This Week In Awkwardness

I left Arizona and have now made it across New Mexico and half of the Texas panhandle.  I-40 parallels Route 66 through this area so even though I’m not on that road I’m passing through the same towns, most of which still embrace their Mother Road history with many hotels and quirky tourist traps from that era, and of course plenty of memorabilia.

I feel like the land is getting progressively flatter and emptier as I go.  Still looking forward to trees.

I woke up at 5:30 one morning to a nearly complete lunar eclipse that I had totally forgotten about.

I’m always surprised by how many abandoned buildings there are on the plains.  Maybe it’s just because they’re out there in the open, not hidden by plant growth, but they seem to be everywhere.  Trespassing has never been something that bothered me much, but these places always feel so exposed I can never bring myself to explore them.  I get questioned by the police often enough as it is.


Book Finished:

The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan

This was a fascinating look into the sudden rise of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the everyday lives of its residents.  The town grew up around the nuclear enrichment factories that were part of the Manhattan Project, an organization so secretive that most of the workers had no idea what they were actually working on.  Many of them were women out on their own for the very first time.  The stories were a little heavy on the women noticing how many single men there were around them, but I guess if that was what was going on, that was what was going on.  Amongst the experiences of the female employees and their feelings about the work they were doing, Kiernan does a good job of explaining the history and science behind the rise of the Manhattan Project and its role in World War II.

Favorite Quote:

“And if you got your M voltage up and your G voltage up, then Product would hit the birdcage in the E box at the top of the unit and if that happened, you’d get the Q and R you wanted.  It was that simple.” – they seriously had NO IDEA what they were working on.


Crossed Off the Travel Map:

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Destination: Tuscon

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Saguaro National Park

The park is split into two sections, one on each side of the city.  Both are fairly easily accessible from I-10, although they’re not right near the interstate. The Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side is so beautiful & pristine that I kept forgetting I wasn’t in a botanical garden.  It has an 8-mile loop that’s drivable and plenty of trails for those who want to explore on foot.  I enjoyed the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that leaves from the Javelina Picnic Area.  It goes way up into the mountains, although I didn’t take it all that far.  At one point I came across a box where they wanted me to register my presence there, so I filled out my name and then realized they wanted to know what time I left and what time I came back.  I was so afraid that I’d forget to write down when I came back by and they’d be all in a tizzy thinking I went up in there and died or something that I filled in a time I thought I might come back and rendered the whole thing moot.

The Tuscon Mountain District on the western side borders county-run Tuscon Mountain Park.  The landscape here is totally different, with more rolling mountains and interesting rock formations.  There are miles of trails and roads, however a large stretch of Golden Gate Road is not well maintained and requires a high clearance vehicle.  A 1/4 mile trail at the signal hill picnic area leads up to series of ancient Hohokam petroglyphs on the rocks.  I always think ancient artwork is so interesting, even if nobody has any idea what it means.  It looked to me to be mostly authentic, although there were a couple bits that I thought had been carved more recently by vandals.  I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do that.  “Bob loves Jill 2002!”  Guess what?  Nobody cares.

Of course its namesake saguaro cacti are all over both halves of the park, along with tons of other cool looking plants.  I have to wonder how anybody ever made it through these places before there were roads given that everything seems to have giant murderous thorns.


A Journey

Highways 82 & 83 run through the desert from Vail to Nogales, passing many ranches and a couple of small towns along the way.  Just don’t make a wrong turn at the end & accidentally end up in Mexico.  There are a lot of dirt side roads leading off to various things, including probably some ghost towns, but be careful: signs at the turn offs warn of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.  Tuscon is just back up I-19, including a trip through a border patrol checkpoint complete with drug dogs so don’t have anything illegal in the car.  The vast majority of the road signs all the way back to Tuscon express distances in kilometers, so it’s a little harder to keep track of locations.

On the way back to Tuscon I-19 passes right by the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, a decommissioned Cold War era nuclear missile silo that still houses its Titan II rocket.  They offer 1-hour tours ($9.50) through the command center, including discussions of the crew’s daily life, a simulated launch, and a look at the rocket itself.  Other types of tours are also available a few times a month, check their website for details.  I went on the basic tour and found it very interesting.  Our guide, Ed, was very knowledgeable.  He showed us the technology involved in running the place, the various security procedures and steps involved in crew changes, and walked us through the launch sequence.  Given that the base operated from 1963 to 1982 their tech seems downright ancient now, and I’m always fascinated by the way complex things operated in a time before computers ran it all.  Punch tape targeting systems, thumb wheel code entry, no electronic screens anywhere, it’s completely nuts.  The other weird thing is that the whole place is set on shock absorbers.  Everywhere you look there’s huge springs on the walls and along the walkways.  Ed said one time they got a bunch of people to push on one wall of the command center and they actually got the room to move.

Prints from the Saguaro National Park infrared series are now available for purchase here.

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Destination: Tombstone

A stagecoach in the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is an interesting place.  An old mining town like the bazillion others in the Southwest, but this one is famous for the characters that once resided there and the crazy antics they got up to.  Various Earp brothers, the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theater, cowboys, outlaws, the place is chock full of history.

The day I was there the main roads were all closed to cars, I don’t know if they keep them like that all the time or only on weekends or what, but there’s lots of free parking within a couple of blocks so it’s easily walkable.

The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park ($5) does a great job presenting the town.  It’s a big place with lots of artifacts, photos, and information.  There’s a whole section on the debate over what happened during the O.K. Corral shootout.  Apparently it’s quite a thing.

One of the most famous buildings in town is the Bird Cage Theater ($10), so named because it held so many “soiled doves”.  It’s the only original building left on Allen Street, the others having been rebuilt after burning to the ground in various fires over the years.  I’d seen it on ghost hunting shows and it really is a neat place.  Everything is original and exactly as it was left in 1889: the wallpaper, the curtain on the stage, the bullet holes below it from a drunk cowboy who wasn’t happy with the show, the gaming tables in the basement, and the private rooms where the prostitutes plied their trade.

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The nearby Boothill Cemetery (free) holds a lot of the famous characters from Tombstone, and a lot of goofy grave markers.  As I understood it only a few of these are original, but the recreations are historically accurate.  Some of them really give you an idea of the social order of the era, like the one that just says “Two Chinese”.  Many of the graves are simply marked “Unknown”.

Tombstone is easily reached by taking I-10 from Tuscon to Benson and then Highway 80 south to town.  For a side trip on the way back, take Highway 82 through San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and stop at the ghost town of Fairbank. There’s not a lot there, a few tumbledown buildings, the train station, and the schoolhouse which now houses a nice museum (free) and gift shop.  The Fairbank cemetery is located on a hilltop about a half mile down a side trail.  Continue on 82 and I-10 is just a short drive back up Highway 90.

I actually camped a half hour away at the Benson KOA where I woke up to some new friends:

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And that’s the end of the good things about the Benson KOA.  Two nights I was there and the showers never got warmer than slightly above frigid.  There’s a million places to stay around there though, including several right in the town of Tombstone.

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