Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ghost (Literally??) Town Of Goldfield, Nevada

Goldfield, Nevada lies on Highway 95 between Beatty and Tonopah, Nevada; it's about 40 miles south of Tonopah. Technically, it's not a "pure" ghost town because there are still a few residents and it is the county seat of Esmeralda County, Nevada. However, there is no grocery store and the only gasoline station was boarded-up and closed when I last visited in 2003. A small visitor's center staffed by volunteers is sometimes open and sells soft drinks, and there is a bar that is open at various times. There are also a couple of antique stores, but otherwise no services are available to visitors. Goldfield is at an elevation of 5689 feet and it gets cold there in winter; during an April, 2003 visit I got caught in a brief snowstorm.

Goldfield sprang to life in 1902 with the discovery of large gold deposits in the area; it quickly became the largest producer of gold in the United States. By 1906, Goldfield had a population of over 30,000 and was the largest city in Nevada. Because of its gold wealth, Goldfield soon had a central business district built from brick, granite, and other substantial materials. Many of these buildings still stand.

Wyatt and Virgil Earp arrived in Goldfield in 1904 from Tombstone, Arizona; Virgil became a deputy sheriff while Wyatt worked as a pit boss at a local casino. On Labor Day in 1906, Tex Rickard----a local mine owner who later managed Jack Dempsey----staged a fight for the world lightweight title between Joe Gans and Battling Nelson in Goldfield. The fight lasted for 42 rounds, with Gans winning before over 20,000 spectators, many of whom had traveled from San Francisco by train. The Goldfield Hotel opened in 1908 and at the time was the largest (and arguably finest) hotel between Denver and San Francisco; in that year, Theodore Roosevelt stayed there and gave a speech to a large crowd from its second floor balcony.

But production at Goldfield's mines began to drop in 1910 and by 1920 Goldfield's population had dropped to about 1000. In 1923, a large fire destroyed most of the wooden structures in town, and the last mines ceased operation around 1930. There was a brief revival during World War II due to the Army Air Force flight school in Tonopah-----the Goldfield Hotel was used to house trainees then-----but after the war the only "business" left was the Esmeralda County government. The population today is about 400, almost all of them county employees and their families.

The street scenes in Goldfield are striking, with several large, well-preserved, but utterly abandoned brick buildings still standing. They are impressive testimony to what a large, vital city it once was:

While the brick or stone structures of the buildings are still intact, the wooden doors, floors, windows, etc., are in a state of serious disrepair. As a result, almost all of the buildings are closed to visitors because of the possibility of injury. That's a shame, because I really wanted to poke around inside them, like the old high school below:

The side streets of Goldfield are filled with abandoned buildings, like the scene below. The sound of Esmeralda County deputy sheriffs' vehicles entering and leaving the courthouse are about the only signs of life on a weekday afternoon:

Many people who live in isolated areas of the American Southwest seem to have quirky artistic sensibilities, and the good people of Goldfield are no exception. Below is a bit of "street art" I photographed. Mobile homes, like the one in the background, are apparently the housing mode of choice for contemporary Goldfieldians:

The most prominent remaining structure in Goldfield is the Goldfield Hotel; the front is shown below. As you drive toward Goldfield on Highway 95, this hotel is the first structure you see looming in the distance:

I was inspired to write about Goldfield today because of a program I saw on the SciFi Channel last night titled Ghost Hunters. You see, the Goldfield Hotel is supposedly on the most haunted places in the United States. (Heck, it even terrifies dogs.)

I have stopped in Goldfield about six times, and each time I have stopped by the Goldfield Hotel. It is a delightful structure, and I have enjoyed looking through the windows at the marvelous carved woodwork, the ancient wallpaper, the grand old Otis elevator in the lobby, the sprawling dining room with its elaborate lighting fixtures, etc.. . . . . . . . but I am sad to say I have never seen anything resembling an apparition. Nor have I seen floating glowing balls of lights, heard ghostly voices, or otherwise encountered anything that wasn't everyday and mundane. Maybe I should've tried visiting at night. Back in 2001, the then-owners of the Goldfield Hotel were offering all-night tours on Halloween for $25 a person. I couldn't work that out with my schedule, and now I wish I had.

I wasn't convinced by the evidence presented on Ghost Hunters last night, but I'll let you be the judge of whether the hotel is haunted. What I am sure of, however, is that Goldfield is a fascinating ghost town that's well worth the trip from Las Vegas or Reno.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Corrosive Impact Of 1950s Comic Books

Okay, I should be grateful for comic books from the 1950s. Thanks to them, I could read long before I started the first grade, and my desire to create my own comic books no doubt was the seed from which my writing, editing, and publishing career sprang.

