EAT THIS BOOK: THE COLD VANISH by Jon Billman

I was a bookish child and so inept at sports that my friends would fight to NOT have me on their team. But two amazing women got me to love sports – and changed my life forever.

In university, my sister-in-law got me into hiking, biking and downhill skiing. (We also had adventures dinghy sailing.) And my friend, Marian Misters, co-owner of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, introduced me to road running.

Hard work and perseverance accomplished more than I dreamed of: I’ve run a marathon, regularly biked 120 km at a stretch and skied black diamonds without dying! But I remain in awe of ultramarathoners, adventurers and mountain climbers whose exploits I devoured in the late, great Outside magazine.

Jon Billman, is a search-and-rescue expert, a former wildland firefighter and regular contributor to Outside. In The Cold Vanish, he explores how and why people continue to go missing in the wilderness. It’s been said that the solution to an enduring mystery is often sadly banal. That may be true of the many cases Billman writes about, but like Jon Krakauer, he unveils the tragedy behind each story – and a warning.   Venturing into the wilderness requires an abundance of caution.

Billman’s book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down. The overarching  story centers on Jacob Gray, a 22 year-old cyclist who disappeared in Olympic National Park in Washington State.  He’d embarked on a cycling journey but shortly after leaving home, his bicycle was found abandoned by the side of the road, all his gear intact.  Close by was the fast-flowing Sol Duc River. Searchers assumed the worst: that he’d tried to fill his water bottle, fallen in and drowned.

Billman formed a close friendship with Jacob’s father, Randy, who never gave up hope of finding his son. They searched for Jacob for over a year, chasing scenarios from Jacob being involved in the drug trade to joining a cult to simply walking away from the world.  (No spoilers, you must read through to the end of the book to find out what really happened to Jacob.)

The reasons behind these disappearances range from murder to accidents to running away. Billman interviews scientists – there aren’t many of them – who  research how and why people go missing in the wilderness.

So how do people go missing? Much of the time accidents are to blame, usually falls when the person was on their own.  The other main reason? Simply getting lost and dying from exposure, which usually means dehydration or hypothermia. People greatly underestimate the amount of water they need when hiking, especially in the heat. And even temperatures as moderate as 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) can lead to hypothermia.

Sadly the vast majority of the cases do not end well. Billman does include a miraculous rescue, that of a young yoga teacher who went missing in Hawaii for over two weeks. She wandered off the marked trail in a nature preserve and got lost. She survived a fall and a broken leg, but knew enough about nature to stay dehydrated.  Search planes found her by chance in an area of the preserve far outside the search range. She’d wandered much farther than anyone had predicted.

The takeaways from the stories: those who go missing for a long time are found by chance and by people unassociated with the original search and rescue team.  Often as not, the missing  person is in a location logic did not dictate.

Important to remember that our predominantly urban society is spectacularly underequipped to deal with the wilderness. It’s not Disneyland. When exploring the wilderness, listen to the advice of forest rangers and park wardens. Don’t wander off marked trails.  Take the right amount of water, food and supplies with you. And never go alone.

My rating: 5 stars  Eat this book!

A Footnote:  In 2016, at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix, Arizona, I took a tour of the Apacheland Movie Set museum. Our guide told us how a hiker had died the day before of heat and dehydration. He’d wandered off the beaten track and gotten lost, one canyon looking much like another. Also that day, three German tourists had set off into the desert with umbrellas to ward off the sun, but greatly underestimated the quantity of water they needed. Fortunately they were rescued, dehydrated but alive.  Read the full story here.

SURREAL TRAP DOOR: Attacked by a Grouse!

Grandma’s garden and grouse lair

It’s been a cold spring in Ontario, but time to open up the cottage for the season.  This means gearing up to battle the field mice invasion and/or emptying our bank accounts to repair winter damage.

At first, Anno Horribilis aka 2020 seemed to have thrown us a break. A mature pine tree had cracked in half over the winter but the tree top landed clear of our roof.  No structural damage – whew!

