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.

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