Mar 10 2012

Desert Time-Travel

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Nothing quite says “Wild West” like the dusty streets and bleached boardwalks of Tombstone. Once a year, the sleepy Arizona town comes to life and brings with it whispers of the past – not unlike the spirits said to tromp along the wooden walkways during starlit nights, spurs tinging and boots thumping.

Each third weekend in October, Helldorado Days attracts tourists and wannabe cowboys alike. Click to enlarge.

Is Tombstone a bit touristy these days? No longer a boon for mining? Slightly commercialized? Sure. During Helldorado Days, it includes carnivals, fashion shows, gunfight reenactments, and lots of food. Oh – and lots and LOTS of people dressed in vintage period cowboy clothing.

Actors play out a gun battle in the middle of the dusty street. Click to enlarge.

Despite the caramel apples, fudge and fanfare, the Helldorado events do take place on a street that is home to the original, historic Birdcage Theatre, authentic saloons, and the site of real Wild West gunfights of the 1800’s. You’ve probably heard of Wyatt Earp, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury – you know, the fight at the O.K. Corral … lawmen vs. cowboys? Yep. That’s Tombstone, location of the most famous gunfight in the American West.

In the late 1800s, miners and cowboys frequented the Bird Cage Theatre, "the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast." I actually interviewed the owners in 2004 about the ghostly activity in their building. I literally sprinted back to my car that night. Click to enlarge.

Tombstone is, indeed, brimming with history. It’s hard not to be swept back in time, imagining the stories of this once bustling frontier boomtown known for its silver production, wondering about the characters who walked down the dust-laden streets. Traveling back in time is even easier each fall, though, as present mingles with past: Ball caps collide with cowboy hats, and cell phones and cameras snap and ring amid frontier gunshots (fake, of course).

Carriage rides are also part of the day, making the experience even more authentic. OK - maybe not the present-day 'cowboy' wearing jeans. Click to enlarge.

I have a confession: Hubby and I did feel the tug of time – so much that we were compelled to enter a few stores, thumbing through the dusters and leather vests for him. I, of course, was eyeing the frocks, coats and dresses.

How fun would it be to play an Old West character for a weekend, we wondered? We’d fit right in with the Helldorado actors walking the streets. We could stay over at one of the historic hotels, hang out at the saloons and travel the same plank ways that miners and corset-bound ladies did – thrown back in time while living in the present. We could be someone else for a weekend.

Are they not THE cutest? During our anniversary visit (11 years) to Tombstone in October, we saw a dozen or so older couples dressed to the nines – all holding hands and enjoying the day. Click to enlarge.

These two are equally precious. Click to enlarge.

It may very well take us until we’re elderly to get our acts together, and get our costumes right, but I can only hope that hubby and I are holding hands and strolling down Allen Street in our Wild West garb well into the future. We are going to do this. We may just start an anniversary tradition.

For Readers, Writers: Playing dress up. Isn’t that what novels allow us to do? They allow us to walk in the shoes of others, try their clothes – their skin – on for fit, enter a new world, escape reality. Do you think the notion of adults dressing up for a weekend, being someone who they aren’t, is simply crazy or do you think it could be fun? What might you learn?


40 Responses to “Desert Time-Travel”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    I LOVE this — and I confess (I think you know this) that I would love to live in the old west for a while…. the lure of the cowboy life! I love your photos, and I never thought of this before seeing your question, but I used to absolutely love dress-up when I was a kid (when I was in middle school I even sewed myself a period Civil War woman’s dress!), and I definitely see how it relates to being a writer now that you mention it! I love this post because it brought back wonderful memories and gave me a moment of self discovery — and planted some seeds of thought for my WIPs. Thank you so much!

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    Melissa Reply:

    How cool would it be if you still had that period Civil War woman’s dress? So happy to have planted some seeds of thought, Julia.

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Absolutely LOVED that virtual tour!

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    I always enjoy living history events and although I haven’t participated much, I think it’s fun to join in for a weekend. The people who form the backbone of events like these, the ones who do the reenactments, have so much knowledge and information to share. If the particular period isn’t one we’re writing about, thinking about how other people live can still give us insight into our characters. I guess that’s one of the best reasons to travel, in distance or in time, even if we’re only using our imaginations as the vehicle.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ohh… LOVE your comment Shary -“Our imaginations as vehicles!” You’re so right that the performers have such a wealth of knowledge, too. All the mor reason for me to mingle among them next fall!

