If you’re driving 1100 miles to an unknown place, you harbor a fervent hope the place is something special…and Bisbee, Arizona, really is.
Getting TO Bisbee is a slog, most of the trip long, boring and ugly through Texas, which is one heck of a big state. (Number of Dairy Queens counted along the interstate: 14). Since Steve and I were taking Red River Riders Blogger dog Starvina, mutt Molly and multiple bikes, we elected to trailer. When we hit 40-mph headwinds, sandstorms and rain in west Texas, we agreed again that trailering was a most wonderful idea. We traveled I-20 to I-10 to Arizona State Road 180, a winding path into Bisbee.
In the 1920s it boasted a population of 20,000, making it the largest metropolis between San Francisco and the Mississippi River. As the copper, silver and gold in the local hills started playing out the town began to shrink in population and importance, but instead of disappearing, it successfully morphed into a quirky, arty, outdoor-oriented community filled with about 6,000 mostly interesting and friendly people. It is a great place to hippie watch. They are still here, wearing tiedye and eating lots of groovy organic greens.
Look anywhere in Old Bisbee (the charming part, not to be confused with the newer, not-at-all-charming part) and you will see stairwells snaking up the sides of hills leading to former Victorian-era miner’s cabins which are now private residences. The hot, dry weather means nothing seems to rot and these hills don’t shake, so rickety cabins that seem to be hanging on for dear life have been perched in their crannies for close to 100 years.
By 1975, the 80+ year- run of the local copper mine played out (prices dropped too low for profitability. One local says the mine will start up again if economics improve), leaving a gaping chasm on the edge of town, the disconcertingly beautiful Lavender Pit. The Lavender Pit, named after Harrison Lavender, VP of the Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation, is also lavender in color (which leads to some name confusion) and spirals down nearly 900 feet ---90 stories!---from the surface. Imagine Shreveport’s tallest buildings swallowed up and dwarfed in a giant lavender-colored hole. Hmmm.
Bisbee's Lavender copper pit
The pit is bordered by highway, which makes new-in-town motorcyclists hug the far lane while grabbing quick, breathless looks at the drop-off that is mere feet away. Welcome to Bisbee.
Where to Stay, What to Do
Well, as the local madam might have said, “What’s your pleasure?” We were there to ride, and finding good roads was as easy as getting out a map, closing our eyes and pointing. Southeastern Arizona is filled with great roads, interesting history, incredible scenery and good eats. If God is a biker, this is where he winters. My guess is that he gets a good deal on a long-term rental at the Shady Dell, where all the accommodations are vintage Airstream trailers and Dot’s Diner is an original Valentine Diner Car that sports the original formica and flooring. (Get the cheeseburger and chocolate malt, you will not be sorry.)
We had booked a rental house in Bisbee up Tombstone Canyon and to the right, through a website called http://www.vrbo.com/ (vacation rental by owner). We have always had good luck with the website and this trip was no exception. The house was a walled hacienda with a fountain in the courtyard and dozens of hummingbirds fighting for tiny bird dominance at the feeders.
This part of Arizona is on a migratory path from Mexico and Central/South America so if you are a birder, you will be in heaven. Even if you aren't, the incredible number of winged things is mighty impressive. If you choose not to rent a house there are also some cool nightly rental places like The Gardens at Mile High Ranch and all are biker-friendly, as is the town itself. From our house we rode north, south, east or west depending on our mood, time of day, or wrong turn. We rode some 1600 miles during the week, about half on the road, about half off. While the on-road riding was beautiful, excellent, fun, and worth writing home about, the off-road riding was more beautiful, most excellent, and occasionally terrifying on steep mountain passes with sheer drop-offs, gravel, loose sand and tight switchbacks.
Steve was grinning the whole week.
Many of the greatest dirt trails in SE Arizona are in the Coronado National Forest (which seems to encompass most of that part of the state). Forest Service employees are unfailingly helpful and give advice and FREE maps that are valuable in knowing where to go and what to see. You can also purchase map books ahead of time to scope out the best of the off-road trails on public land.
Our Best Off Road Tale: How Green Was My Valley
There are so many, but the most entertaining would have to be the day we rode to Green Valley to tour a museum inside a former Titan Missile Silo (Believe it or Not!), some 90+ miles away from Bisbee.
Since it was a concrete road day, Steve took the Harley; I was on the GS. It was a long, hot and relatively boring ride to Green Valley that we didn’t want to replicate coming home, so we pulled out the map to search for a return that would be less long, hot and boring. I am going to share an important lesson with you now. Distances on maps look shorter. They also look flatter. We found a road out of Green Valley called “Continental” that promised to knock more than 30 miles off our return. The only issue is that it was something other than paved. “Continental” turned out to be the hairiest, narrowest washboard of a switchback nasty we had seen to date.
