In the Wild West footsteps of Billy the Kid

Sat, Oct 10, 2009, 01:00

MANCHÁN MAGANsets off on road trip through Arizona and New Mexico

AS I FOLLOWED in the footsteps of Billy the Kid through Arizona and New Mexico recently, for a documentary, I stumbled on an ideal route for a road trip through wonderfully quirky Wild West towns and swathes of beautifully bleached desert.

Billy wouldn’t top my list of interesting historical figures, but I owe him a debt for introducing me to this spectacular region of the southwestern US, along the border with Mexico. My suggestion would be to fly into Albuquerque, New Mexico, and out of Tucson, Arizona (or vice versa), and drive between the two.

The highlight of southern New Mexico is Lincoln, a tiny town between Capitan and Roswell that once was a trading hub and is now virtually a ghost town, with only 70 inhabitants, and a frontier feel has been remarkably well preserved. It is easy to imagine the cattle barons, cowboys, Apaches and Hispanics riding in from the mesquite-covered hills that stretch between the Capitan and Sacramento Mountains.

Lincoln is a 19th-century time capsule that was bypassed when ranching and mining ended there, a century ago. The few stragglers who remained found it easier to leave things as they were, and other than the tarmac laid along the main street, nothing has changed, including the old wooden buildings, wooden pathways and even adobe defensive tower, or torreón.

In the 1930s some conscientious locals came to value what they had and ensured everything was preserved as though frozen in time. Most remarkable of all is the Tunstall Store, with all its 19th-century merchandise still in original shelving and cases.

The town is now protected as part of Lincoln State Monument, a National Historical Landmark consisting of a mission church, traditional adobe homes and the torreón, which should be familiar from Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

The town’s focal point is Old Lincoln County Courthouse, made famous by the shoot-out between Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett’s guards in 1881, when Billy shot his way out of prison with the help of the town folk and rode off into the mountains. One of the bullet holes he shot in the wall is preserved behind Plexiglas, although you’d have to be pretty gullible to believe it is what it claims to be.

Directly across from the courthouse is the Wortley Hotel, once owned by the sheriff. “No Guests Gunned Down in Over 100 Years,” it now boasts. It was here that one of Billy’s guards was eating lunch as Billy killed his companion, and this second guard later died as he ran across to the courthouse to help his friend. The hotel is still open for business and is worth spending a night in, to soak up the atmosphere, or at least stay for lunch in the 19th-century dining room.

To get a deeper sense of the landscape surrounding Lincoln and what attracted the miners and ranchers here in the first place, consider taking some horses up into the mountains, ideally in the early morning or late evening. Drew Gomber would make the perfect guide. He’s a local historian and wolf-keeper who lives and breathes the frontier life.

Even if you have no interest in Billy the Kid – in my eyes a hapless delinquent reminiscent of the kids who scratch cars outside Croke Park – Lincoln is worth visiting just to savour the feel of the place; the merciful lack of tacky souvenir shops or old-style ransom posters.

The second highlight of southern New Mexico has to be Silver City, an old mining town that has mutated into a bastion of arty, liberal kookiness in a sea of staunch, plaid-and-braces Republicanism. The downtown historic area consists of a few prettified blocks of red-brick Victorian houses built during the height of the silver mining, when it became an outpost of culture amid the surrounding wilderness. The fact that the Apaches and Navajos had a highly developed culture of their own is still only barely recognised in this area.

The streets are sprinkled with hip coffee houses, gourmet bakeries and avant-garde galleries. Like most arty liberal towns in warm parts of the US, it’s thronged with students and tie-dyed dropouts roaming around on elaborately decorated bicycles and spangly motorbikes.

The hardy frontier-minded settlers who also gravitate to such places add to the town’s unpredictability and ensure a raucous nightlife. The place to stay is the Palace, right in the centre of town, an authentic Victorian hotel built in the European tradition with a dark iron facade and ornate fixtures.

There are also some great hiking and driving tours in the area, particularly through the dramatic volcanic remains of City of Rocks State Park or along the mountain trails and cliff dwellings of the prehistoric Mimbres Indians in Gila National Forest. If you can handle another dose of Billy the Kid, Silver City flaunts the site of his cabin and his first prison cell.

Moving on to southern Arizona, the two must-see destinations are Tombstone and Bisbee. The former is another Wild West town, the Hyde to Lincoln’s Jekyll, while Bisbee is a beautifully located bijou version of Silver City – an arty former mining town on a spectacular outcrop of copper-rich rock.

First Tombstone, an outrageously commercialised historical monument that easily outdoes Las Vegas in gaudiness per capita and per square metre. Although, historically, Tombstone was more important than Lincoln, it is now about mass-market entertainment and has none of Lincoln’s preserved purity.

