BISBEE, Ariz. People here like to say that, once you emerge from the Mule Pass Tunnel heading south into town, you go back in time to the Old West.
They are wrong. Or, at least, not completely right. The Old West, as commonly imagined, can be found 20 miles north in Tombstone, where the OK Corral shootout happens daily at 2 p.m. as the high-desert chaparral bows in shame and the tumbleweeds scurry off.
But when the tunnel disgorges you into Bisbee, just nine miles from the Mexican border, you enter an alternative universe geologic, psychic, political steeped in several stages of the past.
Bisbee is an arty, quirky world populated by characters more likely to be found in the 1960s than the 1860s, free spirits who retain a sense of the town's copper mining history but have mined their creative resources to transform this dot on the map into something altogether different.
You sense it at first sight.
Wedged into a canyon, Bisbee is so vertical as to be vertiginous. Houses painted in bold colors not found in nature perhaps to contrast with the unrelenting muted brown, rust and green of the landscape are carved precariously into the rocky hillside, connected by snaking stairs running all over town. Down on the canyon floor, crumbling brick buildings that once were company stores, bars and brothels now house art galleries, independent bookstores, artisan and New Age curio shops and, yes, bars.
Rather than re-enactors dressed in period garb, Bisbee gives you Tranny Danny strutting in a red bustier, or the woman in blue pigtails, petticoats and powder blue Converse high-tops, or the dreadlocked dude in a black top hat warbling Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." No official data exists, but Bisbee (pop: 6,500) must have the highest per-capita rate of forehead tattoos in the nation.
It's all, you know, copacetic, man. Locals don't even blink when many of the more colorful citizens saunter by, and tourists seem tickled and have a story to tell when they return to Scottsdale or Sun City.
And, in a state politically redder than its mesas, a state that gave us Goldwater, rogue Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the landmark anti-immigration measure SB 1070, Bisbee decorates building facades with anti-Republican posters and pro-socialist murals.
Then again, some of Bisbee's public art on cars, homes, vacant lots, even the dog park is so out-there bizarre as to defy definition. Check out the Art House in the middle of the tourist-heavy Brewery Gulch neighborhood. Mannequin sculptures of Adam and Eve, so anatomically correct they should be pixelated when kiddies are around, stand as sentinels by the front door, while a Maya god hovers on the roof and a Lady Gaga-inspired nude lurks around back.
Rest assured, traditionalists: Traces of Bisbee's days as a copper mining juggernaut remain, from the stately Victorian elegance of the Copper Queen Hotel to the Queen Mine Tour and to the gaping, yawning hole in the ground that once was the cash-cow Lavender Mine on the edge of town.
But these days what brings a steady stream of visitors here is the funkiness. For every tourist wanting to stay at the 110-year-old Copper Queen Hotel, which is oak-paneled and ornately decorated with a bust of John Wayne in the lobby, there are those who choose to stay at the Shady Dell, a retro '50s trailer park abutting the town cemetery. The Dell pays such close attention to period detail it boasts its own micro-radio station playing hits (and commercials) from back in the day.
Artists save the town
Some might lament that Bisbee's mining history gets short shrift. But as native David Amalong, who owns the New Age store The Source Within (which also houses the Mini Museum of the Bizarre), points out, the town nearly expired after the last mine closed in 1975.
"Then the hippies came in and squatted in the abandoned buildings," he said. "Then the artists came and they bought and restored the buildings. You could say they saved the town. Before that, Bisbee was typical Arizona redneck land. My father worked in the mine. I know."
Just as miners at the turn of the 20th century came here because that's where the work was, so too did free spirits at the turn of the 21st century flock to Bisbee because that's where they could express themselves.
It's why Jason and Jennifer Luria left Phoenix five years ago to buy the Shady Dell. It's why Reed Booth, the "Killer Bee Guy," stopped living out of his van as a drifter 26 years ago and became a local honey entrepreneur. It's why Kristen Drewes left Buffalo, Wyo., in the rearview mirror and set up stakes here.
"Tombstone calls itself the 'town too tough to die,' " Drewes said. "Well, Bisbee's the 'town too high to care.' I've never been in a place so accepting. You can be gay, straight or somewhere in between; we don't care. We've got retired physicists and archaeologists living next to hippies (who) don't wash, and they all get along.
"Me, I'm just Fruit Loops. I'm woo-hoo crazy. So I belong here, too. Bisbee's the state's largest open-air sanitarium. And I mean that nicely."
If so, then the inmates running it are having a fine time. Though the town is left-leaning politically, it's neither strident nor militant, à la Berkeley. Republicans are welcome, too, they say, especially if they buy art and dine and shop in the stores.
