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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Town Too Tough to Die*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 2/25/2007

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

The sun was sliding towards the horizon, its butter-colored rays beginning to cast long shadows as I motored up the winding road from Sierra Vista. The sunlight, passing through the prism of dust on the horizon, painted the desert in a myriad of beautifully subtle hues. Cresting the last hill, I entered the legendary town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone began life as a mining camp in 1879, when early prospectors began mining high-grade silver. In less than two years, the town boomed, bringing in elegant hotels and fancy saloons. Within a few short years, however, the boom went bust. The price of silver fell from $123 to less than $10 per ounce and the mines flooded when the aquifer was breached at 560 feet. The mines could no longer turn a profit, so investors pulled out, businesses failed, and people left, leaving behind a dying community. But the Tombstoners who stayed were made of stronger stuff. The “Town Too Tough to Die” survives today on the strength of an epic tale.

In October 1881, a political crisis in Tombstone climaxed when the leaders of two factions faced each other across the narrow confines of a small empty lot called the OK Corral. On one side were the Clantons and the McLaureys, fronting The Cowboys, a loose band of rustlers and robbers who controlled the county government and the courts. On the other side were three lawmen named Earp and a tubercular dentist named Holliday, professional gamblers all, backed by the town’s business interests. In a flurry of gunshots over a few seconds of time, men died and legends were born, searing the name of Tombstone into the annals of history.

Today, it’s Tombstone’s authentic feel that dominates the visitor’s impression. I strolled the sidewalks of the Allen Street historical district, the boards underfoot carrying the rhythmic thumps of my boots. A black-and-white cruised by, the doors emblazoned with the evocative words “Tombstone Marshall.” It was easy to let the mind’s eye block out the modern paved road and see instead dirt streets aborning the ever-present dust carried aloft by the restless desert wind. Instead of tourists in jeans and sneakers, I imagined the sidewalks alive with the all the human diversity of a frontier town. Walking past the doors to the saloons I could almost hear the raucous sounds of cowboys, merchants, and miners punctuated by the tinny sounds of a piano, the air thick with the smells of smoke and whiskey. And circulating among the merry-makers, the swishing skirts and alluring smiles of the demimondes, duly licensed and taxed; an important part of the local economy. And always, the watchful eyes of people in a town divided.

It had been America in its robust adolescence; people of limitless confidence, who knew that taking The Big Risk was the only way to get ahead.

And there were people getting ahead. In 1881, Tombstone mines were producing at a rate of $400,000 of ore per month. In equivalent 2007 dollars, that’s close to $100 million annually.

Tombstone survives on the strength of its storied past, encouraged by the successful movies Wyatt Earp and Tombstone. Visiting in spring or fall, a visitor can enjoy comfortable temperatures and beautiful, clear weather. The most eventful month is October when the town celebrates Helldorado Days and the anniversary of the shootout at the OK Corral, an event locals have long referred to simply as “the street fight.” On the edge of town lies Boot Hill Cemetery, carefully and thoughtfully restored, the headstones silently telling their own often tragic story.

The nearest city of any size is Sierra Vista. But that isolation gives Tombstone the authentic feel of an old west outpost, its buildings standing defiantly against the vastness of the desert. Modern Tombstoners are warm, friendly, and genuinely glad to have visitors, indulging passers-by with their own colorful versions of local history. The architecture is true to the period, although few original structures remain. Walking along those streets that history made famous, the 21st Century flees before the senses and you are left with an authentic vision of the old west.

The setting sun slides behind Comstock Hill, in a deep blue sky with passing clouds gilded by the sun’s dying rays. In that moment of nature’s artistry, you suddenly understand what drove people to leave the certain security of home and hearth to pursue their dreams in this sometimes cruel and harsh, but starkly beautiful land.

GETTING THERE: Tucson, the closest large airport, is about 90 minutes away. Take I-10 to the Benson exit, and then go 24 miles south on Arizona highway 80.

LODGING: Visit www.tombstoneweb.com/lodging.html for a complete list of local lodging. There are a few motels, B&B’s, guest cottages, and RV parks in town. Sierra Vista is 16 miles to the west on Charleston Road where you can find a number of national motel chains.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE…Visit the Chiricahua National Monument, Ft. Bowie National Historic Site, and the Cochise Stronghold, where the legendary Apache warrior kept the U.S. and Mexican Armies in a sustained state of frustration for the better part of 20 years. South of Tombstone is the artists’ colony of Bisbee, also home to the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. In the west part of Tucson, you can visit Old Tucson Studios, a combination movie studio and theme park. Some of it will look familiar, since it’s been the site of many, many westerns over the years. North of Tucson is the Biosphere Center and Catalina State Park.
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