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.

Video: animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

I’ve been in a Wild West mood lately. I used to live in Tucson, Arizona, and loved the tales of gunfights, gold strikes, and crooked gamblers. I’ve been rediscovering some of that lately and my thoughts turned to Tombstone, the West’s quintessential tough town. It was here that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the notorious Cowboys and shot them to pieces just outside the OK Corral.

“Cowboy” was a derogative term in that time and place, reserved for rustlers, brawlers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Honest people who handled cattle were called cattlemen, range men, or by the Spanish term vaqueros. Most were Mexican or black, a fact Hollywood has seen fit to forget. The Cowboy gang that operated near Tombstone loved to steal cattle, shoot up saloons, and do all that other stuff from which legends are made. Americans love their bad guys.

They love cheesy tourist attractions too. I mean, how couldn’t you love an animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral? It takes place all day, every day in Tombstone. I challenge you to watch this video without smiling. Yes, it’s hokey, yes, it a bit embarrassing, but damn is it entertaining! A much less hokey live show is performed in Tombstone every day of the week at 2pm.

Want more Arizona cheesiness? Have you seen… The Thing?

A real-life cattle drive: adventure travel in Montana

Cattle drives call to mind old western films, full of six-shooters and women in hoop skirts who faint delicately at the sight of blood. Most of all, they conjure images of cowboys – complete with hats, belt buckles and worn-in, dusty boots and spurs.

Once a main method of transporting herds to stockyards and markets, cattle drives had their heyday between 1865 and 1895, when more than 10 million cattle were herded between Texas and Kansas for delivery to Chicago and other major cities.

Despite the advent of motorized transportation, ranchers today still use the same basic principles to round up, herd and sort cattle as their cowboy predecessors did more than 100 years ago.

While visiting The Resort at Paws Up, I had the chance to participate in a drive, learning the basics of herding and driving cattle from Mike Doud (pictured at right), a rancher and true cowboy with more than three decades of experience. Before joining the Paws Up team, Mike owned his own ranch and regularly spent days or weeks in the saddle, herding his teams of cattle across thousands of acres.

Mike and his cowboy cohort Max, along with their two dogs, regularly lead guests on sample drives to showcase one of the West’s most iconic activities. While a real “drive” might begin at 3 or 3:30 AM in deference to the extreme summer heat, we began at the more leisurely hour of 9, first learning the basic principles of riding and what to expect from our horses and the cows we’d find. Our crew of six, plus Mike, included two experienced riders and four “newbies,” all of whom were eager to learn the ropes.
%Gallery-129848%Like most western-style riding, the horses were highly-trained and responded to neck reining cues – leaving a cowboy’s other hand free to move as necessary. We learned the basic principals of moving cattle – driving them from behind. Cows are pack animals and see both the horses and dogs as dominant, so they take a prey stance and move away from pressure from behind. The goal? To get our cows to “string out” and be “pulled” of their own momentum – when riding from behind in a fan or U-shape, we would (in theory) be able to get the herd to follow a pack mentality, simply exerting pressure on one side or another by turning our horses to form a barrier.

Movies often show cowboys galloping hell-bent for leather across open fields, cattle strung behind and in front of them, racing as if their lives depended on it. In reality, Mike explained, a cattle drive is a slow, leisurely process, most often experienced at a walk or “long trot.” The idea is to move the cattle at their natural pace so as not to “take pounds off,” as steers and beef cattle were priced by weight. Running the cattle would result in thinner, less profitable sales.

Drives could take place for a variety of reasons – to move cows to market, rounding them to separate a neighbor’s cows from your own, branding or vetting, or moving cattle from one pasture to another. Cattle typically graze across many acres of land, and while these animals often stick to groups, they don’t remain in tight pack. Ranches may range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of acres, with a variety of terrain surroundings, including brush, trees, and large hills.

Most cowboys employ highly-trained dogs to assist in herding. These nimble, agile creatures are voice-command trained and can dodge in and out of herds with ease, nipping flanks and ankles as necessary to get the cattle to move at a certain speed or in a certain direction.

Mike’s dog, Sis, was the eighth in a long line, he explained. We quickly learned that we were superfluous – Mike, his horse, and Sis could easily have handled the 35 or so head of cattle we were tasked with rounding, driving to a pen a few miles away, sorting, and putting the cattle back in their home pasture.

The eight-year-old dog was the star of the show, responding to commands that showed a human-like level of understanding to “get one,” “get two” or “get ’em all,” to “slow,” “round up,” or “go sit on that rock.” If Sis had opposable thumbs, I don’t doubt she could have done my job as a writer. (We learned later that Mike and Sis could have handled this job with three times as many cattle by themselves… we were merely observers.)

The horses aided in the drive as well, often getting right up behind recalcitrant steers and “encouraging” movement with a little nip on the rear.

