(Editor’s note: Many of you know already know what happened on this year’s ghost town trip. This article was written prior to the ‘Event’ but I did not have Internet access to update the blog before my laptop was destroyed. My hope is to maintain the feeling and emotions of the adventure at the time this was originally written and not taint it by adding to it my thoughts after my, yet another, near-death experience)
August 24th, Today I began a trip just to visit ghost towns. I have never set out to only visit ghost towns, usually these relics are left as side trips to one of my larger prospecting outings. I wanted to dive into the history first hand and leave the geology as the side trip this time.
I got my best start on a solo adventure in years; I left the house only an hour late!… part of this was due to the fact that I couldn’t find my main gas can anywhere. One cannot go on an 1800 mile off road adventure where one finds one’s self up to 300 miles or more between fuel stations. Then it occurred to me, I lent my gas can to my friend Grace so she could fuel up the little motor on her sailboat. She never gave it back. She’s like the female version of Dagwood Bumstead’s neighbor/best friend Herb.
After a stop at Ace for a new can, I finally got out on the road. South through the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then I had to snake around I-5 as one of my goals on this trip is to not set tire to Interstate the entire way down to Santa Fe. Some wiggling through Tacoma I managed to get onto highway 7, and then I got to witness full on Spanaway right up in my face. If you have never been to Spanaway imagine all the abandoned towns in “The Walking Dead” just with even worse lawns, and instead of Zombies looking for brains, it’s skinny people aging too quickly looking for meth.
South of Spanaway the road turns beautiful and winding. The draw back to all this nature is about 30 miles of the most roadkill I have ever seen. There were hundreds of raccoons, dozens of deer, bunnies, opossums, and even my first porcupine laying by the wayside. It was as if it had rained animal carcasses from above and snowplows had to clear the road for us drivers leaving drifts of carnage like so much snow on the side of the road. It was metal. Every so often their would be a break in the trees and I would be afforded a majestic view of the Northwest’s most dominant land feature.
I drove along the Nisqually River and along Alder Lake I was pleased to find the river valley ablaze. How quaint. I have a feeling that forest and wild fires are going to be a running theme on this journey.
A turn onto Highway 12 towards White Pass and then a jig to the right down Forest Service Road 23 and I finally found myself in my element; on a shit road. For the next 50 miles I got to watch all of my mining equipment, fuel, water, clothing, and bedding bounce around like ping pong balls at a Lotto drawing. Here is an interesting fact: my brand new EPA certified “leak-proof” fuel can I was forced to buy (thanks, Grace) leaks like the mother of twelve after a sneezing fit. Well, Erik, it is my turn to have to trippy gas fume dreams as I sleep in a cocoon soaked in cancer.
Further down NF23 on the way to the Columbia I saw an arm waving about from the side of the road. I slowed because I thought it was someone in distress, but the fact that I was in the sun and they were in the shade of a tree played tricks on me. It was just a couple of bearded trustifarians in about $1,000 in hiking gear looking for a ride. I told them the truth, “Sorry, guys, I don’t have the room.” Which is totally true; I am packed to the gills and I move the Box of Knowledge for no man (except Aren), and especially not for two strangers with B.O. Then I told them a lie, “Don’t worry though, there are two more trucks coming up right behind me!” Then they sat back down in the shade and I floored it. Why did I do this? Because I’m a dick… Well, it might not be a lie ultimately. It’s a mountain road. There will always be two trucks behind me. Eventually.
Crossing into the Columbia Gorge the vast scenery was so hazy as to be not even real. Almost everything looked like a distant memory bathed in blue hues and amber Sun. One thing that cannot be missed in The Gorge is the towering cliffs of basalt. 16 million years ago Eastern Washington and Oregon sat above the what is today the Yellowstone hotspot. Back then the hotspot only had to worry about oceanic basalts that like to get all melty and flowy and not the herky-jerky continental stuff that forces it to have apocalyptic eruptions every few million years like today. No, back then it was downright diuretic. Every 8,000 years or so it would lay down a free flowing layer of lava that would cover thousands of square miles, just pouring over everything like a glass of water spilled onto your kitchen floor. The Columbia Flood Basalts cover in the neighborhood of 100,000 square miles up to 2,000 feet thick. That is enough lava to cover the surface of our entire planet in a foot of hot lava. Be impressed by this.
I finally made it to Washington’s Stonehenge in Maryhill over-looking the Columbia. It has always been on my list of things to do before I die. Though technically checked off, my bucket list check was forever ruined by a loud obnoxious family who couldn’t read any of the markers to themselves but had to share each plaque with someone 200ft away. I hate people.
Across the river in Oregon I refilled my tank and decided not to get a sandwich since hundreds of children from some summer camp unloaded off their buses and into my way. I concluded that it would be better to starve to death than wait in a line while these whippersnappers played tinny sounding YouTube videos to each other.
