Bisbee: Hippies, Gunslingers, Ghosts, And Wine In The Mule Mountains

Bisbee… what can I say about you? You’re a rather quirky tourist town nestled in the Mule Mountains of Southern Arizona, now aren’t you? Full of charming Victorian homes, hippie gift shops, and 100 year-old brick hotels. You attract a bohemian spirit that has charmingly added to the ascetics of your perch-top neighborhoods. You have a laid back Western attitude that has your inhabitants and visitors alike greeting each other with a howdy on the street. You make travel writers like me refer to you as a person, don’t you? Maybe that’s because I feel I know the place, and I’ve been here less than 16 hours.

Driving down highway 80 I passed through the infamous town of Tombstone. I didn’t stop to pay admittance to the OK Corral because being from L.A seeing the site of a murder doesn’t impress me too much. I guess if you’re a thug back in the Wild West you’re considered a gunslinger, in L.A you’re just a gangster. Anyway, I did stop at Boot Hill Graveyard because it has a totally killer name (ha!), and because, of course, it was free and I’m a cheapskate. This is where a lot of the thugs and hookers in the old days were buried, but, again, with better euphemisms like “outlaws” and “painted ladies”. I didn’t stay long because every grave looked the same, just a pile of rocks and a wooden cross with the name of the deceased painted in black on it, and because the sun was setting and I wanted to get to Bisbee before nightfall so I had at least a decent chance of finding my hotel.

Frank Bowles’s epitaph contained a wise bit of Zen advice for us still walking the Earth..

After that bit of non- excitement I left for the last 20 miles to Bisbee. The highway started to wind its way through the mountains and I was greeted by gorgeous ocher cliffs stunningly falling into a verdant green canyon. The sun continued its descent in the West until it was obscured by the hills and a soft light fell on the sublime landscape. It bode well for Bisbee, I thought – this beautiful scenery – and sure enough when I rounded a bend and set eyes on the town it put the pictures I had seen on the Internet to shame.

I wished I could have stayed for a second and admired it from the highway but as it’s only a two lane road and the car behind me didn’t seem as impressed as I was and rode my bumper close enough that I could spot a pimple on the man’s nose, I quickly found the exit and parked my car, praying I’d find the hotel without having to scour every street for it.

It wasn’t too hard, actually. Historic Bisbee is really just two or three square blocks and I stumbled upon my hotel with little difficulty.

I was staying at the Gym Club Suites, an old apartment building now being serviced as a hotel and the lady at the counter was sunny and kind and offered to show me to my room. We rode in the slowest elevator on the planet, perhaps. We were only going three floors but I think we had time to share our entire life stories with each other and still sit around in awkward silence for a minute. I’d thought I was the only one staying in the hotel the whole trip because the elevator was always where I had left it. No one else ever seemed to use it. Finally we got to my room and it was giant. There was a separate bedroom, a spacious living room with a flat screen TV, and a full-sized kitchen: stove, dishwasher, coffee pot, everything. It was a steal at 85 dollars a night and I told the woman I didn’t need that much space but it’s not like a pile of mash potatoes at Thanksgiving, you can’t really scoop it up and put it back, so I thanked her and made myself at home, throwing my clothes everywhere just to lessen the guilt and make it seem like there was some need for all this comfort.

I freshened up with a shower since I was ripe as a yellow banana after the long drive and then found a decent restaurant for dinner. I hunkered down at the bar and quickly found in front of me a glass of Shiraz and a tasty buffalo burger. This was just what I needed after 11 hours of driving through the desert. (It shouldn’t take this long, normally about nine and a half hours, but I took the long route around the Salton Sea and over to Highway 8. While on a detour to view the largest lake in California up close I stopped for gas and purchased a cup of instant coffee that was surprisingly good. The woman behind the counter asked where I was from and then what state L.A was in once I told her. That’s when I realized I was really off the beaten path. Or else this woman didn’t have all her marbles. The desert sun will do that to you.)