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  • avatar Mahesh Mohan Says:

    Loved this, too! Like Julia, I used to dress up in Western-ish garb as a kid. I had my favorite cowboy hat, and I would collect Sheriff’s badges when we went on our summer road trips. I don’t think we ever went to Tombstone, but I’ve been a Wyatt Earp fan for many years, so I should probably put this one on my list. Even though my WIP is not a Western, it definitely is influenced by that time period, and being a writer definitely lets us play “dress up” even in our own heads, 🙂

    Loved the pics of the older couples dressed up!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I think we’d all like to see those childhood photos of you in your cowboy hat, totin’ your Sheriff’s badges about!

    You absolutely MUST go to Tombstone (then visit nearby Bisbee – another old mining town that screams “Wild West.”)

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  • avatar Susan Okaty Says:

    Great pictures! There’s something magical in the Old Wild West, maybe because of our fascination with it when we were growing up and watching the westerns, like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The “westerns” of today’s kids are like Star Wars. I would definitely like to dress up and pretend I lived during another time. When you out on the clothes, you put on the attitude.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, there’s something to be said for the “when you put on the clothes, you put on the attitude” mantra. I was just at the Tucson Book Festival, and author Jenna Blum shared that she actually dressed in vintage clothing of an older German woman to really, truly ‘play’ the part of her character.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I have always loved playing dress up for any occasion I can find. I never correlated that with my love for writing, but I believe you are right, Melissa; we are just playing dress up in our characters’ skins! LOVED the pictures, by the way. Especially the last one of the older couple holding hands. Award-worthy.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Aren’t those older couples the cutest? Believe it or not, I had even more photos of elderly couples, but not enough room to share them all. Here’s to dressing up in our character’s skins (and for you – taking care of that fresh, new bundle of joy!)

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    I want to go! I don’t think it’s silly at all. I love our Texas Renaissance Festival every autumn, and have always wanted to get costumes for that. (They’re expensive though, so we haven’t yet.) But I love it, love the concept of getting lost in another reality. Thanks for the tour!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh – Phoenix has a giant Renaissance Festival, too – and I am actually contemplating my next novel having some themes revolve around that culture. I’m totally, totally fascinated, as well. (I hear you about the costume prices. That’s what has stopped us from moving forward with our little dream. But my mom can sew… SO … hmm)

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Oh, I think that would be a total blast, Melissa. And what a perfect anniversary tradition to start!
    Love the photos (as always, I know, I say the same thing every week! But it’s true!) The ladies in their olden times dresses are adorable.
    I would love to do this myself. And I’ve often thought what fun it would be to dress in the period of my novel. Maybe. Someday. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    I could NEVER get tired of hearing you say you enjoy the photos. I’m just so happy I can finally share them with people who appreciate them. For years, they sat in my iPhoto folder all lonely and sad.

    You SHOULD dress up in the period style for your novel. Author Jenna Blum shared that she did just that when writing THOSE WHO SAVE US. What better way than to get into character than to wear her clothes?

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  • avatar Kim Says:

    I LOVE IT. I just LOVE it.

    I would definitely dress up, but I’d be doing it alone… my husband would rather observe the others. That said, I’m not sure *how* I’d dress up, because I don’t know enough about any particular historical period, and if I were going to do this, I’d want to be super-accurate. Hm. Time for research….

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    Melissa Reply:

    Glad I’m not the only one who thinks the whole dress-up concept would be fun! I’m actually surprised that MY husband would be up for.

    Yep – time for some dress up research for sure, Kim.

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  • avatar Abi Burlingham Says:

    That is just fabulous!!! I love the idea of this and the photos are brilliant! I’m not really a dressing up person, but, I’d love to do a kind of fairies in a wood thing, or the old kind of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ thing – corsets and long flowing dresses… now that would be fun!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ohh… Fairies in the woods… Yes, I love that idea! Or Pride and Prejudice! I would be such fun, wouldn’t it? Kind of makes me want to be a kid again.

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  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    I’m so glad Tombstone is still up and running, a ghost town that won’t die! I loved going there as a kid.

    A few years ago I took my children to AZ and we did something similar, a steam-engine train trip to the Grand Canyon that departed from Williams, if I remember correctly. Before we boarded the train they staged a Wild West shootout. Then, halfway to the Grand Canyon, men on horses rode up, “stopped” the train, boarded, and “robbed” us. My son, who was six at the time, knew it wasn’t a real robbery but couldn’t figure out why I gave money to the “robber.” Of course, he wasn’t used to seeing tips given at gunpoint!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes – it IS the ghost town that won’t die. I know a lot of people find it too commercial, but my imagination just runs wild no matter HOW many times I go there. I once stood on the wooden walkways one evening when you could hear only the laughter from the bars. NO ONE was outside, and it was just such a surreal experience to step back in time like that. I was HOPING to see a ghost after all the stories the Birdcage owners told me ;-).

    I’ve always wanted to do the Grand Canyon Railway, too. Ha – too funny about tipping the robber. Love it!

