Months before I drove to Bisbee, Arizona, I'd heard a lot about the old copper-mining town turned 21st-century hideaway for artists, eccentrics, and freewheeling entrepreneurs. Like an unspoiled desert version of Key West, Bisbee was supposedly filled with vigorously restored 19th-century buildings and antiques shops. Nestled in the Mule Mountains just seven miles from the Mexican wilderness, it was a sanctuary for the edgy and the adventurous.
When I told my father I was headed to this Western bohemia, he assured me I was mistaken. A Florida cattleman who can lasso a calf faster than my cell phone flickers on, my father has a picture of the desert that consists of outlaws and woolly bordellos. His Bisbee adventurers tote rifles, not art canvases. To prove it, he sent me leather-bound books on the frontier, with exuberant notations about the saloons, gold mines, and gunslingers I'd encounter. What made my trip to Arizona especially appealing to him was that I'd pass through Tombstone, whose motto—The Town Too Tough to Die—summed up his idea of the West precisely.
The day before I left, he gave me one of his typical directives: "You'd better take your gun." I reminded him of the time he tried to outdraw James Arness on Gunsmoke (my dad stood inches from the TV screen, waiting with a Colt .22 Peacemaker in his holster) and ended up shooting himself in the leg. "For the record, I was faster than he was," he muttered.
I didn't pack a pistol, but I did take my favorite Agnès B. capris. In Tucson, I picked up a rental car and headed east on Interstate 10, with the caramel-colored Rincon Mountains to the north. The hot sun made the road ahead seem to ripple as I began the 90-mile drive to Bisbee. Catching Route 80, I cruised through the near-ghost towns of Benson and St. David, where donkeys grazed among the soap-tree yuccas. After 14 solitary miles, I came upon the real—and very unreal—town of Tombstone. A huge headstone with the words HISTORY, HEALTH, AND HOSPITALITY welcomed me to the place where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and Earp's brothers Virgil and Morgan gunned down Ike Clanton and the McLaury brothers at the O.K. Corral. Today's corral is a bit less dramatic, not much more than a diorama with Stetson-hatted mannequins.
Determined to come away with something authentic, I stopped at the Bird Cage Theatre, highlighted in one of my father's books with a poster of "human fly" dance girls suspended by shoe clamps from the ceiling. The 1881 building has the town's last remaining original bar, an exquisitely carved cherrywood piece with a French cut-glass mirror. The cowboy at the bar invited me to roam the theater, now a museum hidden behind a black partition. I wondered if the Bird, once an ornate playhouse for gambling, dancing, and prostitution, would be just another touristy gift shop festooned with a few historic relics. But when I pulled back the curtain, what I found was a perfectly preserved past: red and green glass chandeliers, gambling tables with ivory poker chips, a jukebox that took only silver dollars. It was as if nothing had been touched for 120 years.
Anxious to tell my father about the Bird, I called him on my cell phone as I left Tombstone, pressing south on Route 80 toward Bisbee. Less than a minute into the conversation, I lost my signal—and didn't get it back until I returned to Tucson three days later.