Sunset Wall Picture of the Week

Alright, class, settle down. Get out a sheet of paper and a pen, then put away your backpacks. Today we’re starting with a pop quiz. There is only one question, and you have 15 minutes to answer with 10,000 words—or more. You must cite your sources. Spelling and punctuation will be graded. Are you ready? Your question is, “What do Memphis, Tennessee, and Kingman, Arizona have in common?”

I have talked before about old trading trails morphing into the well-laid-out highway system that we have today. Most of us don’t care how it happened, and we just drive on them. They think that Eisenhower signed a paper in 1956, and the freeways just popped into existence. I think that’s because people younger than me—and that’s pretty much everybody—didn’t experience the change first hand. Our forebearers built most roads over existing paths, and there are reasons someone blazed those original paths. Mark Knopfler describes this phenomenon well in his 1982 song Telegraph Road from the Dire Straits album Love Over Gold.

There have been trading trails across Northern Arizona since the first Pueblo inhabitants. European settlers didn’t use them much because the New Mexico territory was Spanish. Their roads came up from Mexico to towns like Santa Fe and the Old Pueblo at Tucson. Those roads followed the Rio Grande and Santa Cruz Rivers because there was always reliable water. The rest of the desert was a wasteland. What changed that? It was gold.

In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. In less than two years, California became a state—that’s instantaneous in government time. They needed to move goods and people to the Golden State—and get the gold back to Washington. But, there were no east-west roads, so they put Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves in charge of a surveying expedition, and he laid out a railroad route around the 35th Parallel.

Then in 1857, the Fed’s paid Edward (Fitzgerald) Beale to build a wagon road from Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to Los Angeles—again along the 35th Parallel (remember, Tucson was still in Mexico). He built his road in a year using camels because they needed less water and food than oxen and horses. By all accounts, it wasn’t much of a road, but Beale bragged that it was the shortest route by 300 miles and “It is the most level: our wagons only double-teaming once in the entire distance, and that at a short hill . . .” His road became the Santa Fe line in 1880, then Route 66 in 1926, and finally Interstate 40 in 1978.

SR 68 through Union Pass - Arizona State Route 68 (on the right) as it enters Union Pass through the Black Mountain Range.
SR 68 through Union Pass – Arizona State Route 68 (on the right) as it enters Union Pass through the Black Mountain Range.

His wagon road wandered a bit from the 35th as it meandered across the desert, but wagon tracks are visible in places on Google Earth. As vehicles became more efficient, each of the subsequent roads shortened its length. Some silly people hike the old road just for giggles. I’m not that ambitious. However, I do know of a place where you’ll be in Ed’s footsteps. Yep, you guessed it. It’s our Union Pass on SR 68. While Sitgreaves went through Oatman, Beale found a more accessible way to Fort Mohave and his river crossing.

Sunset Wall - Layers of volcanic rock upended vertically in the Black Mountain Range.
Sunset Wall – Layers of volcanic rock upended vertically in the Black Mountain Range.

I took this week’s picture on the west side of Union Pass, and it shows layers of lava and ash (tuff) that have been turned horizontal by geological forces. As Don Sprinkle commented in another post; “. . . just like the Grand Tetons.” It was sundown as I took this photo, and that’s why the ordinarily dark rock has a beautiful red glow, and that’s why I called it Sunset Wall.

So, back to your quiz; I’m going to let you grade your papers. What did you answer to: What do Memphis, Tennessee, and Kingman have in common? If you said that they are both along Interstate 40, you get 50%, and if you said that they both have a Beale Street, you get another 50%. I must add that there is a difference too. While Kingman knows who they named their street after, according to the Wikipedia entry for Memphis’ Beale Street, nobody remembers who Edward Beale was, which I find amusing. Maybe it’s forgotten because he was a Union Naval officer.

You can see a larger version of Sunset Wall on its Web Page by clicking here. Please come back next when we begin December’s project and new pictures.

Until next time — jw

Broken Crown Picture of the Week

It takes a lot of space to jam a four-lane freeway through a mountain pass. If you have a horse-drawn wagon, you can squeeze through some tight spots, but with a Peterbilt 579—not so much. You have a couple of options to get that extra width—cut back the mountains or raise the road over them. A more practical approach is to do a little of each. Cut into the hills some and use that fill to raise the road—like how we build today’s modern highways.

