When we started out, we hadn’t included a ghost tour in our plans. Thing is, when you cover 8000 miles over sixteen states, the diverse American story is bound to offer up a collection of spectres.
The ghosts that we encountered weren’t those mischievous, annoying spirits who move the furniture about while you’re out of the house, or scare the hell out of you with unholy middle of the night shrieks. We didn’t come upon the tormented souls of long dead soldiers who, it’s been alleged, float among the trenches of the battlegrounds of old.
The ghosts we discovered are the shadows of hopes dashed, dreams unfulfilled, plans turned sour and the simple, inexorable erosion of time. They’re still out there, those ghosts, scattered about the country.
Unlike the goblins that secret themselves below floorboards and in the cracks of an old house, these ghosts are easily spotted but like any self respecting spook they can take many forms. They’re the crumbling concrete, rotting wood and rusting metal of places that were once alive with purpose but now wait for an exorcism by human hands or the beating of nature.
There’s a time change thirty miles or so east of Goffs, California, at the Arizona border where the clock advances by one hour.
At Goffs though, the clock stopped advancing for good in 1931, when a bypass of Route 66 abandoned the town and left it to its own fading resources.
Once upon a time, Goffs was a railroad town, housing workers for the AT and Santa Fe Railroad. Today the long freights still pass through Goffs along with a few ghost hunters who come to view the remnants of the town and the renovated old schoolhouse. Nobody stays anymore.
For more on Goffs follow the link to Route 66 California: Bottle Trees and Ghost Towns
Twin Arrows, Arizona.
As you drive eastbound out of Flagstaff, Arizona, you might glance to your right and see two giant yellow arrows sticking up out of the arid brown land. The sight may just excite enough curiosity to compel you to take the next exit. You’ve found the ghost of Twin Arrows.
If your curiosity was aroused enough, if you do follow that twin shafted beacon, you’ll come upon the graffiti splattered remains of an old gas station, the guts of gas pumps, and the square block of a strange oddly placed building.
It was in the late 1940s, during the heyday of Route 66, that Twin Arrows was opened for business as The Canyon Padre Trading Post, which included a gas station, a gift shop and a diner. With the building of the interstate that bypassed the trading post, business faltered, ownership changed and in 1995 Twin Arrows was abandoned.
In 2009, the owners of the nearby Navajo, Twin Arrows Casino, cleaned up the arrows and added a fresh coat of paint.
When I stopped to photograph the old trading post I noticed that since 2009, when the Navajos applied that fresh coat of paint, the arrows have since received a fresh coat of graffiti.
Grants, New Mexico.
While Grants, New Mexico, is not a ghost town per se, we found that the Route 66 town of about 10,000 has its share of old haunts, some of the most notable being the lifeless remains of motor court motels that died of loneliness with the passing of the Mother Road.
Our motel in Grants was a Best Western, a chain that I’ve usually found reliable when it comes to being clean, well run and bug free. I’d originally booked us for two nights in Grants and only one night in our next stop which was Albuquerque.
I’d noticed the bookings a few days before we left home and wondered why I’d booked us for two nights in Grants. I’m sure that Grants is a fine town and the residents shouldn’t take offense; however after a quick review of the options offered by Grants and its larger more celebrated neighbor to the east, I cancelled the second night in Grants and added a night in Albuquerque.
The drive to Grants was like many of our days, a long one, made longer by a screwing by Google girl. She wasn’t at all gentle with us on this day. She had her way with us and was particularly rough about it.
We’d started the day out of Flagstaff and the plan was to do a quick swoop to the north to see the Painted Desert and Petrified National Forest, two parks that share a border.
Before leaving Flagstaff, I punched the destination Painted Desert into my phone and dutifully followed the directions. We came to the junction of Interstate 40 and State Route 77, where there was a travel center, from which Ms. Google sent us northbound on 77.
