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Dirt road to Perkinsville

In Search of Drake, AZ

© Ed Wischmeyer

Right there in the road atlas, so surely it must exist, is the town of Drake, AZ, at the start of the road to Perkinsville.

Originally named Cedar Glade, but renamed Drake in 1920, “It was a major stop for the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad [the current railroad name],” according to an Arizona Department of Tourism website.

The railroad depot was built by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad in 1901, but they withdrew rail service in 1969. The depot is now a gift shop on Iron Springs Road in Prescott, moved there in the 70s, say railroad enthusiast web sites.

Drake has its own radio station, KJZA, 89.5 FM, owned by St. Paul Bible College but playing pop music.

But what is still in Drake? What does it look like? Who lives there? What are their stories? And what about Perkinsville?

Getting to Drake is easy – go north on Highway 89 and look for road signs halfway between the metropolises of Paulden and Ash Fork. The web lists another Drake, AZ, but that one is an impostor in Mohave County, a mere bend in the road adjacent to Interstate 40 between Kingman and Yucca.

North of Paulden, a rise in the terrain dams up civilization to the south. Over the rise is the road to Drake, barely marked. More prominently marked is the “Drake Overpass” farther north, above the railroad track and providing a scenic view over the natural plantation of alligator juniper.

A turnaround spot farther on reveals a sign just off the road, with paint peeled but not faded. “Cutting area 0.6 mi ahead. No hot cutting along trail.” Whatever that means…

On this Saturday noon, there is a steady exodus on the road from Drake. Well-used pickup trucks and tired sedans stream down the road, most filled with workers, each vehicle qualifying for an HOV lane.

A mile from the highway and just before the end of the pavement, there is a wide spot adjacent to Hell’s Canyon. This is an equal opportunity litter site, with both Bud cans and plastic water bottles. Farther along the road, a hundred foot radio tower stands tall above the junipers.

The pavement ends, and the unpaved road, “not regularly maintained by Yavapai County” according to the sign, comes to a railroad crossing and turns left.

This is Drake.

On the left is a commercial yard with trucks and sheds for trans-shipping flagstone from quarry truck to railroad. The yard office is in a blue single-wide trailer, the side of which proclaims in prominent, white, irregular block letters, “THE YANKS ARE COMING LADIES KISS YOUR BUTTS GOODBYE.”

There is a house in Drake, only one, peeling tired white paint from the clapboard siding, missing doors and windows like a senior citizen missing teeth. I stay in the truck with my wife.

Only workers are visible, wandering around the flagstone yard, two of them washing a car. There are no side streets. There is no town. There are no residents. Their stories are long gone, long since forgotten or moved somewhere else.

Farther along the flagstone yard are palettes: palettes of enormous thick flagstone slabs standing on end, palettes of thinner pieces of flagstone stacked in taut cubes of nearly solid rock, and stacks and stacks of empty palettes. There are no fences, no concern for those who might hoist and heist a palette of flagstone.

The road turns and re-crosses the railroad tracks with stop signs instead of railroad crossing signs. There is nothing more to Drake. The twin Port-a-Potties at the end of the flagstone yard were the town limits.

The road towards Perkinsville, leaving Drake and hoping for something better, abandons the railroad as the countryside opens up. This area is an obvious home for deer and antelope, but none are to be seen. Instead, two enormous power lines bully their way across the pristine landscape towards Mingus Mountain, their cackling and hissing and crackling and sizzling easily audible a hundred yards away.

Here is a photo opportunity, the power lines improbably reflecting the noon sun in bright white catenaries. The shoulders of the road accumulate the tailings of “civilization,” a Bud can, time of death forensically estimated from label-fading as two months ago; another beer can, flattened and label obliterated; an inverted, water-filled hubcap, 9 inches across; and similar treasures up and down the sides of the road.

More vehicles head the other way, filled with workers and friends of workers, and an occasional worker’s family.

The unpaved road explores the hills and dales and valleys and trails as the countryside ripples. Small, dry creek crossings are marked, “Do not enter when flooded,” almost the only road sign. Small rocks in the roadway annoy the truck and occupants with the mildest massage.

Two narrow bridges cross less-small creeks, both damp-bottomed. The first creek has sweet-talked its way through soft rock, sculpting it, creating its own model railroad-sized version of the Grand Canyon. The larger creek is filled with basketball sized rocks and larger, the channel ten feet across and ten deep. This creek has grown up in the country, but wants to move on, to see the world, maybe even to go to a real town like Clarksdale.

More cars come, more trucks, more workers, and silver-haired seniors in a silver SUV return a wave.

More turns, more hills, and the town of Perkinsville appears below, an occupied house and some ranch buildings, the Verde River and the railroad tracks from Drake, tracks passing through on their way to the power station in Clarksdale.

Sharing those tracks is the Verde Valley railroad, an out and back tourist excursion from Clarksdale to Perkinsville. Passengers are not allowed off the train in Perkinsville, but the old terminal is still there, its platform a tangle of loose, crossed boards. The stand for the water tower is still there, but the tank is gone, supposedly blown up for a movie.

Duded up deciduous trees celebrate autumn with pastels of yellow and green, reminders that winter and snows frequent the high desert.

A truck turns off towards the Perkins ranch, whence the name Perkinsville. Our road continues towards home, smoother and faster than the way in. One pickup truck has two younger women in it, and a mini-SUV parked in the distance apparently belongs to the two women and a dog exploring a creek bottom along the road. One looks annoyed when I wave.

The land empties, the vistas vast as the road slants up the hillside. Tourist vehicles fill the road, with Texas license plates or the self-importance of new SUVs and pickups. We love this land like grandparents love grandchildren when they know there are others to handle crises and difficult times.

The locals know this land, have known it for years. The Perkins ranch has been in the family for a century. The locals know how to live 30 miles from the nearest retailer. The locals can deal with not entering when flooded.An older woman in a dusty, faded-red SUV drives the other way with speed of one who drives this road frequently. A contented smile of confidence and familiarity graces her face. She knows this land. She belongs.

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