After dinner I wandered over to the Copper Queen Hotel and moseyed up to the bar. I do a lot of that, moseying up to bars. I drank a few glasses of Cabernet and tried to give the folks next to me some privacy as it seemed the woman was pouring her heart out to the man about some tragic crime that had recently happened to her. It was the type of conversation that you feel guilty for eavesdropping on but is so tantalizing it’s impossible not to. Was it rape? An attempted murder? What happened to this woman, and why would she share this in a bar? Eventually the woman left and the bartender came over and asked the man, (whom she knew well it seemed) if the lady was bothering him. He laughed it off but did admit he felt like he wasted his night. Huh? That sounded a little heartless but it turned out that the woman is a just coo-coo and that she does that all the time — corner someone and pester them ad nausea about some fantastically deranged delusion of hers. Aliens, FBI, Lawsuits. She’s been kicked out of the bar on numerous occasions for shenanigans just like that.  She is known for telling whopper after whopper and apparently this one was that some man had attempted to make her the star in his snuff film. After I found out that she is just a local nut I didn’t feel  ashamed anymore about eavesdropping and wished I had listened closer.

After a few glasses of Cabernet the bar emptied out and I got to talking with the bartender about life in Bisbee. The Copper Queen is supposedly haunted and the bartender had promised to tell me about her experiences with ghosts in the hotel but never got around to it as a friend of hers came in and we all began chewing the shit. The friend told me the story about how her dad drove into town in the 70’s in an old school bus and once it broke down he decided to stay. She noted that the school bus is still down the road and there are people living in it to this day. She had a beautiful Alaskan Malamute/ Border Collie named Johnson who was more chill than a box of Popsicles in the middle of winter. The pooch laid around the porch while the ladies smoked cigarettes and I prodded them for information and stories about Bisbee under a gorgeous starry night.

There’s a delightful spirit in Bisbee: the old buildings, the way the streets are mangled and in disrepair, the fact that half the houses are dilapidated, even the ones in use, (is there such a thing as building codes in Bisbee?)  the haunted hotels, and the way the entire town is jammed into a canyon; this all created a rather magical effect upon me and I commented as much, or maybe it was the six glasses of wine I had drunk? Either way, I could see why so many people had come to Bisbee and never left. That’s what the bartender had done. Originally from the Bay Area, she said when she got to Bisbee she knew she had found home.

The next morning I got to explore Bisbee by daylight and found it even odder and more creative than I had the night before. Cruising the twisting, climbing streets I came upon houses that looked like they would topple over, stone walls with carvings, candles, tiles, and bottles melded into them — even little Buddha statues — the town looked like one big art project created by a brilliant, yet slightly mad, miner 75 years ago.

The other unique thing about Bisbee is the amount of staircases. Many homes are only accessible by stairs because of the steepness of the canyon and the lack of roads in its early years. They even have an event once a year called the Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb, where you can climb over 1000 stairs to raise money to keep them standing. Sounds like a lot of work but a lot of fun too, just not for me and my beer belly. That’s the kind of event I’d much rather spectate at than participate, along with hangings and weddings.

There’s also a mining tour and mining museum but that kind of thing doesn’t excite me too much. I’m more the sit-in-a-bar-talking-about-ghosts type than learning the history of copper mining and the many uses for copper in modern American life. The only copper I care to know is a penny and that doesn’t get you too far these days.

I went back to the Copper Queen that night and finally got a chance to talk to the bartender about those legendary ephemeral guests staying at the hotel. She admitted to seeing a translucent man hanging out by the piano on a nightly basis, fully dressed in Wyatt Earp period clothing, and that she leaves a  candle burning after closing up for the spirits that hang out there or else they knock over bottles in the middle of the night. A couple from Chicago that heard us talking jumped in with a story about their bedroom door being locked even though neither of them had locked it and the bartender confessed that she had heard tales of that happening as well, none of which is written down in the guest log. Seems that is the work of a mischievous 8 year old boy that had drowned in the San Pedro River. It was all compelling evidence to me and I even felt a chill run down my spine listening to the stories. I ordered another glass of wine to process what I was hearing and looked around for my own apparitions but none presented themselves to me, which I found to be a major disappointment.

I told the bartender that I wished I had a ghost story to tell. I had completely forgotten that I did.

