Sunday, February 26, 2006
The 'semi-ghost' town of Goodsprings, Nevada.
Wotcha, 'womblers. I'm back from my fabulous trip to Indochina. soon I will blog about this memorable jaunt, particularly the moment when I ate river algae, in Luang Prabang, Laos. Until then, here's an account of some of my other travels.
As readers will remember, a year or two ago I went hunting for ghost towns in the American west. This is what I found.
It's taken us six hours to find this place. And it doesn't look like much. Just a deserted graveyard, at the end of a winding dirt-road, tucked away in the mountains of southern Utah. But this tranquil boneyard has a fascinating story to tell. The inscription on one grave commemorates an entire family 'killed by Indians in 1866'. This grave therefore marks the moment when the nearby town of Grafton became that very American phenomenon: a ghost town.
For many years the 'Western ghost town' has been celebrated by artists and travellers. Some accessible towns, like Tombstone Arizona, have even become tourist honeypots. But such is the scale of the American West, hundreds of other ghost towns, from Lulu City, Colorado to Crackerjack, California, have remained largely unknown, and practically off-limits - until now.
These days, with the advent of better roads, decent maps, and specialist websites, the hobby of 'ghosttowning' - discovering and documenting American ghost towns - has become a pursuit enjoyed by thousands. And with a car, and the occasional use of natsav, and a computer, intrepid travellers can enjoy it too.
A good place to start ghosttowning is Nevada. At least - it's where we begin, After checking the websites, our first stop is at 'Goodsprings'. It's just fifty miles from the phoney gondolas of Las Vegas, but it could be in a parallel universe.
Goodsprings is what is known to aficionados as a 'semi ghost'. That means people still live here; alongside evidence of a more vivacious past. There is certainly a striking poignancy about Goodsprings. A chill desert wind whips off the Silurian mountains; retired wooden shacks sit next to spindly steel windmills. The only sign of real life is in the spit-stained Pioneer Saloon, which is still selling cold beers almost a century after it opened.
The little town was established by a cattle rancher, Joseph Good, in the 1880s. Soon it was home to hundreds of hard-bitten miners, and boasted stores, a hotel, and a vital connexion to the Yellow Pine Railroad. But World War One took the guts out of the place, the railhead closed, and Goodsprings dwindled to the place it is now: lonely, dusty, intriguing - and chary.
The hostile air of modern Goodsprings is not helped by the time of year we have chosen to visit. Many of the still-inhabited houses are bedecked with witches' hats, and saw-toothed pumpkin-heads, and bogus corpses strung up on nooses. These sinister decorations are for Halloween. Er, right?
Approaching one house, we kneel down to take a few pictures of a hanging 'corpse'. But then a middle aged guy lurches out, and yells at us. 'What the heck you guys doin'?' What can we reply? That we're taking photos of his home because it is so desolate and scary? Pathetically waving apologies, we beat a retreat to the twilit car, pursued by a howling dog. Only when we see Las Vegas glittering down the freeway - with its bright lights scattered across the desert, like gems from a burgled jewelbox - do we heave a big sigh of relief.
Just two hours south of Vegas, a few miles inland of the Colorado River, lies one of the West's most intriguing ghost towns: Nelson. This town's unusual history began in the 18th century, when kayaking Spanish explorers first noticed the glint of gold dust in the Colorado riversands. The Spaniards followed the glittering trail up the Eldorado Canyon, and started sinking lucrative shafts in the baked brown hills hereabouts.
Over the following decades, a number of miners made pots of money; perhaps as a result, Nelson became a brutal and lawless place. In the late 19th century, the nearest sheriff was 'Fat Mack' - two hundred miles away. Due to the distance, and perhaps because he had a regard for his own safety, Fat Mack refused to travel to Nelson. Consequently the many disputes between the miners were privately resolved - with Winchesters and Colts. Eventually the brawling miners worked out the gold seams, leaving Nelson to the buzzards and coyotes. And to Brent Holden.
