Like some people, my first trip through Arizona as an adult was riding my thumb. Highway 80 was the road of choice going West. It snaked through the heartland and got me to Berkeley, CA. A woman, ya know, was living there at the time, a former girlfriend. She writes children’s books now.
What shocked me the most on the first trip, was Arizona. It was Springtime, and desert flowers were blooming. Standing on the side of the road with only the wind for conversation the landscape pinched my mind and pierced my heart. I knew then at some point in the future I would call this desolately beautiful country home.
There I am as a photo-journalist for a small town newspaper. The best kind, by the way, small-town newspapers. Show Low, Arizona, with a dubious population of about 25,000 starkly independent souls. And open country to die for.
Show Low, and Pinetop/Lakeside, Arizona are nestled in the White Mountains in the Northeastern part of Arizona. The ride from Phoenix to the White Mountains is about 180 miles, give or take. You can go through Payson, or up through Globe. Either way, if it's your first time you are in for a hell of a ride.
If it's Spring you might want to take a jacket, gloves, and a hat or cap to warm your ears. It may be 80 degrees in the Valley, but...Show Low's elevation is 6300', and Pinetop/Lakeside is closer to 7,000'. Weather at higher elevations doesn't care what season it is, or how warm Phoenix happens to be in March.
The landscape will change as you climb the distance. Saguaro cacti of the Sonoran desert will fade away about 40 miles out of Phoenix, if you go through Payson, and tangled trees called alligator junipers will slowly take their place. Ponderosa pine will dominate the scene by the time you pass through Rye, on your way to Payson.
If you go through Globe hard scrabble and rocky canyons will poke your eyes out with wonder. This is outlaw country, where you can lose yourself and never find your way back. Some of it looks like country the Lone Ranger of the late 1950s, was filmed in. But wait…
Have you heard of the Salt River Canyon? It’s also known as the mini Grand Canyon of Arizona. It ain’t for the faint, of heart. It’s ten miles from one end to the other. Your first ride will feel like a million miles. Your stomach might not make the trip.
I truly learned how to drive riding the Salt River Canyon. I loved it from the moment I entered that multitude of hairpin curves, steep drop-offs, and breath-taking views. Not to mention all the wrecked cars and trucks littering the gorges. I have driven the canyon hundreds of times. It is still a major thrill.
Northeast of Payson by 22 miles is the Mogollon Rim. It rises 1700’ with sheer drop-offs for most of its 200-mile length stretching east and west across Arizona. It is the other major obstacle on the way to Show Low. Ponderosa pine populates the landscape you as you leave Payson, and head for the White Mountains.
It is the major landmark on your way and climbing its four-lane road to the top quickens your heart. Your neck might get sore from all the stretching you will do attempting to grasp the beauty of this land. And you thought Arizona was just a desert.
Once up the ‘Rim keep your eyes alert for monstrous elk. Ponderosa pine and elk blend together along the road and sometimes it is difficult to tell one from the other. Basically, there are no shoulders along Highway 260 from here to Show Low, and elk feeding along the side of the road might decide to cross over right in front of you.
“Watch for Elk” signs litter the road like diplomatic warnings. What they mean is: If you hit one, you and your car are toast. Elk do not pay attention to signs. Those are for you.
The ponderosa pines are beautiful, stately trees standing tall and firm in this high desert forest. They have evolved as fire-resistant trees. That doesn’t mean they don’t burn, it just takes them longer to catch fire.
Once clear of the ‘Rim the landscape flattens out and you may catch glimpses of the Rodeo-Chediski fire aftermath. Burn sections of the forest muddle the landscape, though the growth of new trees is on the rise. Those dark undulating hills off in the distance? Those are the White Mountains and you have arrived.
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