Once, oh, about ten years ago now, I was where my girlfriend at the time was house-sitting. We were going through some serious trouble, on our way to breaking up, and she was downstairs on the couch watching T.V while I was upstairs sleeping in the master bedroom when all of a sudden I heard a loud, grinding noise and had the sensation that a large dresser was barreling towards me. I woke suddenly and jumped up on the bed and leaped out of the way as if the dresser was going to slam into me any second, but no, it was against the wall, where it had always been, silent and still, and I shook my head in baffled amusement. “It was only a dream,” I laughed, but then my girlfriend burst into the room and asked what that noise was. I told her I had jumped off the bed and that must have been what she had heard but she said it was louder than that and sounded like something was being dragged along the floor. I told her what I had dreamed and she repeated that it couldn’t have just been me jumping on the bed. She went downstairs and I jumped off the bed for her to see if that was it, and she related that she hadn’t even heard a slight thud, much less the sound she heard prior.

A few months later the owner of the house told her that he had seen the ghost of a little girl. Did the little girl push the dresser at me? And then pull it back? What exactly happened? Who knows? And that’s how I look at the question of whether spirits exist or not. Who knows? Somewhere they do, I’m sure. Or at times, they do. That night, I was positive it was a supernatural event, sitting at the bar in Bisbee, I was sure there were ghosts in that building. Now, as I type this in my safe, modern, spiritless apartment, I’m not so sure.

So if you’re ever looking to get away from L.A, to a whole ‘nother world, consider making the nine hour drive out to Bisbee. You’ll find yourself among friendly locals, interesting artwork, charming architecture, and you might even make friends with a spirit.

Here’s some more photos, just for kicks.


11 thoughts on “Bisbee: Hippies, Gunslingers, Ghosts, And Wine In The Mule Mountains

  1. enjoyed this very much.

    “That sounded a little heartless but it turned out that the woman is a just coo-coo and that she does that all the time — corner someone and pester them ad nausea about some fantastically deranged delusion of hers. ” – Don’t we all?

    The bartender’s ghost stories, did you see on DiscoverBisbee the Old Bisbee Ghost Tour? “Visit the haunts of Julia who enjoys the company of married men staying alone in her room, Nat the miner who owed money to the Money Man and paid for it with his life, and the Lady in White who saved the lives of three children.” They seem to be very into their ghosts there. I wonder what Julia does when she visits.

  2. Johnson is the coolest dog ever, isn’t he? Nice write-up too! Bisbee is a great little town!

    Thanks, Matt! Visit us again soon!


  3. In a Google search about stories of Bisbee your blog popped up. I read it with amusement… Thank You very much 😉

    My husband and I have booked our lodging to be in Bisbee this year for Halloween week. We are booked into the OK Street Jail…the entire jail is ours for a week. Your experience is a telltale account of the kind of quirky vacations we like to take, but at Halloween.

    Love your pics!
    Elizabeth Eagan-Cox, author.

  4. I was born in Bisbee in 1931, my Grand father was Thomas Spalding One of the founding fathers of Bisbee in the 1800’s.I just wanted some one to know that might read this note that i am probably the last of the Spalding Clan. If you can find it in your heart drop me a line sometime.Thanks Bill Spalding

  5. Good to meet you, Bill. Your grandfather founded a charming town. I wish I could have spent more time there. Thanks for reading my story. May peace and love and blessings come your way.

  6. This is a note for Bill Spalding,
    I was in Bisbee for a couple of years in the 1970s. I went on to live in Seattle and become an art teacher. I’ve had a rich and wonderful life but I will always remember my time in Bisbee as the best time of my life. A wonderful, magical town.

  7. Bisbee is one of those towns with great architecture that was built by a prior generation. There was a time when towns and businesses built buildings of lasting value. The town, obviously, used to generate real wealth.

    It’s currently occupied by a small group of old-timers, older pain-in-the-ass hippies, and street people. Too much in the way of illegals, drugs, low level crime, and decaying infrastructure. It’s one of the few small towns I’ve been in where I would think twice about walking around after dark.

    Good buildings, though.

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