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  • avatar Tracy Mangold Says:

    I would totally do this. I love it. It reminds me a bit of Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. We loved visiting and touring it when we lived out East. People in costume – same thing with Plimoth Plantation – I soaked it all in. I can only imagine how awesome Tombstone would be!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh, yes.. the Plantation and Ferry experiences sound wonderful. So far, all you writerly types have indicated that you’d love to play dress up. I wonder what the non-writerly say? 😉

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  • avatar Brandee Says:

    I only hope that my husband and I are still holding hands when we’re the age of the folks in these wonderful pictures. We’ve got a good shot…we’re coming up on twenty years (!) in August.

    What a great post. We took our in-laws down to Tombstone a couple of years ago, and I felt the same tugs of nostalgia myself.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh, Brandee, congrats on the upcoming 20-year anniversary. That is something special for sure. You should head to Tombstone !

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    I have such a thing for this period! Maybe it was from my younger years watching Bruce Boxleitner in How The West Was Won, but I would have loved to join in the fun here, Melissa. I think you and hubby will make this happen sooner than you think!;)

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    Melissa Reply:

    I have an idea: you and hubby come out and we do this Western dress-up thing together! 😉

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    When I was in middle school, we dressed up for Renaissance day at my school and it was so much fun! I’ve always wanted to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara for halloween (I’m sure most women have) but I’m sure I’d faint from the corset!

    You’re right that novels should let us dress up, and feel like we’re in another person’s shoes. As writers, it’s our job to immerse ourselves first so that the readers can have a similar experience down the line. This is often fun, but challenging. One of the hardest scenes I ever had to write is when one of my character’s husband dies. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like, but then I knew that I HAD to imagine it, and it was a really difficult place for me to go. Next time, I think I’ll try and write a character who’s doing something more fun and happy, like traveling around the world or taste-testing ice cream 😉

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ah, but we know you won’t write the fun-happy-ice-cream-eating character because you, like me, are drawn to darker, deeper characters, dear Natalia! It’s a curse.

    As noted earlier, a lot of authors, I’m learning, actually dress up AS their character to help get at that immersion of which you speak. I may have to try it. The purchase of cowboy boots, however, will be in order :-).

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    Natalia Sylvester Reply:

    Haha, that’s a great point. We are both cursed. I love the idea of dressing up. The closest I ever came was putting a pillowcase over my head while trying to write about a character who’d been kidnapped. So fun and happy right? 😉

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  • avatar StoriesAndSweetPotatoes Says:

    How fun! I would totally go to this! It would be neat to make a dress for this event…if one knew how to make a dress…

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    Melissa Reply:

    OMG… You are so funny. As always.

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  • avatar Suzie Ivy Says:

    It’s sounds like an absolutely fantastic time. I’ve haven’t dressed up in costume since becoming an adult but looking at the one picture, I’ll never be too old. Who doesn’t want to escape and have fun?

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    Melissa Reply:

    Right! Never too old to have fun!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Seriously, that sounds SO fun!! Next year I want a picture of you two all decked out!

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    As much as I love my Old West, I ain’t no dress person. 🙂 Actually, I would rather dress like the boys. Chaps looks way more comfortable.

    I think people that dress up in period clothes are confident and care-free, which I envy. I am on the self-conscious side and I’d be worried I looked stupid the whole time.

    I would love to visit Tombstone some time and feel the sense of being transported back in time. Now you understand why I love historicals so much. 🙂

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    HOW FUN!!! I’ve lived in Arizona my whole life and still have yet to visit Tombstone. My boyfriend and I really want to go, plus, he LOVES the Old West. I suddenly thought of Back to the Future III, while looking through your photos. LOL! Sorry I’ve been offline for awhile. I’m working on getting back! 🙂

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    Look at those cuties!!! Ohmygoodness. I love it. Hopefully having grown past my “too cool” high schoolness just enough, I think a little fun and cheese is just what the doctor ordered. Who couldn’t benefit from a day spent in Miss Kitty’s skirts… ahem, that sounded bad. HHAAA!!!

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Love the pics, as always! And I think adults SHOULD dress up every once in a while. My friends are famous for theme parties: Halloween, 80’s, Olympics, Toga…you name it. It just lightens up the mood and helps everyone get silly. Why should kids have all the fun? 🙂

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  • avatar Millivers Travels Says:

    My first screenplay is a time-travel/adventure/romance set in the desert so, to answer your question for writers, I would TOTALLY love to play dress-ups and watch gunfights in Tombstone! Though I’m not sure how well I’d do being trussed up in a whalebone corset. 😉

    The older couples are adorable! I do think that’s a form of romance worth aspiring to for future anniversaries.

    Did your interview with the owners of the Bird Cage Theatre get published somewhere? Would love to read that as well.

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