June 23, 2009

The Ghost in Me

Today I crossed one of the last items off my "to do" list that I'd been compiling since my February trip to Joshua Tree: Rice Ghost Town. I drove an hour and a half (stopping twice in construction-related blockades) to poke around a few abandoned buildings and listen for snake rattles.

I wonder when I will allow myself to just be out here? When I first arrived I felt this sense of urgency, to not only see all the sights before it got too hot, but before I ran out of time. Now that I've made so much progress, I wonder if my mind and body will be able to settle, or if I'll feel the need to move on to more unfamiliarity, somewhere farther outside my comfort zone.

In truth, there's something extremely comfortable about being out here. It wouldn't be unusual for Maria and I to spend an hour or two driving around Syracuse during one of my visits home. Sitting in Water Canyon all day working and writing, I recall all the time I spent at Happy Endings in the now-Armory Square area of Downtown Syracuse, before downtown was revitalized. This was when watching open mic night was a fun night out, and when the first guy I really dated (before Seth) lived at the Rescue Mission down the road.

Ghost towns are starting to feel familiar and comfortable too. On those long drives upstate, when you get a little farther outside of the city, you see a lot of half-collapsed barns, shredded silos, and decrepit farmhouses. It's so commonplace that as a local, it never occurred to me to try to photograph or explore them. But now that I'm in the land of gold mines and salt mines and every kind of mine you can imagine, I'm drawn to those little towns that once were. The Salton Sea is the most extreme and sprawling example, but all over California you can find these little enclaves of broke-down houses, a gas station, and - like in Amboy - maybe a school or a church or a cemetery.

shoe fence
Nestled in the Colorado Desert, Rice appears to be an old railroad community, adjacent to the Arizona California Railroad and not terribly far from the Arizona border. It's best known for two of its recent landmarks: a shoe tree (into which travellers passing through would launch their old shoes, boots, and sneakers) and the embankment of the railroad where travellers spell out their names in rocks and wood and whatever other debris they can find. The shoe tree "suspiciously" burned down so subsequent travellers have appropriated a chainlink fence to replace it. Signs everywhere point you to fresh jerky 36 miles down the road. Piles of junk surely house coils of rattlesnakes. And a capsized car circa 1960s bears some filthy graffiti and salt-stained tires.

I could see a salt flat in the distance but couldn't figure out how to get there in my dinky car that prefers a paved road.

On my way back I stumbled onto another ghost town which I think was New Dale, the newer iteration of Old Dale gold mining town that's closer to the highway. Old West ruins mixed in with 20th century abandoned trailers and houses for miles down CA-62. Most of the buildings were shacks or sheds, or just looked like wooden, windowless boxes, tossed out on either side of the highway like a paperboy's morning delivery. Most of their dirt access roads were untreaded for years, built up with drifting sand that I squished my flip flops into if I could even get that close. Once again, furniture and appliances everywhere.

And then just a bit further down the road I was back in the Morongo Basin, ready for lunch and a cup of coffee.

Tomorrow? Who knows. Maybe I'll get really uncomfortable and not do anything. I'll learn how to just be.


  1. Did you take those pics of the Shoe Fence on June 23rd, 2009? We were passing thru and stopped at the Shoe Fence about 5pm on the 23rd also! I Googled "Highway 62 Shoe Fence" to learn more about that crazy place and found your blog. Thanks for the info.