Bisbee Notes

Twenty years of living with Rattlesnakes, Killer Bees, and Folks in Need of Supervision

Here in Southeastern Arizona, Tombstone is called the town too tough to die.  Bisbee, on the other hand, is know as the town too high to care.  That description might refer to the mile high altitude.

For 20 years I’ve lived in the little town among some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met.  I’ve also had close encounters with killer bees, scorpions, and a mass tarantula migration.  Javelinas and black bear have run through my neighborhood.  Blizzards, floods and wildfires have threatened the town.  And there are enough quirky, and mostly harmless, folks roaming about to earn Bisbee the reputation of being Arizona’s largest, open air asylum.

Every year I’ve written a newsletter to family and friends about the wonders of Bisbee.  The letters are all here, just as I sent them out.  I hope you enjoy them.



“2000” doesn’t look or sound like a year to me. When I was in the second grade and learning to subtract, I figured out I’d be almost half a century old when the 20th Century turned into the 21st. I was really impressed by a year that appeared to be on the unimaginable horizon. Yet time picked up speed over the years, and somehow, despite my best efforts to slow time down my rotary dial phone, fifteen-year-old car, and I all ended up in the 21st Century anyway.

I celebrated the new year, century and millennium by dining with friends, visiting an art gallery, then joining neighbors at a downtown park. A small circus troop, now wintering in Bisbee, provided drummers, jugglers, and stilt walkers. Other folks dressed in carnival costumes with masks, and brought instruments to play. People of all ages danced in the street. Police officers were present, but unnecessary. At midnight, I stood on a neighbor’s patio, drinking champagne and watching fireworks. It was a lovely end to a busy night.

But not everything had closure. The killer bee saga just goes on and on. Early in 1999, a French photographer working on a bee story dropped by Bisbee to take my portrait. When he found out many others had been stung that day, he wanted to take their portraits, too. I had no idea where to find them but figured several police officers might be available. So we—the photographer, his assistant and I—drove out to the police station. The only officer available hadn’t been on duty the day of the attack, but he was impressed by the photographer’s resume, and so escorted us out to the central fire station.

It was a slow evening there, and the firefighters were wiling to pose for portraits, even donning their heavy coats for the event. The chief pulled the “bee attack” engine out of the station house, and it, plus San Jose Peak in Mexico and the beginnings of sunset, served as background for our group portrait. It was all great fun.

In October, I received a phone call from a television producer working on  segments for “The World’s Most Amazing Videos,” a sometime series on FOX network. This man asked if I’d be willing to relive the attack. I said, “Re-enact it?” while thinking I’d not take off my shirt again for any camera. But he was just worried I might not be emotionally up to describing the attack in detail. I had to confess that I’d repeated the story to everybody I knew, as well as tourists, and had included it in my holiday letter mailed out to more that three score and ten.

He also wanted to interview my neighbor Cleone, who could describe what I looked like covered with bees. Arrangements were made for a film crew (producer, cameraman, sound man) to visit the very next day. They were three hours late because they’d stopped in Tucson at a research center to film bees from the inside of an attack, then had trouble getting the bees off. The leather strap on the sound equipment had at least 200 stingers left in it, and the wide seal around the camera lens had been stung so many times the leather cracked.

The crew moved furniture, lit up my living room, and had me talk for over an hour. Cleone’s interview was shorter, but better, I think. All in all, it was certainly a new way to spend a Saturday night in Bisbee. And since Cleone and I had to sign papers for the IRS, we might even get paid for it.

In another, more public adventure, my parents saved a house from burning down. They called me very late one night in June, which drew me into the kitchen, where I caught a whiff of smoke. There had already been several fires in town, and because Brewery Gulch houses are old and practically on top of one another, the fire chief had told us to call on anything suspicious. So when I saw smoke in the street, I reported it, then went looking for a fire.

It was on the back side of a house on the hill right across the street. When two firefighters finally arrived, they parked the engine halfway up the hill, there being no street to that particular house. I could tell by their lack of urgency that they’d been told only to check out a report of smoke. One of them began picking his way up a path toward the house. Halfway up, he turned and ran down, yelling for his helmet and radio.

Very quickly, the street filled with fire trucks, police vehicles, and neighbors. And smoke. Lots of smoke. Someone had poured an accelerant under the back side of the house, and the fire needed only 20 more minutes to burn the whole thing down. I was impressed by how quickly our fire department could put out a fire on a steep hillside.

In Tucson, when firefighters carry a 90-pound pack of equipment across level ground from truck to blaze, they get to rest 20 minutes. Here in Bisbee, they carry a 90-pound pack up a hill and get to climb down to fetch another one. A firefighter later told me I’d saved the house, but I think credit should go to Mom and Dad’s late phone call. If not for that I’d probably have slept through the whole thing.

