Stanley Stewart escapes wall-to-wall US election coverage in a remote corner of Arizona
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.
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.
Multicoloured dreamscape: A saguaro silhouetted against an Arizona desert sunset