Arizona, aka an RVers dream come true – warm weather in the winter, no humidity to disrupt the refrigerator, outdoor adventures at every turn, a range of landscapes from desert to wooded mountain ranges, the Grand Canyon, and a true mix of old western flair and modern money. Arizona sure has a lot to offer roadtrippers and makes RV living easy.
Let’s begin our Arizona series by taking a brief look at the history of the state. Arizona’s history begins similar to New Mexico and Texas. The Spaniards sent explorers to the area who found established tribes, as well as ruins from their native ancient predecessors. Spanish missions were set up to convert the Indians and establish them as Spanish citizens, thereby fortifying the Spanish claim to the land. In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, and the Spanish lands became Mexican lands. Following the Mexican-American War, part of Arizona was ceded to the U.S., and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 secured the rest of Arizona from Mexico. In 1863, Arizona became a separate territory.
The influx of westward expansion by pioneers began in earnest. Men came West to seek their fortunes. There were prospectors, farmers and businessmen alike willing to risk life on the frontier for a chance at something new. Time and time again, this is the story of New Americans, saying goodbye to what they know and embracing the unknown. This sense of hope for a better tomorrow was an indomitable force of westward expansion, in particularly following the Civil War as so many Americans were forced to begin anew, and the West was their best chance to do so. As the area grew, the law was slower to keep up, giving Arizona a bit of a reputation in the Wild West. By 1886, the last of the Indian uprisings was finished, and Arizona achieved statehood in 1912 as the 48th state to join the Union.
Today, roadtripping in Arizona, we can see and feel the remains of the people who have come before us on this same land from the Mogollon and Sinagua ancient Indian cultures to the Spanish, from the Apache to the Mexicans, from the western outlaws to the prospectors; our trip will be filled with experiencing the land through the eyes of our predecessors. We begin our journey in Southern Arizona, in Tucson and the surrounding area.
Travelling in the southern part of Arizona, we find the desert landscape to look the same as it has for Arizona’s many inhabitants through the years. The desert here invokes visions of dusty spurs, worn out horses and outlaw renegades kicking up dust as they make their escape over the cactus laden ground heading for the Mexican border. This is the setting of the Wild West, and a great place to start our exploration is the legendary town of Tombstone. Tombstone was founded after Ed Schieffelin discovered silver in the area. Ed was true to that indomitable spirit of the prospector. After failing to find gold or silver across several western states, he indefatigably wandered the Arizona Territory desert deep in Apache country until he finally found silver. His find drew more and more miners to the area, which drew others as well.
The miners were shortsighted in squandering the riches they carved out of the mountainside. Businesses offering alcohol, gambling and prostitutes were a large part of where the money went. To this day, Tombstone has the remains of one of the most infamous businesses of ill repute…the Bird Cage Theatre. We decided to pay the fee to tour the entire building, which was surprisingly very authentic. It has been partially preserved, but not much has been renovated or changed since it was open for business. While we are not permitted to share photos from the inside, I can explain that it is a large theatre room with a stage, and the bird cages are rooms lining both side walls at the second story level. They look similar to balconies lining the walls, and they were for the women to use. The room is filled with relics from the time, but what really struck us was the dirty, dark feeling that pervaded the place. It truly had an evil feeling, even more so when we walked through the underground portion where the gambling took place with some of the original tables and effects still on display. The building gave us a perspective of the dark, filthy side of the Wild West featuring so much desperation and destitution. The somber feeling was increased by learning the stories of many of the working women. So many were destitute widows with heartbreaking stories. We were surprised that some who were widowed, worked to save money to go to their families back East, and did indeed leave after earning the needed sum. While one of the takeaways from visiting the Bird Cage Theatre was a sadness, we were grateful to have a really authentic experience of the Wild West and a better understanding of not just the risks involved on the frontier, but just how high the stakes really were.
Speaking of high stakes, not much can be classified as higher stakes than an old-fashioned western gunfight, and Tombstone is home to one of the most famous shootouts in the Wild West – the gunfight at the O.K. Corral! In 1881, the Earp brothers shot and killed three members of the cowboys gang, after ongoing threats, robberies and arrests. While Virgil Earp was the Police Chief in Tombstone, he quickly deputized his two brothers for the gunfight. We visited the location of the gunfight, where they feature a reenactment nearby, as well as a diorama show about the history of Tombstone explaining how it was founded, the role of mining, the two devastating fires, the mine flooding and later decline of the town. We consider both the reenactment and the diorama to be must sees in Tombstone. They also gave us a free ticket to redeem at the newspaper building for a reprint copy of the news stories that covered the gunfight and the testimonies of onlookers – there were some very interesting, conflicting views of the event.
There are other reenactments to experience in town and plenty of other sites to visit. Here a few of the other highlights…
Finally, we stopped at the Tombstone cemetery on our way out of town. While the wooden tombstones written with paint took us a little by surprise, it did make the inscriptions easy to read. The first tombstone is that of China Mary. The Chinese element is an added feature of exploring Western mining towns. In Tombstone, there was a Chinese section of town, and China Mary was the leader. If a man wanted opium, a Chinese woman, or anything else related to the Chinese market; China Mary was the woman to see about it.
The second photo shows the tombstones of the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton – these were the men killed by the Earps at the O.K. Corrall.
Overall, Tombstone is definitely a must see in Arizona. Although far from other main attractions, it is well worth the drive through the desert to go back in time and experience the Wild West firsthand. While there is definitely a strong bar element in town, there were no casinos; which gave the town a more family-friendly atmosphere than a place like Deadwood.
And thus begins our travels through Arizona history. Up next, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson and Saguaro National Park.