Rembert Explains America: The Small-Town Lore of Bisbee, Arizona

Rembert Browne

We had other plans, but things change when you’re at Waffle House.

While introducing my Yankee-bred friend Graham to his first scattered, smothered, and covered experience in Albuquerque at what was allegedly the farthest-west Waffle House in America (later proven not to be true, but solid false marketing), we had some decisions to make about travel. The default was to drive to the Grand Canyon, but I wasn’t fully sold on the idea.

Diving into the e-mail tip line I’d set up, I filtered for Arizona. The first e-mail that popped up, the majority of which is presented below, is from a man named Pete Campbell.

Rembert,

You’re coming to Bisbee, Arizona.
I’ve got the key to the city squared away.
I don’t have the full on assault prepared, but in a nutshell …
As an official mile high “city,” higher than Denver,
Our climate is nice year round.
At something like 5,000ppl, the “city” part is a bit of a stretch,
But we have the OLDEST FLIPPING BASEBALL FIELD IN THE COUNTRY. Major League players played here. At our mining museum you can read microfiche of Billy Martin getting into fights with our players. We still have semi pro ball here in the summers, a competitive high school program, and phenomenal coaches.

Arizona’s oldest continuously-running bar, the St. Elmo.
AZ’s oldest continuously-run hotel, the Copper Queen.

“My” place, Turquoise Valley, is Arizona’s oldest continuously-run golf course. We also have a par 6 that is the 10th longest golf hole in the world. Granted, we’re in Bisbee’s sister-(Mexican) Border town of Naco; but closer than some neighborhood streets in big towns. Also, Naco’s kinda cool, too. First American soil air invaded by a foreign interest. Mammoths were hunted here, we’ve got excavation sites on golf course property. Blackjack Pershing also hunted Pancho Villa here, less successfully. That Pancho Villa was a character.

We stole the Cochise County seat from Tombstone. Yes, that Tombstone. They may be “the Town too Tough to Die,” but at 5,300+ feet, higher than Denver, we’re “the Town too High to Care.” And we live “up” to that.

There’s much, MUCH more. This was meant to be just an introductory salvo. Now, an ex-girlfriend is on the phone with my Wife, about babysitting either our kids or our dog, or both. It’s a small town. It’s an unforgettable town.

Gotta run. You need to see it. It’s amazing and incomparable when the monsoon rains come. July-August.

More later.

An “introductory salvo.” Well then.

I passed the phone to my friend, who also read it in complete bewilderment.

Oldest baseball field in the country? Arizona’s oldest bar? Arizona’s oldest hotel? Arizona’s oldest golf course? With the 10th-longest golf hole in the world? Something about being invaded first? Did he just say “microfiche”?

I had no say in the matter. I had to go to Bisbee.

Due to its location in Southeast Arizona, there were a few ways to maneuver there from Albuquerque. Luckily, within an hour of responding to Pete, alerting him that we were headed to his town, a second e-mail arrived.

Rem!

When? We need to do a public giving of the key to the city.
Well, maybe not, “need,” but,
Don’t you want like, ramparts, and photos?
And the collective love of a county named after a great Indian warrior?
the love of a county larger than Connecticut,
Yet with fewer people than’d fit inside the Detroit motorcrossway? (Whatever it’s called…)

Trust me, I was once young and sexy.
I blew a modeling career after getting my eyelid torn in half
In a Brooklyn wilding event.

My advice is, document yourself as much as possibly in public records.
You never know when you’ll need to say,
“I couldn’t have been there, because I was in Bisbee, AZ.”
And once again,
No publicity is bad publicity.

So, call me.
When’ya be here?
How long?
Whatcha wanta do or see when here?
I can work on a place to stay if you want.
Or just give recommendations if you want to handle it yerself.
My recommendations’d depend on what you’re looking for.

Too bad my beautiful Wife is leaving this afternoon for a
Week and a half to Grand Teton Natl Park. Having her around automatically gives me credit with most guys.

But… Now I don’t need to ask permission if you want to crash here. However, if you’re coming in tonight, or whenever your day 1 is, you should come by my place, even if you wouldn’t want to crash with me and three boys aged 2-to-almost 9.

We’re 4 hours from El Paso. It’s a better route to take the border road, hwy 9, to Rodeo, NM, then take hwy 80 into Bisbee. You’ll pass some interesting land and sites, and get to go almost as fast as the interstate, on a more direct, less traveled road. The live rattlesnakes on display at the museum in Rodeo are very cool. Nice gift shop with cool, detailed off road maps. Also, my nanny digs the goat cream they sell, claims it’s the he’s skin stuff.

