Benson, AZ: March 8-11

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Benson is only about 55 miles from Tucson. But there are two sights we wanted to see that are south of there and a bit too far for a trip from winter quarters. We’ve been stretching out the length of expeditions away from the kids — used to be four hours and now we’ve had mostly good luck with six.

Our site, in the section for short stays, was an all-concrete pull-thru, a major departure from the rough gravel at Diamond J! They had a nice dog walk nearby. And they had lots of cacti, but no saguaros! Another departure; we couldn’t go anywhere in the Tucson area without seeing hundreds of them.

It turned out there were four places of interest in the area, and we got to see three. As planned, we headed down Rte. 80 about 45 miles to the city of Bisbee, where we experienced first-hand the mining story we first learned about at the History Museum in Tucson. The town is in a valley alongside the highway, a web of narrow and colorful streets. Houses and businesses are painted in wild colors and decorated with murals. There are enough old VW’s running around to have a repair business serving only them. Many of the homes have suspended driveways over viaducts. It’s filled with cafes, bookstores, and specialty shops. The Copper Queen Hotel, opened in 1902, is still functioning down to its saloon. You’re back in a combination of 1900 and 1960, and in a combination of Victorian and Art Deco.

Copper was discovered in Bisbee in 1875, but its founder, Hugh Jones, was looking for silver and left. Two years later, an army scout discovered ore and sold his claim to one George Warren, who later lost the stake in a horse race. DeWitt Bisbee of San Francisco put together a consortium to purchase the Queen in 1880, and despite the fact that he never traveled there, the city was named for him. The real boom began in the ‘teens, when over 9,000 miners were employed in 2500 miles of underground tunnels and in open pit mines. There are more than 2,500 miles of tunnels underground. This was also an era of deportation, as hundreds of employees were transported out of town on suspicion that they were sympathetic to the I.W.W. and trying to unionize the workers.

The big attraction is the Queen Mine, one of the richest copper mines in history. It was active for nearly 100 years, from 1877 until 1975, and, since 1977, has attracted over 50,000 tourists a year. Tours commence about every 90 minutes and take over an hour. Once you sign up you are outfitted with a yellow slicker, a hard hat, a garrison belt, a battery pack hooked to the belt with a hand held light on a cord. With luck you’ve worn something warm, because the mine is a constant 47 degrees.

The tour is on the seventh level; there were ten levels altogether, 100 feet apart. It takes you by mine-car rails into two stops, and a little over ¼ mile underground. The first involves a walk up into a chamber where drilling techniques are revealed. The second involves a shaft where various chutes carry the ore between levels and into the trams. The tour guide (they are all retired miners) details the blasting procedure in fine detail at a wall set up for the (non-live) demo; he then exposes one of the “potty cars.” Naturally techniques and safety increased through the years, with many victims in the early days down to less than one a year in its final two decades.

In all, Bisbee produced 8 billion pounds of copper, 2.8 million ounces of gold, 77 million pounds of silver, 30 million pounds of lead, 371 million pounds of zinc and lesser quantities of dozens of other minerals including Bisbee Blue (turquoise).

Half way back up to Benson is the famous city of Tombstone. The history streets are found just a block off Rte. 80, and the only thing traveling there are stagecoaches. We parked next to a car of folks getting “dressed;” we think they were reenactors, but we found that visitors also dress in period clothing, just as they do at renaissance fairs. In fact, there are outfitting shops among the many stores and eateries on the classic streets.

We were lured into a performance of townsfolk in a saloon. The five men staged a variety of gunfights that reenacted major true incidents in the town. At the end, they introduced themselves and their home towns, which ranged from Iowa to New York to the Cayman Islands to Montana – nobody from the southwest! But they were cool.

We strolled the streets inhabited by tourists and cowboys and parked ourselves in the Longhorn Café for a delicious lunch (beef, of course). Once outside again, we spotted a group of local gentlemen posing for pictures with tourists and providing lore. Just down the street was the infamous OK Corral, and since a performance was about to begin, we signed up. You walk through a museum to a courtyard, where a life-sized reproduction of the incident is constructed, with the participants positioned exactly as Wyatt defined them. Then we are escorted to a high-walled stage for the live performance (below). The actor portraying Doc Holliday was also the narrator, and he was excellent. Of the other players, the Clantons and McLaurys were better than the Earps. But it’s nice to say “been there, done that.” After walking down the other side of the main street, we stopped by the infamous Birdcage Theatre, a.k.a. The Bawdiest Place between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.

We intended to hit the other two high spots on the following day. One was the Karchner Caverns, a state park featuring tours of the Throne Room and the Big Room. We went on the internet to make reservations, only to discover that despite the high ticket prices, there was nothing available until long after our departure.

So we headed directly for the Amerind Foundation Museum and Gallery. It was formed in 1937 by William Shirley Fulton, a Connecticut man who dedicated himself to the archeological preservation of the Southwest’s American Indian heritage. The Foundation permits no pictures, but we were entranced at seeing room after room of artifacts that revealed the history of our earliest citizens. The gallery next door features the works of local artists.

One thing we could picture was the setting. The Foundation is located deep into the Texas Canyon, which is clearly visible from Rte. 10. It is very brief, beginning about 5 miles before you reach the turnoff and ending about four miles beyond it Its landscape (below) is very different from the terrain in either direction.

So it was a productive short-stop, our last in Arizona for a while. On the day we left, daylight savings time began. But Arizona doesn’t recognize it. We escaped into New Mexico just in time, but cycling back into Arizona in a few weeks will wreak havoc with our cicadian rhythm!

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