Southwestern ROAD TRIP

June 20-23, 2013

Amateur Radio Field day is normally a three- or four-day campout in the mountains with our ham radio buddies. But this year work, major surgery, weddings and other life got in the way, and Dennis and scrambled for another place to spend two precious days off. After 23 straight days of triple digit temperatures, all I could think about "water" and "north". We set our sights on the Black River in northern Arizona, a destination that has been on my bucket list for years since it was my sister Sue's favorite place in Arizona. Being unfamiliar with the area, I thought we should have a place to camp on Thursday night, so we reserved a spot at campground on a nearby lake.

Our plan was to head north on Thursday and arrive at the lake in time for a quick paddle in our itsy bitsy teeny weenie yellow Sevylor Tahiti. We stopped for lunch in Globe at Caffe i Vida, and squeezed in a quick visit to the White House, my favorite thrift shop.

We still had plenty of time to stop for ice cream along that endless strip that is Route 260 from Show Low to McNary ... and to ponder why all those Rimside towns are so ugly. It's not just poverty. Bisbee, Patagonia, Jerome and Williams are equally poor, but much easier on the eye. From Payson to McNary, there are towns perched on the edge of some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the Southwest, and it's nothing but Walmarts and fake Swiss chalet wildcat development as far as the eye can see.

Although we usually think of the Mogollon Rim as that miraculous 7000-foot shelf that cuts across northeast Arizona, we tend to forgot that the shelf continues to increase in elevation as you make your way toward the border with New Mexico. Near the Sunrise Ski Area, we were already over 9000 feet elevation, and the outside air was a delicious 72 degrees.

Thanks to the Solstice, the sun was still high in the sky when we spotted the first of the lakes, each of them lapis blue in a gleaming gold setting. This was not what we were expecting. After 12 years in Arizona, where the largest natural lake is a (dry) 100-acre pond, I'm no longer surprised when the blue lake in the tourist brochures is a half-empty mud hole with a huge parking lot and an overabundance of speedboats buzzing like angry hornets. Our lake of choice was clean. And quiet. Nothing but a handful of low-powered fishing boats putt-putting across the water. There are lots of campgrounds on the lake, but they all seemed populated by family groups quietly dangling their hooks in the water while they watched the sun set.

Our campsite was about 20 feet from the water's edge, tucked into a grove of mixed aspen and blue spruce. Totally enthralled, we immediately booked two more nights. And after dark, when the wind died down, we were delighted with a full-moon paddle along the edge of the lake.

Friday morning it was blowing hard again, so we packed a lunch and plenty of water and hiked all the way around the lake. It was lovely! But for a few campgrounds, the lake shore is utterly unpopulated. We raised dozens of killdeer as well as ducks, horned larks, coots, cormorants great blue herons. Osprey and ravens winged overhead, and high winds made for dramatic textures on the surface of the water.

We had planned to do a long day hike along the Black River on Saturday, but some possible issues with altitude sent us scurrying downhill. We headed east toward Alpine, the nearest town, through high dense forest more typical of Colorado than Arizona, and still surprisingly lovely despite the ravages of the massive Wallow Fire of 2011.

Sure enough, the lower altitude seemed to make a difference. We stopped for pancakes the size of frisbees at the Bear Wallow Cafe, which fortunately stayed where we put them.

So what next? There we were in the Gila Wilderness, both feeling fine with two more days of vacation ahead of us. The town of Mogollon was just a few miles out of our way. I visited it once in 2003, but it was Thanksgiving and the town was deserted. I had always planned on a return visit in warmer weather; today was the day!

The nine-mile drive is a hair-raiser, barely one lane wide with a multitude of blind corners. I can't imagine how I ever made it up there in the Winter, in a 23-year-old van, but it was absolutely worth the trip! Our first stop was the Mogollon Artisans Gallery, which has a nice selection of local art and crafts. The very gracious proprietor guided to the many charms of Mogollon, including the local museum which has an outstanding collection of Mimbres pottery as well as tools, equpment and other remnants of Mogollon's past as a thriving silver mining town with 14 saloons and two brothels. The museum is staffed by Dick Weaver, a retired biologist and expert on bighorn sheep, who is happy to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Mogollon's past.

If you have a capable 4WD vehicle, the cemetery at the top of the hill is well worth a visit, and do not miss the legendary burgers and purple slaw at The Purple Onion, Mogollon's wonderful restaurant.

We thought we might spend the night at Sundial Hot Springs, but locals warned us — and our experience confirmed — that the proprietor neither answers the phone nor returns phone calls. A far better choice was simply down to the San Francisco Hot Springs. I last visited this area on my first swing through the Southwest in 1998, and was very disappointed to find nothing more than a lukewarm footbath after a hot hike down a steep cliff. Suffice it to say that we had a very different experience on this trip, making our way downhill just in time for a refreshing dip at the cooler end of one of the longest days of the year. The full moon popped over the ridge on our way back uphill, and provided enough light to cook dinner on the tailgate before heading for cooler camping in Mule Creek Pass.

I thought we'd head straight back to Tucson on Sunday, but a few miles down the road, we spotted the turnoff for FR 112 ...