It’s a miracle! We changed seasons on Tuesday, and Thursday night, we had our first summer rain. Getting rain during summer isn’t unusual, but getting it so soon was. It was nice to break our six-month dry spell finally. It wasn’t a deluge but enough to tamp down the dust.
Our storm cell came through at 1:00 am, and I listened to the thunder approaching in bed. The weather service says that you can tell how far away the strikes are by counting the time between the flash and the thunderclap. “If you count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, and then divide by 5, you’ll get the distance in miles to the lightning: 5 seconds = 1 mile, 15 seconds = 3 miles, 0 seconds = very close.” As I lay in bed, I counted one, two, three …, then there were a couple of strikes where I didn’t get to finish the one. That’s when I got up.
When I did, Queen Anne was already outside—in the dark—dressed in a T-shirt and flip-flops moving flower pots around so the rain could water them. I scolded and reminded her about the 3 S’s (snakes, spiders, and scorpions). She seemed oblivious to the blue-white lightning streaking dozens of miles across the black sky above her head. At first, I was concerned that the strikes would start another wildfire because they struck close around us. When the rain started falling, it eased my mind, and I quickly got bored and went back to bed.
According to forecasters, we’re supposed to have an above-average monsoon this season. That’s good because our drought has lasted nearly 20 years. I’m not optimistic that I’ll see a recovery in my lifetime. Climatologists told us of 100-year droughts in the past, and they conjecture that those dry periods may have caused the Anasazi, Sinagua, and other pueblo tribes to move in search of water.
Water has always been a concern in the desert west. That’s as true today as it was when the Richardsons homesteaded their place in Union Pass. There’s a spring near the pass that supported their cattle and orchard. Can you imagine hauling water up 3000′ from the Colorado River? Even with a spring, they need a healthy water reserve to get through the dry months.
As you can see in this week’s photo that I call Water Tank, they built a good-sized tank on the property for water storage. From this image, I guess the tank dates back to when they made the gas station. The concrete foundation work looks similar to that of the pump island.
I’m sure vandals added the graffiti and bullet holes to the tank’s side after the family moved off the property. They are another example of vandalism that supports my argument that the BLM should set this homestead aside for protection. Otherwise, these ruins won’t be around much longer.
I hope you enjoyed our month at the Richardson Homestead. You can see the larger version of Water Tank on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we begin a new project in a different location. Hopefully, it will be someplace cool. Please come back then and see what Queen Anne picked for us.
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.
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.
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.
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 road ran through the flooded wash bottoms. These days it’s a mini-interstate having 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 that I’ve traveled. That vista comes just west of Union Pass in the Black Mountain Range. You can tell it’s coming when you see the Union Pass elevation sign (3570 feet). 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 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.
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. On the maps, it’s called Thumb Butte, 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 that 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 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 range’s entire length—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 come back next week when I’ll show another photo from Union Pass and SR 68.
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 Time—in 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.
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.
The traffic in Wickenburg has gotten worse over the past couple of months—especially during the weekends. It might be that people feel more comfortable traveling now that Covid restrictions are easing, or maybe folks are just sick of staying home. In either case, it’s become annoying to go to one of the town’s grocery stores.
There used to be three U.S. highways that ran through our downtown—US 60, US 89, and US 93. That all changed when the feds built the interstates (yes, children, back in my day, there were no freeways). Today, only US 93 remains a major commerce route—lots of big trucks still pass through town. It actually starts downtown at the intersection of US 60 and Tegner Street and ends in Jasper, Alberta (the Canadian part isn’t part of the US highway system, but they used the same number on their side of the border).
I have a lot of mixed feelings about US 93. It’s the main link between Phoenix and Las Vegas. It was a narrow two-lane road with twists and turns that made you slow down. There little white crosses littering the roadside. So many that it was designated the country’s most dangerous road. So, the highway department began inserting four-lane sections over thirty years ago. Even then, they knew it would become a freeway someday (sometime this century, they promise).
