Saturday, August 15, 2009

Off the Beaten Path-- Blowout at 7,000 Feet

The Bradshaw Mountains, April 2002

[This has the distinction of being the very first off road trail that Denis and I ever took. Since then we've been on trails so rough that this one now seems like a Sunday drive down the interstate. I hope you enjoy our adventure. All photos are clickable to view them full size.]

When I learned that I had a three-day weekend on Easter weekend, Denis and I decided to spend two of the three days exploring some Arizona backroads. We checked Arizona Backroads and Four Wheel Drive Trails. I checked the old-fashioned paper maps. Denis fiddled with his GPS. We loaded the cooler full of ice and goodies. By 8 a.m. Friday, we were on our way north.

The day was overcast but didn’t seem to promise much rain—if any at all. Seemingly within the blink of an eye, we were turning off the interstate and onto the road to Bumble Bee and Crown King, two old towns that a handful of hardy souls live in today instead of the thousands that lived in them from 1880-1900. It was sprinkling just enough rain to spot up the windshield.

A mile away from the interstate, the pavement stopped. The Blazer was on good ole dirt and gravel. Denis made the comment that it was a good thing it was raining a little bit; otherwise, we’d be throwing up a huge cloud of dust. It was about this time that I noticed Denis’ eyes are still accustomed to British rain. The windshield was spotted up enough for me to have trouble seeing through it, but he was having no trouble at all. I had to ask him to turn on the wipers so I could see what was on the road ahead instead of sticking my head out the side window.

At times like these I prefer not to drive because I certainly do love to gawk. I need a head on a swivel. I want to see the road ahead. I want to see what’s on either side of the road. I’m looking at the sky for weather conditions and birds. I’m looking into the undergrowth on both sides of the road for any signs of wildlife. I spare a glance now and then to the map that’s in my lap. Who’s got time to drive? I wanna see!

We’d barely started out to Bumblebee when a Gambel’s quail ran in front of us. The road was in pretty good shape. About the only thing we had to worry about were washboard areas where storm deluges would pour out of gullies and washes and go across the road. Those jarred our teeth a bit, but it was full steam ahead!

Bumble Bee is now a tiny flyspeck on the road and very quiet on a weekday. I imagine what few folks live here drive to Phoenix to work. Bumble Bee got its start as a stage stop on the road to Prescott and the mines in the area. The present day Saloon is built on the foundations of the old stagecoach stop. We pulled into a side road by the saloon and stopped to take pictures of a theme park gone bust. In the 1930s, someone had gotten the bright idea of buying some cheap lumber and slapping together a Wild West town. Guess it didn’t occur to this entrepreneur that during the Depression most people wouldn’t be able to afford the admission price, and even if they could, there were plenty of the “real thing” bleaching in the Arizona sun that they could visit for free. Pictures taken, it was back on the road. We’d come to Cleator before we’d reach Crown King high up in the Bradshaw Mountains.

The road out of Bumblebee soon started its journey into the mountains, and Denis began to get some of those hairpin turns that he likes so much. In spots the gravel was completely gone, showing the bare rock. There were streaks in the roadbed the turquoise color of copper ore, and this is where it really hit me that Arizona is truly a rockhound’s dream. As we went up into higher elevations, there was a smorgasbord of rocks. In one area, big snow-white boulders were scattered everywhere. In another I made Denis stop and pull over so I could look at all of them. Shattered layers of sandstone. Pink quartz. And in one spot all by its lonesome, a splash of obsidian gleaming in the rain that looked as though it had been poured down the mountainside. It was here while Denis and I were wandering around taking photos that we heard unfamiliar birdsong. I located the source and couldn’t identify the bird, other than the fact that it was small, very shy and had a huge beautiful song. (When we got home, I looked it up. That tiny shy bird was a canyon wren.)

Cleator was another flyspeck. Much tireder looking than Bumblebee, although it did have more pickup trucks parked around. Originally known as Turkey Creek, it was a stage stop and watering hole for area miners, railroad workers, travelers and ranchers. After the turn of the twentieth century, an immigrant from the Isle of Man, James P. Cleator, renamed the place after himself. The saloon is still in existence and is open on the weekends for anyone who wants to stop and wet his whistle.

Past Cleator, we drove by markers for roads that led to ranches back out in the high desert mountains. Someone’s big friendly coonhound came out of nowhere to wag and dance hello. I almost got my hand slobbered on. Higher and higher we went. It seemed as if the view got better and better around each hairpin turn. By the time we were getting close to Crown King, we were well and truly into the Bradshaw Mountains. The saguaros were gone, and forests of manzanita and Ponderosa pine surrounded us.

Not only that, but the road was a lot worse. The washboards were worse. The hairpin turns were worse. There were root systems from the tall trees and lovely rockslide areas to negotiate. We were getting jolted pretty good now and had the Blazer in four-wheel drive.

Crown King was a nice place for an “almost” ghost town. Some really nice houses—one that looked like a lighthouse. I couldn’t figure out why someone would build a house like that there when all they’d be able to see were trees, but to each his own. There were even going businesses and traffic. I think many people have moved there who like being off the beaten path. Can’t say as I blame them.

However, I did feel uneasy for the inhabitants of Crown King. Everywhere I looked, I saw dead trees killed by the bark beetles that thrive in severe drought. All it would take is one cigarette tossed out of a car window, one stray bolt of lightning, and Crown King would go up in flames.

Little did anyone in Arizona realize, but in a mere two months we would see over 460,000 acres of Ponderosa pine forest destroyed by the Rodeo-Chedeski fire. I would be able to stand here in Phoenix and watch the towers of smoke billowing over the Mogollon Rim almost 200 miles away. The residents of Crown King didn't want a wildfire to happen anywhere near them, and everywhere I looked, I could see piles of cut trees. They were working around the clock to create fire breaks, thin out undergrowth, and clear the mountains of dead pines. In three months, hundreds of people would be doing this frantically throughout the state.

We decided to take a look-see at Horsethief Lake. It wasn’t on the original itinerary, but I like to have the freedom to add or subtract stops when I’m out exploring, and Denis usually doesn’t seem to mind. When we got there, my Midwestern eye told me that Horsethief Lake wasn’t a lake; it was a pond. But any body of water here is important, so it tends to get magnified. By this time, the rain had stopped and the sky was clearing. The sky, clouds and trees were mirrored beautifully in the water. Naturally, we had to take a few photos!

We got back on our original route, which was ironically called the Senator Highway. With that name, you’d think it would at least be a four-lane highway instead of a goat path! Lots of washboards. Lots of ruts. Lots of boulders. Lots of tree roots. Lots of twists and turns. The “highway” (named after the old Senator mine) was one narrow lane with brush on either side. I had to keep an eye out and snatch my arm back in so it wouldn’t get whacked by tree limbs, and the Blazer was definitely in danger of getting "Arizona pinstripes". (Scratches on the sides of a vehicle from vegetation growing right on the sides of the road.)

We were well and truly getting our livers shook out. I looked over at Denis and saw that we were both sitting in the Blazer with big grins plastered all over our faces. As they say back home, we were having a hog-killin' time!

After one particularly nasty jolt, I made Denis crack up laughing. Looking over at him with a straight face, I commented, “It’s a darned good thing I have a bra on!” “Why?” asks he. “Because if I didn’t, I’d have two black eyes right now!” says I.

Higher and higher into the mountains we jolted and jostled. At one point, I saw a road going straight up the side of the mountain and disappearing over the top. At first I thought it was our road and thought, “Oh, now that’s going to be fun!” It wasn’t our trail though, and something tells me that the Blazer sighed quietly in relief. Right then the truck was handling boulders, tree roots, and washboards—everything—on one narrow lane on the side of a very tall mountain with absolutely no guardrails. The views from up here at 7,000 feet were spectacular.

After going past numerous turn-offs to abandoned mines, the Senator Highway finally led us into Prescott. (Here’s a tip for you: if you don’t want to sound like a greenhorn, do not say, “PRESS-KOT.” It’s “PRESS-kit.”) We stopped and got something to eat, noticing all the mud splashed on Denis’ immaculate Blazer. It had been baptized.

When we got home, I decided to change out of my thick layer of dust and grime. Hearing my peals of laughter, Denis came in to find out what was going on. I just couldn’t keep it to myself. “Do you remember me telling you on that one bad stretch of road that it was a good thing I was wearing a bra?” (How could he forget a wisecrack like that?)

“Well…somewhere along the line I blew out an underwire!”


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us Cathy. The Wild West starts at Black Canyon City!

  2. I'll be back in a while to read this post, for now, I'm passing along an award:

  3. There is something sad about a four wheel vehicle that is too clean! More mud the better!!

  4. Don´t know if I enjoyed your pictures most, or all your BRAvado :D

  5. Well I certainly must have been on the Senator Highway if leads right in to Prescott. But I don't really remember it. I remember going to Bumble Bee once, but your photos didn't bring back any memories, so I wonder if that was something we talked about doing, but never did.

    If you go to Prescott, it'd be cool to see photos. I'm sure it's nothing like I remember. It didn't even have a McDonalds in the early 1970s!

  6. That was so much fun to read. You made me feel I was along for the ride. (I still have grit between my teeth.) I'm hoping this is the regular feature you were talking about from last month's poll. Your pictures are beautiful, especially the pond/lake.

  7. Chortling at Dorte's comment, and appreciating the whole travelogue here- loved it!

  8. Sounds like you had an amazing adventure, snapped wires and all ;-) I really enjoyed reading about it, and I also enjoyed your photos a lot! Thanks for sharing. I wish I could go on roadtrips like that.

  9. Uriah-- I'm glad you enjoyed it. One of the things I love doing is showing members of my English family the Wild West here in Arizona. I can attest that there's nothing like it in the UK.

    Beth-- Thanks for the award. I'm terribly behind in accepting it. I'll correct the oversight in the next couple of days! I've wandered the streets of Prescott several times but been so busy going in and out of antique shops that I didn't take any photos. I haven't been there recently, and especially with the blight called Prescott Valley, I just don't think of aiming the camera. I'll have to do it anyway just for you.

    Caite-- I have another tale for mud that satisfied every Pigpen bone in my body! LOL

    Dorte-- You deserve an award for your comment! LOL

    Margot-- This is the regular feature I talked about from the poll results. It will appear once a month.

    Susan-- Thanks. Wasn't Dorte's comment perfect?!?

    Louise-- Any time we have visitors here, we try to take them along on an offroad adventure. They always seem to love it.


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!