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When people who have never been to Arizona think of it, I imagine they picture one of three things:

1: The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon: photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

2: Our many, many headlines, especially in recent years, of Arizona’s conservative political landscape. There were too many image possibilities for this one, really, so I’ll let your imagination wander. 

3: Cowboys! 

Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division, Phoenix, # 95-3496.



True story: when I was a kid, my best friend went to sleepaway camp in North Carolina. They asked her if we rode horses to school. 

After all, Arizona was part of the Wild West. Sometimes, I think that hasn’t changed much, but that’s for another post. Arizona was part of that new frontier, and although its territory is one of the oldest continuously settled in the US, it only became a state on Valentine’s Day of 1912. But before that–before the papers were signed, before borders were drawn up, the Arizona territory was a good place to mine, to have a shoot out and to make a new life. 

The state that had fewer than 7,000 people in it in 1860 now is home to more than 6 million people. There are a few places you can go, though, to experience what Arizona once was during its gunslinging days. By no means can these places truly recreate the Old West, but some of them surely try. 

One of these places is Tombstone, Arizona, known as the Town Too Tough To Die. Unlike other spots, like Old Tucson Studios, where classic westerns like Gunfight at the OK Corral and The Outlaw Josey Wales were filmed, Tombstone is an entire town whose economy seems entirely dependent on the stereotypes of the Old West. Famous for the shootout at the OK Corral, and home to some of the best shots in America, Tombstone was our destination on a recent breezy Saturday afternoon.


Sometimes the best trips are the ones unplanned. The first time I found this to be true was during college, when some friends from the dorm were planning on driving up to Phoenix for a Cake concert. Cake! One of my favorite bands ever. Gogol Bordello AND Tegan & Sara were opening for them! But when the idea to go (the night before we’d leave) was pitched to me, my first instinct was to be reluctant. We haven’t planned it out was the first thought that popped into my head. But I was persuaded, we went, it turned out to be still one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. The lesson I learned that weekend was this: it’s really rewarding to just go with the flow and see where it takes you sometimes!

So the other night, when a friend in town for the weekend mentioned he was going to Tombstone, my interest was piqued. Soon we found ourselves turning onto AZ 80 East off of I-10 and I couldn’t believe we were so close to Tucson but in such a different landscape.

First of all, the farther we went, the more green there was! Not just cacti, but trees! Farms started cropping up. Goats and horses peppered some of the passing land. We sang in the car, harmonizing until we hit Tombstone.

Just as you reach the city limits, on the left hand side is a huge sign for Boothill Graveyard, a burial plot laid out in 1878 and used until about 1884. Thanks to residents devoted to preserving Tombstone’s history, much research and restoration has been done to preserve the cemetery, where many famous (and infamous) folk were buried in the years of Tombstone’s mining boom days.

With a $3 donation, you can get a plot guide! Worth reading just for the descriptions…

Many people were laid to rest on that hill, like May Doody, who died of diptheria; George Johnson was hanged by mistake; 3-Fingered Jack Dunlap was shot by Jeff Milton; Chink Smiley, shot. Some of the more famous burials in this graveyard are Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury & Frank McLaury, the three men killed by the Earps and Doc Holliday in 1881 at the OK Corral.

The headstones of the three men killed at the shoot out at OK Corral

Weiners Anton, died 1882. 

Folks took their poker pretty seriously!
Not sure which is worse here. That his nickname was “Chink Smiley,” or that in the background it just says, “Two Chinese” on the headstone. 

The most memorable, though, was the following:

Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a .44. No Les no more. 

Main lessons learned from our visit to the cemetery, though? People were called weird stuff back in the day, (although I suppose Apple and Blue Ivy would disagree that it is any different now) and people died pretty awful deaths in the Old West. Lots of skull crushing via wagon wheels and getting shot for dumb reasons and sometimes even accidental hangings.

Tombstone’s population today is around 1,500 and it seems like 60% of them are in the cowboy or saloon girl business. Walking down the main street over wooden planking and under old-timey awnings, we spotted dozens of cowpokes dressed up in 19th century Western wear. To advertise a gun fight, one took place in the street.

Further down the drag we passed the Bird Cage Theatre, which claims to be the most haunted building in America. How many buildings in the country claim that I don’t know, but you may have figured out
from this and this that I am kind of a fan of the macabre: ghost stories, in particular. Would that we could have stayed for a ghost tour!

The outside of the “most haunted building in America.”

The inside of the “most haunted building in America.”

We did stay for a re-enactment of the shootout at the OK Corral, though. Contrary to popular belief, the fight didn’t take place at the Corral, but a little west of it. My favorite part of the re-enactment was the costumes. Why don’t men wear dusters anymore? Can someone please bring this back? Overall, the re-enactment was a bit disappointing; the dialogue was pretty cheesy and dragged on a bit until the last 2 minutes, when the actual confrontation took place. The actor who portrayed Doc Holliday was my favorite, though. He seemed like he came right from the era.

The Earps searching for their targets. 
Doc Holliday giving his monologue.

The final confrontation.

On our way out, we asked the cashier where the best place for a sarsaparilla would be. (PS, who the heck knew it was spelled that way!?) We headed over to Crystal Palace Saloon, where I was sure to ask the bartender about any possible ghost stories. He assured us that he was not a believer “in that stuff” until he began working there; the giant roulette table would move on its own, he claimed, and another bartender met
a ghost in the men’s bathroom once.

I left Tombstone with two nagging questions:

  1. Did Arizonans have Southern accents back then? The actors in the shoot out all seemed to, but Arizonans actually don’t have a regionalized accent…
  2. What would Tombstone be like if it didn’t have to rely on tourism? Would it have survived?
Despite the cheesiness of the show, and the anachronistic dress of the inhabitants, I really enjoyed our jaunt. I wish I had time to go to a few places more before I leave long-term. Besides, we forgot to visit the world’s largest rose bush! In Tombstone, no less! They’ll be waiting for me on my list when I come back! 
Have you ever visited Tombstone? What was your favorite (or lease favorite) thing?

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