Passing of The Torch

For centuries the site of Ed’s Camp has been an oasis for travelers. ©Jim Hinckley’s America

He could have been anywhere between sixty and two hundred years of age. All I knew at the time is that he seemed to be older than rope. He looked like a piece of twisted, deeply creased sun dried leather and had a gruff personality to match. For a kid that was already overwhelmed by moving from the farms and forest country of Michigan to a place I had been warned about in Sunday school, old man Edgerton was downright scary.

My pa didn’t approve of idle hands. So, he decided I needed a summer job and had worked it out with the Ed of Ed’s Camp. My basic job was to help with his tomato, vegetable and melon garden. I was to help with weeding, irrigation, and other assorted tasks.

My day started at 5:00 A.M. with pa banging trash can lids just like us kids were in basic training. Then came breakfast. If he had time, or a reason to drive towards Ed’s Camp like hauling hay from farms along the Colorado River, I had a ride. Otherwise it was a bicycle trip, all uphill, of about five miles on what had once been Route 66.

I learned a lot that summer. But, sadly, I was to young to fully grasp the full scope of the opportunity. Ed seemed to have an aversion to soap, unless he was headed for town on business. And he was a man of few words. But he had a wealth of knowledge that he was will to share.

He was a geologist with an international reputation. He had first began work on Ed’s Camp when the highway out front was the National Old Trails Road. And he walked or driven most every yard of the rugged and foreboding mountains. Even better, he had taken a shine to me. I still remember him dropping by the house to drop off a battered copy of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan written by John Stevens in 1843. That book ignited an all consuming hunger for exploration and a childhood dream of becoming an archeologist.

A desert oasis on Route 66 in western Arizona courtesy the Mike Ward collection.

Aside from the work in the garden, Ed took me on prospecting adventures, to places where we would gather mineral specimens he could sell in his rock shop, and to historic sites. But I seldom heard all that he had to say, and paid attention to even less. As interesting as the adventures were, it was a job. And a job is place where you watch the clock, complain about the heat and dirt, and look forward to lunch.

Still it was that summer with Ed that led to my life long passion for the desert, for the empty places, and in time, to the years now referenced as the John Wayne period. I can trace my entire embracing of the romanticism of the southwest to that summer.

In the early 1970s pa packed up the family and headed for southern New Mexico where I found new opportunities for adventure, and learned more lessons about what it was like to be a working man. But wherever I go, whatever I do, I often find myself reflecting on the summer of Ed.

I can still recall snippets from his stories about traveling from Michigan to Arizona in 1919 or 1920, and the years when Ed’s Camp was a bustling oasis. And I can still recall the trip to Fig Springs, site of an old ranch and the world’s largest fig trees. That was where I poked amongst the ruins while he used the inner tube from the spare tire to repair the fuel pump. I should have paid more attention to that lesson!

It was Ed that first told me about Father Garces camping at Little Meadows, site of Ed’s camp, during his expedition in 1776. And it was Ed that showed me the mysterious fortifications in Warm Springs Canyon. He had served as a guide to the site for an investigative team from the Smithsonian Institution back around 1925.

Anytime I get to thinking about opportunities and opportunities lost, my thoughts turn to that summer. That long, boring, fascinating, hot, scary, exciting, and life changing summer.