By Bill Kresnak
This first appeared in American Motorcyclist magazine in October 2004.
I decide to hop on my trusty steed and head out of Tucson, Ariz., in search of badlands and bad guys.
The fact that this area looks just like the Old West of the movies is no coincidence. I pick up Kinney Road toward a place where hundreds of westerns were filmed: Old Tucson Studios.
Turning my BMW GS into the studio parking lot, I pay my admission at the ticket booth and find myself walking down the main street of a Hollywood-style Wild West town.
This place got its start in 1939, when Columbia Pictures erected more than 50 buildings in 40 days to make a replica of 1860s Tucson for the movie “Arizona.” Once built, it was a logical location for many more westerns through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Famous films shot here include “Gunfight at the OK Corral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in 1956; and “Cimarron” with Glenn Ford in 1959. Then there were John Wayne classics like “Rio Bravo,” ‘McLintock,’ ‘El Dorado’ and ‘Rio Lobo.’ Other famous actors worked here as well: Paul Ne’man in ‘Hombre,’ Clint Eastwood in ‘Joe Kidd’ and Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in “The Frisco Kid.’
It’s a pretty cool place. Among the buildings, you’ll find the Pima County Bank. Farther down the street is a replica of Tucson’s first schoolhouse, plus a blacksmith shop, a sheriff’s office, a homesteader’s cabin and a brewery. Of course, there’s also the obligatory hotel, saloon, gallows and a lot more.
After enjoying chicken tacos and a root beer at Rosa’s Cantina, I head toward the park exit with a little cowboy swagger in my step.
The place is fun. But it is, of course, a lot more Hollywood than it is Wild West.
Looking deeper for the heart of the Old West, I point the BMW south on U.S. Route 19 toward Nogales.
The town was once the stomping grounds of Mexican revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa, who led raids into U.S. border towns in the 1910s. These days, Nogales is the gateway to Arizona’s old estate country, where Arizona Route 82 winds through hilly grassland past cattle fields and vineyards.
The area maintains an Old West atmosphere, so much so that it has served as the backdrop for several movies, including “The Young Guns” and “Oklahoma.”
Next, I head down the road on Arizona Route 80 toward one of the most infamous towns in all the West: Tombstone.
As soon as I pull into town, I can tell this is the Old West I’ve been looking for. The town has a genuine feel that’s hard not to like.
Named because local soldiers told prospector Ed Schieffelin that all he’d find here would be savage Apache Indians and his own tombstone, the town was in fact home to much more.
After Schieffelin found silver here in 1877, more than 15,000 people crowded in during the next 18 months. And, in the eight years before the inevitable bust, Tombstone gained a reputation as one of the roughest places in the West.
I find a parking lot just a couple blocks from Main Street and start walking. I stumble onto the Cochise County Courthouse and jail, built in 1882. Despite the crowds elsewhere, I’m the only one here, and it’s easy to imagine that day in 1884 when five people were hanged at once in the gallows after murdering three citizens in a nearby store robbery.
Next, I make my way to Main Street and the Bird Cage Theatre, which once featured gambling, dancing, risque entertainment and ladies of the evening, 24 hours a day. The Bird Cage was host to 16 gunfights in nine years between 1880 and 1889, and its walls and ceilings are riddled with 140 bullet holes.
Down the street is the equally notorious Oriental Saloon. It’s the place where “Buckskin” Frank Leslie shot to death outlaw William Clayborne in a duel. According to history, Clayborne shot first and missed. Leslie, the saloon bartender and a known fast gun, didn’t.
And then, of course, there’s the OK Corral.
Everyone knows the story: the Clanton and McLaury brothers were cattle rustlers, and Virgil Earp was Tombstone’s marshal, charged with the task of, among other things, putting an end to rustling.
Historians disagree on what exactly led to the famous gunfight in 1881 at the OK Corral. That is, whether Virgil and his brothers, plus Doc Holliday, planned to merely disarm the Clantons and McLaurys and haul them off to jail, or whether they planned from the very beginning to have a shootout.
No one argues, though, with the fact that Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday fired the first shots, and 30 seconds later Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead, Virgil and Morgan Earp were injured, and Ike Clanton and Bill Clayborne had fled.
There’s one more stop I need to make before my outlaw tour ends. I climb aboard the GS and head out of town to the old cemetery known as Boothill.
It is, in fact, a very real graveyard. On this afternoon, it’s quiet and solemn. And it underscores the fact that the Old West in general was a very dangerous place.
The epitaphs on the gravestones are legendary. Consider this succinct gem above the final resting place of a Wells Fargo agent who came out on the wrong end of a gun battle: “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les, no more.”
Other, less colorful headstones remind you how cheap life could be out here back then. Here, rancher Charles Helm was shot by another rancher in an quarrel over whether it was better to drive cattle fast or slow. Over there, James Hickey was shot in the left temple by William Clayborne after pestering the gunslinger to drink with him. Back there, George Johnson was hanged by mistake after buying a stolen horse.
The cemetery was only open from 1878 to 1884 yet it is the final resting place of more than 250 people.
As the sun sets and the wind blows dusty soil on my boots, the graveyard is an eerie, contemplative place that makes me want to sit a while. It’s also a very real reminder of what it meant to live on the frontier.