Destination: Northwestern Arkansas

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Arkansas has been a place of cultural clashes for at least the last 200 years. Westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, civil rights – it’s intense. With that much history it’s no surprise that the state is packed to the brim with memorials and battlefields.  If you think of Arkansas as a square divided by a diagonal line the northwestern half is rugged and mountainous, with winding roads and fields of cows in the valleys, while the southeastern half is flat and wet, containing many small towns surrounded by cropland. I don’t know if Arkansas just has better parks than other states or what but all the ones I went to were stunning, and by some miracle free of charge, so it doesn’t cost a thing to get out and experience the incredible beauty on display here. They don’t call it The Natural State for nothing, and I was super happy to be out in the woods again after so many months of dirt & rocks in Arizona.


A Journey

On the very western edge of Arkansas, right on the border with Oklahoma, is the town of Fort Smith, once the very last outpost before you left the United States and entered the frontier. The infamous Trail of Tears passed this way heading out to Indian Territory. The fort itself once imprisoned the ruffians that made the West wild. Major clashes of the Civil War were fought nearby as the Confederates tried to make some headway on the border state of Missouri. It’s almost overwhelming trying to take it all in.

Fort Smith National Historic Site consists of a large park on the Arkansas River as well three buildings from the second incarnation of the fort: the gallows, the commissary, and the courthouse.  The courthouse holds a very nice museum covering the long and varied history of the fort, the frontier, and the Trail of Tears.  In those days this was the end of civilization, with Indian Territory just a few steps away.

Heading north on Scenic Byway US-71, I stopped at Devil’s Den State Park is a great place for hiking or swimming.  Caves, boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls dot the forest.  I never did figure out which one was the Devil’s den and which was the Devil’s ice box, or why people insist on giving these Satanic place names.

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Just outside the small town of Fayetteville, where I wandered into a farmer’s market in the town square and spotted a local chef buying his produce for the day, is Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.  There’s not a lot left of the original landscape, but there is a nice museum and a walking path with buildings from that era.  The interesting thing about Prairie Grove is the driving tour through town.  Pick up a flyer or buy a CD at the visitor’s center for the information pertaining to each stop, and try not to ogle people’s front lawns too much.  They’ll start to think you’re weird.

Stop at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum ($2) in Rogers for a quirky history lesson and more Red Ryder than you can handle.  I had no idea the history of air rifles was such a long one, but they’ve got guns dating back a few hundred years.  Some of the memorabilia is way hyper-masculine but I guess that’s their demographic.  Confusingly incongruous with being called Daisy though.

Just a few miles shy of the Missouri border is Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the land has been maintained much as it was during the decisive Civil War battle that was fought here.  The only remaining building is the Elkhorn Lodge, and even it is a rebuild from shortly after the end of the war.  The driving tour supplemented with foot trails takes you through the battlefield, onto the ridge above it where soldiers hid from their enemies, and to a couple of memorials placed later by veterans from both sides of the conflict.  As much interest as I have in historic battlefields, I struggle to really understand them.  Some group from some place with a certain number fought with some other numbered group from a different place.  Eventually one group left.  Yay.

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This part of Arkansas is incredible and it’s definitely a place I’d like to explore further in the future.  It’s just too pretty.  I can’t stand it.

Destinations: Albuquerque & Santa Fe

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For a while now I’ve been sort of fascinated by the culture, style, and architecture of New Mexico, a state that I’d only been through on a train.  I finally had an opportunity to visit, and it didn’t disappoint.

I actually stayed between the two cities in Bernalillo and spent a day in each place. Rather than driving, paying for gas, dealing with traffic, and figuring out where to park, and paying for that too, I took the New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train. It’s really cheap (the hour-long trip to Santa Fe was $9, downtown Albuquerque only cost $4), convenient, and the scenery can’t be beat. Train tickets also get you onto the city buses at no extra cost, just show it to the driver.

The station in Albuquerque is right downtown, but a couple of miles from the Old Town section that I wanted to visit, so I hopped a bus and rode through the city. Old Town is arranged around a central plaza with a large church on one side and surrounded by many shops and tour options. I never got into Breaking Bad but apparently it takes place and/or was filmed in Albuquerque and they do everything they can to capitalize on that fact. I found a sign advertising a funeral procession for Walter White and I one point I saw a tour bus with what appeared to be a meth lab in it.