No one really expects the tourists to go to the solar cooking demonstrations at the Food Co-Op or attend the Sunday night "progressive" movie that screens at the Ecoasis hostel, anyway. Bisbeeans have found a way, it seems, for commerce and communal harmony to coexist.
Politics and patchouli
How accepting is Bisbee? Palling around town on a recent Sunday was Joanne Goldwater, daughter of Republican icon and 1964 presidential candidate Barry, and Patricia Steward, daughter of the former head of the state's Democratic Party.
"I love to come down here and stay in the bed-and-breakfast inns," Goldwater said. "You always meet such interesting people."
Goldwater had known Steward from their time together living in Scottsdale. But Steward, who now owns the popular Bisbee bar The Stock Exchange (currently closed for renovation), chuckled when told of Goldwater's "interesting people" comment.
"This town," Steward said, "there's nothing like it. It looks like Europe and feels like it must be outer space. It reminds me of a mix of Amsterdam, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. I say Washington because we are political. We're Democratic socially but Republican in terms of wanting less government. We're eclectic that way."
How's this for eclectic?
A crime story in the weekly Bisbee Observer: "An unknown person is spraying WD-40 on a Bisbee garage every day and night. The garage owner has the empty cans for evidence."
A flier on a telephone pole: "Missing Chicken. Big, fluffy, yellow. Her name is Wavy. Last seen Thurs 5/24 on OK Street. If you see her, catch her! She is very sweet. Call us "
You can tour the town in a hearse looking for ghosts. The woman who drives said vehicle, Renee Kaplan Harper, also curates the Mini Museum of the Bizarre, where dirt from Jim Morrison's grave resides next to the mummified hand of a Haitian voodoo priestess, John Dillinger's death mask and a pickled fairy fossil.
Big buzz in Bisbee
Most Old West towns claim hauntings, and Bisbee is no different. But bizarre happenings of the non-apparition variety have gripped the town.
There was that time in the summer of 1998 when 60,000 angry Africanized honey bees swarmed after a hive was disturbed. Residents, cops and firefighters were attacked and ran through the streets covered in blankets. Eight people were hospitalized. One resident, Debrah Strait, was stung 400 times that day, later telling the San Diego Union-Tribune, "It was as horrific as you can imagine it to be."
In came Booth, in his beekeeper suit, to exterminate the remaining offending bees. After the attendant media buzz, Booth opened the Killer Bee honey butter and mustard shop, wrote a book on his exploits and said he's being considered for a cable reality show. "I tell customers, 'Buy the cinnamon honey butter, and I won't ask what you do with it in the privacy of your home,' " he said, winking.
It takes a lot to surprise Booth. But Bisbee is a continual source of wonder to him.
"I came here for two weeks 26 years ago," he said. "Before that, I spent four years living in a van and being a sign painter on the road. I've been to every state, every town. When I rolled into this place, I was like, 'You gotta be kidding me. What the (bleep)? This is the place! It exists!' "
Sit a spell at the Dell
A similar epiphany hit Jennifer and Jason Luria when they bunked at the Shady Dell trailer-park themed motel on vacation. They were so smitten that they bought the joint five years ago. Jason was in the hospitality industry; Jennifer was a designer. They've now combined their skills.
Staying at the Shady Dell is a trip. Guests have choices of Airstreams, Manor trailers, a retrofitted bus, even a converted yacht. The couple's rigorous, meticulous attention to period detail amazes.
Jennifer greeted a guest checking in wearing a perky '50s dress. She sported ebony Anna May Wong bangs, blood-red lipstick and a carnation pinned above one ear. (Justin, by the way, dresses in a white T-shirt like a greaser.) Although forced to use a few modern conveniences, such as a credit-card swiper, she hands guests their receipts from an old cash register, as the AM radio behind her plays Patsy Cline's turgid 1961 hit "I Fall to Pieces."
"We wanted to create the effect that once you came here what you saw, what you heard, what you felt, was as close as we could get to a time that a lot of people have never experienced," Jennifer said.
The verisimilitude is nearly total. The wood-paneled trailer had TV trays, framed photos of '50s bobby-soxers, a black-and-white TV that plays B movies ("I set up 'Hot Rod Girls' just for you," Jennifer said), a GM Frigidaire, a Dixie oven, a percolator coffee pot. Even more impressive: a calendar on the sink from June 1956 (which has dates corresponding to June 2012); a 1955 yearbook from the State University Teachers College in Geneso, N.Y.; Epsom salts, Dentur-Eze and April Showers talc in the medicine cabinet; a cribbage board and pinochle cards in a drawer; and air-mail stationery with No. 2 pencils on the desk.
