Stan­ley Ste­wart es­capes wall-to-wall US elec­tion cov­er­age in a re­mote cor­ner of Ari­zona

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

IHAVE only been in Tomb­stone half an hour when the shoot­ing starts. Ap­par­ently the Repub­li­cans and the Democrats are at it again. This is just the kind of thing I have come to Ari­zona to es­cape. I am hav­ing lunch in the Crys­tal Palace Sa­loon, be­ing served by a young woman in a fetch­ing red corset, when I hear the raised voices. I pay my tab and hurry out­side. Peo­ple are gath­er­ing on the wooden board­walks. ‘‘ There’s Doc Hol­l­i­day,’’ one says, ges­tur­ing to a lean mous­ta­chioed gen­tle­man wear­ing a span­gly waist­coat and car­ry­ing a shot­gun.

It has been brew­ing all morn­ing. There have been heated words out­side the Bird Cage The­atre. Threats have been ex­changed at Big Nose Kate’s. Now Wy­att Earp and his broth­ers Vir­gil and Mor­gan with old friend Hol­l­i­day are ad­vanc­ing down Main Street to­wards Fly’s Board­ing House, where the Clan­ton gang has been spot­ted at the OK Cor­ral.

A crowd drifts af­ter them. ‘‘ There is go­ing to be trou­ble,’’ a fat man from Ohio says to his fat wife.

He must have seen the film. Or pos­si­bly peeked at the leaflets in the in­for­ma­tion cen­tre where he bought his ticket. At 2pm ev­ery day in Tomb­stone, the Clan­tons are cut down in a hail of blanks for crowds of tourists in one of the long­est-run­ning po­lit­i­cal feuds in the US.

To some peo­ple it is just the Gun­fight at OK Cor­ral. To oth­ers it is the 19th-cen­tury equiv­a­lent of po­lit­i­cal at­tack ads. The town mar­shalls — the Earp broth­ers — were the hired guns of the Repub­li­can hi­er­ar­chy, the own­ers of the big min­ing and cat­tle op­er­a­tions, who wanted to make Tomb­stone ‘‘ safe for in­vest­ment’’.

The Clan­tons, hum­ble cow­boys who wanted to pre­serve a bit of eco­nomic space for free­lance prospec­tors and small in­de­pen­dent ranch­ers, were aligned with the Democrats. You can see how much has changed in 127 years. This bat­tle, be­tween the big guys and the small guys, was played out all over the West in the heady days when it was known as wild.

But like most peo­ple in this year of in­ter­minable elec­tion­eer­ing, I have had enough of pol­i­tick­ing, even when it in­volves Earp’s im­pres­sively quick draw. The 20-hour news cy­cle is mak­ing me a po­lit­i­cal junkie. I am hooked on the lat­est poll fig­ures, on the spin and the sound bites and the ap­proval rat­ings.

I need to get away. I am head­ing deep into the south­east­ern cor­ner of Ari­zona, to Cochise County, in hope of es­cape. I am looking for a qui­eter Amer­ica, an Amer­ica without pol­i­tics.

Down in Dou­glas, 80km fur­ther on, I stop for a cof­fee. Among the dis­count shops and boarded-up win­dows on Main Street sits the Gad­sen Ho­tel, Dou­glas’s only mo­ment of glam­our. Built in 1907, when the town was barely six years old, it is a mon­u­ment to the fu­ture as en­vis­aged by the big east­ern in­vestors, a fu­ture it never found. In the lobby a grand dou­ble stair­case rises past a vast spread of Tif­fany stained glass. The guests didn’t al­ways live up to the ar­chi­tec­ture. One night, when the ho­tel was still new, Pan­cho Villa, rather the worse for drink, de­cided to ride his horse up­stairs to his room, fir­ing into the ceil­ing as he went. You can still see the chipped mar­ble on the sev­enth step of the stair­case.

I step into the Sad­dle & Spur bar where a sign warns: No firearms or weapons of any kind. The place is empty but for the bar­man, who has fallen asleep in front of a Wanted poster. A tele­vi­sion is on in the cor­ner. Peo­ple are wav­ing flags and ban­ners. John McCain, the Ari­zona se­na­tor, is giv­ing them the thumbs up and a rather creepy rep­til­ian smile. I turn the set off and go next door to the diner —‘‘all the cof­fee you can drink for a dol­lar’’ — where I take a stool at the counter and fall into con­ver­sa­tion with Frank.

Dou­glas is a bor­der town. Mex­ico is 10 blocks away at the end of Main Street. Frank’s fam­ily em­i­grated from Mex­ico when he was a boy. ‘‘ Seven kids in one room,’’ he says. ‘‘ And six of us got a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Equal op­por­tu­nity. That’s what Amer­ica’s all about.’’

Im­mi­gra­tion is a hot is­sue in th­ese parts, and be­fore I can stop my­self I am ask­ing Frank what he thinks about it. The speed of his as­sim­i­la­tion into the US seems star­tling.

‘‘ Got to keep them damned Mex­i­cans out,’’ Frank tells me. ‘‘ They’ll ruin this coun­try faster than a bout of swamp fever will take a new­born baby. I reckon both of them (pres­i­den­tial) candidates are soft on il­le­gals.’’

