Trigger Effect, 2012

Trigger Effect, 2012
By Charles Jensen

The drive to Tombstone takes you about 30 miles south down Interstate 10 from Tucson.  Quickly leaving the city behind, the desert pushes civilization out as far as the eye can see, replacing it with low desert cactus, mesquite, and acacia, then red mountains, and past that, their vague, purple cousins.  As you near the exit for Highway 80, the only road from I-10 into the isolated towns of Tombstone’s region, the vegetation changes to desert scrub, Joshua trees. The cacti vanish. The air thins ever so slightly. It gets cooler. 

            I took my friend Maureen to visit Tombstone—unwittingly—on the anniversary of the violent shooting that left six Tucsonans dead, and another thirteen wounded. Among the victims was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a third-term Representative not well known outside the state.  The shooting came on the heels of a year in which Arizona was frequently in the national news for spearheading a series of state laws that took aim at what the state legislature considered to be the federal government’s inability to curb and curtain illegal immigration across our state borders.  The most spurious of these laws, SB 1130, authorized police officers to conduct citizenship verification in the course of routine investigations if they suspected the subject of their investigation was an illegal immigrant.

            The laws and the shooting, along with America’s general misunderstanding of The Changing Arizona, bronzed what was essentially a confirmed opinion of our culture: that we are a lawless, hateful state of gun-toting pro-life crazies.  On January 8, 2011, I was temporarily not an Arizonan—just two years prior, I’d moved to our nation’s capital for a job change. It was during this time I came face-to-face with the ignorance and general confusion about Arizona itself. One colleague of mine joked to another before I arrived that I would likely bring in my collection of crystals to the office. After Jan Brewer took over the governor’s office, other peers told me what a backward and hate-filled state Arizona was.  When I explained Phoenix was, at the time, the fifth largest city in America, sized just between Houston and Philadelphia, people were often very surprised.  They also had no idea that Phoenix, comprising about 500 square miles, is comparable to Los Angeles in sheer area—and because it’s bordered on one side by empty desert, it is one of the few American cities that will continue to grow and sprawl unheeded. 

***

We can trace Arizona’s bad reputation all the way back to 1881, when Wyatt Earp, his brother Virgil, and friend Doc Holliday engaged in what became the most famous shoot out of the Old West—the shootout at the O.K. Corral in the aptly-named city of Tombstone.  Only three people, all “outlaws,” were killed in that event, and two of the “heroes,” Virgil Earp and Holliday, were wounded but survived.  Only the hallowed Wyatt Earp emerged unscathed from the thirty-second hail of bullets.  He and his friends went on to thrive in Tucson; the other three joined the rest of the dead in Boot Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of town. 

            Tombstone, now listed on the national registry of historic places, is a largely undeveloped swatch of land atop a small mesa in the middle of the desert.  Highway 80 curves around the edge of it before heading further south to Bisbee and, just beyond that, to Mexico.  A modern Holiday Inn Express stands next to the Lovely Lookout Inn on the outskirts of town; a few blocks in, a combo laundromat and car wash sits largely unused next to a run-down Circle K.  It would be an unremarkable Arizona town hovering dangerously close to “ghost” status were it not for the billboards promising daily gunfights, mine tours, resorts, and miniature golf courses.  A few billboards are so large, built so far off scale, that they dwarf nearby homes, looming over them and casting shifting quadrilateral shadows as the sun makes its way overhead. 

            When Maureen and I arrived in town, parked our car, and stepped onto the sidewalks of modern Tombstone, it was eerily quiet despite the clusters of tourists striding by us. Until the gunfights began and continued, like clockwork, every thirty minutes. 

*** 

Arizona has five distinct climatological zones, all with their own unique vegetation, weather, and temperature range.  Generally, the state’s considered to have three main regions. Northern Arizona, location of the Grand Canyon, is all evergreens, vaulted mountaintops, snowy winters, and cool summers.  Its biggest city, Flagstaff, sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level. Central Arizona, the region around Phoenix, is only 70 miles south but 6,000 feet lower. This is basically the Arizona of common perception: saguaros, scorching summer temperatures, and golf courses. It is also home to Scottsdale, the plastic surgery capital of America and inevitable seat of a future Real Housewives series on Bravo.  Southern Arizona—anchored by Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, and ending at the Mexico-U.S. border—is somewhere in between, ranging from 2,000 to 5,500 feet in elevation, dotted with tiny enclaves of ranches and cities reluctant to evolve from their late 1800s splendor.

