Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alamogordo, New Mexico to Tombstone, Arizona
330 miles, about 6 hours
US70, I-10, NM80, AZ80
There's something special about the Southwest. It's hard for people from the more forested regions of the United States to see the inherent beauty within the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the desert.
This ride starts in the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, nestled at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains. To the west lies the Tularosa Basin which humans inhabited some 11,000 years ago. The city was established in 1898 when the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad extended their line into the area. The name, Alamogordo, which means "large cottonwood," was inspired by the presence of a grove of the hardy trees. From the 1940s on, Holloman Air Force Base was the site of aerospace work, including rocket sleds and high-altitude balloon flights. The two chimpanzees who flew in space, Ham and Enos, were trained here. That tradition carries on with the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
Heading west on US70, you cross the basin and the Rio Grand Rift. To the north, the forbidding desert called Jornada del Muerto, Journey of the Dead, points your attention to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
Ahead lies one of the more interesting sights in the Southwest. What looks from a distance like snow is the White Sands National Monument. Most sand is made up of quartz crystals. But here, the sand is gypsum crystals. This type of mineral is rare because Gypsum is water soluble. But the Tularosa Basin is a closed system, with no water flowing in, so the Gypsum has survived.
Gypsum doesn't covert solar energy to heat, so unlike quartz sand, it's safe to walk on with bare feet. The massive dunes are constantly in motion in sympathy to the winds and at times must be bulldozed from US70. The Monument is on the southern rim of the White Sands Missile Range and one or two times per week, the road is closed while test launches are conducted.
Entering Las Cruces, you'll transition to I-10. The city is another railroad outpost, it's name translating to The Crosses, the origin of which is unknown. The city sits in the middle of the Organ Caldera, the remains of a large volcano which erupted some 37 million years ago.
Heading west again, you pass through some of the most desolate country you'll ever see. It's mostly flat with a thin covering of Savannah grasses. This is country that hasn't changed much in several thousand years.
Pass through Deming and Lordsburg and just before you get to the Arizona state line, turn south on NM80. This road meanders south through the desert, arriving at Douglas, Arizona. But on the way, you will find yourself face-to-face with a startling feature. One of the Dos Cabeza mountains is named "Cochise Head," after the legendary Chiricahua warrior. If you look carefully, you can see the profile of his face along the top of the mountain.
You will encounter a small town called Rodeo, which a stone monument stands commemorating the site where Geronimo surrendered, ending the reign of the Apache tribe. Loop through Douglas and continue north on now AZ80 until you glide into Bisbee.
Bisbee is a town with a long, colorful history, percolated by that particular stubborn toughness of the typical Southwesterner. It began life in 1880 with the discovery of copper in the surrounding hills. The Copper Queen, an enormous hole in the ground still sits alongside the highway. The town waxed profitable until mining began to decline in the 1950's. Artists, drawn by the abundant natural beauty of the area, established a colony in Bisbee, keeping the town alive. Boomers rediscovered the town in the 1990's and the area is still doing well. The geography has led to some strange neighborhoods, where houses are bolted to the almost-vertical hillsides. A misstep off one's front porch can end you up in your neighbor's chimney.
The hillsides are full of some spectacular minerals, especially the brilliant azurite. With the high cost of copper, the mines are beginning to work once again.
Continue north on 80 and after winding through the rocks and hills, you enter one of the most famous, if not the most infamous towns in US history.
Tombstone, Arizona is a familiar name even to those who have never been here. A miner and US Army scout, Ed Schiefflin was prospecting in the area when he discovered an amazingly rich vein of silver ore. Warned by his friends that working in that desolate country he would find only his tombstone, he gave that name to his mine claim, which eventually became the town.
The veins of silver were wide, deep, and rich and in it's peak years, 1877 to 1890, the mines in the region produced an average of $125 million (2013 dollars) per year in silver ore. But the price of silver collapsed from $123 per ounce to less than $10. The water table was breached at 560 feet down, flooding the mines. People who had come in droves, left with the same alacrity, yet the town has survived.
But silver is not the reason that the name Tombstone is so familiar.
In October 1881, a political crisis reached a climax when the leaders of two factions faced each other across the tiny confines of a vacant lot called the OK Corral. On one side were the Clanton's and McClaury's represented the Cowboys, a loose band of rustlers, robbers, and murderers backed by the Democrats in town and who controlled the county and the courts. Across from them were three lawmen named Earp, and a tubercular dentist, Doc Holliday, fronting the Republican business interests. In a flurry of gunshots over about 30 seconds, men died and legends were born. This incident, which residents still refer to as "the street fight" is now the heart and soul of the town's tourism industry.
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.
A view of the Dragoon Mountains to the west.
The town has burned to the ground on three occasions, so the only original building left is the Bird Cage Saloon, which is said to be haunted. But the buildings along Allen Street have been rebuilt to be architectural true to the period. They even bring in truckloads of dirt to cover the street to bring even more authenticity to the scene.
This is a long ride, 330 miles, but if you like a country with no borders, endless skies, and a compelling history, it's well worth the journey.