Monday, April 14, 2008

6. Arizona's Wild West

Cochise County, in the SE corner of Arizona, is home to the wild west town of Tombstone, the gunfight at the OK Corral, Boot Hill and lots of fascinating history and legends. It was also the home of Indian warrior Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache tribe and its leader Cochise. He fought for 11 years to hang onto the tribal lands. He was never defeated in battle and is greatly admired around these parts.

Mining was big business in this area, especially copper mining. The hills are riddled with old mines, dried up ghost towns and old mining towns that found new reasons to survive. Mining is still done around Bisbee and Tombstone but they now rely heavily on their history to lure tourists, as well as newer arts, crafts and modern businesses.

Bisbee, the “Queen of the Copper Camps”, is very picturesque and interesting. It was built on the steep rocky hills of a narrow canyon and many of the homes rely on long steep stairways. By 1910, it was the largest, richest and rowdiest copper mining town in America and the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Local mines produced zinc, lead, silver, gold, manganese and nearly 8 billion pounds of copper. The Lavender Pit is a large open pit copper mine at the edge of Bisbee. It operated from 1951 until 1975. Lots of high quality turquoise also came from this mine.

Today, Bisbee is alive with small shops, art studios, antique stores and restaurants but small enough to walk and explore in a couple hours.

Tombstone was also a rowdy mining town, but is most famous for Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Big Nose Kate and the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which lasted only about 30 seconds.
The old buildings and boardwalks along several blocks of Allen Street of the original town are preserved. The Bird Cage Theater is the most historic and notorious of the structures. It remains largely as it was when it closed. We toured the building, peeked into the basement bordello rooms, saw the bar and card room, and studied the large assortment of memorabilia and artifacts that occupy the main floor of the theater. We were informed that this is considered the most haunted building in the U.S., although we didn’t experience any ghosts in the middle of the afternoon.

About 250 of Tombstone’s former residents are buried in the Boot Hill Graveyard, including the losers of the famous gunfight. A list of the occupants showed that very few died of “natural causes.” Most were shot or hanged, some died of unfortunate accidents, and others of illnesses of various kinds. The horse-drawn hearse that carried all but six to Boot Hill is in the museum at the Bird Cage Theater.

We decided to visit Mexico, but wanted to see a smaller town rather than a large border city. So, we drove the back roads through Texas Canyon, the one-horse “town” of Dragoon, the former mining town of Pearce and finally to the border town of Douglas. It cost just $1 to park in a municipal lot a block from the border crossing. From there, we walked into the small Mexican town of Agua Prieta. There was a lot of activity at the crossing. Apparently, a vehicle didn’t make it through the inspection and the border patrol and their dogs were swarming around, had a suspect on the ground, and a CHP helicopter was hovering overhead. We walked right on by with other tourists. Just another day at the border.
Agua Prieta wasn’t nearly as pretty as its name but the people were friendly, there were a few sidewalk food vendors and lots of interesting businesses. We walked several blocks into town and poked around in a few stores.

We purchased a few small souvenirs before returning to the U.S. We were armed with driver’s licenses, passports and other picture ID, but weren’t asked for anything. The border guard just looked at us, smiled and waved us through. I guess we’re too obviously American tourists. Maybe the Hawaiian shirt, shorts, funny Dakota farm hat and camera around the neck gave it away. It was just too easy!!!

5 - Tucson and Cactus

We discovered that southeastern Arizona is packed with more interesting things to see and do than we had time for. We set ourselves up at Cochise Terrace, a beautiful up-scale RV resort (paid half-price) 40 miles east of Tucson and convenient to places we wanted to visit. We had to stay an extra day to add time for essential tasks, a tour of Kartchner Caverns, a visit to Boot Hill and a very refreshing dip in the pool.

The Hoover administration had good foresight in 1933 in establishing Saguaro National Park well in advance of Tucson’s explosive growth. Suburban development has spread across the Sonoran Desert all the way to the park boundaries and probably would have eaten up the rest of the park as well as suburbanites strive for view homes amid cactus gardens. Fortunately, the park is well protected and offers visitors an opportunity to get a close-up look at a variety of cacti and other plants, especially the large saguaros (Ned of Taco Bell is one). We took the 8 mile Cactus Forest Drive and stopped along the way for short hikes and photos. Very nice!

Tucson is nearly as large as Seattle in population but, without many surrounding communities, it seems a lot smaller. It also appeared very clean, modern and much too quiet for a Saturday. We found our way around easily and parking was free everywhere we went.

We spent an afternoon in the Old Tucson district following a well-marked self-guided walking tour, looking at old buildings and historic sites, and learning about the area’s colorful history. St. Augustine Cathedral (1896) was a very impressive structure (photo). Old Town Artisans was an interesting cluster of artsy shops surrounding an outdoor eating patio under large shade trees, complete with a singing guitar player. It was across the street from the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, which was established as a Spanish fort in 1775. Ron was especially excited about finding a small railroad museum near the beautifully restored Southern Pacific RR depot.

It’s easy to see why many snowbirds flock to this part of Arizona. The winter climate is just about perfect, the scenery is terrific and there are lots of things to do. We didn’t see everything, but hope to return in the future and spend a little more time here.