Tombstone & Bisbee: Historical Treats or ?

Yesterday under bright, blue Arizona skies I headed down the road on a day trip to the historical towns of Tombstone and Bisbee. Although I’ve never been to either, I’m well aware of Tombstone’s historical events and place in our western culture and yore.

Bisbee was a curiosity to me, having no knowledge of it except from an article in American Bungalow’s gorgeous magazine (think Architectural Digest but single topic). Said article touted Bisbee as having a concentration of restored bungalow houses, and having restored my former 1920s bungalow in Findlay, OH, was curious to see that many examples at once. The article also showed the Bisbee Diner, an eatery in a restored railroad dining car. What’s not to love about that 1-2-3 combination for a day exploration trip?

Um, plenty, for me, as it turns out. But first, the version to support both chambers of commerce, followed by…the rest of the story.

Tombstone, AZ

Tombstone’s history is well-known to any western history or movie buff, or even those of us not exactly buffs but do enjoy the genre. My first stop was the legendary Boot Hill, famed backdrop to many a western film’s story and tear-jerk scenes. The graveyard went into neglect and was nearly lost to nature, but years of citizen involvement to research and restore the main part paid off. The history is well documented, and the site a good representation. They’ve done a good job of keeping things orderly and the pamphlet for the tour is quite good, as is the view from Boot Hill.

Next, into town I rolled and parked at the famous courthouse, then wandered the downtown, “restored” street meant to closely resemble life in the 1880s in this famed mining outpost. There was the OK Corral (I didn’t pay to get in nor wait for the daily famous gunfight reenactment, and the usual saloons and other stores. A U.S. Mail stagecoach was on hand for tours and rides I suppose as well. The main street was dirt and closed off to vehicles, so one could wander and try to envision what it was like back in those wild west days.

Bisbee, AZ

Unknown to me, Bisbee’s was settled in the 1880s to support local mining, and grew as the number and scale of local mines expanded. I expected a flatish, southeast Arizona desert location based on inference from the magazine’s pictures, but to my surprise, it sits in a small, tight valley surrounded by steep, low mountains. Driving in, I could have been going into Aspen or other such towns nestled in mountains with maximized real estate. Although Aspen doesn’t have those screaming red dirt mountains.

Bisbee would delight those who love endless boutique hotels, quaint restaurants, gift shops, and other such things. Housing in Bisbee is tight and steep, and the drive through the town and up into residential areas was fun, curvy, steep and great people watching and eccentric house looking. Half the population seemed like tourists or supporting such, and the other free spirits of an artistic persuasion. Parking was hard to find, and the tourist lots pricey, so my time there was mostly roaming around in Tamasté and enjoying the variety of people, homes, and surprises tucked in along the way.

The Rest of the Story

I’ve noticed on these nearly 100 days of solo van travel and living that I truly enjoy those moments where nature takes dominance and I feel a connection and relief in areas devoid of over-population or land abuse. And while I enjoy seeing historical sites (and there are more than one can take in here in the Southwest), I grimace when history meets capitalism: guess who wins out in the presentation and experience.

Tombstone was, to me, more carny and amusement park than historical restoration and representation. No question one is aware of the historical pieces, but hard to relate or envision life back then when there are so many shops selling trinkets and boutiques expensive clothing and jewelry, combined with the obvious effort to extract every tourist dollar they can every way you turn.

Understand that they can’t show what doesn’t exist, and likely little of the town has buildings and pieces from 140 years ago. Exceptions are obvious: the famous county courthouse is original (at least exterior), as are a few wagons and such, and no doubt the bodies in boot hill are original, but the efforts to maintain the facade of authenticity are understandably reproductions.

For those who enjoy these sites, and can look beyond the tourist-trap veneers and connect to the history, more power to you. To me, I’d rather explore the history through books and documentaries than try to peel back the ubiquitous layers of commercialism to feel the historical presence.

Bisbee caught me off-guard. While I saw some bungalows, I never found the extensive streets mentioned in the article. Nor did I find that picturesque dining car restaurant. And if I’m not a fan of the commercialized historical venture, you can probably guess I’m not one to park and walk and shop all day long in such places where consumerism is running amok and a town’s existence relies on tourism. Once a supporting town for the huge mines around it, they had to turn to something to survive, so understandable, but not my cup of tea.