But for decades I've been carrying around a lot of answered questions from those 1950s comic books, and I finally must unburden myself.

Take this comic, for example. It's Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen:

Suppose you're Superman. Would you really want to hang around some little schlub like Jimmy Olsen, fer crissakes?? I mean, I could understand a comic like Superman's Pal Frank Sinatra or Superman's Pal Howard Hughes, but even at the tender age of five I knew, knew at the very core of my being, that "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen" was a ridiculous concept. But improbable friendships with no apparent basis were rife in popular culture during the 1950s; what, exactly, were the commonalities that bonded Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz on the I Love Lucy television series?

Jimmy Olsen was not the only reason why I suspected that "super astuteness" was not one of Superman's powers. Further confirmation was supplied by Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane:

This concept seemed even less authentic than Superman's alleged friendship with Jimmy Olsen-----Superman was supposed to have the hots for frumpy, dumpy Lois Lane?? Something like Superman's Girl Friend Bettie Page would've made sense, but I just couldn't accept the notion of Superman being enamored of someone who looked like a spinster librarian. Maybe Superman didn't really like girls, but they had to keep that well-hidden in the 1950s, so they paired him up with the safely chaste Lois. Well, at least that's plausible. . . . .

Even kids know when you think they're stupid, and I knew I was being called stupid by the following Green Arrow comic. "Human balloons" armed with "pneumatic guns"??? If I had been Green Arrow (or Speedy), I don't think my first reaction upon seeing them would've been to fire off some rope arrows; instead, I think I would have peed in my pants from laughing at them:

Come to think of it, most of the villains in 1950s weren't very threatening. Perhaps the publishers felt kids couldn't handle truly scary characters and made the bad guys silly as a consequence. Whatever the reason, many villains were like Duplicate Man below. Instead of being menacing, he was just simultaneously goofy and annoying, much like MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews:

The Baby Boomers have often been described as the most inherently distrustful, suspicious, and often paranoid generation in American history. But, in our defense, I must ask you to consider the above examples of the mendacity we were fed in our formative years. Is it any wonder we turned out like we did?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Ghost Town(?) Of Coaldale, Nevada

Highway 95 runs north to south along the western side of Nevada and is the only road between Reno and Las Vegas. Route 6 is a historic pre-interstate highway running from the tip of Cape Cod to Bishop, California, in the High Sierras. Below is a photo I took of its western terminus at Bishop:

Highway 95 and Route 6 intersect in Nevada at a point about 30 miles west of Tonopah. About a mile before the intersection is the site of Coaldale (also known as Coaldale Junction). As far as ghost towns go, it's clearly of recent vintage and it's also very mysterious. It was obviously a functioning "town" until a few years ago. But now everybody is gone.

The main structure left in Coaldale is a combination gasoline station and restaurant, as you can see below:

I went inside the restaurant and was surprised to see quite a few items-----cooking ranges and ovens, a vacuum cleaner, even a credit card reader-----still in there. There was a lot of broken glass scattered around, but there seemed to be enough to make it worthwhile for a scavenger with a pickup truck to spend an afternoon poking through what's left:

Adjacent to the gas station/restaurant is the remains of a motel. Looking inside the buildings below, I saw small rooms with bathrooms and bed frames; one even had a junky looking mattress. Any carpeting had been removed, leaving only concrete slab floors:

I'm guessing the dwellings below were for employees of the gas station, restaurant, and motel since there are no towns or other places for workers to live within reasonable driving distance (Tonopah would be closest). All of the below were empty, although the window-mounted air conditioning units remain:

The houses below were more substantial, each having three bedrooms and two baths. I'm not sure who these were for-----did entire families work at the gas station, restaurant, and motel? I can't imagine them being rental units for travelers, for Coaldale is definitely a place you pass through and not a destination in itself:

I am not sure of the purpose of the building below. It looks like a house for a very large family, but I suppose it could also have been a store or shop of some type. Unfortunately the windows had been boarded over and I couldn't see inside. That was a puzzler; the other building at Coaldale had open windows and doors and were unlocked; why did someone go to the trouble of securing this building and not the others?

Visiting Coaldale reminded me of one of those 1950s science fiction movies (or an episode of The Twilight Zone) in which an isolated desert town has been attacked by radioactive giant ants and everyone is missing; I felt like the professor in the skinny black tie in those movies who surveys the scene and says, "It can't be! It's not possible! But. . . . . . but. . . . . . . there's only one thing that could've caused this!!" Okay, I'm not saying radioactive giant ants wiped out Coaldale. But something sure caused everyone to get out of town quickly. What was it? I took these photos back in 2002 and haven't been back since. I'd love to hear from anyone with more recent information about this place.

