OLD TUSCON & TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA
Updated: Aug 16
To arrive in Tucson had gives you a special thrill of arriving somewhere special. We are in true cowboy country and over next few months we plan to explore as many of the treasures and natural wonders of the Wild West as possible before heading for the beaches of Southern California, the forests of Oregon and the desert wonders of Nevada and Utah.
However, in truth Downtown Tucson could hardly be described as exciting and there is not much to see although a trip down 4th Avenue is a refreshing walk down a latter-day Hippy Trail of the Sixties, where psychedelia and jossticks still bombard the senses and evoke fond memories of flares, paisley and funny cigarettes.
Arizona is large, a glorious desert scene set against a backdrop of incredible mountains. But the defining icon of this state is undeniably the tall, noble Saguaro cactus. The moment you cross the state line from New Mexico, you are greeted by these magnificent living statues, that can stand 40ft tall and enjoy 200 years of sentry duty in this part of the Sonoran Desert. They guard the landscape, arms outstretched, like a static army. The Tohono O'Odham, a local American Indian tribe, rather than deifying these totems, included them into their community as a different type of humanity.
To stand amongst them, as they stake their claim to the territory right up to the peaked ridges of the surrounding hills, is truly exhilarating and humbling. It brings all those cowboy film memories back to life in full color.
So a visit to Tombstone, a small town some 65 miles south-east of Tucson, nearly on the Mexican border, is a tourist must-do. Of course it is a tourist trap but strolling the reconstructed streets makes a thoroughly enjoyable day out. There’s a cast of gun-toting cowboys on hand who, when not firing their Colt 45s at one another in mock shootouts, help you find your way round while staying in perfect character.
Allen Street, Tombstone
Sandie and a plumed admirer
This was a silver boomtown in the late 1800s. Its population grew from 100 when it was founded in 1879 to 14,000 in less than seven years. By that time, local mines were producing over $50 million in silver bullion. So the town was where the 'just struck it rich' settlers came to separate themselves from their new-found wealth. And there were plenty of people to help in the task. The main street is Allen Street, today a four-block restored replica of what it all looked like when you would 'mosey' into town on your exhausted horse. At its peak, there were 110 bars, 14 gambling halls and countless good-time girls working quickly and effectively out of tiny bordello cubicles upstairs. We particularly enjoyed our trip around the fabulous Bird Cage Theatre, which between 1881 and 1894 comfortably doubled up as both a Victorian music hall as well as a gambling den and brothel.
The Bird Cage Auditorium
It is claimed that the longest poker game in history took place here in the basement of the theater. The six players, including Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday allegedly played for 8 years, turning over $10 million (and the 'house' took 10%). Well, as we say in newspapers, "never let the truth get in the way of a good story". The theater has been turned into a genuinely interesting museum, recreating and re-enacting the whole poorly-lit atmosphere that enticed so many 'clients' in those crazy days. We were surprised to see backstage a picture of Lillie Langtry, the very beautiful British American socialite who for three years between 1877 and 1880 shocked society by becoming the notorious mistress of Prince 'Bertie', later King Edward VII of England. She performed on the stage of the Bird Cage, to a somewhat different audience from the ones she received at Buckingham Palace. Oh, and she loved horse racing. That girl had it all.
Another 'popular' lady well worth a mention was known upstairs as Sadie Jo, real name Josephine Sarah Marcus, born in New York in 1860 into a middle class Prussian Jewish family. When she was in her mid-teens they all moved to San Francisco. She ran away from home at 14 and eventually, after a time as a ‘working girl’ in Prestcott, Arizona, found her way to bustling Tombstone, a rebel without a cause but with a desirable talent. It was while working here that she met Marshall Wyatt Earp. What started off as a horizontal business arrangement went from sharing to pairing when she became his common-law wife in 1884 and stayed loyally by his side for over 45 years until his death back in San Francisco in 1929. There's a movie here somewhere.
Sadie Jo's 'License to Thrill'
Sadie Jo's cubicle
Form a cue
Fifteen miles to the west of Tucson is another cowboy mecca, Old Tucson. This is a living, breathing outdoor film studio village in the Saguaro National Park where numerous TV westerns (including Wagon Train, High Chaparral, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie) and countless movies (like Rio Bravo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, even A Star Is Born and Mark of Zorro) have been made over the years and continue to be made. The list of famous actors reads like a cowboy roll of honor - John Wayne, Gene Autry, William Holden, James Stewart, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitcham).
As you wander through the streets, each turn takes you into another scene while the inevitable shoot-outs are regularly acted out for the visitors. Much of American history is recorded by Hollywood and, as such, the rewrites turn myths into facts as the gullible tourists' appetite for a good story is insatiable.
A sign of reality after days of fiction was when we were stopped by Border Control just outside Tombstone which is a few miles from the border. This is still, in places, the Wild West. Nothing changes.