If there were ever a weekend to write about, this past one was it. The date was Saturday, March 3rd, 2007. My morning began with only five hours of sleep and the scent of Deanna’s perfume still lingering on my jacket. We’d gone to the First Friday Artwalk the previous night and the guys had come along too. We handed out the last batch of free DVD’s and saw the sights. After getting a bite to eat at Filiberto’s we headed for home. Dropping everyone off took a while and I made it to bed about 1:00am.
At 6:30am I was up again, packing for the trip. Did I remember everything? I had made a supply checklist and was checking it twice. Mom drove us to the rental car place and we took the keys to a “full size car” – a 2007 Ford Taurus SE. It wasn’t the luxury model I had in mind, but it was more comfortable and quiet than any car we own, so I still enjoyed it. We headed south on I-10 towards Tucson, hitting some slow traffic near the Airport. Once we got further out of town we were able to make up time.
Dad and I made it to the Ina road exit at about 9am and we picked up dad’s friend soon after. I’d never met him before but he sounded interesting. His name was Big John – I would later decide it was the perfect nickname for the guy. He was about dad’s age, but with a big gut, a big gray beard, a big pack of supplies, and a big voice. A hearing aide in each ear meant you had to talk as loud as he did. The tattoos on his forearms told a colorful story of his past in the Navy and his years as a biker. His survival pack had band aids, a flashlight, a signal mirror, a firestarter, sunscreen, and of course, his gun.
Big John has no steady income as he’s on disability from an injury. He makes his money as a freelance writer, and works his little claim in the Santa Rita mountains on the side. He showed me a fine quarter-ounce chunk of gold he’d found – “Just don’t hold on to it too long, I DO have my gun on me” he laughed. Such was his sense of humor: delightful but at the same time you know he’d have no problem pointing the business end of his pistol at you. Big John even says he was born 100 years too late.
We headed south of Tucson on I-10 and followed it to I-19. From there we exited the freeway and followed a two lane road to Arivaca. John sure liked to hear himself talk. He talked about gold, about his life, and about his embarrassing medical problems. “Yeah next week I’m gonna go in for a sleep apnea test. They’re gonna put diodes and a camera ‘n shit on me while I sleep. I hope I don’t scratch my ass or fart too loud or somethin, could be embarrassin.” Big John’s sailor mouth is just one of his many charms. “Hey at least it wasn’t as bad as when they had to remove some bumps off my ass.” An awkward silence followed. “Hey look over there, it’s the Dove of the Desert.”
The three of us were planning on visiting Ruby, a well preserved mining camp now on private land in Santa Cruz county. With Big John navigating the trip was much more interesting. “Swing a right when we get to the fork in the road with all the mailboxes” he said. When it came up we turned and followed the dirt road for a moment. “There!” he exclaimed. Alongside the road was a large cement tomb. The headstone read: John Poston 1830-1861, followed by a short rhyme depicting the nature of his death. It’s the kind of thing you’d never know about without a historian along.
The road continued to wind through the desert and we could see various old mining claims as Big John pointed them out. We cruised right through Arivaca as there were no services, and besides if the town were any sleepier it might slip into a coma. As we entered Santa Cruz County the pavement ended and the road became quite bumpy. We made it in the rental car with no bumps or scrapes, and I was impressed. With 1/4 tank of gas we pulled up to the main gate for Ruby. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday and it’s $12 a head so be prepared!
The caretaker was a bearded fellow, older but friendly. He was surprisingly tactful and well-read. The man gave us a map of the ghost town and a thorough lecture on the history of Ruby, from its humble beginnings to the grisly double murders, the first use of an airplane to hunt a fugitive in Arizona, and of course the mine itself. He told us about the hippies who had settled the camp in the sixties and the status as a historic place in the late eighties. He pointed out the sights and turned us loose for the whole day. “If you guys find any balls from the ball mill you’re welcome to keep them, they’re everywhere!” he mentioned.
We drove to the edge of camp and parked on the beach. A beach, in the middle of the desert? Well that’s what it looked like. The lake was once used in the refining process and still remains today, although the water has a funny color to it. Surrounding the lake is several acres of rock that had been processed so fine as to turn it into soft, pure white sand. I’ve never seen anything like it. After checking out the “beach” we drove up the hill to the Assay Office. The headframe for the mine was there, and the original vertical shaft was mostly covered. Peeking through the boards with my flashlight I saw a wooden ladder that extended into the darkness as deep as my imagination could go.
By this time the three of us were hungry and we broke for lunch. Big John was kind enough to pack us some sandwiches for the trip. He was obsessed with finding some steel balls and proceeded to look for them while dad and I explored the rest of the camp. We saw the three-room schoolhouse with its 12-foot tall metal slide, and the jailhouse with the hand-forged steel door. The Ruby Mercantile had an ice-making machine, one of the first in Arizona Territory. These things are not found at any other ghost towns the caretaker had ever seen. After finding a dozen or so steel balls down by the lake we headed off.
