Arizona Ghost Towns

Life seems such an unlikely combination of luck and choice and circumstance…I think it hits me most when facing choices that will send my life down vastly different trajectories. Or is even that assuming too much? It’s interesting to think of life curling back to an original line no matter which direction you go, or this moment as a hub from which extend multiple lines into the future like rays from the sun. In geologic time, I suppose life looks like a tiny pin prick, with no trajectory whatsoever. Or it could be one circle or a series of them or a combination of metaphysical loops and linear time…I like to imagine it as a spyrograph drawing but that doesn’t really mean anything metaphorically without a great deal of mental stretching. And choice itself is something of a luxury…

What if I had been born here?

Gleeson, a mining town that is almost dead, population down from 2,500 to 100, and people leaving via the cemetery. It sits to the west of a town full of adobe ruins and shattered timbers, only a few miles from Tombstone (that has survived only by becoming its own spectacle, a real town turned into Hollywood set complete with fake gunmen in long black coats and tours by stagecoach). Gleeson is only one of so many towns built upon the mineral riches of southwest hills. And I know the myths, the level of violence. I also know Nana and Tata, the parents of my old soccer coach from Dos Cabezas, and they are beautiful people. On Nana’s wedding day she was sitting on the porch with her suegra and when they saw some rabbits, she got the rifle from inside and shot one dead for dinner. I’ve driven past there, and always wondered which of the foundations and shattered walls belonged to them…I know Frank  born and raised in Tombstone, he’s beautiful too, and his dry sense of humor is made up of puns and spanglish wordplay and he tells truly terrible jokes that I love. It’s why in spite of my love of noir, I’ve never liked authors like Camilo Jose Cela where there is nothing to redeem these dusty violent towns. And much as I love Sergio Leone’s westerns, still, I wish they showed some of the warmth and humor that allowed people to survive in these places.

Gleeson still has those 100 people. But there are far more in the cemetary. Most of the graves are unmarked, it appears almost empty from the road, but when you get closer you can see the remnants of plastic flowers, the splinters of broken crosses, crumbled headstones. The grass here is full of such things, hidden from view.

Maximo Rueda, died 1927, who was he and what was his life like? I know it is too far away for me to even imagine properly, though it does not stop me from trying.

Ed Ramirez, who died in 2000 yet his grave appears almost as old as the others, though with flowers remaining intact. Some graves have iron railings to rescue them from being swallowed by time, but even so, most of the names have long gone. For those that remain, you can see the families buried in groups, World War Two veterans, the Mexicans in one area and the whites in another, attempts by family members to rescue the graves of their loved ones from obscurity. One almost fresh grave.

I wonder if they are people who never left, or people who only returned to be buried?

The whole place was eerily silent, broken only by the wind over dry grass and the occasional clear sounding of two different bells, almost like windchimes, too musical to belong to livestock. I didn’t find the grave they belonged to. I’m not usually spooked by graveyards, and the hot sun and blue skies kept fear at bay, but images like this send chills

as I walked across the graves of the unknown to rescue some from total obscurity, to search for signs that they were there at all, to take pictures of their forlorn brokenness, I hope I did not simply take advantage of the picturesque. Seems like you owe something, even to those who are dead.

Gleeson is the third stop on the back roads between Wilcox and Tombstone, the first is Pearse. I read that it had a reputation worse than Tombstone back in the day, but find that hard to believe, especially of a town so tiny. Tombstone is a metropolis by comparison, though perhaps more foundations lie lost to view in the grass along the road. There are two buildings still standing. One belongs to the only residents of the town, though this was the only living thing to greet us

Some kind of miniature donkey? he was as musical as his larger cousins. And there is a beautiful old general store of adobe with a painted metal facade, if you arrange a tour in advance, and pay for it, you can go inside. But we hadn’t…

From Pearse you drive down through hills filled with the multicolored landslides of mine tailings. They are more than familiar to me from my youth, my family spent so much time going over them looking for cool rocks, bits of azurite, turquoise, silver, copper, gold, molybdenum. There was one only a couple of miles from my old home, we’d hike there and eat lunch in the cool shadows of the mine tunnel, which ended in a deep pit twenty or thirty feet back.

Down the road is Courtland, of which I know nothing but the name. There are clear signs that mining is about to begin again, but apart from recently graded roads and white survey flags, nothing is there but more scattered remnants of abandoned buildings and bored youth

Though shooting up street signs, generally while drinking and driving, is to my certain knowledge, not at all restricted to youth. One of my old coworkers used to enjoy such a pass-time. He was my old assistant manager too.

It was a stunning day all round, even before we arrived in Tombstone and Bisbee. The country is extraordinarily stark and reluctant to support human life, but also extraordinarily beautiful. Here is the recently graded road leading into the back streets of Tombstone

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One response to “Arizona Ghost Towns

  1. A beautiful piece, well written. I’m new to the southwest and so am glad to learn I’m not the only one who’s stopped in his tracks by the majesty of this land. About the dead of Gleeson, they want for nothing but appreciate you’re taking time to notice.

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