Brent is the genial squire of modern-day Nelson. In 1995 he set up a cafe-museum, for the few tourists who pass this way. But it's not like any normal cafe-museum. An exploded airplane sits in the yard, the door is guarded by a coyote skull, and the kitchen is stocked with frozen rattlesnakes.
Brent also owns the nearby Techatticup goldmine. He bought it with an eye to some prospecting, but finds a more regular income by taking sightseers down the shafts, and by telling them stories. One of his best yarns concerns a renegade Indian, called Queho. In 1910 Queho went on a psychotic killing spree, slaughtering a score of white settlers. Despite several posses and lynch-parties, Queho was never captured; in the summer of 1940 some locals found his mummified body in a cavern, surrounded by the possessions of his victims.
Standing at the foot of his mineshaft, Brent narrows his eyes. 'You can still find evidence of these murders lying around. And some that think Queho himself still patrols the old mineworkings.......' Brent grins. 'Hey. Want to see what it feels
like down here with all the lights out?'
From spooky Nelson it's at least three hundred miles southeast to another splendid ghost town: Two Guns, Arizona.
Two Guns started life as an outpost for Indian traders - men licensed by the Federal government to commerce with the tribes. Two Guns flourished when the great American highway, Route 66, was laid right through the town. For a while the town, and its sister city of Canyon Diablo, boasted gambling dens and wild saloons, and at least a dozen riotous cat-houses run by madams like Bullshit Mary and Clabberfoot Annie.
But then Route 66 was superseded by the Interstate, and the bordellos and taverns went bust. Now the town sits ignored and ruinous, slumped alongside the motorway like a homeless junkie on Oxford Street. Yet Two Guns is hugely evocative to walk around, with the wind echoing in the canyon, and the cactus taking over the old saloons, and a strange sign saying 'mountain lions'. Even the disused gas station has an air of quintessential Americana.
So far we have crossed Nevada and Arizona, and seen lots of famous and not-so-famous ghost towns. It's been a hoot. But what we haven't found is the Holy Grail of ghosttowners - a hitherto undiscovered, undocumented ghost town. For this we are going to get help from Corey Shuman, a man who runs a specialist ghosttowning tour company called Gold Rush Expeditions. Corey has heard rumours of an undocumented ghost town in the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah. And he says he will take us there.
He picks us up in Cedar City, where enormous Mormon polygamist women do their shopping in strange, old fashioned floral dresses. They look like Stepford Wives on steroids.
Climbing into Corey's 4WD we head off. After an hour or two, the roads narrow, the ranches thin out, and the endless wastes of the Great Salt Desert stretch before us. Some Mormons believe this expanse of nothingness was once a decadent city in itself, turned to salt by a wrathful God.
After checking his GPS navigator, Corey tells his own story. Over the last few years he's become fascinated by the legends of the old West, legends which run particularly rich in Utah. Corey nods at the jagged skyline: 'Some say there is treasure hidden in one of the silvermines around here. And I think they might be right. Otherwise why would the Mormons have settled in such a wasteland?' He still bears the scars of his underground expeditions to find this fabled loot.
A few minutes later the car falls silent. Now we are quite scarily off-road: twenty miles from the next living soul. As the Land Rover lights out for the wilds, Corey explains. 'I heard rumours about this particular place from Ghosttown Bob, one of the old-time experts. It should be somewhere around here...' For a long while, we search the hillsides, scattering deer and wild turkeys as we go. It's beginning to seem like we're out of luck. Too bad.
But then, just as the light starts to fail, we see something. Up ahead is a glittering valley, with a stream, and cottonwood trees, and hints of old mine workings. And yes, there at the back is a parade of crumbling wooden houses. Stepping out of the car, we start to explore the shacks. Their ancient plumbing, and burnt out windows, and mysterious old bullet holes in the walls, give them an air of intense and compelling loneliness.
'What's this place called?' I ask Corey. 'What the hell happened here?'
'I don't know.' He smiles. 'It's a ghost town.'
Posted by sean at 10:26 am