December 22, 2012

Bullets and Beans: Tales of Muckers, Trampers, and Dooms Day Derelicts

“I have more than a dozen food caches buried all over the American West.  Each can last 1 month.  Some day that will be more valuable than gold… Gold is hard to chew you know.”
                                                -Old Man I met in Flagstaff

All this end of world talk got me thinking about some of the characters I have met while bumming around Arizona (and planet earth) during my days off from work.  Just last week while visiting Cairns in Northern Queensland, I ran into a guy up in the World Heritage Listed rain forest a few miles north of Cape Tribulation.  He had a backpack loaded to the brim with a fishing rod, a few kilos of rice, and a few hardback books.  He sat there on the side of the dirt road waiting for a 4wd vehicle to take him across Emmagen Creek.  His destination was a place called Cedar Bay.  You and I have never heard of Cedar Bay so let me tell you little about it.  Apparently, there is an abandoned commune there that is being kept alive by a few hardcore group living enthusiasts.  Cedar Bay is unreachable by car.  It is possible to reach by boat but my friend only had the options of an arduous 28km round trip trek.  In the 70’s, hippies planted groves of mango and exotic fruits trees.  Matt’s plan was to spend a few days or longer there hanging out by the beach, gorging himself with exotic fruits, and casting a few lines into the blue-green crocodile infested waters in pursuit of fresh snapper.  He is from Victoria but had spent the last few months in Malaysia “working” before deciding to make the trip back to Australia for the Eclipse.  He appeared disappointed in me that I had missed the eclipse.


Arizona, especially during the winter time, is home to all sorts of free spirits.  Fortunately, I didn't have to travel far from Bagdad to find some of these characters.  The name says it all and if you haven’t seen the movie Bagdad Café (doesn't take place in the real Bagdad Arizona) you better go find a free version online at Hulu or Netflix.  The movie and its eccentric characters pretty much sums up my life for 3 years while i lived in the high desert.  You just never know what to expect out in the desert during winter especially given all the hippies and vortex worshiping transients that roll into every nook and cranny of the hilly high desert.
30 year No-Shave Guy.  I have been pretty lucky to work in a unique industry with some equally unique characters.  I had a co-worker in Arizona who hadn't been clean shaven since 1976.  This guy is a legend.  He had over 15 guns, 10000 rounds of ammunition.  His food cache was robust.  The cache could last him up to one year.  “Bullets and beans.”  He then told me to spend all my money while it’s worth something.  Or better yet stock up on physical silver and gold.  Most of my other co-workers held the same sentiment.    Maybe they are right and I’m the crazy one for not listening? 

In a Trailer Down by the River Brothers.  There were two brothers (or cousins or friends?) who lived out of a trailer next to a wash.  They had been working this stream bed for years, if not decades, panning for gold.  I heard rumor that they would come into town every few months and purchase fresh provisions from the Bashas Grocery store and mail a few letters from the post office.  They would show off their sizable jar of gold flakes confirming that the pickings were good and sustainable.  The location of their mining headquarters was about 15 miles due west of Bagdad over a nearly impassable, seldom traveled single lane 4WD drive track.  I occasionally had a chance to pass by their trailer while riding around in a Polaris Ranger with co-workers.  I never saw anyone there but was a bit envious of the simple life they were living tucked away in the hills.  Just panning for gold, hunting quail, collecting freshwater, watching the sunrise every morning and having fireside chats under the moonlight.   

Negro Ed.  Of course, there is the old tale of Negro Ben and Negro Ed.  There are two mesas and springs named after them near Bagdad.  Legend has it that one of the two (I think Negro Ed) had a claim where he was pulling 12 oz gold per ton of rock mined.  To put that number in perspective, the Boddington Gold mine in Western Australia has head grades of approximately 1 gram per tonne on a good day.  Negro Ed’s claim was nearly 400 times more concentrated.  If Negro Ed was alive today and only pulled 1 ton per week at current gold price of 1600 $/oz, he would see revenue of 19000 dollars per week.  Not bad at all.  However, no one knows where it is and no one could ever confirm it as he kept it secret and blew the entry to his portal with a few sticks of dynamite.        