Back when I thought that I had extra money to burn, I used to look forward to the five-hour trip to Vegas or Bullhead City for an evening in the casinos. Other times, I’d drag my fishing rod to Black Canyon or Lake Meade with dreams of bringing home a whopper. Then, when my folks retired, they’d drag their trailer across the country, alternating between Atlanta—where my sister lives—and Kingman (it was far too hot in Phoenix). As they aged and became unwell, it became less fun to drive north on US 93. I can’t begin to count the times that Queen Anne and I made that drive.
One of the landmarks along the road that I always looked forward to was along the Joshua Tree Parkway as the highway descends to the bridge crossing the Santa Maria River. Some large sandstone formations are hidden behind small hills just south of the bridge, and there’s a small gap where you can glimpse Shiprock. For decades, I planned a photography trip out there. The light was never right the couple of times that I tried.
The formations are at the eastern toe of the Black Mountains (yet another range with the same name—these are in Yavapai County) and on the other side of Black Canyon Wash, away from the highway. They’re too distant to get a good shot from the road. I found a jeep trail that gets me over the hill, but I need something like Fred’s Toyota to go down the other side—however, our friends ran out on us for the summer before I could bum a ride.
I took this week’s featured image from the hilltop, and I think it gives a pretty good long view of the sandstone formation and the Black Mountains. You can tell that it’s spring because green chaparral and trees fill the wash. Shiprock is the middle formation (the shadows conveniently point at it). Its name comes from how the left side resembles the stern of an old pirate ship.
This photo also shows the Black Canyon Wash as it flows to the Santa Maria River, just beyond the photo’s right side. That river then flows between the Arrastra Range in the background and the Black Mountains to Alamo Lake. Everything in this picture behind the formations is part of the Arrastra Wilderness Area, so if you want to explore, you’ll do it on foot.
You can see a larger version of Shiprock on its Web Page by clicking here. Come back next week for another shot from around my neighborhood.
This morning, when I got out of bed and looked in the bathroom mirror to see if I still had a reflection, I scared myself. What little hair that I still have was standing perpendicular to my head. I think I stuck my finger in a light socket last night. I’m puzzled at how the remaining five hairs on the top of my head—which are invisible when I comb them—manage to stick straight up like a coastal lighthouse. A less intelligent Albert Einstein stared back at me. I need a haircut.
When I got out of the Army, I had thick wavy red hair, and I went to a salon every other week to get it styled. I was on the hunt for a mate back then, so I had to look my best. I patronized one of those places that charged more because they cut your hair with a razor. I paid $30 for a wash, cut and blow-dry. I spent too much time each day trying to get that Glen-Campbell-look that was popular then. Then came the 70’s, and we just let our hair grow long. When my hair curled over my ears like Bozo the Clown, it was time to go to Floyds.
I turned gray when I was in my thirties, and suddenly I was an old man. As my hairstyle paid fewer dividends, I gave up and started combing it straight back. I only got a haircut three or four times a year, whether I needed it or not. Now I visit the barber when we make a Mexican pill-run. It’s cheaper there, and—because I’m a senior—I get a discount. The tip is more than the cut, and I still get change. I don’t even care what it looks like as long as it’s shorter than when I walked in.
We’ve suspended our trips to Algodones during this pandemic, so I’m taking matters into my own hands. I ordered hair-clippers from Amazon. They were supposed to be here on Friday but didn’t arrive. I’ve worked up the nerve to let Queen Anne put it on the shortest setting and shave it all off. How bad could it be? Besides, that’s why I have hats.
The day that Queen Anne and I traveled down Old Route 66 was the exact opposite of a ‘bad hair day’ (see how I did that?). The trip produced more good images than I usually get, and with good reason. The Black Mountain Range is an exciting pile of rocks. I can see me spending more time exploring them—especially when one of you coughs-up the funds for my hover-bike.
This week’s featured image is called Warm Springs Cholla. As you can tell from the colors, I took it as the sun was setting. We were several miles south of Oatman, and I was studying a peak—McHeffy Butte—as we drove along. Suddenly (ta-da), a patch of cholla popped up, making a perfect foreground. After I stopped the truck, I hiked a short distance uphill into the Warm Springs Wilderness and fired off a couple of shots. I think the resulting image makes a great wrap-up to our Route 66 trip.
You can see a larger version of Warm Springs Cholla on its Web Page by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it. Next week is June and another back road adventure. I hope you’ll come back and hear about our road trip.
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.