By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
For them, all that glitters is not gold.
Tara McCabe sighs heavily, gazing out the picture window of her cabin. Stretching out before her are acres of thick, pristine pines. The sun is slowly retreating over the ridgeline, leaving the valley that cradles Walker, and her cabin, in shadow.
"You know, what depresses me about all this is that the mining people just don't get it," she says, recounting a phone conversation with Leon McCarra, president of Marra/Majestic, during which he said the company would be happy to spend some of the profits from its Walker mine to build a library for the "town's youth."
"It was like he expected me to think that was a good thing," McCabe says, shaking her head.
After all, there are probably more mountain lions than "youths" in Walker, and to the reclusive and primarily over-40 Walker crowd, the prospect of building a library is akin to building a synagogue in the Vatican. Who needs it?
The McCabe-McCarra exchange illustrates the fundamental disagreement over what it is that makes Walker valuable--its gold or its nothingness.
In Walker, the only community building is a small firehouse, holding the town's tanker truck. Nearby, "downtown" is memorialized by a lonely historical marker, which at night is barely illuminated by a bulb mounted on the only pay phone within ten miles. The only regular enterprise conducted in town is an outdoor Sunday school, held on spring and summer Sabbath mornings--weather permitting.
It's fair to say that there is no "there" there.
And that is exactly what residents like about it.
McCabe and her husband, Terry, who runs a moving company in Prescott, settled in Walker because it is "one of the most beautiful spots in the state."
"We came out here to get away from technology and civilization," McCabe says. "But it seems like you can't get away from it anywhere.
"It's too bad, because there needs to be some places where there isn't any civilization. There certainly aren't very many left."
Certainly not many like Walker.
A quick history lesson:
By 1863, the fabled California gold rush was over. The richest veins had played out, and most of the thousands of miners who had flocked to the West to make their fortune found themselves broke and adrift: prospectors without prospects. Some, weary of the chase for the big strike, traded in their pickaxes for rifles and found employment in the Union Army, then on the brink of engaging the Confederates in a bloody battle at Gettysburg. But others, afflicted with terminal Gold Fever, were drawn to the site of what promised to be the next glistening bonanza--the Arizona Territory.
In the spring of that year, Joseph Reddeford Walker, a mountain man who rode with Kit Carson and was the first to guide a wagon train from St. Louis to California, led a party of bedraggled miners into the central mountains of Arizona. There, they camped along Lynx Creek. (So named, legend has it, after a member of the party, finding what he believed to be a dead lynx lying in the water, bent to pick it up. The animal, very much alive, frightened the miner so badly he beat it to death with a stick.)
When not dispatching bathing lynx, Walker and crew found time to discover one of the richest gold lodes in the West.
Before long, thousands of miners, braving hostile Yavapai and Apache Indians, descended on the new town of Walker. Saloons and brothels rose next to mills and smelters, as the population zoomed to 4,000 almost overnight. Miners dug the Poland-Walker tunnel--at 8,000-plus feet the longest in the world at the time--through the Bradshaw Mountains so that millions of dollars worth of gold ore could be moved quickly to a main railroad line.
More immigrants, attracted to the area by the Walker strike, drew out a map marking the boundaries of a nearby upstart town called Prescott the next year, 1864.
Mining gave Walker life. But it destroyed life, as well.
The rolling hills of the area, covered with tall pines, were almost denuded for lumber to shore up mine shafts. Piles of tailings, filled with toxic mining by-products like lead and arsenic, were left to decompose. The runoff from these slag piles and waste dumps made Lynx Creek run a murky turquoise in the spring and turn a foamy brown in summer.
By the turn of the century, when the gold ran out and the miners moved on, Walker resembled the cratered landscape of an alien planet.
But slowly, Mother Nature worked her magic on Walker. The trees grew back, the birds who called them home returned. Much of the land in and around the town was made part of the Prescott National Forest, and after World War II, the area became a haven for full-time urban dropouts and weekend wilderness warriors escaping the Valley's heat--a new, rural suburbia built atop the ruins of a long-dead era.
It is a new breed who call Walker home now, people who prize their solitude as much as any miner ever treasured a nugget.
And the new community retains old memories of what havoc mining can bring. Which is why residents like Tara McCabe equate the rebirth of mining in Walker with the return of the plague.