Travel Story Bisbee: An eccentric slice of local life in southern Arizona

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Retro charm and a lively community life give this former mining town a distinctive spirit and an atmosphere that's quite unlike anywhere else. 

It feels fitting that when we arrive in Bisbee, we’re an hour ahead of time, having neglected to adjust the hire car’s clock to reflect our entry into the evocatively named Mountain Time Zone. 

After driving all day on the interstate through a succession of hazy desert landscapes where road signs warn of the danger of severe dust storms (“zero visibility possible”), winding up into the mountains of south-eastern Arizona into Bisbee feels like crossing a threshold. 

This little town of about 5500 people might be a mere 20-minute drive from the Mexican border and only an hour and a half from the urban centre of Tucson but it feels far removed from — and quite unlike — anywhere else. 

There’s the appeal of its looks, for starters. My guidebook had suggested that “at first glance, Bisbee isn’t that attractive”. But, from the beginning I’m charmed by the brightly painted old cottages and historic buildings that spill along the high valley like the red rocks scattered on the surrounding hillsides. 

On one of these tufted, rust-coloured slopes, a large capital letter B is picked out in white — one of the 500 or so hillside letters to be found throughout the American west. The elevation means it’s greener here, the air cooler. The highway largely bypasses the town, so its maze of streets is quiet and walkable. 

There’s also a distinctive spirit to Bisbee: the warmth of a genuine community co-mingled with a certain eccentricity and hippy-ish edge. The flyers stuck on the lampposts we pass on our initial walk into the town centre suggest the flavour of the place, advertising yoga and qigong classes, the upcoming Bisbee Mariachi Festival, a natural wellness centre, a craft school, a recital of Afghani music and a lost cat named Panther. 

On one post, someone has stapled a plastic bag of dog treats, to be shared by passers-by.

Bisbee owes its origins to copper, which was mined in the surrounding Mule Mountains from the 1880s, along with gold, silver and other minerals. The burgeoning settlement came to be known as the Queen of the Copper Camps and, at its peak at the beginning of the 20th century, had a lively reputation, with dozens of saloons and a booming population that topped out about 25,000. 

A persistent myth holds that during this period, Bisbee was the largest city between San Francisco to the west and St Louis in the east. It’s almost certainly untrue but it gives you a feel for the town’s former glories — and the pride locals take in them. 

The mining industry declined and closed entirely in the mid-1970s. But, unlike the numerous mining settlements-turned-ghost towns to be found in this part of the world, Bisbee has reinvented itself as a tourist destination and an appealing place to live. 

These days it’s home to an eclectic community of artists, hippies, retirees and families, its downtown filled with small businesses including a more-than-decent selection of restaurants, bars and cafes.

Throughout the year, it hosts a succession of popular events, including a craft beer festival, the quirky Brewery Gulch Daze (a pet parade, bed races, the tongue-in-cheek Ole Miz Biz pageant) and the Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb, which sees walkers and runners complete a 7.2km course featuring nine of the hilly township’s ubiquitous sets of stairs.

Bisbee’s residents are notably friendly, even for small-town America. There’s the personable young guy waiting tables in Thuy’s Noodle Shop, a tiny but excellent Vietnamese restaurant serving steaming bowls of pho.

There’s the well-refreshed pair of brothers drinking on the balcony of the historic Stock Exchange Saloon eager to hold forth on the subject of Bisbee Blue, the distinctive local turquoise that’s prized for its deep-blue colour (“it represents purity,” one of them tells me).

Then there’s the woman behind the counter at Optimo Hatworks, a milliner on Main Street, who answers our questions about the town with patient good humour and tells us she likes Bisbee because it feels lived-in.

It certainly feels like a place you’d like to live, and it doesn’t take long until we’re feeling pretty comfortably at home. We spend hours sifting through the excellent and sprawling second-hand stores — some of the best and cheapest we encounter during our month in the States, which is saying something. 

We consider taking the tour of the Queen Mine which was one of the world’s richest copper mines in its day and is Bisbee’s flagship tourist attraction. Instead, we settle for peering through the chain-link fence at the gaping Lavender Pit, an open-cut mine near the centre of town that has loomed quiet and empty since it closed in 1974.

On the far side of the pit, we come across the curiosity that is Lowell. Once a decent-sized town it its own right, Lowell was largely devoured by the construction of the Lavender Pit during the 1950s.

These days, a short stretch of Erie Street — the old main drag — remains, wedged between the edge of the pit and the highway. Here there’s that sense of crossing a threshold once again but for a different reason. Many of the mostly empty shopfronts have been restored with retro signage and petrol pumps to produce a slice of Americana that looks straight out of the middle of the 20th century, albeit somewhat weathered. 

Walking along the street, past the succession of vintage sedans and pick-up trucks parked alongside the footpath, feels like slipping back in time, or perhaps stepping on to a film set. (Indeed, a couple of movies have been shot in Lowell, including a 2006 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel Desperation.)

Up on the corner, there’s the old-style Shell service station with a 50s Ford station wagon out the front and some empty glass Coca-Cola bottles by the petrol pump. Further along, there’s the bright-yellow classic Chrysler cab pulled up by the vintage Texaco sign and the retro “Welcome to Lowell” mural complete with two hovering UFOs. There’s the pleasingly old-fashioned window display at Claudia’s Hat Shop (“the latest from New York & Paris”), and the imposing period squad car — the words “biker patrol” emblazoned across the front — that’s parked outside a building marked the Lowell Police Department. 

There are a few businesses still in operation along the street — among them the popular Bisbee Breakfast Club, a food co-op and a Harley-Davidson repair shop — but there are few other people about today. 

Some have described Erie Street as a little post-apocalyptic in feel, and this goes some way to capturing the oddness of stumbling across it.

Certainly there’s a temptation to assume it’s an original relic that’s been sitting idle and untouched for the past 70-odd years but the street is a recreation, produced by a group of locals who call themselves the Lowell Americana Project. Dedicated to preserving “a vanishing landscape of tail-finned cars and roadside attractions”, they also organise an annual music festival.

The Lavender Pit is now owned by a major Arizona-based mining company and rumour has it that the mine may reopen one day. So it’s hard to say what the future might hold for the appealingly nostalgic little street that’s perched alongside it. 

But for now, as one of the murals facing on Erie Street suggests, there’s “no life like Lowell life” — or Bisbee life either, for that matter.

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