Day 112 – Arizona’s Coronado Trail, Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I’m back to blogging, even if it is only for a few days right now. I flew home a week ago Sunday when I got a text from my sister saying my dad was in the ICU. He has Leukemia, as well as several other complications, some related and some not, but the bottom line is he almost bled to death from his colon. Fortunately, the doctors were able to stop the bleeding through a catheter embolization as he was determined too weak to survive surgery. After three more days in ICU, he was transferred to the oncology floor where the doctors and nurses are still trying to stabilize his platelet and red blood cell count among a variety of other challenges. While he is relatively stable, I have returned to Tucson to relieve my Aunt Diane and Uncle Mike of dog and van sitting duties, especially given my Aunt’s brother was admitted to the ICU in Florida after suffering a heart attack. What a crazy week!
Since I’m planning on putting my travels across the USA on hold until my dad can get out of the hospital, I have decided to take the scenic way home. After greeting my aunt and uncle, picking up new and improved VANilla, and giving Petey lots of hugs and kisses, we headed toward the Coronado Trail. VANilla, with new front and rear brakes, an oil change, and improved headlights was ready to go. I’m so lucky VANilla got its face lift in Tucson (where Uncle Mike used to be a car dealer)…parts at cost and $20 per hour for labor…it’s going to be painful to pay regular prices for car maintenance in the future! As for Petey, while he was happy to see me and instantly became my shadow, I’m quite certain he got spoiled rotten at my aunt and uncle’s. I suspect Chance and Emma, the resident cats were happy to see him go!
We spent the rest of Tuesday afternoon driving to Clifton, AZ, the start of my next scenic drive. VANilla’s gas tank was about two thirds full when we left Tucson. The drive across I-10 to 191 was rather remote. I passed through Safford, some 40 miles south of Clifton, expecting Clifton to have a service station given it is home to one of the world’s largest open-pit copper mines. As I continued on through desert like prairie land surrounded by mountains, I selected the “Points of Interest” button on Gina (my GPS), and discovered the closest fuel was in Safford. With ten miles left to reach Clifton, I decided to rely on optimism…there had to be one. I passed by a BBQ stand, a law office, an office supply store, a café, and a small neighborhood. In the distance, I could see the enormous mine, so I continued around the bend to find a motel and a service station that provides mechanic service, but no gas. Great, I thought, as I backtracked to Safford, an 80 mile mistake! I had hoped to find a campground near Clifton too, but opted for the Wal-Mart parking lot once I filled up VANilla.
This morning I awoke early and was watching the sunrise over the mountains when I saw an object moving extremely fast leaving behind a contrail. Then I saw another headed toward it. It wasn’t a bird or a plane or Superman. While I believe there could be extraterrestrial life somewhere out there, I’m not a big believer in UFO’s (though I might visit the UFO museum in Roswell tomorrow), so I looked to see how far away I was from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. I was about 100 miles due west of it…it seems it was a missile launch. I bet it would have been spectacular if I were in Alamogordo.
After watching the flying objects, Petey and I headed back to Clifton. The Reader’s Digest book suggested visitors stop by the old jail which was blasted into the cliff-side by Margorito Verala. Upon receiving his pay, Verala squandered his money on liquor and shot up the local dance hall. That night he became the jail’s very first occupant! I drove past the same places that I did last night, rounded the bend, and didn’t see a jail sign, but saw a Chamber of Commerce, so I stopped by to find out where it was. The woman in charge pointed to it on the left hand side of the road just 60 feet up the road. I would have passed right by it. There are only two holding cells that are blasted out of the rock below ground. Two small windows sit at ground level and a small rock entrance hall is built above the stairs down to the prison. Petey didn’t want to follow me in, but I finally coaxed him down the stairs!
I asked the woman at the chamber where the best view of the copper mine is, and she said to keep going up 191, and I’d drive right through it. I can’t imagine the look on Coronado’s face, the gold seeker and explorer, when he came upon a hole 2 miles in diameter. The views were spectacular! The woman also suggested that after I pass through the mine, I might turn around and take a different road to Alpine because 191 is extremely steep with ridiculous twists and turns and possibly leftover ice from Sunday’s storm. I certainly didn’t want to hear that! “Are you sure”, I asked, “it’s been above freezing the last two days”. “You can try it”, she said, “but some people had to turn around on Monday”. I decided to try my luck, despite finding out there was a Shell filling station just a mile up the road. I knew there had to be a gas station in town! Dang it, Gina…I might have to notify Garmin with this info. There was a campground too!
VANilla wound up the road at a max speed of about 30 miles per hour, but probably at an average speed of 25 miles per hour for most of the next 100 miles. There were a few straight spots where we could go 50 miles per hour, but that lasted for about 10 minutes of the four hour drive. All I could think of was how thankful most of the time I was on the inside hugging the mountain as opposed to cliff-side. It made me dizzy every time I looked to the left to see a variety of peaks and valleys covered in Ponderosa Pine and cacti. As we twisted and turned our way to a few overlooks, climbing roughly 6,000 feet, we passed by deer, huge turkeys, and three black cows. The cows simply lazed in the shade by the side of the road. We had crossed many cattle guards along the way, but it still made me giggle to see them. Perhaps it was the visualization of the cows stomping through this awful terrain; pine needles, prickly grass, and thorny cactus. Their mouths and hide must feel like a calloused heel. And what about the rancher that must look after them…that person must just toss out some feed once in a while to lure the cows back home. Route 191 cuts through the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. It made me wonder, if the national government owned the cows and that is how they upkeep this unruly forest, or if ranchers actually lease land from the government. Imagine how many forms they’d have to fill out!
Petey and I didn’t get much walking in today. We stopped at the Blue Vista Point to walk along the clifftop on a “pathway cut by the Forest Service”. We dodged the sticker burr plants, got hung up on a few thorny bushes, tromped through patches of snow and hopped a few logs before turning back to find the best view was from the parking lot! We also stopped by Hannagan Meadow, generally a field of wildflowers, but today a field of snow. Finally, we stopped at Nelson Reservoir just to stretch our legs. Most the people visiting were fishing. The pathway led to several docks and stopped near the road, so we turned around.
At the end of the Coronado Trail, we turned east from Springerville and found a Wal-Mart in Socorro for the evening. On the way we crossed the Continental Divide, yielded to the path of a tumbleweed, and passed by a field of satellites…this had to be where the movie Contact was filmed. Tomorrow I’m making up my own scenic drive. I think I will stop in Roswell, go to Carlsbad Caverns, and stay the night in Balmorhea…not exactly a direct route to Dallas, but it was going to take me two days to get home either way, so I may as well make the most of it. ETB
websites: http://arizonaoddities.com/2009/07/old-clifton-jail-a-real-hole-in-the-wall/, http://www.fcx.com/operations/usa_arizona_morenci.htm, http://www.recreation.gov/recreationalAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&recAreaId=122&agencyCode=70903, http://www.nationalforests.org/explore/forests/az/apache-sitgreaves