It is Monday morning in a place with no name. I left Payson, AZ, two days ago and headed eastward on 260. On the map the route was marked with an adjacent set of dots–the cartographer’s promise of a scenic drive.
Seventy-five miles distant was a town with the curious name of Show Low. In country where 10- to 20- mile stretch guarantees a change of the look of the land, a grand vista, or a village with a story below the merest scratch, 75 miles is enough miles to log in a day for a gypsy who did not have any place to be.
The route would pass the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center, where I could learn a little about this topographic phenomenon and get some advice about camping possibilities. Halfway to Show Low would be Heber, a town that was evacuated some 7 or 8 years ago when it was in the path of a forest fire. A thousand people lived in Payson’s high school while the fire was fought.
The road curved and dipped over the mountains and presented some long views of forested valleys blessed with little evidence of human presence.
Twenty miles out of Payson I arrived at the visitor center. A family of 15 people picnicked next to the ranger’s building. A slender athletic woman in a colorful cycling outfit talked to a young man. Wherever she started from, she’d had a good 20-mile workout of long, steady climbs, rewarded by grand vistas and screaming fast-as-you-dare downhills.
The visitor center was closed, as it had been since August, when it was vandalized. Apparently the vandalism was about the theft of the stuffed animals displayed there. I cannot guess what sort of jerk would steal public treasures to add to their private collection or to trade for a short stack of dollars. The criminals do not simply deprive a National Forest visitor center of its display, they deprive me and 20,000 others who pass by from year to year. Doesn’t that raise the stakes of the mischief to grand larceny?
I was able to learn there was a “dispersed” (no services but designated as public) camping area just two miles down the road. I idled into the thick forest of tall pines laced with wide fire roads and discovered a dozen pull-thru campsites. The sites were numbered each with a small sign: Camp Here. Right you are, I will.
I settled in for the afternoon next to a meadow the size of an urban house lot. Fifty yards to my left was a motorhome, a hundred yards to the right, a trailer. That night, alone in silence, in sight of two campfires.
Next morning the trailer left. I am sure it was nothing I said.
I could find no reason to move on, so I repositioned the Jolly Swag to a sunnier spot in my site and a view of the meadow. I set up a camp chair and table and frittered away the day with minor chores: the camper gourmet fare of fried egg sandwiches, and a few crisp pages of Chihuahua Enchilada, Colleen Rae’s freshly published sequel to Mohave Mambo.
Early the following morning I awoke to a sunrise that sliced between the pines and splayed long streaks of yellow sunshine on the ground. I swiveled my captain’s chair at the helm of the JS and watched the day come alive. A neighbor’s dog ran free; first breezes stirred the needled branches.
At 7:30 a.m. a boy steps from the van nearby. He looks to be about 9 or 10 and wears blue jeans and a jacket of the popular green mottled camouflage style.
He runs into the woods in the carefree manner I can remember from sixty years ago. Not the straight-ahead run of the sprinter or long-distance runner. Rather the lazy heel-kicking broken-field run that relived the breakaway touchdown run of a college athlete. After 50 yards, he danced up to and straddling a tree, unzipped and anointed the tree, beginning his day.