Tag Archives: Gleeson

Small town Arizona

I wonder sometimes how I would see small town Arizona if I had never left. I wonder how I would see it if I hadn’t been raised here, and to be honest, I wonder quite how I see it now coming home once a year or so to explore a little more.

The desert and places like the Chiricahuas hold my heart and fill it deep.

The rest though … it sometimes strikes me the boom and bust of mining towns set human footholds all over the place that ranching and other kinds of work can barely fill, and all this space has left a lot of room for batshit crazy.

Much of which I love, don’t get me wrong.

The Singing Winds bookstore exemplifies the awesome — North from Benson and the I-10 on Ocotillo, we wondered if we were going to the wrong middle of nowhere until we came to Singing Wind Road, and then we passed this:



We still got it a little wrong, but finally came to the amazing store itself in this old ranch house:


As it says, it has an amazing selection of Southwestern books, and Winn’s tour showed us section by section, shelf by shelf just what was to be found. We bought W.E.B. Du Bois’ tome on Reconstruction, the collected short fiction of Charles Chesnutt, Borders from Pat Mora, Lalo Guerrero’s autobiography, a beautifully illustrated pamphlet on the history of Pearce, and another in Spanish containing a study of the differences in practices for Dia de los Muertos on either side of the border in Nogales.

We staggered out under the weight of them all, and drove back down to Benson. Here’s the bullet riddled post box key to the directions, yet still we missed it on the way in.


Off to find food much needed food in an old cafe of the kind I also love most dearly:


The inside is filled with paintings by Vern Park, including this celebrations of the Butterfield Stage (originally found I can’t remember where and its plaster removed to find a home here).


This was pretty amazing too. There is definitely a lot of room for paintings of all kinds out here.



I had had some early pretensions of following along the old stage route from San Simon at the New Mexico border this trip, but the sheer number of miles changed my mind by the time we hit Dragoon.  So instead we just headed out towards Bowie, unlike Benson, small town Arizona that seems to be barely clinging to life:




The next day we left the Chiricahuas and headed back west towards home. We stopped to eat at Sunizona, less of a town and more of a strange strip of RV parks and stores where the 181 meets the 191.


Friendly, they sure were friendly. Everyone knew everyone, most folks were older if not elderly, even the hunters in updated camouflage — three men and a woman. Open carry laws in evidence, a sign with crossed pistols saying no one would be calling 911 in that restaurant. A ease with violence that tied in too closely to Fort Bowie, to the whole history of this place. I confess we were glad to leave that place.

While towns like Bowie seemed to be in the process of dying away, the ghost town of Gleeson seems in the process of reviving. A bit. They’ve paved the damn road to Tombstone, that I don’t understand either. But it was cool to stop at the restored prison, eavesdrop a bit on the guy who has collected everything here and whose family roots go deep in that town.


A fascinating set of old pictures and articles and unanswered questions that line the walls inside, Italian families alongside Mexican — made me wonder if perhaps the history here was a bit different than the segregation of Clifton or Morenci:


Climbing the little knoll above it you get views across what is left of this old town, and the mines that first brought it to life in the side of the hill:


to the ruins of the old school:


And looking out to the Northwest:


The cemetery was newly mowed and cleared, very different from when I was last here six years ago. We didn’t stop again, I still get chills remembering the last visit.


Instead we continued on to Tombstone. It feels completely different now there is no longer a dirt road, this is what the old approach felt like, and a fine dirt road it was — but even paved it’s still a good way to get a better sense of Tombstone and how it sits in its surroundings.

Driving into Tombstone from Gleeson

It was getting late, so we drove home without stopping — I’ve no pictures of Tombstone or Sonoita, nor the ICE checkpoints and radar and the agents who looked only at our skin colour and just waved us on.

Truth is, batshit crazy isn’t so comfortable when it comes with forts built to hold and kill Apache tribes now almost entirely erased from the area, old men wearing semi-automatics on their hips, tales of mining town greed and violence based on the destruction of the land, and the heavily armed border patrol with their drones and radar in a landscape full of people dying as they attempt to escape poverty and violence in their own country. I hate how militarised everything feels and the fear and anti-immigrant sentiment it’s all based on. Hate it.

The next day we were back in Benson for lunch on our way to Kartchner Caverns — delicious Mexican food in a tiny restaurant I loved.


I love this conflicted place after all.

It seems my dad briefly had thoughts of moving us all to Greaterville, so I was a hairsbreadth from knowing all too well what it’s like to grow up in a ghost town. A turning point in my life I didn’t even know about.

