Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The New Old West

We've been drifting through the Arizona desert for a couple weeks now. It occurred to us the other day that in the desert the past is still very much alive. All we had to do was look. Ghost of otherwise forgotten men still linger in the territorial prison of Yuma, AZ. Though the faces change, the mirror is the same.

After taking the 3:10 out of Yuma, we found water for our 40 horses at the Painted Rocks petroglyphs near Gila Bend, AZ. A few feet before us, out in the middle of nowhere, the sun lay down to rest on a very old pile of rocks. Caved into these old rocks slightly less-old and entirely cryptic symbols squiggled and squirmed and danced away the daylight.

According to the interpretative guide, the symbols of spiraling suns and mystic warriors were long forgotten spells and warnings and maybe even prayers. Whatever they were, they were not ancient graffiti. They were not comparable to the other carvings found on these self-same rocks. Carvings like: "E.K.B. Jan 1882."

Who are we to doubt? So with a gust of wind and a puff of dust, the next morning we drove our 40 horses southward in search of a real cowboy breakfast. Some places that used to be open are no longer, though signs in the window claim they will be among the living again. Someday.

Meanwhile, some places are always open.

Thusly fortified we took to the open road, stopping only to commune with forests of 200 year old giant saguaro cactus.

They didn't have much to say. But we enjoyed their company nonetheless.

Soon enough the loneliness of cactus country gave way to the bustle of mining country, and it wasn't long before our spurs were clacking down Toughnut Street in Tombstone, AZ. We were mean with gold fever and parched for a cool drink. And maybe a trinket.

Or maybe a good old fashioned gun fight.

Even so, we knew our place. We knew that tourists like us would come and go while the long-time citizens of Boot Hill would continue their slumber. We knew that the occasional plane droning along overhead has its place in this not-so-wild-anymore west. And we knew that somewhere nearby Old Glory would always be clinging to a flagpole in Tombstone.

But before we could ride off into the sunset of this perfect cowboy dream, a cowboy town of a different color called to us. Some know it as home to the defunct Lavender open-pit copper mine.

Others know it as home to the weirdest collection of malcontents, hippies, loners, Mexican farm workers, cowboys, artists, entrepreneurs, bike race promoters, and government officials. But all know it as Bisbee, AZ.

It's an "I could live here, no, really, I mean it, I could live here" sort of place. It's a place that welcomes change while resisting it. It's a place where the hotels and bars have been in continuous operation since the 1880s. It's a place where the barflies (who themselves live as though it was the 1880s) will teach the cutest girl in the room how to play "American-style shuffleboard." Mosey on down to Bisbee, step up to the bar, and you too can learn the rules of the game for yourself.

At last our time in the past was drawing to an end. By daybreak it was time to dust off the old map, find the closest highway and drive our 40 horses up to Phoenix--the newest old city on the map, with perfect 12 lane highways, 4 million inhabitants, and a face that looks only to the future.

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