Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tombstone and the future of history

"The town too tough to die." That's the proud slogan of Tombstone, which perches in splendid isolation at the eastern fringe of the Sonoran desert, an hour's drive southeast of the city of Tucson, Arizona, and about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. I've come to Tucson for the weekend, and since my friend mysteriously failed to pick me up at the airport two days ago, I've had to improvise an alternative agenda. So it is that I find myself sharing a rental car with four other young travellers, hailing from Bermuda, Liverpool and Utrecht, all fellow denizens of a hostel a short walk from downtown Tucson. Unlike me, all are in their early twenties and in the midst of their respective trans-continental quests to "see America". Today, Tombstone is our chosen day-trip destination.

As no visitor to the area can fail to notice, this settlement, which some 1,600 souls call home, prides itself on being an icon of the Wild West. As a tourist attraction, it taps into that lucrative cultural reservoir of collective memory, part history and part myth, which has been immortalised -- or, to those inclined to emphasise the latter ingredient, generated -- by a thousand movies. The town's excellent name is perhaps one of the most effective imaginable evocations of hardbitten frontiersmen and devil-may-care gunslingers (possibly outdone only by the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico -- although in point of fact that town was actually named after a radio show in the 1950s). Tombstone's real claim to fame, however, is that it was the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Though the original event has long since passed, thankfully you can enjoy a re-enactment any time you care to visit: "Gunfight daily!" cry the billboards scattered en route.

Probably like many others unfamiliar with these parts, what I know about the actual history of the colonisation of the West by European Americans could fit comfortably on the back of a postage stamp, and despite my passion for cinema, the western is surely the genre of American film with which I'm least familiar. Even so, the look and feel, the sensibility, or mythos invoked here is so familiar from culture (and yet so remote from my own experience) that in my mind it is the very essence of B-movie cliche: hard stares, bold moustaches, stray bullets, and dust.

Why did I come here? I have no satisfactory answer to that question. I don't know what to make of the fact that I am spending time and money in this bone-dry, baking hot place in the middle of nowhere. But while pondering that I'm put in mind of an interesting comparison. While I was studying at the University of Melbourne at the turn of the century, part of my family lived in Ballarat, Victoria, an hour and a half away; a town founded during southeast Australia's gold rush. Ballarat has a major tourist attraction named Sovereign Hill, a recreated 01860s gold mining settlement and so-called "living museum". There are certain historical and aesthetic similarities -- both places are recreated frontier towns in the New World (albeit on different continents, though you'd be hard-pressed to pick that from appearances only) and owe their existence to the mid-to-late 19th century mad dash of prospectors seeking precious metals. Both are filled with wooden buildings, have walls adorned with ersatz parchmenty official looking posters, and have horses regularly clopping past, carts and passengers in tow... But whereas Sovereign Hill is a paid-admission only, privately owned attraction in its own right, near but not integrated with the modern city of Ballarat with its 80,000 inhabitants or so, the town of Tombstone, which is a place where people actually live and work in the early 21st century, is itself the attraction. Here ordinary life overlaps with the historical streetscape that is maintained by dint of tight local regulations, and which has made it a nationally listed attraction since the 01960s. Sovereign Hill is at pains to provide some kind of sense of life in the era (it has a working mine set up, you can pan for gold, there are educational programs including a school in which children can experience the classroom of a bygone era, writing out lines with a quill and inkwell). In Tombstone, by contrast, there are no fences between the dusty street and the desert -- the centre of the original town is itself the attraction -- but as a result, modern life keeps intruding. There are Harley Davidson motorcycles parked everywhere. You have to pay to get into the OK Corral. Every store is jammed full of souvenirs. (Oddly, visiting the town, and commemorating -- or commodifying -- your visit for future reference are merged, so seeing all those souvenirs and witty posters through every doorway inevitably becomes one of the main recollections you take away.) It's a place where people live, but to seems to operate almost entirely at the level of appearances and legend, throwing back to the Hollywood-made mythos. This creates a kind of paradox: the real town of Tombstone contrives to deliver a far more crassly commercial and less authentic experience of history as it might have been than the thoroughly controlled simulacrum at Sovereign Hill.

