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History: real, "reel" & living

Fun thing about writing historical fiction: it’s the perfect excuse to visit historical places. My quest – time travel! (Or, at least, a close approximation…)

When Susan and I planned recent trips to Arizona and Wyoming, we started with national parks – Grand Canyon and Yellowstone – as our natural-history centerpieces. Even today, these preserved places still give visitors a sense of the timeless natural wonders first encountered by Indians, explorers, and pioneers.

Seeking to embrace human history as well, we also included museums, real Old West towns which still exist, and living history venues.

But since people still live and work in these towns, modern intrusions (cars, street signs, power lines) are unavoidable. In place of the saloons, dry-goods and general stores, butcher shops, and apothecaries of pioneer days, residents now run eateries and shops catering to tourists.

We drove to Tombstone, 30 miles north of Mexico, considered a must-visit mecca by many Old West aficionados. Sure, Tombstone still has board sidewalks, assorted old buildings, and dirt covering the pavement on some streets (below).


But around every corner, there’s another set of gunfight reenactors; and almost every historic building seemed to charge 10 bucks to get inside where history may once have happened. Even standing in the same vacant lot behind the OK Corral where the famous gunfight actually took place, it didn’t feel “real” enough to transport me back to 1881.

The place that did the time-travel trick for me was Old Tucson Studios. Located in the beautifully pristine Sonora Desert west of modern Tucson, surrounded by state and national Saguaro cactus parkland, it’s almost completely insulated from modern encroachments. Since the studio’s first movie (Arizona in 1939), 400 movies and TV episodes have been filmed there – including John Wayne westerns Rio Bravo (1959), McLintock! (1963), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970), and Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning turn in Lilies of the Field (1963).

In 1960, studio owner Bob Shelton figured out how to make some extra money by opening the place as a theme park between movie and TV productions – and it still operates that way today. The first time we went, we had no idea what to expect. By going on a pleasant weekday morning, we figured it wouldn’t be crowded – and no more than 20 other visitors entered when we did. So far, so good.

Once through the gate, guided by docents in period dress (like our now-retired friend Michael Thomas, left), it truly was like stepping through a time portal into a complete, detailed Arizona town, circa 1880. Or, with western movie music subtly piped in via speakers hidden around the town, like passing magically through the silver screen into your favorite old film or TV western.

Throughout the day, knowledgeable guides and talented young cast members (below) delivered a full schedule alternating between presentations on Arizona history and movie-magic, including shootouts borrowed from both movies and historical incidents, and impressive Hollywood-style stunt shows.

Now under the management auspices of American Heritage Railways, Old Tucson hits the sweet spot with a balance that should please and entertain both fans of real Old West history and the history of Western movies.

And standing there in my hat, vest, and boots, on the deserted frontier Main Street of this "reel" western town, squinting against the Arizona sun under a deep-blue, cloud-studded sky, the total-immersion time-travel illusion was complete…for a day, anyway. It’s an experience I highly recommend!

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