Monday, April 11, 2016

Riding the Apache Trail

There's something mystical, even in its name: Superstition Mountains.

And even though we did not take the Apache Trail on horseback, or with a wagon train, you could still get that feeling of the Wild West. And even though we were travelling in only two vehicles—my brother and his family, leading in their Chevy Suburban, and me and my family, in our rented Toyota Avalon—it felt like a convoy, nonetheless.

Route 88, as it's called now, leads northeast out of Apache Junction, a small community on Phoenix's eastern end. The winding road climbs and dips from ridge to ridge, and as you approach the tiny town of Tortilla Flat, with its population of six (thought the tourists and shop employees seemed to outnumber the residents by about 10 to one), you encounter a large reservoir of Canyon Lake, along Salt River, and you're taken aback from this desert region. Pleasure boats cruise about and you feel as though you're no longer in Arizona, but in the Finger Lakes of upper-state New York.

That is, until you see the cacti on the hillsides and step out of your air-conditioned vehicle and into the dry, sweltering heat.

We drove without stopping until we reached Tortilla Flat, and decided that we would start our adventure by filling everybody's bellies. The lunch hour was approaching and it was best to eat now than be hungry while searching for food.

Originally a stagecoach stop, Tortilla Flat has remained virtually untouched for more than 100 years. The three main buildings host a general store, a gift shop and post office, and a saloon. We wandered the town while we waited for a table to be ready, and then dined on some typical, but pretty decent, pub fare.

For the first time since our journey began, I ate in a restaurant but abstained from consuming any beer. They did offer craft beer, but I had already tried what was on tap and I was more interested in trying a cola that I hadn't seen since I was a kid and didn't know still existed: Royal Crown.

Does anybody in Ottawa remember RC Cola?

The walls and sections of ceiling of the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant are completely covered in dollar bills, including notes from other countries. We saw some Canadian currency on the ceiling, and I was surprised to see Korean won notes nearby. Both currencies hold meaning to me (being Canadian, of course, and having lived for two years in Korea).

Appetites satiated, we returned to our vehicles and continued along the Apache Trail for a few more miles, where the paved road changed to dirt and the twists and turns climbed even higher. You know that when the maximum speed is posted at 15mph, you need to slow down and pay attention to the road. Eventually, we came to a lookout spot, where we could park and wander some trails.

Distance is hard to judge from atop the rocks in this region of the Superstitious Mountains, but at one point we could see where the road continued, on to Theodore Roosevelt Lake, and the minuscule size of the vehicles that periodically passed through showed us that we were up a fair distance.

Not Grand Canyon high, but high enough.

The view was beautiful, too.

On our return journey, I warned my brother that I would be pulling over at times, to take pictures. He could stop and wait, or he could continue on to Phoenix. We had plans to get together that evening, in Mesa, and we could catch up after we checked into our next hotel (my family and I had remained in Tucson, overnight: we were spending our last night in a hotel that was along Hwy. 10, from where we would set out for California the next day). My brother stopped a couple of times with us, but eventually moved on.

Along the Apache Trail, just after we crossed the bridge over Canyon Lake, we noticed cars stopped ahead and a couple of people out of their cars, some with cameras. In the middle of our lane, a rattlesnake lay still, his tail straight up. Cautiously, we pulled around the traffic tie up while my wife snapped a few quick photos as we passed. When we stopped, a short way away, to capture more pictures of Canyon Lake, my wife remarked that her shots of the snake were blurry and she wanted us to go back, for us to pull over where we could both photograph the snake, assuming it was still on the road.

It was exactly where we last saw it, on our return, and it wasn't going anywhere soon. Someone, either through neglect or through carelessness (I don't want to say on purpose), had driven over the snake, its muscular body split out of its skin. It was a sad sight and I wished that I hadn't been talked into turning around.

One final stop, as we headed out of the Superstition Mountains, was at the ghost town, Goldfield. More like a tourist attraction, it was crowded with visitors and reminded me of Upper Canada Village, with a bit of Disney mixed in. It was worth a 10-minute stop to capture some photos, but then we moved on to find our hotel.

In Mesa, that evening, we were treated to a live show at The Underground, a small concert venue underneath the Nile Theater. My brother's eldest son was a guitarist in a metal band, Inertia, and we were lucky enough to be in town for one of their performances. There were several bands playing that night, and the atmosphere was charged with young people throwing themselves about the dance area in front of the stage.

While my nephew's band performs music that is not quite to my taste, I could appreciate the talent of the four men on that stage, even though it took a few hours afterward for my ears to stop ringing.

We met with my brother one last time, the next morning, for breakfast, but then the Brownfoot clan set out west, along Hwy. 10, toward Los Angeles, where we turned south and stopped in La Jolla, just north of San Diego. It's the first time that I had seen the Pacific Ocean up close and personal, and that's where I'll continue this journey, tomorrow.

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