Thursday, July 21, 2016

Photo Essay: The Abandoned Morton Air Academy at Gary Field

Uh oh.



That's what I thought when our rental car came to a sluggish halt in the middle of what appeared to be a wash in the Mojave Desert, still on the California side of the Colorado River.


Photo: Google Satellite View

We were looking for the Morton Air Academy, one of our checkpoints on the Rental Car Rally. We'd plugged all the addresses we could find into our GPS when we first departed LA close to midnight, but not everything was terribly accurate.


Photo: Google Satellite View

And we all were a bit frazzled, after having driven all night across Southern California, from Downtown Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, across the Inland Empire into the low desert of Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. Somehow, I was still awake enough to take over behind the wheel as the sun came up and the rest of my team dozed off.


Photo: Robert Hemedes

But then the whole car woke up when I responded to the navigation by saying, "Here? Here?!" and stopped the car, which got us stuck in relatively deep sand. I tried to remain calm, because I'd been in this situation before. But we might've been doomed out there if one of our fellow teams hadn't arrived at that very moment and helped us get out.



Of course, I'd realized too late that we'd approached the old abandoned airfield from the wrong direction, and that the actual entrance to it was far simpler and less harrowing. In my haste, I parked the car at the opening of the chainlink fence, choosing to walk the rest of the way into the property. I didn't realize that I'd be blocking our opposing teams' access. It turned out to be a happy accident.



Upon our arrival, we were greeted by some vandalism that read, "Welcome to Hell." And in that moment, we knew it would be good.



It's always a good adventure when broken glass abounds...



...and roofs are caved in...



...and you can see straight through the skeletons of buildings that have been stripped down to their bare bones blueprints.



But where were we, anyway?



We knew it was some kind of airport—called the W.R. Byron Airport after its most recent owner, Willard R. Byron—but based on its former name, it had also been some kind of military academy, too.



It turns out that cadets for the U.S. Army Air Forces (a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) learned how to fly here from 1942 to 1944.



But by 1945, it had been decommissioned and designated surplus.



Some of it was put to use by Palo Verde Community College in the 1950s...



...continuing its focus on education...



...but it reverted to its use as an airfield in 1981...



...this time as a private one.



With an asphalt runway 2640 feet in length and 660 feet across, it could easily handle single-engine planes.



After all, the pilots-in-training learned how to fly on planes like the Ryan PT-22 Recruit and the Piper J-3 Cub.



Considering how long it's been out of commission, there are an incredible number of structures still standing at the airport, also known as Gary Field (named after the son of the Morton Academy's general manager).



The signs of life aren't all-too-distant.



Some people actually lived here.



But only one of the two arched roof hangars still exists, only the wood frame of the southern hangar still standing.



Unfortunately, its metal roof with the word "ACADEMY" painted on it was stripped sometime after 2004. And everything but the foundation of the northern hangar was removed sometime between 1953 and 1994.


Photo courtesy of Joe Russo

This piece of World War II history is disappearing at an alarming rate, so I'm glad we got to see it when we did. I wish we could've spent more time there, but there was a feeling amidst our team and all the teams that we had to rush our way through the Rally—even though we were actually being judged on our mileage and not our travel time.

Of course, getting stuck in the sand on the other side of the airport didn't help our odometer much.

But neither did turning back so we could meet the naked bookstore owner, either.

In the end, I think we had the experience we were supposed to have.

For more on the history of Gary Field, click here.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Photo Essay: The Death Toll of Tombstone

Two years ago, I cancelled a trip to Deadwood, South Dakota merely hours before I was supposed to leave.

I'd lost a job and gotten into a car accident a couple of months before, and as a result, my bank account was empty and my brain wasn't right.

I'd even borrowed money from a friend to do the trip, but it turned out I really just needed that money to live.

So, in the midst of a full-blown panic attack, I backed out.

And while I initially felt relieved, I've been regretting the aborted trip.



So then I found myself on the Rental Car Rally to Tombstone, which is probably the next best thing to Deadwood—if not even better.



Both towns grew out of a mining boom—Deadwood, gold and Tombstone, silver. Both were lawless, capitalistic places of gambling and prostitution and gunfights and corruption.



A lot of people died in both Deadwood and Tombstone. Some were hanged at the gallows. Others were shot dead in the streets.



Not many died of natural causes.



The most famous—or infamous—of those buried at Boothill Graveyard are the McLaury Brothers and Billy Clanton, who died in a pistol fight at the OK Corral with Wyatt Earp and "Doc" Holliday.



