Arizona: ghost towns


“Before you ask,” the cowboy outside our hotel in Benson, Arizona muttered, squinting heroically into the sun, with a gruff, laconic manner that seemed more practiced than measured, “yes it is real and yes it is loaded.”
He sauntered over, and slammed his Magnum .44 pistol into my palm, as if daring me to a duel.

In truth, I hadn’t given the question of whether John’s gun was real or loaded much thought. I was still taking in the rest of his garb. From the tip of his boots to the top of his Stetson it was based on John Wayne in Red River (“shot in Arizona” he mentioned) – right down to the Red River belt buckle and his rifle, an 1894 Winchester.

The reverential seriousness with which he treated the subject of his guns and his gear, not to mention The Duke (he had 70 John Wayne films on video which we were welcome to come and watch) demanded one’s respect and made it obvious the gun was real. This out-weighed the fact that his (equally impressive) curved, bushy moustache and accent were the spit of Bugs Bunny’s adversary, Yosemite Sam.

“I know just enough Spanish to order a beer and get into a fight,” he would quip, spitting out a wad of Copenhagen tobacco that came in what looked like a shoe polish tin and resembled, and tasted, like soil.
“It burns the snot out of your throat if you swallow it,” he warned, adding with some admiration “I have a dog that loves this stuff.”

Within an hour of meeting, John had taught me the best way to shoot a rattlesnake. Where people go wrong is using anything heavier than a .22 apparently – which he explained, “goes straight to the brain and doesn’t mess up the skin.”

The image, it was clear, was no gimmick. He mentioned he mostly avoided towns where by-laws prevented him from carrying a loaded gun and that he preferred to use ammo from a .44 Special rather than a standard .44 because it expends more of its heat (its violence) inside its target rather than outside – having passed right through it. I made a mental note not to mention the Yosemite Sam resemblance.

IT turned out that it was not only appropriate but essential to our search for Arizona ghost towns that our guide was someone whose attachment to the period of the Wild West was not only sartorially but spiritually so passionate.

What John did not know about ghost towns was – like quite a lot of what he did know – not worth knowing. He knew everything – from how many people Wyatt Earp really killed and who they were or how the Gunfight At The OK Coral didn’t place at the OK Coral at all, to the type of wheel nuts used on the stagecoaches.

Characters like John may seem like a one-off but after a while in Arizona they soon fit into the landscape just fine. In the old mining town of Bisbee, a man who was the spitting image of Buffalo Bill, sat at the bar dressed in an original 1899 frock coat, “office issue” cavalry boots, Custer-esque Stetson and huge black satin Wild Rag scarf, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They at least are keeping the whole era alive.

Without John – the Arizona Tourist Board’s recommended guide for the area South-East of Tucson around Tombstone – the whim of hunting for ghost towns would have been a long, and fruitless, one.

The inside cover of the definitive book on the subject, Arizona Ghost Towns & Mining Camps by Philip Varney shows 75 ghost towns in Arizona, conjuring images of timber-wood parades brimming with empty gunsmiths and saloons, and pre-requisite tumble-weed, all over the place.

The definition of a ghost town though is open to debate. Among Varney’s list, they range from scruffy bits of scrublands where a ghost town used to be (Varney describes Sonora as “vanished into an open pit”) to Tombstone – the sort of tourists’ theme-park that sells rubber tomahawks.

Whilst some ghost towns are inhabited, consisting entirely of buildings that have been re-built or restored beyond all recognition, the condition of most of them can be summed up by the ghost town glorying under the name of one called Total Wreck.

Federal laws to preserve them have proved impossible to enforce, or simply too late. With the passing of time, most have been abandoned to rot or been stripped of their timber, stone and steel by looters, damaged irrevocably by collectors or souvenir hunters looking for arrowheads or pottery chards. A 1-800 number
(1-800-VANDALS) has not stopped them being vandalised – littered with teenage graffiti, drunken bullet holes or evidence of drunken paint-ball contests.

