Queen of the Desert

Artist. Beekeeper. In Bisbee, Arizona, you can be whatever you want to be.

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  • The Queen Mine was an early source of the city's wealth.

    Bisbee landmark

    Dave Lauridsen

    Click to Enlarge

Tourists who stumbled across Bisbee in the '70s and '80s might've assumed it was full of bad plumbers, as well as bad carpenters, bad painters, and bad pothole repairers. Actually, it was just poor ― no economic base, few real jobs. Someone printed up T-shirts that captured the moment perfectly: BISBEE ― RUBBLE WITHOUT A CAUSE. But even at its scruffiest, the town had a physical allure that couldn't be snuffed out. It's so different, faintly European and thoroughly Wild West at the same time. It's as if a tornado scooped up a wedge of San Francisco, battered all the buildings down to half-size, then tossed them like a shower of Monopoly houses into a desert canyon where they all landed at crazy angles on precarious ledges. A tangle of linguine-wide streets lurches among them, but many houses don't have a street on their level. Residents park somewhere 50 feet higher or lower and trek home on the public stairways.

This is one reason why Bisbee hasn't been Aspen-ized: Its angular geography weeds out those who crave lives of idle convenience. And there are other reasons. Aside from government (Bisbee is the Cochise County seat), there still aren't many stable jobs. The open pit mine yawning at the edge of town certainly detracts from the cute factor. There is a local hospital, but the nearest mall is 25 miles away in Sierra Vista, and it's 100 miles to the Tucson airport. And the school system, while locally praised for good and dedicated teachers, suffers from the rural-school syndrome ― not enough money to keep up with Arizona's more prosperous urban schools in terms of buildings and equipment.

But Bisbee is beginning to attract relatively young, active retirees and entrepreneurs, who are fixing and painting and opening things. For the first time in 30 years, Bisbee looks almost prosperous ― though not to the point of taking itself very seriously. Walk up Brewery Gulch, and you'll find a row of rusted steel bedposts planted in a vacant lot. A house of ill repute once stood here, and the bedposts are intended to memorialize its occupants. Public sculpture, Bisbee-style.

Ken Budge represents one kind of new resident in Bisbee. He's a retired firefighter and "kind of an athletic junkie," so aside from restoring a house, he's coordinating the annual Bisbee 1000, a 5K run that winds up 1,034 of the town's outdoor stairs and contributes the financial proceeds to their maintenance. "I think people are sick of phoniness; they want to experience reality," he says. "That's why Bisbee, and our event, are so appealing ― they're real. You're not seeing a movie set. The town looks pretty much like it did in the early 1900s."

 

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