The reason I bothered with this engineering exercise is that there are segments of the old Union Pass two-lane road that you can still explore, but they’re maybe 50 feet below the current grade. The more extensive section is on the west side of the Black Mountains crest, which we’ll talk about next week. On the east side, less than a mile of Old SR 68 remains. It’s behind an unlocked ADOT gate meant to keep livestock off of the highway, so be sure to close it after you. The road-gate is the public access to the old Richardson Homestead—a one-family ghost town.

The Richardsons were a family of five who settled the homestead in 1897. When they claimed the 160 acres, it had spring water, enough flat land for an orchard, vegetable garden, and a horse barn left behind by Union Troops stationed there to protect travelers from hostile Indian tribes. In summer, they made the journey from Los Angeles in a covered wagon pulled by a pair of horses.

They moved after John’s doctor told him to “go live in the desert.” I didn’t find a reference to John’s ailments, but that was a standard remedy for tuberculosis back then. The clear desert air undoubtedly helped him because John and his wife, Victoria, built a two-story home, root-cellar, planted trees, and raised livestock using only their sweat and simple hand tools. After establishing their home, Mohave County paid them a monthly allowance to maintain—what was then known as Beal’s Wagon Road—three miles in each direction. For thirty-eight years, they welcomed weary travelers with fresh fruits, preserves, vegetables, cold water, and a place to spend a night.

Victoria succumbed to cancer in 1935—four years after their fiftieth wedding anniversary. John followed five years later. Today they rest side by side in Kingman’s Mountain View Cemetery on Stockton Hill Road.

If you can call middle-aged adults kids, they managed the ranch and changed to keep up with the times. They added guest cabins, a small store, and a gas station. The family enterprise lasted until 1984. We, like our parents before us, didn’t have time to stop at some old place along the road. We had places to go. Shortly after that, the last of the family gave up the land, and the BLM took back ownership.

I remember the Richardson Homestead as a shady oasis on the drive between Kingman and Bullhead City. We would do the long climb from the river, and soon after cresting the hill, tall trees shaded the old road. The collection of rock-wall buildings and weathered metal roofs were always a  blur as we sped past. I vividly recall one early morning return trip. I remember the time because of the golden light. After we passed the old gas station, we saw real-live cowboys on horses driving cattle down the hill on the roadside. My companion and I laughed out loud because we had never seen working cowboys in Arizona—just the plastic ones that hang out in Scottsdale.

Broken Crown - A crown of tuff rests on a layer of basalt in Union Pass.
Broken Crown – A crown of tuff rests on a layer of basalt in Union Pass.

When I pulled over and stopped Archie to shoot this week’s picture, it was beside the homestead. Before I ran across four lanes of traffic (it was very early sun-up and no one was on the road yet), I looked over the guardrail at the remaining ruins and blew them off. I wasn’t out house hunting. Instead, I opted to focus on rocks (pun intended). This large outcrop of tuff on top of a basalt layer was just the ticket. I call this image, Broken Crown because of the fresh rock-fall and truck-sized boulders on the right. But, now that I know about the Richardson family, I want to return soon and wander among the remaining ruins with my camera.

You can see a larger version of Broken Crown on its Web Page by clicking here. Please come back next for our final image in this series and the story that goes with it.

Until next time — jw

Thumb Butte Picture of the Week

Arizona State Route 68 in Mohave County has substantially improved since I first visited Bullhead City decades ago. It was a two-lane back road with faded markings and crumbling tarmac. When it rained, it was impassable because the highway ran through the flooded wash bottoms. These days, it’s a mini-interstate with four lanes and no lights or signs along its 28-mile length. It’s impressive how infrastructure improves when it involves getting people into casinos.

