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Ghost Towns and Wide Open Spaces
When we arrived last night at the Calico Ghost Town camping area, the surrounding darkness had hidden the landscape around us. This morning, Genevieve and Sebastian were thrilled to find a giant hill right outside our door. The hill called, “Come climb me!”, in a voice so strong that the kids were out the door at lightning speed.
The town of Calico was founded in 1881when silver mines were discovered in the surrounding hills. By 1887, the town reached its peak population of 1200 residents, with a current population of 9 people. Over time, the local mines produced $86,000,000 in silver. After the fall of silver prices in the early 1900’s the town’s population declined drastically. Walter Knott, of Knott’s Berry Farm, purchased the town in 1950, and set about restoring and rebuilding the structures on their original sites. A sign near the entrance declared that the town was dedicated to “the memory of the heroic silver miners who lived and toiled here.”
I had found this town while doing research on the Internet and didn’t quite know what to expect—we have learned that the reality of a place doesn’t always live up to the flamboyant written descriptions of it. In this case, however, we were all surprised at how wonderful the town was—there were a lot of things to see, and the presentation of buildings and exhibits wasn’t “cheesy” (although there were definitely some humorous elements).
Here I am with Genevieve near the town entrance:
The Indian trading post:
The fire station:
Genevieve pretended to drive a stagecoach:
Genevieve and Sebastian put their faces on top of all of the character boards. Here is one example:
Then Genevieve insisted on taking a photo of Ben and I:
This cowboy was standing around, posing for photos—he was a man of few words:
The children gravitated toward the old ruins like fireflies to a light. What is more fun than finding a good hiding spot?
Rub a dub dub in the Chinese laundry tub.
We learned that at its peak, the town had about 40 Chinese people living and working here.
A small train made a loop around the mining area.
Of course, we had to buy tickets and take a ride! The kids immediately chose the caboose—asking if they could have the space all to themselves.
As Ben and I settled into the small train car in front of the caboose, I listened to the voices around us. Behind the engine were a woman and young girl, conversing in Spanish. In the next car was a family, speaking Italian. Walking towards us was a couple talking in Dutch. I laughingly told Ben that we were in an international “hot spot.”
The Dutch couple joined us in our car. The woman then asked us (in English) where we were from. When we answered “Santa Cruz” (the nearest big town to our home), she responded, “So are we!” The couple was Froukje Brouwer and Robert Jan/Shariff. Froukje has worked at the University of California in Santa Cruz for the past 6 years, and they live not too far from us. What a surprise!
Both Froukje and Robert are avid photographers, and they started the Digital Photography Society of Santa Cruz (www.meetup.com/DPSocSC). Robert graciously invited Ben to join the group (Ben does a lot of figure drawings and also enjoys photography).
Here is Froukje:
We chugged our way past several old homes, built of rocks and mud:
Through the tunnel:
These white rocks marked the site where ore was first discovered by the Euro-Americans:
We passed a “real ore car”:
The tunnel entrance for the ore car was very tiny.
Working in such small spaces every day must have been physically (and emotionally) challenging.
This huge pile of dirt holds about $6 million of silver:
However, it remains untouched because the processing cost to extract the silver would be about $10 million.
We ended the train ride by crossing over a renovated train bridge:
After our train ride, we walked to some of the old buildings that were built against the hillsides.
The children are very good about picking up garbage and leaving places cleaner than they found them. Here, Genevieve shows us some garbage that she is removing from one of the old houses:
If there are small spaces, our children must climb into them.
The setting definitely sparked the kids’ imaginations. Here is Sebastian, engrossed in telling me one of his creative ideas:
We climbed to the lookout point above the town:
A replica of the little schoolhouse was across a wood-plank bridge.
Genevieve, on the bridge:
The original schoolhouse had been built on the same spot in 1885. The replica was built in the 1950’s, and is only two-thirds the size of the original. The school records indicate that about 30 children would be enrolled each year, but daily attendance was only about half that amount. Most of the children were from merchant families, as the miners generally did not have their families with them.
Genevieve and Sebastian decided to do some role-reversal:
We found these men chatting over coffee inside a shop:
Sebastian was excited to note that the men were using the same type of cups that we have in the RV!