So, the weekend we're here, as it happens, the United States marks Memorial Day, which is an opportunity to celebrate the sacrifice of servicemen in the country's growing list of wars. But it's "Wyatt Earp Days" in Tombstone. This makes it one of two occasions annually when people descend on Tombstone to stroll around dressed gloriously in 01880s style -- the other is the 26 October anniversary of the O.K. Corral showdown. It is impossible to say in most cases which of these elegantly dressed are locals pandering to tourists, and which are tourists indulging their own eccentric hobby. I overhear one woman, elaborately dressed in heavy dresses, gleefully declaring that "We came here once and keep coming back!" At first I'm puzzled as to what the attraction could be -- wandering around in an overheated costume for a weekend. However, my fellow hostellers can't resist having their photos taken with a dapper couple in Wild West regalia who turned out to be repeat visitors from Michigan, and I begin to see how this role play could be fun: authenticity might be much less of a concern than the thrill of participating in the illusion, like actors on the stage.

What a place to visit! But what must it be like to live here? Evidently there are certain costs to living in a museum. I meet a bright eyed young lady behind the counter at a wild west outfitter. She's perhaps 16 or 17 years old, wearing a black dress recalling Jody Foster in "Maverick". I ask her about what it's like to live here. She explains that she didn't grow up in this town, but is originally from California, and her mother had decamped here in pursuit of her dream home -- a 01904 Victorian. Clearly, for a young woman, though, it's almost unbearably boring. "I'd love a skyscraper here," she says wistfully. "Or a McDonald's, a drive-in theater... anything!" Earlier this year, it seems the streets were restored to their unpaved state by the Tombstone Restoration Committee, because the asphalt may have endangered its coveted designation as a National Historic District. It's an interesting situation when an American town reverts to stones and dust in search of authenticity. And it is not unanimously appreciated, either. One of our group spotted a flyer in one of the store windows alluding to this, evidently an ongoing dispute in the town -- should the dust stay, or should it go?

What keeps these streets dusty in 02006 is a myth that is too tough to die. We feed the myths with our attention. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." What then of the future of Tombstone? Well, if Rukeyser is right, then as long as its stories persist, it seems Tombstone's viability as a place to visit, its existence in our universe, is assured. The most recent contributions to this corpus of storytelling, as far as Tombstone is concerned, are the movies Wyatt Earp (1994, starring Kevin Costner) and Tombstone (1993, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer). As one storekeeper remarked to me, there was a major resurgence of tourist interest in the area after these films came out. In fact, many of the souvenir posters and t-shirts for sale here feature those stars' faces rather than the less recognisable ones of the town's real historical inhabitants.

I asked my travelling companions whether they could think of anything interesting or special going on in our own era that people might see fit to devote their lives to preserving in this fashion in 130 years' time. We couldn't think of anything offhand. (Maybe, with our emerging ironic postmodern sensibilities, the real story in the future will be the idea of people dressing up their bodies, and dressing down their streets, to "recreate" the surface layer of a long-gone past.) Perhaps Michael Crichton's 1973 sci-fi movie Westworld had the right idea: the tourist attraction of the future could be a theme park which faithfully recreates the favourite, most highly mythologised times and places in the popular imaginary -- history's greatest hits. In Crichton's story, a whole Wild West theme park is populated with human-looking robots that can, at least in theory, be safely exploited by the (human) guests who pay a premium to satiate their appetites for realistic brothels and gunfights.

I picture that young lady from the clothing store getting her wish: a skyscraper in Tombstone -- now that would be worth seeing! You could put the whole town's population inside, with a spectacular, towering view of the surrounding landscape, and let the tourists amuse themselves by tussling with robots in the dust below. If our stories shape our world, we should choose them wisely. There are surely some sacrifices associated with making a living off the past, and this shrine to a past that I suspect in many ways never really existed, though fascinating, raises a lot of questions. Among them: what might a settlement be like that evinced as much devotion to its futures as Tombstone, Arizona does to its history?

1 comment:

jeffmcneill said...

I hope you at least read some Baudrillard, esp. "America"... it makes more sense of the desert and the west, when you have an erudite/nearly incomprehensible frenchman aboard...