Otherwise, if you’re past that already, on I-10, at “Road Forks,” still in NM, right b4 yget to the AZ state line, then get on hwy 80.

Peace, much love, gimme a call with yer vaguely general window o details and I’ll try not to be too drunk when yget here.

I’ll be grilling something, chicken & steak, and will have cold
beer and plum brandy.

Peace, Love, Joy,

Pete

I was already overwhelmed and we were still three hours away.

The drive was an enjoyable one until it got dark. When the sun disappeared, the decision to head to Bisbee instantly became a regrettable one. The roads were rough; we were running out of gas; because we were headed in the direction of Mexico a border patrol car flashed its brights and tailed us for 15 miles; and adding to the difficulty that was darkness, we could barely see what was ahead because every 10 seconds another kamikaze bug would end its life on our windshield.

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We finally made it to a gas station in Douglas, a town so close to Mexico my phone switched over to Telcel, and I e-mailed Pete to let him know we were close. He was at a pizza place, the Screaming Banshee, and said he’d wait.

Arriving in Bisbee, we headed to the hotel Pete recommended, the Bisbee Grand Hotel. The way the main stretch was illuminated, with that Velveeta cheese-orange artificial street light feel, everything felt slightly haunted. Additionally, there wasn’t a single human in sight.

Parking and checking in, at the hotel’s saloon, we were surprised to find out they were expecting us.

“We were wondering when y’all were showing up,” the bartender said. Apparently Pete tipped them off. We told our audience of seven — everyone in the bar — of our treacherous final hour of driving, filled out a form for the room (in pencil), and were given our keys to a place dubbed the “Captain’s Suite.”

They were actually keys. And they opened a door on the street’s sidewalk, one my untrained eye only minutes prior had mistaken for a storefront. Completely confused, I opened the door.

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This wasn’t a typical hotel room. This was a rich family-of-four’s permanent apartment. A Young Jeezy line, “house stupid dumb, my rooms got rooms” rattled around in my head as I walked from one bedroom to a hallway to another bedroom to another hallway to a gigantic bathroom, back through the first hallway, ending in a spacious living room.

What were you, Bisbee? Where did you come from? Why were you like this?

I was eager to find out, but whether or not I got those answers, I was thrilled.

Walking out to meet Pete, we noticed a sign on the building across the street:

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I guess the town’s climate was yet another addition to the list of “Bisbee has the best/oldest/longest/first.” Even before meeting Pete or spending any real time in the town, I was beginning to sense that Bisbee was, at all times, two parts fact, nine parts lore.

Walking up a hill and feeling that mile-high, we’re realer than Denver altitude he described, we made it to the pizza place. Outside, a man on his pickup truck, playing guitar.

Pete Campbell.

He went straight for the hug and, truth be told, based on his e-mail style, I was fully prepared for that. And I loved it.

We walked in. The server noticed us and said, “We were wondering if y’all would show up.” I think Pete put an all-points bulletin out to the town that we were en route. The restaurant was closed, but apparently because Pete was Pete, they let us eat outside and chat for an hour beyond closing.


Pete Campbell was not from Bisbee, but you wouldn’t know it being in his presence. The way he described it, when he moved here over 15 years ago from Santa Fe (originally from New York), he had to earn his way into the fabric of the community, not because it was elitist in any way, but because everyone knew everyone. But now, after paying his dues, with a wife and three children, and serving as the general manager of the Turquoise Valley Golf Course in the neighboring town, he straddles this line of town historian, unofficial mayor, consummate free spirit, and life of the party.

But then again, maybe everyone straddles that line in Bisbee.

After finishing our pizza, he suggested we go back to the hotel, but then suddenly had an epiphany and asked if we wanted a quick tour of Bisbee.

We’d gotten this far on the suggestions of Pete Campbell — why not take it a little further? So we hopped into his pickup truck, and before I could close the back, he put the car in drive.

“Hey, can I put the back up?” I ask, suddenly fearing for my safety.

“You don’t have to, man,” Pete fired back.

“Yeah, but — can I?” I whimper. “Sure,” he responds, and then as soon as we’re “safely” situated in the bed, he shoots up a hill.

The steepest hill.

