Saturday Drive to Greenlee County: Town of Duncan, Arizona
Odometer (Legend): 540,423
Odometer (ILX): 149,872
Trip Distance: 481 Miles
Come back with me to 1883 today. About 5 miles from the New Mexico state line lies a community that I’ll introduce you to.
Duncan’s story mirrors that of so many other small towns of the Old West: Mining origins, bustling and prosperous earlier years, and a steady decline from then onward. Today, the 696 people who live there are hearty. After all, they’ve survived two devastating Gila River floods that nearly wiped out the entire town, not to mention a widespread fire. To top it all off, the main highway through town – once a critical east-west thoroughfare – was bypassed about 30 miles to the south by Interstate 10 in the 1950’s. Duncan was left high and (not so) dry for the next several decades. It’s a small town in every sense: The people all know one another. Traffic lights are non-existent. And the locals look at you with a raised eyebrow and ask, “You came to Duncan, why?” if you tell them you’re visiting.
It seemed only fitting that before visiting Duncan, I visit Dunkin (Donuts). So, I grabbed a bagel and beverage in Scottsdale around 7:30 in the morning before beginning my journey.
My day started out eastbound on US Highway 60 on a voyage back in time. By the time I’d driven 100 miles, I’d already passed through a half dozen teeny little towns that were past their prime: Places like Miami, Claypool, and Globe that survive – barely – on the mining industry thanks to nearby Freeport McMoRan copper extraction operations. I stopped just a couple of times for photos at abandoned sites and to explore some back alleyways with their boarded-up windows and rickety looking exteriors. I also stumbled across a collection of four 1950’s Lincolns tucked away on a side street, some in better condition than others.
In Globe, I cut to Highway 70 and continued heading toward New Mexico. I rolled on a two-laner through the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation which covers 1.8 million acres in eastern Arizona. No reservation would be complete without a casino or two, and I exercised restraint by not stopping at the Apache Gold Casino Resort, lined extravagantly with palm trees that looked very out of place in this barren landscape. I also was tempted to make a stop at the “Rock-A-Buy” rock shop on the roadside, but decided to press on. I arrived in Duncan at 11:58 in the morning, just in time to pull my Acura ILX into Bart Tipton’s Saloon – long since boarded up – for a photo next to a 1950’s Chevy fire truck that probably hasn’t moved in quite some time now.
Church bells rang out the 12:00 hour, and I received a wave from a woman on the patio of the Riverfront Lounge across the street. She was probably mumbling to herself, “Damn tourist.” I think I had the only vehicle in town newer than about a 1990 model year. Jason arrived not long afterward in his well-traveled Mazda 6 sedan and we dined at the only place available for lunchtime grub: Tumbleweed Cafe / Patio / Lounge at 206 Old West Highway. Jason and I had work to do: The purpose of our meet-up was to lay the preliminary ground work for a 2016 Alaska drive we’ll be taking together next May. It’s now been 10 years since my dad and I took a similar 7,500-mile round-trip drive to Fairbanks and back in my Legend, and I’ve been wanting to go back.
The Western Burger hit the spot while Jason and I took a detailed look at timing, destinations, and budget topics for our Alaska trip. You’ll see coverage of that adventure in its entirety next year, and I’m excited to take you all along for the ride. Our very young waiter made a fuss at the cash register when we went to pay the bill for lunch. “You guys had to wait awhile; I’m going to take 10% off your bill,” he said. I told him not to worry about it. The total for our meals was only $20, and we’d been busy chatting it up about Alaska, anyway.
Duncan was the perfect meeting point for our Saturday drive because it represented a 3.5 hour one-way drive for me and a 2.5 hour drive for Jason. We took some time to explore the town – or what’s left of it – now that we were well-fed. A few blocks west of the restaurant lies a concrete platform that was once home to a railroad station. A drive down “East” Street (which is more gravel than paved) reveals older homes that have clung to their foundations in spite of the floods that came through the area, as well as empty lots where not-so-lucky homes used to reside. We got a few looks from locals who were setting up for an outdoor picnic of sorts in their front yard.
Next we rolled up to a park that at one time was probably the pride of the town. In 1998, a jet fighter plane was perched on top of a hill just south of town in recognition of the men and women of the Armed Forces who had served from the Duncan area. Today, the park is in a sort of disrepair. The adjacent swimming pool looks like an algae breeding ground, and the landscaping looks like it hasn’t seen much attention in awhile. Still, we got a good overview of the valley from there and the winding Gila River in the distance.
Our last stop was at Germaine’s Emporium, an elaborate collection of antiques, toys, books, and just general “stuff” right on the main highway. There were only two other customers there – locals, I think. Jason and I walked through the series of 5 or 6 rooms that were crammed with artifacts on shelf after shelf. I didn’t have cash on hand (shame on me), but Jason loaned me $1.40 so I could buy a cute little hardbound New Testament that was probably 100 years old.
It was time to split ways, so I said farewell to Jason and we headed in opposite directions on the Old West Highway. I looped home via an alternate route – interstate this time, instead of back roads. The I-10 experience is far less interesting but also far less involved than going through all the little towns on US 70 and US 60. I set my cruise control at 78 miles per hour and whizzed through Willcox, Benson, and Tucson on my way home, arriving just in time for a Saturday night out with friends. Enjoy the rest of the pics below!
Morning visit to Dunkin Donuts on Hayden Road in Scottsdale
Abandoned building in Miami (Arizona, that is)
Traveler Hotel in Miami. I think it’s closed, but that’s just a guess.
Who can identify the year of this Pink Lincoln?
Roadside abandoned service station on US 70
Restroom facilities are long-since left to ruin
Even Keen’s “Fort Thomas” Store was shut down, with a lonely dry gas pump out front
Pictured here is the Simpson Hotel in Duncan, built 101 years ago and still in operation today.
Some of the other cars around Duncan, including a decent-shape 1985 Honda CRX.
Exploring a dirt road up a canyon south of Duncan, until I got to a No Trespassing sign
Owner will finance! Should I buy some property in Duncan? Fixer-upper, for sure.
Rock church in Duncan
Lunch is served. And the curly fries were better than the ones at Arby’s!
Elevated concrete platform where a train station used to reside
Kool Spot RV Park and its elaborately painted (not) sign
View of Mount Graham as seen from US Highway 191 between Safford and Interstate 10
And finally a sunset as seen while stuck in bridge construction traffic on I-10 near Benson last night
Thanks for joining!
Here are a few other fun links to take a peek at today.
- 2017 NSX pricing now announced: $156k – $205k!
- 2016 ILX self-driving car, built by the same guy who hacked the original iPhone
- Somebody buy this extra set of NSX wheels from me!
Have a great week, everyone.