Destination: Little Rock

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Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park.  Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures.  One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge.  There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon.  Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site.  Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.

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Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.  I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine.  Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down.  I was basically eating with the Village People.  Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861.  The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of.  There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives.  When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way.  North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill.  This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets.  Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.

I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.

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Destination: Superstition Mountains

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The area around the Superstitions is rife with ruins, ghost towns, abandoned mines, yipping coyotes, and legendary figures.  Classic movies were filmed, canvas tent mining camps rose and fell, American Indians built and abandoned cliff side settlements, and stage coach stops still operate.   The history of this place is immense; in four days I feel like I only scratched the surface.


The Legends

There are many stories about how they got their name; most seem to revolve around the local American Indian tribes, who claimed that many strange things happened up beyond those stone faces.  My favorite theory is that the wind blowing through the wild crags makes wailing sounds that put people in mind of spirits and monsters.  Supposedly there’s an unbelievable vein of gold running through the Superstitions.  Jacob Waltz claimed to have found it, but on his deathbed 115 years ago could only give a series of cryptic clues as to its location.  People have been trying to rediscover the Lost Dutchman Mine and its treasures ever since.  Of course there’s no way to know how true the stories are, but it’s a part of the Southwestern lore nonetheless.

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The Place

Located just about 45 minutes east of Phoenix, the cliffs on the southwestern edge of the range rise suddenly out of the desert floor, jumping up hundreds of feet into spires and canyons that could inspire a million stories.  Lost Dutchman State Park, just outside the suburb of Apache Junction, isn’t much on its own but makes a great jumping off point.  The campground and picnic areas are very nice and many trails lead directly into the mountains.

I hiked a little over a mile up Siphon Draw Trail into its namesake canyon that cuts into the center of the range, which offered great opportunities to shoot some mid-day infrared photos.  Much as I would’ve preferred to hike in the cooler morning or evening hours, IR demands bright sunlight.  The trail went a lot farther and connected to other ones criss-crossing the wilderness area but my goal was to get up into the canyon and once I did that I was content to go back.  Besides, by then I was hungry.

Prints of the infrared series are now available for purchase here.


A Journey

Highway 88, the historic Apache Trail, loops up along the reservoirs of the Salt River to Roosevelt, where it meets 188 and then 60, which comes back around to Apache Junction.  On the way it passes many towns and historic sites as it weaves through the mountains.  Altogether it covers about 125 miles and makes for a very nice day excursion through the desert.  Between Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt (about 22 miles), Highway 88 is dirt, but it’s well maintained.  Aside from some washboarding it was fine, with very few ruts or rocks.  Only the very lowest vehicles would have a problem with it.

The Superstition Mountain Museum consists of an indoor exhibit hall ($5) as well as several buildings outside, including the barn and chapel from the Apacheland movie set.  The rest of the set burned down years ago, but those were saved and eventually moved to the grounds of the museum.  Elvis Presley himself once sang gospel songs in the chapel during breaks in the filming of Charro!, the only movie of his in which he did not sing.

Goldfield Ghost Town straddles the border between historic and downright silly.  Rebuilt with antique lumber after the original town burned down, it now consists of gift shops, ice cream parlors, and semi-authentic tours.  The historical society museum ($1) does a good job of presenting the area and people who made it what it was.  The train and mine tours ($8 each) were interesting although not especially long or realistic and they gave some conflicting information.  There was also a bordello tour ($3) that made a point of letting potential customers know it was “child friendly”.

Tortilla Flats is a one-time stage coach stop that’s still in operation as a restaurant and gift shop out in the middle of nowhere.  Highway 88 meets 188 at the Roosevelt Dam, the largest masonry dam in the world, made of blocks carved right out of the canyon, although the newer concrete facing covers the original stonework.

Tonto National Monument ($3), overlooking Roosevelt Lake, is a small cliff-side settlement long abandoned by its original builders for reasons unknown to us today.  The lower ruins are readily accessible, although a visit requires a 1/3 of a mile hike up a steep trail.  The upper ruins can only be visited on occasional ranger-led tours (reservations required), visit the park service website for dates and information.  Unlike other ruins I’ve been to, most of the rooms at Tonto are actually open for visitors to walk through.  They’re so well protected that textures and fingerprints are still visible in the walls.  They also contain surprisingly little graffiti, although unfortunately a few people have managed to get away with it over the years.

Fall asleep listening to coyotes howling, and try not have Stevie Wonder singing Superstition in your head the whole time, like I did.  Unless you like that song, as I do.  In that case, go nuts.

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Destination: Jerome

There aren’t very many towns that do a decent job of straddling the line between touristy & genuine, but Jerome, Arizona is one of them with lots of hippie artists & plenty of unique shops displaying their wares.  They call themselves the biggest ghost town in the country; I’d call it the most heavily populated ghost town in the country, but whatever.

Not far away down the mountain in Camp Verde in Montezuma Castle, a set of Sinagua ruins built into a natural opening in the side of a cliff overlooking Beaver Creek.  Unfortunately the ruins themselves are closed off to visitors and can only be viewed from below, but it’s a beautiful walk along the cliff base with some nice interpretive panels discussing the history of the area & the people who lived there. 2014.11.03.023