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Long frequently flies solo. "Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning and it'll be a great day, so I plug my iPod into my headset, get my favourite music, fly around and feel like I own the world."

Living and dead ghost towns in the desert

TOMBSTONE, Arizona | Arizona is a region of dry, open spaces where the main roads seem to run in straight lines for hundreds of kilometres and destinations are visible long before they are reached, only slowly crawling closer however hard the accelerator is pressed.

Maps show other, smaller roads that wind more interestingly, but, when asked about these, local people tend to look skeptically at you and your vehicle. "You'd best rent a proper truck," they say, "and take plenty of water in case there's trouble and you have to wait around." Despite Arizona's sandy horizons, to modern man it's apparently the lack of a mobile-phone signal that indicates true desert.

In these open spaces lie many of Arizona's original towns. They began as mining camps from the 1850s onward, springing up wherever gold, silver or copper was discovered and often dying out again just as quickly.

Tombstone, about an hour's drive south of Tucson, is amongst 130 ghost towns listed in Ghost Towns of Arizona by James & Barbara Sherman, and since it's conveniently on a modern highway (the I-10), seems a suitable starting point for a casual exploration of abandoned settlements. This is a ghost town for those not wanting to be too alone with the ghosts. On most days, visitors fill its dusty main street lined with low-rise wooden stores and saloons that seem to have been transported down the decades unweathered.

In its 1880 ­– 86 heyday Tombstone was the last word in lawless boom-towns. Founded on the 1877 discovery of four major deposits of silver, its first proper house appeared in 1879 and by 1881 there was wealth enough to support substantial civic buildings of brick and stone.

Its decline began when the silver mines flooded in 1886, and its residents now rely on tourism, trading on the notoriety of several gun-slinging former residents immortalized by Hollywood, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo.

The nearest real ghost town, Fairbank, is only about 15 minutes' drive west of Tombstone on SR82. It grew as a railway depot, with a population at its peak of nearly 500. Fairbank's last residents only left in the 1970s. Its school survived until 1944 and has been restored, although one of the few other remaining buildings is marked as dangerous. "That's the teacherage," said the attendant looking after the school's well-preserved interior, filled with rows of the original wooden desks, "and the reason it's dangerous is rattlesnakes have nested under the floor."


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