Today is Tombstone day, but here’s the problem: Tombstone is only about 20 minutes south of here. They do a re-enactment of the gunfight everyday at 2pm. So what to do until then? Ride around, I guess. Tombstone sits in a valley bordered by mountain ranges which run roughly north-south, funneling everything to and from Mexico. Tombstone is reached from Benson via State Highway 80. Also leaving from Benson is Highway 90, which runs down the right side of the valley. So I decided to make a loop down to the Mexican border, and catch Tombstone on the way back in the afternoon.
A little way down Hwy 90 is Kartchner Caverns State Park. This is a recently discovered cave system which is one of the only publicly accessible wet cave systems in the world. Most caves that you see are dry caves such as Ape Cave on the southern slope of Mt. St. Helens, or Lava River Cave over south of Bend. But Kartchner Caverns is a limestone cave in which water is still flowing through and scuplting the cave. I looked around the visitors center and it looks pretty cool. I didn’t have time to go in because it would have taken most of the day. They only allow visitors in on guided tours, the the tours take several hours and cost mucho dinero. So, have to come back to this one some other time.
Further down the valley is Fort Huachuca. Looking on the map, I had assumed that it was some kind of old fort which had been restored and turned into an attraction. But no, its an active duty US Army base. It may also be a historical fort, but its still in operation. I presume that its here to guard the border with Mexico, although that seems a little pointless. I don’t recall the last time we were threatened with a land invasion from Mexico, but I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t been an issue since the Mexican-American War.
Further down the valley, almost to the border itself, is a memorial to Fernando Coronado, the Spaniard who first explored this part of the continent. I’m not sure why they put it here, at the end of a 5-mile gravel road. Its pretty inaccessible, although it is right at the foothills of one of the mountain ranges I mentioned earlier. It looks like a jumping-off point for exploring the mountains. One interesting thing about the memorial is that there are signs all along the roads warning you about smugglers and illegal immigrants. I saw Border Patrol SUVs going up and down the road several times while I was there.
The highway turns left at this point, and runs parallel to the border for about 10-20 miles. There are places where you can see the border off in the distance. Its a clear-cut swatch of land about 50 yards wide that runs in a straight line across the landscape. There is no correlation between the border and the geography of the land. Its just a line on the map.
Just for grins, I went down to a border town called Naco. The Arizona part of the town is unincorporated and pretty much a cross between a slum and a ghost town. The real town is across the border in Naco, Sonora. I went to the old border crossing and peeked across into Mexico and took some pictures. The Mexican side looked like a pretty cool little town, but I don’t have a passport so I didn’t go over.
The actual border crossing area is kind of interesting, and quite a study in contrasts. Over on the Mexican side, there is a guard post that looks pretty much like a tollbooth, and it looked to be manned by only 1 or 2 border guards. The few cars that I saw cross into Mexico basically just drove across, briefly spoke to the guard, and went on their way.
Coming back the other way into the US is quite another story. There is a multilane “toll plaza” kind of structure, except that there is a series of concrete obstacles that you have to zigzag through in order to proceed. There is a whole army of border guards who are checking each vehicle. There must have been about 20 cars and trucks lined up waiting to get into the US, and it looked like it took about 15-20 minutes to get through the border check.
A little further north, on the highway back up to Tombstone, I ran into a Border Patrol checkpoint. Here they had blocked the highway northbound, and were questioning and checking every vehicle that came through. They just waved me through, so I don’t know what they were looking for, or what would trigger a more thorough questioning.
Heading back north from Naco, the road leads up into the hills, and in a ravine is the town of Bisbee. Also nearby is an open-pit copper mine, much smaller than the one up at Morenci, but of the same type. Bisbee is yet another of the little mining towns that dot the area, but this one actually grew into quite a metropolis. The mines here turned out to be much more productive and long-lasting than the others nearby.
At one time, Bisbee was the largest city (by population) between the West Coast and the Mississippi River. When the mines began to play out, Bisbee became home to an artist community which remains to this day. The town today still occupies the historic buildings in the ravine, but they are now galleries and cafes. This is another one of those places that I’d like come back and visit sometime.
Finally rolled into Tombstone at about 1pm. The highway runs through town on Fremont Street. The old main street of the town, Allen Street, is one block over. They have a 4-block stretch of the street blocked off from traffic, and the whole thing resembles the old west version of the town. Many of the old buildings from the Wyatt Earp era are still standing, or have been rebuilt after the fires which devastated the town in 1881 and 1882. The businesses on Allen Street are mainly tourist shops. There are stagecoach tours and various townspeople dressed up in period costume lend to the atmosphere.
Tombstone today is still a very small town. Tourism is the main industry. Tombstone was saved from becoming a ghost town like so many of its neighbors due to the fact that it was the county seat. And later, when the county seat was moved to Bisbee, tourism related to the OK Corral gunfight kept the town alive.
The OK Corral itself no longer exists, but the gunfight didn’t happen there anyway. The OK Corral faced Allen Street, but the fight started in a vacant lot on Fremont street which was behind the OK Corral on the opposite side of the block. The vacant lot is very small, only 18-feet wide, about the size of a 1-car garage. It is bordered by a house on one side, and by Fry’s photo studio and boarding house–where Doc Holiday and Big Nose Kate lived–on the other.
The fight started in this vacant lot, then spilled out onto Fremont Street. The OK Corral really had nothing to do with it. The fight as shown in the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer is pretty accurate, other than showing the area of the fight as being much bigger than it actually was.
The reenactment of the gunfight takes place in a small outdoor theater which is on the site of the old OK Corral. The reenactment itself was pretty boring for the most part. They attempt to show the causes leading up to the fight, but it isn’t that great. Some of the individual actors were pretty good. The guy who played Doc Holiday did a great job. The play lasts about 15 minutes, with the shootout itself taking about 30 seconds right at the end. Loud, but anti-climactic.
Boot Hill cemetery is about a half-mile away, heading north on the highway out of town. It’s not really on a hill per se. It’s at the same level as the rest of the town, but the whole town is on a little plateau above the rest for of the countryside. The cemetery is right at the edge of the plateau, so its only a “hill” when viewed from outside of town.
The graves of Billy Clanton and the McLaury’s–who were “murdered on the streets of Tombstone” by the Earls and Doc Holiday–are right were they should be. Their markers have been enhanced and preserved but still look like the originals. There are a few other noteworthy graves nearby, some with memorable sayings, but most of the graveyard is full of ordinary town citizens from the 1880’s.
Tucson and the Run Up to Phoenix
After leaving Tombstone, I headed back up to Interstate 10 and tried to make the best time I could to get to Phoenix. I buzzed though Tucson pretty quickly right about sundown, then did the rest of the trip after dark. The first part of the Phoenix metro area that you come to is Chandler, which is where I stopped for the night. Plan for tomorrow is to find a place to get the Vespa fixed.