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

Laughlin, Nevada

Every once in a great while, I’m allowed out of the house on my own. I know that’s a surprise to you, but there are times when the Queen has friends over and she wants a presentable house. That means I have to go away while her company is here. Since I’m doing Anne a ‘favor’, I can usually parlay it into an overnight trip that I call a photo shoot. One of these freedom nights was last Tuesday, but at the last-minute, her friends had to postpone, and she was already in the truck before I could get out of the driveway . . . Doh!

My friend Deb asked if this was an anniversary trip to which I replied, “What? When is our anniversary? Yeah, that’s it! It’s for our anniversary.” So, it was something I had planned all along.

Whenever I have a chance to get away, my first thought is to head for a body of water. After all, that is what we miss in the desert. I’d hop on the first plane to New Zealand if I could afford it, but that’s out of our budget. What we can afford is a cot at the YMCA . . . or something close to that. With those constraints, there’s always Laughlin, Nevada.

Colorado River Valley from the Black Mountains.
On a rare rainy day, the lower Colorado River Valley holds the communities of Bullhead City in Arizona, and Laughlin on the Nevada side of the river.

My parents were the ones that introduced me to Laughlin. In the late ‘70s, they had a second home in Bullhead City, the town on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. My dad kept his boat there for a while, and we would manage to ‘drop in’ while they were in town. We’d spend days fishing and water skiing on Lake Mohave, and in the evenings, we would take the water taxi across the river to one of the three casinos on the Nevada side. I have fond memories of those times. Good times never last however, and my parents eventually got rid of the house and boat.

There are several reasons for me to make a quick trip to Laughlin. As a fisherman, both Lake Mohave and the river below Davis Dam offer good angling. However, I never remember to pack my gear for a one night trip. Although I like the craps table, I am averse to wasting money. It used to take twenty bets to lose my bankroll, but now that the tables have a five buck minimum bet, I’m done in four rolls. So, I don’t spend much time in the casinos. There are the buffets with rows and rows of various foods, with people who make you look skinny by comparison. However I favor quality over quantity, so we avoid them. I guess the best reason for Laughlin is that now that the Queen and I retired, we can take advantage of the twenty-five buck midweek hotel rooms. You can’t stay at the YMCA for that price.

The cheap rooms have a downside too. As we strolled along The River-walk connecting the casinos, we noticed that most of the patrons were at least our age; silver-haired seniors and an abundance of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. All of the casino floors were empty with many of the tables covered. The prime restaurants only open on the weekends. The hustle, bustle and excitement you would expect from a gambling hall was missing. Then, it dawned on me that the only people who had time for a casino on Tuesday were retirees; everyone else had to go to work . . . duh!

Thumb Butte
In the Black Mountains above Bullhead City, Thumb Butte looks like the universal indignant gesture of ill-will.

There’s one last thing that fascinates me about the area; it’s the geography. That section of the Colorado River Valley runs between the Black Mountains in Arizona and Nevada’s Eldorado Mountains. Neither range I consider tall, but they’re at the north-eastern reach of the Mojave Desert and get very little rainfall. That means they are subject to wind and temperature erosion. They are rocky, jagged and very rugged. Almost impenetrable.  As a matter of fact, Interstate 40 makes a 20 mile detour along the Santa Fé railroad tracks, around the Black Mountains between Needles and Kingman. The next upstream river crossing is 60 miles north at Hoover Dam and then its 180 miles more to the bridge at Marble Canyon. At the turn of the 20th Century travel was even worse. There were no bridges between Needles, California and Moab, Utah. Everything in between is hostile, desolate and in my opinion, the most beautiful terrain on earth.

Black Mountain MIne
An old mining claim near Union Pass in the Black Mountains.

As a photographer, I see the Black Mountains as a choice place to shoot pictures. It has ragged peaks, soaring spires and interesting shapes. They’re passed by in favor of the more famous canyons the Colorado cuts through. Because of its relative closeness, I’m intrigued at its beauty and if I can figure out how to best capture that ruggedness, I may have to take it on as a future project. Hey, it’s an excuse to get out of the house.

Till next time . . . jw