Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A True Ghost Town by Stuart R. West

My wife grew up in Oklahoma. So we make frequent trips there to visit her family (I drew the lucky straw there. Awesome in-laws!). On one of our first treks, she drove us through a small slip of a town named Picher. Set just off the highway, if you blink it’s possible to miss it completely. It can hardly be considered a town any longer. What few residences still exist are dilapidated, sad, empty domiciles stitched together by cobwebs and memories. Buildings slant, leaning lazily, victims of nature’s strokes. Only the foundations of some buildings still exist. Trees bend in the same direction as if bowing down to some unseen force. Stores are torn apart, trash and rubble scattered across the floors. Rather enigmatic graffiti decorates the still standing walls, warnings and farewells. In one particularly
macabre touch, a store-owner had hung his bath robe in the store front along with the ironically jolly sign, “Sorry! Closed.”

Of course I had to get out and investigate. Turns out that wasn’t the brightest idea. What very few residents who still live there apparently aren’t the friendliest bunch. They’re easy to spot, most of them hauling serious speed in pick-up trucks sporting confederate flags emblazoned on the side and gun racks raised high. Make of that what you will. They’re called “chat rats,” very territorial and scary guys, practically living out their lawless Wild West fantasies. I suppose they’ve picked the right place as Picher is little more than an old ghost town.

Above all of this sad devastation looms the primary cause. The chat piles. Miles and mountains of earth dug out and abandoned in man’s quest for lead and zinc. The mining had also poisoned the land, the water and the air of Pitcher, Oklahoma. Most reasonable people have long moved out (excluding, of course, the aforementioned chat rats). Or died off. But the mountains of toxic waste remain behind. You could practically smell the toxicity. Needless to say, I got in the car fast.

But Picher stayed with me. A sad, dead town that haunted. And I knew there had to be a story in there.

And there was, too. I discovered quite a tale involving dubious mine owners, Native Americans, violent union strikes, corporate greed and town destroying tornadoes. What was once one of the most prosperous mining towns in the country had been reduced to rubbish. It's now the oldest and largest environmental Superfund site in America.

I turned my research into Ghosts of Gannaway. Now of course I embellished the tale with ghosts and other fictional conceits. And an undying romance that spans decades. But the saga of Picher is sadly unforgettable.

Coming soon from Books We Love: Ghosts of Gannaway by Stuart R. West