Douglas, Arizona, is a border town.
I pull up outside the Gadsden Hotel around 10.15am after driving down State Highway 191 from an overnight stay in Willcox. The road follows the line of the Dragoon Mountains, where, in the 1860s, the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise took refuge with two hundred of his people and for ten years waged a guerrilla war against the US army and the settlers of the southwest. In the clear morning light, the mountains stand hard and timeless against the blue empty sky; the spirits of those passed whisper still in the shadows of each hidden canyon and dry creek bed.
Situated a few blocks from the border with Mexico, The Gadsden stands six stories high at 1046 G Avenue. Originally built in 1907, it fast became home-from-home for cattlemen, ranchers, miners and businessmen in this corner of what was then called Arizona Territory. Rebuilt in 1929 following a catastrophic fire, the story goes that Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa once rode his horse up the marble staircase. A chipped step remains as evidence for those who wish to believe in such folk tales. The reason for my visit is more prosaic. I have come to sample the breakfast in the Gadsden’s El Conquistador restaurant, renowned as one of the best to be had in Cochise County.
I take my place in the high walled room among a mid-morning scattering of fellow diners. Late rising guests, subdued and not long awake, chew silently while gazing, bleary-eyed, into some private inner space. Local businessman taking time-out between appointments, scan newspapers or leaf through documents, jotting down notes. Drifting travellers, here in the hope of discovering traces of a lost and more glamorous past, look eagerly about them as if searching for ghosts. This fading hotel has its share of those. Sightings by staff and guests have been regularly reported over the years, made more incredible with each retelling.
I favour the story of actor Lee Marvin coming within a hair of the dog’s breadth of a brawl in the Saddle and Spur Tavern. Tossing down the contents of his glass, his pinkie elegantly extended, he faced down the rash challenger with his familiar on-screen menace. Only this time, he wasn’t acting. Then there was Shelly Winters, who, as a young starlet and hopeful pretender to Marilyn’s crown, had answered the door to room service clothed only in the brassy confidence of youth. Both are gone now, passing into the haze of myth and legend.
Breakfast over, I step out into the brightness beyond the hotel’s entrance canopy and turn right towards the border crossing. Unlike some towns I’ve visited, Douglas manages to hang on to a handful of businesses the like of which were to be found on every main street in thousands of such towns the length and breadth of this country in the 1950’s. I walk past a grocery store, a furniture showroom, a ladies and gents clothing outlet, a barber’s shop, a flooring specialist and a post office. In so many small towns I have passed through these have been replaced by trashy gift shops, thrift stores and cafes, a last ditch attempt to scratch a living from passing tourists, while giant superstore chains rule supreme in malls a short drive beyond the city limits.
The collection of low bunker shaped buildings and high razor wire topped fences that identify the crossing point into Mexico are in a desolate part of town. Buildings peter out on the wide sidewalk-free streets, dust blowing from vacant lots, stinging eyes and catching in the back of the throat. A huddle of US border guards are in position, dark featureless shapes silhouetted beneath a canopy that straddles the road, silently going about their business. A dog is led around each waiting vehicle by its handler, the animal trained to sniff out drugs and explosives. Papers are checked, the barrier raised and vehicles are waved through, sunlight intermittently reflecting on the metal of the officer’s weapons. These are dangerous times at the border; the authorities are on high alert and fully armed.
Thousands of people from Mexico cross into the United States every day. They get in line before it’s light and they come to work. Then each evening they return to spend the night on their own side of the border, a full day’s toil completed in exchange for the US dollar. There’s something about this place that is giving me a sense of unease. It could be the para-military presence, the guns, the wire, the dogs, the blank unsmiling efficiency, or it may be the reality of all those people passing this way every day, only tolerated for their cheap labour before being obliged to return. I’m aware that my view is based on privilege. I am able to work freely in my own country, without the need to cross a border in order to support family and self. If this were not so, I may well accept the situation, grateful for the opportunity, however uncomfortable and demeaning that may be.
I turn around and head back to the car. Up the street a group of men and women that I had passed earlier waiting on a corner in the punishing sun, pull each other into the back of a pick-up truck and head off to begin their day north of the border.
David Dragon graduated from Canterbury College of Art in the late 60’s and has spent most of his working life in design and advertising. He was a founding member of London-based design agency, Clinic, whose clients included Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Megastores, Sky, BBC, ITV, Barclays and Network Rail. He has swapped his role as creative director for that of painter, printmaker, photographer and chronicler of his travels. The paintings above are all his.