Dad and Big John had a lively conversation about growing up in the good ol days, and John told many tall tales of women he’d known, the characters of the Old West (including his favorite, Wyatt Earp). Big John loved Mr. Earp’s saying of “take your time in a hurry.” The road was winding and still unpaved as we completed the 30 mile loop to Nogales, passing through Pena Blanca and a few other places that weren’t even listed on my Rand McNally roadmap.
We stopped for gas in Nogales and it was pretty much like being in another world. The people, the signs and billboards, the cars, the stores and everything – all in Spanish. I could see the big gate that they had over the train tracks. It’s the closest I had ever been to Mexico, but we didn’t have time to step over for a visit. We had a room waiting for us in Tombstone and the sun wasn’t getting any higher at this point in the day. We saw lots of CBP cars on the way there, sometimes parked and sometimes flying by you at 100 mph. Big John was still talking about why he dropped out of high school, the jobs he’s had, and all the things women like and don’t like.
After getting our room we had dinner at the hotel restaurant. Big John ordered the biggest, most expensive dinner they had (a full rack of ribs) and was finished before we were. He was disappointed that the bar didn’t have any cognac or cigars. He talked about fishing for a long time before we turned in for the night. Big John never sleeps more than five hours a night and we were all in bed by about 9pm.
He rang our room at 5:30am and we started the next day of our adventure. “Come on guys, it’s daylight in Bisbee already!” he shouted. The sky was barely changing from black to blue and it wasn’t long before we were driving south towards Bisbee. The full moon hovered above the stillness of the desert landscape. It was like we were the only ones awake in the whole world. John rambled about how Tombstone is in jeapordy of losing its historical status because of too much commercialization and glamorization of the old west.
We made it to Bisbee in no time and the whole town was still asleep on Sunday morning. We took a scenic drive through Tombstone Canyon and saw all the older houses that were unique and very quaint. It looked like such a wonderful place to explore. Finally we stopped at the famous Copper Queen Hotel for breakfast. While we waited for the restaurant to open, we browsed through the Ghost Register that the front desk maintains. Guests who have seen or experienced unusual phenomena during their stay are encouraged to write about it in a logbook. I think we read through Volume 8. With so many volumes, the place has just gotta be haunted!
Big John flirted with the waitress a lot and explained how flirting is healthy. “It’s okay to look at the menu as long as you don’t order” he said matter-of-factly. He proceeded to tell me how to treat a woman, what they like and don’t like, and things you should never let them do. Despite being a disgusting old bastard, he still thinks every woman in the world wants to sleep with him. Big John is simply larger than life.
After breakfast we headed down the street to the Queen Mine. We purchased tickets for the first tour at 9am. The fireplace in the lobby warmed us up as we waited for the tour group to assemble. The temperature in the mine stays at about 50*F year round. The tour guide dressed us in raincoats, heavy duty belts with battery operated headlamps, and hard hats. About 20 people boarded the train and we disappeared into the earth. The train moved more slowly than I had imagined. It’s kind of like the slow, calming ascent of a roller coaster, where you feel the thrill of the unknown and you know something exciting is waiting ahead on the tracks.
About 700 feet inside the mine the train slowed to a stop. The tour group gathered in a semicircle and we listened to some information from the guide. Following him up a set of stairs (which were clearly built for tours) we arrived in a massive room, or stope. The flashlight I had brought in my pocket was significantly brighter than the small lights we were issued, and it was handy for exploring the far away corners of the room. Piling back on the train we went deeper still into the mine.
At 1500 feet we stopped and walked down a tunnel to observe some early drilling equipment. The train was turned around and waiting for us when we came back. The tour guide was well informed and the group learned about the elevator signal system, how holes were drilled, and what you did when you had to go to the bathroom in the mine. Heading back to the surface took only a few minutes and it was once again sunny and windy.
A short drive south of the Queen Mine was the Lavender Pit, a gigantic mining operation that was worth more than a few photos. The baffling size of the hole was unreal. Heading into the more recent part of Bisbee we visited the pint-sized skate park across from city hall. Nobody was there on Sunday morning so we didn’t stay long.
I slept from Bisbee to about I-10, which took most of the morning. We took a twenty minute detour near Benson to look at some land Big John had purchased. It looked identical to the land alongside the Interstate and we really didn’t need to drive all that way to see it.
We parted ways with Big John at his place in Tucson after some zigzag driving through downtown. The rental car was due back in Phoenix at 4pm and we made it with twenty minutes to spare. And that my friends is the long version of our weekend adventure to southern Arizona.