This stretch of 77 is a particularly lonely one across featureless land with few signs of civilization and very little traffic. We’d taken a few of those drives already. This, like the others, while interesting and maybe a little adventurous, had me concerned about the possibility of the van breaking down.
Something didn’t seem right but we were heading north which was the general direction that Google had prescribed. Fifty miles later Google girl announced that we’d arrived. But, to where? Nowhere. A broken down house about ¼ mile down a dirt road? That’s all there was, there wasn’t any more.
It was a 100 mile runaround that taught me to never, ever again trust Google. When we finally arrived back at the travel center we let Lexi out to pee and work the kinks out of her legs and for me to work the rage out of my system.
As we pulled out of the travel center, we saw an old fellow standing by an old pickup truck, near the entrance holding a sign, “Need gas and dog food.”
I pulled over.
“You need dog food?”
“Yeah, it’s either that or I’ll have to sell my solar system to feed my critters.”
Well, I didn’t know what that meant but what I did know was that I had two bags of dog food.
“You have something to put the food in?” I asked.
“I’ll find something.”
The old boy hurried over with a little plastic bowl and I started to pour some food into it. I looked at the little bowl and the bag and the hopeful man.
“Screw it. Here take the whole bag.”
As the man took the treasured kibble, he blessed me a dozen times over, absolutions that couldn’t have carried more meaning if they’d been bestowed by the Pope himself.
He was pouring some of the food into a plastic bowl for his tail wagging dog as we drove off. I waved to him and he clasped his hands together at me in a gesture of thanks.
Twenty minutes down the road I turned to Cora.
“That old guy. He needed gas too. Damn it. I should’ve given him a twenty.”
“He’s probably gone by now.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Damn it.”
After spending a good hour or two at Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, we drove nonstop to Grants.
Google girl, the little witch, told me to take the last Grants exit to get to our motel, but I chose to take the first exit. As tired as we were I wanted to drive through town and get a lay of the place. It was during the drive through town that I took note of the ghosts of Grants.
The evening was one of those, “I’m hungry but I’m so tired I don’t know what I want” nights. We ended up ordering pizza from Dominos.
Below, Grants’ Ghosts
Two Photos Below, Plenty of vacancy at The Desert Sun, where fortune doesn’t shine despite, (or because of?) a cheap room rate.
Pisa, the one in Italy, doesn’t have anything on Groom, Texas. Pisa has a leaning tower, Groom has a leaning tower – the Britten Water Tower.
As you drive by Groom, Texas, population 672, you might notice a leaning water tower, with a large holding tank bearing the logo, Britten, USA.
The exact details of the whole story behind the purchase of the tower are murky, but any self respecting ghost story should be shrouded with at least a dash of mystery.
The tower was purchased by truck stop owner Ralph Britten, sometime around 1980 from the nearby town of Lefors. The story goes that Britten bought the tower to supply his business with water, but shortly after the purchase, he found a more efficient method to store water.
Stuck with a tower, Britten purposely set the tower in place off-kilter to attract customers to his gas station/restaurant. The marketing ploy was apparently successful, as motorists pulled over to see a tower that appeared to be on the verge of toppling. Unfortunately for Mr. Britten, his business burned to the ground and all that remains is Groom’s leaning tower, the lonely shadow of Ralph Britten’s once successful marketing scheme.
The Slug Bug Ranch.
Conway, Texas, or what’s left of it, sits eighteen miles east of Amarillo. As a town, Conway never really managed to take off. It hit its peak in 1969 when the population hit 175. This was two years after the Crutchfield family opened a gas station/gift shop called the Longhorn Ranch, alongside their Rattlesnake Ranch, which one assumes was a collection of rattlers for tourists to ooh and ahh over while being thankful that there was a barrier between themselves and the vipers.
Over the years the bottom fell out of Conway’s population. By 1970, the town would’ve been short work for any itinerant census takers who might’ve happened by, as the population dropped to a mere fifty residents. Six years later the town’s post office was closed. By the turn of the century, Conway was home to a mere twenty people, yet the Crutchfields, in a testament to either tenacity or bullheadedness, soldiered on.