Machine Gun Militia Men.  My co-workers and I used to ride mountain bikes around the hills of Bagdad Arizona after work and on weekends when our schedules.  One weekend, when I was off running a race or something silly like that, they did a long ride from Bagdad through the desert and had cars waiting at the other side near the highway to pick them up.  They got off course and had to cross through the Zanarapolis property.  I heard horror stories that this “militia” had machine guns, grenades, land mines, and even a helicopter to spot you with.  So it went without saying that you should avoid their fenced off property at all times.  As the few coworkers slowly rolled up to the gate they were greeted by a few armed men on quads.  The men were kind, gave them directions and even showed them around the property.  I didn't believe them until I saw the pictures.  Sure enough, the pictures showed desk-bound engineering co-workers wearing biking helmets and Camelbaks grinning ear to ear holding the same type of machine gun Bruce Willis wielded in Die Hard while sprinting barefoot across broken glass.  It seems the “Militia” is just a bunch of guys from Phoenix who use the property to live out their childhood dreams.  Good for them.     

Gunner the Hitchiker.  It’s not every day you see a long haired dude walking down the highway 3 miles from Bagdad with a skateboard strapped to his rucksack.  I picked him up and had a good conversation with him which I wrote about here (also wrote about the rainbow people and Bagdad Cafe at that link).  It just goes to show, you never know what you find in the desert.  (see Bagdad Café).

Rock House Elderly Couple.  I lived in Bagdad for 3 years and it wasn't until the last 2 or 3 months that I really started to explore the local desert.  It is filled with magical people and places if you know where to look.  The Rock House elderly couple are the most interesting, simple people I have met.  The 81 year old and his wife live alone in the rock house during the winter 6 months when the temperatures are tolerable.  He built the house entirely out of Santa Maria River Rocks which he loaded by hand into the back of his pickup truck and drove 3.5 miles to his home site at the top of the ridge.  He repeated the process load after grueling load until he erected a stunning 2 bedroom off grid rock house overlooking the Santa Maria River Valley (and later added a “honeymoon” guest house).  They collect rain water, solar power for the pumps and power, a wood stove for heat, and a vent to draw hot air from the top part of the house to warm the bottom.  I was quite impressed with the house and even more impressed with their lives in the region.  I spent the entire afternoon there eating cookies and drinking tea while they told me about their lives in Arizona and working at just about every mom and pop minesite within a 50 mile radius.  He knew all the history and really should write a book about it but he is “too old and tired to do the necessary research”.  But he has penned three books including one which he gave me to read “Barefoot in a Cactus Patch.”  The other book is about the two years they spent in Ghana with the Peace Corps.  Very awesome life they have lived indeed. 

More Arizonans...

Scott the Seed Collector.  I met Scott in downtown Williams Arizona.  I had just run for a hard 90 minutes up Bill Williams Mountain and getting ready to get some food from town.  I can’t remember how I started talking to this guy but we ended up watching the Argentina-Mexico game in the world cup quarter final at a coffee shop/ bar in Williams.  He had been living out of a Ford 150 for the last 1.5 years collecting wild seeds from Coconino and Kaibab National forests.   He would head into the town on weekends to have a few beers and catch up with locals.           

Old Man from Flagstaff.  I wrote about him here.  This retiree is just living the simple life.

Blue Range Plant Collector.  This guy scared me a little bit with his aggressive anti-religion discussion.  I just asked how you were doing, man.  I didn't need the dissertation on why all religions are made up by man and fictitious.  We were in a parking lot at the Mount Baldy trail head.  It was raining and 7 am.  I was getting ready to do an epic trail run around Mount baldy and didn't appreciate standing in the rain and cold at 9000 feet listening to his banter.  But I had to play the game because I didn't want to leave him and my car alone on a sour note while I went off running.  The man told me he was collecting wild plants.  What for?  I don’t know but he was clearly too tall and big to be living out of such a small car in remote eastern Arizona.  For how long? I don’t know but my car was safe and sound when I got back.  It was probably one of my top 5 runs in AZ. 

Verde Hot Springs Nudists.  My trip to Verde Hot Springs was fun one.  I read about the springs and the old abandoned resort so I decided to check it out.  To get there you must drive about one hour on dirt road to the camping area, then hike about 30 minutes.  I wasn’t alone when I arrived.  There were about 3 people there.  One was another guy named Evan about my age and a mechanical engineer.  He had shorts on.  The other couple was nude soaking in the sun and the warm water.  Then another 4 people joined in, all significantly older and all nude.  The situation got a bit weird so Evan and I made scramble for it.  You never know what to expect out in the desert.  I actually soaked in the springs the day before running and winning the Jerome Hill Climb so maybe there is something magical in the water? 

