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It would seem I am not alone in my fascination with the diamond in the rough that is the colorful old mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Among the notables who have stopped by, stayed awhile or discovered the pleasures of dining here are Senator John McCain, John Wayne, Stephen King, William Shatner, and a host of equally notable celebrities.
Some months ago as I began contemplating a suitable location to celebrate twenty five years of marriage to my dear wife, Bisbee began to dominate my thoughts. By early September those thoughts were made manifest with reservations at the legendary Copper Queen, a true gem.
Our adventure began as a tinge of pink illuminated the eastern horizon. Before the sun had cleared the mountains the mini van rented for the occasion was loaded and we were rolling south on I40 into the foothills of the Hualapai Mountains.
The drive from Kingman to Phoenix is a scenic one and often reminds of the old days on Route 66 – road construction, traffic, impatient drivers, slow drivers, and small towns such as Wikieup and Wickenburg where the highway is the main street. Still, though there are signs of new development scattered along the way and the highway is fast becoming a four lane there are more than enough vestiges from the past to provide that feeling little has changed in the forty plus years I have been running this old highway.
Phoenix is another story. The freeway system has negated the nightmare that was traversing the city via Grand Ave, an endless string of traffic lights. Still my feelings are that Phoenix has to a large degree mortgaged its pioneer spirit and frontier heritage to become a suburb of Los Angeles. Suffice we ran the gauntlet and survived.
The traffic between Phoenix and Tucson is steady and heavy. Adding to the fun was extensive construction that had many exits closed in Tucson.
As always my dear bride knew exactly when the pressure relief valve was about to blow so at her suggestion we stopped at Ihop in Casa Grande. In true adventurer spirit my wife opted for the pumpkin pancakes while I indulged in an omelet.
Shortly after clearing Tucson we turned south towards Tombstone, Bisbee, and Douglas. I love this drive.
With the exception of Tombstone the small towns such as St. David and the pastoral landscapes hearken to an earlier, less rushed era when the term generic had yet to be coined to describe almost every aspect of American society.
Tombstone is an interesting blend of historic, historic recreation, fanciful, and down right hokey. The popularity with tourists for places such as this has always amazed me. Attesting to that popularity a new Holiday Inn Express now dominates a hill to the north of town.
Still, there are two attractions that really are worth seeing here. One is the courthouse, the smallest state park in Arizona. The second is the Rose Tree Inn.
The latter is a very informative private museum housed in an historic building. Among the surprises awaiting discovery are artifacts from the Doolittle Raid in World War II.
The Macia family has owned this property for many years. Col. James Macia was a navigator on one of the bombers in that historic raid.
However, the most amazing find here is in the backyard, the worlds largest rose bush spread over an arbor covering more than 8,000 square feet. The bush has grown from a single root imported from Scotland and planted in 1885.
My wife’s family has a long association with Tombstone. In addition to being related to the Macia family, her father was born here. His father was the sheriff in Cochise County during the early 1920s. He also owned an old hotel that burned in the late 1930s.
The drive south from Tombstone across the rolling high desert plains and into the Mule Pass Mountains is a pleasant one. Then, abruptly, the maw of a tunnel seems to swallow the highway as it crests a hill. The completion of this tunnel and construction of a highway above Bisbee in 1958 eliminated the nightmare of traffic on the narrow streets of the old town.
On my first visit to Bisbee in driving through the tunnel I was stunned to pass from a desert landscape into a true time capsule from 1910 dusted with snow. I suppose that is why for me the tunnel is viewed as a portal to another world.
As this was my wife’s first visit since she was an infant it was a delight to see the look on her face as we exited the tunnel and turned from the modern highway to the old one that winds though town in Tombstone Canyon.
Fueled by closure of the mines in the 1970s the old town has dwindled from a peak population of almost 25,000 to about 6,500. Still something like 98% of the historic district remains intact.
Our goal was the Copper Queen, a vintage hotel that was, and still is, the crown jewel in the treasure box that is Bisbee. The hotel has been refurbished to Motel 6 standards, in other words it has been updated from the original configuration in several key areas, most notably all rooms now have a private bath rather than a shared one at the end of the hall. Another change is that an elevator was added in 1940.
The result is the ability to enjoy a few modern conveniences in an atmosphere little changed from when this hotel represented the height of modern sophistication for 1905. To a large degree the hotel, the saloon, and Winchester’s restaurant are as they were when Teddy Roosevelt stayed here.
When I made the reservation inquiries were made as to special packages. Even though I was informed there were none available the staff and management exceeded expectations and surprised me. Upon arrival we found a small bottle of campaign on ice, two chilled glasses, and a polite note of congratulations in our room.
Dining choices in Bisbee are varied and range from a four course dinner in a restaurant that is consistently awarded a four diamond rating to the usual fare of burgers. We chose to dine at Wichester’s in the Copper Queen and were not disappointed.
The food was superb. The atmosphere quaint with an historic touch of class and the staff was most courteous.
For more information about the Copper Queen check out their website – http://www.copperqueen.com/
Sadly, my schedule prohibited more than a two or three day trip and as Bisbee is four hundred miles south of Kingman the next morning it was time to begin the run home. We decided that we would add a couple of hundred miles to the return trip in an effort to avoid the nightmare of driving through Phoenix and to see some of Arizona’s finest landscapes.
So, we drove west across the San Pedro River at the old town of Fairbank, site of the shoot out between Jeff Davis and Three Finger Jack in 1905 and across the flower dappled fields near Soniata, the heart of Arizona’s wine country. As an historic foot note the wineries in this part of Arizona predate those in California.
This is a gorgeous drive that ends with startling abruptness at the border town of Nogales. Here we turned north towards to Tucson but made time for stops at Tubac, San Xavier del Bac, and the ruins at Tumacacori, remnants from the Spanish colonial era.
We battled our way through Tucson and headed north toward Oracle, Winkleman and Globe. This is one of many overlooked scenic drives in Arizona, something I hoped to remedy with Backroads of Arizona.
From Globe we continued north past Roosevelt Dam to Payson, and down the mountain to historic Camp Verde. By the time we made Payson dusk was fast becoming dark, not something I relish as the woods that border the road are a haven for deer as well as elk.
On our trip to New Mexico last year I had a close call with several elk standing in the middle of the road in the early morning hours when rounding a curve. This year the near misses included a large peccary near Globe and a couple deer in the hills above Camp Verde.
We ended our adventure with a great, late dinner at the Pine Country Restaurant in Williams, one of our favorite places to eat and one I highly recommend for the Route 66 enthusiast.
Suffice to say it was a whirlwind adventure – 1,046 miles in two days. I learned long ago that it is the company, not the sites, sounds or attractions that make a great drive. On this trip I had the best company a man could ask for. I also have a new box of memories including the glow of my dear wife’s face in the candle light as we watched the lights come on in Bisbee far below.
As the song says I feel sorry for anyone who isn’t me.
One final unrelated note. I received an advance copy of Backroads of Route 66 today and must say I was quite impressed, and this isn’t because I wrote it.
My hope is you find it as exciting but of even more importance I hope that as with Backroads of Arizona (now in its second printing!) you find it an invaluable resource for discovering the secrets on the road less traveled.
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