I’ve made my way back to Arizona for the winter. Again. It’s been home for the last three winters and is an arrangement I’m looking at as permanent, or at least as permanent as there is in the life of a drifter, I suppose. It’s the perfect place to lay up while waiting for Mother Nature to bless us all with spring flowers and dry skies and I’ve taken to utilizing the temperate weather to experience the back roads and hidden beauty of the rugged state. It’s an easy hub for trips to neighboring Nevada and California.
I’ve become quite spoiled by the 70–80 degree weather in January and picking free breakfast citrus right off the tree. The Beast enjoys having a roof over him and while the local sun-scorched blacktops might be worn and weary, at least there aren’t a lot of crater-sized potholes. I would have to warn visitors to the state that trying to negotiate the infrastructure, particularly the freeways in and around the state capitol of Phoenix, can be a source of headaches, however. Big ones, even. Rush hour traffic runs from 5:00 a.m. to noon with the evening rush averaging 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 at night. This is not an exaggeration. I read a local’s joke about the freeways where it was explained that the Maricopa Freeway, the Papago Freeway and the I-10 are all the same freeway. It’s also true that the SR-202 and the Red Mountain Freeway is the same freeway just as the surface streets of Dunlap and Olive are the same street and there are several more examples if I only had the space here to share them all. SR-101 and the Pima Freeway are different names for the same freeway except west of the I-17 freeway, where it then becomes the Black Canyon Freeway and the Veterans Memorial Highway. So, you can understand why I spend a lot of time getting lost while navigating the Valley of the Sun’s roadways. But getting off the main highways can glean some pretty cool experiences. You must be aware, however, that blacktops turn into gravel roads often and sometimes with little to no warning.
I spent patches of my childhood in various parts of Arizona, including the northern state’s college town of Flagstaff and the central valley’s Phoenix. The most memorable years were spent playing in and around the mountains of the Tonto National Forest at the Horse Mesa Dam. The dam was completed in 1927 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. I called it home for several years as a kid. It seems odd to call the area a forest since the high desert where I spent my days chasing chuckwallas and bluebellies (the former are big lizards while the latter are small) was far from anything resembling a pine tree. There were plenty of ancient saguaros and the famous jumping cactus, the cholla, however, and I grew up learning how to waterski on the beautiful Apache Lake while trying hard to avoid rattlesnakes and javelinas when on land. There are parts of the Tonto National Forest that are forested, though, since the park spans some 2,873,200 acres, is the fifth largest national park in the entire United States, and encompasses several elevation changes.
Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by our 48th state’s vividly colorful history and incredible landscape so day trips to ghost towns, museums, and other historical places is a regular part of my winter wonderland adventuring, but the unplanned adventures always seemed to provide a happy opportunity to learn new routes and scope out an area. My most recent sojourn had me down along the lower part of the 200-mile-long Salt River where I ran across a band of wild horses. You can see some of the pictures and read about the horses in this issue, but I have to share that I spent a couple of hours standing in the warmth of the afternoon sun on the banks of the river absolutely spellbound by the magic of the chance encounter.
While I’ve seen parts of the herd before while riding along the Bush Highway, which is a 15.22-mile-long scenic highway, this was a much more personal, spiritual occurrence. There were about 20 head of the estimated 100 horses that still roam the area and getting to see that many so close to me was one of the high points of my Arizona experiences. Foals nursed as mothers casually grazed and older ponies hung out together. The stallion, who was more muscled and fit than the rest of the band, kept watch over his family while slowly inching them along towards the trail behind me. I never moved. They were spooked once as a family crested the ridge above the river, but they didn’t run off so I spent the afternoon photographing the animals to my heart’s content. I left the river just before dark absolutely thrilled by the excitement over the entire afternoon.
The next day I found myself in the town of Superior, at the base of Apache’s Leap, which is another place of historical significance. I swung by to check out the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and admission was free. I gathered several pamphlets on other places to check out when it dawned on me: the best days are the ones that cost nothing but petrol.