Thank goodness we won’t be needing a coffin anytime soon—Sebastian still has a lot of growing to do:
We took a walking, self-guided tour of the Maggie Mine:
The entrance room had various exhibits with information about Calico town and Maggie Mine. The mine had been purchased in 1916 by John Mulcahy, who worked in the mine for 15 years with his brother Maurice.
Inside the first tunnel was a display of rocks.
When the lights were turned out, some of the minerals glowed brightly:
Genevieve, who loves geology, was fascinated by the sparkling ore (and the rest of us were too!).
Genevieve and Sebastian led the way down the tunnel shaft:
A “miner” was drilling into the rock wall:
There was an area known as “Deadman’s Drift” because the tunnel was unsupported by wooden beams:
The Mulcahy brothers were chillin’ out in a (very dusty) small bedroom area:
This spot was known as the “Glory Hole”, which produced $65,000 in silver between 1882 and 1886.
The Glory Hole was discovered after a boy found a rock with silver in it on the ground above. To excavate the Glory Hole, the miners dug through to Maggie’s Mine and used the existing tunnels.
Genevieve and Sebastian, exiting the mine:
The drama king and queen, in jail:
We were all intrigued by the Bottle House:
It was built in the 1950’s by the workers of Walter Knott, after he purchased Calico town. They used 5,419 bottles. No one knows for certain whether the old town actually had a house made of bottles. However, the miners were very resourceful about making homes from the materials that were available. Wood was scarce, and there would have been plenty of bottles.
Details of the Bottle House:
Walking back to the campground, we saw a line of jeeps crawling along the ridge of a nearby hill:
The land around here has a number of routes that are very popular with off-road vehicles.
We headed out to connect up with Route 66 once again. We were all happy that we had made a diversion to explore Calico Ghost Town.
At the town of Daggett, we learned that a bridge on Route 66 was out, so we needed to take a detour for a short time.
With a high number of boarded-up houses and closed businesses, Daggett looked as if it had fallen on some hard times.
Trains and the desert seem to go hand in hand:
We soon caught the glimmers from a solar thermal electric generating facility operated by Sunray Solar Energy.
This portion of Route 66 followed the railroad tracks. The soft muted tones of the desert stretched out beside us.
A loud train whistle caught our attention. We looked over and saw that we were running neck and neck with a train! The engineer blew his horn again, and we all waved like crazy (laughing and carrying on like silly ninnies who had never seen a train before).
Throughout the day, we passed many buildings that were for sale—here is one example:
Soon we came to Newberry Springs, which was the site where one of my all-time favorite movies was filmed—Bagdad Café. The movie is a quiet charmer. To me, it speaks of the tidal wave of positive transformation that can result from small ripples of action and changed perspective. The setting is a café and motel in a remote part of the Mojave desert. While there was once an actual town named “Bagdad,” the movie was filmed at a café and motel in Newberry Springs.
My guidebook said that the restaurant had changed its name from “Sidewinder” to “Bagdad Café” after the movie was filmed, and that the dilapidated motel was behind the restaurant. Both were supposed to be “in Newberry Springs.”
We entered Newberry Springs full of anticipation.
Here was the market:
And there was a bar called “the Barn.”
A handful of smaller buildings rounded out the town. That was it.
Where was Bagdad Café?
We cruised on past, thinking that we would find it soon. When we reached this abandoned gas station, I had Ben turn the RV around and go back, just in case we had blinked and missed it.
A second look at Newberry Springs did not reveal anything new.
We continued onward. A few miles down the road, we saw a “Motel” sign and a small building with some cars out front. This was it!
Some dirt bikers were enjoying a meal inside.
This trailer was in the back of the parking lot:
The famous motel:
It was for sale.
While Genevieve and I went to explore the motel, Sebastian enticed Ben to lift him high in the air—again and again.
Genevieve and I checked out one of the motel rooms:
This house was on the other side of the café:
After our eyes had soaked everything in, we piled back into the RV and headed down the road.
The old Dry Creek Station was once called Whiting Brothers gas station. It had some old gas pumps out front, with a long chain link fence to deter visitors.
A shop by the side of the road advertised “rocks,” “stuff,” “junk” and “uniquities.”
I was continually drawn to the old houses, many of which were uninhabited:
A tire sculpture?
All that was left of the “real” town of Bagdad were some foundation remnants and a small tree:
The road grew bumpy, and up ahead we could see black rolling lava fields on either side of the road.