When we eventually got the cattle to a pen (two hour later) we learned the art of cutting in and sorting out specific steer or heifer, using the same basic principals employed while driving en masse.

Four hours later, we dismounted, sweaty and saddle sore, but victorious. We’d moved cattle. Like any true cowboy, Mike tipped his hat and shook hands before walking off to care for his horses, leaving us with a newfound respect for the adventures of the (semi-wild) West.

And of course, for your viewing pleasure – don’t miss one of our favorite cowboy songs below:

This writer’s visit was sponsored by The Resort at Paws Up, but her opinions are solely her own.

Photo of the Day (4.25.2010)

I found myself laughing out loud when I saw Flickr user VickiR1952’s photo on our Gadling Flickr page today. Where do I even start? The amazing beard on the cowboy, the horse’s expression, the pose…it’s all perfect. These two look like they could be long-lost cousins. It’s an image oozing with personality and charm.

Taken any cowboy photos of your own? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Four New Mexico gems worth visiting

New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” This beautiful state is a popular tourist destination, no doubt, but there are plenty of amazing gems hidden in New Mexico’s dusty desert corners that are well worth checking out. Most visitors here come to Santa Fe for great shopping and Southwest style or head to Taos to visit one of the nation’s oldest Native American pueblos or go skiing. But the central and southern parts of the state have some amazing places worth more than just a glance in a guidebook. Here are four amazing lesser-known sights in New Mexico that are worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument
Ever heard of the alien-like white gypsum dune fields at White Sands? Few people have. But it is one of the most fantastic, unusual places to visit on earth. 275 square miles of snow white desert dunes spread across this part of Central New Mexico in a beautiful and positively lunar landscape. A circular drive takes visitors through the most accessible parts of the monument, or you can park your car and take a short (or long) hike through the more remote dunes. A fun way to enjoy the beauty of White Sands is by sledding down one of the dunes, which with their snow-like glow, will really make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.

White Sands National Monument is located along U.S. Highway 70 east of Las Cruces. A visitor center greets cars here and sells maps, sleds and books. Entrance fees are $3 per person.
Gila National Forest and Wilderness
Pronounced ‘hee-la’, the Gila National Forest is named for the tributary river of the Colorado River (think Grand Canyon) that flows through the area. Within the sprawling borders of this 3.3 million acre protected area in Western New Mexico, you’ll find everything from dense alpine forest to bubbling hot springs.

The Gila Wilderness was once home to ancient Native American cultures, such as the Mogollon and Apache tribes. The tribes left the remains of their settlements in cave dwellings, carved into the sides of desert mountains, and fantastic petroglyphs, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of ancient people. Exploring the Catwalk Recreation Trail, you’ll maneuver along a series of elevated platforms once used by area miners, providing great views of narrow canyons and local wildlife.

The Gila National Forest and Wilderness is accessible from a number of entrance areas, depending on which activity you’re interested in. Camping can be done throughout the park, while the cliff dwellings, as well as a series of hot springs, are located in the southern part of the forest near Silver City, NM. The Catwalk Trail is closest to the town of Glenwood on NM 174. Entrance fees vary.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve
Unless you are a bird fanatic, you probably haven’t heard Bosque del Apache, a unique stretch of wetlands that sprawls through the central portion of New Mexico. The term ‘Bosque del Apache’ is Spanish for ‘Apache woodlands’, dating to a time early in New Mexico’s history when Spanish conquerors noticed that local Apache tribes often camped along the lush shores of this watery area. Today, the Bosque (‘bos-kay’), as it is known to locals, is a major migratory stopping point, where thousands of species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes, stop during their annual flights north and south.

A driving loop ($5/vehicle) takes visitors on a one-hour scenic tour of the Bosque, where you can stop to take in the spectacular views of flora and fauna reflected in the Bosque’s serene waters. Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars.

Billy the Kid’s Grave
Billy the Kid, one of the most infamous gunslingers of the Old West, is buried in the tiny town of Fort Sumner in the eastern part of New Mexico. Billy the Kid spent most of his short young life riding through New Mexico with a band of outlaws known as The Regulators. He participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was arrested for murder and broke out of jail several times. Eventually, he was gunned down by local lawman Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner and laid to rest here. The Kid’s headstone has been the object of much speculation and thievery, and was stolen a number of times before finally being caged in over its current spot in Fort Sumner, on top of the Kid’s remains.

It is free to visit Billy the Kid’s grave, which makes for an easy stop when driving through Fort Sumner on NM 60/84. Don’t be fooled by the rather tawdry Billy the Kid Museum located along the main road, which charges an entrance fee to view photographs and a replica grave. Instead, just east of town, follow Billy the Kid Rd. south for about 5 miles until you see the Old Fort Sumner Museum. The tombstone is located in the graveyard behind the museum and is accessible for free.