depot, and I'm thankful it's there; and an Ace, but they can't compete with the customer service you'll find up the road at Redding's Hardware and Goods in Tombstone, where the owner will not only help you find what you need, but tell you "if you have an emergency in the middle of the night, call me and I'll meet you here!" The Ace in Sierra Vista, by the way, is appropriately near the ax-throwing place, which is perfect because if any place is going to make me want to throw an edged weapon, it's Sierra Vista.
Sadly, Sierra Vista features many, many vacant and even boarded-up businesses on its main streets, from the Golden Corral to a good number of non-chain retail sites. It's neither vibrant economically nor nostalgic in its decline. People struggle here, as they do in just about all of the border region of Arizona, but you don't have the "we're in this together" attitude you get in Elfrida, St. David, or Willcox, and you don't get the "we love that you're spending tourist dollars here" welcome that you find in Tombstone, Patagonia, or Bisbee. There's more of a sense of desolation.
Here's a rabid generalization: The people of Sierra Vista aren't, well, very pleasant. They aren't well-groomed, they aren't well-mannered, and they aren't going to go out of their way for you. From the woman opening the bags of grapes, fondling them, and popping a meal's worth into her mouth while "shopping," to the grumpy-ass pharmacist at Walgreen's, you're not going to find a lot of customer service gems. It makes it all the more exceptional when the teenage boy at the fast-food drive through stops while handing me my order, makes eye contact, and says, "Thank you for being nice." It's one thing to survive being a customer in Sierra Vista, but damn, it's got to be tough being part of the workforce in that population. I love the young man at CAL-Ranch who told me, "God bless you," after I thanked him for helping me out; what a difference a gesture like that makes. There are nuggets of gold in that leaden morass of a city, and I hope people treat them kindly. Little, humble Benson, my other grocery alternative, is the opposite. It's not an affluent area. There's no huge tax base. But the people are kind, helpful, pleasant. The restaurants in town are generally independently-owned, and the owners take pride in their establishments. It's not a fancy area, but it's always a pleasure visiting there. And they cherish their rich history and their community.
Oh, Sierra Vista. I so wanted to love you. I didn't expect to see the hollow faces of meth addicts in your gritty grocery stores. I was surprised to find that a community of military families and retired folks has turned Sunday shopping into a combat sport at the Fry's. I remain shocked that there's little visible historical appreciation of your amazing past outside the gates of the base. I am dismayed you haven't landscaped a city to match the utterly breathtaking surrounding areas you are so blessed with. Why, Sierra Vista? Why?
And for the traveler in the area, take advantage of the nearby hiking trails. Take a drive to Coronado National Monument, to the south, and bask in some of the prettiest wilderness areas you'll see. Visit the birds at Ramsey Canyon. Heck, there's even a Mammoth Kill Site of anthropological interest a short drive out of town. The world famous Kartchner Caverns aren't far away. There's SO much to do in the surrounding areas. But brace yourself for the ugly weirdness that is the city of Sierra Vista.
Am I too harsh? Give a shout-out to what's right in Sierra Vista in the comments. I'd love to be proven wrong.
(c) 2022 Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be used without the written permission of the author * Links and shares, however, are greatly appreciated! * Thank you for stopping by.