Monday, December 24, 2012

Unforgettable Christmas

December 17, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The spirit of Christmas was in the air in late December of 1955. The first snows had fallen in Arizona’s high country and winter had announced its arrival in the Superstition Wilderness. Low stratus clouds engulfed the towering spires of Superstition Mountain and a slow drizzling rain fell, meeting with the approval of local cattlemen.

Deep in the Superstition Wilderness there lived an angry, bitter and lonely old man who had chosen isolation rather than the kindness of friends. “Old Ben” had been prospecting these mountains for more than a decade. He believed the old Dutchman’s lost mine existed and he wanted to find it. His search for the Dutchman’s
gold had become as strong for “Old Ben” as anyone’s devotion to Jesus Christ.

My father and I visited Ben over the years because he and Dad had something in common besides the gold of Superstition Mountain. They were both veterans and had served with General John Perishing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, during World War I. Both men had witnessed the slaughter in the trenches along the Western Front and had survived the horror of the war in Europe.

Each year Dad and I tried to visit Ben’s Camp a couple weeks before Christmas to say hello. Ben functioned well in the mountains, but within society he was a misfit. His experiences, no less than that of my father’s during the war, had left his heart laden with hate for those who were associated with the production, distribution and application of war materials that were designed to destroy thousands and thousands of lives during that terrible time etched in Ben’s mind.

Ben chose to live apart from society because he couldn’t forget the rattle of machine guns, exploding artillery shells, fumes of poison gas, and the screaming agony of the wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefields. The war had been over for almost forty years, but Ben still lived in the shadow of its horror and terror. His mind was scared for eternity.

Dad had also survived the battlefield of that war and for that reason he understood Ben and was his friend. Ben and my father had spent many hours in idle conversation discussing the Dutchman’s lost mine, each being careful not to reveal any important information about its possible location. We often sat under a large boulder in Petrasch’s old camp in La Barge Canyon talking about the Dutchman, Jacob Waltz.

Sometimes Dad and Ben would hike up to Petrasch’s old camp on Tortilla Mountain and spend the day.

Christmas was once again coming to Ben’s Camp in the Superstition Wilderness, but he never celebrated Christmas because he didn’t see any real value in it. He said there was no God or Jesus Christ at Meuse-Argonne, Verdun, or the other major battlefields of Europe.

Once again we bid our farewell to Ben and began our hike out of the mountains, leaving the lonely old man to cope with his misery. As we drove home that day I thought of old Ben and his lonely existence.

Arriving home we found Mother had decorated a beautiful tree for our house. The spirit of Christmas filled our home as friends dropped by with a friendly “Merry Christmas.” My mother was always full of the Christmas spirit and she wanted to share it with everyone who would listen or sing carols with her.

On Christmas Eve morning I got up early and talked to Dad about our friend Ben. I kept thinking about Ben and finally suggested to Dad that I wanted to hike back into the mountains and spend Christmas Eve and Day with the old man. I was young and very impressionable at the time. My father’s first concern was my mother and our traditional family’s Christmas get together.

“What is Christmas, if it is not about sharing one’s friendship, didn’t you teach me this dad,” I inquired?

Mom and Dad decided to allow me to share my Christmas spirit of friendship and giving with Ben on Christmas Day. Mom provided me with a couple of quickly wrapped Christmas presents for Ben and I grabbed a colorful ornament from the tree. I prepared my hiking gear and I was on my way to First Water Trailhead with dad driving and advising.

I arrived at First Water about noon and began my hike. A light drizzle fell as I hiked along the trail toward La Barge Canyon. By the time I reached Ben’s Camp near Charlebois the daylight was rapidly disappearing. I called out for Ben as I arrived in his camp, wishing him a Merry Christmas. He called back inviting me into his camp. He immediately scolded me for leaving my parents on Christmas Eve and coming into the mountains. I handed him the two small packages mother had wrapped for him. The delicate glass Christmas ornament had survived the hike in my backpack. I handed him the ornament and then suggested we needed a Christmas tree. Ben laughed and said, “You're not going to find many pine trees in this desert.”

At that moment I could see that Ben enjoyed having my company. He ended his comment with, “The only trees around here are those devilish Cholla.”

Near Ben’s camp, in the dark, using a small flashlight, I found a Cholla cactus skeleton that would serve as our Christmas tree. The Cholla skeleton made a fitting desert Christmas tree. I piled some large rocks around the base of our tree and once the Cholla was secure Ben and I went about decorating it.