            Arizona came to the party late as the last contiguous American state admitted to the Union on Valentine’s Day, 1912.  Prior to the Giffords shooting and the Legislative hoo-ha-ha, Arizona was primarily recognized as Marion Crane’s home in Psycho, the state that brought us Barry Goldwater, and as a magazine, Arizona Highways, that published gorgeous portraits of the unspoiled desert and mountain geography. 

***

Fremont Street, where much of the O.K. Corral shootout transpired, is now Highway 80, paved and signed at the standards of all state highways. Because of this, it is illegal for the town to accurately reenact the gunfight there.  Tombstone’s side streets all appear to be untouched, recapturing that pioneer spirit of whorehouses, taverns, and more taverns. Instead, all the action now takes place on Allen Street one block south. Guests arriving to Tombstone must park their cars in any of the public lots—at the high school or church—or gamble on finding parallel parking on a side street as Allen Street is open only to pedestrians and carriages, just as it once was.

            Allen Street’s three block historic stretch has the unreal feel of a Hollywood film set and all the crass salesmanship of a tourist trap.  Plank sidewalks line either side of the dirt street.  Small shops ranging from “genuine O.K. Corral tours” to period clothing stores to bars offer visitors respite from the bright sunshine and sometimes forceful winds.  Scattered among the tourist families in their t-shirts, shorts, and fanny packs are men in spurs and chaps, refined couples wearing finely tailored formal suits and dresses. 

         “This is like the Renaissance Fair,” Maureen said to me quietly, trying to avoid eye contact with all the people around us dressed in period costumes.  Like the Renaissance Fair, it’s hard to determine who’s on payroll and who’s simply enthusiastic about Tombstone’s checkered past. Tombstone strives to be a fully immersive and interactive experience—at least above ground.

*** 

After squeezing my Scion into a very tight but empty parking spot on a side street, Maureen and I opted to take the “Good Enough Mine Tour,” a name that refers to the name of the mine and not necessarily to the tour itself. Our guide, Mike, wore a flannel jacket torn open at the seam, jeans, and worn-in construction boots. A thin ponytail emerged from the back of his hard hat and when he smiled, his two front teeth were conspicuously absent.  Despite his rough-and-tumble demeanor, Mike had a gruff kindness about him and a clear enthusiasm about mining that, when he spoke about it, bordered on glee.  The tour began with a quick demonstration of how Tombstone miners would have done their work.  Mike picked up what looked like a jackhammer drill bit, a four-pound hammer with a yellow handle, and then placed a leaking PowerAde bottle filled with water near an indentation in a giant stone.  “Aside from the plastic bottle, this is how the Good Enough miners would have worked,” he said, placing the bit in the shallow hole.  He swung the hammer, striking the bit with a musical clink. “You swing and turn,” he said, rotating the bit in his hand between swings.   After ten swings, he was unnoticeably deeper in the hole. “Once they reached a depth of six feet, they’d load in their dynamite and stand back.”

         Mike pointed out a few legitimate relics scattered about the yard near the mine tour’s entrance.  One rusted mine car slumped against a dented iron bucket to our right, while further off, another stood frozen inside a mine car elevator. “The only piece of machinery available to the miners was that,” Mike said, gesturing to a hunk of metal gears, pipes, and winches.  “And that was because not a man alive could drag up a mine car filled with two tons of broken rock.”

          The vista from above the mine was bordered by a scalloped set of small hills not far off in the distance. Small roads and trails marked them at various angles and, off to the right, a sizeable industrial building overlooked the entire town of Tombstone from a perch on the highest of the hills. Desert scrub and cactus littered the ground.  The only other modern presence was a chain link fence that would deter the casual hiker from walking too far into what we learned was a thin layer of land above a latticework of underground tunnels, dead ends, and drops. 