The ride was so jarring we had to do a tooth count after it was over and Steve rode it on a Harley Road Glide with his freaking radio tuned to some Spanish Elvis station! I asked him why he needed a KTM if he could use his 900-lb. Harley reclino-matic as a dirtbike. Believe me, this ride was pretty hair-raising at the time, but it has been GREAT in the re-telling and seeing Steve on bright orange HOG in a place where mountain goats fear to tread no doubt gave the Border Patrol agents we encountered along the way something to talk about for days after.
Barbara and John...cool, funny and smart, and live 'off the grid' in a
The road to Portal was rough, gravelly, sandy, sheer and filled with switchbacks and John did it with ROAD TIRES on his GS1200 and Barbara riding on the back! At Portal, I presented John with the official “You Da Man” commemorative rock for being hairy enough to knowingly take that ride on ROAD tires with Barbara riding shotgun. Count me impressed. This is how the west was won, folks. You don’t mess with folks as crazy as this.
John being named "You Da Man" for 2009.
23 miles to the northwest of Bisbee is Tombstone, the so-called “Town that Wouldn’t Die.” Maybe not, but after a couple of hours of wandering the streets fending off barkers hawking the next gunfight, tour, drink special or play, it may become the “Town You Most Want to Murder In its Sleep.”
Fake stagecoach in front of fake OK Corral. (The horses are real.)
As touristy and fake as the town is, and it is, it really, really is...Tombstone still has some architectural and historical merit, and motorcyclists seem to love it for some odd reason (plentiful cold beer).
Steve on Holliday in front of the Tombstone Courthouse. He looks like he needs to Earp. Heh. Heh.
The original Boot Hill Cemetery, first used around 1878, lies just up the road. Frank Clanton and the McLaurys who got bested by the Earps and Doc Holliday at OK Corral are still buried there as are a long list of others who died violently and otherwise. The epitaphs give a glimpse into just how rough life in the old west really was. Death came from Ptomaine poisoning, diptheria, consumption, childbirth, bowel inflammation. The majority, though, died violently. One man was shot over the color of his shirt. Another bought a stolen horse and was mistakenly hanged for rustling. A rancher was killed when arguing over the best way to drive cattle, fast or slow. Not only was life hard, for many people it was also mighty short.
The best part about Tombstone would have to be leaving it, because travel south and you can pick up the dirt “Ghost Town Trail” to Gleeson, and travel north and turn onto Middlemarch Road, which turns into Middlemarch Pass through the Dragoon Mountains, a yee-hah dirtbike-of-a-trail if ever there was one.
The Ghost Town Trail winds through the mountains and desert to the outpost of Pearce, which still survives with a shuttered general store and some occupied structures.
Most towns, like Courtland, Fairbank, Gleeson, Contention and others are just ruins. The dust, dirt, wind, thirst, sun, heat, scorpions, snakes and claim jumpers would have been pervasive when these towns were thriving. Living in this rugged region even now isn’t easy, but 100 years ago, it would have been a hardscrabble life of just-getting-by. While I admire the pluck of those folks who forged a life for themselves in the desert a century ago, I am grateful not to have been one of them.
One of a few buildings left in Fairbank, a former mining town near Tombstone.
Things We Learned (or Confirmed)
- Be prepared to alter clothing several times a day. Liners and neck gaitors were needed in the morning, came off during the day, went back on in the late afternoon. We always traveled with tire repair and first aid kits, especially in the back-country. Take water.
- The Bisbee Breakfast Club is a great place to eat and meet. Talk to people! We met a ton of folks, all helpful with great suggestions on things to do and places to go.
- Go local. Our first Saturday we went to the Bisbee Farmer’s Market and met some interesting characters and bought some delicious desert honey.
- The desert isn’t really. It’s just not what I expected. Some places near Tombstone it is the scrubby, windswept stuff of movies. Five miles later it looks like the grassland of the Great Plains. Still other places, it’s mountains, forests and sometimes, lakes.
- Don’t stick your hands under rocks. Scorpions. Steve learned not to forget to shake out your bed linens every night. Scorpions.
- July and August are the rainy months.
- Barbara and John, our new Bisbee-area friends, are fabulous people and have offered to let any member of our club camp on their property. If you so desire, I will give you their contact information. One word though: scorpions. Dust off the credit card and sleep inside and call Barbara and John to meet you for coffee instead. You’ll be happy you did.
- As a single female rider, there is no way I would have set out alone on some of those back road treks unless I could quick-change a tire and field dress a wild Havalina hog. Truly, I would hesitate going deep off-road even as a man traveling alone. There are just too many things that can go wrong miles from nowhere and water does become an issue, quickly. Border Patrol agents are ubiquitous, in jeeps, on ATVs, on horses, at checkpoints, staffing one-person portable overlook stations and as many of our trips took us within 5 miles of the Mexican border, we were in prime ‘crossing’ territory. It would be Murphy’s Law, though, that your breakdown would occur during a Border Patrol holiday and you would be left to fend with dust, wind, heat, cold and dry on your own. Travel in pairs, at least.