No more major downpours harassed our path west, but the panoramic view off to our left allowed us to track a huge mushroom cloud shaking down whole sheets of rain over that way. As we neared the Rio Grande, Bobby suddenly pulled off the main highway into dusty Fort Hancock. “Know what famous movie mentions this place?” he asked with a grin. I tried to think while we took selfies in bright sunshine outside a lonely post office, and I finally remembered the movie. Do you? I won’t spoil your memory search with any hints on this one, other than that both Texas State Highway 20 and the Southern Pacific Railroad run through Fort Hancock. It has, or at least it used to have, a bus stop.
Bobby likes caves but sometimes has difficulty finding others willing to explore with him, so I suggested we visit Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns. We checked the website for Covid restrictions and looked forward to a cool, underground afternoon. Unfortunately, the website failed to mention (or we missed the notice) that the caverns are closed on Sundays. “Oh well,” I said as we made a U-turn at the guard gate, “we’ll just go visit Brewery Gulch and Tombstone.”
Brewery Gulch in Bisbee turned out to be an interesting stop. It’s literally a gulch where two watersheds meet. Why on earth, you might wonder as we did, would people want to build homes into the sides of a gulch and then scamper up and down 75 to 100 steps to get to the saloon or the mercantile and then back home.
There is a logical explanation, sort of. In the late 19th century, this gulch was found to contain one of America’s largest ever deposits of both copper and gold. Of course, that drew thousands of miners who, not wanting to commute, built homes on slopes so steep that roads were impossible. Only way to get around was foot trails, which eventually evolved into sets of wooden steps. Brewery Gulch became the official name of the place after German-Swiss immigrants arrived about 1880 to establish very welcome breweries along the one actual street. One website describes this development as “a boom of beer and brothels” that continued until the Great Depression temporarily killed mining operations in the 1930s. Enter the WPA (Roosevelt’s depression-era Works Progress Administration) which created construction jobs for out-of-work gulch men. Their biggest project? Replacing all those wooden steps with concrete ones. You can still see the WPA identification stamp on many of those steps today.
One thing I love about road trips is discovering the creative ways small towns reinvent and promote themselves as old ways die out. When mining ceased in Brewery Gulch in the mid-1970s and housing prices sank to almost nothing, artists and other unique personages took advantage of the bargains, moved in, and repaired the old houses. Today each has its own funky, folk art identity, and all are in walking (stepping) distance of each other. In total, Brewery Gulch has about 75 outdoor stairways.
The town is known for its annual 1000 Stair Climb—a five-kilometer run up and down 1,034 steps while local musicians serenade from various “ledges.” The Climb has been described as the “most unique physical fitness challenge in the USA.” But wait, there’s more. The gulch’s annual Ice Man Competition honors the hefty guys who, before modern refrigeration, delivered blocks of ice for the iceboxes in those slope-side dwellings. Anyone entering this competition must be prepared to race up 155 steps while carrying a ten-pound ice block with antique tongs.
We finished off our Sunday afternoon wandering around Tombstone. Crowd-drawing attractions like the O.K. Corral and Boot Hill were not open, which was fine with us. I won’t bother you with historical musings about them, which you can find in numerous books and movies. We did enjoy browsing through displays of beautiful turquoise and silver jewelry, locally made candles, and leather goods in several stores that were open, then topped things off with cool ones in the Crystal Palace Saloon. Oh, and the stagecoach came by.
Our last stop was the Rose Tree Museum, which had once been an inn, and is filled with well-preserved Victorian furniture and memorabilia. The back door led out to an area shaded by what is billed as “the world’s largest rose tree,” reminding me immediately of the beautiful wisteria canopy at Court of the Two Sisters in New Orleans.
Brought from Scotland and planted here in 1885, this Rosa banksiae rises from a trunk with a circumference of twelve feet and spreads its cooling canopy over an 8,000 square foot courtyard. Its tangles of branches are now supported by strategically placed pairs of wooden poles. The “Lady Banks” rose is native to central and western China but was introduced to Europe in 1807 with specimens purchased from the Fa Tee nursery in Guangzhou (Canton). Its western name is in honor of Dorothea Lady Banks, wife of British botanist Sir Joseph Banks. We missed the blooming season but saw photos of the entire canopy putting forth white roses in April.
Sometimes, the best aspect of a road trip is the unplanned or the unexpected. Kartchner Caverns would have been fun, but then we wouldn’t have discovered the gulch with all the steps or the courtyard -covering rose tree, so the day balanced out.