          The mouth of the mine, Mike told us as we entered, was widened to assist with exploration and to make the tour safer. Here, too, a chain link fence, attached to the sheer-rock face bordering the mine’s opening, was a rare modern element.  “When Ed Shieffelin told some folks he was planning to mine in these hills, they told him he was crazy, that the only thing he’d find out here was his tombstone,” Mike said as we and the other tourists gathered around him.  “And with those words, this town was born, courtesy of the second-largest silver strike in American history.”  I’d always thought the town had gotten its name from the violence of the Old West, not middle school-level taunting.

          Mike described how the opening we stood in was at one time filled with solid silver ore, all of it removed by the miners in the course of their work and shipped offsite for processing. In fact, every significant cavern or opening in the mine would be sized and shaped according to the vein of silver ore removed from it.  The tunnels we walked through were created only out of the miners’ need to follow the unpredictable vein and, when they lost it, to look elsewhere—deeper, farther, and beyond.

          We walked down a series of stairs into the mine. Mike advised that stones painted red—again, a modern intrusion on what was otherwise fully antique—were to advise the taller tourists of low-hanging rocks ready to knock off our hard hats. We wound our way through narrow tunnels from open chamber to open chamber, where Mike would stop to point out lead cans that once held miner’s food or a carbide lamp, the miner’s replacement to candles, left behind more than a century ago.  “Miners worked 10 hour shifts with an hour set aside for the transition between each shift,” Mike told us.  We were gathered around a pile of black rocks, on which a large half-dollar coin sat, glinting under Mike’s flashlight.  “That meant the mine was going 24 hours a day, so Tombstone was going 24 hours a day,” he went on.  “It was the Las Vegas of its time.  Anything you wanted, you could get in Tombstone, and you could get it any time of day, because of this.”  He gestured to the rocks and the coin.  “Silver ore. Not much to look at, but once it was mixed with mercury and lead, melted down and smelted into an amalgam, and then separated from the mercury into pure silver set in 180 pound bars, well, that was this town’s blood.”

          Those of us on the tour stared down at the chunks of black rocks stacked neatly under the coin.  In my mind, I imagined the Tombstone nobody really thought about anymore—the one where businesses never closed, where everyone within the city limits tried to think up ways to separate the miners—then some of the highest paid labor in the West—from their money.  Was the lawlessness overshadowing Tombstone’s mining legacy the natural end result of this greed? 

***

130 years later, in Arizona’s second-largest city, a young man with a gun allegedly opened fire on an elected official and 18 bystanders over the course of a few unbelievable minutes.  He was subdued by unharmed members of the crowd, those gathered to speak with Representative Giffords, ostensibly one of the sweetest and “least political” members of Congress.  It has been pointed out again and again in various ways that although several people in the crowd that day were carrying guns on their hips—an Arizonan’s right for protection—not one of them drew his weapon in response to the attack.  Instead, one woman snatched up the gunman’s replacement clip while several others tackled him and brought him to the ground.

          Even from 2,000 miles away, the response to this event was palpable.  While many media outlets expressed outrage and sadness over the loss of life, it was tempered to some degree with an implication that Arizona’s conservative ridiculousness had crafted this tragedy.  It was the access to firearms that created the tragedy, gun control proponents claimed, while others expressed concern that the level of “hate” in Arizona’s body politic—the hurtful anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation, for example—finally boiled over.  The quickness to embrace either theory is disconcerting for almost all Arizonans, most of whom are non-gun carrying free-thinkers who want nothing more than for everyone to mind his or her own business, whether it’s about illegal immigration, border control, or personal rights and freedoms. 

***

Why is America quick to believe that 130 years of growth and change have ultimately had no impact on the Arizona citizenry’s thirst for violence? As I walked the plank sidewalks of Tombstone on January 8, my conversation with Maureen punctuated by the popping of fake guns on the street beside us, I felt sick.  Men and women in full 19th Century costumes passed us, complete with droopy biker mustaches and corsets, conversing quietly to themselves, walking into stores with a phantasmagoric calm, following the same paths again and again.  When Maureen and I crossed the street, a man leaning against a horse pitch told us, “Next gunfight starts in fifteen minutes,” more sales pitch than warning.