Only recently, a much-prized arch in Gleeson was pulled down with chains and 4 wheel-drive jeeps after rumours that gold had been discovered there. On another occasion, a car full of carpet-baggers, all armed with metal detectors, pulled up to John and asked if he “knew which way the lost gold was ?”

Without a guide, even locating the ghost towns in the first place would be difficult. The sheer vastness of the state means distances on the map between towns can be deceptive. The Navajo reservation alone is over 13,000 miles wide, while Cochise County is bigger than the USA’s smallest state (Rhode Island). Road signs are rare, or at least the ones giving directions are. Other hazards common to Arizona are announced by signs like BLOWING DUST AREA or DO NOT ENTER WHEN FLOODED. UNIMPROVED ROAD SURFACE confirms the fact that you are ploughing through enough gravel to raise a trail of dust the Apaches could have seen from miles away. Other ‘ghost towns’ are on private land and Varney mentions optimistically “can only be spotted through binoculars” or accessed if (like John) you have a permit.

The compensation is being in Arizona – especially if you like driving.

We had arranged to meet John in Benson. The drive from Phoenix, as with any drive in Arizona, was long, breathtaking, and slightly surreal. The first sign outside Phoenix was a billboard inviting us to Rooster Cogburn’s Ostrich Ranch. BUFFALO FOR SALE said another outside a pen of huge, motley-looking, beasts straight out of a Western. When I asked the rancher what a buffalo went for, he drawled: “Depends on who’s buyin’, depends who’s sellin’,” settling eventually on $ 5000. “We’ll take two,” we said.

A pristinely green golf course stood out amidst miles and miles of arid desert, as brightly as the fairground that came later, lit up and as pretty as Christmas lights. An abandoned Christmas tree farm that the owners gave up on when the trees grew too big to sell stood by the roadside like a mirage.

Such sights stand out, if only because in Arizona, the sheer vastness means you can drive for hours with views of the terrain are uninterrupted. Looking out at four distant horizons, yours can be the only car you can see, with not a single house in sight. (You might see one of those modern silver trailers, like a giant toaster, out in the middle of nowhere.)

It’s no wonder so many people go missing. Every truck stop or gas station, every milk-bottle or local paper, seems to be decorated with posters, leaflets or hand-written appeals for someone, like WANTED posters. Some of the rewards were up to $ 100, 000.

Sitting alongside adverts for “Coyote Calling Contests” or leaflets offering “electro-magnetic radiation and pollution mitigation” (against cancerous powerlines), the posters gave you the missing person’s description, their hobbies, the way they were: “A generous person”, a person who will always listen to other people’s problems”, “a patriot.”
By the time you’d finished reading them, you felt you knew them. You felt you MISSED them.

The most disconcerting thing about driving across Arizona is also the element that makes it so compelling: the general picture, the seemingly endless desert panorama, never goes away but the subtle way the terrain is always changing – violent reds, barren, almost luna-looking ravines, and then a grove of silver cottonwoods. The occasional sign announcing SCENIC VIEW is superfluous – it’s not as if you could miss it – laid out before like a wide-screen western. It’s not uncommon to get 360-degree sunsets. At night, the desert sky is an explosion of silver and shooting stars.

Major interstate highways like the I-10, the I-17 or I-40 are invariably straight and virtually empty, carving across the wide-open spaces like scars. On smaller roads in Arizona, traffic is so rare, drivers acknowledge you with a flick of their index finger to the forehead, like the sheriff from a western.

This means the main perils of drifting round in the centre of all this isolation is in fact, the police. The first time I went to Arizona, the beautiful open roads and total lack of traffic tempted me into setting the cruise control on the car, turning up the radio and blazing across the state, only (eventually) to find a patrol car blocking my way – when I pulled over on to the hard shoulder to look for a tape.

“Find your license. Get out of the car. You’re in trouble,” said the cop. “Do not say a word and follow me to the car.”

I was still trying to work out why parking on the hard shoulder was so heinous when the roads were deserted, when he launched into an unstoppable tirade about “What really makes me sick of people like you is not only do you kill yourselves, you get other people killed as well.”