Leaving Old Town, I got back on the bus and headed over to the Albuquerque Botanical Garden. The garden is half of the ABQ BioPark, the other half being a zoo. $12.50 for one or the other, $20 for both, and a small train runs between them. The garden also contains an aquarium, so the one ticket includes plenty of animals along with the plants. The gardens are beautiful of course, with a farm section, a Japanese garden (my favorite), a lake, two greenhouses, a butterfly house (summer only) and model trains. I didn’t even know garden trains were a thing, but I guess it’s a pretty serious hobby. There’s also a playground shaped like a castle, complete with tunnels, giant flowers, and an ivy-covered dragon.

 

I really liked Santa Fe.  It was a little more desertish than my ideal but there were grassy parks about every ten feet to make up for it, and it’s at a high enough elevation (7,200 feet) to have plenty of big trees.  Some of the oldest buildings in the country are here, so I was surprised by how many high end shops there were and how artsy the town was in general.  I guess I figured it would be a little more traditional or something.

The beautiful Cathedral Basilica of Francis of Assisi dominates a whole city block and can be seen all over town.  I happened to be there on Good Friday so things were closing up all over the place for people to attend the 1:30 service.

The proximity of the Los Alamos labs to Santa Fe also piqued my interest, but I didn’t have time to visit the museums dedicated to that particular aspect of this region.  Central New Mexico is definitely interesting, and a place I’d like to explore the history of further on another trip.

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

Journey: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

Chicago to Flagstaff, 1,782 Miles


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So I’m in Arizona for the winter, and instead of spending 3 super crappy days or 5-6 somewhat less crappy days in a car, spending hundreds of dollars on gas, lodging, and food, I decided to let Amtrak do the heavy lifting.  For $154 I got to spend two days lounging around reading & watching the world go by while still managing to end up on the other side of the country.  Flying would have been shorter, but almost certainly more expensive (I have better things to do than check prices on 47 different airlines) and a bigger pain in the neck.  I boarded the train with absolutely no hassle.  I didn’t have to show up two hours early, or spend any time at all standing in line to have a stranger pat me down & look at my skivvies through some weird Star Trek machine.  I brought a large backpack, 44-pound duffel bag, purse, blanket, pillow, snacks, outside water, AND nail clippers on board, nobody batted an eye. Try getting all that on a plane.

Along the way I got to see not only my origin & destination, but everything in between.  I wasn’t hurtling along 30,000 feet above it, I got to be a part of it, all the wild animals, little towns, big cities, and beautiful landscapes across nearly 1,800 miles, with no effort involved.  And seriously low-stress travel: wide comfy seats, footrests, legroom, no screeching babies, and there was a whole lounge car to go hang out in if I got tired of my little nest.  My fellow travelers were pretty mellow too, the only time I heard anyone get even a little upset was some guy who didn’t like his upper level seat because he struggled with stairs; the conductor put the smack down on him pretty fast, he’d bought the wrong kind of ticket, and there was no fixing it now.  I never saw anyone being rude to other passengers or staff.  Even the cell-phone chatters were quiet and respectful of the people around them.

The only problem I had was with my second seatmate.  The first one was pretty close to perfect, he sat quietly and we ignored each other for five hours until he got off in Missouri.  The second lady, she wanted to talk.  She gave up on me pretty fast, because I went mm-hm and stuck my earbuds in, but I saw her chatting up other people through the whole trip.  Not one time did I see her sitting alone reading or whatever.  I don’t think she even slept, she was like some kind of chatty vampire, feeding on other people’s exhaustion.  Speaking of sleep, it was surprisingly easy to come by.  We spent the night crossing the plains so there was nothing to look at anyway, the seat leaned back pretty well, with enough space that I wasn’t in the lap of the person behind me, I had my blanket, pillow, and eye mask. I took a drowsy motion sickness pill to help a bit (I didn’t need them for nausea and I need those for small roller coasters) and just passed right out.

Yeah it took forever, but this was a great trip.  I re-read one of my favorite books (Tricky Business, by Dave Barry), saw lots of interesting, beautiful things, and finally got to cross the Southwest Chief off my bucket list.  So many people just want to get where they’re going, they miss a lot.  The difference between planes & trains is the difference between tourists & travelers.  Do you want a journey – an experience?  Or merely a destination?

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