Queen of the Desert

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

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Rose Johnson is another kind of new resident. She's a serious artist, a transplant first from England and more recently Phoenix who came to Bisbee for the summer in 1998 and never left. She talks about how the town's undemanding pace has given her the space to grow as an artist. "My recent work is less frantic, more serene," she says. "A lot of city clutter is gone from my life. You don't have to expend energy coping here."

But Bisbee hasn't lulled her into complacent sweetness. Last year she painted a haunting mural bursting with dream images―a lighthouse, a mermaid, a horse on a moonlit hill, a woman on a balcony ― on a wall of the Jonquil Motel, a modest seven-unit motor court dating from the '50s. A poem by Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca inspired it, and, like the poem, the mural is both beautiful and disturbing. "There's a lot of room here for expression," Johnson says.

A lot of factors have converged in Bisbee to create that room: affordable living, a history of creative coping that stretches back through the mining era, a culture of free thinking and tolerance lingering from the hippie days, and a preposterous physical layout that surely helps inspire spontaneity and optimism among its people. If Bisbee is possible, anything's possible. In his memoir, Shelton suggested that the town has survived "because it has always steadfastly refused to face reality, a toy town where real people live and suffer, but always in the present." People in Bisbee don't spend much time worrying about any wreckage in the future. Whatever happens will happen ― and someone will figure out how to make a bit of spare change on it.

Remaking your life

Bisbee's economy doesn't fuel many conventional careers, so residents become wizards at improvising a living from a mosaic of sources and reinventing themselves. Here's some of their advice.

• Find a place ― such as Bisbee ― with a low cost of living and a relaxed pace of life, then use your free time to explore yourself and liberate your creativity. "Bisbee has helped me to focus on what I'm about," says artist Rose Johnson. "I've found that instead of my art being of service to me, it's about service to the world."

• Count your riches in terms of living a useful life instead of income or prestige. "My goal has nothing to do with my business growing large," says coffee roaster Seth Appell. "I just feel good when the phone wakes me up in the morning and it's someone in New York who needs a pound of coffee."

• "Take something negative like killer bees and figure out a way to put a positive spin on it," says honey-mustard maven Reed Booth. "Think outside the hive."

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