A former copper-mining town built high in the Arizona mountains makes for a short, strange trip.
Tue Nov 27 2007
Out West the road’s the thing, so on the advice of some locals, a friend and I took the scenic route from Tucson to Bisbee, a former copper-mining town–turned–arts enclave about 11 miles north of Mexico in southeast Arizona. Along the way the landscape morphed from flat, scrubby saguaro-studded desert to hills sprouting Dr. Seuss–like stalks (soaptree yuccas in actuality) to grassy mountains dotted with oaks.
During a pit stop in a no-stoplight town called Patagonia, we grabbed some excellent lattes at Gathering Grounds (319 McKeown Ave, 520-394-2097) and spent more time and money than we’d planned to at the Global Arts Gallery (315 McKeown Ave, 520-394-0077), where New York transplant Adrienne Halpert has amassed jewelry, home goods and clothing from all over the world. Back on the road, the enormous sky put on a magnificent show as we drove higher and finally through the tunnel that burrows into the Mule Mountains.
Arriving in hushed, chilly Old Bisbee at dusk felt a little like slipping into a scene from the moody Robert Altman flick McCabe and Mrs. Miller. After checking into the Copper City Inn (99 Main St, 520-432-1418), we turned on all the lights and changed into warmer clothes. We never did meet Fred Miller, the bartender at nearby Café Roka who turned this property into a three-room apartment-hotel in 2006, but we felt his presence in the pretty, pristine room and thoughtful touches like a gratis bottle of wine and a jar of antacids.
The inn provides breakfast in the form of coupons to cash in at the High Desert Market & Café (203 Tombstone Canyon, 520-432-6775), a few blocks up the canyon staffed by various women in overalls. Across the way stands Iron Man, a 1935 socialist statue of a bare-chested miner with inflated pecs and the inscription, “Dedicated to those virile men—the copper miners...” The juxtaposition of the glimmering statue with the funky guerrilla art on walls around town captures the divide between past and present.
The Mining and Historical Museum (No. 5 Copper Queen Plaza, 520-432-7071) delineates that past, when Bisbee supported a population of more than 20,000 in the early 1900s (now the population hovers around 6,500). After the last mine closed in the mid- ’70s, hippies and other refugees moved into low-priced miners’ shacks, Craftsman bungalows and Victorians that creep up the sides of the canyons. These days, Main Street is lined with art galleries and antiques malls.
At Twist (51 Main St, 520-432-3046), we coveted clever bookshelves made from hardcover books, and at Panterra Gallery (54 Brewery Ave, 520-432-3320) we gazed on beautiful landscape photographs by Bisbee resident Charles Feil. At the walk-in closet that’s the retail outlet for Bisbee’s most successful recent business venture, Killer Bee Honey (15 Main St, 520-432-2937), which sells just that, we had a rousing discussion on immigration policy with self-described “killer-bee guy No. 3,” Jono. We also wandered the hills of Tombstone Canyon, where people’s “front” doors are reached via landings that shoot off of steep staircases, and houses are painted fluorescent orange, cobalt, sage and pink.
Hitting bars here is a must. In its Wild West days the town boasted more than 50. Now, it’s down to a handful. At St. Elmo’s (36 Brewery Ave, 520-432-5578), the regulars and the taxidermy have both seen better days. A few rows of glass beer steins over the cash register have names scrawled on them. “Some of them still come in,” the bartender explained, when I asked about the owners. “Some of them died. Some just can’t drink anymore, which is pretty much the same thing.” The Bisbee Grand Saloon (61 Main St, 520-432-5900) has a stamped-tin ceiling and walls partly papered in pink chintz, a remnant of when the space was once a ladies’ parlor.
Food is not Bisbee’s strong point, although we had decent fajitas, fish tacos and margaritas at Santiago’s (1 Lowell Ave, 520-432-1910), a cheery Mexican place. People raved about Café Roka (35 Main St, 520-432-5153), but it was closed, underlining the fact that Bisbee is best visited over the weekend (a lot of businesses are open only from Thursday to Sunday). A sign in one shop window summed up the reigning philosophy: WHEN WE’RE HERE, WE’RE OPEN.
Our best meals were breakfasts—at the High Desert Market and The Bisbee Breakfast Club (75-A Erie St, Lowell, 520-432-5885), which is housed in a former Rexall Pharmacy in Lowell, a tiny and largely abandoned township. To get there, we drove past the Lavender Pit Mine—the gigantic red hole in the ground between Old and New Bisbee. The blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs fortified us for our drive back to Tucson—this time, we took the quick route.
Two nights, two people
Car rental (with gas) $50
+ Meals $120
Jet Blue flies nonstop from JFK to Tucson. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from the airport to Bisbee.
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