That said, it is a lot more fun. Busty waitresses in Victorian-era harlot frocks serve tankards of beer as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday relive the gunfight at the OK Corral, right outside the door on the dusty main street.

The highlight is possibly the Bird Cage, a brothel that opened in 1881 and closed eight years later but during its short life was said to be the wildest place in the west. Its name comes from a series of caged beds that hang from the ceiling where cowgirl courtesans tended to saddle-sore men. Twenty dollars was the cost of a bottle of whiskey and a woman. The Bird Cage can also claim to be the venue for the longest single poker game in history: it lasted eight years and four months in one continuous session.

In defence of Tombstone, the surrounding landscape looks as if it has changed little in the course of the century – although the sheer ubiquity of kitsch souvenirs can be overpowering.

The most interesting aspect of Tombstone is the new breed of hardy frontier-focused residents it attracts completely separate from the tourism industry. Tombstone has become a haven for right-wingers and hoary old-school ranchers. It is here that the modern Minutemen, an armed anti-immigrant vigilante group, were first assembled in 2005 to defend the US border against outsiders.

If barbecued ribs and dusty wenches are your thing, I can heartily recommend Tombstone, but for the more conventional Irish Timesreader I’d encourage you to drive another 35km south to Bisbee, just 15km from the Mexican border.

Bisbee is a former thriving mining town that shrivelled and died when the mines closed, until a new generation of bohemian seekers and wanderers discovered it in the 1970s, and it has now become a quirky sanctuary for alternative artists and radical freethinkers in the Sonoran Desert.

Its narrow red-brick-lined streets are as perfectly Victorian as Silver City, with well- preserved mercantile homes now housing antique shops, glass-fronted arts and crafts galleries, a deluxe coffee roaster and a chocolatier. Its location, in the cleavage of a copper-coloured stone canyon, gives it the air of a fairy-tale village cut off from the real world. It provides the only spot of shelter in the unrelenting desert, and its altitude makes the temperature bearable even in summer. It’s the sort of place you want to spend time in. You find yourself looking around at lofts and old warehouses to rent for a few months.

The town’s mining and historical museum is housed in the suitably ostentatious former headquarters of Phelps Dodge Mining Company, and it effectively evokes the time when Bisbee was the largest city between St Louis and San Francisco, with a population of 20,000 in the early 1900s. The museum, which is affiliated to the Smithsonian, in Washington DC, gives a visceral sense of the harsh realities of the mining on which this region is built.

Summer temperatures in this area can reach 45 degrees, so it’s worth considering going off season, when locals are more receptive to visitors. That said, places such as Silver City and Lincoln get relatively few Irish visitors, and they’re likely to be intrigued by you no matter when you come.

Although this trip encompasses the southern highlight of two US states, the total driving time involved is only about 13 hours. It’s a 1,100km journey that any mid-sized American saloon can easily handle – as long as it has air conditioning. If it doesn’t, well, you’re likely to end up like poor Billy the Kid, buried in a dusty grave far from home.


Where to stay

Wortley Hotel. Highway 380, Lincoln, New Mexico, 00-1-575-653-4300, wortleyhotel.com. Formerly owned by Pat Garrett. Still has the cosy feel of a 19th-century Wild West hotel.

Copper Queen Hotel.11 Howell Avenue, Bisbee, Arizona, 00-1-520-432-2216, copperqueen.com. Flouncy, grand-dame Victorian hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Palace Hotel, Silver City, New Mexico, 00-1-575-388-1811, zianet.com/palacehotel. An old workhorse of a hotel, clinging to a last vestige of its faded glory.


Where to go

Lincoln State Monument.Lincoln, New Mexico, 00-1-575-653-4372, nmmonuments.org/inst. php?inst=7. New Mexico’s most widely visited state monument encompasses most of the historical buildings in the town.

Take a tour with historian and guide Drew Gomber. 00-1-575-653-4056, drewgomber.com.

Bisbee Mining Historical Museum. 5 Copper Queen Plaza, Bisbee, Arizona, 00-1-520-4327071. bisbeemuseum.org. This museum’s connection with the Smithsonian ensures a rare level of historical accuracy and professionalism.

Silver City Museum.312 West Broadway, Silver City, New Mexico, 00-1-575- 5385921, silvercitymuseum. org. A quaint, friendly municipal museum.

See kayak.co.uk, ebookers.ie or other aggregator sites for multi-airline flights to and from New Mexico and Arizona with Aer Lingus, Delta, BA, American Airlines and others.


Manchán Magan’s documentary on Billy the Kid is in the Cowboys slot on TG4 at 8.30pm next Friday, followed by the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Fiachna Ó Braonáin’s Tombstone is on October 30th

Manchán Magan’s rental car was provided by Holiday Autos (holidayautos.ie)