I passed through the Mule Mountain Tunnel and emerged to see the tiny town of Bisbee, population 6,000, with its crooked, skinny streets, copper roofs, and adobe buildings. Around every corner, stone steps snaked up to hillside bungalows (there's an annual Bisbee Stair Climb the third week of October, in which locals race up and down the town's 1,043 steps). Nothing was straight or flat. Even the buildings—many packed with colorful galleries, cafés, and artists' lofts—tilted with the terrain.
Founded in 1880, Bisbee blossomed into a culture capital of 20,000 after billions of pounds of copper were discovered in the early 1900's. Bisbee-ites combined their passion for revelry (47 saloons and brothels lined an alley called Brewery Gulch) with a zeal for architecture, filling the town with Romanesque mansions and Queen Anne bungalows. After the mines finally dried up in the early 1970's, the town's elite abandoned the beautiful old buildings. Word of the cheap architectural and cultural gold mine spread from Berkeley to Woodstock, and hippies began arriving in their VW vans, buying up property and infusing Bisbee with their own brand of art, attitude, and eclecticism.
I got a glimpse of that offbeat style when I drove by a hula-themed Buick sedan studded with plastic pineapples and painted with palm trees. Later, I learned that the car belonged to gouache artist Kathleen Pearson, who started Bisbee's "art-car movement" 12 years ago. Pearson's whimsical rides have been displayed in museums (including the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore) and have appeared in an HBO documentary.
Taking the "cool ride" concept a bit further are antiques dealers Ed Smith and Rita Personett; in 1994, they turned seven vintage travel trailers and a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht into the Shady Dell lodge, 1 1/4 miles south of Bisbee. Against a backdrop of burly brown buttes, the trailers lined up neatly, silver bullets beneath a hot, still sun. A 1948 Yellow Cab was parked under a mulberry tree, and an iron bed decorated with plastic flowers—the latest folk-art creation by one of the managers—rested on a patch of grass. At the edge of it all was Dot's Diner, which served biscuits and gravy to locals seated on sparkly pink stools. From Dot's tiny takeout window, Bobby Vinton's "Roses Are Red" drifted through the desert air. It was a scene straight out of a David Lynch movie.
I had my pick of trailers—a tough choice, since each was glamorously nostalgic, down to the flamingo-crowned martini shakers and rose-colored percolators. Ultimately, I fell for a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion with a breakfast booth and grape-colored sofa. Settling down on it, I spotted a 1957 leatherette Setchell Carson TV with a VCR and a selection of old movies. I chose my dad's favorite, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and watched the opening scene—John Wayne being carried away inside a coffin—as the sun flashed off headstones in the cemetery outside my window. Perhaps my vision of the Wild West wasn't so different from my father's: here I was, in my chic travel trailer built when he was a teenager, and here was his hero, John Wayne, now chasing bad guys across my living room screen.
That night, I wished my father were with me when I drove into town for dinner at the High Desert Inn. He would have loved the building—the 1918 county jail that still has prisoners' names etched on the back walls. What I loved was the campy elegance, the white linen tablecloths, the former cell doors turned into wine racks, and the large, Art Deco-influenced acrylic paintings. But what we would have both loved was the rich and flavorful food: hearty Black Angus filet mignon and Hungarian chicken paprikash.