Queen of the Desert
On the morning of August 4, 1998, all hell broke loose in Bisbee, Arizona. Nothing new in principle ― hell has visited Bisbee regularly for as long as the town has existed–but this time it happened in fresh and sensational form.
A resident of Brewery Gulch, the infamous canyon furrowing north from downtown, decided to spray a beehive wedged in an old brick warehouse. The hive had been a neighborhood fixture for as long as anyone could remember, but its recent Africanized residents, once aroused, formed a weapon of mass destruction. The “killer” bees boiled into the street, attacking people, dogs, birds, even telephone poles. Two women almost crashed their cars into each other trying to escape. A desperate policeman frantically wrapped himself in a blanket. Eight people landed in the hospital. By one newspaper account, it was “a Keystone Cops scramble with overtones of an Alfred Hitchcock horror film.”
But in the weird though pragmatic reverse universe of Bisbee, there’s always a creative soul to seize the day. In the wake of the media buzz, Reed Booth, the original offender of the Brewery Gulch bees, began billing himself as Bisbee’s “killer-bee guy.” He self-published a book, and opened a shop on Main Street for his killer-bee honey mustard and honey butter. He says he did about $150,000 of business last year, which in Bisbee’s rickety economy is a substantial pile of money.
“I became a killer-bee expert because I was unemployable,” Booth quips, then turns semiserious. “In Bisbee, people will tell you, ‘I only want to work three days a week, I don’t want to get up early’ ― they aren’t crack-of-dawn people; they’re more like crack-of-noon,” he says. “But the truth is that this town is full of passionate people. We find something we love and figure out a way to keep doing it.”
That’s the story of the town, too ― against all rational alignments, it finds a way to keep going.
For its first 100 years, Bisbee was a mining town, but one more substantial ― and more notorious ― than most of those spattered about the mountain West. In the early 1900s it had the air of a cosmopolitan, if not refined, city. A 1917-18 city directory listed about 15,000 residents, including miners from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Serbia. It was one of the largest burgs in Arizona. But brothels and bars lined Brewery Gulch, and floods, fires, and epidemics beset Bisbee as if by subscription. In a fond memoir, Going Back to Bisbee, writer Richard Shelton termed it “a town built directly in the path of disaster.”
But in an effort to convince investors that Bisbee was for real, the mining companies commissioned a few architectural landmarks that echoed Boston or Philadelphia, albeit at dollhouse scale. The Italian villa-style Copper Queen Hotel, opened in 1902, still presides over the town with baronial dignity. The 1905 Muheim Block boasts a Roman temple portico ― except that over the columns, instead of a sculptural frieze depicting gods at play, there’s a bold proclamation: brewery. A mining town reveres its beer. And its machismo. Bisbee’s sculptural centerpiece is a 1935 socialist-realist statue of a bare-chested miner with Superman pecs and an expression of world-dominating confidence. The inscription reads: “Dedicated to those virile men―the copper miners…”
The last mine closed in 1975, and for a while, that looked like Bisbee’s final disaster. Most of the remaining 8,000 miners and merchants dribbled away, and their homes ― spindly rooming houses, teetering cottages, and substantial Craftsman bungalows ― tumbled onto the market at preposterously low prices. Word spread, and a wave of late-blooming hippies lapped into town. Judy Perry arrived in 1976 and became a poster child for the wildly unstructured opportunities of Bisbee.
“I bought a house for $7,000 and paid it off in seven years at $100 a month,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a car for 12 years, but I had a garage, and people tended to leave their cars in it and let me drive them. I played in a comedy band, started a satirical vaudeville troupe, learned to paint, and opened a gallery. I did things here that I never would have done in Tucson or anyplace else, because I didn’t have the credentials. People would have laughed at me.” Today Perry paints fetching acrylic pictures of a cozy, cluttered Bisbee, makes less than $10,000 a year, and seems profoundly happy with her life. “I want to paint what makes me happy, not what will sell. I’ve just been lucky that it has sold.”
But there is a structure underlying the liberal, laissez-faire social order of Bisbee, Perry says. “It’s intense in that everybody knows almost everything about you. You can’t have a secretive life here. If you’re a bad plumber, you’re not going to get any work.”
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.”
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.”