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Old West Stays Vibrant
In the Arizona Desert, an Eccentric Town Moves Forward While Preserving its Colorful Past

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Students of that classic desert feud, Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote, have long pondered where in the Wild West Coyote procured all the oddball products he used in schemes to ensnare the mercurial bird.

A partial list: Batman outfit, earthquake pills, female roadrunner costume, invisible paint, jet-propelled unicycle, bumblebees and high-speed tonic. (All of that, of course, before the advent of Wal-Mart.)

The answer may be the eclectic town of Bisbee, Ariz., a picturesque collection of artists, shopkeepers and vagrants in the high desert nine miles north of the Mexican border. Bisbee's merchants hawk all sorts of curios, from life-size, wire-frame donkeys and antique pinup calendars to bohemian glassware and killer-bee honey. You never know what you'll find in Bisbee, although it almost certainly won't be what you came for.

"No last name," the vendor tells me. "Just 'Joseph the coffee guy.' I used to be Joseph the candle guy. Before that I was Joseph the naked bartender." He is selling bags of roasted coffee beans among a handful of craft and food stands in a long, narrow courtyard in Bisbee.

I came to southern Arizona looking for an older West, one that has managed, by luck or design, to preserve some of its past without becoming either museum or amusement park. Anti-examples abound: Phoenix long ago surrendered to generica, with strip malls and gated communities splaying endlessly outward from a nucleus of skyscrapers. Tombstone, the site of the shootout at the OK Corral, over-hyped its history; it now has a Disney slime, dominated by schlock souvenirs and reenactments. Bisbee has moseyed into the 21st century without shedding its history or selling out. Like the best of the Old West, Bisbee was a center of commerce, debauchery and colorful characters, claiming distinctions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as home of the second most productive copper mine in the United States and one of the West's rowdier party towns.

"This was the biggest city on the train route from El Paso to San Francisco," Michael London says as we walk the hilly streets. London, an archivist, leads public tours dressed in period Western garb, which he insists is also his non-working wardrobe.

Facts tumble off his tongue: The miners came after the Civil War seeking gold but found a heck of a lot more copper. The town was incorporated in 1880, named for DeWitt Bisbee, a San Francisco judge who financed the mine's first smelter. By World War I Bisbee was selling tons of copper to the U.S. government for use as bullet casings.

At its peak Bisbee registered north of 100 liquor licenses and close to 30,000 residents. Given the town's isolation in the Mule Mountains (at 5,300 feet and 30 miles from the nearest sizable settlement), the booze and brothels were predictable.

"All the miners wanted to do was drink and drill and fight in between," London says. "So the Phelps Dodge Mining Company" -- which owned the copper mine -- "built churches, of all denominations, so these guys would have something else to do." Phelps Dodge also brought in fraternal organizations and the YMCA, and built a world-class library. "They were very Presbyterian," London explains. "They wanted the men to marry and have family activities."

They may have partially succeeded, but then the eccentrics found Bisbee.

"Bisbee attracts a certain kind of person," says Gayla Dickson, who runs Gloria's Jewelry and Gemstones and has perhaps the best turquoise collection on Main Street. "Done with civilization, done with malls and theaters, and a real 'live and let live' attitude. If you can't do that, you can't live here. We have a huge gay, lesbian and transsexual community." As if on cue, a person of indeterminate gender breezes in and asks Gayla to put a World AIDS Day flier in the window.

Bisbee's umbilical to the past, the Queen Mine, remains semi-active (the gaping terraced mine pit sits across the road from historic Bisbee), and many of the old miners' descendants still live here.

Merchants ride the seam between past and present, knowing that tourists come here for something different: The killer-bee honey (highly recommendable) is sold from what claims to be the third-smallest shop in the United States; the most popular bar in town was Arizona's first stock exchange, opened in 1916 by E.F. Hutton, and the old trading board still occupies an entire wall; an antiques store on Main Street started as a livery stable, with a horse elevator and second-floor stalls, which remain; the High Desert Cafe, a restaurant/juice bar/coffee shop/gourmet market, also sells locally hand-sewn hats and kitchen linens imported from Italy.

