Dude Ranch Vacations: A Remote Possibility

By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 9, 2002

WE SEE HER COMING FROM A WAYS OFF, 12-year-old Marci riding bareback on her horse, splashing across the creek, weaving between the sycamores, dramatic wall of mountain in the background. Soon she's at our front door with a plate of her mother's homemade cookies. Yesterday it was six fresh eggs, a gift from her chickens.

Marci sticks around, talks to us from high atop Snit's back. She tells us she'll be one of three students this fall in the one-room schoolhouse down the road, and any time the river floods she'll get the day off. We are in Blue, Ariz., in the middle of the state's remotest, wildest mountain country, an hour and a half from the nearest paved road, being spoiled silly at the most hospitable ranch in the world.

If you thought Arizona meant desert, hot, dry, think again. Think: dramatic mountains plunging to lush river canyons; surefooted horses on winding trails with dizzying views; bright mornings and cool nights. My sister and I do our hiking and riding early, head for the shade in the afternoon with a beer and a book, and wait for the brief, drenching storms.

Summer is monsoon season in Arizona, and wildflowers are in wild flower, the secret high meadows are bright with new grass, and the creeks are rushing along full of cold, noisy water. When summer turns to fall, a second perfect season will begin -- the green, mellow time after the rains end.

White-Knuckle Drive

The drive to Blue -- about seven hours east of Phoenix -- is a lesson in astonishment management. If you pass the lesson, you know you're in the right place. About 280 miles out of Phoenix, just past the town of Alpine, the road turns to dirt and goes south along the Blue River, which starts out barely a stream. It's easy driving at first, lazing through grassland and ponderosa pine, though we're at 7,000 feet, crossing an old volcanic table land. We assume we'll climb as we head into the Blue Range, but in fact we never do -- the road merely follows the river into the canyon it carves, the mountains rising around it.

The country sneaks up on us. The road starts changing. Its curves tighten and its sides become steep. Soon the river becomes a real river, fast and loud, and the road runs above it, beside it, above it again. The big trees are gone and we have twisted mesquite, prickly pear cactus, lots of rock, tumbled slopes of rock, sheer walls of rock, overhangs and caves in the rock. Some of it is igneous, the spewings of old volcanoes, black and purple pock-marked stuff, and some is red and yellow sedimentary rock, wildly tilted and eroded.

By the time we reach what they call the Lower Blue, the road is coiling around cliffs, shooting us out onto screaming precipices and yanking us back by the collar. We do hairpin switchback routines down to the bottom, because in places there is nowhere else for the road to go. We ford the river, dropping the truck into four-wheel high to ease it through the knee-deep current. "Anything coming?" I ask Lucy, and we look both ways before we cross. Anywhere they've tried to put a bridge down here, it has always washed away.

I can't decide if I'm squeamish or exhilarated, then settle on exhilarated. The road is wild, but not unsafe. The biggest drawback is that you can't really drive and look at the same time. Lucy and I take turns, and we toodle along like the tourists we are, waving the locals past when they roll up behind us in their brown-dusted, mud-fendered old pickups. This place is for four-wheel-drive vehicles only, unless you have some special telepathic knowledge that the river is planning to stay really low. Marci's parents will escort you if you are timid.

However you get there, it's worth it. You are in the middle of the Blue Range Primitive Area, the only designated primitive area in the entire National Forest system, which means no snowmobiles, no dirt bikes -- only hikers and horses allowed. There are a handful of century-old homesteads scattered along the canyon, but no other human habitation. And not a single road for hundreds of square miles, apart from this one tenuous artery.

Mountain People

Downs' Ranch, where Marci lives with her parents, Bill and Mona Bunnell, is tucked into a grove of sycamore and locust in the tiny valley formed by KP Creek. Half a dozen horses who have never seen the inside of a stable graze companionably, all day long, wherever they please. Chickens cruise around, leaving eggs in odd places, and guinea fowl shout raucous greetings at the guests until they get to know them. Hummingbirds zip around the feeders at the house, a stately old place of big pine logs and stone, built as a gambling lodge by some rich Texans in the early 1900s.

Lucy and I have a hummingbird feeder of our own, another gift from Marci, at our cabin, which is across the creek and downstream in a sweet, private spot. We're secluded but never really alone. There are mice in the crawl space under the house, and they run back and forth there early in the morning.

"I thought I set those mice for 5:30, but it's only 5:15," complains Lucy as she staggers into the kitchen for coffee. It's not the Hilton, it's not even Motel 6, but as long as you don't mind the sound of invisible rodents doing their dawn workout, it's blissful.

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