Arizona still emits startling whiffs of the Old West.
In mid-March Joe and I flew there to visit his sister Nan and her husband, Jim. One bright, cool morning they took us to the elegant Scottsdale Art Show, situated in a lovely treed park, after which everyone padded a few blocks to Old Town, whose main street was eerily reminiscent of ‘the way it was.’ Example? An older, deeply tanned cowboy, clad in comfortable, well-worn clothing, rode his placid horse slowly up the street straight into a saloon. He ordered whisky and a burger from ‘on high’-- and was served. The horse, who seemed confortable in the confined, rather dark space, waited patiently with eyes half-closed as his rider, still saddle-anchored, knocked back a whisky while gobbling his grub and gabbing with his more conventional table-and-chairs buddies. A few whiskies later well-oiled patrons got louder, knocking over a few chairs to indulge in loud back thumping.
A twenty-minute ride deeper into the desert brought us to Cottonwood, a small town with some unusual shops. One, Larry’s Antiques and Things, which anchored one end of Main Street, boasts two acres of ‘are you serious?’ offerings- like rusting ringer-washing machines, countless decrepit commercial metal signs, old clay pots of various sizes, ancient gas pumps, a desiccated violin and cello, shredding iron horses with dusty manes, stuffed monkeys in Stetsons, and on and on. Exhausted, well-made furniture lined the metal walls of two more vast, dark two-story sheds. Amid all this stuff a satisfied tan cat licked its paws atop a giant iron wagon wheel.
The owner does a brisk business.
Cottonwood made the national news two days after we flew home. There was a shootout in their Wal-Mart parking lot. The sheriff and his deputies arrested seven sullen, mute people, including a wild-eyed, tangle-haired woman and a teen, after a big gunfight.
One deputy was seriously wounded.
Store employees were roughed up.
One of the aggressors was shot dead.
A few miles further into the desert we came upon a huge ‘J’ set into the edge of a steep mountainside, marking the mile-high ghost town of Jerome. The narrow, winding mountain road, which had no barriers at its too-close cliff edges, tested our resolve. We parked in a dirt lot capable of holding perhaps 6 cars, that was carved out of a small mountain shelf 5,350 feet above the desert. Our parked car’s dusty nose brushed the cliff’s edge. One dead tree stump was all that lay between it and a terminal tumble.
Our world-view from this dusty spot was simply incredible.
Only booze-free souls with steady nerves, excellent eyesight and dependable car/motorcycle brakes, not to mention a full gas tank- should make the Jerome journey regularly. Gulp.
Once a thriving mining town of 15,000 in the late nineteenth century, Jerome now supports a population of 448 itinerant artists and shopkeepers. Saloons and brothels once lined its winding, cobblestoned streets. Over a billion dollars worth of gold, copper, silver and zinc were extracted for over 70 years, until the last mine sighed and died in 1953. Now, tourists mining for merchandise swarm its steep streets, which have barely changed. Original plank buildings have been converted into attractive shops that still manage to cling to the 30-degree incline of the mountainside. Gravity has pulled some down. Their ruins often have historical significance (like the jail, which slid down to oblivion many years ago, to the townspeople’s delight).
This partially abandoned/ruined stunning town, with its ‘billion dollar’ views, is a photographer’s paradise.
I spotted a street sign- ‘Husbands Alley’ -screwed onto the brick wall of a dark, narrow, high walled alley. In its shadows a bustling brothel, ‘The House of Joy,’ specialized in entertaining errant husbands a century ago.
Jerome’s little shops feature fascinating, beautifully handmade things. The largest collection of kaleidoscopes in the world can be found in one plank-floored store, along with stunning, framed sand paintings, one of which I had to buy. It’s hard to stop gazing at its ever-changing landscapes.
Clean, well-pressed vintage clothing is offered for incredibly good prices. I had to climb a steep, cheerfully painted wooden stairs to reach one little business, but it was worth the effort.
We ate tasty burgers at The Mile-High Grill while gawking at the spectacular desert far below, and bought a memorial mug sporting its name. The sun’s rays, partially blocked by the huge Black Hills, created deep black shadows that blanketed much of the desert floor. It’s a painter’s dreamscape.
Finally, in late afternoon, it was time to leave. But thirty minutes outside of Phoenix we made one last stop for a good dinner in the small, rough-looking genuinely old-west town of Cave Creek (pop. 5,000).
The town motto is- ‘Where the Wild West Lives,’ and it has its fair share of cowboys. One lean, weathered fellow in a battered Stetson enjoyed a cigarette as he rode his stringy roan horse bareback through our eatery’s parking lot.
The town made news in 2009 when its city council votes were tied between two men vying for a place. Someone whipped out a deck of cards and cut the deck. The contestants drew. High card won. (Arizona’s Constitution allows this, recognizing a quick, efficient way to break ties.)
I gazed across the dusty street at a life-sized white plastic horse that, at first glance, looked real, standing half out of a large window on the second floor of a dilapidated building.
You can’t make this stuff up. It was astonishing, absurd, delightful- and so unexpected.
Arizona is a visual adventure. I was never bored. Not once.
Dick Van Dyke bought a little ranch in Cave Creek in 1968, where he still loves to live (but never in summer, when he, a Brit by birth, finds the temperatures unbearable). Some episodes of his great show, ‘Diagnosis Murder’ were taped here. Van Dyke’s favorite restaurant, peculiarly named ‘The Horny Toad,’ is just down the street. And he’d often play the drums for the local band at Harold’s- our chosen eatery!
Arizona is full of straightforward, straight-shootin’, cut-the-deck-and-deal folks.
While living just fine in the twenty-first century, people here still revere the old ways, the old days, and the ever-changing, priceless scenery Joe and I were privileged to witness.