Bisbee’s arsonist burned three or four empty houses in about a month. My neighborhood had several meetings, set up night patrols, and the city council offered a reward for information. Folks were encouraged to report any kind of fire or smoke, and they obliged, to the point fire trucks were being called out to douse any whiff of anything. Finally, a man here in Brewery Gulch actually called the fire department to warn them he was lighting his barbecue and they needn’t attend. Amidst all the hoopla, the number one arson suspect left town, and the fires stopped.

Massive border crossing were the biggest political issue of the year. Washington, D.C., began tightening the U.S./Mexican border a couple of years ago, and since illegal crossings are way down in San Diego, Yuma, El Paso, Del Rio, Brownsville, etc., “Operation Gatekeeper” has been called a great success. In reality, all the people who aren’t crossing near those cities are now trying to cross here in Southeastern Arizona.

Nearly a quarter of a million people were apprehended in Cochise County last year, most of them near Douglas, which is half an hour east of Bisbee. We have fewer that 200 Border Patrolmen here, which is more that ten times the number of just three years ago. Last spring, Agua Prieta, the Mexican city south of Douglas, had 100,000 extra people waiting for a chance to cross.

Since we can only count those caught, we have no idea how many people do cross. Most are Mexicans looking for work. Many have long time employment in other states, and are just returning from a visit to family. Central Americans escaping hurricane damage and
Asians have also been caught, however.

Local ranchers complain about cut fences and cattle dying by eating trash left behind. Thousands of plastic water bottles litter the landscape. The Border Patrol does its own damage, shining lights into people’s bedrooms, and harassing U.S. citizens found near the border, even if on their own property. Americans with good tans are followed to work and stopped on any pretense. Occasionally the local newspapers carry a story about Patrolmen beating or killing illegals.

Then there are the coyotes, those who help crossers for a fee of up to $1000 or more. Often entire villages pay for a few workers to cross. Sometimes, the coyotes abandon their customers in the desert. Others point to Wilcox, up near I-10, and say it’s Los Angeles. Or claim the lights of Bisbee are really in Phoenix. Or deliberately lead the crossers to waiting bandits, who steal and rape. Babies have been abandoned by terrified relatives. Corpses had been found in washes or near the San Pedro River corridor. It is common for lost and desperate crossers to ask that La Migra (Immigration/Border Patrol) be called. They know they will at least survive and, at worst, be taken back to Mexico.

Of course, there is much debate about what can or should be done. The most popular suggestion around here is to issue guest worker cards and let these people pick chilies for $10 a day. This would take the approval and cooperation of the federal government, however, and too many in Washington actually believe Operation Gatekeeper, which funnels half a million hungry, desperate people through the Sonora desert, is a success.

And yet, the border is not all bad news. I’ve crossed into Naco, Sonora, just south of Bisbee, several times this year. There are three pharmacies selling medicine at low prices. I also found a good seafood restaurant and a good dentist over the line. ($25 for teeth cleaning, $40 for a filling, $110 for a crown.)

Last fall, an 11-year-old boy in Naco, Sonora, got his lasso, then his arm tangled in a whirling sewer pump. There was no one in Naco to help, so a man ran to the border and asked for the Bisbee fire/ rescue team. Government representatives cannot ordinarily cross into Mexico in their official capacity without a mountain of paperwork generated on both sides. So our ambulance crews regularly pick up people just this side of the line, which is actually a cattle grate in the road.

This time, when our EMS crew reached the border, both U.S. and Mexican customs agents waved them across and a Naco Policia cruiser was waiting to lead the ambulance to the screaming child. A hundred spectators cheered the rescuers’ arrival. Once freed, the boy and his mother rode the ambulance back across the line to a waiting helicopter for a trip to a trauma center.

Amidst all this excitement, work on my novel continues. However, the novel’s structure is proving to be more complex than I figured, and writing from within five different characters’ viewpoints is as difficult as it sounds. I’ve had no luck selling my short stories, but I did get an article published in the Tuscon Daily Star in November.

I simplified my life a bit when I stopped hosting the weekly writing workshop in my home. It wasn’t fun anymore. I also quit my job at the Food Co-op, happy to have done it and to have learned so much, but even happier to leave.

There’s a saying around these here parts, that Tombstone is the town too tough to die, and Bisbee is the town too high to care. I don’t think this refers to our mountain altitude. So many drug shipments filter over the border, the number of vehicle confiscations, which fill small valleys, have become a scandal. Drug-sniffing dogs go over the vehicles prior to sale, of course. Yet city officials drove a confiscated van to government meetings all over Arizona for months before anyone discovered 50 pounds of marijuana hidden in a door panel. Bisbee’s reputation lives on!