Tombstone, Arizona. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen several movies about this shoot-em-up, good-guys-versus-bad-guys Arizona desert town. I added the Gunfight at the OK Corral to my Arizona bucket list when we moved here. This is a classic old-west-meets-tourists-town … right?? WRONG!
For starters, Tombstone was a mining town … not a cowboy town. That bit of information surprised me. We included a tour of the once booming silver mine on our visit. It was surprising to learn there are hundreds of miles of mines weaving their way through the mountains around Tombstone and even under the town itself. Our tour guide shared tales of the mine and miners as we explored the cool, underground passageways. He explained why miners would do the back-breaking, often deadly work involved in digging through tons of rock for bits of silver veins — money! Miners earned four times the average worker. In the old west it was one way pioneers thought they could get rich.
We ascended out of the mine and walked the two blocks to boardwalk-lined Fremont Street. Costumed gunfighters hawked tickets to one of at least three shows designed to lure tourists in to relive the storied Gunfight at the OK Corral. Only one is performed on the site of the original corral. It’s now surrounded by high stucco walls to keep non-paying eyes from enjoying the campy re-enactment of the famed shootout.
Knowing the show was a classic “tourist trap,” we paid for admission and found seats on the metal bleachers shaded by colorful canvas tarps. Gunslinging “good guys” Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers took on the “horse thieving” MacLaurys and Clantons with b-level acting. It was fun and silly … and historically semi-accurate.
All around town, in saloons and shops, locals will share the true tale that there really were no good guys or bad guys when the shootout occurred. History shares several versions of the events of that day and hearing about them on the dusty streets of Tombstone was fascinating and eye-opening.
Craving a little cool refreshment, we headed for Big Nose Kate’s Saloon for a late lunch and ice-filled adult beverage. We reasoned it was the modern version of a shot of whiskey as we channeled the Old West.
After lunch, we climbed aboard an original Butterfield Stage Coach for a narrated ride through town pulled by a pair of mules. We rocked and bumped past Wyatt Earp’s home, the old jail house and several historic sites as our driver described the people who’d once called Tombstone home occasionally interrupting his tales with a warning to hold on over particularly bumpy sections of road. We both wondered how you could ride on a hard bench in a tiny stagecoach across vast expanses of unpaved prairie and deep-rutted wagon trails for days at a time.
Tombstone once dubbed itself “the town that wouldn’t die” and it’s holding true to that moniker. The tale of the gunfight, made famous in Hollywood movies, is the core of the town’s focus on its wild west roots. As tourist-centric as many of the sites are, there’s a lot to learn here. A little warning, almost everything comes with an admission charge. After all, Tombstone is like many places around the world that are still alive because of tourists. Everything you’ll want to see is walled off so entrepreneurs can charge an admission fee, but if you look past the cost of admission and vendors hoping to entice you to buy a souvenir, you can find the old west here. The boardwalks along the street still echo with the clip, clop of cowboy boot heels. The pedestrian-and-stage-coach-only Fremont Street is still dust-covered and the absence of cars means you can get a sense of what the sounds and smells of a hot, desert town would be like under the weight of Levis and chaps.
There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. If you’re lucky, your explorations will open your eyes to a little bit of history you never knew.
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