Speaking of mines: the shock of driving past this quaint, picturesque ex-mining town nestled in the mountain valley, then immediately rounding the curve to witness the gaping maw of destruction from the Copper Queen Mine (shut down in 1975, but kept open and non-functional expressly for tourist mine tours) is jarring to the soul. I’ve seen mines like this before, but never in juxtaposition from a town like this. The effect was unnerving and shocking. And unlike the mines around Silver City, NM, where they are still active and reclamation projects continue to recover the land somewhat, this raped landscape is simply a massive, Earth wound that may never heal. It is at once fascinating and repelling, which is as odd a combination as was seeing the quaint town then filling one’s eyes with the reality of this huge, man-made pit.

As I continue traveling, I feel more and more the strong pull toward untouched nature and fewer “gotta see” places where I know man and greed exploited. I’m not on this journey to be entertained; it’s not a vacation trip. My need is to re-connect with nature, and my consciousness expanded at every chance, along this path of self-discovery and expression.

My love of National and State Parks stems from their stewardship to allow us to see the natural wonders without the over-gloss of carnival and commercial trappings. Yes, they all have gift shops, but you’re not forced to exit through them in hopes of adding to their profits (thank you Boot Hill Graveyard). And yes, such things are part of how these places stay in business. But as I wander, my soul’s joy clearly and consistently comes from places where as little trace of man and man’s abuse of nature exists. There I can more freely envision life back then, and feel strongly connected to nature in ways difficult to translate into words.

A Welcomed Wallowing in Willcox, Arizona


It’s been rough most of the last few weeks dealing with the high winds and frequent dust storms in New Mexico. As a rest and regather stop, I’m at a Boondockers Welcome hosts’ home in Southeast Arizona for five nights, specifically seven miles outside the tiny metropolis of Willcox, Arizona. An inexpensive annual club, Boondockers Welcome consists of RV-friendly hosts who list their places to boondock at for one to five nights for free (or if provided, a tiny payment for hookups). Hosts are typically RVers themselves, so it’s a way to meet more people in the tribe, so to speak, for both guest and host.

Since arriving, I’ve wallowed and done very little! Not pure nothing, but close. Needed the break to just be, and outside of a few excursions into Willcox proper (and more below on making the most of the least), just rested, read, slept a lot, prepared food for ahead, etc. Tomorrow is a bit more exciting as I head over to explore historical Tombstone, AZ, then on to eccentric Bisbee, AZ, in the afternoon.

Cloud formation appearing like snow on the mountain tops
Meanwhile, in my lazy, no-hurry state, I experienced the pleasure of exploring a small town that on the surface seems like a place you’d drive by and ignore, or perhaps stop and gas up there, but drive on with nary a second thought about the people living there or their town.

Willcox’s population of around 3,800 seems too small to support much of anything, but is essentially an agriculture and ranching community, with a good sprinkling of retirees living in the open plains nestling up to those mountains I never tire looking at. Interestingly, the Willcox wine region area produces 74% of wine grapes grown in Arizona.

As with small towns like this, what you first see is usually not the best part of the town. The outskirts where the ACE Hardware, Hitchin’ Post Cafe, and Safeway lie could be anywhere USA. Other parts are somewhat abandoned, or run down, but still in use. The real gems of these little towns are found in their original downtown area where, if they had a robust history, you’ll likely find something special.

Way back in the day (really way back) the railroad fed Willcox and by the number of old buildings kept intact in the historical downtown district, it must have been quite the place. Now these old buildings are boutiques, or themed restaurants, thrift shops, junk shops, even the old movie theatre is still there screening modern movies.

Even though the downtown places are somewhat (okay, mostly) touristy, they’re still interesting to roam around on a sunny, cool day in Willcox, Arizona, with those mountains as a perpetual vista before heading on to other adventures in a few days.

Living the Dream

Sunset, Fort Parker State Park, Texas

Back when in the planning stages for this grand adventure, that phrase was the most consistent response I heard from those I shared plans with. Some even expressed it as “living my dream,” as though they secretly pine for the chance to run away and play nomad too.

As often as this came up, I’ve wondered where this notion comes from, where this yearning to escape into nomadic freedom originates? Is it a safety valve response from the pressures of modern living, of working for the “man” or growing up as adults not quite through with child-like dreams of few responsibilities and lots of play time? Or does come from something deeper, something more primordial wired into our psyches and DNA from those days eons ago as nomadic hunters and gatherers?

Petroglyphs National Monument outside Albuquerque, New Mexico

I am aware that what I’m doing is a special opportunity and a unique lifestyle. The chance to wander in a minimal lifestyle with only a few constraints is not something everyone can do, will do, or even want to do. And like with any venture, it’s not all roses on the table everyday keeping the strawberries and cream company.

