Saturday, February 20, 2010

WESTWORLD, PART 3: Cowboys, Indians and a Fistful of Dynamite

One of the reasons that Tombstone drew such rough characters is that rough characters were the only ones who could survive in that corner of the Arizona territory in the late 1800s. When the locals weren’t shooting each other, they were fighting off angry Apaches or spending long days in underground caves with pickaxes and dynamite.

We got a first-hand account of the mining experience from an 80-year-old docent at the Copper Queen mine in Bisbee, from which 8 billion pounds of copper were extracted between 1877 and 1975. Our guide worked there from the 1950s until the mine closed down. He told us that all of the tour guides were former miners… but added that this couldn’t possibly go on for much longer, because none of them were getting any younger. Today, most of the people living in Bisbee either have some affiliation with the mines, or they were part of an “influx of hippies” (I’m quoting the official town history, which is printed on a piece of paper that hangs on a fence in front of Arizona’s largest pit mine) who arrived in the 1980s and reinvented the town as “a kind of Woodstock West” (now quoting a Fodor’s travel guide). Sounds strange, but Bisbee is actually very charming. We had lunch at an incredible Mexican restaurant on Brewery Gulch, so named because the brewery there used to let the dregs of its beer flow down the street and into the gutter. Not anymore, apparently…. But this could account for the influx of hippies.

After lunch, we headed east over the Mule Mountains and down into Sulphur Springs Valley, a grasslands farming community that could just as well have been to Middle America. On the far side of the valley, we could see the snow-capped Chiricahua Mountains, but it seemed to take forever to get there. It wasn’t hard to imagine, in such a sparsely populated area, that this was once the hunting grounds of the Chiricahua Apaches. In his book The New Desert Reader, Peter Wild remembers a time when southeastern Arizona belonged not to the frontiersmen but to the Indians: “The Civil War had drained off most of the Federal troops to fight on eastern battlefields. With that the Apaches, who for centuries had preyed on other tribes, then more recently created mayhem by plundering Mexican and Anglo settlers, thought they had driven out the enemy and went wild with whoops of rapine and pillaging. Arizona had become a land of fire and blood.”

During this period, even mail carriers couldn’t get through the valley… until a white settler named Tom Jeffords (later known to the Indians as “Taglito”) contracted to drive a stage between Fort Bowie and Tucson. According to Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: “Apache warriors ambushed Jeffords and his riders so often that he almost gave up the contract. And then one day the red-bearded while man came all alone to Cochise’s camp. He dismounted, unbuckled his cartridge belt, and handed it and his weapons to one of the Chiricahua women. With no show of fear whatsoever, Taglito walked over to where Cochise was sitting and sat down beside him. After a proper interval of silence, Taglito Jeffords told Cochise he wanted a personal treaty with him so that he could earn his living carrying the mails. Cochise was baffled. He had never known such a white man. There was nothing he could do but honor Taglito’s courage by promising to let him ride his mail route unmolested. Jeffords and his riders were never ambushed again, and many times afterward the tall red-bearded man came back to Cochise’s camp and they would talk and drink tiswin together.” This story became the basis of the 1951 film BROKEN ARROW starring Jimmy Stewart – often cited as the first Hollywood movie to treat Native Americans respectably. (Any fan of westerns can tell you it wasn’t actually the first of its kind… and some may also argue about how “respectable” it is, considering the fact that the female lead is a white actress painted brown. Nevertheless, it’s a great western.)

The Apaches dubbed the Chiricahua Mountains the “sky island” or “Land of Standing Up Rocks.” It turns out that the rocks in question are actually volcanic. The Chiricahua Mountains took shape roughly 27 million years ago, when the Turkey Creek volcano erupted here and spewed ash over a 1200 square mile area. The ash melted together to form rhyolite. Subsequent uplifting created vertical cracks in the rhyolite, and 27 million years (give or take) of weathering has worn away the weaker areas to create what now looks like a vast collection of natural totem poles. Although IMDB tells me that BROKEN ARROW was filmed in the Coconino Mountains near Flagstaff, I could swear that I saw these distinctive features in the film… maybe just as establishers? I’ll have to go back and watch it again….

BROKEN ARROW was written and directed by a filmmaker named Delmer Daves – who, in my book (forthcoming), is one of the greatest unsung western filmmakers of his generation. I recently reviewed books on two of his contemporaries, Anthony Mann and John Sturges. Mann, who oversaw Jimmy Stewart’s transition into a believable screen cowboy in the wake of BROKEN ARROW, is finally getting his due in academic circles. Sturges is more often acknowledged by filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, both of whom regard him as one of their biggest influences. Daves has somehow fallen between the cracks, which is a shame because as a storyteller he brought great authenticity to his films – many of which are set in southeastern Arizona, and deal with “the Indian problem.” Among his westerns are DRUM BEAT (1954) with Alan Ladd, JUBAL (1956) with Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, THE LAST WAGON (1956) with Richard Widmark, 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, COWBOY (1958) with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon, THE BADLANDERS (1958) with Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine, and THE HANGING TREE (1959), one of Gary Cooper’s last (and best) films. All of them are worth tracking down… especially THE HANGING TREE. Frankly, it’s a crime against movie-lovers that THE HANGING TREE isn’t available on DVD.

Another western film that came to mind while we were visiting the Chiricahua Mountains was Robert Aldrich’s APACHE (1954), starring Burt Lancaster as Massai, “the last Apache warrior.” The main overlook in the park is named Massai Point, in honor of this warrior who escaped from an Indian reservation in the east after the surrender of Geronimo, and made his way back home. He was never re-captured. From Massai Point, we could also see Cochise’s last stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains on the other side of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

With daylight fading, we made our last stop in Cochise County, at the site of Fort Bowie in the infamous “Apache Pass.” This was the U.S. Cavalry’s stronghold from 1862 to 1886, when they were at war with the Chiricahua Apaches. Unfortunately, we saw the ruins of the fort only from a distance… they can be accessed only by hiking trail, and we arrived too late in the day to complete the round trip before dark. That said, it seems somehow appropriate that the site is not too easily accessible to casual tourists. It reminds us that Cochise County once belonging to a culture that lived at one with the land. The Chiricahua Apaches were constantly on the move, making their home according to the whims of nature… in contrast with their enemy’s stubborn efforts to tame the wilderness. It was only when the U.S. Cavalry adopted the Apache’s methods of guerilla warfare that the southeast corner of the Arizona territory was “civilized.” Fort Bowie was abandoned in 1894.

We turned east and drove though Willcox (famous for its apple pie and for b-movie cowboy Rex Allen) and the Dragoon Mountains on our way back to Tombstone, then saddled up to the bar and watched the Super Bowl at the Crystal Palace Saloon. Only fitting, I suppose, that we should end our time in the Wild West with a modern-day tribute to male aggression….


Copper Queen Mine

Chiricahua Mountains


Photograph by C.S. Fly, whose studio sat right next to the O.K. Corral

Fort Bowie

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