The beginning of the end for the Crutchfield’s little enterprise came in 2002 when a Love’s Travel Center was opened on the other side of Interstate 40.
In a last ditch effort to attract customers, Tom Crutchfield built his own version of the famous Cadillac Ranch. He buried five Volkswagen Beetles nose down and called it the Bug Ranch. While it was somewhat of an attraction it wasn’t enough and the Crutchfields abandoned their business in 2003.
We stopped at the Bug Ranch after leaving Amarillo, on the way to Stroud, Oklahoma. We were the only ones there and the place struck me as a creepy alter ego to the packed carnival of the Cadillac Ranch. The Bug Ranch (even the name is creepy) was one of the places that seemed to have a haunted air about it. I took a few hasty photos and then we bugged out of the Bug Ranch.
Happily I resisted the temptation to crawl into any of the shells of the old autos as I’ve since discovered that they’ve become a nesting place for rattlesnakes. Descendants of the Crutchfield’s Rattlesnake Ranch exhibits? Perhaps.
Banner photo taken at the Slug Bug Ranch
For more on the Cadillac Ranch, follow the link to Route 66: From Santa Fe to the Big Texan.
Virginia City/Nevada City, Montana
The twin towns of Virginia City and Nevada City lay snugly in the folds of Montana’s Ruby, Tobacco Root and Gravelly mountain ranges.
On our way from Bozeman to Missoula we took a side trip to see the two nineteenth century gold mining towns that sit less than two miles apart.
Virginia City is not a ghost town in the traditional sense like Goffs, California or Conway, Texas. While small in population, Virginia City houses the seat of Madison County and thrives from the tourist industry, but unlike the unbridled carnival that is Deadwood, South Dakota, Virginia City has managed to preserve much of its original history – and some dignity which the Chamber of Commerce of Deadwood decided would not add a thin dime to the bottom line.
Founded in 1863, following the discovery of gold in the area, Virginia City lived the usual boom, bust and abandonment cycle of similar gold rush towns. Virginia City was rescued from disrepair by Charles and Sue Bovey who bought up much of the town in the 1940s. They transformed the old town into an outdoor museum as they worked on more extensive restorations. The Boveys, local heroes for their work, turned the town into a place that is just the right balance between a tourist destination and an educational historic site.
While there are the requisite attractions like a stage coach ride and gold panning, along with gift shops, restaurants and a candy store that sells old timey candy in flavors that nobody born after 1955 has ever heard of, much of the town is set up to look as it would have in the 19th century.
Down the road, Nevada City, while less developed, has fourteen of the town’s original buildings on display. I found the old railway station to be particularly fascinating.
Below, views of Virginia City and Nevada City.
The ghosts shift shapes as you go along but they’re easy to find. A ghost might be the remnants of a town, maybe an old building. It might be a vintage car rusting in a field, or maybe a ghost sign, one of those advertisements fading with every passing day from the brick wall where some hopeful entrepreneur painted it one day long ago when he embarked on the American Dream and started his own little enterprise.
And the small towns? What defines a small town? I suppose that’s a relative thing. Maybe it’s a place where you recognize faces instead of seeing hordes. Maybe it’s a place with no stop light. Maybe it’s a place that Starbucks, Burger King and the chicken colonel can’t be bothered with. A place where the waitress knows what “the usual” is. A place where authenticity requires actual authenticity.
Turn off Google, leave the highway and follow the road signs. County roads, country roads and gravel roads delivered us to towns with names that only locals know; towns with names like Fromberg, Belfry, Bridger, Talpa, and Trampas. Towns with names that set your mind wondering; Bear Creek, Broken Bow, Ogalala, Buffalo Gap, Big Horn and Big Timber. Towns with only a stop sign or two. Towns like Hamburg, Iowa where I stopped for coffee and a pastry. Ennis, Montana, where a vendor at the little farmer’s market gushed over Lexi, while telling us her own story; the story of how she came to Montana, from Florida, and suffered the winters until she learned to enjoy a place with seasons. Graybull, where, on a broiling Wyoming afternoon we stopped and parked in the shade at an A&W Drive-In that looked as it must have 30 years ago. We had burgers and root beer brought to our car by a carhop who certainly was earning her tips on that day.
