Into The Arizona Ghostlands
Have you ever been alone in a darkened room and an inexplicable and anxious sense of foreboding overcame you? Did your spine tingle as you crossed the threshold? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe the dead can speak to the living? You should.
Tales of the haunted abound. They’re everywhere; they surround us; they know us. Restless spirits seem to have infested our world no matter where we try to run or hide. What are they trying to tell us? What do they want? Are they simply echoes, a kind of resonance from the afterlife, the last sound of a soul as it departs this earth? Or is it something else, something more menacing? Could these be lost souls searching for a warm body? Your body?
The 2022 Indian Super Chief Limited proved a worthy ghost-busting companion. It feared neither the natural or supernatural, handled all its circumstances adroitly and transported me graciously from one macabre destination to the next. It was like my own flying portal to the other side. A classy specimen combining power and style, the Super Chief was not to be trifled with, although it was not without some bugaboos, but more on that later.
Arizona was conceived in blood and lawlessness, settled by an especially violent and desperate bunch. Cutthroat mining camps grew to raucous ramshackle towns where human life was less valuable than the going rate of silver. Whether the call came from Indian and cattle range wars, claim jumpers, crimes of passion, murderous greed, diseases most foul or cruel frontier justice, Death relentlessly rode the purple sage.
And so shall we. Joining me on the hunt is B. Valerie Gibbs, photographer, range pardner, mystic. The B stands for Bob, but he prefers Valerie. No one knows why. We will retrace the ghastly trails of the mortally brokenhearted, the murdered and massacred, the reluctant souls who eternally await justice or redemption. Many accounts from credible witnesses describe messages and apparitions, pinches, tugs and whispers from beyond a border we will all someday cross.
One among the many haunts of the Old West.
If born to ride, I was in my riding year 67, as was Valerie. Between us, we have been sentenced to 134 years and three days on planet Earth, so far. Kind of spooky, don’t you think? And so it seemed fitting to do some ghost hunting on motorcycle, specifically the Super Chief. Its 116 cubic-inch (1900cc) air-cooled Thunderstroke V-Twin delivers inhuman power through six speeds. Passing power is plentiful in any gear, including 6th, where downshifting is superfluous. Throw a saddle over a locomotive and you’d get the idea.
With a flip of the wrist and a satisfying roar, obstacles are just dust in your rear view. What better way to chase the afterlife? After all, we step toward the other side with each ride, using the things we know to deny Death’s bounty. One way to sneak by is to take dead aim at his black heart, to dare him to fight, to lure him out of the wretched shadows. Toss him in burning daylight at 80 per and see who flinches. Yes, this was a dangerous game.
A harsh, haunting land is Arizona, out in the wilds as well as in the old towns.
Virtually every old, creaky house and each historic and worn hotel have reported phenomena that defy science and sense. They document a paranormal series of peculiar events that have no reasonable, natural explanation. Investigators cannot explain the supernatural, but they can record it. Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), or if you will, voices from the grave, have been recorded for years while scores of unstable, cadaverous shapes have been photographed and cataloged as inconclusive evidence of the spirits that somehow dwell intimately with us. They have always been there, say paranormal investigators, and now we have the technology to not only detect the dearly departed, but communicate with them.
As you step through an aging doorway, are you simply entering an old house or darkened room, or have you breached the boundary between life and death? Have you just been welcomed, unknowingly, into the domain of that thing that goes bump in the night?
A worthy road companion, is the 2022 Indian Super Chief Limited. Somewhere along the haunted highways.
I rolled out of Los Angeles, heading south some 125 miles to rendezvous with Valerie. Up until then, I hadn’t spent too much highway time on the big Chief. Not a fan of screens, preferring the wind in my face, I was expecting a bit less joy out of the ride. I must confess, however, tucked in behind the large shield, keeping yet another LA heatwave somewhat off me was not a bad thing. The shield is a little high for me, at 5’ 7”. Ideally, you should be able to look over the windscreen not through it, which makes a difference when kamikaze bug suicides pile up on the glass, or the pouring rain comes for you. Until someone attaches a workable and reliable wiper, craning my neck to see over the shield was the only option. As Valerie observed, the shield may have benefitted from being tilted back toward the rider a couple of degrees. A quicker release quick-release windshield would be nice. This one required the removal of two screws, then undo two latches, then pull shield forward, then upward. Critical to packing for the long-haul is a backrest or sissy bar, which is not standard equipment on the Super Chief. We ordered their only option for this bike, a short bolt-on sissy bar ($329.99) plus backrest pad ($179.99).