I fol­low High­way 80, which runs like a drawn line through the empty grass­lands of the San Bernardino Val­ley. In an hour’s driv­ing I see two other cars, nei­ther sport­ing po­lit­i­cal bumper stick­ers. From time to time dis­tant home­steads ap­pear, set back from the road, tucked into folds

in the long yel­low hills. To the north and west are the peaks and canyons of the Chir­ic­ahua Moun­tains. To the east lies New Mex­ico and the Pel­on­cillo Moun­tains. It is re­mote coun­try. My mo­bile can’t get a sig­nal. On the ra­dio, crack­ling with static, a man is singing, All my ex-wives live in Texas, that’s why I hang my hat in Ten­nessee.’’

Price Canyon Ranch lies at the end of a long dirt road in the foothills of the Chir­ic­ahuas. It is just the kind of place I am looking for. I want a real work­ing ranch, not a dude ranch with an in­fin­ity pool and a spa and a yoga class. I want some­where that feels like the west, some­where comfortable but rus­tic, not a ci­ti­fied lux­ury re­sort where you ex­pect to find the horses on the sun-loungers sip­ping mar­ti­nis.

Price Canyon has 10 gue­strooms el­e­gantly dec­o­rated in west­ern style with hard­wood floors and Navajo rugs. One of the old barns has been beau­ti­fully con­verted into a large cen­tral lounge with a stone fire­place, deep leather so­fas and a din­ing area where meals are pro­duced by Fred Tullis, a painter turned chef. If food is the heart of a home, Tullis and his gen­er­ous coun­try meals are the heart and soul of Price Canyon.

But the best thing about the ranch is there are no tele­vi­sions. If I were tempted to sneak a peek at Meet­thePress , there is noth­ing I can do. And it gets bet­ter: in­ter­net ac­cess is down. A re­pair­man is meant to come from Tuc­son, three hours away, but he hasn’t been able to make it. Hope­fully he won’t be able to make it to­mor­row ei­ther. Or the next day. It is per­fect. I am ma­rooned with cow­boys a mil­lion miles from faked out­rage about lip­stick on a pig.

Af­ter din­ner I sit on the porch and lis­ten to the si­lence. It feels like a sort of ring­ing in my ears, the rem­nant of too many break­ing-news bul­letins. In the hills I hear coy­otes howl­ing.

Rid­ing is what most peo­ple do at Price Canyon. Some­times it has a point — there are cat­tle to be moved, fences to checked and spring herds to be rounded up for brand­ing — and some­times it doesn’t. Out here they are firm be­liev­ers that the best thing for the in­side of a man is the out­side of a horse.

I set off the first morn­ing with Jesse, one of the ranch’s cow­boys. We ride north be­neath a vast sky over ridges bro­ken by out­crops of rock. In the val­ley bot­toms, lines of oaks and ju­nipers run along the creek beds. Small quail whirr up as the horses ap­proach while red-tailed hawks, wings feath­er­ing in the wind, sail low over the yel­low grasses.

We ride into a canyon where there are an­cient Apache caves, later used by cat­tle rustlers; you can still see their rusted barbed wire, aban­doned more than 100 years ago, tan­gled in the brush­wood. We ride across a high ridge where we pause to sur­vey the coun­try. Moun­tains press on all sides. The Chir­ic­ahua runs away to the north. To the south, moun­tains march into Mex­ico; the far­thest range is the Sierra Madre, its blue heads buried in clouds.

Jesse grew up in town, in Tuc­son, but has al­ways spent his school hol­i­days cow­boy­ing, work­ing on ranches down in th­ese parts. It is the only life he wants. He could be liv­ing in Phoenix with a nine-to-five job, like so many of his school­mates, no doubt hooked on the evening news, but the lure of th­ese land­scapes and of the life they of­fer has proved too strong. Jesse is also a mu­si­cian, twice the win­ner of the Ari­zona Fid­dlers Com­pe­ti­tion, and un­til re­cently part of a blue­grass band that toured the coun­try in an old Grey­hound bus.

That evening he comes to play for us, un­pack­ing his fid­dles in front of the fire. The tunes are mostly tra­di­tional Scot­tish and Ir­ish melodies trans­planted to the new world. The high­light of the evening is a tune he knows as Lo­raina , a melody so haunt­ing it was banned dur­ing the Civil War be­cause it made sol­diers home­sick, prompt­ing them to desert their posts.

It has the same ef­fect on me. Af­ter three days of rid­ing across God’s own coun­try, and an evening of Jesse’s fid­dle, I have de­serted. I don’t care which po­lit­i­cal party is up and which is down. The up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial de­bates mean noth­ing to me. I am a free man again.

In the end I de­cide it would be eas­ier on us all if we just let the candidates loose in the streets of Tomb­stone with span­gly waist­coats and some twangy back­ground mu­sic. It is a clas­sic, re­ally: the griz­zled gun­slinger, bear­ing a dozen old wounds, up against the new kid in town who thinks he has all the an­swers.

I put my money on the kid, and will stand a round of cold ones in the Crys­tal Palace Sa­loon should he let us down. Stan­ley Ste­wart was a guest of Amer­i­can Roundup.

Check­list

From Phoenix, con­nect to Tuc­son with US Air­ways or drive (about two hours) be­tween the two cities. More: www.usair­ways.com. Price Canyon Ranch is a five-hour drive from Phoenix. It’s one of the few ranches in the US that takes book­ings through win­ter, when tem­per­a­tures are mild (the height of the sum­mer is prob­a­bly best avoided). Pack­ages avail­able from Amer­i­can Roundup. More: www.price­canyon.com; www.amer­i­can­roundup.com.

Main pic­ture: Photolibrary

Mul­ti­coloured dreamscape: A saguaro sil­hou­et­ted against an Ari­zona desert sun­set

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