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To the Sonoran Desert, on a Mission

Tracing the path of Father Eusebio Kino, who embarked on a quest to build a missionary system in Arizona and Mexico well before Junipero Serra set foot in California


TUCSON — San Diego de Alcala, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Antonio de Padua.

So begins the list of missions founded along the Pacific Coast in the late 18th century, reminders of California's Spanish colonial past. But they were not the first outposts of European civilization at the edge of the Spanish Empire. Almost 100 years before Father Junipero Serra, the renowned Franciscan colonizer of California, reached San Diego in 1769, another Catholic priest and explorer, Father Eusebio Kino, was working to establish missions in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.

I first learned about Kino, a Jesuit, years ago when I visited Mission San Xavier del Bac, about 10 miles southwest of Tucson. The gorgeously restored and much-photographed church, started by the peripatetic Kino in 1700, looks like a dove nesting among paloverde trees, with two mismatched towers, reminiscent of those at Chartres, France. The interior of the church, which still serves descendants of the Piman Indians among whom Kino evangelized (known today as the Tohono O'odham), is a folkloric Baroque fiesta, with wise-looking cherubs plastered into the walls, nattily dressed saints in niches and well-worn wooden pews.

Seeing San Xavier del Bac whetted my appetite to explore the other simple, soulful Kino missions in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the Mexican state of Sonora, a region called the Pimeria Alta (for the indigenous Piman people), at the time of Spanish colonization. Some of these little-known churches are the pride of the villages over which they preside; others are lonely desert ruins roasting under the Sonoran sun. Good highways reach them, and the best-preserved of the two dozen missions he founded, like the one in the town of Caborca, are within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, so it would be relatively easy to undertake a Kino pilgrimage on your own.

But last April, I found the Southwestern Mission Research Center (SMRC), a Tucson-based group of historians, archeologists and Kino devotees that has been leading tours for the last two decades. The group, which contributes to the restoration of some of these missions, runs bus tours four times a year--twice in the spring during wildflower season and twice in the fall. (The price for the three-day tour is $250 per person, based on double occupancy, including transportation, accommodations for two nights, three lunches, drinks aboard the bus and nightly margarita parties.)

Groups of no more than 36 depart in a comfortable bus on a Friday morning from the InnSuites Hotel, cross the border at Nogales about two hours later, have a picnic lunch at the isolated ruins of the Cocospera mission on the eastern edge of the Pimeria Alta and wind up at the Hotel El Camino in Caborca for dinner and rest. The Saturday itinerary includes nearby missions followed by a sunset visit to beautiful La Purisima Concepcion de Nuestra Senora in Caborca. On Sunday, the tour heads east again to the little mission church at San Ignacio. If there's time on the way back to Tucson, groups stop for one last encounter with Kino at San Xavier del Bac (though my group didn't manage to fit it in).

I got my brother, John, a desert backpacking enthusiast, to join me by promising a post-tour camping trip to some of the starkly beautiful Sonoran desert places Kino explored, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. John also wanted to visit the Pinacate World Biosphere Preserve, 30 miles south of Organ Pipe in Sonora, where Kino climbed to the top of an extinct volcano, scanned the western horizon and saw the head of the Gulf of California, proving that Baja was a peninsula, not an island. (Older Spanish maps had correctly charted the geography of the Baja, but they were lost by the time Kino reached the New World.) To Kino, the discovery meant there had to be an overland route from Mexico City to California, and finding it became one of his primary goals.

At the same time, he never neglected his mandate to convert the native people to Catholicism. Though Kino's Sonoran missions depended on the labor of indigenous populations, he was deeply committed to the Piman people, defending their rights when Spanish ranchers and soldiers encroached on their land. Nor did terrifying tales of Indian tribes in what is now northern Arizona and southern Utah stop him from riding there to meet them and make peaceful overtures.

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