Ghost Hunt: Motorcycling Southern Arizona

The favorite haunts of Southern Arizona are a great winter motorcycle destination. From the August 2003 issue of _ Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. **Story and photos by

It was all over before I got there...or so they say. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clanton Gang and Big Nose Kate had all left the stage. But the glorified facts of their dusty existence are easy to trace. Tombstone, Arizona, the Las Vegas of ghost towns, doesn't let its souls rest easy. Instead, it courts them with a near constant summoning.

Heading out in midsummer on two wheels to peruse Arizona ghost towns seemed a crazy idea to everyone but me. And it's not because I enjoy sweating. There's simply something terribly gritty about riding in an unspeakably dry heat that puts you in a Wild West frame of mind. When you'd trade your spouse for a glass of water, interesting things are bound to happen. That, or your brain will coddle.

Traveling west from California, my favorite route through this vulture's Eden has me dropping south off Interstate 10 onto Highway 85, just before Phoenix. This takes you through Gila Bend and over Interstate 8 before it transforms into a timeline. Saguaro cactus replaces telephone poles as you climb into the Sauceda Mountains. If you stay on this road, you can ride through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument...and on to Guadalajara, if you have the time. I prefer to veer left on Highway 88, which meanders through the Tohono O'odham Nation, one of the few Native American reservations yet to sport its own casino. It's humbling to pass through this smattering of edifice and ecology. It's so sparse you'd want to describe the region as void, if it weren't for the jackrabbits and pickup trucks.

You'll be surprised by the rise in elevation as the loop climbs over the Comobabi Mountains before dropping into Tucson. You'll find the Kitt Peak National Observatory near the summit an interesting distraction (and viable excuse to dawdle in the cooler climes of high elevation). The facility is open daily (except holidays) and offers displays and guided tours, but the very best reason to go is the view.

You can avoid Tucson entirely by taking Highway 286 south to Interstate 19 south toward Nogales, and another chance to flee for Guadalajara, unless you bounce off the border and head northeast on Highway 82 for Tombstone. Marked as scenic roads, these southerly routes are beautiful for their simplicity and seclusion. But to see the true brilliance of the desert, you have to turn off your bike and walk out among the sage and saguaros. It's all in the detail, in the colors and textures you'll find in the tiniest stones and cactus spines. Side roads here lead to many authentic (non-touristy) ghost towns, too, some that are on the maps and some that are not. It easily becomes a game of connect the dots--a worthwhile hunt that can consume several days.

Tombstone, of course, cannot be denied as an attraction, even if its history has little in common with the past it celebrates. Long ago dubbed "The Town Too Tough To Die," it has certainly come close, though during its heyday in the 1880s, Tombstone was Arizona's most prominent outpost with a head count that topped 15,000. It was built on mining, after its founder, Ed Schieffelin, who discovered a ledge of silver ore nearby. The Tombstone moniker is bona fide. Soldiers sent to control the natives warned ol' Ed that the only thing he'd find if he continued to prospect in the desert was his tombstone. He found his destiny alright, and named it Tombstone out of cheerful spite.

Before the 1970s and the town's reinvention, however, not a German or Japanese tourist could be found perusing Tombstone guide books. The town fell to waste shortly after its boom when it became clear the mines couldn't be cured of relentless flooding from underground aqueducts, and by the '60s it was in its death throes. But instead of letting Tombstone die out there in the dust, residents pulled it from decline by awakening the long dead and demanding they dance. You've heard of the little incident at the O.K. Corral, right? And maybe about the legendary brawling at Tombstone's Crystal Palace, and the vamping proffered at the Bird Cage Theatre saloon? Today, you can see it all as it might have been then, but mostly for what it wasn't. The history of Tombstone and even its legendary gunfight between Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and the Clanton Gang is, ah, a smidgen embellished. But hell, that's no reason to pooh-pooh the reenactments, or the perpetual sidewalk charades performed by the locals. It's a gas to hang out with the period-dressed townsfolk, and for about 40 bucks, you can even arrange to have a buddy hanged by a gun-wielding gang. (This is most fun when they grab him without any warning and drag him to the swinging rope.)

Truth be told, though, Boot Hill and the O.K. Corral are just colorful stops along the way to the enchanting town of Bisbee, Arizona, Tombstone's more demure sister city, and a longtime favorite motorcycle destination of mine. Born from the once hugely prosperous copper mining trade, Bisbee's streets are draped across red hills like a scattering of tattered ribbons. There are hundreds of concrete steps to climb if you want to explore the town's varying dimensions. Bisbee thrives as a refuge for artists and eccentrics, and visitors will absolutely love the variety of wares presented in the galleries and antique stores, which are punctuated by book nooks, quaint coffee shops, eateries and B&Bs.; There's nothing I've seen that really compares to downtown Bisbee. It sure isn't charming in that "Small-Town America" sense, or even intriguing in that husky Old West way. It's a desert hideaway that smacks of European flair more than copper dust. A mining town that has become a very pure reiteration of a simple, yet prosperous, time.

The Copper Queen Hotel sits above the business district like a grand sentinel. Back at the turn of the century, when Bisbee is claimed to have been the largest mining town in the world, the Copper Queen Mining Company built the luxury hotel for visiting executives and politicians. Today it's still a terrific place to stay--it oozes nostalgia like a drenched sponge. You can hardly beat this town as a vacation getaway or at least a weekend stopover. Prices in Bisbee are more than reasonable, the atmosphere inviting and the weather, especially in winter, is almost always ideal. In addition to exploring the pockets and folds of the town itself, make sure to visit the Copper Queen Mine, which offers daily surface and subterranean tours. Ask about how the mines were used to shelter the townsfolk from marauding Apaches, and the mules that were born below ground and never saw the light of day. It's all fascinating.

Traveling west from Bisbee, I recommend continuing the southerly loop on Highway 80 to take in the Coronado National Forest and Bisbee's lonely cousin, Douglas, before sweeping back up to the interstate. Or, you could just make a right and head for Guadalajara. Me? I just turn around and do the loop backwards. After all, there's more than one way to scare up a ghost.

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Curvaceous downtown Bisbee
Lawmen and villains pose peaceably before shooting each other at the O.K. Corral.
Cactus flowers and wooden crosses punctuate the Southwestern desert.