Next Stop: Tombstone, AZ

Article by Ben P. Karris

It's the first day of monsoon season, and the sky over Southern Arizona is celebrating in true desert fashion. Magnificent storm clouds collide with the mountains, rain pours down on the windshield in quick bursts and the sun bathes the ragged landscape in intermittent shades of red, yellow and orange. A Johnny Cash song plays on the radio before giving way to static and analog popcorn.

My family is in town from back East. My brother is at ease behind the wheel: The long, open desert road plays a stark contrast to his weekly commutes through Princeton traffic. I look out the window and begin daydreaming in real-time. The desert is alive with color, plants are in full bloom and we're en route to Tombstone, "the town too tough to die."

We stop first at Boothill Graveyard-the final resting place for some of Tombstone's first pioneers, citizens and outlaws. The spirit of the Old West is everywhere.

"Rook Shot by a Chinaman," reads one gravestone. Another is less graphic, though equally as informative: "Tom McLaury Killed Oct. 26, 1881." My mother takes pictures on her iPad and my fingers trace a wooden crucifix above a gravesite.

We leave the cemetery and park in the center of town. The rain comes down harder as we walk down Tombstone's infamous Allen Street. It's time to tour one of the most famous pieces of real estate in the Old West: The O.K. Corral.

This is the location of the 1881 gunfight where outlaw-turned-sheriff, Wyatt Earp, alongside his brothers and Doc Holliday, famously fought the Clantons and McLaurys-a defining storyline of the Tombstone narrative. Each day at 2 p.m., local actors produce a reenactment of the gunfight. Today's rain adds to the authenticity of the production and the blasts of gunfire resonate with the audience as a reminder of how fragile life in Tombstone really was.

After the show, we check out the former photography studio of C.S. Fly, where a brilliant portrait of the Apache warrior, Geronimo, is on display alongside photos that provide insight into life in 1880s Tombstone.

I walk into Old West Books and I'm on set of a Coen brothers' film. The shelves are stocked with the stories of Tombstone and westward expansion; an old man sits behind a desk and balances a hand-written ledger by the dim light of a lamp. I purchase a leather-bound journal before heading outside.

Back on Allen Street, the sun has come out and people are moving in and out of Tombstone's jewelry stores, novelty shops, restaurants and boutiques. Actors donning garments from a bygone era interact with visitors and chew on straw. I buy an American Indian dream catcher before joining the rest of the family inside Big Nose Kate's Saloon-an original cowboy watering hole that draws its namesake from the first woman of Tombstone to practice the world's oldest profession. History lives on. Inside, the music is loud, the beer is cold and the portions are huge. This is everything a Western saloon should be: Over-the-top but fun in every sense of the word. I half-expect to see Clark Griswold leading his family to a table.

We exit Big Nose Kate's as the sun is setting-silhouetting the mountains against a glowing, golden backdrop. Cigar smoke lingers in the air and the dense aroma reinforces our surroundings. It's easy to imagine Tombstone in its heyday. I close my eyes and it's 1880. Allen Street is alive with cowboys, horse-drawn carriages and the excitement of a Wild West mining town. Muffled sounds of drunken debauchery emanate from within the saloon and the desert sky is a vast map of constellations-undisturbed by city lights.

When I open my eyes, the scene is much the same, though more than 130 years have passed. Tombstone is more than just a tourist destination or a quick day trip from Tucson-it is a link to our Wild West roots. And as long as visitors with hearts full of grit continue to walk down Allen Street, and the stories of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday play out in dramatic re-creation, the town's reputation for being "too tough to die" will remain for years to come.

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