Monday, August 27, 2012

Jerome - Arizona's Secret Ghost Town

After a leisurely dinner, Lisa and I left Sedona at 8:30.  The map indicated that our destination, Prescott Valley, was about 50 miles away.  We settled in for a quick trip.  The sun had set and there would be no moon for several hours.  Stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon.  The evening was still warm.

The headlights of oncoming cars infrequently interrupted our stargazing.  After a while, Lisa noticed a small cluster of lights halfway up a mountain.  You could “see” the mountains only by viewing their silhouettes against the blanket of stars.  Road signs announced we were nearing the town of Cottonwood, but we could not see it.  The tiny outcropping of lights on the mountain was too far away to be Cottonwood.

We crested a small rise and
Cottonwood exploded before us, like the scene in Close Encounters where the Richard Dreyfuss character sees the landing site for the first time.  Streetlights, car lights, and porch lights filled the valley. 

We stayed on 89A as it angled right though, and quickly passed through.  The small cluster of lights on the mountain was getting closer.  We could see several much brighter lights among the others, in a line, going almost straight up.  Lisa stated they were streetlights, but that was not possible.  The road they illuminated would be too steep. I opined that they were probably lights on a ski lift, left on as a beacon for potential skiers.  I knew that it snowed in northern Arizona’s mountains in the winter.

But the road suddenly veered left and began to climb, quickly.  The rental car downshifted to maintain speed.  I felt as if we were ascending the first hill on a roller coaster.  We were locked in the ticking chain drive and the ride would not stop until it finished on its own.  We could now pick out the brighter lights.  Lisa was correct – they were streetlights.  After two tight hairpin turns, and still ascending, we entered the town of Jerome.  The roller-coaster feeling intensified.  The road was as steep as ever, but now there was oncoming traffic on one side, and dozens of motorcycles parked along the curb on the other.  The streetlights appeared bright in the distance, but did not illuminate much.  Music and bikers spilled out from a few bars.  We caught glimpses of an old brothel, some tired-looking houses, and several shabby commercial buildings.  We were mesmerized, but I wanted to keep moving.

Immediately after leaving Jerome, we saw two motorcycles and a car on the side of the road.  One of the bikers was sitting against the guardrail with his face half-covered in blood.  We stopped and asked if they needed help.  I was secretly pleased when they said help was already on the way.  I did not really want to stop – I already felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone.  All that was missing was the fog.  We pressed on.

Almost as bad as fog, we had now had utter darkness.  There were no more streetlights and no more stars – unless you looked straight up.  The mountains blocked all other sources of light.  The road continued to climb.  I could not count the number of 15 and 20 mph turns we had to navigate.  These sharp turns and the darkness made it impossible to see more than 100 feet ahead.  While I was (mostly) able to keep the car in my lane, I was afraid that I would come upon a vehicle or animal and not have time to avoid it.  An hour and two hundred or so turns later, we finally made it to Prescott Valley.

After checking in at the hotel, I googled  Jerome, Arizona and read that it claims to be both the most vertical town and the largest ghost town in the United States.  I can testify to the verticality.  Its ghost town claim refers to the fact that Jerome’s human population has declined from 15,000 to 1000 in the last seventy five years, and that it is full of the “spooky” kind of ghosts.  We decided to go back and investigate, but this time in the daylight

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