The Magazine

North of the Border

From the August 29, 2005 issue: With the Minutemen on the Mexican border.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By MATT LABASH
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Its Boothill Graveyard boasts of the gentle ends met by its inhabitants: struck in the head with fire pokers, stoned to death by Apaches, skulls crushed under wagon wheels. Nearly going tits-up after a mining bust, Tombstone was repackaged as a tourist trap, feeding off past glories such as Wyatt Earp's Gunfight at the OK Corral. The gunfights that still break out with regularity in its streets are fought with blanks by reenactors. In fact, before meeting Chris Simcox, the Minuteman leader and co-founder who doubles as the town's newspaper owner/editor, I make an afternoon of surveying these tourist wranglers, who, like the nation, seem divided on whether the Minutemen are a force for good or ill.

Outside the dust-caked OK Corral, a reenactor called "Ol' Joe" applauds the Minutemen's efforts since they help "keep illegals out," though he also calls them "bad" because they "keep the illegals from doing work us white guys don't want to do"--things like picking lettuce and busing tables, as opposed to pumping lead into the gentleman who plays Billy Clanton.

Over at the Helldorado Town gunfight theater, I spy a photograph of actor Bad Bob Waco, whose shaved head looks like a damaged baseball with its seams and stitches. The new, improved Bad Bob, in a black hat and red sash like the ones the Earps' cowboy nemeses used to wear, pulls a pre-show Dr. Pepper out of the cooler. He explains that the photo is of him after he did a "flip-off" from a second story and missed the mattress during a show. "Hit my head off the concrete," he says, knocking it with his fingers. "Now it's a metal plate."

"I reckon they're all right. I didn't think there was gonna be trouble like people thought there was," says Bad Bob, and his office manager Vikki, dressed in moccasins and a Geronimo shirt, concurs. Vikki details how Tombstone's been adversely affected by illegal traffic: how the migrants hide in the washes outside of town, littering them with drug needles and plastic Circle K bags. They bust pipes, pollute the water supply, break into houses, and cut down fences. The Minutemen's efforts mark the first time she's seen alien traffic go down in forever (rates of illegal entry were estimated to drop by as much as 50 percent along the 20-mile stretch of border that the several hundred Minutemen patrolled). Somebody needed to do something to bring attention to the issue, she says. Washington certainly wasn't paying any.

But a white-haired "No Toes Blake," who wears a marshal's badge, takes a less charitable view of Simcox and Co. Though he likes Simcox and used to work with him when Simcox was a "goofy sidekick" in the Helldorado show before taking over the paper, Blake doesn't buy his strategy. "If you wanna change something," Blake says, "you should vote the right people in. We don't need vigilantes around here." (He would say that. He's a law dog.)

Another Miss-Kitty type employee expresses the same concern as plenty in the tourist sector, fearful that their gunfights might be interrupted by actual bullets. She says Chris Simcox is just like all the other eccentric end-of-the-liners that the town attracts, putting her in mind of the drifter who thinks he really is Doc Holliday, down to the tubercular cough. She says Simcox is "really not liked around here. He carries a gun everywhere, and for good reason."

While Simcox is revered by plenty--including the Russian immigrant waitress who serves me a buffalo burger at the OK Café--he doesn't dispute that he has to look over his shoulder. He wears a bullet-proof vest most places and takes a coterie of heat-packing volunteers he sometimes calls "bodyguards" with him to speaking engagements. Many of them are retired military or law enforcement. Death threats have come from open-border types on both sides of the line, and he's been fired at by drug smugglers while on patrol. When I suggest we go out for dinner, he declines, saying he doesn't eat in restaurants since someone might poison him. He's joking. But when I ask to go to his house to take some notes on it, his good humor fades. "Nobody sees my house. I don't want you to know where I live."

Instead, I catch up with him at the joint office of the Tombstone Tumbleweed/Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a fall-down frathouse-style adobe structure on Toughnut Street. Here, Simcox does everything from edit and write stories on lifeguard shortages, arts-and-crafts fairs, and immigration abuses (his favorite topic) to answer phones and sweep the floors. His paper enjoys something close to 100 percent penetration, but the town's only got 1,500 people. Apart from some stringers, he's close to a one-man band.