But the markers of tragedy are everywhere in the cemetery: from George Johnson, who innocently bought a stolen horse to the unknown, unidentified, and forgotten.



Those that are marked "Unknown" might be Mr. Huggins who was burned to death, Rose Campion who died in childbirth, Thomas Harper who was hanged for shooting a man, or the man he shot, John Talliday.



Most of the graves date back to the early 1880s, but preservationists and historians thoroughly researched the burials to get an accurate descriptive list of the more than 250 grave sites here.



They weren't able to figure out every last detail—and some of the bodies weren't identified even when they were found, like the well-dressed man found at the bottom of Minute Mine, where he clearly had no business being.



But we know that Eva Waters died at just three months old from scarlet fever.



The daughter of Frank Bowles told the story of her father being thrown from a horse and accidentally shooting himself in the knee.



John Heath was hanged from a telegraph pole.



James Hickey was shot in the temple by William Clayborne after "over-insisting" that they have a drink together.



Something tells me that "Sudden Death" is a euphemism for how Mead, a blacksmith for Sandy Bob's stables, actually died.



There were so many horrible ways to die back then—like being ambushed by Mexicans while on a cattle drive, as was the case with "Old Man Clayton."



And sometimes, they're only remembered by a nickname, like the "Queen of the Red Light District," Dutch Annie.

Other horrors that befell the pioneers of Tombstone include being beaten in the face with a stone and trampled by horses and run over by wagon wheels, as well as consumption, diphtheria, pneumonia, nephritis, inflamed bowels, and overdoses.

But mostly, they were shot or stabbed or committed suicide.

As they say, death never took a holiday in Tombstone.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Arizona

It took me over five years to get to Arizona, after having moved out West.

And when I got there, it was all too brief.

We crossed the border into Arizona sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 on a Saturday morning, after having stayed up all night for the Rental Car Rally.

But we had much to accomplish while we were there: not only meet the naked owner of a local bookstore, but also get kicked out of a closed harness racing track for trespassing and hunt down some dome-dwelling ghosts.



It was after 6 p.m. when we finally got to the endpoint of our rat race, Tombstone—and although it's been a bucket list destination for me ever since I first heard the name "Doc Holliday," I'd have to wait until the morning to do any exploring.



And with only two hours for tourism before we'd have to hit the road back to California...



...we didn't get to see much.



So I tried to consider this brief visit more of a scouting mission—and it turned out to be a successful one, at that.



Unlike, say, Pioneertown or Calico, Tombstone feels like a real town—not a theme park.



And, in July, it felt like a ghost town. The summer heat is typically too hot for most tourists.



So we practically had the place to ourselves—and, without the crowds, were able to visit the Tombstone Courthouse State Park...



...a museum located inside the former Cochise County Courthouse, where you can examine original pieces of silver that were mined nearby...



...the gallows for hanging criminals...



...and, of course, the courtroom.



Besides the OK Corral, the most famous landmark of Tombstone is probably the Bird Cage Theatre...



...whose sordid history and fancy lighting fixtures have been amazingly preserved.



The Bird Cage was not only a theatre where the townsmen could catch a naughty show, but also a brothel whee  one of the women for hire known as the "Shady Ladies" would give them their own private sideshow in one of the opera boxes.



Downstairs in the basement gambling hall, amidst bullet holes and short-skirted women, the longest poker game ever to be played took place over the course of eight years, from 1881-1889. The table where it was played by such legendary figures as Doc Holliday is on display.



Of course, there's no tombstone without Wyatt Earp—and while we felt his presence throughout the town, there was no time to explore the historical sites that are devoted to him.



Instead, we had to get to Tucson for breakfast at Waffle House, where we got to meet the world's greatest greeter, Freddy.



We had to wash our rental car one more time before returning it...



...at the most beautiful car wash we'd ever seen.



And we had to return to Quartzsite, home of the nudist bookstore, to witness the site of the last camp of Hi Jolly, the country's first and most famous camel handler.



Hi Jolly is laid to rest here, with a monument to his work for the failed endeavor of the Camel Corps.



When the Civil War started, and the enemy was no longer a Native American, the Camel Brigade was abandoned and the camels were let loose in the Arizona desert around here to fend for themselves.



Thankfully, the camels were already used to the desert heat—because during the summer, it's so hot that pretty much everybody either leaves Arizona or just stays inside.



But we couldn't just drive back to LA without seeing something. Even if it was just the world's largest belt buckle.

In the end, my scouting mission was a success—because now I know how much more there is to see and do in Arizona.

I just have to find another reason to go back—and another person to share the driving with.

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