Desert Times

How life and nature persists in the midst of Arizona's dry deserts

The vibrancy of Tucson is always apparent
Misty Foster

It's a place where dust devils and javelinas roam the streets amid an urban backdrop. Where a "dry heat" is still hotter than your wildest conjurings can imagine. How anything blossoms the way it does in Tuscon, Arizona is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, this oasis in the desert is proving to be a prime place for sustainability and community to blossom. How so? It's partly out of necessity (water scarcity) and partly because the people value the future of the desert.

The Saguaro Desert happens to be the most verdant in the world, with gnarly biodiversity cropping up everywhere. The Sauagro cactus may be the closest things to alien life form seen on Earth. The vibrancy of nature seems to seep into the inhabitants of Tucson and is set to show the world how to thrive in an extreme climate while protecting the resources. Arizona ranks second in the country in installed solar capacity and is sixth overall for solar capacity.

Solar installation isn't the only thing powering the energy around here; Watershed Management Group is another organization that gives Tucson a badge of environmental consciousness. Knowing how precious the water resources are in the desert, the group teaches locals how to harvest rainwater and works to create long-term solutions for residents and the land.

Tucson is also a very bike friendly town and events like Cyclovia or a jaunt up or down Mt. Lemmon cater to enthusiasts. The vibe is keep it clean, funky and friendly, folks. 

Tucson has the same breed of "weird" as Austin and Portland, without being over-run. The city was recently deemed a World Gastronomy City by UNESCO and is quickly rising the ranks as a top place for millennials to live.

The Annual Gem and Mineral Show and the All Souls Procession bring people from all over the world on a yearly basis, yet are only a slice of the unique events that happen in town. It's easy to see why locals love it here. It has a gritty past but has worked hard over the past few decades to rebuild and start a new chapter. Still, the grittiness is part of its charm. 

"Tucson has a small town feel with big city population and happenings," said Tucson native and entrepreneur, Christopher Porter.  "Once you get to know a few people, it becomes easy to run into and see them all over town. A smile and wave are the first response I get from acquaintances I barely know, making it a warm and friendly place to live." 

If you took the Northern Exposure cast and stuck them in the desert, you'd have Tucson. Some of the following people and business are examples of how Tucson is making waves. 

Alok Appadurai is equal parts humble, charming and socially conscious. Walk into his store, Fed by Threads,  and you are greeted by the warmth of a man who is passionate about his community. Co-Founded with Jade Beall, world-renowned photographer and mother of their son, they started by creating a t-shirt for a community yoga center. During that time, they began to uncover just how dire the hunger issues in America and how low the standards for clothing manufacturing were. With a child on the way, they knew they had to do something to make a positive impact for future generations.


Fed by Threads brings awareness to the power of purchasing and the widespread effect your clothing choices make on the environment and those in need. Buying something at Fed By Threads means you are feeding hungry people across the country. Each item sold results in a donation to Feeding America. This is an organization that redistributes good, edible food that was headed for a landfill and feeds those in need. It also means you are helping create jobs for Americans. The store only carries items that are sustainably made by manufacturers in the US and that are sweat-shop free.

99% of the materials used to make the clothes are organic and don't use heavy metal dyes. 

Beyond the inspiring mission, Fed by Threads is the kind of place where everyone knows each other. Located on the central strip of the downtown area, shoppers can experience a real sense of unity. It has a big heart vibe, and Alok is at the helm of it all. 

Head down Congress Street to Proper, an American eatery with global touches and a sustainable focus. If Tucson's small business have a theme, it's passion. Kris Vrolijk represents another example of the kind of zeal people have in Tucson. It translates into his cuisine and the overall atmosphere. Perhaps part of it comes from his adventurous spirit and love of the land. Kris used to lead river tours and has the ruggedness of a Bear Grylls character. His vision at Proper is to source the food as local, organic and sustainably as possible.

Save for a few of the seafood items, they hit the mark and in savory form. The idea is to get consumers educated and excited to buy local and sustainably sourced meals so that the overall demand for processed food becomes a thing of the past. Even the alcohol has a distinctly Arizona spin to it. Vendors like, Del Bac Whisky, Dragoon and Borderlands Brewery all have a home behind the bar at Proper. 

Big Heart Coffee sits off the side of the road on the southeast side of town on 22nd, almost indistinguishable from the strip-mall shops it surrounds. Blink, and you'd miss it. Part of the charm is its diner-like setting and modest decor. Grab a coffee and you're likely to sit next to a good ole' boy and a grad student furiously studying away. The shop opened by Scott Shaw is a new Tucson staple. In a town where coffee reigns supreme (SavayaCartel, Exo) another coffee shop seems downright extravagant.

Big Heart sets itself apart by donating to a different charity every month. Whether it's at risk youth or feeding the homeless, the "heart" for helping is in the right place. 

Combine a zoo and a botanical garden and you have the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. As with any museum or institution dealing with wildlife, conservation is the core mission. What makes the Desert Museum unique is that the Sonoran Desert has such a vast landscape to cover and protect-- from middle Arizona, all the way down to Mexico and Southern California. The Desert Museum has played a role in efforts that span the Sea of Cortez to Tropical Deciduous Forest in Southern Sonora. What makes it additionally unique is that it is an open air museum for the most part and visitors are viewing nature, well, naturally!

If it doesn't bloom, forage or fly there of its free will, it's not part of the experience. The docents are mostly volunteers who are not only knowledgeable, but desert enthusiasts as well. Visiting the museum is a must for anyone coming to the Tucson area. It encompasses all the charm and beauty of what makes living in the desert so special. 

While other parts of Arizona often outshine Tucson--Grand Canyon....I see you-- the town has a distinct glow that emanates far and wide. Step outside almost every day of the year and kiss the peachy sunsets. You are allowed to interact with nature here. It doesn't just want you to, it will tell you. Inspiration flourishes from the summer monsoons to spring cactus blooms.

Most people who come to live here don't expect to fall in love with it, the way it takes hold of you. But that's part of the charm. Community, nature and opportunity all blending for those who are willing to see it.