Chihuahua Hill as seen from Old Bisbee; photos by Christianna Silva

The Night the Lights Went Out in Bisbee

Written by Christianna Silva Category: Travel Issue: December 2018
Group Free
Pin It

Bring your mom and your headlamp – it’s getting spooky in Bisbee.

Arizona’s favorite mining town, Bisbee, wasn’t simply founded. It was dug into existence – a gritty, fire-blasted berg of wooden hillside homes, born onto a pile of copper, gold and silver in 1880. The people, places and things all around the town are still illuminated with that same exhaustive glow. From the ghosts that litter the alleyways to the magicians who honor them, Bisbee is anything but dull.

My mom, Tori Silva, is similar to Bisbee. She’s bad at following rules she doesn’t like, isn’t afraid of sharing her spirit and has more sunshine bottled up in her bangs than most people have in their entire bodies. We decided to head to Bisbee for a mother-daughter weekend to celebrate the fire in both people and place.

We had both been to Bisbee before – the funky town is a travel staple of plenty Arizona childhoods – but given its dynamic, ever-changing nature, with new storefronts dancing across Main Street every few months, a fresh visit seemed warranted. This time, my mom and I dared ourselves to focus on seeing only the bits we hadn’t noticed before. As we drove my grandfather’s truck that barely fit through the small, steep roads, we noticed the houses perched precariously on the edges of the mountains in Old Bisbee; the cacti that grew in a similar fashion, through cracks in the sidewalk and out of the sides of houses; the people, all wearing comfortable-looking linen in bright colors and patterns; and the scent of incense that wafts through the streets.

The town, which is 200 miles south of Phoenix and just 11 miles north of Mexico, echoes its southern neighbor with a robust population of Mexican food joints and vibrant colors displayed in the store windows along Tombstone Canyon, Old Bisbee’s main drag. We were anxious to put our plan into action and see it all.

However, like all good plans, ours was foiled almost immediately. Around 6 p.m., just as the sun was setting over the mountains, the power shut off. Our dinner wasn’t possible, and the shows we had anticipated seeing couldn’t go on. Our plan changed, but it somehow blossomed into something much better.
 

Poco’s quesadilla tacos, nachos and mango mimosas; photo by Christianna SilvaBefore The Blackout
Backtrack to the beginning of our trip, and you’d find us at Poco (15 Main St., facebook.com/pocobzb), a cute little vegan Mexican restaurant tucked inside an alley off of Main Street. You physically cannot walk to the restaurant without spotting Seth Appell, the coffee guy, who has been serving free shots of espresso to Bisbeeans for 20 years with fresh beans from Old Bisbee Roasters (7 Naco Rd., 866-432-5063, oldbisbeeroasters.com).

Poco boasts a wild vegan menu, and we were lucky enough to enjoy sweet mango mimosas, messy, overflowing nachos, and loaded quesadilla tacos. While chowing down, we noticed that in Bisbee, folks know dogs’ names before the names of their owners. Roxy, a one-eyed pitbull rescue from Bisbee Animal Shelter (938 Tovreaville Rd., 520-432-6020) was the true star of the show. She “ordered” some pats from the window at Poco and received love by locals who all knew her by name.

Roxy ordering from Poco; photo by Christianna SilvaFor dinner, we planned on trying Santiago’s Restaurant (1 Howell Ave., 520-432-1910, facebook.com/santiagosmexican), a Mexican eatery in the heart of Old Bisbee, but the power outage forced us into other, similarly delicious plans.


Into The Dark
Bisbee is always equipped with a surprise. The power outage affected nearly 1,500 homes, APS spokesperson Anne DeGraw told me, after high winds slapped a few power lines together. Even though the outage only lasted a bit over an hour, it was enough to permanently derail our plans: restaurants closed down for the evening, concerts and shows stopped showing and, without lights on Main Street, it was difficult to get around. The headlights from cars, bright “B” on the mountaintop, and stars were the only thing lighting up the town.

