KGUN 9NewsAbsolutely Arizona


Poetry in motion along stretch of Mountain Avenue

More than a dozen boulders along a one-mile stretch are covered in poetry
Posted: 3:54 PM, Aug 21, 2023
Updated: 2023-08-21 18:54:59-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It has been called the perfect integration of visual art and poetry. But most people don't even realize it's there.

The one-mile stretch of Mountain Avenue, from Ft. Lowell to Roger, is not your typical street running through a Tucson neighborhood.

Thanks to a 2010 city drainage project, the north-south street has wide bike lanes and sidewalks. Plus, it has something even more unique, a real hidden gem.

"It's been here for quite awhile," said Ofelia Zepeda, a University of Arizona Professor of Linguistics. "They're very visible. People think they're just boulders."

While some are just boulders, many of them are art. They have Zepeda's poems engraved in the granite.

The landscape part of the Mountain Avenue drainage project was the idea of Tucson artist Simon Donovan.

He's the same artist who designed the award-wining Rattlesnake Bridge over Broadway at the entrance to downtown.

Donovan came to Zepeda with the idea of using her poetry.

"It was sort of intimidating," Zepeda said standing in front of one of the boulders. "Because you're going to have your words engraved in stone. So they're going to be there for a long time."

Zepeda is a well-known poet and author. For some of the boulders she chose to use small excerpts from previous works.

"Some are new pieces that I wrote specifically for this area," explained Zepeda. "There's some short pieces up and down the street that kind of reflect either the landscape or what's actually there."

Many of the poems pay homage to the desert, the desert creatures and our amazing views. At least one is more instructional.

"There's one at the light down there that is also sort of instructions about how to cross the street carefully."

In total, there are about 15 boulders engraved with her poems.

Several of them are written in native Tohono O'odham. It gave Ofelia a chance to combine her poetry with her work at the University of Arizona.

"Using the language, first of all just in Tucson, I think is important because this is traditional O'odham homeland," Zepeda said. "So, just having the language visible for the public I think is a good thing, always."

It helps keep the O'odham language alive in a neighborhood Ofelia and her husband have called home for four decades.

The City of Tucson's $10.5 million Mountain Avenue drainage-improvement project responsible for the boulders came in ahead of schedule and under budget, according to Mike Graham of the Tucson Department of Transportation.

Ofelia says, however, they did have to wait on the engravers.

"They took a long, quite awhile to get done."

Clearly they didn't want to make a mistake.

Now, more than 13 years after the art project was installed, she tells me she feels a great sense of pride.

"Especially when we see someone reading them," said Zepeda. "It's always fun to see somebody stopping to take the time to read 'em."

A couple of the poems on the granite boulders have been worn down by weather, but it's well worth the effort to park and walk the neighborhood to read Zepeda's poetry.

Pat Parris and Ofelia Zepeda
Pat Parris and Ofelia Zepeda discuss the her work on the Mountain Avenue poetry project.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.