Haunted Hotel Congress, in the heart of Tucson, Arizona.
Spirit Shenanigans in Tucson
But I digress. There were miles to ride and ghosts to bust. After burning some 435 miles through the Sonoran Desert, passing mountain ranges baked in the unrelenting sun for untold epochs, the lights of Tucson finally loomed and none too soon. Temps were above normal and usually in triple digits. Butt sore, thirsty, tired and maybe a little sun-blind, Tucson’s Hotel Congress looked like a long lost oasis. Home never felt so good, if even for two nights.
Built in 1919, the property oozes style, and maybe some ectoplasm. The architecture and furnishings are eclectic, a kind of art deco/western/post-1940s look that somehow is pulled together. The rooms are a classy collection of old, sometimes antique furniture, perfect for a haunting. The windows actually open, the bygone-style radios work and steam heat and evaporative cooling regulate the temperature.
Bright, classy rooms, loud, rowdy nightlife beyond after sunset. Pack earplugs. Photo by Hotel Congress.
There is a simple, old-fashioned pleasure to the Hotel Congress. Wear your fedora, pack your wingtips and bring your strongest ghost amulets because after the beer stops flowing in the Tap Room and the frenzied crowd exits Club Congress, the ghosts come out to play. I should caution the Hotel Congress is not a laid back, sleepy refuge for the road weary seeking rest. It is loud, bustling, and seems to get louder as the night draws on, or that could just be me getting cranky. No TV in rooms, but you wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway. Music stops at 2 a.m., every single night. HC is trendy, the unofficial nighttime epicenter of downtown Tucson, and usually crowded indoors and out. A few years ago, their parking lot was converted to outdoor dining and drinks, while hosting live music. Our nights included a good mariachi band and a sad singing cowboy.
The property’s most infamous guest was John Dillinger. He and his fellow bad guys took up residence on the third floor while the heat cooled after a spate of robberies. The floor burned down (and never rebuilt) but Dillinger and his boys escaped unharmed. The great criminal mastermind, however, encouraged (bribed) the firemen to retrieve their heavy bags, which were stuffed with weapons and cash. Since this seemed a bit odd for most guests, the firemen did some checking. Soon, the small-town Tucson police had done what the FBI and a virtual army of various state law enforcement officers failed to do: capture Dillinger. This led to his celebrated escape using shoe polish and a gun carved from soap. Perhaps Dillinger returns now and then, searching for his lost loot.
They actually still host/hold these at the Hotel Congress. Strange goings-on.
Staff at the hotel report a distinct image of a man looking out a guest-room window, but the room has been bolted and unrented for years. A little girl has been seen wandering the hotel. One evening, a new hotel staffer—a confirmed skeptic who gave no credence to ghost sightings—saw a little girl standing in the doorway of Room 220, which was vacant. When the woman began to ask her if she was lost, the little girl suddenly ran right through her. She’s a believer now, and will never again set foot in the Hotel Congress. Another account documents a man, described as “big and burly,” fleeing the hotel in the middle of the night scared out of his wits when his radio kept switching on and off by itself.
Then there was the mysterious case of the gentleman who brought his dog to the pet-friendly hotel (check if your pet would be welcome). It appears there was a spirit who didn’t approve of this practice. In the middle of the night his dog began barking and he felt an uncanny sensation that someone had entered his room, even though the door was dead-bolted from the inside. He immediately called the front desk to ask if any suspicious characters were lurking about. The desk clerk said the hotel had been dead quiet and was certain no one had gone upstairs. The next morning the guest found his bathroom door slammed shut and all the towels stuffed into the toilet. Perhaps the ghost was allergic to the pooch.
Next: Tombstone’s UnDead
*Photos by J. Joshua Placa and B. Valerie Gibbs
311 E. Congress
Tucson, AZ 85701
Next in Part Two: The torrid history and hauntings of Tombstone, Arizona.