Leaving Las Cruces the next morning, I crossed over the Rio Grande, which was nothing but sand…a river of sand. Strange. Heading west aboard the good ol’ I-10, I spied an exit to Lordsburg, the destination of John Wayne and company in Ford’s classic western, Stagecoach. But it wasn’t my destination New Mexico highwayand I barreled on past. Nearing the Arizona border, I turned south onto Highway 80 and dove south through the San Simon Valley. I was impressed by spread of broad mesas and rugged rock formations set against the hard blue sky. Chiricahua Peak rose to the west. This was Apache country big-time. I passed a sign that pointed to the “Price Canyon Ranch, a Guest and Working Ranch,” set way out by itself against the jagged mountains. Had it been there in the 1870s, the Apaches may have taken umbrage.

Roadside site: A jaunty roadrunner. Beep-beep! And then this road sign appeared out in the middle of nowhere:

Road sign
Hard to says "McCarty Rd." That's a bullet hole beneath the "T" in STOP.

GeronimoJust outside the one-horse town of Apache I pulled over to check out what the map proclaimed as “The Geronimo Surrender Site.” It wasn’t much, just a bronze plaque at the base of a spire of mortared rocks maybe 15 feet high. Not only wasn’t it much of a monument, it wasn’t even on the actual site of the surrender, which is located in the mountains some 10-15 miles to the east at a place called Skeleton Canyon. But as the road is here “so, by God, this is where we’re putting’ the monument.” The plaque told how a young cavalry lieutenant named Charles Gatewood was most responsible for getting the wily Apache war chief to the hang it up, risking life and hair when he rode alone to Geronimo’s camp for a sit-down palaver. Wonder what Gatewood said? He's a man worth studying.

I stopped briefly in Douglas, Arizona, a good-sized town on the border across from Aqua Prieta. I learned that this area ranks as the #1 border crossing for illegals coming to look for work. So much for NAFTA. After a quick photo of an old movie theater, a glance at a once-opulent hotel, I was off to Bisbee.

BisbeeBisbee mineThe old mining town of Bisbee snakes up a narrow canyon in Arizona’s Mule Mountains. I stopped to peer down into the town’s original raison d’etre: the Lavender Queen Pit Mine, an exotic handle for a big ugly hole in the ground. At its heyday, this bustling boomtown boasted an elegant hotel, railroad depot, and many brick front buildings. The closing of the mine in 1971 would have seemed to signal imminent ghost town status to Bisbee. But it didn’t. The artists and retirees moved in. Then came the tourists. And now Bisbee thrives as a hip, artsy, tourist town. Walking the narrow, winding streets, I chatted with a tie-dye-clad fellow slouched on a concrete wall. With flowing hair and beard, he looked to be straight out of the 60s and introduced himself as Limbo. Perfect. The Haight-Ashbury has relocated to Bisbee. Across the street was parked his home: a psychedelically painted school bus, another 60s relic. Smelling of patchouli oil, he talked mostly about getting a new air compressor. Whatever, man. Groovy.

While Limbo seemed to have all the time in the world (I left him reclining in an old mining bucket in the town square), I didn’t. The town of Tombstone lay just 15 miles through the Mule Mountains and, itching for my Earp injection, I fired up the Red Ranger and lit out. As I did in Billy the Kid country, I imagined Wyatt and his brother looking out at these same vistas that I now drove through. Towns may be gone or totally changed, but the open country tends to stay the same. I certainly had more sense of being back in the old west when I was out in the country rather than in towns.

Hugh O'brienWyattDubbed “The Town Too Tough To die,” Tombstone is, indeed, alive and well and teeming with tourists, even on the mid-November weekday afternoon when I pulled in. The town survives on its history and has, to its credit, maintained many of the old buildings. Even some of the same stores from Earps’ day are still in business, though now they mostly hawk souvenirs. But I can’t bitch too much; folks need to make a buck. But I did balk at the $5.50 entry fee just to step foot inside the OK Corral. I hold that such a renowned historical locale in our nation’s history should belong to The People! I protested by skipping the OK Corral, then shelling out five bucks to watch a corny gunfight re-enactment down the street. So much for my big protest. All in all, though, I was glad I saw Tombstone. At least it’s there.

Next: Back to...reality?

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