Brief stops at places that carry just a ghost of a connection to my own life; Tucumcari, New Mexico, which I didn’t know existed except for being part of a lyric to a song written by Lowell George; Winslow, Arizona because Glenn Frey sang about standing on a corner of that little town; and Kaycee, Wyoming to take a quick peek at the Good Ride Cowboy monument to rodeo star/country singer, Chris LeDoux; and a detour to a little town in Missouri named Anderson because, well, we share the same name.
Below, views of ghosts and small towns
20 thoughts on “Small Towns, Old Towns and Old Ghosts”
This post and the pictures so perfectly capture the mood and feeling as you drive along that old highway!!! Amazing, well done.
Thank you M.B. I wish now that I’d known more about some of these places before I visited. Did you by any chance stop by Two Guns in Arizona. Fascinating story there.
I’m already planning the next road trip that I hope to take in September. Six to eight weeks in the Midwest, avoiding the big cities and major interstates.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Oh wow! Well if you wind up in Indiana look us up! 🙂 🙂 I don’t think we stopped in Two Guns, one of those things we didn’t quite have time for. Someday I’d love to take the route again or at least part of it! 🙂
Great pictures, especially the black and whites. There’s a stillness and sadness to them as if to say: “Time has moved on, but we haven’t.” Regardless, it appears you’ve discovered gems in ordinary things — buildings and structures that have survived in spite of time. I’ve learned about places I’d never choose to visit, but I still really enjoy reading your experiences.
And I like how Google girl led you astray only to guide you to someone who needed help.
You made a human connection and did a good turn. I think those moments are what we remember, no matter where we travel.
Yeah, these places really do lend themselves to monochrome, with the exception of the Bug Ranch which needs color to do it justice.
Many of the places we visited teach us how ephemeral man’s endeavors can be. The buildings are now empty monuments to businesses that were obsoleted by changes in tastes and time. I wonder if Walmart and Amazon and Starbucks will suffer the same fate. Likely not. Certainly not in my lifetime.
I suppose that there was time when these places didn’t interest me. Now I’m drawn to them. Another commenter mentioned a book titled Blue Highways which I intend to read. It’s travel diary about a man who travels around America but stays to the lesser traveled roads, avoiding cities and the major interstates.
Right after we’d given the man at the travel center some of our dog food I realized that it was a chance meeting that wouldn’t have happened had we not been sent on a wild Painted Desert chase. It was in the end a good thing and it did reinforce the need to fact check Google.
If I never had a travel bug before, I’ve certainly been bitten now. Or maybe that’s just a hitch hiker from the miserable little motel in Missoula.
Thanks for commenting and reading
a potpourri of the passing parade; we’ve all seen better days; great photos. well curated —
Thank you so much for reading and commenting John.
Wonderful post, full of the odd quirky sights that we will (hopefully) travel Rte 66 to see. I’ve bookmarked this page for future research purposes but can already see that the Bug Ranch and Virginia City will be essential stops, among many others. I’m reminded of the lyrics to Paul Simon’s Graceland:
‘And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties’
Hi Sarah, To be clear, Virginia City and the Bug Ranch are several states apart. Both are interesting places and for different reasons. The Bug Ranch will take a few minutes while you can spend a day in Virginia City. I believe you can even spend the night in Virginia City and I know for certain that you can spend a night in a cabin in nearby Nevada City.
If you aren’t already aware of it, check out Two Guns in Arizona. It has quite a long and interesting story that I will probably write about soon.
I’ve had this post opened since you posted it in my browser for the sheer beauty of the featured photo. To know it’s from the Bug Ranch and not really teeming with visitors as the Cadillac one makes me sad. Fascinating travel and story. You were just in time.