We placed the Christmas bulb from my mother’s tree on top of the Cholla. We added a few pieces of tinfoil here and there. We then made some ornaments out of empty Sardine and bean can lids. Ben had a plentiful supply. We made a simple garland out of bits of colored string we found in camp.

The tree was not an ordinary one, but then Ben was by no means an ordinary man. This was also no ordinary occasion for Ben. The meaning of Christmas had found its way back into Ben’s heart in that odd appearing Christmas tree. We laughed together of our effort to create a Christmas tree. We had found the spirit of Christmas together.

We sat admiring our handy work when Ben reached into his bag and removed a very old Bible, then placed it under our tree. With a tear in his eye he said, “Isn’t this what Christmas is really about?”

Yes, we were celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in the simplest manner. The happiness of sharing our friendship on that Christmas Eve I will never forget.

This lonely old man taught me that it is not how much you have, but the sharing of your friendship with others that is so important. Since that time many Christmases have come and gone, but few of them are remembered as this one.

My father eventually talked Ben into returning to society and being a friend to others. Each Christmas for many years, until his death, we received a card from him addressed to “My Desert Christmas Friends,” and simply signed “Ben.”

After 50 years, Sharon and I still decorate and enjoy a Cholla cactus skeleton in our home for Christmas with our traditional tree.

Monday, December 17, 2012

FAQ About the Superstitions

December 10, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

I taught a class about the history, geology, fauna, flora and legends of the Superstition Wilderness Area for more than twenty-five years in Apache Junction. These are the twenty most-commonly asked questions about the area.

1. How did Superstition Mountain get its name?
According to most historians the best answer to this question centers on the early farmers of the Salt River Valley. The farmers grew food for the Army at Fort McDowell in the late 1860’s. These farmers constantly heard stories from the Pimas about how they feared Superstition Mountain. The farmers thought the Pimas were superstitious about the mountain, hence the name. Early military sketch maps used in reports to the commander of Fort McDowell referred to the Salt River Mountains (Superstition Mountain) as Sierra de Supersticiones.

2. Is there a Dutchman’s Lost Gold Mine?
Most Arizona historians believe there is little evidence to suggest the existence of a rich gold mine in the Superstition Wilderness Area. One can never forget the old adage, “Gold is where you find it.” Hundreds have searched for the old Dutchman’s mine over the past century and it still remains lost. Most geologists will tell you there is no gold in the Superstition Wilderness Area.

3. Who was the Dutchman?

Jacob Waltz indeed existed and prospected the mountains of Arizona from 1863-1891. According to early pioneers of Mesa and Tempe, Waltz made several trips into the Superstition Mountains. He was born in Germany in 1810 and died in Phoenix, Arizona Territory, October 25, 1891. Waltz had gold claims in Yavapai County and worked gold claims in California. He also homesteaded 160 acres of land along the north bank of the Salt River in Phoenix. Much of the legend about this old German immigrant resulted from the gold ore cache found beneath his death bed and the stories written by Pierpont Constable Bicknell as told to him by Julia Thomas, prior to the turn of the century.

4. How do I find Peralta Trailhead?
Drive southeast from Apache Junction on Highway 60 toward Florence Junction. Peralta Road is approximately 2.4  miles east of King’s Ranch Road. Turn east on Peralta Road and drive 8 miles to the Peralta Trailhead; an unimproved dirt road. A hike of Peralta Trail provides a spectacular view of Weaver’s Needle. This is a very strenuous 1.75 mile hike. Remember, this is a wilderness hike.

5. How do I find First Water Trailhead?
Drive northeast of Apache Junction on State Route 88 (Apache Trail) 4.9 miles. Turn right onto First Water Road. This road is dirt and can be a very rough 2.5 miles to the trail head.

6. Where is the Lost Dutchman State Park?
The Lost Dutchman State Park is located 4.7 miles northeast of Apache Junction, Arizona on State Route 88 (Apache Trail). The entrance to the park is on the right hand side of the road traveling northeast from Apache Junction. The various day-use and campsites have spectacular views of the northwestern façade of Superstition Mountain. The park now has overnight hookups for water and electricity.