The Mojave Desert has a number of cinder cones, lava fields and lava tubes from volcanic activity. Cinder cones are produced by short-lived eruptions, usually a one-time occurrence, that creates a small hill. The lava fields near this portion of Route 66 were from the eruption of the nearby Pisgah Volcano (sometimes called the Pisgah Crater).
The black lava rock contrasted sharply with the soft browns of the desert.
At times, Route 66 was just a stone's throw from Interstate 40, the super-highway that had replaced Route 66 and bypassed all of the towns along the way.
Another cinder cone:
In the distance, we could see one of the most famous cinder cones in this area—Amboy Crater.
Amboy Crater was once a large attraction along Route 66. The number of visitors plummeted drastically after Interstate 40 was built. The Crater is 250 feet high and has a trail that climbs to the top. In 1973, the United States designated Amboy Crater as a National Natural Landmark.
We didn’t see any Route 66 signs on posts in the desert—all of the signs were painted on the road.
We figured that a physical sign out here wouldn’t last too long before it found itself in the trunk of a souvenir hound.
Entering the “town” of Amboy.
On our right was an old church and the post office:
On our left was Roy’s, a famous Route 66 landmark.
Roy’s opened in 1938, and it offered the only food, gas and lodging for miles around during the heyday of Route 66. In 1972, however, the town lost almost all of its customers when Interstate 40 bypassed Amboy to the north. The buildings were recently purchased by a new owner, who renovated and reopened the gas station in 2008. The café and motel are still closed.
The sloped roof on the motel is an example of “Googie” futuristic architecture.
Every Route 66 guidebook or Internet site that I looked at said that Roy’s was a “must see” spot. When we pulled up, another RV was parked in front of the motel, with people taking pictures.
Leaving Amboy, we could see a single tree in the distance—it was the “Shoe Tree.”
As we pulled over to take a closer look, Ben noticed a man bicycling backwards coming in our direction.
He stopped before he reached us, and started walking his bike forwards. I asked for a photo, and he was happy to give a wave:
His name is Curan Wright, and he is a homeless man living with HIV. In 2007, he started bicycling across the U.S. backwards from Los Angeles to raise awareness for HIV, the homeless, and medical marijuana. He also has a fervent belief that God is angry and that the world is coming to an end soon--he is very passionate about spreading that message. His bike has a sign that reads: “Jesus is Coming – Look Busy.”
The Shoe Tree was in very sad shape. A huge branch, covered in shoes, had been torn from the tree and was lying on the ground. Other branches appeared to be broken, and dangled to the ground.
People had left graffiti all over the bark of the tree.
On one hand, people might think that the shoes in the tree branches were colorful and gave off a festive air:
However, in their efforts to “have fun” and leave their mark, people were destroying this beautiful tamarisk tree.
As we continued onward, the moon began emerging:
On the sides of the road, people had arranged rocks to spell out messages. Sometimes they had painted the rocks to make their message stand out.
The hills were so beautiful with their soft brown stripes:
Up ahead was the old Roadrunner’s Retreat Café and Station, which used to provide a bit of sanctuary for travelers crossing the Mojave Desert.
Against the hillside, someone had built a private paradise for themselves:
Cadiz Summit once contained a small tourist complex, with a café, gas station, garage and some cabins for rent. Interstate 40 had diverted essentially all of the traffic that used to creep over the mountain range, and stop for a spell at the top. Now, all that is left are a few remnants, covered in layers of painted graffiti:
The barren chocolate hills reminded me of the Andes Mountains in Peru:
We caught up to a long train and were surprised to discover that it was the same train that had whistled at us earlier today before Newberry Springs.
I wondered if the engineer remembered us, and I waved a big hello when we passed the front engines. (We did not get a whistle in return.)
In the town of Goffs (population 23), we stopped to admire the restored schoolhouse, which was built in 1914. It served the community until 1937 when Route 66 was diverted south and the number of schoolchildren here dwindled. It was restored in 1998 and is listed on the National History Register.
The sign leading into the schoolyard:
Around the school were various sculptures and other interesting items:
This small building looked out at the world with vacant eyes.
The setting sun turned the distant mountains to a dusty pink.
The sky was black when we reached our final destination today—a campground in Needles, California.
The campground had a painted map of Route 66.
We had started out this morning not too far from Barstow, and were now near the California border. Tomorrow we would cross into Arizona.
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