Adventures from Back of Beyond

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Sacred Site

The San Francisco Peaks are considered sacred to more than one Native American tribe, including both the Hopi and Navajo. But they are sacred also because on a steep slope near the top is the the remarkably well preserved site of a crashed WWII B-24 bomber.

On September 15, 1944, while on a training mission from Kingman, the plane slammed into the side of the mountain, Arizona's highest peak. All 8 crewmen perished instantaneously as the bomber disintegrated, the plane's disembodied parts strewn throughout a football field sized debris field.

The crashed bomber is something of a legend in Arizona, and one of the first intriguing stories I learned when I moved to Arizona in 1978. The site of the crash is widely speculated, and one of Arizona's best kept secrets. From what I heard, it was off the northern face of the mountain, reachable perhaps off the Bearjaw-Abineau loop. That is not quite correct, I learned yesterday, when Arizona yielded one of her prized secrets to me. To find it was to me a very moving "Oh my God" moment.

After some research, I had a pretty good idea of where to look. After about 90 minutes of rigorous hiking up at about 11,200 feet, but still over a thousand feet below the summit, I found the wrecked bomber.

The crash site is mostly within a clearing in the densely forested slope, which makes it easy to see the enormity of the debris field. The aluminim airplane parts are largely spared the cover of vegetation even today, some 60+ years afterwards. The debris sits in stark contrast to the dark angular volcanic boulders that comprise the steep slope of the mountain.

Approaching from the top, I was awed at the size and scale of it. Viewed from top down, the site was appropriately framed with incredible 100 mile views below and beyond of the high forested volcanic plateau of Northern Arizona.

As I inspected the debris I felt a reverence, considering the lives lost at this exact spot. This place is sacred and worthy of respect.

I was stunned by the remarkably well preserved debris. Paint, including the star symbol used on American aircraft in WWII, was largely unfaded on a near-complete section of wing. Tread was still visible on a section of tire. Rust was nearly nonexistent. Stamped part numbers were plainly visible on certain pieces that look like they could been produced yesterday.

Later, after I'd descended to near the bottom of the mountain, I looked back up at where I'd been. Using binoculars, I spotted the debris field from below and was agained awed by the size and scale of the crash. The debris field is plainly visible if you know where to look from near the bottom of the mountain.

This is a special place, one that adds to the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks.


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