Then again, Bisbee is known for being one of the spookier tourist destinations in Arizona – if you feel like increasing your adrenaline, you can even take ghost tours from a real, certified “paranormal investigator” at Old Bisbee Ghost Tours (520-432-3308, oldbisbeeghosttour.com) – and given the town’s supposed infestation of sirens, witches, ghosts and ghouls, the blackout was thematically on point. One woman called it a good opportunity for a new beginning; another told me she had never seen such a large power outage in her decade of living in Bisbee and praised it for forcing everyone to slow down. And it really did. My mom and I went for walks around the town with other locals, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to smell the air and stare at the night sky that was bursting with stars. We spotted local politicians sitting on stoops, chatting with their friends.

a wine toast at A Taste of Bisbee; photo by Christianna SilvaWe even discovered a festival that helped redeem our ruined dinner plans: A Taste of Bisbee, which raged on despite the power outage. There, my mom and I shared wine, homemade dips, ribs and desserts in the dark. Folks crowded the festival, calmly drinking wine and eating snacks off plastic plates. The event, hosted by the Bisbee Rotary Charities, takes place every year in October, and features food from Bisbee, wine and beer from across Arizona, and local music.

By the time the power came back on, the town was already quiet and slowing down for the evening.
 

After The Blackout
We had originally planned on seeing Magic Kenny Bang Bang’s show at The Bisbee Séance Room (26 Brewery Ave., 520-203-3350, thebisbeeseanceroom.com), but the blackout derailed that plan. Santiago’s Restaurant had already closed, too, but my mom and I weren’t done with the night yet. So, we headed inside Café Roka (35 Main St., 520-432-5153, caferoka.com) for, you guessed it, some more wine and appetizers. We dug into a delicious trio of cheese- and bacon-stuffed dates, goat cheese-stuffed bell peppers and artichoke hearts wrapped in prosciutto.

With our stomachs full, we headed back to our hotel. We stayed at the Calumet & Arizona Guest House (608 Powell St., 520-432-4815, calumetaz.com) in the same room Barry Goldwater once lodged in. When the Copper Queen Mine was still powering the town, mining executives would stay in this guest house for months at a time; the history here certainly can’t be beat.

In the morning, we woke up in time to watch the sunrise and saw Bisbee in all its glory. It’s joyfully, playfully, unapologetically hammy: The houses are colorful, the staircases circular. Everyone going for a morning run must wish you a good day, and the only person who didn’t immediately greet us was too busy gently studying the bottom of a dog’s paw.

Erie Street; photo by Christianna SilvaWe hopped over to Bisbee Breakfast Club (75A Erie St., 520-432-5885, bisbeebreakfastclub.com), a timeless favorite, and shared a wingdinger – hash browns towered high with cheese, eggs and gravy, with a biscuit on the side. Unlike Café Roka’s classy dining room, Bisbee Breakfast Club’s decoration is folksy, with a garage door inside the space.

To top the trip off, we took a tour of the Copper Queen Mine (478 Dart Rd., 520-432-2071, queenminetour.com) that used to keep the town alive. After removing our hard hats, we stopped at High Desert Market (203 Tombstone Canyon, 520-432-6775, highdesertmarket.net) for some incredibly indulgent chocolate pie on our way out of town: pudding on a bed of thick crust, with a pile of cream dolloped on top.

Bisbee is a show with no intermission – not even a blackout could force its curtain closed.


Nightlife in Bisbee
Nightlife might seem spooky in an old mining town littered with ghosts and ghouls, but Bisbee has a surprisingly wild group of bars and events that will make you take the trip just for the evenings. Here are some of our favorite digs you can’t miss:

Room 4 Bar in the Silver King Hotel
43 Brewery Ave., 520-432-3723, silverkinghotel-bisbee.com
“Arizona’s Smallest Bar” isn’t an understatement: this renovated hotel room has just four seats at a bar and a crowded table for two in the corner. If you’re looking for a speakeasy feel, look no further.

St. Elmo Bar
36 Brewery Ave., 520-432-5578
St. Elmo Bar is a staple of dive bar drinking in Bisbee, and it holds some pretty fun events. On Thursday nights, go bowling for sex toys, or head over on your pick of other evenings for live music and karaoke.

Bisbee Grand Saloon
61 Main St., 520-432-5900
If you’re going to Bisbee to take in the history, Bisbee Grand Saloon is the perfect outing. The century-old space feels like a Wild West Saloon, and, like St. Elmo Bar, has plenty of live music.

Old Bisbee Brewing Company
23 Brewery Ave., 520-432-2739, oldbisbeebrewingcompany.com
If day drinking is more your style, we’d recommend Old Bisbee Brewing Company. With seven small-batch brews and plenty of room on the patio, it’s ideal for an afternoon off.