Monday, October 12, 2009


As I turn onto Allen Street, the main drag of Tombstone, Arizona, I’m struck by how authentic it appears. Sure, the buildings have a “theme park” air about them, but still there’s something very real about this place. It could be that the busted up road and strong winds give the place a messy, dusty appearance. It might also be that I watch as a real-life lawman physically throws a drunken cowboy out of a local saloon. The cowboy staggers to his feet, swears loudly in a way you’d never hear from a Disney World Cast Member, climbs onto his horse and rides away.

I’ve only been here minutes and I’ve already seen an Old West dust-up. This town is crawling with cowboys, dance hall girls and stagecoaches. Many are simply locals playing the part for tourists, but don’t be fooled. Real cowboys still walk these streets.

I enter a large saloon and meet the owner, an excited Brooklyn transplant who seems overjoyed to see me. Of course it is 11am Monday morning, so I’m one of a small group of people in town. He asks where I’m from and I tell him Toronto. Wouldn’t you know it, his first wife was Canadian and they lived in Toronto for ten years. It seems that his bartender has called in sick today and he needs some help. “You’re Canadian – you must know beer,” he informs me and then hands me a cowboy hat, kerchief and holster.

Suddenly I’m dressed up and standing behind the bar, pouring drinks and chatting with the locals. The lunch crowd soon arrives and as I’m pouring beer I mention to the owner that I’m a musician, so pretty soon I’m playing old tunes on their upright piano. I decide not to mention this to the Musician’s Union back home.

I’ve driven in from visiting Boot Hill, the famous cemetery just outside town. Its name is so well known from Hollywood movies that many don’t believe it’s a real location, but it is. There are other pretenders to the crown, but this is the real Boot Hill; the final resting place of names like Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, all killed at the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Ah, the O.K Corral. Step back in time and experience one of the most amusing recreations I have ever attended. The O.K. Corral became famous for the gunfight that occurred on October 26, 1881, between the Earps and the Clantons. The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday have gone down as the “good guys” in this story, but there has always been considerable debate on this point.

Now I can make up my own mind as I visit the unintentionally hilarious re-enactment this afternoon. Local performers act out the entire gun battle with a “play-to-the-balcony” subtlety, then pose for photos with anyone who so desires. After the show you can go visit another area and watch the same story performed, this time by limited-motion (and I do mean limited) mannequins. I’m hard pressed to decide which performance has the best acting, as they’re both top-notch amusement for your entertainment dollar.

Right next door is the Historama; Tombstone’s history told in a multimedia presentation narrated by Vincent Price – or so the owner informs me. The audio is so poor that I can’t make out anything being said. I report this to the owner following the show, and we wind up in a half-hour conversation about guns. He shows me his collection and I discover that the story of our Canadian gun registry is well known, even in southern Arizona.

I’m walking along Allen Street about 5pm when a local fellow approaches and hands me a menu for a restaurant. He’s got a handlebar mustache and is wearing a cowboy hat and duster. He asks me where I hail from, and when I say Toronto his eyes widen. “I was born there,” he says in a thick Texan drawl. “My parents moved there from Italy.”

So an Italian-Canadian boy from Toronto boy ends up being a cowboy in the Old West. I’m learning you can’t judge a guy by his hat.

I finally decide on a cute little restaurant called Nellie Cashman's. As I sit and peruse the menu, the waitress asks me where I’m from. I’m starting to get a little nervous admitting it, but my reply brings a squeal of excitement from her. “I grew up in Scarborough!” This is becoming strange.

I begin to contemplate these odds. I traveled 3,600 km (2236 miles) to a small area of southern Arizona, only to bump into numerous folks from home. What’s going on here? Is Tombstone a Mecca for people from Toronto? Or is something more sinister at play? Is there some Sirens’ song that won’t allow us to leave this town once we arrive?

I decide to think about this later. I still have to work the late shift at the saloon.