7. How did Superstition Mountain form?

According to Geologist Dr. Michael Sheridan of Arizona State University, Superstition Mountain was formed from volcanic activity 17 to 24 million years ago. Sheridan says the mountain was once part of a large caldera which resurged to form a massive mountain and after millions of years of erosion, presents as the Superstition Mountain we know. The rocks of Superstition Mountain are primarily volcanic in origin and are formed from alternating layers of ash and basalt.

8. How old is Superstition Mountain?

Geologists believe Superstition Mountain to be between 15 million and 29 million years old.

9. Do Native Americans live in the Superstitions?

Native Americans may occasionally visit the fringe regions of Superstition Wilderness Area today; however, they do not live there. The last Native Americans to occupy a small part of the Superstitions were the Pimas during the construction of the Apache Trail from 1903-1905.

10. Are there any roads into the Superstition Wilderness?

Roads are prohibited in a national wilderness area by law. Today, only one road actually penetrates the wilderness. This road is the Tortilla Ranch access corridor. The forest service plans on withdrawing this access corridor sometime in the future.

11. Are there any working gold mines in the Superstitions?
There are no working (profitable) gold mines operating within the boundaries of the Superstition Wilderness Area. The only gold mines that ever existed in the immediate area were the mines associated with the Superstition Mining District such as the  Mammoth, Bull Dog, and Black Queen, just west of Superstition Mountain proper. Visit the Goldfield Ghost Town to see the nostalgic remains of the old mining equipment and hear past stories about mining in the area.

12. What is a wilderness area?
A wilderness is a piece of public land set aside in its natural state and preserved for future generations to see and experience. The Superstition Wilderness Area encompasses some 159,780 acres of land in the Tonto National Forest.

13. Where can I see Weaver’s Needle from the highway?
Weaver’s Needle can be seen from both State Route 88 (Apache Trail) and U.S. Highway 60, approximately 7 miles northeast of Apache Junction at a new vista point. This is the best view of the “needle” from a paved highway.

14. Are permits required to visit the Superstition Wilderness?

The Superstition Wilderness Area does not require a permit to visit. First Water and Peralta are very popular trail heads to visit.

15. What agency regulates the Superstition Wilderness Area?
The Tonto National Forest Ranger District under the supervision of the United States Department of Agriculture.

16. What is the easiest way to see the Superstition Wilderness?
The quickest and easiest way to see the Superstition Wilderness is by helicopter, but this method can be very expensive. The cheapest method is hiking the enormous trail system of the wilderness. To use the trail system you must be prepared to do a lot of hiking or horseback riding. The best time of the year to hike the wilderness is between November and April.

17. How many miles of hiking trails are there in the Superstitions?
There are 140 miles of improved  system trails in the Superstition Wilderness Area and approximately 100 more miles of unimproved trails that do not appear on maps.

18. How high is Superstition Mountain above sea level?
The highest point on Superstition Mountain above sea level is Southeast Superstition Peak at 5,074 feet. Summit 5,024 is the second highest point on Superstition Mountain proper which is at the head of Siphon Draw.

19. What is the difference between Superstition Mountain and the Superstition Wilderness Area?

Superstition Mountain is one specific geographical location within the Superstition Wilderness Area, immediately east of Apache Junction. The Superstition Wilderness Area is a region of some 242 square miles or 159,780 acres containing many lesser mountains and some even higher mountains than Superstition Mountain.

20. Where can I get information on the Superstition Wilderness Area?

Mesa Ranger District, 5140 E. Ingram St., Mesa, Arizona 85205, (480) 610-3300.

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Silver Screen Heroes

December 3, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Times were tough in the late 1950s. My dream to attend the university vaporized after my first semester.

Well, who needed a university education? I had neither the ambition nor resources at the time. I was convinced I wasn’t intelligent enough to claw my way through eight semesters of classes at Arizona State Teacher’s College. So I gave up this goal. My second goal in life was to be a cowboy and it was far more desirable.

The old Quarter Circle U Ranch served as my introduction to manhood and making my own living. No longer would I be dependent on the folks at home. Often my checks were so small they didn’t even cover the bare essentials. That was OK with me. I was going to be a cowboy. My drive to accomplish this goal out-weighed my common sense, if I had any at the time.

I sold and traded all my precious childhood possessions and depleted my meager bank account to purchase a saddle, chaps, spurs, headstall, bridle, bit, reins, saddlebags, and a good 35-foot 3/8” nylon rope. My father and mother bought me a change of Levi shirts and pants. At the time I had a worn pair of Tony Lama boots.