The look my friend and I gave one another, as Pete whipped around corners in the dark, bopping his head to zero music as if he were in a jam band, said, more or less, “Our moms told us not to trust crazy white people, what have we done, how do we get out, we’re gonna die.”

As we shot up a narrow street that his truck could barely fit through, Pete looked back and said, “OK, so this is a two-way street. I swear to God it’s a two-way street.”

We responded with nervous laughter from the trunk’s bed. “Seems unsafe,” I add.

“Yes, very unsafe,” he replied back, as we came around a ridge above what looked like a 100-foot drop.

“My son takes piano lessons up this street,” Pete added.

“Is he any good?” I asked, assuming he’d say something ridiculous in response.

“He’s a fucking genius. He’s my son.” —Pete Campbell

I really did love this guy, even if he was about to drive us off a cliff.

And then he tried to drive us off a cliff:

Our Bisbee guardian angel was also our Bisbee grim reaper. But, somehow, we still trusted him. Not that we really had a choice.

As we continued to drive through the town, not once seeing another car, we finally began descending toward the base of Bisbee. Suddenly Pete came to a stop, turned back to us, and asked if we wanted to go to a canyon.

“NO!” we both screamed from the back. Proving that he wasn’t holding us hostage, he laughed at the fear he knew he was causing and took us back to the hotel, and by hotel I mean the saloon inside the hotel.

Within minutes of being in the bar, it became apparent that “street cred” in a small town was infinitely more satisfying than it was in a major city. Simply by being with Pete, we were immediately part of the Bisbee family. His friends were our friends.

It was also clear that stories and potential tall tales, like the ones Pete told us at dinner and on our drive, were not just reserved for him. Everyone had them.

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Pete (on the right) and his friend (soon to be our friend) told us stories of people in town that we had to meet, all stories that sounded as if they were conjured up, but had to be taken as truth.

Then the man with the shiny blue shoes walked in:

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This man, allegedly the owner of the nicest clothes and cars in town, corroborated every story I’d been told. It was as if everyone was in on something.

Or, simply, everything was true.

Walking outside as the small crowd in the bar began to thin, I listened as Pete, the bartender, and a man lying on the ground discussed the time a guy name Ricky pissed on Tom Waits’s shoes.

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And then there were the nicknames. Everyone in Bisbee seemed to have a nickname. There were a lot of Daves in town, so distinguishing Electric Dave, the owner of Arizona’s first modern microbrewing license (sure, why not), from Gutter Dave and Banjo Dave seemed logical.

But then there was Neon Sam; Buzz the bartender at St. Elmo; Sunshine; Tequila; and London Bridges, whose real name is London Bridges. There was Big Bird, Wimpy, Hunky, and Happy, as well as two different women, Dammit Janet and Planet Janet.

There was also an artist named Smiley whom some mistakenly called Shorty. And then there’s a real Shorty, a deaf country swing guitarist featured on recordings from the 1950s.

There’s Locksmith Jim Miller and Blind Jim Miller (who, of course, once was in the curtains, shades, and blinds business and was also, allegedly, the second man to be bitten by the same rattlesnake in the “one-snake-two-bites incident”).

If you’re wondering who the first guy was, please know that Pete had an answer.

“Apache Pete/Graveyard Pete, named for his gravesite attending business. Not to be confused with Tombstone Pete, who’s actually from Tombstone.”

Wondering if this story would end with Pete revealing his own “Pete” nickname, I asked what his was.

I don’t really have one, but you could call me “Golf Course Pete.”

We obliged and then he said he needed to call it a night, but that I should look out for a long e-mail in the morning.

Because of course I should.

Before he left, I asked him about that glowing “B” that seemed to float in the nighttime sky.

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Pete began by explaining that it was up in the mountains, and then transitioned into a rave review of the Bisbee 1000, an annual stair-climb race that takes place throughout the town. Looking up information on the race after we parted ways for the night, its tagline, at that point in the my relationship with Bisbee, was of no surprise:

“The most unique physical fitness challenge (or friendly fitness walk) in the USA!”

Of course it was.

It was clear Bisbee was going to tell itself whatever it so pleased. Yes, these messages were for others to see, but at the end of the day, all of these hyperbolic (and potentially all factual) mottoes and records and claims seemed to be a way to remind Bisbee that Bisbee was special.

What a magical, cynicism-stripping place. I couldn’t even imagine what this town would be like once everyone was awake.

Filed Under: Arizona

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert