By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 9, 2002
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.
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.
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.
But you wouldn't be here at all if you weren't a bit adventurous. Like the Blue's first settlers, the Mogollon Indians, who stayed 1,500 years and left traces of themselves up and down the canyon. They must have had a name of their own for this land, though we don't know what that was. And although no one knows what they called themselves -- Mogollon (mugga-yun) is a Spanish explorer's name -- it is said they probably just thought of themselves as the People.
These first inhabitants lived peacefully in the millennium and a half they were here, leaving no evidence of warfare in their petroglyphs. They fished and hunted and raised maize and beans in the places where the canyon walls open to small, green floodplains. The ruins they left are all well above the reach of floods -- burial mounds are on hills above the river and their ceremonial caves are high in the canyon walls. Some of these areas are virtually inaccessible, though looters still got to many of them, long ago.
Grave robbers have been known to pay a high price, as in the case of a man known only as Mr. Kidd, an outsider who came through the area about 40 years ago. Locals, noticing his car after a while, went looking for him and found that he had descended by rope over the lip of the canyon but that the rope had been too short to reach the cave he was after. All they found hanging was that rope dangling in space.
Fortunately, there is still lots of evidence, all along the Blue River, of the ancient Native Americans who lived there. Lucy and I found arrowheads and bits of exquisite black-on-white pottery at a burial site we visited. We were careful to leave these as we found them, not wishing to incur the displeasure of their original owners.
The extensive ruins at Casa Malpais, not far from Alpine on the way into Blue, is the best place to appreciate these long-vanished people. A ranger leads informal tours through the ruins, beginning with an easy walk up a low mesa above the Little Colorado River, a stunning spot with wide views of the valley and the mountains beyond. The tour begins with the pueblo's simple homes, networks of small, square rooms with crawl-through doors connecting them. Then it moves to the kiva, a grand ceremonial gathering place with expertly laid stone walls, unusual among ancient kivas for being rectangular rather than circular. It then leads up a dramatic passageway, a staircase through the rock, bringing us onto the very top of the mesa, with sweeping, green views in every direction under a huge blue sky.
Coming down again, we see the big circular observatory, where equinoxes and solstices were attended, precise gaps in the stone walls lining up with these celestial events. By this point, we are awe-struck by the kind of life we see represented by this place. I think of the words of John Wesley Powell, the explorer who surveyed much of the Southwest and knew its Indians well. Speaking of a group he knew on the Little Colorado, a later people but perhaps related to the Mogollon, he noted, enviously, that their lives were "equally divided between labor, worship and play."
Finally, our guide tells us of the secret catacombs and shows us the general area of the entrance -- in the dirt floor of a small nondescript room, found accidentally by archaeologists a few years ago. Somebody asks the ranger to point to a more specific spot, but she shakes her head. The catacombs are off limits, which is fitting.
Their way of life changed little with the passing decades until recently, when the endangered loach minnow, championed by the Department of the Interior, forced a drastic reduction in their herds and put an end to ranching for most of them. The friendly mutts who lope around Downs' Ranch are retired cowdogs; the horses are out-of-work cowhorses. Bill and Mona are former ranchers, down-to-earth and friendly, who share their world with people like Lucy and me as a way to stay here, in the only place they've ever wanted to be.
"I've never felt like I needed to travel to see new places," says freckly, round-faced Mona. "Any time I want to see someplace new, I just ride over the mountain some other direction where I haven't been before."
Bill is more traveled. A soft-spoken man who seems tall because he's so lean, he left when he was young to go to college, where he majored, by his own account, in partying and rodeo. He rode broncs, drove tractor trailers, explored the West, came home again and married Mona. He's an expert horse trainer, a licensed wilderness guide and an EMT with a search-and-rescue team -- an all-around good guy to know in Blue.
Mona, however, is the one with the cushy job. She is Blue's postmaster on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, because those are the days the mail comes. The postal service is often more reliable than the phones, which can go out in the canyon for a couple of weeks at a time. If you call, don't be surprised if a bunch of different people answer and start talking in a neighborly way among themselves. It's a party line, and the folks don't always pay attention to whether it's their ring or not.
Marci and Mona and Bill live quietly, in love with this place. I think to myself, as I watch Marci ride around on her lovely chestnut horse, an elegant bareback pair walking slowly under the sycamores, that the ancient ones who once lived here would have liked these folks.
Blue, Ariz., on the Blue River, in the Blue Range. Think spring, summer, fall. Think monsoon, which makes the desert bloom. But forget winter. Not because of snow, which usually doesn't fall in appreciable amounts along KP Creek (although it does make for picture-postcard scenes on the high peaks all around). Forget winter for one reason only: sudden snowmelts that flood the river, making the crossings impassable, keeping Marci out of school and her mom and dad home, too, snug and happy down on the Blue.
Downs' Ranch Hide-Away (928-339- 4952) is about a seven-hour drive east of Phoenix. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, or you can arrange transportation with the owners from the town of Alpine (about 1 1/2 hours south). Cabin rates are $60 a night, double, with a $20 surcharge for each additional person, or $250 a week ($30). Rides are $10 an hour; specialty tours -- five days in the Blue Range Primitive Area with horses, guides, lodging and meals -- are $595 a person. The ranch also offers professional guided hunts.
Sally Shivnan last wrote for Travel on visiting the desert during the winter.
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