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WESTERN TRAVEL | WEEKEND ESCAPE

Hippies, hogs and ol' haunts

Perched on an Arizona hillside, Jerome was once called `the wickedest town in the West.' Now it's an artists' colony with a colorful past, and more than a few ghosts.

January 14, 2007|Dennis Sigman and Eve Conant | Special to The Times

Jerome, Ariz. — IT isn't often that a weekend getaway with a toddler revolves around a fire station and a high-altitude saloon whose patrons roar up on Harleys. But a visit to this tiny, cliff-hugging town is bound to be full of some pretty weird moments.

Jerome -- 90 miles north of Phoenix and snagged in a web of steep, narrow streets off scenic Arizona 89A -- at first glance is deceiving. It appears to be little more than a few hundred homes in various stages of gentrification or condemnation, a hippie hamlet where crumbling old houses with warped decks are perched next to recently restored Victorians.

Some visitors are curious about Jerome's reputation as a haunting ground for mining-era ghosts; others are lured by the dark humor and gourmet fare at restaurants with names like the Asylum. There's a reason for Jerome's love of the dark side: The town, between Sedona and Prescott, may look like another chic up-and-coming artist's colony, but it has a lot of historical skeletons in its closet.

At the turn of the last century, Jerome was a boomtown and home to 15,000 copper miners and assorted others, plus dozens of brothels, saloons and opium dens. In 1903, the New York Sun called it "the wickedest town in the West."

It was resurrected time and again after devastating fires and landslides (often caused by dynamite blasting in the mining tunnels below ground), and then thought to be lost for good when the Phelps Dodge mine closed in 1953.

Once the state's fourth-largest city, Jerome saw its population plummet below 100, becoming a ghost town almost overnight. Its saviors came in the form of squatter hippies and artists who took over the abandoned town in the '60s, in some cases buying up its rotting homes for a few dollars each. By the 1970s, Jerome had also become a mecca for rowdy motorcycle gangs, lured by the winding roads and clear vistas.

These days, most of Jerome's ramshackle hotels and brothels have been converted into upscale art galleries. Californians have been snapping up homes, but the longtime "Jeromies"-- about 450 in all -- still reign supreme.

The motorcyclists are now older and tamer, but they still prompt locals to wonder out loud whether Jerome is a biker town with an artist problem, or an artist town with a biker problem. Either way, Jerome finally seems to be coming into its own.

At first, we were convinced that our family foray -- two grandparents, two stepsisters, a toddler and some looming clouds overhead -- was doomed. Art galleries filled with fragile, expensive ceramics; loud saloons -- they don't usually mix with a 2-year-old. But dozens of families were milling about. "Just don't forget your stroller, like we did," tourist Mekell Burch said as she trudged up and down Jerome's outrageously steep stairways.

We started with a walking tour (1 1/2 hours at $10 per person) given by local historian Nancy Smith. She came here 34 years ago, "when Jerome was practically deserted; you'd see more dogs on the streets than people."

Within minutes, it started to rain, so we ducked into Jerome's fire station. We met Rusty Blair, the assistant fire chief, who was on what locals call "mountain stranded time" and had a free moment to let our toddler climb into the firetruck. Meanwhile, Smith filled us in on Jerome's claim to fame (aside from the views and its mining history): its ghosts.

Belgian Jenny is just one of Jerome's mining-era madams whose spirit is said to be lurking about. Another ghost making frequent cameos, Smith said, is Sammie, a prostitute who was murdered in the early 1930s.

When the rain stopped, we resumed our tour, then lunched at the English Kitchen, Arizona's oldest continually operating restaurant, first opened in 1899 by one of the town's many Chinese immigrants and now the place to go for good pies.

But if you want a view while you dine, try the patio of the Haunted Hamburger -- you'll work off the calories just climbing the stairs to reach it. After lunch, we sat on bleachers across from the Spirit Room saloon, where rowdy blues and rock spill from a dark doorway into the midday sun and where bouncer Griz, with his gray beard and ripped shirts, keeps tabs on just about everyone. The bleachers, built into the hillside just below a children's park, are a good spot for motorcycle and people watching. The bikers look tough but are nice, allowing us to take snaps of them.

"The OMG [outlaw motorcycle gang] is a thing of the past," said Jerome Police Chief Allen Muma, who along with his wife, Jackie, owns the Ghost City Inn. "These days, you're more likely to see RUBs -- rich urban bikers," said the chief, who has two Harleys.

If a walking tour isn't up your alley, then catch a carriage ride with Bob Peterson -- who goes by Wyoming Pete when writing poetry -- and his horses Babe and Barney. Peterson is a weathered cowboy and artist who "parallel parks" his horses (a good skill in a town with limited parking) with a synchronized crossover four-step.

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