Jae and I motored into Tombstone, Arizona on the morning of our second day on the road.
Tombstone is a remarkably well-preserved late 19th-Century frontier town but every inch of it has been commercialized in the cheapest and ugliest ways imaginable. If you squint you can get a clear sense of the scale and architecture of the old town, but the glare of tacky commerce is otherwise blinding.
The O. K. Corral, near which the legendary gunfight occurred, has been enclosed within a big shed-like building, so the owners can charge for the privilege of standing on the famously blood-stained spot. We declined to do so.
Tombstone used to be a wide-open town, and it still has its share of frontier-themed saloons, but they shut down early these days, and of course you can’t smoke in them. All you can do is drink a few beers and imagine what the joints were like in more rambunctious times.
The whole town pretty much closes for business after 9pm. When the streets are dark you have another opportunity to imagine the town as it used to be, physically at least — though the saloons stayed open around the clock once upon a time. The town in its heyday was never as dark as it is today at 10pm.
We visited the legendary Boothill Graveyard on the edge of town, with its wry inscriptions on the grave markers, invariably detailing some violent form of death.
We had some very bad, disgracefully bad, food for lunch in a small cafe, and some acceptable food for dinner at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, where a big cowboy band played decent music.
Kate was a prostitute and sometime companion of Doc Holliday. She never owned a saloon — the one that bears her name now used to be The Grand Hotel.
My favorite moment on our visit to Tombstone occurred outside Big Nose Kate’s. I’d stepped out to have a smoke and saw two very old locals, a man and woman, in cowboy hats doing the same. The woman said to the man, “Well, Bill, we’ve made it to another Christmas.”
“Yep,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
She said, “It’s the first step towards making it to the next one.”
The Crystal Palace Saloon, outside of which Virgil Earp was shot and disabled, had a terrific band doing rock covers but it played so loud for the handful of patrons in the cavernous room that we had to flee after a few songs.
Tombstone is an interesting place to have seen — its Bird Cage Theatre, a mostly intact Old West low-life variety venue, is particularly evocative — but I won’t be going back to the town any time soon.
[Panoramic photos by Jae Song]
Click on the images to enlarge.