18 April 2010

The wild telegraph poles of Dry Lake Hills [UPDATED]

I spent much of my childhood walking around in the woods looking down at my feet... wandering in the forest that surrounded our one-room family cabin near Walker, Arizona, in the heart of the Bradshaw Mountains south of the town of Prescott... looking for stuff. 

The Bradshaws had been mining country back in the old-days, long before my time there, beginning in the 1860s. And the remains of hundreds of mining operations, deep shafts and dark adits, gigantic mountains of poisonous yellow tailings (some now successfully reclaimed), trackless rail-beds, winding narrow roads, and old abandoned homesteads and their correspondent piles of broken stoneware, glass, and rusting metal were all abundant features on the landscape near our cabin.  Our place itself was part of an historic mining claim, and subsequently, while we owned the deed to the land for some 40 years, we never did possess the actual mineral rights.

I brought a lot of stuff back from my early wandering excursions around our cabin... cans, crocks, tools, and the like... and put it all under the front stoop, where it continued to rust and moulder, just as it had been elsewhere.  But it seemed the right thing to do at the time... to bring these curiously old things back with me and give them a new place... where they could regain some kind of utility, perhaps... if only as a young boy's novelty.

When I was in fourth grade I got my first motorcycle.  On it I was able to wander much further... Typically alone, but occasionally with my brothers in-tow, I was able to follow old roads and rail-beds much farther, was able to ride up and down way more and bigger mine tailings, was able to throttle aimlessly for hours at a time through what seemed to me to be a nearly endless woodland.  My objective was still to explore old mining operations, but now I brought much less back with me.  More and more, my compulsion grew toward simply finding things, not necessarily to retrieving or possessing them... just being out, nowhere, finding old places and old things... seeing them as they were left in-place so long ago... that was enough.

I'm still compelled like this.  But when I first moved to Flagstaff, I was puzzled.  The woods around here aren't like the woods around Prescott.  The woods here give up their secrets much more slowly, and often only after both figurative and literal layers of duff and detritus are carefully cleared away.  Here human history has taken a different path than it did further south.  Rather than the Bradshaw's granite rocks marbled with veins of silver and gold, the mountains near Flagstaff are volcanic... so there's almost no history of mineral extraction in the region.  Instead of miners, native people, first... then much later sheep herders and foresters... settled this country.  Like all people, they left a mark on the landscape.  But to an eye trained to see mines and tailings and abandoned roadbeds, learning to spot sheep camps, and potsherd, and tree blazes, required a lot of relearning.

I'm still learning.  After years of wandering around in these woods, I'm getting a little better at identifying old stuff.  Today, for instance, while I was out riding, I was forced, due to snow, to stop my ascent at the West Elden climbing area, just a little below the junction of Lower Brookbank and Middle Oldham trails.  As it happened, I stopped near an old telegraph pole (see E, below) that I've noticed, while riding past it, many times over the years. It looks just like a tree at first glance, but it's been shaved of its bark, hewn at a a sharp angle at the top, and has a couple large bolt holes drilled into it.  Easy to miss, but definitely not just a stump.

Thanks to excellent regional historians like Platt Cline and Donna Ashworth, I'm aware that the Upper Oldham trail... and thus probably some of the lower sections of the Elden Lookout Road, too... was part of a mule-skinners supply route for the fire tower at the top of Mount Elden in the days before the road was built.  I've always assumed that this pole followed the original alignment of the mule trail and functioned, long ago, as a communication line, and perhaps also as a power line for folks staffing the tower.

Before today, I was also aware of a second, much taller pole located some distance below this point, down on the Rocky Ridge trail.  This pole is easy to miss too, being, well,  also rather tree-like.  But it's definitely not a tree either.

So, today, rather than leave the trail, hike through the snow, and continue to ascend on the freshly graded road... something I will have plenty of opportunities to do as the season progresses... I decided to head back down, but through the trees instead, not on the trail, heading toward the other pole, to see how many more poles I could locate between them.  Following an almost straight line, crossing the road at one point, I was able to find 5 poles in all.  I took pictures of them, as some kind of proof, I guess, with my lame-but-undeniably-handy phone camera.  Five old poles and a fine sense of personal satisfaction. Just another Sunday in the woods.


Where the poles go in either direction above or below points A and E, I don't know. A task for another day.

UPDATE Feb. 2015: The wild telegraph poles of Dry Lake Hills (part two)


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May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey