08/01/2012 07:05 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Mel Zuckerman Loves Tucson

Mel Zuckerman is the founder of Tucson's Canyon Ranch, which starting revolutionized the spa industry in the 1980s. Today his empire includes two resorts spas, three spa clubs and condo complexes in three cities. He is also the author of several books, including The Restless Visionary: How One Man Found Himself and Spark A Wellness Revolution.


Dear Tucson,

For me it was love at first sight. It was 1958 and I was thirty years old.

I drove in from Phoenix, before I-10 existed, through 110 scorched, desolate miles of not much. Before Phoenix, I'd been in Yuma, a hot little farm town just this side of the Arizona-California border, where I'd left my wife, Enid, and our three-year-old son to stay with Enid's sister while I looked around Southern Arizona. We felt like pioneers -- tired pioneers -- having been on the road in our Nash Rambler for a month. (A covered wagon might have been faster than the Rambler on those long grades.) We'd left New Jersey to find a new life with no fixed destination, no prospect of a job much less jobs and $1,800 to our names. Enid was four months pregnant and, at that point, thoroughly sick of traveling. She'd really liked some of the cities we'd visited over in California.

That's where we'd thought we'd end up -- somewhere over on the coast.

It had been a lifelong dream of mine to come west. I think it started when I was a kid. I was asthmatic and my parents used to talk about how, if they'd only had the money, we would have moved to Tucson. So I thought that, since I was in Arizona, I might as well check you out.

Truthfully, the picture I had in my mind was that of a dusty cowtown in a western, a sort of Dodge City writ small.

But when I came in that day on Oracle Road, around the western end of the Santa Catalinas and down old Miracle Mile, you floored me. It was August 8 in the late morning and there'd been a lot of rain. The desert was green and lush and the mountains were so close and so beautiful.

The first place I went sight-seeing was Sabino Canyon recreation area, on the northeastern edge of the city. It's still my favorite place on earth, so much so that I've named all my companies after it in one way or another, including Canyon Ranch. You can walk from here to the mouth of Sabino easily.

What was it that made me fall in love with you? I loved the four mountain ranges, one in each direction, that seem to embrace the city and the way you can see them from wherever you are. I loved the friendly, laid-back people and the slower pace. I loved how uncrowded it was. And I felt a sort of energy coming from you, from what I think of as the spirit of the land. Bathed in that energy, I instantly felt comfortable here. Even though you were the only city I'd been to where I hadn't had even a sniff of a possible job, I had to stay.

I called Enid and told her, to her complete horror, that I was coming to pick her and Jay up, not to take them back to San Diego or Santa Monica, but to Tucson. A big-city girl at heart, she would resist your charms right up until the time we built Canyon Ranch, in 1978. Now she won't leave.

What are the downsides? The summers of course. People say they get easier with time, but they don't. I mean, unless a person's out a lot during the day or has to leave the car parked out in the sun, it's not unbearable -- we all benefit from the blessing of air conditioning. But this will be our 54th Tucson summer and, like most people who can, we'll go north for a couple of months.

You're not the easiest place to get to either. When Enid and I decided to build a health resort, everyone told us to go try it somewhere else, to move to someplace like Scottsdale or Palm Springs where we might have some small chance of success.

I can't tell you how many people have come to visit the Ranch, having never heard of you, and who've ended up moving here. They feel what I felt, and still feel.

My dear, my beloved Tucson. You've given me and my family so much over the last half-century; we've tried - from our hearts -- to give some part of it back. You are very different from what you were in 1958 and so am I, but I fell hard all those years ago.

I love you, and always will.

Mel Zuckerman