And what of naked bartending? A one-time gig, says Coffee Guy. "A friend asked me to watch the bar while she danced with her husband," he explains. "She kept saying, 'Just a few more minutes!' Finally I said, 'If I'm still behind this bar at midnight, I'll be naked!' " The incident, apparently, elevated his popularity in town.

Seeking to connect with Bisbee's more licentious past, I post up at the bar of the Copper Queen Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Arizona (since 1902).

The saloon is warm and lowly lit, with tasteful Old West appointments and a sturdy pine bar. Jake Wise, a state fiddle champion and guitar player, is ripping through a solo while patrons sip wine, cocktails and microbrews on barstools and comfy chairs.

An old hippie in a denim jacket and rainbow knit hat dances jerkily a few feet away.

"Some people here are trying to get rid of people like that," says Bonnie Marsh, a retiree from Pennsylvania. "They want Bisbee to be cleaner, more upscale." My mind wanders to a future Bisbee where wealthy escapist travelers come from all over to gawk at wealthy escapist locals.

I decamp to Tucson, through grasslands beneath the Santa Rita Mountains and over the Empire Mountains. Tucson is no small town: There's traffic, an interstate tracing the city's western edge and dreary strip malls on the outskirts.

But substantial pockets of the Old West are alive in Tucson, from the adobe architecture of the historic Presidio neighborhood to the nearby Hotel Congress, where phone calls are still routed through a 1920s switchboard and one of the world's best margaritas is routed through the lobby bar.

I turn off a busy boulevard into what appears to be a quiet residential neighborhood -- which it is, except for the presence of the Arizona Inn, a desert-pink compound that feels more country club than hotel. The 95 casita-style rooms are scattered across the 14-acre property, flanking courtyards, dining areas, tennis courts and an outdoor heated pool.

Wending along a brick path to my room, past tightly manicured gardens, I regret my off-site dinner plans with friends. This place makes you want to hang out.

On my way to the bar for a quick drink, I get sidetracked: Just past a grand-chandeliered banquet room is the library, one of the most opulent rooms I've ever seen.

Stuffed chairs ride on Oriental and Southwestern-print rugs beneath exposed A-frame beams. A fire roars in the hearth, enriching the glow of the teak floor. There are antique plates, paintings, furnishings and more from the private collection of Isabella Greenway, Arizona's first female governor, who founded the inn in 1932.

In the morning I drive west, bisecting fields of giant saguaro cactuses, most standing 40 feet tall, some higher. (The tallest recorded saguaro is 78 feet tall.) Given their optimal life span of 200 years, it's possible that some of Arizona's saguaros began life when Thomas Jefferson was president.

The road squeezes through a rocky notch at the summit of Gates Pass and drops into classic Sonoran desert -- a great place, apparently, for a museum.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is more zoo than anything else. Before even paying the entrance fee, I encounter a docent holding a live screech owl and reciting screech owl facts (eats mice, sleeps by day, enjoys classic literature). On the other side of the gate, another docent holds a live gopher snake (likes to slither, hide and bite irreverent journalists).

The zooseum, the vast majority of which is outdoors, includes two miles of paths meandering through 21 acres. Amid splendid scenery -- and behind curiously low barriers -- are 300 animal species, including mountain lion, Mexican wolf, gray fox, bobcat, ocelot and javelina (wild pig).

So authentic is the layout that I find myself feverishly snapping photos of the animals, something I've never thought to do in a zoo.

To appreciate this place would take all day, which I don't have. But before bolting I happen to spot our old friends, coyote and roadrunner, alive and well, and still eyeing each other warily in the blazing desert sun.

John Briley last wrote for Travel about playing golf in Death Valley.

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