Tombstone: That Town To Tough To Die

Tombstone, AZ

My sister, Melissa, lives in Phoenix, AZ where she is going to law school. Several of our cousins still live in Phoenix, and over the years our father and his cousins have ensured that their children grew up to know each other and how important tour family connections were and have always been. I’ve always appreciated this, though I didn't get to see most of my cousins on this visit.

The first night we made plans to meet my cousin Sheri (who is an amazing makeup artist), but weren’t able to see anyone else this time. Sheri, Melissa, and I went to the Phoenix Art museum to see this amazing exhibit: “You Who are Getting Obliterated in a Dancing Swarm of Fireflies” by Yayoi Kusama (2008)

Since I could take two days off of work for this stretch, Melissa and I decided to make good on the Outlaw opportunity and visit Tombstone, only about two hours south of Phoenix.

I don’t get to see my sister very often, though we usually talk every day. It’s been about seven years since we’ve lived in the same city. We spend our whole time talking and laughing, and she’s very tolerant of my whimsy. We wish our brothers were with us and remember being in Old Tucson as little kids.

As we drive into Tombstone, through little town main streets and next to grassy farmland, we can tell we are in an important and amazing place.

The Tombstone mountains (pictured above) were told to have silver in them. The mountains and town were so named in 1877 by a prospector who lived in Tombstone, then Camp Huachuca— a military scout camp. He searched the hills for silver and was made fun of by the soldiers, who said “The only stone you’ll find there is your tombstone”. When Ed Schifellein found silver, he named his mine Tombstone. It was such a successful operation, the town adopted the name.

Melissa and I walk by the O.K. Corral, and are greeted by gunslingers, wearing six-shooters and cowboy garb, who invite us to shows, but we don’t really know where to start our adventure. We start with a comedy gunfight, which was amusing, but not really what we came to see.

Luckily, on our way back to the front of the town we are stopped by the Wyatt Earp Gang themselves—dandy dressed, cocky and slouched like they stepped out of 1881 to bring the law back to Tombstone.

This is when it got really exciting, because we went into the O.K. Corral, and watched the best gunfight reenactment I’ve ever seen (being New Mexico born and raised, I’ve actually seen quite a few) narrated by everyone’s favorite huckleberry: Doc Holliday.

After that it seemed we’d been transported. Melissa and I walked down the main street and suddenly noticed all the gunslingers armed at their hip. Some of them casually leaning over porch rails or on the horse ties.

We walked to the other end of town looking for the Crystal Palace, the Birdcage Theater, and the other landmarks of the town. The Birdcage Theater is open to tours, but has been nearly untouched from the time of the 1880s. The bar is still in use, a gorgeous wooden shelf made in France and backed with a diamond dust mirror, so expensive it had to be taken by ship and then buggy from France to the Gulf of Mexico and up to Tombstone. The Railroad refused to ship it. The posters from the last performances are still hanging over the doorways, the stairs up to the brothel, boot-worn as ever. The walls are riddled with bullet holes, over 120 in the building.

In 1882 the New York Times reported that "the Bird Cage Theatre is the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” It was closed forever soon after.

After this we decided to hit the other saloon in town, Big Nose Kate’s, a tribute to Doc’s Hungarian girlfriend, a damn good outlaw celebrity herself. I think I’m too at home in saloons, but this saloon in particular was beautiful. Stained glass windows, a long wooden bar. Game tables and a piano stage. Our bartender—straight from 1880—told us stories about how haunted Tombstone is and how he thought Wyatt Earp was an attention hog and the O.K. Corral was a drunken brawl over egos.

The last thing we did before heading back to Phoenix was to visit the Boot Hill cemetery at the edge of the old town.

There was a time when we were younger when my brothers and sister and I would watch obscure Westerns on our kitchen tv set after school. Often we watched without knowing what shows or movies they were, although we could sometimes catch the names of the outlaws or cowboys. It was how we discovered the movie "Young Guns", Clint Eastwood, and a movie we never re-found: a dramatization of the Dalton gang and the Younger brothers, but we often collectively think of when we drive the long New Mexican highways and see rinconada cutouts in the sides of cliffs.

When we were even younger, we watched Westerns at our Grandma’s house. Often alone, but sometimes with our great uncle Matt, who we loved because he screamed along with the gunslinging like some do at a sports game. We weren’t allowed to change the channel when Matt was there, but I don’t recall that we minded. It also seems to have left a lasting impression of horse hooves beating against a recognizable dusty land, law and lawlessness, brilliant sidekicks, and unlikely heroisms. Our favorites were John Wayne and Zorro.

Some parts of Westerns dismayed me, even as a child. I always wanted to see the women be more than distressed damsels and trophies. As a I grew older, I wondered how accurate the Native American history was in the old movies. Turns out—it wasn’t.

Still, my youngest brother grew up wearing a coonskin hat and a buckskin costume daily answering only to ‘Davy’. We played with stick horses and slung guns in the backyard until our throats were raw. We talked about the Wild West at the dinner table, our dad recounting tall tales, and learned about how both of our parents’ families were alive in the Wild West.

On my mother’s side, my grandmother’s Spanish family hailed from Dawson, an old coal mining town, now known for it’s two tragic accidents and eventual forced evacuation. My father’s family on both sides were Lebanese immigrant merchants who settled in Glendale, Arizona and Northern New Mexico (namely Springer, Raton, and Cimarron). The Padilla’s were farmers, in Dawson and then Bernalillo. The David’s and Macaron’s had stores throughout Northern NM. As a young teenager, Lillie David Macaron used to peddle groceries to the Native Americans and settlers who lived in the Cimarron Canyon near the river. We’ve seen the places where the stores were, and heard the years of their operation next to the infamous dates of outlaws and wild west legends. There are a few places we’ve visited which were in operation at the time our ancestors lived in these places and we’ve seen the bullet holes in the bar at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, the old pictures of our grandfather’s store on the Main Street in Springer. The orange groves near the Glendale store our grandmother grew up in disappeared when we were children—long after her store was torn down and became residential space.

Brief histories like this are interesting to me as a concept of time passing and families connecting. My brothers are both married now and their wives surely have stories like this about their families too. This space has changed over time, but it is still the same space. Time fills place with stories and space becomes malleable a fusion of location, emotion, language, and touch, that is not always accessible, but will always have memories.

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