I’m in West New Mexico now, by chance driven away from one of the worst storms to hit this region in a long time. Fellow Travatoites exploring East New Mexico this morning are likely feeling they’re “living the nightmare” and not the dream. From the half-inch hail, 70+ mph winds, and tornado warnings and watches from Roswell up through Albuquerque to Santa Fe and into West Texas, it’s hardly a “dream” to be in a small, steel box under those conditions. Horrific if driving, but still nerve-wracking when parked. Such is the vagaries of weather, amplified even more these days from the effects of global warming. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had my share of rough high wind days and nights, but what’s happening east of me is far more nightmarish than I’ve experienced thus far.

Ancient, but still living, oak tree – Highland Hammocks State Park, Florida

And yet, I feel safer in Tamasté—less exposed to bad possibilities—than I did in my Findlay house. Several years ago a rare derecho blew through that little town, battering rich and poor alike with 80+ mph horizontal winds. I clearly remember hearing the tornado warnings and heading to the basement, pausing momentarily in the kitchen to watch half the oak tree across the street get twisted off and slammed to the ground. And sitting in the basement, waiting for the all clear siren, I couldn’t help but think I wasn’t really that safe from danger. My house had boiler heat with a basement ceiling extensive network of large copper water pipes sending and retrieving hot water from and to the baseboard radiators throughout the house. Had the worst happened and the house leveled from a tornado, there was a real chance I’d drown from the broken pipes and subsequent basement flooding before anyone found me. So much for living the American dream of home ownership!

Pot people, Mercer Arboretum, Houston, Texas

Of course, that’s a stretch and a low probability to consider such a thing happening, but is proof of concept that we’re all subject to events out of our control whether in a sturdy house or a traveling steel box. At least with Tamasté, in most cases, I can more easily move to safer ground or to proactively avoid bad weather.

Still, as I sit writing this, I realize I’m approaching 100 days on this adventure (March 27 marks that milestone), and I will be posting a look back then. They say the first 100 days of a new administration is essentially the honeymoon. Convert that to nomadic life, it’s more like signifying the move from tourist/vacationer to normalish, day-to-day routine living as one can nomadically wandering about. I did not need all 100 days to make the shift, but as the saying goes, that’s a story for another day.

White Magic: The Ethereal Landscape of White Sands National Monument

On a cold but clear early March morning near Alamogordo, NM, I ventured into the quiet, near-pure white landscape of the unusual gypsum sand dunes showcased at the 275-square-mile White Sands National Monument.

There are large portions of the monument area where sand grass and other vegetation is growing well in the white sands. But the pure-white gems of this unusual Earthly wonder can be experienced by driving the eight-mile Dunes Drive and Dunes Loop.

A spectacular photo opportunity, albeit one that seems, at first, to be of a singular subject, the dunes are as varied as nature can make them. Many who visit enjoy sliding down the steep-sloped dunes, or exploring the various long hiking paths into the dunes fields, complete with some serious warning signs about getting lost and to take multiple precautions in carrying water, food, clothing, monitoring trail markings, etc. I’d speculate they’ve had their fair share of hikers get lost in this snow-blind-like world of seemingly endless white sand dunes.

At one point I parked Tamasté and ventured into the dunes a ways until I could no longer see the van, or any signs of humanity. As I stood there taking in this unearthly landscape, I felt desolate and cold. Cold not just because it was 38 that morning, but from the beautiful white dunes around me that felt sterile, there but not alive. When there’s nothing in view but brilliant blue skies, puffy white clouds, and the endless undulations of vegetation-less white sand, it felt as though no living thing existed there. In my years of hiking into wilderness, I’ve never had this same feeling of being lost, in a good way, or better put, somewhere and nowhere at the same time.

One potential issue for those traveling from Alamogordo to the monument, is foretold by this interesting warning sign outside the city on highway 70, which runs by the monument and that other white sands area, those 3,200 square miles of reserved land for military use and missile tests. In my many days around Alamogordo, I never saw the flashing light, but can imagine frustrations for those travelers forced to highway-sit and wait for the all clear. In this part of New Mexico, there aren’t exactly alternate routes aplenty, and highway 70 is the primary connection between Alamogorodo and Las Cruces.

For those who haven’t been, may these photos entice you to visit if you’re close. And for those who have been, let these images trigger your memories visiting one of nature’s more unique formations.

Weather

Living in an RV versus a house has a lot of obvious differences. For the most part, it’s all about scale and stuff. But one thing that can be significantly more intense is the impact from abnormal weather.