They don’t have a library in Greaterville.

I might not have been writing this at all.


Mining Towns: Zombies, Cadavers & Ghosts

Miami is one of the luckier ones. It managed a couple of main streets built in solid brick and concrete that still retain some charm, a memory of days of compact development before cars, of mixed business and living spaces before planners decided to segregate them:

Miami, AZ

Down the side streets and up into the hills people built their own homes as they wanted to: anarchy of a special southwestern kind. Some are the cheapest boxes imaginable made of anything people could find, and some of them are awesome (but mostly only close up).

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Mining towns hoped for great things (and Miami did produce Jack Elam):

Miami, AZ

But their false facades and decay reflect the ways that most of the wealth extracted from the ground with sweat and blood went elsewhere, as well as the ways that the companies profiting from them have abandoned them to their fate. Of course, Phelps Dodge still operates on a limited basis here — perhaps that is what holds the 2,000 or so people.

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Miami, AZ

Along the main street were familiar banners, attempts at branding, but rather than art exhibits or museums, they reference a wash named for a massacre of Apaches.

I don’t understand these banners.

One story is that the Indians were invited to a parley by King Woolsey and killed once they had sat down. All the stories agree that the Bloody Tanks wash ran red with Apache blood. The greed for mineral wealth drove wars and the reservation system, so whites could mine metal, build towns like this, and then mostly abandon them.

So many were abandoned. In Blue Bird there’s only one or two old wood buildings left, Copper Creek has a broken sign signaling its previous existence, a lot of concrete foundations, an old stone ruin of a stagecoach post. Hundreds of similar fragments remain scattered across the state, towns that boomed and then died. These are the ghosts of towns, sitting on land full of so many other ghosts.

Others struggle on half alive. Clifton is one that I find quite beautiful:

Clifton Chase Creek St

Clifton Chase Creek St Facade

Clifton Chase Creek St

It’s close to Morenci’s still operating pit — a pit that has already swallowed one town and the local Mexican cemetery (segregated cemeteries…this area has a terrible history of racism, but also an awesome, if tragic, one of unionisation and miner’s strikes). Morenci itself is entirely company housing that can only be occupied by those working for Freeport-McMoRan, and when the company goes, they will probably take the town with them. Another common pattern, with buildings constantly picked up and moved as the ore ran out.

Beyond the handful of hopeful, solid buildings in the small town centres, mining towns mark an architecture of extraction and impermanence. Everything is expendable. Resources are there to take and move on, and land, place home…they are not to be loved.

For example, this is all that is left of Pearse (more facades, we are a state of facades):

Pearse Soto Bros General Store

Gleeson has a few ramshackle buildings and a sign encapsulating history:

Gleeson Welcome Sign

Gleeson Cemetary

What is left of Courtland:

Courtland Ruin

The old Vulture Mine, the richest goldmine in Arizona, and possibly the reason Phoenix now exists, to supply it in more hospitable conditions.  There’s a tree still stands in the centre where at least 18 men were hanged for trying to steal some of the gold they were mining. It is a terrible, lonely place. The desolation that fills you here tells you better than anything what much of the legacy of mining has been in this state:



Terrible in a different way is Tombstone, which offers another legacy through its reconstruction of self around myth (much like the Lost Dutchman franchise), and various crazy inventions of the Earps, Doc Holiday and the OK Corral, sordid history packaged and romanticised:

Tombstone - Allen St.

Still, for the towns still standing and struggling, I find them in form ultimately both more sustainable and liveable than the sprawl of Phoenix or Tucson — though both of those towns contain something of a historic core. Tucson mostly destroyed the beautiful old barrio viejo, of course, though it now frantically tries to restore/rebuild/reclaim that history and the historical post-conquest buildings given the profit now found in such historical things.

Arizona’s never had much in the way of jobs though, apart from limited agriculture and mining. Florence tried another route — the site of the old courthouse and prison, a POW camp in WWII (they kept the Germans and Italians busy picking cotton, yes, cotton) and now nine prisons. Nine. Fucking. Prisons. Despite a population of around 17,000, and all of the jobs generated by the horror of nine prisons, it can’t be said its main historic street looks much better than any other small Arizona town.

Florence, AZ

Its population undoubtedly mostly live in the tract homes and use the strip malls surrounding this place, but to me those represent a kind of hell that rightly should be included here, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Previous Architecture in the Desert posts:
Before ‘Architects’ | Arcosanti | Taliesin West


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