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History of the West is for Tourists

As I travel through the western reaches of the United States of America I become suspicious of a pattern that I see all around me: the romance and idealism of what was. The over-glorification of the past: a smiling glimmer tossed backwards that would not be so peachy if the temporal mediums were to meet. [...]

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As I travel through the western reaches of the United States of America I become suspicious of a pattern that I see all around me: the romance and idealism of what was. The over-glorification of the past: a smiling glimmer tossed backwards that would not be so peachy if the temporal mediums were to meet. Nobody likes a horse thief in their own backyard, but a horse thief out in the hinterlands of yesteryear, well, that is romantic.

The tourist like it. It is for sale. It sells. Sometimes I go window shopping.

Though I must say that I feel a dim sort of empathy for places whose only claim to importance is found in what they were — or what the books and tour guides say they were — and not what they are. In the West of the USA, the traveler attractions are often replicas of themselves. The attraction to this land is what happened here, rather than what is going on now.

But how could you sell what is going on now?

People shopping at Safeway, driving around in cars, drinking in bars, working 9 to 5, paying rent . . . now that is not romantic. It does not attract tourist dollars either.

But, “Jerome: The Wickedest City in the West,” “Old Mining Town,” “Ghost Town” does sell. And the tourist are coming for a look at what was.

I look too.

Old truck in Bisbee Arizona

Old truck in Bisbee Arizona

But what was is not what is going on now; what is going on now is something independent from any semblance of the past: like the stage actor who dresses up in old clothes to sing on old song on an old stage. The notion of “what was” has grown into its own being. It has been candy fed into a big, fat tourist bubble. In this bubble prostitution becomes romantic, bank robbers idolized, there are plaques put up to commemorate the locations where cops were shot.

If encountered in their own time most people would refer to these heroes of the past as nothing other than scoundrels. They would look down their nose at them and spit upon their shoes. But place a temporal buffer in between, and the scoundrels of today can become a tourist’s hero tomorrow.

But romance is always reserved for those who do not live within the bounds of their society, the person who does not do what they are told — the ass who convinces his friends that . But romance is always and forever an idea — a notion bestowed upon other people, other times, other places. Rarely, will a man searching for romance ever find it staring him in the face. The person who provides us with the keys to our cages is the great purveyor of romance — it matters little if we ever step out of our cage if we know tat the door is open.

The romanticization of the past opens up the doors upon the cages of the present.

Gold King's old cars

Old trucks in the Gold King's mining town

“Something happened here.”

This phrase sells. It does not matter what happened here, just as long as it was something. People flock to see these somethings.

The town of Jerome has been preserved for this purpose. It is the “here” where “something” happened. The old buildings still stand, renovations are done in accordance to strict historical society guidelines, and a little piece of the old west has been preserved — at least in visual form. I had a friend who was the zoning official for the town. A good portion of her job was to make sure that the people did not alter their homes, that the businesses did not construct facades that did not keep with the historical order of the town. Her job was to single handedly preserve Jerome, Arizona from the stifiling reality of the present and the onward wrecking ball of the future. She did a good job: the town was full of tourists looking upon all that was.

If the appearance of the town changed, the ideal of the past would not be evident, the tourists would not come, the plot would be lost. People would forget, build Walmarts, sell every street corner to 7-11, and build a nice big condo project in the town’s center with all the windows facing out see the glorious view of the valley that lays beyond. Or forget about Jerome altogether, like they did before the hippies refounded the town in the 70’s.

But stories have survived. The brothels are now glorified. Belgian Jennie, a boarding house madam in the old Jerome mining days, is a regional icon. Tales of the secret passageways that lead to the houses of pleasure are the talk of tourists. We all take photos. Cuban Queen Brothel still stands (though barely). The English Kitchen, which was once an opium cellar called Japanese Charlie’s, is a landmark (“Did you know that they recently found a brick of opium in the basement?”), and the tunnels through which the Chinese would traffic drugs are now set upon by tourists with cameras. Like me.

Though I do not believe it. I am unsure if my acculturated vision of the West is clouding my perception but I believe that there is an underbelly here. An underbelly that has nothing to do with the posterboards and tourism brocures. Jerome is still a wicked city, the people hoarding every scrap of the ages and making giant junkyards of relics are real, my friends who live near the top of a little valley that has a view all the way to Sedona are real and genuine,   sculpture garden is real, Maynard’s vineyards are real, too.

To be sure, there is a culture in the West that is not overshadowed by romantic glimpses of the past nor dominated by rich women from California.

There is just too much land here for me to believe otherwise.

I would much rather sit in the middle of a shrubless, dusty, balls hot no-man’s land in which every moment is a trial of both the senses and physical endurance than walk through any over blown tourist town on planet earth. I care little if “something happened here.” I only care about what is happening here now. In my time. Do I like prostitutes? Do I like thieves? Do I like wild men who drive around in big trucks completely deck out in rhinestones?

I do.

New Mexico road

The roads are still open in the West

My advice to a prospective traveler: avoid any place that you have ever heard of before. Because if you have heard about it, everyone else has too; if everyone else has heard about it, then rest assured that the locals have rigged the joint for maximum profit potential. Plastic faces, reconstructions,

“Oh, it’s all so authentic,” I once overheard a tourist in Maine say as she overlooked the lobsering harbor of Deer Isle as though she was beholding some sort of tourist prop. She was correct: dirty ass poor ass lobster men in the midst of a low yield season is authentic. Though still far away. Even if the object of imposed romance in front of you, Romance is always far, far away.

I do not have this same impression of the tourist props in the West. The authenticity is deeper. You must meet the people, make friends, sit in the old man bars to find it. Authenticity is in the people, not the place. Towns rose out of the western deserts, towns boomed, and towns died — some of the remnants of which have been resurrected for the name of tourism. Jerome, Arizona was a boom town, then it was a ghost town, now it is a tourist town. On the scent of copper, silver, and gold, the mountain town’s population rose to 15,000, then it fell to nearly nothing. A small resurgence in the 1970’s has now raised the population to 473 people. But a hundred thousand tourists come through here each year.

Unless they slept their nights in a little shack down in the gulch they saw nothing more real than a stage set. Uptown is a conglomeration of shops for tourists, the harbingers of history ever barking the sordid song of what was. But out in the hills, down on the slopes, and far off in the distance, the Romance of the West resonates on: prospectors still dig claims by hand, gold diggers still pan the rivers, rock hounds and medicine men still walk out on the horizons.

You will never meet Romance in the face, but put the distance of a continent in between yourself and your memories, place yourself into your collected notion of what was, and you may see yourself in the foggy landscape of your dreams. Think about your past, our own history: that was the life romantic.


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Filed under: Arizona, History, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • tom wheeler August 9, 2012, 11:03 am

    Thanks for taking a pic of my 1954 Ford “La Bomba”

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