As for the mice, well, remember Walter White’s respirator in Breaking Bad? Good thing we had one, because an ocean of rodent poop was waiting for us in the cupboard under the sink. More feces sprinkled over the counters, stove, you name it.  And a favorite quilt chewed to pieces. Sigh.

It’s necessary to take extreme precautions when cleaning up because Huron County deer mice  harbour the hantavirus. (Nasty info via the Ontario Government publication here.) But my love for animals was about to be further tested…

Outside in my late mother-in-law’s garden, we spotted a pretty bird about the size of a chicken. Not wanting to scare it away, I sneaked closer with my camera.

Grouse well-camouflaged. Probably ruffed grouse species.

 

The bird wasn’t afraid. In fact, it exhibited so little fear that we worried it was someone’s pet. Not a safe environment around our cottage for bunnies and birds – lots of hawks and the occasional carnivore…

While taking the protective plastic off our young fruit trees later on, I noticed the bird again. Quite unafraid, still following us. Worried now, I wondered, should we feed it? Ask our neighbours who it belonged to?

Turning my back to it, all of a sudden, WHACK! Something hard struck me between the shoulder blades. It was the damn bird! Too cowardly to attack fact to face apparently.

OK, I thought, obviously a territorial dispute happening here. For some unknown reason, the grouse had settled on our cottage property for mating and breeding purpose.

Now the grouse was much smaller than me, so its attack was merely disconcerting. Still as a long-term animal rights supporter, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit betrayed.

More was to come though. Grouse-zilla kept a beady eye on us as we cleared the yard every so often gathering itself for a rush. By now I was visualizing predators at the top end of the food chain. Where was a fox, muskrat or hawk when you needed one?

“Let’s take a walk to the beaver pond,” Ed suggested. “We’ll lose it in the woods.”

The beaver pond lies about half a kilometre east of our cottage.  You reach it via a trail through the woods.  As we made our way along the trail, we heard it rustling through the undergrowth beside us – all the way to the pond.

“Let’s walk around the pond. It’ll give up,” I said.

So round the pond we went – a fair distance over  ditches, narrow foot bridges, looping round on trails that aren’t easy to find. Did it follow? Of course it did.

It followed us all the way back to the cabin, a distance of at least one kilometre through dense trees and brush. In a (very) grudging way, I admired it. The little f**ker had grit.

After a quick search on the internet, I turned up other tales of grouse attacks. Here’s one of the funniest, Yellowstone Grouse Attack! on video.

We drove off but sadly it wasn’t under our tires. I hear grouse roasts up nice….

 

WANDERINGS: Riding in the Plague Year #1

Greetings Readers!

Strange times indeed. Normally in March and April, I’m training for The Ride to Conquer Cancer, to support cancer research at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, one of the top five centres in the world.

2020 would have been my 13th ride. Alas, not to be. The Ride is in limbo along with the rest of our world.  Hard to see how an event of 4000+ sweaty riders plus 1000 volunteers, all served by well-used porta-potties, leaking buckets of energy drinks and pawed-over treats, could happen in this epidemic year. 

No matter what they decide about the Ride itself, the donations will go to cancer research, if not this year, then in 2021. If only cancer went into quarantine! Happily though PMH has officially  joined the war on CORVID-19 with researchers working on a treatment / vaccine.

What to do in the meantime? Luckily because I’m a runner and cyclist I’m not housebound. No rules against either activity…yet.  Public health authorities encourage everyone to get fresh air. But where?

My favorite training loop, Mt. Pleasant cemetery, is closed, but city trails are not. And the streets are eerily empty of traffic. Surreal to be sure. My intrepid fellow companions are: dog walkers, families with small children, senior citizens and other crazy cyclists and runners. Waved to a gym buddy – an 82 year old grandmother and long distance runner who grew up during the Battle of Britain. 

My British blood stirs. This is our boomer moment, I guess. Crap! And it’s spring and reason for happiness.