Lake Havasu City Astroid Aficionado.  He started flipping through some astronomy magazines rather rapidly as if he had already read through them before.  He asked, “Hey Is that you’re black Van out there?  It looks like my buddy’s who comes down here during the winter.”  I was taken aback by the question, I mean did you call the guy?, but soon realized he already knew the answer to the question.  He just wanted to open up conversation with me because I “looked like a fellow hippie with the beard and hair.”  He went on to tell me all about his history and how he sold his house and most his possessions to take to the open road and be free.  I have come to realize that the desolate deserts of western AZ and Southern California, at winter time, fill with RV’ers and full time travelers looking for mild weather and familiar friends.  Towns like Quartzite double or triple in size during the winter, forming neighborhoods of Rv’ers on the outskirts of this once booming mining towns.  After that encounter at Hasting, I realized I was just another transient roamer of the US, except limited to Saturdays and Sundays.    

Gold Panner 1.  I ran into a gold prospector while out mountain biking in a place where no one would ever think to mountain bike: Salome, Arizona.  He stopped me to ask me what the hell I was doing.  He had never seen anyone mountain biking on that dirt track before...or anywhere.  We chatted for a bit.  I asked the man, the same way you would ask a fisherman, if he had any luck to which he responded, “Well, I’m still driving this piece of shit quad and not a Cadillac.”  In my experience meeting gold prospectors, it doesn't pay too well.  But like any hobby, it is for the fun of it. 

Gold Panner 2.  I met this couple during an unplanned run along the little known Yankee doodle trail heading into the wilderness from the base of Mount Union.  It was my first time on the track and somehow ended up 10 miles by trail back to my car already 70 minutes into the run.  I could have made it back but it would have been a slog without anything to drink in the heat.  So I stopped by a van down by the stream to ask for some water.  Sure enough it was some gold prospectors working a wash.  They gave me one of those 86 oz big gulp cups where I proceeded diminish their rations downing two full cups.  Any Luck? "Nah, we've been out here 3 weeks just panning and playing guitar by the campfire.  Even though we have come up empty, you can’t beat this lifestyle.”

Mt. Union Fire Tower Guy.  Working in a remote fire tower must be an interesting job.  I approached the fire-tower that sits atop Yavapai County Arizona’s highest point shirtless and fatigued having just ran up Yankee Doodle trail to the summit.  He offered me a drink.  It was green.  It was chlorophyll with plant sterols or something.  I thought about it for a second realizing that I only had about 5 miles of downhill running back to the car so I sucked down a glass.  Anyone who drinks chlorophyll is a true winner and on that day I was a winner.  This guy lead an interesting lifestyle working 6 months of the year during the high fire season before heading to the Philippines to relax and be with his wife.

Some of the Others...

Boy and Dog and a Summer in the Wilderness.  A co-worker who was hunting in the Weminuche wilderness in Colorado told me about a kid about 17 years old with his dog.  He was entering the wilderness and my co-worker was coming out after 2 weeks of fishing and camping.  The kid asked how the fishing was to which my co-worker explained awesome.  “Well that’s good news, I didn't bring much food.  Well, at least not enough to last all summer.”  Just living off the land in probaly one of the best places in the country to do it: Southwest Colorado.   

Troutbo.  I mentioned him in my post about life on the John Muir Trail.  Basically, this casino poker dealer from Reno heads into the Sierras for an entire month every September to get away from it all and “ground himself”.  He doesn't follow any trails, avoids people, and lives off the trout he reels in from the high alpine lakes.  I applaud this man. 

Fish Zappers of the High Sierra.  I also met these guys on the John Muir Trail just a few miles south of Muir Pass in Le Conte canyon if memory serves me right.  They were camped out just below 10,000 feet next to an alpine lake.  It was dusk so they were just sitting next to the fire in silence reading books.  They were working 10 days on in the wild shocking fish, tagging them, and documenting their findings in an attempt to return the waterways native fish only.  Then they had to hike 23 miles back towards Bishop for their 4 days off.  Seemed like a dream job to me. 

This post has gotten a lot longer than I thought.  I just kept going and going because all these memories keep coming back to me (and I love the mountain man lifestyle).  At least the stories are documented now.  Hope you enjoyed it. 

I read John McPhee’s Coming into the Country earlier this year and a lot of these characters remind me of those in that book.  McPhee describes Alaska and its people in the 1970’s.  These counter cultural souls who fled to Alaska in search of the simple life.  A life of pristine wilderness and solitude free from obligation and government control.   I will have to post a book review on that one at some point.  I’m behind on posts but then again  I wonder what the point of it even keeping this blog is?  Looking back at old notes while writing this makes me realize how many fun times I have had and how many posts I have half written and never shared. 

Just noticed that the icon on VLC Music player (when opened and viewing the playlist) changed to have a Santa Hat on it for the holidays.  Computer Programmers.  

Merry Christmas Everyone.  Really doesn't feel like it here with 90-100 degree temps.

View of the Honeymoon Rock House.  Impeccable stone work!

View into the Santa Maria River valley from the honeymoon house

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