Toronto Star, Feb 22, 2017: BISBEE, ARIZ.-The first thing you see driving into Bisbee is a big, boastful white B on the side of a mountain.
Then you see the tunnel.
As you head into the dark, the formulaic pop song on the radio goes dark, too. When you emerge on the other side, the tinny blaring has been replaced with soothing voices singing, “Everything is going to be all right” over and over again on KBRP, Bisbee community radio.
It’s high noon on a Sunday as I turn left into Old Bisbee and head toward the brick buildings perched on steep streets. I happen on my hotel, check in and head out immediately, where I bump into a bleary-eyed group in hipster beards and piercings.
“What should I do in Bisbee?” I ask, as one does.
“I don’t remember,” a guy says, laughing, a little painfully through his hangover.
“The Stock Exchange is fun,” his friend suggests, slowly.
They load up to head back to Tucson, Ariz., and I head down the street to the sound of a wooden flute. The serenade is courtesy of a young man walking behind me with a neck tattoo and matching beige cotton cap, tunic and pants.
I hear louder music and follow it down an alley and up some back stairs into a bar — the Stock Exchange, as it turns out — where a couple of guitarists, a drummer and fiddle player are doing their best Decemberists meets Metallica. The guy with the flute is sitting at the back, near the old blackboard with long-forgotten columns for recording prices of metals and other commodities.
Bisbee is named for the judge that financed the bonanza Queen Mine, one of dozens of copper mines in the area. Considered one of the richest mineral sites in the world, the town was born in the late 1800s when a U.S. scout looking for renegade Apache found some interesting rocks instead. People from all over the world started moving here, making Bisbee the biggest city between St. Louis, Mo., and San Francisco, Calif., for a time in the early 1900s.
The mines closed in the mid-1970s and artists, musicians and other creative types moved in. “We are a blue dot, the darkest of blue, in the red of Arizona,” says graphic designer Jennifer Luria, referring to the Bernie Sanders graffiti and Hillary Clinton bumper stickers around town. “We live in a Bisbee bubble.”
Walking through art galleries, boutiques and funky stores, a couple of middle-aged visitors in crisp khakis ask the dreadlocked shopkeeper about local real estate. Another merchant likes to brief his customers about the origin of the big B on the mountain (high school kids in 1952) and other civic history.
Bisbee was the first municipality to legalize gay unions in the state. It also boasts Arizona’s first golf course, ballpark and library, a facility that had been built to give the miners something to do other than drink.
You can see why they’d want to imbibe when you ride a little train deep into the mountain on the Queen Mine tour. Guide Benny Scott worked underground for “19-and-a-half years” before retiring from the mines, working as a detective and later serving on city council. “It’s safer down here, yes ma’am,” he quips, probably for the millionth time.
His fellow guide, Dave Morales, worked the mines for 11 years, once trapped underground for six hours. “I thought it was over. But four courageous miners saved me.” The men describe the dangerous and intricate process of blowing up rock without blowing themselves up. They show us a “spoke” — a cavern — where miners in the 1880s helped pick away eight billion pounds of high grade copper ore. When our lamps shine on a mannequin miner placed in an alcove in the rock up above, Morales cracks: “Ignore him. We’re not going to pay him.”
It seems whether you’re a miner, an artisan or a “bartender and mailman,” like Fred Miller, everyone in town tells a good story. Miller followed a woman here in 1994. She left. He stayed put. “The charm of Bisbee is walking around cooling out,” he says. “Just sit down and relax. Slow your life down a little bit.”
That vibe is what attracts up to 100 visitors a day to the town that lies a 10-minute drive north of the Mexican border (more come in March around the SXSW music festival in Austin, a day’s drive away).“You don’t just stumble on Bisbee,” says Luria. “It’s a destination.” She came for the weekend 10 years ago and fell in love as soon as she came through the tunnel.
I say goodbye to Bisbee on a Monday morning, sipping a latte and chilling to chanting on KBRP. In the tunnel, the Sanskrit turns to static. On the other side of the bubble, the first thing I hear is a brash DJ exclaiming, “Holy crap!” like he’d just discovered something amazing.
I know exactly how he feels.