Seen in Rosedale
Crocuses!
More spring flowers

 

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite bike routes runs along the Beltline. Uplifting to discover that its interesting street art is not only intact, but restored.

James Dean artist
Green tiger burning bright
New. Condom rocket?
Watching u

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Wildlife may be reclaiming their habitat judging by the sign spotted near the end of the Beltline. Stay safe, my friends!

Happy croc!
Motivation to pedal harder

EAT THIS BOOK: Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher

In February, Ed and I made our annual ski trip to Stowe, Vermont. Though old Stowe is rapidly disappearing due to the monolith monster condo development at the ski hill (now owned by Vail Resorts with concomitant sticker-shock pricing), vestiges of its old charm remain.

That includes our favorite hotel, The Green Mountain Inn, with its Shaker décor, warm fireplaces and afternoon tea and cookies. Locals  grab coffee and nosh down bacon and eggs at  The Café on Main next door in the Depot Building. Other must-eat noms: the over-sized chocolate chip cookies and superb fresh muffins.

While sipping Green Mountain’s dark roast eye-opener, we tried to resist the pleading eyes of a charming pug – and failed. He’s the resident pet in the best bookstore in Vermont: Bear Bond Books.

 

 

 

I’m trying to downsize my library but a visit to Bear Pond guarantees failure: I never leave without buying a book. Bear Pond promotes local authors, including crime writers: here’s where I discovered Archer Mayor and the Joe Gunther series.  This February, I struck more gold.

Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher intrigued me. The back cover outlined an adventure in bootlegging Canadian liquor across the US border during the Prohibition: an honourable part of our national history. And the novel drew on the intermingling of French Canadian and Vermont culture at the time. The hero’s name is Quebec Bill Bonhomme.

I’d anticipated that the border was once porous. Who knew how much? I was about to find out.

After the first page, I realized that I’d stumbled upon a gifted writer with a wildly exuberant imagination. Disappearances isn’t a mere adventure: it’s magic realism that reinvents and invigorates the tall tale.  It begins with our heroes’ visit to an asylum run by a mad, alcoholic doctor and an encounter with hermaphroditic twins and veers off into a series of Picaresque disasters. Crazy violence on par with noir author Johnny Shaw,  innumerable car crashes, an albino villain named Carcajou or “Wolverine” who won’t stay dead. Oh and did I mention that this is a comedy? I loved it! 

Disappearances  earned rave reviews from the Washington Post and Harper’s Magazine before winning the New England Book Award for fiction. In 2006, it was made into a film starring Kris Kristofferson and Genevieve Bujold. I’d never heard of it despite the cast.  It has a score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes – in other words, mixed reviews. According to IMDB, it failed spectacularly at the box office, costing $1.5 million to make and bringing in only $300,000.

Perhaps the wild, over-the-top fantasies work best on the page: a fever dream shared intimately between reader and author. We’re glutted by fabulous CGI and overblown violence on screen every day. Who remembers Tim Burton’s film, Big Fish even though it was a critical and financial success?

Howard Frank Mosher wrote 11 novels, many of which were turned into films by Jay Craven, an indie film-maker and native of Vermont.  And in case you doubt the influence of Quebec, what does “Vermont” mean? Vert mont or green mountain, right? Green Mountain range, Green Mountain Inn. Sometimes it takes 30+ years for the penny to drop.

In the meantime, EAT THIS BOOK!

 

 

 

 

Back on the Trail of Street Art!

Greetings Readers!

I’m home from Hawaii and a most enjoyable Left Coast Crime. Back on the bike, too,  training for my 10th Ride to Conquer Cancer.  Always good to see spring struggling through on the Belt Line Trail.20170329_115443

Had to touch the usual icons of street art on the way, Uplifting Homily and Toronto’s own, Boaty McBoatface.

