“Trigger Effect, 2012”
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.