I’m sitting at the train depot of a ghost town, waiting for the next departure of the narrow-gauge tourist cars. It’s all but deserted, sans a few of us curiosity-seeking folk who are interested in the crusty old relics that remain as evidence of a town long ago abandoned as a gold mine. Or so it appears on the surface. I was to find out later that the old place is actually a still-yielding vein. Out of the 100,000 abandoned claims, this is one of only two left in operation in Arizona, I’m told. Personally, I love old stuff. History, antiques, weathered buildings and the folklore that goes with all of it lights my lights. Consequently, I jump at any chance I get to visit places that offer an opportunity to learn about times of antiquity.
“From the looks of them boots I’d have to say you’re a native girl,” the guy decked out in engineer garb suggests as he points at my dusty Justins. I raise up the steel toes as I laugh. “Texas, actually,” I correct him. Tall and handsome, the trainman comes over to stand close, points at my Canon and strikes up a conversation about modern cameras and how easy it is to take decent photos these days. He pulls his phone out of the front pocket of his bib overalls and explains that even a cellphone can render a good image, especially if you know all the little shortcuts of manipulating your gadget. He reminisces about the time his wife, who he calls his bride, enrolled them in photography classes when they were young. Problem was, he already had a photography business and printed film in his own very nice darkroom. He describes his bellows camera, the tintypes and glass plates. The teacher was intimidated by his knowledge and invited him to teach the class himself.
He skips around talking about several other businesses, careers and jobs he held before he moved his bride permanently from Illinois to Arizona. I ask the 70-year-old what job it was he retired from. “Which time?” he scoffs. “I’ve done a bit of everything… retired a bunch of times, actually. I even worked for Peabody’s coal train!” He chuckles and tips his engineer cap as he waits for me to recognize the reference to John Prine’s song, “Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train.” I tell about my grandfather being an engineer with the Southern Pacific when I was small. He grabs me and directs me towards the steam engine. “You’re gonna like this photo, then,” he assures me with a smile. He puts his arm around me as the shutter snaps. For a split-second I was a little girl at the round house with my grandpa back in Texas.
My entertaining and witty new friend, who is of Cherokee/Seminole descent like me, shoves his hands deep into the pockets of the striped overalls. Looking down at the ground, he shares that he was never blessed with children but his large family was enough. They gave him grief about leaving his hometown. “I came out for Thanksgiving one year and bought a place. We’d go back and forth then one year, as I’m scraping ice off the windshield, I found myself wondering why I was there freezing when I could be here getting a tan. That was it! In 2013 we loaded up and made that miserable drive for the last time. My bride was thrilled. And here I am with a whole new career. Again.” He grins, sharing that his family loves to flop on his couch when the snow buries their farms. “I figured out a long time ago that you don’t want to have a big house with comfortable guestrooms. They’ll show up and never leave!”
He points at my Harley-Davidson-emblazoned jacket and changes the subject abruptly. “My big brother loves Harleys. Ever since he was about 16 that guy has been a H-D freak. Me? I was always into speed and Harleys just didn’t measure up.” He rambles about stats, gears and racetracks. I remain silent until he coyly asks what I do for work because he’s certain I’m too young to be retired. “With that fair skin, I can tell you’re not even close to 60. Mid-50s is my guess.” I give him a curtsey for his blatant lie before handing over a business card. We discuss life as a journalist and my not having a car for 13 years. “I’ve met several gals like you. Seems to be a trend these days, women on motorcycles. It’s kinda going around. But no car at all… a writer? Yeah, that’s pretty exciting. You must really be enjoying life.” Billie Red Horse hands me his card and I comment on the “original art” declaration. “Oh, it’s not what you think,” he says. “It’s all kind of different stuff. You come back out sometime; I’m pretty sure we can find some really interesting stuff to talk about. I’m certain we’ll be friends. My bride’s not like me; she’s perfectly content to be alone. Me, I’m a people guy. That’s why this is perfect for me. I love the history of Arizona and everything about it. It’s been great for us.” Billie checks his pocket watch, announces that the train is about to board and gives me tips on where the best cactus photos are to be had.