After publishing last week’s post, I lingered in my office a while with a nagging question. It was more of a puzzle than a burning issue, but it was going to persist until I solved it. My enigma was this: If Lt. Whipple completed his survey in 1854, and the railroads were already following his trail, why in 1926 did the Highway Department run Route 66 through a rugged mountain pass when they established the National Highway system? Wouldn’t it be faster and cheaper to follow the railroad tracks down to the Colorado River? I used up over half of my monthly Google query allotment, trying to understand their logic. After distilling some facts that I uncovered, and with some fantasy time travel, I concluded that the department wanted travelers to go through the shining city on the hill—Oatman. When the mines were still open, Oatman was a bustling city, with a good hotel, restaurants, bars, groceries, and gas stations.
Arizona has two types of ghost towns, and to badly paraphrase a line from Frank Zappa’s song Camarillo Brillo, there are real ghost towns, and there are Walmart ghost towns. Real ones are scattered throughout Arizona’s mountains and plains. Places like Cochran, Cherry, and Ruby. If you drive there in your Jeep, you’d be lucky to find a standing building, but—most of the time—only their crumbling foundations remain. As for the latter towns, they’re thriving communities. Arizona’s big four include Jerome, Tombstone, Bisbee, and Oatman. People still live there, and more importantly, tourists visit by the busload. They come to drink in the saloons, eat lunch in the bordellos, watch the fake gunfights, ride oar carts into the mine shafts, and feed the wild burros. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these towns generate more annual revenue today than the mines ever did.
Before my first Oatman visit, I already knew the image that I wanted to take. Ansel Adams—the photographer that most inspired me—had already made it. Mr. Adams must have had blackmail on God because he had Him move heaven and earth into compositions that no other mortal photographer ever saw. The photo that I’m referring to is in one of his books and is called Tom Reed mine, near Oatman, Arizona, and it shows a cluster of buildings on enormous wash tubs with a pinnacle in the background. When I was younger, I tried to visit the places he captured so I could see what motivated him. That was my way of learning from a master. But in all my visits, I never found those impressive mine structures.
When Queen Anne and I made our Route 66 journey last month, snapping pictures in Oatman was the last thing I wanted. We were avoiding people, so stopping in a crowded tourist trap was out of the question. But when we arrived, the streets were empty of people wearing funny hats, loud shirts, sandals with black socks, and speaking in foreign tongues. The merchants had shuttered the windows, and even the wild burros—the stars of the Oatman experience—were social distancing. I had to stop and document this weird moment—Oatman had turned into a real ghost town.
As we drove out of town through the south side, the sun was low in the sky and casting lots of color on the hills—including the pinnacle that Adams captured. I stopped in the road where some concrete foundations lined up below the white outcrop—that I now know is called Elephant’s Tooth—and took this week’s featured image. I call it Tom Reed Mine and Elephant’s Tooth. We spent less than 15 minutes at that location before driving on.
Since we’ve been home, I was curious about the Adams photo, so I got it down from the bookcase and searched for his rendition. I wanted to see again the buildings that he shot. I’ve never been able to find them no matter how much I scoured the town. Upon examining his image, I realized that he took that photo in 1952, and people have since torn down the structures. The only trace of their existence is the concrete terraces in my picture. When I took my photo, I stood within ten feet of where Ansel Adams worked his magic, and we were both inspired by the same subject. I was so close to being in the presence of greatness—I only missed him by 68 years. My life can go on now.
You can see a larger version of Tom Reed Mine and Elephant’s Tooth on its Web Page by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it. Next week, we’ll pass by the Warm Springs Wilderness on our way to the Colorado River. I hope you’ll join us then.
Until next time — jw