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School kids are getting into it. Crossing through Cedarvale Park I spot this though it’s marred by some cynical graffiti. Met an elderly dog walker who recognized – and approved – of my recording street art. As a volunteer, he’s been an advocate for the park for 30 years. He pointed out the escape hatch from the subway, cleverly hidden in a rock pile just off the trail. 

Kids contribution
Kids contribution

As always, part of my regular route is inaccessible due to repair. This year the middle Don Valley trail from Pottery Road to Riverdale is closed with dire warning to trespassers that the police are patrolling. But the lower part is open and I was rewarded by new art.

Little do the motorists atop the ramp from DVP to the Gardiner know what’s beneath them. Feast your eyes, readers!

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BIG SALE for LEFT COAST CRIME!

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GREETINGS READERS!

As part of Left Coast Crime, my e-books will be on SALE on Amazon from March 16th to March 23rd at 12:00 am. The discounted price for each book is $0.99.

So if you haven’t had a chance to read my books on Kindle, you can now get ’em cheap.

ENJOY and many thanks!!

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Gators Love Marshmallows!

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September is marshmallow month!

 

Just got back from Bouchercon 2016 held in New Orleans, LA. It was my first visit to this haunted city – and I loved it. Tropical heat, “painted-lady” mansions, ornate ironwork, fin de siècle French cafes, crass voodoo shops (gruesome made in China shrunken heads), a streetcar really named Desire, antique neon signs, fab music…the list is endless.

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Voodoo & 24/7 beer
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French quarter

A bar culture shocking to a Canadian. Alcohol is freely available 24/7. Walgreen’s Drugstore sports shelves and shelves of bourbon. People wander freely about the streets drinking – as long as the container is plastic.

 

But what did I really want to see? GATORS!IMG_0814Swamp tours out of New Orleans end up at a nature conservancy about an hour’s drive out of the city.  Tourists are loaded into flat-bottomed boats named, somewhat disturbingly, Gatorbait!

Hopefully not you
Hopefully not you
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Rusty drawbridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our guide climbs on board the Gatorbait carrying a bag of marshmallows.  This is not, as we first suppose, a cheap snack for us. No, kiddies, this is the true gator bait!  As we are soon to learn, gators love marshmallows. And propelled by their powerful tails, they will jump out of the water for a hotdog on a stick. After all, hotdogs look just like tourist fingers!

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Our guide tosses a marshmallow onto the brown brackish water. Impossible to know what lurks beneath the surface.  It looks so bland and boring. Until two beady primordial eyes glide to the surface and snap! We’re back in the days of the dinosaurs.

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Where’s my candy?
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Pant like a dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, who cares if the sugar rots the gators’ teeth or clogs their arteries? Gators aren’t endangered, the guide tells us. They’re farmed locally, from eggs collected at the nature preserve. Otherwise the gators would eat them, a twisted sort of birth control. In fact, that’s why they love marshmallows. The candy looks just like gator eggs!

In fact, gators will eat just about anything smaller than them, especially baby alligators. (More birth control.)  Someone asks the guide if they eat humans. “Oh, no” he says. “My buds and I swim and jet ski all through the bayou. They’re a lot more scared of us than we are of them.”

Sure.

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Wild hog
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White egret

 

 

 

 

 

Other denizens of the swamp share the gators’ sweet tooth: an egret, a blue heron and a baby wild hog who chomps away at the mushy treats with a wary eye on a nearby, avariciously hungry baby gator.

More interesting facts: gators are territorial (no kidding), they cool off by panting like dogs, food rots in their stomachs if the weather gets too cold and they can live to be 100 years old.  Reminds me of certain presidential candidates…

For breakfast we sample gator sausage. Hmm. A bit dry with a taste reminiscent of the mystery meat served up in university cafeterias. Better to eat than to be eaten though…

Viva New Orleans!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Reading with Sam Wiebe!

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Looking for a summer thriller? Happy to recommend my friend, Sam Wiebe’s new book, The Invisible Dead! Last week Margaret Cannon, crime fiction reviewer of the Globe and Mail, gave it a rave review, calling Sam “a writer on the rise”.  Read the full text here.

