Missiles in Tucson, Cowboys in Tombstone, & Tarantulas Crossing the Road

I had a lot of plans for Tucson, but unfortunately, pretty much all of them fell through due to lack of time. For one thing, I was really looking forward to visiting the Titan Missile Museum, where you can tour the only remaining Cold War-era Titan 2 missile launch site in the country. You get to see a bunch of great 1950’s computer banks…

(picture courtesy Flickr user John Uhles)

…and even descend into the silo itself!

Titan Missile I
(picture courtesy Flickr user Gilbert Wilson)

Missing this one killed me, but it was adding up to be a 3 hour time commitment we just couldn’t make. I was also hoping to tour Biosphere 2 (Why 2? Earth is apparently Biosphere 1), located about 45 minutes north of Tucson. Tours are given daily, and you get to see the whole facility (and potentially get locked in for a month of wild hijinks ala Biodome)…

coastal fog desert biome inside Biosphere 2, Oracle, Arizona(picture courtesy Flickr user Steve Minor)

But again – big 3 hour+ time commitment. And of course, the San Xavier Mission del Bac…

side view of the San Xavier Mission del Bac
(picture courtesy Flickr user Christine)

Of all the places we’ve visited, Tucson is the one I felt we short-changed the most, and I hope to go back again sometime soon. To do a cross-country roadtrip right, you really need to set aside about 4 weeks. The 20 days or so we’d allotted was fine, but it meant we’d have to make sacrifices. Sorry, Tucson, but I promise I’ll come back.

We headed out on US-80 toward the legend-shrouded town of Tombstone.


Site of the most famous shootout in American history at the OK Corral, Tombstone is to cowboys what Salem is to witches: a lot of unique history mixed with a heavy dose of kitsch. As we entered town, we saw the Boothill Graveyard and pulled over to have a look.


For cowboy-era graveyards, Boothill is about as authentic as they come, and at an admission price of free, it’s a site that shouldn’t be missed. I highly recommend making the $2 donation to get a map of the cemetery, which includes a bit of colorful history for every single grave. Example: “Unknown Burial. Body found in abandoned mine, 1882. He was found at the bottom of a 60-foot shaft of the Minute Mine. He was well-dressed, indicating he was not a miner.” The game is afoot!


Among its 300+ burials, Boothill is the final resting place for the three men killed in the gunfight at the OK Corral:


Most of the deaths are what you’d expect to happen in a town called Tombstone:




Can’t get more Western than this:


Killed by Indians:


Of the 300+ burials, only 205 are accounted for, as most Chinese and Jewish immigrants were buried without record:


During the 1800’s, China Mary (pictured below) was a leading figure in Tombstone’s Chinese population of over 500 immigrants. She owned a store, ran opium dens and gambling parlors, and helped find jobs for Chinese laborers in the white community (most likely taking a cut of their wages for the service).


The grave of Chink Smiley:


In the 1940’s, local resident Emmett Crook Dunnelley began restoring the graveyard, which had fallen into disrepair. His final request was to buried in the cemetery he helped preserve:


As for downtown Tombstone, it’s a lot like Disney World’s Frontier Land.


Nearly every building (most are not original) has an arcade, the streets are covered in dust, and actors in cowboy garb from the various OK Corral reenactments wander the streets.


Ye Olde Bank of America:


Basically, it’s a collection of gift shops behind a Western facade…but that’s not to say it isn’t a lot of fun for a few hours.


We went to the reenactment that takes place on the site of the original OK Corral, which turned out to be entertaining. Essentially, it’s an hour of dialog to explain the tensions that lead to the shootout, followed by the big (and very short) event itself, and then a lot of crying. The guy playing Doc Holiday was a surprisingly good actor.


The real jewel of Tombstone is the Bird Cage Theater, the town’s only remaining building dating back to 1881. If you go, pony up the $10 and check it out!


From 1881 to 1889, The Bird Cage operated as a theater, brothel, saloon, and casino, then was boarded up and forgotten. When its doors in 1934, the new owners found it had been left untouched. In fact, posters were still hanging from the very final show at the Bird Cage:


Another poster from the final show:


The main floor of the Bird Cage theater. The name refers to the 14 box seats, or bird cages, lining the upper level.


The Bird Cage operated continuously, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, for 8 years straight. The NY Times described it in 1882 as “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.” The stage, with the original curtains still hanging:


Over 120 bullet holes can be found throughout the theater, including these three:


Reverse of the theater:


The bird cages themselves. The red curtains could be drawn when customers wanted a bit of privacy with their prostitutes.


A neat mural runs the perimeter of the box seats:


The Bird Cage is filled with tons of interesting artifacts and antiques, including their very own Fiji Mermaid (frankly, The Thing? could take a lesson from this display):


Faro was the popular gambling game of the day. This Faro table was used by Doc Holiday and numerous other Tombstone notables.


The original piano:


Downstairs, you can find the bar and casino, where the longest game of poker in history (lasting 8 years) is said to have taken place:


A prostitute’s room, just off the casino:


From Tombstone, our plan was to take the more scenic route into New Mexico. As we got closer to the Mexican border, it seemed like every third car was from the Border Patrol.