I acquired all this tack without even a horse to ride. Barkley had not assigned me a remuda of horses to work with. Eventually I was given three head of horses to use. They were named Scooter, Sorrel, and Spook. All three mounts made an impression on me in one way or another.

Man, can I remember the first day I saddled up for my boss, William Thomas Barkley. I had carefully observed him during his saddling ritual every morning for almost a week. Never once did he ask me to saddle up and accompany him on the range. Finally one morning he looked at me and asked, “Are you ready?”

I tried to remember his saddling routine to the finest detail. First, he checked the horse’s feet to see that the hoof was clear of manure, gravel, small rocks and any other debris that might injury the horse’s foot. Using a hoof pick, Barkley ceremoniously cleared each hoof of debris. This was followed by careful examination
of the horse’s back, withers, and barrel for sores or injuries. After this careful examination, Barkley would then curry and follow by a though brushing. Barkley then placed a smooth blanket on the horse’s back, followed by a thick saddle pad.

Curried, brushed, and padded the horse was ready for his old Kaiser low-roper saddle. As Barkley picked up his saddle you could hear the well oiled leather creak. In one smooth motion he placed the saddle on the horse’s back. He carefully centered and adjusted the saddle to fit the horse’s back and withers. Barkley rode his saddle high upon the horse’s withers.

He then gathered in the cinch D-ring and pulled the latigo through. He checked his cinch to make sure it wasn’t twisted. With a few quick motions he was ready to cinch up his horse and tie off.

Next came the breast strap. He then tied his 45-foot nylon rope on his saddle that he used for groundwork. A canteen and saddlebags completed his saddling ritual. The final step was removing the nosebag and placing the headstall and bit in the horse’s mouth.

Barkley’s old horse Champ had a particular dislike for a cold bit. Bill would warm the bit for a few minutes with his hand before placing it in his horse’s mouth. This simple act convinced me Barkley loved his animals. The buckling of the throat strap ended the morning saddling routine.

He looked over at me and asked, “Are you ready?” At that moment I started a repeat performance of his routine. He watched me like a teacher watches and guides his or her students. He then called out to me, “Hey Slim let’s go. we’re burning daylight.”

The first day I was just trying to keep up with the man I now believed to the “King of the Cowboys.” I had envisioned a cowboy to be something entirely different than what I saw before me on that cool spring morning at the old Quarter Circle U Ranch.

No silver-studded saddle, no fancy chaps, no Winchester in a saddle scabbard, no fancy Western shirt and most of all no six-shooter on his hip. This was just a plain old cowboy who worked range cattle.

Barkley’s dress and demeanor was just the opposite of what I expected. He wore a sweatstained  denim shirt, pants, gray Stetson and a plain pair of Tony Lama boots. His skin was tanned and wrinkled from years of working in the desert sun. He face revealed the lines of hard work and hard times. He was a man of the desert range.

“Just a real old cowboy,” I thought as we rode off toward Coffee Flat to check on some of his stock. William Thomas Barkley was a cattleman following in the footsteps of his father William Augustus Barkley who settled on desert with his wife Gertrude in 1907.

If you travel to Gold Canyon, East of Mountain View Road, north to the Palmer Mine, and on to Canyon Lake and on east to Peter’s Mesa you are on the old Barkley Cattle Ranch. At one time the ranch encompassed one hundred seventeen sections of private, state and federal land.

I worked at the old Quarter Circle U Ranch during its twilight years as part of the Barkley Cattle Company. We rode the entire 117 sections of land packing salt, doctoring cattle and rounding up stock. By 1970 the Barkley Ranch no longer existed.

Today Chuck and Judy Backus own the Quarter Circle U Ranch and run cattle on state lease land. The Backuses are making an attempt to keep the history of the old Quarter Circle U Ranch alive. I certainly do admire them for doing that. As I look back at my experience on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch I had found the true silver screen hero of the West in William Thomas Barkley.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Riding With Buck Wallace

November 26, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Many years ago when I worked on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch in Pinal County I heard many a wild yarn. The storytellers would occasionally gather on the porch of the old bunkhouse on a hot summer evenings and the tall tales would begin. Usually the group was a mixture of cowboys, prospectors and sometimes an occasional deputy sheriff, brand inspector or game warden.