SR 68 also has one of the best views of all the roads I’ve traveled. That vista comes just west of Union Pass in the Black Mountain Range. When you see the Union Pass elevation sign (3570 feet), you can tell it’s coming. There is a wide shoulder here to enable truckers to safety-check their brakes. Immediately after you clear the mountains on either side of the highway, you can see a panoramic view of the Colorado River 3000′ below. Beyond the blue water ribbon, you can see into the Nevada Desert going on forever—especially now that APS has dismantled the coal-fired Mohave Power Station. You don’t have long to enjoy the view because suddenly you’re on the downhill side of the roller coaster, and just for giggles, the highway department put a stoplight at the bottom of the 11 miles of 7% grade.

Thumb Butte - An 800' tall granite monolith overlooking the Colorado River above Bullhead City.
Thumb Butte – An 800′ tall granite monolith overlooking the Colorado River above Bullhead City.

As you descend into the river valley, a thing that jumps out at you is an 800′ tall granite monolith on the left side of the road. It’s called Thumb Butte on the maps, but many locals call it Finger Rock. It’s visible in both towns—Bullhead City and Laughlin—and from there, it looks like the universal gesture of ill will, the big bird, the highway salute, or whatever your favorite euphemism for the middle finger is. (There is another landmark a couple of miles south officially named Finger Butte—don’t confuse the two.)

I have wanted to photograph the rock before, but my schedule prevented me from stopping. On this year’s trip, I decided to make time. I watched videos, poured over the Topo maps, and found a Jeep Trail that goes right by the tower. So, late afternoon, Archie and I drove the dirt trail and took this week’s photo, which I call Thumb Butte.

I wanted to capture some depth and texture, so I shot the rock from the north side, looking into the Mount Nutt Wilderness Area. I’m happy with how this image captures the rugged terrain of the Black Mountains—if only a tiny sample. Maybe I should regularly go back and work the entire range—from Needles to Hoover Dam. What do you think?

You can see a larger version of Thumb Butte on its Web Page by clicking here. Please return next week when I will show another photo from Union Pass and SR 68.

Until next time — jw

Union Pass  Picture of the Week

Queen Anne, my darling wife, flew east last month to join her sisters for a week in New England. Supposedly it was an Autumn-Leaves tour, but they went to Salem in October during a full moon. I’m no math whiz, but I know what you get when you put four and ten together. That’s right—witches!

I’m a big boy, so I wasn’t about to spend my time alone sulking and drowning my sorrows in a tub of Cherry Garcia—I intended to treat myself to a night on the town—another town—in another state. Laughlin, Nevada is an easy three-hour drive from here via Kingman, across Golden Valley, through the Black Mountains, and down to the river. I booked a cheap casino hotel room for Wednesday night and set off determined to lose some money on a craps table.

The downside of weekdays in Laughlin is that it’s mostly closed. The big weekend crowds are working, so the remaining patrons are retirees like me. Half of the restaurants are dark, and some of the casinos don’t open the gambling tables. You have to search for a place to eat and find some action, so that’s how I ended up at the Riverside Casino. They had a couple of working Blackjack tables and one craps table. I think the staff outnumbered the players when I joined. Two people were on the right of the stickman, so I claimed an open spot on the left.

Trying to get a feel for the player’s moods, I looked at the faces around the table. Because masks were mandatory, it was hard to tell who was doing well. A woman across from me wasn’t even a whole face at all—only a pair of brown eyes behind jewel-rimed glasses and silver-blue hairdo peering over the table’s edge. Just like my mom, her short hair had enough hairspray to keep it in place between weekly salon visits. She had a few chips on the rail pushed to one side so they wouldn’t block her view of the playing field.

I placed my bet; someone threw the dice a couple of times and lost. Then we all took a turn bouncing the dice off of the far wall when the silver-haired lady stood up. Until then, I didn’t realize she was sitting. Even when she stood, she wasn’t much taller. She scooped up her remaining chips into a clutch. I thought she was leaving. Instead, she began pushing a walker towards my side of the stickman.

As she maneuvered her tricked-out lavender walker behind the dealer, I saw that she had dressed to party. She had on a very sparkly silver lame top and black spandex pants—which, quite frankly, bagged a bit. Weirdly, as I watched her, I suddenly heard Lenard Cohen singing his tune—Closing Timein my head:

“…And the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
Gets me fumbling gets me laughing
She’s a hundred but she’s wearing
Something tight…”

When she got close, she spoke through her mask in a voice that comes from years of smoking Chesterfields, “Hey, big boy. You need a good luck charm.”

