Visit the interactive map for The Mine with the Iron Door.
I didn’t go into the mountains looking for a book recommendation. At the end of another school year–my fourteenth as a high school English teacher–I just wanted to relax and let ten months’ worth of knots in my neck and shoulders begin to untie. From my tattered and taped topographic map, I picked an eight-mile loop that started near the village of Summerhaven, close to the top of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, read a couple positive trail reviews online, and, though I had never hiked solo before, headed out alone on an early morning in late May of 2015.
At first the trail followed north along the high Oracle Ridge, with a precipitous green slope to my left that made me stop several times to appreciate its verdancy and stare dumbly down at the burnt stubbly trunks of once tall pine trees. A dozen years earlier the Aspen Fire had torn through this part of the mountain as well as many of the south-facing slopes visible from Tucson. Every day that summer huge plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the mountains and merging with the monsoon clouds that the particulate-filled air attracted; every night the bright orange streaks of fire seemed to float in the darkness above the city. I tried to imagine what this trail would have looked like among those tall trees, and if it would have been more popular under their shade.
I had picked this route mostly because I had read that the north side of the Catalinas are dramatic and beautiful and hardly explored by the scores of day hikers that overrun so many of the mountain’s other trails. The idea of having six hours in nature without the need for conversation seemed perfect. The trail also had a highlight that I was looking forward to: an old, abandoned mine camp about halfway through, where I planned to stop for lunch.
After about two miles, I came to the turnoff where the route dropped steeply into the east fork of the Cañon del Oro, following an old gravel forest or mining road, now washed out and spiked with weeds. About a mile-and-a-half down that road, the camp emerged from the tree-covered slope below. On that warm day, just as spring was giving way to summer, I found myself looking down on that corrugated steel structure with wonder.
I suppose I expected less, a rotted out shack with a collapsed roof, perhaps. The trail guides had not been too specific, but as I came around the last curve and descended into the camp’s yard I felt like I was trespassing.
The building wore obvious signs of its age, but this was no abandoned property. In front of the little house stood a raised platform with a couple chairs, a barbecue grill with a new propane tank, an old door propped up on four barrels for a table, and looking down from the little hilly yard, a stuffed costume–the General, I imagine now–surveying the entire scene.
I had not seen another person since I left my car almost four miles back up the mountain, but still I hesitated to approach the cabin, expecting an owner to appear at any moment and chase me off. My curiosity overcame my fear, however, and below the faded One Park Place sign, I pushed the door open carefully.
Inside, the smell of mice droppings was strong, but the place looked good–a little messy, to be sure, but not the disintegrated ruins one occasionally comes across in the mountains around Tucson. A couple old spring bed frames had sleeping bags laid over them. Shelves along the walls held an assortment of items, ranging from panning pans and old flashlights to books and dishes. A small refrigerator hung open in the corner behind the door. There was a mirror on one wall, and in the others, a couple stained glass windows.
Sitting neatly on the one small desk lay a simple homemade notebook with messages from previous visitors. Its corners had been nibbled by mice, and most of the pages were lightly stained and warped from having been wet at one time or another, but it was perfect lunchtime reading. I took it outside to the table and opened my pack: canned salmon, crackers, some fruit. The walk down had been fairly easy under hazy gray clouds, but now the Arizona blue sky showed itself, and, at the lower elevation, I felt warm.
The entries went as far back as the early 90s. Someone had been taking the handwritten pages home and typing them over the years, until sometime in 2003, when the typing stopped. In the last dozen years there were only handwritten messages on the blank pages at the back.
I had time, so I started at the beginning. The entries were mostly short. A lot expressed gratitude for the the upkeep of the camp–“Wow!! What an unexpected & pleasant surprise!!” Some people had stayed in the cabin to poke around in the canyon looking for gold, but several entries were from hikers who had been caught in monsoon storms and needed shelter or stumbled upon the place unexpectedly and stopped for a rest–“Thanks a bunch for the water and cokes for three tired horseback riders.” Others were purposeful visitors who had come to the place many times, occasionally leaving or exchanging supplies and recording in the book what they had taken and what they had left, and almost always offering thanks for the place itself.
The comments after 9/11 praising the peace of the mountains and acknowledging the change that had happened beyond their ridges marked perhaps the only event of the outside world significant enough to reach this valley paradise. Others described the big fire in 2003 that had burned much of the mountain. The threat had chased one visitor out after a fearful night watching the flames dancing on the slopes above, but in the end the fire held off and the cabin was spared.
Another entry described bringing one of the stained glass windows, and many praised the view. I paused often to admire that view myself. The mountains rose all around us, that little house and me, their ridges and sides flanked in shades of green except for the Reef of Rock, a bare spine of tan granite, cutting down a long ridge to our southwest.
I had gone into the mountains that morning looking for seclusion, for a break after the end of another long and satisfying school year, and for space to let my mind rest: a first solo hike, and at every corner, as long as I could suppress any fear of encountering the wrong end of a rattlesnake, there was relief that the trail was mine alone. What I had not counted on was meeting the General.
Throughout the pages of the guest log, the General was mentioned again and again, and I came to believe that he had been the one who had restored or preserved the cabin for so many years. He would visit regularly and leave a couple lines about his stay: “4/1/95 The General, Returned again to be healed from society’s mistakes,” or “6/13/03 The General, Things getting better here! Shower out back! Enjoy!” I, too, began to feel gratitude for what he had done in this little place so perfectly removed from the city on the other side of the mountains. I wondered how he made it in: Did he come down the same trail I did? Or come in from the other direction, slowly ascending into the canyon from Oracle or Charouleau Gap? Did he leave an old truck just two miles back where a Jeep road criss-crossed the trail?
The notebook recorded a history of the place told through its fragmented entries, and I wished the visitors had written more. We can come to know a place through our experiences with it and also through the stories that are told about it, and I was most thankful that the General had offered this as a place for people to record their thoughts.
I read the notebook to the end, added my own short note–it was not much but you will have to visit the cabin yourself to read it–took a few more minutes to enjoy the tranquility, the pleasing isolation of the place, and then continued on my way, further down toward the little creek that runs through the side canyon, and then back up another steep ridge toward my car.
The whole way up, I felt something unexpected considering the solitary hike of the morning–a connection to a community. I felt like I had shared in something with each of the people who had written in that notebook, and though I could not imagine what he looked like or know for sure the sound of his voice, the General was with me as I climbed out of the valley, often reminding me to look back at where I had been.
If the entries from the visitors to the cabin left me wanting more, the notebook offered some promise: one of the typed pages in the book, which appeared two or three times in different places, gave a short background of the area, paying special attention to the miners who used to work the valley, and the bigger companies who had built the Control Road connecting the town of Oracle to the north with Summerhaven on top of the mountain. The General alluded to “the past inhabitants of this beautiful valley,” before offering a few book recommendations for visitors interested in learning more.
The list included three titles–McKenna’s Gold, The Mine with the Iron Door, and Canyon O Gold, the book the General planned to write. McKenna’s Gold is a book, but the Gregory Peck film is far more famous. The film is interesting in its way–my son loved it, and still occasionally, unexpectedly, will sing the opening theme song about “That old turkey buzzard…”, but despite footage taken from across the Southwest, including the final act filmed almost entirely in northern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, the movie offered no satisfying information about the Cañon del Oro, or the miners the General had mentioned. I never could find anything more about Canyon O Gold, but Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door is still in print and I soon had my own copy. I may not have gone into the mountains looking for a book recommendation, but I came out with one that would lead me on several more adventures as I learned about the history of my adopted city of Tucson and its nearby mountains.
Visit the interactive map for The Mine with the Iron Door.