For almost a year I spent my nights as a nocturnal creature adrift on a sea of death, but it was only when the light of the full moon transformed the dead trees along the shore into twisted and tormented shadow people loosed from the gates of Hell that my thoughts drifted toward remembrances of the people and places I had been. To complete the illusion that this tailing pond was a stage for a production of Dante’s Inferno, twice each night an electric train would dump molten slag down a mountain as sterile and black as the eyes of a snake, and at least once a week the poisoned air would shroud the scene in an unearthly, thick yellow haze that smelled of sulfur.
When all was well on the dredge, half of each twelve hour shift was spent with mind numbing tasks that unleashed the imagination in a vain effort to ward off sleep. When all was not well on the job, a twelve hour shift stretched into an eternity of back breaking, filthy, bone numbing wet and cold, exhausting labor that ended on more than one occasion with me napping in the cab of my truck before making the drive home.
It was one of the best jobs I have ever had. In exchange for the grueling schedule and challenging work we were handsomely rewarded.
The schedule called for rotating shifts of twelve hours with four days off between shifts. The pay was more than ample, as evidenced by my purchase of a three year old Chevy truck from a dealership and having it paid for in seven weeks!
I always seem to arrive at sunset and my job for a subcontractor to Kennecott Copper at Hurley, New Mexico, was no different. Less than a year after hiring on, plummeting copper prices coupled to labor issues and dictatorial EPA mandates resulted in suspension of the tailing’s recycling project and, shortly after, closure of the mine at Santa Rita itself.
With my string played out in Silver City, I decided it might be time to return to the adopted hometown of Kingman in Arizona. So, one frosty, early winter morning, I bid adios to my sister and her family, stowed my gear under the tarp spread over the back of the truck, tossed my dog, Critter, into the cab, and rolled into the mountains on US 180 crossing the Continental Divide shortly after sunrise.
During my years as a vagabond, destinations were always loose and subject to change without notice. I only had the dog to answer to and he always seemed game for a new adventure.
So, as promised, I stopped in Holbrook and called my sister to let her know that I had crossed the summit and lived to tell the tale. Well, as it turned out a friend of ours had taken a temporary job but his partner had backed out and he was in need of a hand.
My little sister, bless her heart, never had the sense gave a shiny brown rock when it came to directions. Now, my new destination was a small ghost town that started with “D”, north of Ashfork, with a population of four or five.
As it turned out she had some of it right. Wayne was in the ghost town of Drake south of Ashfork. As to the population of four or five, there was Wayne and his wife and daughter. To see the fourth person, I had to shave in the morning.
The job didn’t pay well but it was better than nothing and the work wasn’t overly difficult; raze an old house, separate and stack the lumber, and, eventually, haul it to Kingman. The challenge was in regards to accommodations or the lack thereof.
Wayne had a small camper, tough enough with a family, especially in the winter. I had a tent or the cab of the truck. For showers and such we had a railroad maintenance facility with baths just down the road.
The Drake Episode, as it is referred to today, was mercifully short or none of us would have survived. It was not just the bitter cold of a winter spent outdoors in the mountains below Williams, but the temporary insanity induced by …?
Shortly after my arrival, Wayne’s wife developed a bout of common sense and went home to Kingman with her daughter. Wayne and I picked up where we had left off some years before, imitating the stupidest people on earth. We worked so hard to hone those skills you would have thought there was a grand prize for the dumbest person on earth provided they lived to tell the tale.
With complete abandonment of anything resembling rational thought, Wayne and I decided one day that working in the sleet and rain was a bad idea but driving to Jerome for a beer, through Perkinsville, over more than thirty miles of dirt roads in a rain and snow storm, in a two wheel drive truck, that was low on gas, was a good idea. It wasn’t.
Then there was the cactus wine incident. It didn’t end well either but I am quite sure the highway patrolman that stopped me still tells the story to this day.
The litany of craziness that transpired in those few short months is difficult to comprehend, let alone describe. Why would anybody in their right mind think that a 1969 Harley Davidson Electra Glide was a good idea when you’re living in a tent and camper, in a ghost town, with miles of gumbo between you and a paved road? And when you got to the paved road it was still winter, in the mountains of Arizona.
I began making long forays into Kingman on the weekends. On one of those, irritated beyond measure at how many times I had been forced to dig my Chevy from the mud and mire on the road from Drake, and fueled with just a hint of Wild Turkey, my truck was traded straight across for a marvelous 1946 GMC.
The tales of adventures with that truck are now the stuff of legends, but those are best left for another day. Suffice to say, that old beastie never got stuck and with it I rediscovered the simple pleasure of long, slow drives on Route 66. To this day it remains high on my list of best deals ever made.
On another excursion, I met a delightful young lady that would become my dearest friend. That, as it turned out, was the one bright spot in the Drake Episode, and the turning point of my life. For that chance encounter I will always be grateful.

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