          Maureen and I walked into the Tombstone Art Gallery, a quaint house on the main street with large picture windows. Paintings and photographs inside were hung up on pegboard, each one labeled with the title, price, and author’s name, and every few paces a laser-printed paper advised guests that cell phone photography of the work was forbidden without consent of the author. The gallery was silent and cold, as eerily quiet as the most modern and austere of contemporary galleries, affording Maureen and me the opportunity to consider not only the work we saw, but also the context in which we viewed it.  We could hear the pounding of feet on the street outside, the quick snaps of fake gunfire, shouts.  As we exited the gallery, we came upon Wyatt Earp and his gang pacing in the street, talking to the crowd.  “Those boys have committed a crime and run off,” the Wyatt Earp actor shouted, turning to look at each member of the crowd as he spoke.  In his right hand, he held a long shotgun by the barrel, like a baton. “What would you have us do?” 

          Across the street, a thirty-something dad in a white sweatshirt with a three-year-old at his leg held an iPhone up in front of his face.  “Shoot them!” he yelled.

***

The events of January 8 were a shocking jolt of reality in a nation where curt words and mudslinging were tools of the political trade. Both sides of the aisle were inflating the rhetoric, but it was Arizona’s own state legislature, driven by anger at the federal government’s perceived poor border management, that took most of the blame.  Although President Obama’s election in 2008 was part of a larger shift left for many Congressional seats, the midterm elections in 2010 made a radical reversal of those gains, replacing many elected officials at the federal level with Tea Party candidates with Libertarian leanings.  At the state level, Arizona’s government for the last ten years had been tenuously balanced with power divided between a terminally conservative legislature and a liberal governor, Janet Napolitano.  Napolitano’s movement to the head of Homeland Security under Obama upset this balance and tipped the power decidedly to the right.  Jan Brewer’s work as governor did nothing to mitigate the deluge of conservative laws passed and, in fact, seemed to fan those flames.

            Since 1990, the population of Arizona exploded, particularly in Phoenix, which went from what people considered to be a sleepy desert city to the fifth-largest metropolis in America, just smaller than Houston.  It sprawled over a land area as large (or larger) than Los Angeles, annexing desert lands and inspiring suburbs to pop up deeper and deeper in the desert landscape.  Tucson and Flagstaff, the state’s other major cities, retained their traditional identities as the liberal island (Tucson) and the rugged frontier (Flagstaff) despite the population changes, while Phoenix struggled to find its voice. Much of the population growth came as a result of tech companies like Intel and Motorola expanding operations there, pulling younger and often more liberal citizens to the area. But the ideological shifts changing the landscape and the hearts of Phoenix went largely undetected by the rest of America, most of whom had yet to realize just how significant this culture was about to become on the national stage.

            Tucson, on the other hand, has a distinct communal voice: it is adamantly not Phoenix.  Conversations with Tucsonans about “that other city” often end with complains of how Phoenicians believe people in Tucson ride horses and shoot their guns into the air to celebrate things.  Since so many state resources end up headquartered or centered in Phoenix, the Tucson attitude is one of stubborn self-reliance that borders on aggressive rejection of anything Phoenix.  To wit, two-thirds of the state’s university students—those at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Arizona State University in Tempe, just outside Phoenix—are bitter rivals. The rivalry is so extreme that my sister-in-law, Tucson-born-and-bred and a former U of A student herself, will not even allow her two children to consider attending ASU because, she says plainly, it doesn’t exist.

            But Tucson is a beautiful place.  My good friend Jaime once explained the significant difference between the landscape of the two places: “In Phoenix, we pave the desert away and pretend it isn’t there. In Tucson, we welcome the desert up to the front door.”   Tucson more closely follows the design tenets of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose famed school and studio, Taliesin West, squats low in an undisturbed section of desert outside Scottsdale.  It exists in harmony with its landscape, its four mountain ranges, its torrential summer monsoon rains that can blind drivers with sheets of water only to vanish minutes later, leaving small eddies swirling down the streets.

***

Over one shop on Allen Street, a sign reads, “O.K. Corral fight moved through here,” with an arrow directing tourists inside.  As if it existed in their own time, Holliday and the Earp brothers, at the dad’s suggestion, disappeared through the door and, I suppose, tracked down the criminals they were about to send to their final resting place in Boot Hill Cemetery.  We didn’t follow; as we hadn’t paid to “watch” the gunfight, we couldn’t.  But we knew how it all ended even if we didn’t see it first hand.