One hot July evening Bill Finch, the state brand inspector showed up about sundown. He wanted to throw his bedroll down and spend the night on the porch. Bill always had his guitar with him to serenade himself, the cattle and his horse. This particular night Buck Wallace, state game warden, was also spending the night. Buck also packed a guitar and a harmonica. Added to the group that night was also an old prospector named Joe Roider who played the spoons. Now add a cowboy and a greenhorn to this mixture and you really had a tall story brew.

The Black gnats and mosquitoes were biting and aggravating everyone. We put out a smoke pot filled with some kind of insect repellent that discouraged the insects a little, but just about suffocated us. I would guess it was about 98 degrees that evening as we sat singing and talking about the Old West and lost gold mines. Today, I believe I am the only survivor of that group. It was certainly one of those unforgettable evenings considering the circumstances.

As I recall the moon was full, and coyotes were howling, Bill Finch was singing “the Streets of Laredo,” Joe was playing the spoons, Buck was playing his guitar and harmonica and the rest of us were singing along. The night slowly began to fade away as the Coyotes howled and serenaded us.

I remember the group giving their opinions as to whether or not the old Dutchman’s mine existed and if it did— where? Then there was a story about a dead elk in the back of a pickup with mule shoes on it. As it turned out some dude hunter shot a mule thinking it was a cow elk. This discussion continued into the early hours of morning, never being any real agreement. When the disagreements got out of hand Bill Finch would start another song and play his guitar. Rather than argue everyone would join in playing and singing along with Bill Finch.

This was my first introduction to Garland Ellsworth “Buck” Wallace. Buck was a kind of man who was always on duty. It was after this get together Buck and I got acquainted. We made several rides together that winter into the Superstition Mountains.

Buck and I had spent several different occasions riding the mountains when the weather cooperated and sometimes when he was checking in on all the hunting and prospecting camps. I knew what Buck was looking for and I rode along with him. My boss wanted to be sure nobody was rustling any of his cattle and he encouraged my participation with Buck. I always enjoyed talking to this man. He was dedicated to enforcing the game laws in Arizona and preventing poaching. Buck in many ways was one of the few men I met that maintained my belief in the sliver screen cowboys that were heroes as a child. He was tall and slim and always clean cut. He wore a Stetson, Levis, pearl button Western shirts, always had his belt on that had his name “Buck” carved in it and of course cowboy boots. He always challenged me to do better in life. At the time all I wanted to do was become a good cowboy.

Whenever Buck visited the ranch I just volunteered to open our Serval refrigerator and freezer and let him have a look. The truth was I preferred beef instead of venison any day and Barkley always had plenty of beef on hand for us to eat.

On one beautiful day Buck and I rode over to Piper’s Camp at the base of Weaver’s Needle. I rode into camp ahead of Buck and greeted everyone. Buck would visit with the individuals in camp and look around. After his inspection we rode on to the next camp. This particular day Buck and I checked out four camps. All of our stops were peaceful in nature and we had no problems. After inspecting the camps we made our way back to the Quarter Circle U Ranch.

I will never forget how proud Buck was of his one-eyed Buckskin horse named Pard. Buck would tell me there was nothing Pard couldn’t do with one eye that a horse with two eyes could do. One day he talked me into a short horse race to show Pard’s  ability. Another time he told me how Pard saved his life in a pinch. A limb had knocked him out of the saddle and he was hanging over a cliff hung up in his rope on the side of his horse. Pard stood perfectly still until he was able cut the rope with his boot knife and free his leg.

The stories on the porch that night about the mountains and prospectors reminded me of what life had been like being associated with this mountain and those who called it home. Calling the mountain home was like calling it a special place to visit and regain one’s composure and continue on with life. That night on the porch of the old Quarter Circle U Ranch we recharged everyone’s mind about what was real and what was legendary. Buck Wallace, Bill Finch, Joe Rodier, and Mike Finley were real people in a world of pretenders. The spirit of the West lives in the memories of men like Garland Ellsworth “Buck” Wallace and old Bill Finch. I am a better person for have knowing them both.

Buck Wallace passed away August 8, 2012 at the age of 99. He was a Navy Seabee during World War II. He had worked for the Arizona Fish and Game Department as a warden for twenty years. He was a life long member of the Masonic Temple. Buck was a good man and he believed in helping others. I was proud to have known and ridden with him in the Superstition Mountains back in the late 1950’s. I had found one of my silver screen heroes in Buck Wallace. He was one of those heroes who represented ethics, honesty, integrity, respect and compassion. Today, my friends, we need more people like Buck Wallace.