Possibly no other place in America captures the imagination and spirit of the Old West quite like Tombstone, Arizona. Famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral. Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo, Billy the Kid, and the iconic Earp brothers are all the embodiment of an era become legend. A time of strong men and women who lived their lives through strength of character, toughness, and big bushy mustaches.
I rolled into town on a windy February morning and saw half the population walking around in mid-Century 1800s costumes. Ladies in their big puffy dresses and bonnets, men with handlebar mustaches and six guns on their hips. Long wool duster coats and waistcoats.
Every 45 minutes in Tombstone, there is a gunfight. Several reenactments other than the OK Corral gunfight are represented. Each is performed like clockwork for cargo shorts wearing tourists with fanny packs and socks pulled up to their knees. Or the biker crowd which roll into town on their Harley Davidsons. Dentists, electricians, lawyers, all riding on the modern equivalent of the horse, absorbing the vibe of times which exist only in the collective memory now as we bicker on Facebook over cultural appropriation, politics, and express ourselves via memetics.
Getting to strut around on wooden boardwalks can be a lot of fun, and in a place where at least once an hour gun violence is recreated for tourism, Tombstone is a very politically incorrect place. It’s a breath of fresh air, really.
What I really liked about it was the small town charm. It reminded me of where I grew up in the Colorado high plains, surrounded by mountains in every direction and an hour from the nearest anything. Tombstone and my hometown were filled with false front buildings, as well as the leftovers of a different time. Even the people seem to be outsiders to their own industry. They dress up, they talk the talk, but like the cast of a Renaissance Festival, they participate in a long-suffering love affair with this time. And tolerate tourism as best they can. You can tell it wears on them, but it’s a living.
I’ve seen cowboy shows in a half dozen towns already. From Deadwood to Cripple Creek, Central City, Laramie, Calico, and Glenwood (where Doc himself is buried.) It’s hard to miss in the West. Though it is pretty entertaining. But I wanted to see a different side of Tombstone beyond the movie set town and blanks going off in every direction.
So I visited a local quilt show they were holding in one of the buildings. I walked the boardwalk and ate some delicious fully loaded potato soup and a ham and turkey panini. The locals are genuine and friendly if you treat them with politeness and respect. It’s no wonder that new comers to towns like this a hundred years ago used to get their heads stove in with pistol handles, since nobody likes an irritating tourist.
I visited the Birdcage Theatre, which although a little spendy, it was interesting because much of it was exactly as it was a hundred years ago. At the turn of the last century, when the silver went bust when the US switched to the gold standard and the town was vacated, the theatre was closed up, and then later reopened in the 60s as a museum. Very little has been done to restore it, other than bringing the building to code with fire suppression and electricity. The wooden slats you walk on would have been the same Big Nose Kate and Josephine Earp walked on in another time. Bullet holes are prominent in paintings and the ceiling from a time when gun control meant being a good shot drunk or sober.
What struck me about the Birdcage was the private booths in the balcony. Movies lead us to believe these boxes were large, but in reality, setting up a town in the middle of inhospitable desert means doing it quickly, and with that, things tend to be smaller, more temporary. At the time, the theatre was considered fancy high-living. But compared to places like Ford’s Theatre a few thousand miles away in Washington D.C., it was tiny.
I took time to visit with the locals. I visited with the ladies at the bake sale, and tried the Amish bread pudding for breakfast, which was amazing. Being the desert, they even supplied a complimentary bottle of water to wash it down. I visited a used book store and supported the local Friends of the Libraries club there by buying an old copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
I guess my point is get to know a place beyond the thin veneer and you can appreciate it a little more.
The man running the Birdcage giftshop was a professional musician, who had been friends with a number of big name record producers. He had lived all over the place, but enjoyed living and working in Tombstone, shooting the bull with tourists about the Earp Brothers, whom he spoke of with as much esteem as he did the giants of the music industry.
It was time to head down the road, and Santa Fe was still six hours away. The sky was grey and the wind had turned chilly. By now, I had grown immune to the pop of blanks going off as Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers fell before the spread guns and six shooters of the Earps and Doc, like wheat before the scythe. In what was the equivalent of an Old West parking lot. A space not much bigger than an empty lot on a city block.
After passing the Border Patrol checkpoint (yes, Tombstone is actually south of this a few miles) I stopped off at a place that sold fresh wildflower and mesquite honey as well as pecans grown locally. The owners of this stand were eating burgers that smelled amazing, almost making me regret my choices for lunch. The grandfather was persistent in knowing my name as well as where I was from. We visited for a while as he ordered his sons around, not much younger than I am, getting me samples of honey. I bought a bag of pecans for my mom and a pint of wildflower honey for myself. It tasted like ginger and had a slightly smoky, mesquite flavor. As I write this, I have put the last dollop of it in my cup of tea. It is only a memory now. Thomas’s Nut House is the stand. They don’t have a website.
The granddad shook my hand and he and his wife wished me safe travels. I had many more miles to go before Santa Fe.