Eve Greenberg and Jim Lewandowski of Gilbert, Ariz., have stayed at the Shady Dell twice on trips to Bisbee. "The first time was to experience the '50s period," Greenberg said. "This time, it was for peace and quiet. We're not much for the Bisbee bar scene."
Still mining history
There are some for whom the 50 shades of weird that is Bisbee are too jarring. It is possible, though, to visit without getting overly immersed in the counterculture. One of the most popular tours is of the Queen Mine, for which you don a yellow rain slicker and a miner's helmet with a bright lamp slung over your shoulder to see in the dark. A miniature train descends 300 feet underground, and a tour guide (all are former miners) explains how copper was extracted from the rock.
Joe Garcia, who worked underground for 10 years until the mine closed in 1975, explained stope mining essentials: drilling 24 holes 7 feet in, packing in the dynamite and setting the fuse.
"Once in a while, the blast would make a hole 20 times bigger than what you wanted," he said. "That's what you call a cave-in, guys. Nothing you could do about it."
Garcia also was stoic about losing his job when the mine closed. "They threw us all out," he said, shrugging. "The hippies came in."
And the hippies have stayed. And prospered.
In the gloaming of another red-rimmed Bisbee sunset, as the illuminated "B" on a hill overlooking the city competed with a giant Christmas-light peace sign for attention, a colony of bats swirled overhead.
"Look, it's bat season," Kaplan Harper enthused to her tour group. "Bats! Bats! Bats!"
If you didn't know it by then, this confirmed it: Bisbee is truly batty.
Approximately a two-hour drive from Tucson, four hours from Phoenix. Located on Highway 80, 20 miles south of Tombstone and nine miles north of the Mexico border.
Queen Mine Tour: Highway 80 in Old Bisbee. Tours held 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. daily. Cost: $13 for adults; $5.50 for ages 4-12. Reservations recommended. (866) 432-2071 or www.queenminetour.com
Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum: 5 Copper Queen Plaza. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Cost: $7.50 adults; $6.50 seniors 65-plus; $3 children under 16. (520) 432-7071, www.bisbeemuseum.org
Lavender Jeep Tours: 11 Howell Ave.. Several vehicle tours available, including "The Back Roads of Bisbee" and a backcountry tour. Cost varies. (520) 432-5369, www.lavenderjeeptours.com
Bisbee Mini Museum of the Bizarre: Inside The Source Within, 28 Main St.. Hours: 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily. Cost: $3; http://bizarrebisbee.com
Copper Queen Hotel: 11 Howell Ave. 48 rooms, two restaurants, old-fashioned saloon. (520) 432-2216 www.copperqueen.com
Hotel LaMore (Bisbee Inn), 45 OK St., Bisbee. 20 rooms, antique furninshings. Said to be Bisbee's most haunted hotel. (520) 432-5131, www.bisbeeinn.com
The Shady Dell Vintage Trailers: 1 Douglas Road. Mostly 1950s-themed trailers, plus a retrofitted bus and a converted yacht. Some have bathrooms. Short walk to showers. (520) 432-3567, www.theshadydell.com
Bisbee Breakfast Club: 75A Erie St. Open 7 a.m.-noon Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. (520) 432-5885, www.bisbeebreakfastclub.com
Cafe Roka: 35 Main St.. Italian-California cuisine. Open 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; (520) 432-5153, www.caferoka.com
Old Bisbee Brewing Company: 200 Review Alley. Open noon-10:30 p.m. daily; (520) 432-2739, www.oldbisbee brewingcompany.com
Santiago's: 1 Howell Ave., Mexican. Open 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. (520) 432-1910, santiagosmexican. blogspot.com
Screaming Banshee Pizza and Wine Bar: 200 Tombstone Canyon. Hours vary, closed Mondays. Check website: www.screamingbansheepizza. net. (520) 432-1300
Atalanta Music & Books: 38 Main St. (520) 432-9976. Fiction, nonfiction, art supplies, musical instruments, magazines, compact discs, toys and organic or recycled clothing and housewares.
Bisbee Bicycle Brothel: 43 Brewery Ave.. New, used bikes, vintage bicycles, historic bike photos. (520) 236-4855, www.bisbeebicyclebrothel.com
Killer Bee Honey: 15 Main St. Locally made honey, honey butter and honey mustard. (520) 432-2937. www.killerbeeguy.com
Metalmorphosis: 79 Main St. Metal and copper art for home and garden. (520) 432-2922. www.metalmorphosis.biz
Belleza Fine Arts Gallery: 29 Main St. (520) 432-5877, www.bellezagallery.org
The Tang Gallery: 32 Main St. (520) 432-5824, www.minatangkan.com
Sam Poe Gallery: 24 Main St. (520) 432-5338, www.sampoegallery.com