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Weekend Escape: Arizona

Airstream Hotel

A Slice of RV Americana in historic Bisbee

March 30, 1997|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

BISBEE, Ariz. — When a friend told me about Shady Dell, I knew it had to be a one-of-a-kind: an RV park and campground in Bisbee, Ariz., where for from $25 to $40 a night, guests can stay in one of seven perfectly renovated Airstream trailers, ranging from a 1935 "Niagara Honeymooner" to a 1957 "El Rey."

My husband, Paul, was up for trying this unique slice of Americana. Not only had he hankered for one of Airstream's silvery pods-on-wheels when he was a kid, but he knew Bisbee as a town rich in history. At the turn of the century, when its copper mines were going full bore, it was a bustling major city of the West.

We made reservations to stay at Shady Dell; air fares to nearby Tucson were low (starting at $29 each way) and we could use up a couple of car rental discount coupons that were about to expire. Adam, our 12-year-old son, asked if he could come along.

*

On a cold Saturday morning in early spring, we found ourselves driving southeast from Tucson through vast stretches of stark, unrelenting desert. After a while, Arizona 80 began climbing into rolling hills lush with oak trees.

About a mile high, the town of Bisbee wriggles through a jagged gulch in the Mule Mountains, its old clapboard houses and miners' shacks clinging to the sides of the red-dirt hills. The town's population dwindled from 25,000 to 3,000 after the Copper Queen Mine closed in 1975, and is now about 6,000. We could see why Bisbee sells itself as an artists' colony: Many of the stately turn-of-the-century stone-and-brick buildings that once held banks, clothing and miners' supply stores in "Historic Old Bisbee" are now art galleries, antique stores, restaurants and coffeehouses where poetry readings and jazz performances are held. There is even a Bisbee Repertory Theater.

Our jaws dropped when, outside Old Bisbee, we drove past what looked like a giant open wound on the Earth--the Lavender Pit of the Copper Queen Mine, a 300-acre abandoned copper strip mine with a lake of rainwater at its bottom, 950 feet down. Beyond it, down a quiet tree-lined street and next to a cemetery, we caught sight of Shady Dell, its row of seven Airstream trailers glimmering in the sunlight. Co-owner Rita Personett, who with her partner, Ed Smith, also owns the Flying Saucer, a Bisbee antique store, was there to greet us and show off their newest acquisition: a 10-stool "burger bar" diner from 1956, which, from what we could see, needs a lot of renovating before it will be ready for its summer opening.

Rita showed us into our trailer-for-the-night, a 21-foot-long, 1949 Airstream with two pink, plastic flamingos planted in front. Paul and I felt as if we were stepping into a time warp. Everything--the shiny aluminum coffeepot, the ceramic swans and cookie jars stocked with cookies, the old Life magazines, the dog-eared Mickey Spillane paperbacks and the tape cassette player designed to look like an old Motorola radio, playing Count Basie--took us back to a gentler, simpler era.

At one end of the meticulously restored trailer, the pistachio-green and birch-wood-paneled walls tapered to a sitting area (that would convert to a bed for Adam); at the other end they curved to a womb-like almost-double bed covered in a chenille bedspread. Above each end, the curved aluminum paneling shimmered pink from light filtering in through the fuchsia-colored curtains on the windows. Paul and I shared a look: Without a child along, this Airstream would be a cozy, romantic love-nest. Since Adam was with us, it became a playhouse.

Adam explored every nook and cranny, and concluded that we should buy our own trailer and hit the road. The only thing I didn't like was that it had a stove, fridge and sink, but no toilet. (In '49, trailers had no indoor plumbing.) But there were clean, heated bathroom/showers a short walk away.

After settling in, we headed back to Old Bisbee for an underground tour of the Copper Queen, whose 143 miles of tunnels riddle the mountain that looms over the town. Along with 30 or so other tourists, we donned the requisite hard hats, yellow slickers and battery-powered miners' lamps, and straddled a rickety "man-train" that chugged into a tunnel piercing the hillside. ("Not for the claustrophobic," a warning sign read.) As a kid whose experience of mines had been limited to Indiana Jones movies and the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland, Adam was amazed: "It looks so realistic!" he exclaimed.

"It is real," I pointed out, realizing the uniqueness of this experience for all of us.

*

Fifteen hundred feet into the mine, we dismounted the man-train and followed Kelly--our tour guide, who had worked in this and other copper mines for 27 years--into a "slope," a cave hollowed out by miners' chisels, electric drills and dynamite. The tiny beams of our miners' lights played across the walls, picking up swirls of green malachite and deep-blue azurite from which copper was refined.

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