Sam and I were both finalists for the 2012 Unhanged Arthur (Sam won). Subsequently Sam’s book, The Last of the Independents, was published by Dundurn and mine, Windigo Fire, by Seraphim Editions.  And then we were both short-listed for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award!! (Steve Burrows won).  Sam went on to win the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Best Mystery.

What I especially enjoy about Sam’s writing are his engaging characters, but even more so his darkly complex plot twists that plunge deeply into noir. He breaks many mystery conventions and rules: no cozies here.

I’ll be reading with Sam and fellow noir writers, Rob Brunet and John McFetridge on Thursday, July 14th, 6 pm at Sleuth of Baker Street to celebrate the launch Sam’s new book and series, The Invisible Dead. Join us for a great evening of noir crime fiction.

AND EAT SAM’S NEW BOOK, THE INVISIBLE DEAD!

sam

CYBER CAFE: Meet Rosemary McCracken

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Rosemary McCracken
Rosemary and I first became friends through our literary critique group which continues to thrive 15 years on. When we met, we'd each had one or two crime short stories published. Since then we've both published several more stories and been short-listed for the Unhanged Arthur and the Debut Dagger awards. And together we have broken through the barrier of traditional publication though Rosemary continues to set the pace!
 
This week Imajin Press released Raven Lake, the third book in Rosemary's popular Pat Tierney series. Rosemary draws on her work experience as a business journalist to create Pat, a tough, warm-hearted financial manager who runs her own business, deals with her family's many problems and solves crimes faster and better than the police! Jack Batten, the Toronto Star's crime fiction reviewer, has called Pat "a hugely attractive  sleuth figure". 

Subscribe to Rosemary's blog, Moving Target. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Check out her website, too.

The most successful novels are sparked by their authors’ passions. What passion did you follow in Raven Lake?

Gliding in my kayak over a quiet lake or creek, preferably one with no cottages, I feel completely plugged into nature. I come upon turtles sunning themselves on logs; loons teaching their chicks how to fish; herons blending in with marsh vegetation as they stalk their suppers; mink and bobcats drinking from the edge of the lake. One day, I rounded a bend in a creek and found a young bear fishing. Surprised to see me, he scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the woods.  

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So it was mandatory that I get Pat into a kayak—and, of course, she loves paddling as much as I do. And when Imajin Books asked me for suggestions for the Raven Lake book cover, I immediately thought of a figure in a kayak. I was thrilled with the cover that artistic director Ryan Doan came up with—complete with the shadow of a raven on the water. The back cover has a flock of ravens—an “unkindness” of ravens is, I believe, the collective noun.

I set Raven Lake in Ontario cottage country in the summertime to celebrate my many wonderful summers in the Haliburton Highlands north of Toronto—God’s country, it surely is! During those months, I spent a fair amount of time in my kayak exploring the lakes of the Leslie Frost Centre, a spectacular 32,000-hectare Crown land nature preserve that was accessible from my cottage.

Did you revisit any favourite topics in Raven Lake?     

In Raven Lake, I took on a new financial crime based on a real scam that was plaguing Ontario cottage country two summers ago: cottage rental fraud. Con artists were posting photos of lakefront properties on legitimate internet vacation rental sites. Would-be renters would wire their money to the “property owner” – discounts were given for payment in full – and when they arrived for their vacations, they were told by the real owners that the property was not for rent. 

A crime perfectly suited to cottage country.

Like Pat, I’m appalled by the financial exploitation of unsuspecting people that is rampant these days. Con artists are swindling their victims out of their savings through investment frauds, identity theft, telemarketing scams and loan schemes. The penalties for these crimes aren’t tough enough in Canada to deter these crooks.

Where can readers buy Raven Lake?

Click on the book cover image above. It will take you directly to the Amazon store in your country. And here’s the link, too: myBook.to/RavenLakeTierney

What do you like about the crime fiction genre?     

