Editor at Large

Editor Alexis Doster, gets his pants scared off at summer camp.


Alexis "Dusty" Doster moved to Arizona in 1954 when he was 11 years old and instantly fell in love with the desert and the mountains of the Southwest. While his career has kept him at the Smithsonian for more than 30 years, he still enjoys his twice-yearly visits to family and friends in Tucson.

The Tracks to Hell

After dinner, let's take the kids up to that old mine in the canyon," said Bill, squinting into the glare of an Arizona summer afternoon. "We'll have a fire, tell ‘em ghost stories." Steve and I listened wearily. Bill continued, "We'll need flashlights, water, matches and the marshmallows." "OK, boss, if you want to," we said, resigned, our free night gone.

Bill was 16 that summer of 1956, a seasoned counselor at our YMCA summer camp. Steve and I were junior counselors, know-it-all 13-year-olds whose qualifications were that we had been to the camp at least one previous year and weren't unusually scatterbrained. The kids were boys of 10 to 12 or so, here for two weeks of horseback riding, riflery, archery, swimming, crafts and mountain hikes. It was a nice camp, low-key and sane, with a good staff.

Its bunkhouses, cook shack and activities buildings sat on a rare flat place on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Tucson sprawled on the south side of this rugged and beautiful range, but it was our side, the camp side, that had attracted miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They had come to dig for silver and gold, but all that remained of their years of work in the hard rock were yawning shafts, tailing dumps and slowly rusting machinery.

After our dinner of burgers, beans and bug juice, Bill rounded up his group, about a dozen campers and Steve and me as shepherds. Shouldering the supplies in our army surplus rucksacks, we set off up the mile-long trail to the abandoned mine.

With a sizable flat, sandy area for a fire, this mine site was ideal for our stories-around-the-campfire purpose. It had been a substantial operation, though no buildings remained intact. A large horizontal shaft ran straight back into the mountainside, who knew how far. A pair of rails from the old ore railroad led several hundred feet from the site of a now nearly vanished hopper building to vanish into the darkness of the shaft. Battered ore trucks lay tipped on their sides. Pieces of machinery were heaped about in twisted, surreal assemblages. Scattered along the rails were the bones—no skull—of a long dead cow, bleached very white by the sun.

When we reached the mine, sunset had gone, and the sudden chill of the desert night was falling. Bright starlight softened the harsh landscape and heightened the weirdness of the twisted piles of metal. We quickly arranged rocks in a circle, gathered some dead mesquite and had a fire blazing in a few minutes.

Grateful for the warmth, the campers got out their sharpened sticks and the marshmallow roast began. While we toasted the powder-coated white blobs of sugar until they flamed, and then licked them off our sticky fingers, Bill began to tell scary stories about the bad men of the Old West who had prowled the mining camps, committing their awful deeds, paying an awful price.

"Finally, the miners would get tired of ‘em," he said, "and string ‘em up. A lot of sinners lived around here. Bad, bad sinners." Standing in the firelight, warming to his story, he gestured toward the tracks and the old cow bones around them. "See those tracks!" he said. "That's the railroad to Hell!" Voice rising now, "That old mine shaft goes right straight down to where the Devil lives! See those bones! They're the bones of sinners that fell out of the cars!"

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