Traveling in Tamasté requires more attention to weather ahead, weather where I’ll choose to stay the next few days or week. It’s not just about temperatures (always need to be aware if freezing will occur) or precipitation (rain/snow may be negligible on paved roads, but boondocking is usually on dirt roads, dirt pads): the one weather aspect I’m learning great respect for (and a slight fear of) is wind.

Yesterday driving back down New Mexico from Albuquerque, I left early to avoid the worst impact from the high wind warnings. Driving a steel box in lateral high winds can be like an amusement park ride: lots of thrills and unexpected surprises. Fortunately, I’m only 21′ feet long and 9’6″ high. A Class A motorhome passed me on the highway (idiotic thing to do in such a large box with winds whipping around 45 mph). As I gave him lots of room ahead, I saw the scary angle his big box was leaning from the combination of high wind and high forward speed. His driver’s side rear tires look as though they were about to lift off the payment at any moment, and I really did expect to see the whole motorhome flop on its side and skid along the highway.

Boondocked last night (and plan to stay here for four or five days) back at Lake Holloman and it was a tough night for sleeping. The high winds kicked up late afternoon across this area near Alamogordo and poor Tamasté was rocked hard, to the point I laid in bed tense, waiting to hear things ripping off the roof. Unlike a normal vehicle, there’s lots of gear on the roof sticking up like small mountains wind can slam into. As I write this, it’s early and still pitch black outside (but no wind!) and I’m waiting for sunrise to get out there to see if any roof pieces are lying on the ground upwind! She’s a tough beast, and expect she weathered the winds just fine…but will check since another round is expected later today.

The forecast ahead for this area and most of southern New Mexico shows some unusual rainy days Tuesday and Wednesday. Checking out the other places I’m going next, they’ll be getting the same, with some less rain than others, but appears widespread across the bottom of the state so can’t outrun it. Not forecasted to be a lot of rain, but with zero experience with rain in these desert locations, and especially the extra exposure living in a small RV, I’ll probably stay here through those days. I will look at moving Tamasté a bit to ensure good traction if this site gets muddy. If it does get sloppy, I’ll just stay put for a few more days until it dries out. Such are the options living in a 168 square foot motorized steel box.

Rock Scrambling at Hueco Tanks State Park

Left Davis Mountains last Tuesday on my way to New Mexico, with a brief, two-night stay at Hueco Tanks State Park, using it as a shore-power based spot to unwind after Davis Mountains and plan the next leg to Albuquerque.

I wish I could stayed for four days instead.

During my 35 years in Texas, I’d explored a lot of the notable state parks: Big Bend, the gulf shore, the East Texas piney woods. I’d always heard good things about Hueco Tanks, but for some reason, never made it out there. My loss, as I discovered during this too-short stay.

I’ve always loved rock scrambling, which is a less strenuous, less life-risking form of rock climbing (but still can be dangerous). Not many places have the kinds of rocks and slopes where one can scramble to their hearts content, or more precisely in my case, until one more step is too exhausting.

I arrived mid-afternoon on Tuesday and hit the rocks until dark on my own. Next morning, since I couldn’t reserve a self-guided hiking pass in advance (they are hard to get: Hueco Tanks is a world-class accessible climbing site, rated #3 in the world I was told, and they limit daily self-guided passes to 70 people), I got to the ranger station early to snag one of the handful of permits they hold out for daily walk-ins. While in line, I met Dave who was interested in going to Cave Kiva as I was. Hiking in a pair is not only safer, but tends to encourage longer hikes, bolder paths and generally more fun. And Dave was a great partner: same age, but more experienced hiker which helped me go farther than I might have on my own.

Photo by Dave of Gary coming out of Cave Kiva
We scrambled our way to Cave Kiva, following park instructions since there are no trail markers, and found the elusive cave entrance and the eight, crisp and clear pictographs inside (gallery below). Later in the day we joined a guided tour through parts of the park off limits unless guided. There we explored and enjoyed more rock imagery and the guide’s stories of Indian spiritual rites and struggles with the Mexican army during that time of genocide violence.

As you can see from my FitBit screen capture, it was a highly vigorous day that left me wondering how I did it. The next morning let me know I did at least three times more than I should have done it. But it was enormous fun, fantastic views and rewarding in finding some of the better pictographs in the park.

I will definitely return to Hueco Tanks hopefully later this year to explore the trails I missed. The one thing on my list undone was to scramble to some high, remote place then sit and spend some reflective time in such a sacred and rare nature place.

Pictographs Gallery

Hueco Tanks S.P. Gallery