Crime fiction gives me an opportunity to work with some great bad guys and gals, characters I can really love to hate. I believe the antagonist is the second most important character in a novel, after the protagonist. I avoid completely evil antagonists because I can’t believe in them. No one is bad all the time.

I like the sense of closure at the end of a mystery or thriller. Peace and order has returned to the world. It may only be a temporary state of order; the antagonist may still be out there. But it’s peace and order for a time.

Tell us about your readers. Where are they located? Which topics have proven to be the most popular with them?     

Many of my readers are women, and judging from readers’ reviews, they seem to be taken with Pat Tierney’s ongoing family problems. They like the fact that she’s an Everywoman: a single mom who supports her family, does her very best for her clients, and has to deal with a whack of domestic problems. They can relate to a character like her.

The beauty of e-books is that authors can reach people who read English throughout the world. Safe Harbor, my first mystery, currently has 115 reader reviews on Amazon.com, and I think it’s safe to say that most are American readers. There are 15 reviews on Amazon.co.uk, so I know I have some British readers. And, of course, I have many readers in Ontario and I credit public librarians with bringing Ontario writers to the attention of library users.

Will there be a fourth Pat Tierney mystery?

I certainly hope so, although I’m not sure where Pat will take me next. I need to spend some quiet time this coming summer listening to her.

 Where can readers buy the first two Pat Tierney novels?

Click on the images below or use these links: Safe Harbor can be purchased at myBook.to/SafeHarborTierney. And Black Water at myBook.to/BlackWaterTierney. These are universal links that will take you to the Amazon store in your country.

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SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Rattlesnakes & Elvis

Greetings Readers! Here’s the long-promised Surreal Trapdoor from Phoenix, Arizona.

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Saguaro Cactus
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More cactus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Left Coast Crime conference, I took a tour of the Superstition Mountains and the Goldfield Ghost Town , a faithful reconstruction of a western gold-mining town with Disney-style staged gun-fights. Good fun, but a surreal trapdoor opened up en route at the Superstition Mountain Museum.

Ever see those 1950’s and 1960’s Westerns? They all look the same: rickety wooden buildings in the middle of a Roadrunner desert with lots of blowing dust and cactus. Well, there’s a reason for that. They were all shot on the same set: the Apacheland Movie Ranch.

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Old sign & rickety model
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My parents loved Have Gun Will Travel

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1970’s and 1980’s the public’s thirst for Westerns faded. Apacheland became a theme park then fell into disuse. It cycled through a revival or two in the 1980’s followed by  – count ’em – two, ahem, mysterious fires. The bits that survived were moved to the museum: a barn and – yes, you heard it right – an Elvis Chapel.

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The Elvis Chapel. Everybody wants one…

Our guide explains: Elvis starred in an ill-fated Western called Charro where he tried to make it as a straight actor. No songs except for one on the soundtrack. Luckily the flop didn’t hurt his career. A host of other famous stars filmed at Apacheland, including John Wayne and a young Clint Eastwood.

Elvis did better in Hawaii
Elvis did better in Hawaii
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Clint Eastwood, Middle Row, 2nd right

 

 

 

 

 

The Superstition Mountains themselves are perilous: the rough terrain boasts many steep drop-offs, extreme heat and arid conditions. People regularly lose their way or fall victim to heat stroke or dehydration. In fact, our guide tells us, a hiker’s body was recovered the day before our visit.

The mountains have a lurid history, much related to the mythical Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine.  And at least one murder. They’ve also been home to wild characters and hermits like Hacksaw Tom who robbed stagecoaches.

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The legend of Hacksaw Tom.
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No $$ in that carpet bag, just junk.

No doubt old Tom felt right at home with the dozen kinds of rattlers in the area. The snakes are avid patrons of the museum, as evidenced by the warning signs. And in the summer, our guide says, the rattlers especially enjoy lounging in the coolness under the pop machine. Caveat emptor indeed!

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All kinds & sizes of rattlers
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Snakes don’t need tickets