I think the Cadillac Ranch got more publicity because it started as an art project, which eventually encouraged the audience participation of spray painting the cars. The Bug Ranch on the other hand was a last ditch effort to save the business.
Being devoid of people when we were there certainly made for better photo ops. I’m glad though that I decided not to clamor into the cars with the snakes that lurk there.
Thank you again for reading and commenting.
Your travels on the “blue highways” have led you to some weirdly unusual and memorable destinations. Certainly much more interesting than our side trip to Bozeman from West Yellowstone to get a haircut for me a set of new tires for the car at Costco. Or Billings, MT on the return trip from Glacier NP because the city is named after a Vermonter (one of 3 principals in our NHP) who was also president of the Northern Pacific Railway. I’m taking notes!
We missed Billings by design. We had two choices in getting from Sheridan, WY to Red Lodge, MT. Going through Billings would have had us looping past the Little Bighorn Battlefield. At one time that might have interested me. I chose to forego that route in favor of a southern route that would have allowed us to visit the Pryor Wild Horse Range. That was preempted by a dust storm that made driving and visibility and certainly getting out of the car a problem.
If you haven’t been to Red Lodge, I highly recommend it. You must take the Beartooth Hwy.
We stayed one night in Bozeman. Interesting little city. It struck me as a liberal enclave in a deep red state, but I might have misread it.
Most of the odd places mentioned in my post were along Route 66. Stay tuned for a post on Two Guns in Arizona, a place with a very colorful history.
I’m glad you mentioned Blue Highways. I wasn’t familiar with the term so I looked it up and found the book which I now plan on reading.
I’m planning another road trip in early September, flying to either Iowa, ND or Minneapolis and then driving the Midwest. I plan to keep to the highways that used to be blue but now are red. Trying also to avoid the cities as much as possible.
As always thank you for reading and commenting.
Since you mentioned it, Red Lodge, MT and the Beartooth Hwy was on our 2019 itinerary between East Glacier and the Black Hills, SD. You know the tale of best laid plans: a late June 10″ snowstorm frustrated our “wildflower side trip” from Red Lodge to the summit of Beartooth and then returning down Rte 296 (portions of which Google Maps labels Dead Indian Hill Rd [how quaint] aka Chief Joseph Scenic Byway) and then on to Sheridan and the Black Hills. Maybe another time when we include some of your destinations!
Your defininition of small towns seems pretty accurate to me. They evoke a feeling that doesn’t happen in cities, except maybe in the semi-quaint neighborhoods in some cities. You mentioned the song line by Lowell George about Tucumcari (don’t forget Tehachapi and Tonopah). Some of the photos, especially those of Grants, remind me of the line from Merle Haggard’s “California Cottonfields” about weary men and broken dreams. You realize seeing them that every one of those photos represents someone’s bright hopes for a successful business. As those hopes dimmed and the businesses crapped out, the men and women who put their hopes and maybe their life savings into them might have broken down also.
I think that by and large people are pretty resilient. The business fails and they either start another or go to work for someone else.
Alright, I’m gonna try once again and I hope the internet gods don’t spam me for this (we’ve had huge internet hickups) all I wanted to say was, that I wasn’t sure, if your trip was kitschy or tragic. Either way, I waish I was there 🙂
I don’t know about the internet gods but I’ve found that WordPress can be maddeningly capricious. In any event you’ve achieved success.
Trust me, there was an abundance of kitsch, particularly along the southwestern portion between Southern California and Oklahoma. And I haven’t even touched yet on the blue whale in Oklahoma or Two Guns in Arizona.
There was no tragedy per se, but at times things did get a bit trying.
In any case, thank you for reading and thank you for commenting.
What a trip and so well photographed! I love all the old towns, cars, buildings and other stuff.
Thank you for visiting.
Yes it was quite the trip. Almost spur of the moment with only a month or less of planning.