Heading South on US97 I passed by two towns that are not listed as ghost towns, but they are. They are so dead. Both Grass Valley and Kent, Oregon have nothing left in the tank. Between the mechanization of farms, consolidation of family spreads by larger outfits, and the fact that no one in their right mind would want to live in such a desolate, sun-baked shit hole, ensures that both towns are crumbling shells of their former glorious selves. The general store in Grass Valley advertised they were the last stop for groceries for the next 67 miles. It was closed. For good.
The first ghost town on my list was Shaniko mainly because someone renovated the grand hotel there. The town consisted of the hotel, a guy sitting on a bench in front of what looked like a knickknack store catering to a tourist who would have to be lost to end up in there, and one gas pump on a hill. Quaint, but not what warms my heart. I prefer more desolate. More broken. In the past this was the case. Shaniko was the name the natives gave a german immigrant with whom they trusted and did business. They couldn’t pronounce his actual name, Herr August Scherneckau, so “Shaniko” would have to do. The town got its start as a railroad hub for the newly minted Columbia Southern Railroad as a way for large sheep ranchers to get their wool to market.
At its peak, Shaniko had the Grand Hotel, a large two story firehouse and 13 brothels, or “sporting houses” as the locals referred to them, catering to the needs of the thousands of sheepherders and railroad men who would make their way into town for supplies and nookie to stave off the loneliness of the Oregon high desert.
I broke off US97 at Shiniko and headed toward Antelope on a winding highway 218. Antelope was about as lively as the three previous burgs I passed. It did have a green ghost school though and someone actively filling their U-Haul with their worldly possessions in a real-time GTFO. Cool, not too often you get to witness the act of the actual abandonment of a ghost town.
Antelope was the main stagecoach supply point between The Dalles on the Columbia River and the important gold mining town of Canyon City. After the mines slowed, and highway were built, the need to a weigh station like Antelope ceased to be exist. Thus another town bites the dust! Side note: In the early to mid 1980s a religious cult established their headquarters just outside of the town replete with corruption, paranoia, and the largest biological terrorism attack in US history. Let’s just say jailarity eventually ensued. I want to save this story for another blog post because it’s a doozy, so please bear with me!
A few miles east of Antelope I turned onto a dirt road and worked my way into some mountains. A note to the National Forest Service: the BLM is better at roads than you.
Each turn yielded more spectacular scenery. Golden hills, steep canyons, derelict ranches… My goal for this stretch of my day’s jaunt was to make my way toward Horse Heaven, a dead mining town high in the hills. After about an hour I found it and it was buried under tailings from, well, a mine. It appeared as though someone open pitted most of the town and dumped the workings on the rest sometime in the last 40 years or so. Pity, as of 1971 it still had a bunch of standing buildings.
Horse Heaven got its start when a couple of high schools kids, Ray R. Whiting Jr and Harry Hoy, were shown how to pan cinnabar out of a local stream (Cinnabar is an ore of mercury, mercury sulfide to be exact). In the summer of 1933 the boys decided to start tunneling into rock where their cinnabar pannings vanished upstream assuming this was where it was coming from. They managed to dig more than 60ft through solid rock into the side of the mountain using nothing but hand tools (badass for some kids) and couldn’t find anything… That is until Ray kicked a rock over that was wet on the bottom and the bright red tell of cinnabar was blazed across the stone. They had managed to remove hundreds of tons of ore not realizing that it had to be wet to be able to see the red tones of the cinnabar!
The boys sold out to a large mining outfit for 11% of the proceeds of the mine each and instantly became rich. Ray turned his wealth into a famous Hollywood restaurant frequented by the stars, I don’t know what became of Harry. When Ray’s luck with money ran out he was back up at Horse Heaven in the Summer of 1971 searching for another lode of mercury near the site of the original mine. From the looks of the remnants of the old mining town I’d say he found it.
As I continued down these mountains from Horse Heaven I passed through the most glorious private ranch I may ever lay eyes on. It was complete with signs threatening to castrate me and more if I stopped my truck. I wanted to stop and take pictures of the amazing canyon and the painted hills, but I want my testicles more. Sorry to fail you all.
After some time my dirt road turned to pavement and a sign directing me to the Painted Hills fossil site made me take a right. Bucket list item #2 of the day complete. The Painted hills are remarkable erosion features consisting of millions of years of volcanic ash and fills the entire horizon with vivid colors. Yellows bleed onto grays who then melt into deep crimsons. These ashes house the remains of lots mammals and plants. Don’t climb on the hills or dig for fossils though or else some bored park ranger is going to fuck you up. He’s just waiting for you to be an asshole so he can disappear you in a little spot in the Oregon Outback somewhere he picked out just for you to become a fossil yourself.
Driving further South my goal was now to make it to the summit of Lookout Mountain for the night. I didn’t make it. The old road that leads to the top is now a foot trail and I am not strong enough to hike my F150 up 2,000ft of vertical. Thus, tonight I spend in the parking lot of the trailhead.
Day one is pretty pleasant, day two on the otherhand…