Bicycling is a way of traveling that encourages people to spend time in places they ride through: to look around at the distinctive buildings, meander down quiet streets, savor the character of coffee shops, talk with people who live there. This kind of cycling, as John R. Stilgoe explains in his book Outside Lies Magic, is a liberal art because it liberates and often reveals secrets about the built environment in which we live.
Some cyclists, and I’m one of them, wonder about the history of places we pass through. We look for bookstores and local museums where we can learn the story of how these places came to be the way they are.
When traveling with tour groups, however, we are pushed by the schedule and tied to the designated route. There is little time to explore these interesting places. Even when I’m traveling on my own, the thicker story of these places often comes only after I’ve ridden through them and have done the research that I should have done before the trip.
The importance of learning about places before the trip has come clear to me as I read about Bisbee, Arizona. Even though I’ve bicycled to Bisbee, this unique mountain community, five times during the past fifteen years, I have failed until now to discover how this old little place came to be the way it is.
The door into Bisbee’s past was opened for me by Richard Shelton’s award-winning book Going Back to Bisbee, which he published in 1992. I already knew that Bisbee was largely the creation of the copper industry, which flourished in southern Arizona in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Shelton, however, explains the industry’s history. He characterizes the social and economic layers of Bisbee’s people over the years, coming as they did from several parts of Europe and continuing many of their old-world patterns. Shelton also describes the economic vulnerability of the town and its people because of the volatility of the one industry upon which everyone depended. It is a hard story.
He helps us understand the challenges that come from building a community along the sides of steep canyons. Obviously, it takes strong legs, lungs, and heart to clamber up and down from one level to another. What should have been obvious, but had failed to register in my mind, was how vulnerable the town is to flooding because of these steep canyons that flow together into the main canyon where Bisbee’s central district is located.
Until reading Shelton, I knew nothing about the history of fires in Bisbee and the successive rebuilding of the town until finally a more fire resistant set of central buildings came into being.
Despite Shelton’s deep personal attachment to Bisbee and the romantic glow that he has infused into this text, Bisbee’s past remained largely a collection of facts until I read Conrad Richter’s novel Tacey Cromwell, published in 1942. Even knowing about this book I owe to Shelton who cites it a few times in his volume.
The story revolves four people whose lives unfold over a twenty-year period in Bisbee that is climaxed by a great fire, probably modeled after a conflagration that occurred in 1908. Tacey Cromwell, a prostitute from New Mexico who wants to start a new life, and her companion Gaye Oldaker, bring “Nugget” his eight-year-old runaway half brother with them and establish residence on O.K. Street on Youngblood Hill.
Soon after they arrive, a mine disaster kills their neighbor, a widower with infant son and eight-year-old daughter “Seely” who now are destitute. Tacey takes them in. The novel describes the systematic way in which Tacey molds all four of them into lives that are consistent with the patterns of the upper class people in town.
The crises around which the story unfolds are caused by the rigidity of the “better” people and their unwillingness to accept Tacey because of her former way of life. It is a somber book that in some ways ends the way it begins, with Tacey and Seely, Gaye and Nugget together again.
As we follow Seely and Nugget in their fast trips up and down stairways, over fences and walls, through yards, and across dangerous spaces, we begin to sense the precariousness of Bisbee’s geography. As we listen to the conversations with neighbors and townspeople, we hear various half-Englished dialects and recognize the sure signs of prejudicial attitudes among the more established layers of the social order. The Bisbee that I have experienced as a built environment becomes a multi-layered human community.
Now that I’m beginning to understand this strange place, I want to go back one more time, when I’m on my own schedule. The trip should include a night at the Copper Queen Hotel, with plenty of time for meandering.
One more trip to Bisbee! Maybe next year.