OPINION: My favorite things about Tucson, and how my life changed when COVID-19 hit Arizona
I moved to Tucson in late January 2020. I left a cold, snowy, windy and lonely Flagstaff, AZ to immerse myself in the mild Sonoran Desert winter and train as an aspiring elite cyclist. Every winter, dozens of the world’s best endurance athletes converge on Tucson, taking up residence in host housing and short-term rentals.
I was living in a spare room with some family friends in Poet’s Square. I had spent a few weekends during the fall semester in my girlfriend’s dorm as a visitor, but it wasn’t until I rolled out of a bed that was mine for at least a few months that I felt like a resident of 'The Dirty T'.
My first week training featured an extensive exploration of the Foothills and a brutal set of efforts up Mount Lemmon. On Saturday, I set my alarm for 5:30 and prepared my bike for the 'Shootout', a group ride that heads south on Mission Road towards Sahuarita, frequented by a who’s who of national champions and top-tier professionals. To keep things simple, I got dropped and rode back into town with some other unfortunate souls.
We rolled through the southern outskirts of town and made our way to Mercado San Augustin. As I walked through the gates for the first time, I laid my eyes on what would become not only a Saturday staple over the coming months, but also the place I would make new friends and meet some truly inspiring people.
As I fell into a rhythm with my training, I started spending my time between the grueling rides and dedicated recovery sessions getting to know my temporary home. I spent hours wandering the neighborhoods in walking distance and taking in the fascinating diversity I encountered in a relatively small geographical area. Tucson fascinates me in the way neighborhoods change in the space of a few blocks. In the city’s heart, you can find every demographic of people in a five-minute walk.
My hosts have lived in the Tucson area for decades and raised two kids there, so their knowledge of what to do and where to eat was more than enough to keep me busy. I tried a dozen taquerias and spent many mesmerized hours wandering the 99 Cents store on Oracle Road. I’ve always been genuinely puzzled by how products can be sold for so little and yet somehow turn enough of a profit to keep the doors open.
I hiked in Saguaro West and on Mount Lemmon and visited San Xavier Mission. I started a Friday morning tradition of running from home to campus down Third Ave., joining the bike and skateboard and scooter commuters headed to class. A few times I even locked eyes with a cyclist at a stoplight and proceeded to sprint to keep beside them for as long as possible.
I ate at Time Market as often as I could afford to and perfected my order at La Estrella Bakery. I developed a deep appreciation for the brisk mornings and breezy afternoons, and the ability to wear shorts and a T-shirt in February was revolutionary as a Flagstaff native.
I fell in love with Tucson. Its diverse and welcoming people, its delicious food, its incredible natural beauty that shone through the hostility of the desert. I fell in love with the shadows and the giants that greeted me every time I rode as high on Lemmon as Windy Point. I fell in love with the group ride that left me exhausted every Saturday and the amazing people on it that pushed me to stay with the pack a little longer each week until I finally made it all the way back to town.
And then, in the middle of March, the pandemic hit like a truck. In a matter of a week, the UA shut down, the group rides stopped and going to the grocery store became a dangerous endeavor. My race season dwindled by the day, and over the course of a week I went from giddy excitement to start racing and keep discovering Tucson during the breaks in between events to shedding tears as I packed my bags to head home to Flagstaff and wait out what we now call COVID-19.
It's been 6 months since I've returned home, and all I can say is I am ready to return to Tucson, and I hope everyone there has enjoyed everything the beautiful city had to offer in this unprecedented time.