The Ghost Town Of Providence, California

The site of Providence, California is located in the Mojave Desert just south of Mitchell Caverns State Park and north of the small town of Essex on Interstate 40 and the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. It is reached by a very sandy dirt road and, IMO, requires a 4WD vehicle----at least I had to engage the 4WD on my Toyota 4Runner to avoid getting stuck on my way to and from the site. The sandy road eventually ends and then you get to hike about a mile to the site. Precise directions can be obtained from the rangers at Mitchell Caverns State Park or from a Bureau of Land Management office. Getting to Providence is not easy but it's worth the effort.

Providence came into being in 1880 with the discovery of a rich vein of silver in the area. By 1882, a post office had opened and over a billion dollars of silver (at today's prices) had been mined in the area. But production began to slump dramatically in 1885 and mining operations, and the post office, closed in 1892. Providence was abandoned soon thereafter. Since then there have been scattered attempts to revive mining operations, especially around 1980 when silver prices hit $50 an ounce, but all were unsuccessful.

As you reach the site of Providence, you first see the ruins of the mining operations:

There is something magnificent in Providence's isolation and the bleakness of its surrounding terrain. I visited late on an early January day, and the low angle of the sun, coupled with the dramatic background of the Providence Mountains, accentuated the drama of the ruins:

This was a curious little structure. It wasn't high enough to allow me to stand upright inside and was too small to be much of a storage area. It had a bench for sitting, but wasn't an outhouse or other toilet. What wasit? Your guess is as good as mine:

Providence was constructed from locally available stone, and as a result many of the stone walls are still standing. Alas, the wooden roofs are long gone:

This is the stone foundation-----complete steps leading to nowhere-----of what must have been an impressive building. However, I'm puzzled by the absence of any vertical walls, and this leads me to suspect the sides were probably wood instead of stone. But why was this building constructed so differently from the others in Providence? I searched for a cornerstone or other evidence of the building's identity or purpose, and came up empty. I guess the desert will keep this secret forever:

Providence was built to last, and its stone structures have survived better than most other ghost towns. There was nobody but me left there on that winter afternoon, and the wind roaring down from the Providence Mountains chilled me to the bone. Yet, it was almost as if I could've heard those echoes from the past if I only paused and listened intently enough. . . . .

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two Years Living With The Beast

Today marks two years as a cancer patient. Actually, it marks two years since the biopsy. I didn't get the "official" results until a few days later, but the look on the doctor's face after he performed the biopsy told me all I needed to know. Since then, I've had more operations, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy infusions than I care to recount here.

From a strictly scientific perspective, having cancer has been an interesting experience. The one thing I am convinced of is that cancer is largely genetic in origin, and no amount of prophylaxis-----eating lots of leafy green vegetables, exercising regularly, drinking a lot of fluids, etc.----is going to do you much good if you're carrying whatever genetic code that tells certain types of cells in your body to go apeshit at a particular point in your life. I'm further convinced that trying to find a cure for cancer is probably futile because to unlock the mystery of cancer will likely require us to unlock the mystery of life itself-----exactly why do some carbon molecules, but not others, start absorbing nutrients from their environment, grow in size and complexity, start replicating, and eventually develop awareness and intelligence sufficient to produce reality-based television programs? After all, cancer is nothing more than cellular mutation and growth gone amok. That's supposedly how we get new species of animals, so why I am not evolving into some sort of superman? Why am I getting weaker instead of stronger?

No one knows. If I've learned anything, it's that cancer is a very "personalized" and idiosyncratic disease. There's no such thing as a typical case of cancer nor a typical cancer patient. Having cancer is like playing blackjack with the dealer dealing from a four-deck "shoe"; it's all a matter of luck and there's really nothing you can to do to affect the outcome. Winning or losing is a lucky guess.

The hardest part of cancer is the guilt I feel. I often feel like I have done something terribly wrong by getting sick and am letting people down. The next hardest part is adjusting to the "new normal" of having cancer. When I went into the hospital on August 1, 2006 to have the original colorectal cancer removed, I told myself that I would celebrate on August 1, 2007 by climbing El Capitan, the highest mountain in Texas. It took me time to realize that I would never climb another mountain, never again go on a 10+ mile day hike, and never again have the strength to stack bales of hay six-high. I had always been proud of my body strength and endurance, and to suddenly find myself so "old" was a shock. I like to think I have adjusted, but there are times when my body feels like a prison cell. My spirit, my heart, still wants to do things like climb mountains and lift weights, but I can't. I feel trapped by my weakened body, and that feeling will probably get worse as I weaken. Cancer has also put my Di through some terrible stress and pressure, especially since she had a younger sister die from bone cancer. A lot of painful memories are being dredged up in her.