“Hi,” I smiled (a useless gesture behind my mask) and introduced myself, “I’m Jim.”

“Nat-ly,” she replied.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Natalie.”

“No. I’m from Flatbush. It’s Nat-ly,” she corrected with furrowed eyebrows.

“Sorry. What kind of good luck charm are you talking about?”

She explained, “Well, every high roller knows it’s good luck to have an attractive woman beside him while he rolls the dice. You’re alone, and I’m the best-looking dame in the joint.”

Just a glance around the room was enough to confirm to me that she was right. “What’s in it for you?”

“Well, you tip me each time I blow good luck on your dice.”

I was curious, “Do you do this for everyone?”

“Na,” she blushed and went on, “The girls and me spotted you the minute you came through the door.”

“That was because of my dashing good looks and natty fashion sense, I bet.”

“No. You’re the only man in the casino standing upright without a cane. You know how cougars are; we like ’em young and stupid.”

With that, Nat-ly positioned her seat to my right and plopped herself down. On my roll, she blew on my dice for luck. I even made my point once, so her luck wasn’t all bad. “You’d do even better if I hung off your shoulder,” she offered, “It’s only $20 bucks.”

I couldn’t imagine how she could reach that high given her stature, so my curiosity bettered me. I handed her a couple of chips. She reached down and pulled a cane from the tool rack attached to the walker’s side. Then she raised it and hung the crook over my shoulder and began gently stroking it back and forth. I almost burst out laughing, but she was so adept that it felt alright.

The next thing she said was, “For $5 more, I’ll play with your ear.” When I turned, she was holding one of those trash-grabbers for me to examine. I declined, so she slipped it back into its rack spot.

The night passed, the dice went clockwise around the table twice while we talked. She worked at the Mustang Ranch until the Feds seized it, and she retired. Since the Treasury Department was managing the business, she got a federal employee pension. After she quit, she moved south from Reno for a warmer climate and affordable housing. Now, she spends her free time watching the tanned muscle boys ride jet skis up and down the river.

I managed to hold onto my bankroll an hour and a half before it ran out. As I packed my things, I looked down and saw Nat-ly slumped over—asleep. I knew that the dealers wouldn’t let her stay at the table alone, and I didn’t want to wake her. So, I pushed her to the nearest quarter slot machine and parked her in front of it. I reached into my pocket and threw all but one of my quarters into the tray. The last, I stuck in the coin slot. I knew that security wouldn’t bother her as long as there was a bet on the table. With that, I left and went to my room. Tomorrow I have pictures to shoot, so the day will begin early.

Union Pass - To cross from Kingman to the river, you drive through Union Pass. Here we see layers of Tuff - volcanic ash - that was broken and tossed in the air when the Black Mountains were formed.
Union Pass – To cross from Kingman to the river, you drive through Union Pass. Here we see layers of Tuff – volcanic ash – broken and tossed in the air when the Black Mountains formed.

The last time I crossed through Mohave County’s Black Mountain Range was last year on our Oatman trip. I always find something new every time I travel through, which was the same on this excursion. As I drove through Union Pass, I made a mental note that I should get up early and shoot while the light was good. When the morning alarm went off, I got dressed in the dark, packed the truck, and headed to Denney’s for coffee and breakfast. I was determined to stop on the hilltop and photograph the beautiful rugged terrain. on the drive home

This week’s featured image is a part of my morning’s work. I call this photo Union Pass because that’s where I pulled to the roadside and walked up and down the highway shooting as quickly as I could. A thin gauze of clouds filtered the morning light, which is why the shadows are soft in this shot. That’s good because it shows the rock’s layer details. I believe they’re the Tuff that we learned about from Organ Pipe N.M. Tuff is volcanic ash that covers the ground in layers. Here we can see those layers have been broken and thrust into the air when the Black Mountains formed.

You can see a larger version of Union Pass on its Web Page by clicking here. When you come back next week, I’ll show another picture of my time hanging out in Union Pass.

Until next time