Archive for September 9th, 2008

The wrong adventure, Pt. 2: Tombstone, Arizona

Posted on September 9, 2008. Filed under: Culture, Games, Philosophy, Travel |

This is about my visit to Tombstone, Arizona, and the metaphysical speculations that have since arisen from it. I live about a two-hour drive from Tombstone, and unexpectedly found myself there one afternoon. (For how and why this happened, please see Part one. In fact, see it anyway because that one’s funny; this one is more philosophical.) 😉 I walked into town, confident it would have all the requisite western trappings, which, in fact, it had. These include:

Boardwalk/plank walks; saloon with long oak bar and swinging doors; false-front wooden buildings; dust; history of debauchery; historic gunfight; corral (optional); lots of artsy-craftsy-toursity shops (modern addition to list).

A lot of old western towns in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico—among others—have made the attempt to preserve their character while doing their utmost to rake in tourist dollars. I have no quarrel with this; “The Town Too Tough To Die” (Tombstone’s nickname) still has to live, or the name wouldn’t mean much. I’ve seen similar preserved-but-converted-to-souvenir-or-art-gallery areas in Prescott and Bisbee and Jerome, Arizona, and Santa Fe New Mexico.

In Tombstone, though, which is remembered mostly for the famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, that very Corral has been turned into an “attraction”. I have mixed feelings about this. History tells us the town was corrupt, and the gunfight just waiting to happen out of necessity to “clean up” the town. There are some excellent films about the town and how it got to the condition it was in, most notably the appropriately named Tombstone. That film portrays the politics of the wild west with nuance and, perhaps, respect. I understand the desire to “see the sights” we tourists have, and I wouldn’t mind if there were markers inside the site stating where events took place. The reenactment, for tourists, seems a bit disrespectful somehow. There are rows of shorts-and-t-shirt clad visitors, with their children, waiting for the “entertainment”. Here is a video showing what they see. There’re lots of other video perspectives on YouTube, so you can get a good sense of what it’s like to be there.

I remember the first time I watched the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun“, which takes place mostly inside a representation of the town of Tombstone. I was very young at the time. I felt it gave me some perspective on the incident, and also into human nature. I’d been so sure that the Earps were the good guys, and the Clantons were the bad guys, but the episode showed the Clanton gang with real feelings and real lives and loves.

Watching Star Trek all those years ago was what made me want to visit Tombstone. I’d never been an old west history buff, even as a child, but this episode made me realize there was more to human nature—even in Tombstone—than spittoons, dust, and shooting someone just because they looked at you the wrong way. To me, the old west in movies and television was portrayed quite simplistically. Perhaps I didn’t see the really good westerns, but I wanted no part of any of it!

Tombstone was weird for me, kind of like visiting a (much) lesser Disneyland. You have actors in period costumes working in the shops and roaming the streets, telling little children that “this town ain’t big enough for both of us” and either scaring them or making them giggle. You have the tourists—and I made one of their number—looking completely incongruous in their shorts and sandals. The town itself is remarkably unchanged in appearance from what it must have been in the 1800s. The “gunfight” site (it actually wasn’t in the corral, but in a vacant lot behind a nearby building) has been completely fenced in so that people strolling the streets can’t see a “show” they haven’t paid for. I chose to forgo this opportunity, but did enjoy some of the shops. I acquired a wonderful wall sculpture I still have, and the Crystal Palace Saloon has been lovingly preserved. It looks just right, with its long bar, player piano, and wooden tables and chairs on a wood floor. It has the requisite swinging doors, and I got to thinking about why that was? What is the purpose of swinging doors in a saloon, anyway? They wouldn’t keep people or animals out; since they didn’t go all the way to the floor or ceiling you couldn’t really lock them, and they didn’t prevent people on the street from seeing what was going on in there.

It turns out that the saloon owners indeed wanted the strolling public to see the antics of saloon patrons, and hopefully be lured inside. The doors were there ostensibly to protect the children from the “horrors” of saloon goings-on, but in reality the parents had to counsel their children to look away!

My favorite building was the Bird Cage Theater; famous and fully restored, and it is mention of this theater in a recent lecture I attended that got me thinking about Tombstone again. The lecture was on the topic of Ghosts and Hauntings. Normally I wouldn’t attend a talk like this, but I’m a member of the group which sponsored it, and thought I “might as well” go. The lecturer is an actual “Ghost Hunter” by trade, and his lecture was about the tools and investigative methods his team uses. He points out that his service is mostly for the purpose of easing his clients’ minds. They hear funny noises. They see strange manifestations. They’re worried. They like their home, but wonder if it’s safe to live there. The lecturer says that 96% of these anomalies can be explained by conventional means, and that’s what his business is there to do. Some of the answers to “unexplained phenomena” are: squirrels in the basement, a sun ray bouncing light off a neighboring building’s window at a certain time of day, or a chimney that needs cleaning, causing smoke, which looks like an eerie ghost, to appear on the floor above the fireplace.

Given all that, our lecturer told us he and his team had been allowed unprecedented access to the Bird Cage Theater for a whole day of investigation. You must know that the Bird Cage has been reported as one of the more haunted sites in our state, and the investigators wanted to find out what’s behind the reported manifestations. Well, the team experienced several weird events that they couldn’t track down; it was one of their few “unsolved” cases. And this is why the lecture caused me to revisit the memory of visiting the Bird Cage.

I walked in, and immediately felt a rush of anticipation. It was so beautifully preserved and met all my expectations of what a fine old theater (and house of ill repute) should be. I walked around, and though it was a hot day, I felt a chill! There are so few buildings in the western United States that have any sense of history; ours simply haven’t been around for centuries like those of countries in Europe or Asia. I fancied I could feel the…I’m not quite sure what to call them…”energy signatures” of those who had come before. There had been shootings at this theater, too, (it truly was a tough town) not just in the Crystal Palace or Corral, as well as intense moments of pleasure, as it was the town’s best entertainment venue. All that raw emotion seemed almost palpable.

The closest thing I’ve felt to this was many years ago when my family visited Canterbury Cathedral in the UK. For some reason, this, more than any other location on our European trip, evoked that sense of all the people who’d prayed there in centuries past. It’s a very old building, and was a Roman Catholic cathedral before the “changeover” to the Church of England. There was a heaviness about the atmosphere that owed nothing to what was visible.

Do I believe in ghosts? Not really, because I’ve never seen one. I do believe in something like concentrations of energy. I think strong emotion leaves emotional residue, that, if intense enough, may last for years. That’s why we sometimes get “the shivers” when visiting certain buildings, or a feeling that “I just don’t like it here!” I don’t quite know what to make of such things, but, if there are ghosts anywhere, Tombstone, Arizona surely feels like one of those places. If you go, or have visited there, let me know if you “felt” anything!

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