Wandering the Wild West

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Although Western movies are not currently popular with Americans, the Wild West continues to fascinate tourists, and they can get a taste of that history with 3 towns in Arizona, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Photography by the authors. Colt handgun drawn by Griffin, the artist .

These days, it can’t be easy to be a Hollywood producer trying to judge what the public wants and will pay for; so we get runs of doctor shows and movies and, of course, productions with legal and political themes. Crime is always popular, both in TV shows and in real life — and, also in both, today’s theme seems to be crime does pay.

What about the Western — Italy’s favorite American theme? We thought it was making a comeback when, at the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco, Texas, we saw previews suggesting Johnny Depp’s movie The Lone Ranger would be a blockbuster. Instead, it was a stinker.

At the moment, Western movies are not big with Americans; although, strangely, foreign nations still love ’em and the Wild West continues to fascinate visitors to the United States. Those who wander the Wild West have many options if they want to get hands-on and touch American history.

Three options are Arizona, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Tombstone, AZ

We like Tombstone. It’s honest. The bullet holes in the antique furniture are genuine.

The town cemetery has interesting, er, tombstones although the pine markers do seem to have avoided weathering in the hot Arizona air.

Yup, you can look at the front page of the Tombstone Epitaph and read the contemporaneous account of who shot whom at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881. Oh sure, those involved were standing much closer to each other and no crackshot shooting was required during that infamous 30 seconds. Furthermore, a lot has been written suggesting Wyatt Earp was a more complicated man than a simple town marshal and hero — but truth is, of course, fugitive after so many years.

Allow yourselves at least a couple of hours to walk around the town; there are several museums and bars to visit not so much to drink but to discover history.

Indeed, it’s a great place to visit just for the feel of the last century. Here are living museums of the past — one in the Courthouse and several in the original saloons and theaters of the time. They show the courage of the pioneer experience, the dangers of the West, the hardships of the mining life, and the weakness of the spirit — and how personal wealth could be gambled away or lost in a moment.

There are B&Bs in the area and small hotels in nearby Bisbee. But Tombstone is more fun.

You’ll enjoy just walking around but, as always, show business beckons. Feet now stray to the daily staging of the most famous gunfight in Western history. There, in the OK Corral, in a confined space containing 9 men and 2 horses, men stood close enough to shake hands but fired guns in smoke so dense they could barely see each other — forever burning Tombstone into the stories of America’s wild and infamous West.

Dodge City, KS

Tombstone ran into trouble because its silver mining created wealth and the crime that followed. Dodge City was put on the map because it was at the end of the cattle trails from Texas, in particular the Chisholm Trail, which brought wild cowboys and their guns to town, anxious to celebrate spending their pay.

The Santa Fe Trail crossed this terrain and even now the indentations for the covered wagons remain as proof of their passage. Charlie Meade, a retired deputy marshal, stands beside Jasper D’Ambrosi’s bronze statue of El Capitan, a Texas longhorn that symbolizes how on any cattle trail there was always one that took the lead and encouraged the others. It’s a tribute to Texas longhorns that left their mark on the town as much as the wagon wheels themselves.

You can walk its boardwalk past Dr. McCarty’s drug store and F.C. Zimmerman’s hardware store, but you’re not stepping on history, just reproductions. A local politician (who now hides his name) authorized the eradication in the 1970s of the original buildings — and the obliteration of the town’s heritage.

A cattle drive up from San Antonio on this Western Trail took 3 months. (Towns in Kansas are 20 to 30 miles apart because that’s the limit of a horse in one day.)

The first herd of 3,500 came in 1875. The herd boss was paid $2 to $7 for each cow he delivered in Dodge, and he would give a cowboy $15 to $30 for 3 months’ work, money soon burning a hole in the cowpoke’s pocket when he was set free in Dodge.

The Chisholm Trail was diverted from the Kansas cow towns situated to the east. Farmers in that part of the state complained that the Texas cattle were bringing in splenic fever as a threat to their cattle. They succeeded in getting the trail shifted more westerly to Dodge’s benefit.

Seven million head of cattle came up from San Antonio over those 14 years. Asked once what Dodge was like in those days, Dr. C. Robert Haywood, a local professor and historian, replied: “A 24—hour-a-day carnival.”

Wagon Wheels, WY

You can, of course, create your own history and your own western adventure, and with digital cameras it’s never been easier to safeguard your memories.

Wanna be a cowboy? Wanna join a cattle drive? You can do that in several of the upscale resorts in Phoenix. But if you really want to do it right, go to Jackson Hole in Wyoming and sign up for your own wagon train at Teton Wagon Train & Horse Adventure.

You’ll ride in a covered wagon about 4 miles every day, although you can borrow one of the horses and circle around as you accompany the wagons. You won’t notice the wheels have hard rubber tires, but you may note, with gratitude, that the benches inside are padded.

"The idea is not to beat you to death by seeing how far or fast we can go in a wagon," says Jeff Warburton. He and his brother, Chris, run the family business, which has been around for 40 years. "The plan's to let you enjoy an experience that's an important part of our country's history."

An old Indian trail starts at Grassy Lake, WY, and runs west. It was improved in 1937 to allow teams of 40 horses (4 across, 10 in line) to haul cement wagons from Ashton, Utah, to the lake for the Bureau of Reclamation's dam.

The trail, seldom used now, still twists and turns, skirting the Jedediah Smith Wilderness to the south, and Winegar Hole Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park to the north. In an SUV, the monstrous affectation of the 2000s, you could drive the 17 miles of rough road between Grassy Reservoir and Indian Lake in 30 minutes, or you can do it in a covered wagon — the momentous method of the 1840s — with the Teton Wagon Train in 4 days.

You may hesitate for a moment when you realize cowboys for the day or week don’t wear helmets, but unless you’re pregnant or have a bad back or bad knees, you should add that experience to the trip.

You’ll sleep in tall, 3-man tents designed by Chris Warburton and eat hearty food cooked in Dutch ovens. It's called camping!

"You've had your last contact with things that flush," says Chris. "On the trail anything can happen. We break a wheel, we fix it. A horse throws a shoe, we fix it. A grizzly comes into camp, we drive him off."

The season for the trek was so short, travelers couldn't stop to help any broken down wagon. However, the Warburton guests learn the Mormon treks had half the death rate of the Oregon Trail because they helped each other.

Guests learn, during Jeff's campfire stories, about our heritage and those courageous people who crossed a continent on foot against so many dangers, ready to go within a half hour of sunrise and, on average, making only 12 miles by nightfall.

And guests learn about horses.

“Horses love to work, they want to please you but you have to take command.”

As if to prove him wrong, the horse Jeff is standing beside dumps his load. He grins and moves his boots away.

“Horses don’t have on and off buttons,” he says with a grin. “They are always on!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.