Driving into Willcox, Arizona, I had no idea of the adventure that awaited me. After stopping to check out the creepy abandoned miniature golf course on the outskirts of town, I planned on getting back on I-10 and heading into New Mexico. I'd barely driven past the "Welcome to Willcox" sign when I realized I wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.
Roughly 45 miles west of the New Mexico border, Willcox has a population of about 3700. The town was originally established as a whistlestop along the Southern Pacific Railroad, but has been reinvented several times since then.
At one time Willcox was the largest beef-producing town in America, giving it the nickname the Cattle Capital of the West.
The first thing that caught my eye was the abandoned Desert Inn Motel.
[Edit: the below picture is actually of the abandoned Desert Rose Cafe. The Desert Inn burned down several years ago. A huge thanks to the lovely people who left me comments letting me know about this]
Across the street stood an abandoned mechanic shop/car wash...
with a misleading sign in the window.
I slipped in through a broken window and had a quick look.
The pigeons that had taken up residence inside were panicked by my presence, so I didn't stick around too long. It looked like a human had recently spent time there too.
I drove another block or two before I realized Willcox is best explored on foot. Haskell Ave, the main road through town, is flanked by so many abandoned buildings, it looked like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
Willcox reminded me of Needles, California, but smaller and with less traffic.
Dilapidated motels stood as bleak reminders of declining tourism.
Empty storefronts and shuttered restaurants indicate a struggling economy.
I don't think Walt Disney would have approved of this branding:
Much of the town's economy seems to have been centered around the auto industry, as evidenced by the name of this pawn shop,
this vacant Chevy dealership,
and quite a few abandoned automotive-related businesses.
This service station attempted to find new life as a hobby shop, but was unsuccessful.
An abandoned liquor store and recreation center share the block with a series of other shuttered businesses.
Across the quiet street the remains of more closed shops languish with signs that have become weathered and illegible.
Burger-wielding statues keep vigil over the parking lot.
[Edit: Adolfo's Taco Shop is brand new and had not yet opened when I visited. If you're in town, you should stop by and have a taco! The statues have been removed, but were beloved artifacts from Carter's Hamburgers, which previously occupied the space.]
The face of Willcox is made even bleaker by an abundance of abandoned housing complexes.
The apartment complex for seniors was in awful shape, its lobby empty and most of the units trashed.
I snapped a few pictures and was about to leave when a man in a motorized wheelchair appeared out of nowhere. Thin and frail with graying skin, he spoke through an electrolarynx, which gave his voice a frightening mechanized quality that startled me when I first heard it.
"What are you doing?” he demanded.
I explained that I thought the place was abandoned and was just taking pictures.
He said he’s the only one that still lives there. I am not sure why he volunteered that information. I apologized very sincerely and felt awful to see someone living in such conditions. I got out of there in a hurry.
Later he sped past me on the sidewalk, but didn’t acknowledge me. Two American flags mounted on the back of his wheelchair waved in the breeze.
Just as I finished admiring the abandoned Sands motel, a police officer approached. He said someone had reported me as looking potentially suspicious. At first I assumed it was the guy at the senior apartments, but it had actually been a postal worker who had watched from across the street while I photographed the Chevrolet Dealer.
I told the cop I didn’t mean to cause any trouble and would stop taking pics if he wanted (I’d already taken SO many, it wouldn’t have been a problem). He said something to the effect of: "There's nothing wrong with what you're doing. It’s not like we’re in a military base. Pictures are fine." I thought that was really cool of him. He seemed surprised that someone would consider me a suspicious character. I feel like he made his mind up when he saw me and realized I wasn’t a crackhead looking for copper to pillage.
It was the first time a cop was polite and respectful and didn't approach me as if I were a criminal, a stark contrast from the way other police officers in Arizona had spoken to me. For once, I didn't feel compelled to flee the area after being stopped. I appreciated it more than I can say.
I was in a good mood after talking to the cop, I decided to stick around Willcox for a little while and do what I could to support the local economy. I went to Railroad Avenue, a cute little area that was once the business center of town and is now in the midst of revitalization. A strip of stores and bars operate out of historic buildings centered around a railroad crossing.
|The old railroad depot now houses Willcox Town Hall|
I stopped for a wine tasting at a beautiful little wine dealer and bought a bottle of delicious Zinfandel. I was surprised to learn that Willcox is in an up-and-coming wine region, which grows 74% of Arizona's wine grapes.
Across from Willcox Town Hall, a neat restaurant built from an old dining car beckoned to me and I couldn't resist. I enjoyed a tasty BBQ dinner at Big Tex BBQ before taking a stroll through the rest of the historic district.
Several abandoned buildings remain, but the old-west style architecture lends authenticity to the area's historic feel rather than making it seem run-down.
Plaques adorn many of the buildings, informing visitors of their historic significance. If you're ever in the area, you might consider having a drink at Headquarters Saloon, where Wyatt Earp's brother met his demise.
I truly enjoyed my time in Willcox, and hope the revitalization effort is successful. This town has great potential. But the road called to me and I had no choice but to obey.
Next week I'll tell you about my first stop in New Mexico, an unexpected detour to several large abandoned businesses at a desolate freeway exit.
Thanks for checking out this article. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it on Facebook. While you're at it, please subscribe to Places That Were and follow me on my social media sites: