Tombstone, Arizona: The Toughest Town Of The Wild West


Of all the Wild West towns in America, Tombstone, Arizona, stands out as legendary.

Tombstone got its name from a mining claim filed in 1877. Prospector Ed Schieffelin had been told by local soldiers that the southern Arizona hills were crawling with Apaches, scorpions and rattlesnakes and that he’d only find his tombstone there, so he thumbed his nose at their pessimism by naming his claim Tombstone. Schieffelin discovered the area was rich in silver and the dusty hillside soon became a boom town. Within two years Tombstone had a population approaching 1000.

One early resident, Clara Spalding Brown, wrote that Tombstone was, “. . .an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe, scattered over a slope. . .The only attractive places visible are the liquor and gambling saloons, which are everywhere present and are carpeted and comfortably furnished. . .The camp is one of the dirtiest places in the world. . .The sod lies loose upon the surface, and is whirled into the air every day by a wind which almost amounts to a gale; it makes the eyes smart like the cinders from an engine; it penetrates into the houses, and covers everything with dust. . .The mercury gallivants around in the nineties, with altogether too high-minded ideas. . .we cannot obtain desirable food for hot weather; fresh vegetables are scarce, and the few fruits in the markets require a very large purse. . .The camp is considered a remarkably quiet one – only one murder since my arrival.”

That low murder rate was about to go up. Scattered in nearby ranches and villages was a loose-knit group of cattle rustlers dubbed “the Cowboys.” They’d cross the border into Mexico, steal cattle, and sell them cheaply in Tombstone. In most of the West, “cowboy” simply meant a drover from Texas. Now in Southern Arizona the name took on a pejorative meaning, distinct from the respectable “rangemen” or “cattlemen.”

%Gallery-159476%The cowboys engaged in worse crimes too, including stagecoach robberies. They numbered perhaps 200 but were never a rigid organization. They only came into Tombstone to sell their stolen beef and whoop it up in the saloons. The locals generally tolerated them. Their stolen cattle lowered the price of beef and they spent lots of money.

Into this Wild West town strode the Earp brothers. Virgil was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wyatt rode shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches and moonlighted as a gambler. Morgan was also a shotgun messenger and sometimes a special deputy. One-armed Jim tended bar. A fifth brother, Warren, drifted in and out of town.

The Earps were not impressed with the Cowboys. Virgil said, “As soon as they are in funds they ride into town, drink, gamble, and fight. They spend their money as free as water in saloons, dancehouses, or faro banks, and this is one reason they have so many friends in town. All that large class of degraded characters who gather the crumbs of such carouses stand ready to assist them out of any trouble or into any paying rascality.”

The battle lines were soon drawn, with complex political machinations further dividing the boomtown. It all came to a head on October 26, 1881, with the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, joined by Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday, faced off against five Cowboys, killing three.

This only worsened the feud. Cowboys shot and crippled Virgil, and soon killed Morgan. Wyatt Earp launched into what’s known as his Vendetta Ride, hunting down and killing Cowboys. Eventually he left Arizona, but his legend remained.

Today Tombstone is a huge tourist draw and an easy day trip from Tucson. The famous gunfight, which actually happened just outside the corral, is reenacted every day, as you can see in this video. There’s also a cheesy animatronic recreation.

Much of the town’s historic buildings have been restored and you can see the Bird Cage Theatre and its 120+ bullet holes left by rowdy patrons, the Boothill graveyard, and many other fun sights. You need a whole day to see it all. Check out the gallery for some glimpses of a place where the West really was wild.

Tucson’s beloved Grill restaurant closes

Tucson Grill
Today marks my second Thanksgiving outside of the US (in Turkey, ironically) and as nostalgic as I am for Pepperidge Farm stuffing and canned cranberry sauce, this week I am missing another important piece of my past: the Grill restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. A landmark of downtown Tucson for decades, Grill (true regulars know to leave off the “the”) shut its doors this week, leaving many current and former Tucsonans distraught and de-caffeinated. Open 24 hours, serving breakfast “until tomorrow,” Grill’s menu offered the helpful tip: “when dining out, insist on food.” If you were to walk by it, you may be forgiven in thinking it was just a diner, but it was much more than that.

Grill was first opened in its current iteration in 1994 by James Graham, a classically-trained chef who made it an amalgamation of a traditional New York diner fare and more haute cuisine. In addition to burgers and fries, an impossible-to-finish short stack of pancakes, and steak and eggs, you’d find surprises on the menu. Toasted and fried “Spanish ravioli” (mysteriously called “depth bombs”). A salad with hearts of palm and fresh mozzarella. Even a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Some of those old favorites were left off the menu when James sold it in 1999 and moved to L.A., but his original rules remained in effect: tater tots only available late night and never with cheese. No ranch dressing. Always tip your waiter (that’s just polite).

Beyond the food and coffee, Grill was a haven for many people, with a constant rotation of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Many of Tucson’s eccentrics, artists, and just plain weirdos called it home; it was a hipster hangout before hipsters existed. I spent much of my adolescence in one of the red booths, drinking coffee, smoking illicit cigarettes, doing crossword puzzles, crying over boyfriends, and occasionally studying. Even my father, a downtown-based criminal defense attorney, was a regular for lunch and we’d occasionally cross paths, each slightly embarrassed to see the other in such a sacred space. Bringing a new boyfriend to Grill was in important test: if you didn’t respect and appreciate Grill, it was a personal affront. When I moved to New York in 1998, I had a special named after me: the Meg Lamb Memorial “You’re Gonna Make it After All” Knish Dish.

Grill changed a bit over the nearly 15 years since I left Arizona. The adjoining Red Room was a lounge space in my day, with a much-used photo booth, an assortment of motley board games, and some antique couches where my high school poetry club used to meet monthly. For the past several years, Red Room was a bar and music space separate from Grill. In my last visit in 2007, it didn’t feel quite the same, but the spirit remained the same: an oasis in Tucson’s occasionally desolate downtown, “open later than you think.”

If you go to Tucson now, you can still find a few spots for late-coffee and eats. The perennial goth favorite, Cafe Quebec, is now the worker-owned cooperative Shot in the Dark Cafe. The bikers hanging out at Safehouse are friendlier than they appear. The Hotel Congress is home to the Cup Cafe, in addition to one of Tucson’s best nightlife scenes. Later this year, James Graham will open a new restaurant in Los Angeles: Ba Restaurant in Highland Park, serving French provincial classics, a major departure from diner fare. A growing Facebook group is trying to inspire a new Grill to rise from the ashes. One question remains: how does the next door Wig-O-Rama stay recession-proof?!

Thanks for the memories Grill!

Photo courtesy James Graham, circa 1994.

Five great places to see Native American rock art

Native American, native american, petroglyph, new mexico, petroglyphs
I often hear people saying the U.S. has a short history. Actually it’s as ancient as anywhere else. Before the Europeans took over this land there were hundreds of Native American cultures living here. Some have survived; others have disappeared. One of the most evocative reminders of their civilizations is the rock art of the American Southwest. Here are five good places to see some.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The stunning landscape of this park is the main draw, but hidden amidst the colorful mesas and canyons are numerous petroglyphs (carving in rock) and pictograms (paintings on rock). The best are in Horseshoe Canyon, where a large panel of ghostly painted figures have been variously interpreted as gods, ancestors or, by the scientifically challenged, aliens. They date to as far back as 2000 BC.

Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
One of the best sites for petroglyphs in all the Southwest is billed as the “world’s longest art gallery”. With about 10,000 images ranging in date from 950 AD to the 1800s, it is the biggest concentration of rock art ever found in the U.S. The remains of the homes of the Fremont people are clearly visible when hiking the canyon. The images include bison being stuck with spears, strange horned figures that may be shamen, and men on horseback dating to the historic period.

Saguaro National Park West, Arizona
The rock art here isn’t as grand as the other places on the list, but it’s far more accessible. Just a short drive from Tucson and only two hours from Phoenix, the park takes its name from the forest of giant saguaro cacti that grow here. There are two parks–one to the west and one to the east of town–and the one to the west has a rocky hill covered in carvings made by the Hohokam people. The most unusual is a strange spiral that may have been an early calendar. The Hohokam built large towns and extensive canal systems in southern Arizona until about 1450 AD. In fact, the modern cities of Phoenix and Tucson were founded by the Hohokam!

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Petroglyph National Monument
Another easily accessible location, this national monument is right on the western edge of Albuquerque. You can see just how close from the above photo, courtesy Daniel Schwen. There are about 24,000 images here, mostly from prehistoric Pueblo peoples starting about 500 AD but also some made by Spanish settlers who saw all the pictures on the rocks and decided to add their own. Some are even the cattle brands of the early ranchers.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
We’ve talked about this amazing set of cliff dwellings before. Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, prehistoric peoples built extensive villages here in the shadows of towering cliffs until their mysterious disappearance in the 14th century. As you wander the trails you’ll see petroglyphs of animals and people scattered about the rocks. If you have kids, playing “spot the picture” can be a fun way to keep them entertained. The jaw-dropping scenery will probably do that anyway. Note that the interpretive center is closed for remodeling until May 2011.

While desert scenes aren’t exactly the first thing you think of during the Christmas season, winter is a good time to explore these sites. The scorching sun takes a vacation, and in the higher altitude the desert can be downright cold!

Congresswoman wants to expand nation’s oldest archaeological preserve

On Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix is one of America’s most enduring ancient mysteries–a giant adobe structure called Casa Grande. It was erected by the Hohokam, a people who built towns where Tucson and Phoenix are today and who turned the desert green with an extensive system of irrigation. Ironically, the modern city of Phoenix was founded by American settlers who cleared out the prehistoric Hohokam canals and reused them for their own farms.

Casa Grande was a settlement between these two centers of population and was at its height 150 years before Columbus “discovered” America. At its center was a four-story building unlike anything else in the prehistoric southwest. Nobody knows for sure why the Hohokam civilization died out shortly thereafter, and nobody knows the purpose of Casa Grande. The late archaeoastronomer Dr. Ray White believed that Casa Grande’s windows were a prehistoric observatory that marked important times in the calendar such as the solstice and the equinox.

This mysterious building became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892 and a national monument in 1918. Archaeologists have since realized the monument doesn’t protect many outlying areas of the site, and now Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Dem-1st District) has proposed House Resolution 5110 to protect 415 more acres. The move has the support of local archaeologists as well as the influential newspaper The Arizona Republic. The expansion was initially proposed by Kirkpatrick’s Republican predecessor Rep. Rick Renzi.

It’s a gutsy move at a time of belt tightening and threatened park closures, so it will be interesting to see if a destination on the itinerary of so many southwestern road trips will get the funds to expand its boundaries.

Death of a dive bar: Mike’s Place in Tucson, Arizona

Your first dive bar is like your first love; you never forget it.

When I started college at the University of Arizona in Tucson back in 1989 I discovered Mike’s Place near the corner of Park and University next to campus. It didn’t look like much with its grotty interior, the smell of hot grease wafting from the kitchen, and mix of locals and students. But it did have two things going for it–the bartenders didn’t card much and there was a spacious patio where you could watch the sunset over the Tucson Mountains.

I spent a lot of time on that patio. The Cliffhangers, the U of A rock climbing club of which I was a member, gathered there at least once a week. We’d drink pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon or, if we were feeling flush, Sam Adams, and plan our next expedition.

The food wasn’t too bad if you were an undiscerning 19 year-old with no ability to cook for yourself. I usually ordered the hot wings. The owners claimed they made the hottest in town and while that’s debatable they certainly had some fire in them. My friend Chainsaw worked there and I once challenged him to cook me up a dozen wings I couldn’t eat. To this day I don’t know what the hell he put in them. He hurt me, but I won.

Then there were the nickel beers with Sunday breakfast, the slop bucket of extra PBR that turned Chainsaw off of drinking forever, and the guy who threatened to kill me with a nonexistent gun. Good times! Good times!It’s the patio and people I remember most. Fresh-faced college kids who couldn’t handle their beer got leered at by middle-aged drunks, while bikers guzzled gallons and kept to themselves. And in the midst of it all sat the Cliffhangers, partying late into the warm desert night but always getting up at dawn on Saturday to go climbing on Mt. Lemmon.

Mike’s Place has been gone for years. In the name of “development” the university built a parking garage next to it and a Marriott soon opened up. These blocked the view of the sunset and killed the main reason people gathered there. The bar shut its doors shortly after that.

The corner of Park and University looks different now. All the old places are gone and the buildings have been torn down and replaced with modern, clean, strip-mall suburbia. What used to be a tattered but living neighborhood now looks like just about everywhere else.

Mike’s Place lives on, though. It gave me an appreciation for a great human institution. I’ve been to many dive bars since, and have found that every culture has its equivalent. The chicharias of Peru, the backroom bars of Syria, the men-only drinking dens of India, all have something in common. They’re rough and poorly kept, places that look like nobody gives a damn about them but are truly loved by the regulars. Learning to appreciate dive bars gives you an unexpected passport to the world. Most tourists won’t go drinking in some dirty boozer where nobody speaks English but if you walk inside, grab a beer, and don’t look too closely at the food, people will recognize you for someone who enjoys the good things in life.

So thanks, Mike’s Place. All those sunsets and hot wings and drunken conversations actually helped me become a world traveler. Strange how things work out. Next month I’m off to Addis Ababa and I’ll be trying some of the local tej bet, the Ethiopian equivalent of Mike’s Place. No doubt I’ll get that old feeling of familiarity I’ve experienced in so many other dives. I wonder if I’ll find Chainsaw behind the counter cooking me up some hot wings?