We passed briefly through the gorgeous town of Bisbee, then arrived in the border town of Douglas, with its pretty (if dilapidated) main drag:


Originally opened in 1919, Douglas’ Grand Theatre was once considered the most beautiful theater between Los Angeles and San Antonio. Having fallen into disrepair over the years, it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and is currently undergoing restoration.


Many of the buildings were empty, like the Avenue Hotel.


The entire time we were here, I kept thinking of Touch of Evil (luckily, no bombs on our bumper as we drove out).


As we left, I realized we were essentially looking at Mexico out the window.  Meanwhile, Border Patrol van after Border Patrol van passed by us.


US-80 began heading north…


…and we started to see a hell of a lot of enormous tarantulas crossing the road.


This could quite possibly be the most tempting road sign in the US:


Then, without warning, our beautiful sunny day disappeared…


…replaced by a torrential storm that had us skidding all over the road.


As we crossed the border into New Mexico, we made a short detour to the ghost town of Shakespeare…


…only to find that someone had built a fence around it and that it was closed. Lame.


On our way back to the highway, we stopped at this cute Tropical Sno truck for a cold treat:


As we made the final push of our day’s drive to Las Cruces, the heat lightening was insane. I took a few pictures as I was driving…


Lightening strikes:


Very ominous driving.



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  1. That tarantula is incredible! YIKES!

    Thanks so much for these road trip posts. I’m totally enjoying living vicariously through your trip. Damn, the US is beautiful!

  2. As I’ve stated many, many times, excellent job my friend! I used
    to travel from St. Paul Mn. to California several times a year (always by car) and would take the time out to rest up at Tombstone, Az. Most travel experts will tell you that it’s hokey and phony but not me. I love that town. Great history and regardless if most of the buildings have been restored, it’s still the hallowed ground of what once was the wild west. Thank you!

  3. Been following the trip.. thanks for sharing so much.

    I wish you coulda stopped in Bisbee and met Electric Dave, though.

  4. Nice to see that I’m not the only one to PWD – Photograph While Driving. Makes it very exciting. LOVE the lightning shots. Great post, I would like to go to Tombstone now, more than ever. Thanks!

  5. I usually don’t care for travel writing, but I am loving your US tour and the photos. Trust a location scout to get it right and make it interesting!

  6. fantastic lighting shots. following your posts have made me want to drive cross country more than ever… maybe next year. by the way, I love shooting while driving, I call it auto focus; corny, but I like it.

    safe travels

  7. You’re lucky Border Patrol left you alone in your rental car. I used to travel down there a lot for telescope time at Kitt Peak National Observatory, and I was frequently pulled over on the Tucson-Ajo Hwy by Border Patrol. They liked to check out rental cars, you know, “just in case.”

  8. Holy freaking cow, these are awesome – the lightening photos! Beautiful!

    My personal favorite in Boothill is Lester Moore’s grave – Lester Moore, Shot by a .44, No Les No More. I’ve been twice and Lester always gets a little rock placed on his grave, kind of a tipping of my past-life-cowgirl-hat to him.

    Did you feel weird walking around in the Birdcage? I’ve gone in once. I really couldn’t do it a second time. But I loved it. My dad raised me on Spaghetti Westerns and Sci-Fi, so when they lived in Tucson it was his dream come true. So every visit he’d escort me down to Tombstone. Who knows, maybe he was a gambler in his past life or something. He’s going to love this post.

  9. am embarrassed, spelled lightning wrong – gah!

  10. What? You skipped San Xavier for Tombstone? I’m probably jaded because I grew up here, but Tombstone is where we used to take all our out of state visitors; its so tourist kitsch…which you are looking for, I know 🙂 San Xavier on the other hand is a real must see. Bisbee is wonderful, too bad you didn’t stay longer. You also missed Kartchner Caverns. But Im glad that Tucson made enough of an impression that you’d like to come back. Please do so, esp in February or March when the desert blooms.

    Those ‘monsoon’ storms are quick to form, incredibly strong, and spectacular. Watching the lightning shows around here this time of year is like a month of July 4th fireworks. Glad you caught a taste for it.

  11. I just had to smile when you said, “Then, without warning, our beautiful sunny day disappeared…” because I noticed the storm clouds building before the storm hit (I am a bit of a weather geek wannabe). Your shots of the storm and the lightning were fantastic. Shall I assume that you were taking turns driving and you had two hands free to take those pictures? 😉

  12. toured the BioSphere2 a few years, back well worth going to, but outrageously expensive, think it was $65/person. Regardless was better than my other options at the time(was on biz excursion)

  13. I lived in Tucson for several years and miss it dearly. My parents came to visit once and I took them to BioSphere2…I hadn’t been before and really wanted to go, but couldn’t afford it as a poor grad student. My folks paid…It was really cool, but smelled like rank unwashed butt…If you get back you should go into town and look around the university area…4th Avenue is fantastic and there are some beautiful buildings…now I’m all homesick. 🙁

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