            As we walked, we explored a few of the shops on that recreated street.  Maureen and I passed a store with “Guns and Ammo” painted in Old West letters on the glass.  Inside, an old man, looking tired and lonely, sat behind a counter surrounded by handguns, rifles, and shotguns.  Boxes of ammunition lined a wall behind him next to a large display of cigarettes.

           You can’t pass two adjacent storefronts in Tombstone without encountering a gift shop. Along with the requisite Tombstone paraphernalia—guns, gun-shaped magnets, gun-shaped cigarette lighters whose flames shoot out the barrel, and books about guns and Tombstone history—we found green pepper jelly and prickly pear syrup, raccoon hats, States of the U.S. refrigerator magnets, high end art and sculptures alongside sitting frog statues, and local wines.  One store featured a particularly disturbing selection of racist advertisements from the early 1900s, all featuring black children with round white eyes and white smiles, often doing something illegal or inappropriate for the entertainment of the viewer.

          In every gift shop window we passed, I studied the various displays of toys and souvenirs.  Many shops, it seemed, prominently displayed a “cowgirl” pistol set, complete with a pink pearled handle and a pink holster with a star on it. Even girls, it seemed, were not immune to the siren call of Tombstone’s violent past.  And even cowgirls love pink. 

*** 

In the months that followed the gunman’s arrest and subsequent hearings, Arizonans listened closely to try to understand his motives. Was he a political activist? Was he just crazy? Interspersed with news of the court proceedings were updates on Giffords’s recovery—responding to commands, expressing needs, demonstrating emotion—that all indicated she could make an extensive recovery from her traumatic brain injuries.  It was many months before Giffords would learn of the events that day—for quite some time, she could only recall going to the Safeway where her “Congress on Your Corner” event was held, but had no memory of the shoot out, the other victims, or the origin of her wounds. 

            In Tombstone, the identities of the heroes and villains have been etched into headstones and recounted in stories as archetypical as myths, in books, and in big budget Hollywood films. America loves to see good triumph over evil and is only too eager to assign those qualified labels—“good” and “evil”—without much consideration of their values. I am not too old to have played “cowboys and Indians” as a child myself, the good/evil binary so entrenched in our history and culture that numerous generations never thought twice about how good or how evil either one was.  I do not mean to imply, however, that the shootings in Tucson in 2011 have been misrepresented. And the scenarios I’ve placed in opposition here—Tombstone and Tuscon—are not congruent.  At the center, though—what exists now, our culture now, our perception now—is the firearm, the idea of justice, and the sense that lawlessness, however archaic a reality, can never really be washed away.

          Arizona occupies this uncomfortable American crossroads, often without much self-awareness.  Its political landscape serves as the butt of late-night talk show jokes from hosts who have likely never spoken to an actual Arizonan or stepped foot on one of its five varied landscapes.  Arizona is an uncomfortable reality for America because, at its core, it is America writ small—it is at once fiercely liberal and stridently conservative.  It is densely urban and desolately rural.  It indulges in the frivolity of great wealth and the reticence of abject poverty, sometimes within the same square mile.  But when Americans look into Arizona, they don’t see themselves. They see the Other, the opposite of themselves.  They see the people they wish themselves not to be—backwards-thinking, uber-violent Neo-Nazis; conservative, cloistered Mormons; bleeding heart liberals; minutemen; uneducated lumberjacks; rich bitches with Chihuahuas in Fendi bags. Arizona is, in our moment, home to everything America wishes it weren’t.  And yet, all of the things it is.

            In Tombstone, many gift shops invite you to purchase a t-shirt with a photograph of a group of Native Americans, each brandishing a gun, looking solemn and intense. Above the photograph, the shirt reads, “The Original Homeland Security.”  

*** 

Charles Jensen is the author of five chapbooks of poems, including the forthcoming Breakup/Breakdown (January 2017), The Nanopedia Quick-Reference Pocket Lexicon of Contemporary American Culture, and The First Risk, which was published in 2009 by Lethe Press and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His previous chapbooks include Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Field, The Journal, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis. He lives in Los Angeles.