I have received incredible love and support from my family and most of my friends. A few friends have been quizzical in relating to me since I got cancer, like by never mentioning or discussing the disease with me. I don't take offense, since I suspect their behavior is motivated by their own fear of cancer and mortality. The fact that I got it relatively young obviously bothers some people in my age group; couldn't I have at least waited until I was in my seventies, when you're supposed to die?? And a lot of people get uncomfortable when I talk about my impending death. Hey, I don't like that prospect either, but refusing to admit that is what is going to happen won't delay or stop the event. I'm not looking for pity when I want to talk about my death, but I don't want to act like it's a terrible secret I must keep deeply hidden. It's the refusal to acknowledge an unpleasant truth that gives such truths their terrible power.

I know cancer patients are supposed to be noble, but I'm not. I'm no more insightful, virtuous, wise, or good than I was before; I'm just sicker. I also know I'm supposed to be full of sublime wisdom that I have learned over the past two years, but here is all I have learned: cancer sucks. That's it.

But I'm still here two years later, and I'm going to try the play the hand I'm holding as long and as well as I can. I am really, really grateful to everyone who has sent an e-mail or made a phone call to see how I am doing. You have no idea how much those mean to me, and I appreciate them beyond words.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hiking Up To Kearsarge Pass, California

Kearsarge Pass isn't a mountain; instead, it's the easiest way to cross from the eastern face of the Sierras into Kings Canyon National Park. And while it's not a mountain climb, it lies at 11,811 feet-----taller than any point in Oregon, for example, or east of the Mississippi-----and makes a terrific Alpine experience. It's just like a mountain climb but without sharp vertical drops!

Kearsarge Pass is reached via the Onion Valley trailhead west from Independence, CA. The road to Onion Valley is paved and provides spectacular views of the Sierras along the way, like the one below:

The trail begins at an elevation of 9192 feet and takes about 6.5 miles to reach Kearsarge Pass. At its start, the trail is lightly forested but the trees really thin out as elevation is gained. At least they offer shade at the start and you pass some beautiful mountain lakes as you ascend. Here's a view down toward Heart Lake from the trail. If you look carefully, you can see the shape that gives it its name:

Pothole Lake is at about 10,500 feet and is at timberline, the point where it's too high to sustain tree growth. The photo below looks back at Pothole Lake from the trail, and you can clearly see where the trees fade out and give way to jumbled chunks of granite. Yes, that's real snow even though I did this trail in the last week of July:

As you can guess from the photo above, the remainder of the trail involves carefully stepping over and around large rocks as you ascend a sloping plateau toward the pass. Along the way you are treated to spectacular views of mountains such as University Peak and Mount Brewer along with glacial moraines (bowl-shaped excavations created by glacier movement) on their sides. A little more huffing and puffing, and you top at out at 11,811 feet; here I am next to the marking sign. The mountain behind me is University Peak (13,632 feet):

That sign also marks the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park, and those few feet I walked past the other side of the sign mark my only visit to that particular national park (it has been deliberately kept relatively inaccessible except to foot or horse traffic). The trails continues over the pass and down into the park, where it joins the John Muir Trail at about 10,350 feet and descends to the canyon floor. At least Kings Canyon looks pretty from Kearsarge Pass:

From Kearsarge Pass you get a good view of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, a series of rocky spires along the ridge line from the pass to University Peak. As the photo below shows, the pinnacles are actually very unstable rock piles instead of the solid rock they seem from a distance. Needless to say, climbing any of these is a task only for experienced rock climbers with the right equipment:

Blogging about my mountain climbs has been difficult for me because I realize I will never climb again; I really loved roaming the Sierras and Cascades in summer and I hate to think I have lost that part of my life forever. But at least I charged up into those hills when I was able to and have a load of memories (and photos) to console me. Thinking about that, I have some advice to offer anyone reading this: tomorrow is not promised to you; if there is something you really want to do, do it today!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I'm Not Dead; I've Just Been Reading

I got an e-mail today wondering if I'm okay because I haven't been posting much recently. I'm fine-----really.