The penny dropped when he said, “I have been trying to catch up with you for the last 25 minutes. If you hadn’t pulled over, I would never have caught you.”

His speed gun had recorded me doing 86, 96, 107, 115 and 125. “The speed limit in case you were not aware of it, is 65.” I didn’t even think there was one.

The only other major danger to your welfare driving round Arizona is the food. Vegetarians or people who do not eat red meat like myself, visit Arizona at their peril. The choice usually consists of service stations or burger bars, places like LotaBurger or GrabaBurger, that make MacDonalds look like L’Escargot. Wendy Burger advertised their chicken sandwiches as “a great way to stay in shape – better tasting and better for you than tofu and bean sprouts”.

Vegetarianism is not only unhealthy it is unpatriotic. “Support your local farmers” menus insisted. Even the token non-meat option usually comes with meat anyway, presumably on the grounds that you must have made a mistake. In one truck-stop, what was usually my best hope (spaghetti and tomato) came with the surprise ingredients of mince (helpfully mixed up inside the spaghetti), grated cheese, pineapple and a glacé cherry on the top.

When John turned up to take us on our tour, I couldn’t help noticing even he had taken the precaution of packing his own lunch.

The vehicle he was using was an impeccable 1958 Willys Wagon jeep he had re-built (“the original 226 cubic inch flat head six was retained”), complete with 12 forward gears and four reverse to cope with the “dusty-ass valleys” and “doo-hinky dirt tracks” we would be tackling.

We started with Harshaw, Helvetia and Mowry – fine examples of the authentic type of ghost town that has not been commercialised, re-stored or re-built. The negative side of these is that there is nothing actually there, beyond the remnants of the occasional adobe, a bit of a mineshaft or, in Harshaw, a pretty Mexican cemetery. Washington Camp has a population of 30 and even has a B&B but that’s about all. The small row of buildings that makes up the ghost town of Fairbank on the San Pedro River has been boarded up. Duquesne has a two-seater out-house out in the woods while Gleeson had probably the most utterly collapsed shack I could even imagine ever seeing.

Only in Pearce – a handful of houses absolutely miles from anywhere – did we finally find something (a huge, imperious-looking, faded General Merchandise store) that evoked the period, a classic image from endless westerns. Even this has been closed for seven years supposedly awaiting renovation. Our last big hope disappeared after we trekked out to the recently-re-opened ghost town of Ruby, which has more standing buildings than any other Arizona ghost town except Vulture to the north. But having endured 14 miles of rugged dirt track, the gate across the entrance road was padlocked and protected by NO TRESPASSING signs. We later learned the on-site caretaker who should have let us in was not only deaf but unwell having been bitten by a rabid raccoon (a good excuse admittedly).

The countryside around these places still stuns you with the type of images you’re looking for: vast dried river beds, endless plains scattered with so many cacti they look like stubble; classic mesa ready for raiding Apaches to rain down from. But we had to accept that the concept of ghost towns in the way we perceive them is just that – a concept; a ghost itself. No wonder one rich land-owner had built his own ghost town – Gammons Gulch, 12 miles outside Benson – the way tourists and film-makers wanted ghost towns to look.

In desperation, we even ventured in to Tombstone. Phone booths and rubbish bins are encased in “authentic-looking” wood while stagecoach drivers ride around giving guided tours via microphone headsets.

The famous bar, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, is the sort of hallucenegenically horrible experience that makes Las Vegas look subtle – bustling with ‘actors’ in pristinely fake costumes (rag-time piano-player, bawdy saloon girls) with all the authenticity of Disneyland.

I wanted to go back out on to the open road, where at least the scenery around the ghost towns hasn’t changed and probably never would do. I knew John wanted us to see Tombstone’s Courthouse which he considered to be “a must-see,” but the vulgarity of the town, the completely crass, plastic way it exploited its own heritage, was obviously making him uncomfortable.

He looked ready to start shooting.
We got the hell out of Tombstone.