There are few places that inspire reflection on the brevity of life like a ghost town or town that has been suffering from a downward spiral for a few decades. Stroll a street lined with empty storefronts, walk a sidewalk lined with foundations and tile entries enshrouded with weeds, or explore a long abandoned hotel where the rich and famous once stayed and see if you are not challenged to give thought to the finite number of years that we have here on earth. All of these empty places were once vibrant manifestations of a dream, of plans for a bright future.
I have long had a fascination for the empty places that are a stage where dreams and hopes, tragedies and disaster, life and death unfolded. They keep me grounded and from taking myself or my contributions to the grand scheme of things to seriously. They inspire me to dig for answers, to share forgotten stories, and take time for much needed reflection.
This past week I spoke on the economics of tourism at Mohave Community College in Bullhead City, Arizona, a subject that I will be teaching at the Kingman campus for this college beginning in May, and then made a little detour to Needles, California.
In recent years there has been a valiant attempt to turn back the hands of time and breathe new life into this desert community nestled on the banks of the Colorado River. Success has proven elusive though recent national media attention focused on the community hints that the dawn of a new era may be just around the corner.
Meanwhile there is ample evidence at every turn to suggest that it was once a prosperous town filled with hopes for a bright future. The refurbished remnants of the beautiful El Garces, a century old railroad hotel complex that once was part of the Harvey House chain hint of better times.
The National Old Trails Road that funneled traffic through town between 1913 and 1926 fueled the growth of a service industry that blossomed with the creation of the US highway system. With Route 66 as the town’s main drag Needles became a booming hub of commerce, an oasis for east bound travelers that had survived the Mojave Desert, and the last vestige of civilization for west bound drivers heading for Los Angeles.
With the exception of the long summer months that transform Needles into an earthly manifestation of purgatory, I find Needles interesting, a fascinating place to explore. There are old storefronts masked by a quick transformation into residence, stairs that lead no where but to a vacant lot on a hill, well worn old cafes, and sun bleached neon signs, all relics from better times.
I derive tremendous satisfaction from walking the streets in empty places and giving my imagination free reign. However, it is the ghost towns and faded places along Route 66 that have special meaning as often I have memories of when they were vibrant, alive, and full of promise. I can close my eyes and with clarity see the counters and stools at the Cattleman’s Cafe in Truxton, now a weed covered concrete slab, and remember a breakfast shared with ranch hands, friends from the Crozier spread on a cold winters morning. I can smell the oil, gas, and tires in the ruins of the Ludlow Garage as I reflect on a mechanic changing hoses on my pa’s ’64 Ford. I hear the clinging of the gas pump at the as it ticked of the gallons pumped into the truck at the abandoned station along the old road in New Mexico.
The quite places. The empty places. The places where memories were made, and dreams were lived. The places where soft breezes carry the sound of laughter, of life, of times now passed.