I have been busy, though. I'm trying to wrap up my latest book, and there are only so many words in me during a day. After cranking out 2000 words for my book, I'm done and don't feel like blogging. The NCAA basketball tournament has been going on for the past two weeks, and that glues me to the TV screen. And I've been reading. I've been on a streak of three terrific books in a row that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I'm going to recommend them to anyone reading this.

The first is Under the Banner of Heaven by one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer. This is a look at the murder of a woman and her infant daughter by two brothers, both Mormon fundamentalists, who believed they were ordered to kill them by God. But the book is far more than a murder story; instead, it looks at the origins of Mormonism, its problematic tenets such as polygamy and "blood atonement" (the concept that some sins are so hideous that only the killing of the "sinners"----such as the murdered woman and her infant daughter----can allow their sins to be forgiven by God), and the uncomfortable relationship between today's Mormon faith and its history. Not surprisingly, this book produced an outraged response from the Mormon church, which accused Krakauer of being a bigot, etc. The one thing they didn't accuse him of, however, was being wrong.

I'm amazed at how many people today think Mormonism is just another Protestant denomination on par with the Baptists, Methodists, etc., when in fact it is a very weirdass theology; if Woody Allen had decided to establish a religion, he would've come up with something like Mormonism. Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith, a convicted con artist (he claimed he could find buried treasure with "magic crystals") who in 1828 said an angel named Moroni led him to a buried set of gold plates on which was written, in a language he called "reformed Egyptian," an account of how one of the lost tribes of Israel managed to make it to North America-----that's right; Native Americans were all a bunch of Jews!----and were visited by Jesus Christ after his resurrection. Moroni gave Joseph Smith a pair of "interpretive spectacles" to translate the gold plates, which Moroni took back to heaven (along with the spectacles) as soon as Smith finished the translation. End of story; start of new religion.

Krakauer points out that Smith apparently based a lot of Mormon concepts on Islam-----Smith even compared himself to Muhammed at times-----and, like Islam, Mormonism is a religion suffused with overtones of violence toward unbelievers and dire punishment for apostates. Mormonism adds a new wrinkle, however, in its belief that anyone can receive revelations direct from God. As a result, Mormonism has an amazing number of splinter sects and "sub-churches" based on such revelations, and those sects have become havens for disturbed people with violent tendencies, such as a pair of brothers who are convinced God wants them to kill a couple of people. Krakauer does something virtually unheard of today, namely ignoring the "everyone has the right to worship in their own way" pablum we're supposed to feel, and instead takes a hard, critical look at the Mormon faith. He reaches an unambiguous conclusion: those people are not just nuts, they're dangerous.

But sometimes religious fanaticism is secular, as illustrated by Robert Kurson's Shadow Divers. This is the story of two divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, who discovered an unknown sunken World War II German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey in 1991. Despite repeated dives to the U-boat, it was not until 1997 that they were finally able to identify it----via a small tag found on a spare parts box in the boat's electric motor room----as the U-869, a boat whose routing orders were mis-transmitted, sending it to the coast of New Jersey instead of Gibraltar. It was apparently sunk by an explosion from one of its own torpedoes. The determination of Chatterton and Kohler to identify the mystery U-boat is supposed to be an inspiring story, but they struck me as more obsessed and demented than heroic. Three of their fellow divers are killed while diving the U-boat; both of them had their marriages fail as a result of the time and energy they put into solving the mystery. Yes, they achieved their goal, but was the end result worth what it cost them and others? Kurson clearly thinks so, but Chatterton and Kohler seem to me as creepy rather than heroic, both having more a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder than determination. We're supposed to feel for both men after their wives leave them, but I felt like shouting at the book, well, what the hell did you expect them to do?!?!

I enjoyed Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed The World, and his latest, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, is another treat. As with his previous book, Winchester seamlessly blends history, science, and culture into a compelling narrative. He moves from a history of the Krakatoa eruption to how it happened (a beautiful, lucid explanation of plate tectonics) and to its impact (such as a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia) without missing a beat; his prose is a joy to read, rich and full and without a wasted adverb in sight. Winchester points out Krakatoa was the first "global tragedy," as the telegraph allowed the whole world to become aware of it within hours after it happened. The scope of the event is mind-boggling even today; the explosion was so loud it was heard almost 3000 miles away (the British and French colonial officials may have been brutal, but they were meticulous recordkeepers, especially if they thought they were hearing the guns of distant enemy warships). There are a few things I quibble with-----contrary to Winchester's claim, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 wasn't the impetus for the settlement of California!!-----but they are minor and don't detract from the book's overall excellence.

All three are the sort of books that are hard to put down once you start reading them.