Exploring A Beauty - Beyond The Cactus

Arizona's Great Lakes

by Jim Allen

The first time I saw Arizona, I was 10 years old. It was January 1956. To be precise, it was January 19, 1956, my birthday. What a birthday present -- the beauty and diversity of Arizona overwhelmed me then. It continues to amaze me to this day!

We had been living in Nebraska, but my younger sister developed severe asthma, which dictated that we move to a dryer climate. The week before we were to leave, I had my first glimpse of what was in store for me in Arizona.

It came during a Saturday afternoon movie with some of my friends. Generally, I had no interest at all in the news or the "shorts" that preceded the movies. They simply kept us waiting that much longer for the movie we were anxious to see.

This Saturday it was different for me. The "short" was a travelogue about Phoenix, Arizona. That was where I would be living in a few days, and I knew nothing about Arizona except what I had seen in old Western movies.

I haven't a clue as to what the movie was about that day, but I remember every frame of the travelogue. I remember the sunshine, the swimming pools, the orange trees, the beautiful streets and buildings, not too

mention the pretty girl in the two-piece swimsuit. Believe me, when it's 10 degrees below zero and the wind is blowing snow into deep drifts outside, it's hard not to remember such glorious sights as the pictures we had just seen of Arizona. My friends couldn't have been more envious.

A few days later, as my family and I drove into Arizona, it was love at first sight. Every rock and every cactus had some kind of special beauty. During my years in Arizona, I have covered much ground.

I've ridden horses over a fair portion of the state and have hiked down the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon.

I've explored Ramsey Canyon and Carr Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains and have seen the beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains near Douglas. Portal, Arizona, about fifty miles northeast of Douglas is a bird-watchers' haven.

I've flown in small airplanes at cactus-top level over ground that few have seen. I've even ridden motorcycles over vast stretches of open desert before I became aware of how much damage this did to the fragile landscape.

As the years passed, I spent more and more time working, not leaving the boundaries of Phoenix unless it was on a commercial flight. Throughout those years I never lost my feelings for the beauty of Arizona but I did lose the close personal touch that I had enjoyed in previous years.

Yesterday, however, I once again became fully aware of how much nature and Arizona have to offer. My nephew and I had planned a 'day trip' to Roosevelt Lake to look at boats and do a little fishing.

We headed out Shea Boulevard to the Beeline Highway. We had planned to stop at Saguaro Lake on the way. As we turned onto Beeline Highway, I saw a sign for the 'Out Of Africa Wildlife Park. This was new to me...I'd never even heard of it.

Since I'm a sucker for animals of any sort and the sign promised we would be able to stand closer than we had ever been able to do in any zoo, we had to take a little side trip to 'Out Of Africa.'

'Out Of Africa' is a remarkable place. Young and old alike can learn volumes by just being in such an atmosphere, and the cost is moderate.

Visitors have a personal, one-on-one relationship with not only the most cordial staff I have ever encountered, but also with the animals. Elizabeth, a caretaker to the animals, seemed to have all the time in the world to answer my nephew's endless questions.

She never said one way or the other, but with her complete concern about everything that went on there, I had the impression she was the owner that is, until we talked to the other guides. They all had that same concerned, helpful attitude.

It was obvious they also loved what they were doing. The most cynical businessman or the toughest street kid will come away from "Out Of Africa" wondering and/or realizing what's really important in life.

We spent only an hour and a half enjoying 'Out Of Africa' but could easily have stayed the entire day at this wonderful place. This spot is a "one-day-vacation" in itself and a MUST SEE for everyone!

As it turned out, our trip included many such unscheduled stops. Before our day was over, we had visited four lakes nestled in beautiful desert canyons and stopped at many other places along the way for pictures.

In each of the places we visited, we took the time to stop and talk to the people who lived and worked there. All of them seemed to have the time to stop whatever it was they were doing and talk to inquisitive strangers, relishing in telling how and why they were there and how much they enjoyed their times in small, relatively remote areas.

Our next stop was the marina at Saguaro Lake. Saguaro Lake is only an hour from my front doorstep in Phoenix, but for all its beauty and all it has to offer, I've probably been there only a half dozen times in fifteen years. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to lose track of the naturally inspiring things in life that are so close at hand.

Since our primary objective on this day was to reach Roosevelt Lake, we spent only a short time exploring the Marina at Saguaro Lake before we headed up the road toward Payson and the turn-off to Roosevelt Dam. So far, we had driven only about an hour from

Phoenix, but we had already seen many different varieties of cacti, wild animals of all descriptions, a lake and mountain and rock formations that appeared different with every change of light.

It had been 22 years since I had gone this way, so as we left Saguaro Lake; I gave Palmer the map and asked him to navigate. Soon we passed by Sunflower and were headed toward Rye. Just before Rye we found Highway 88 and turned toward Punkin Center

and Roosevelt Dam. As we turned onto Highway 88, Palmer was delighted to see that he had found the right highway, and judging by the road mileage signs, his mileage estimates had been right on the money. Had we continued through Rye and up the road another

20 miles, we would have been in the pine-wooded country of Payson. It is still astounding to me that in just a couple of short hours you can see such a drastic change in scenery and lifestyle...from the desert, the cactus and the bustle of Phoenix to the cool pines and small town atmosphere of Payson.

When we arrived at Roosevelt Lake, we discovered that they were working on the dam. It was like watching something from an old adventure movie...the incredible face of the dam with men and machines all around and the cable trolley high above used to ferry materials and equipment back and forth.

The lake itself is a beautiful blue that shimmers in the middle of the desert and cactus. The pioneers and explorers of the 1800's would have

thought they had found Heaven if they had stumbled onto that sight after crossing hundreds of miles of dry desert. After passing part of the lake and the dam, we drove around, looked at the dock and stopped to ask questions at a little store.

The lady who worked there said she and her husband had moved from Houston to Tucson several years ago. They were in search of a smaller place and a different lifestyle. She told us that

although they liked Tucson, they both still wanted someplace smaller. It would be hard to find someplace smaller than Roosevelt, unless you went back to Sunflower or maybe Gisela, Arizona, but it sounded to Palmer and I as if she and her husband liked Roosevelt, had everything they needed and planned on staying. And yes, Dot, I have to admit that I went off my diet... they have great cheeseburgers!

The next stop was Apache Lake. To get to Apache Lake from Roosevelt Lake, we cover 12 miles of twisting dirt road.

The scenery is breathtaking but so are the vertical drops alongside the road. No doubt Palmer got a better chance to view the scenery than I did since my eyes were glued to the narrow road.

When we arrived, we found a few permanent residents, a marina, a motel and a large boat storage yard. We rented a pontoon boat and set out to find a fishing cove.

During the day, we spotted only a dozen other boats on the lake, but everywhere you looked there was another fantastic view. When we returned the boat, my nephew fished off the dock, and I talked to the young man who ran the marina.

He told me that when he needed to get away from this particular environment for a change of scenery, he drove to his home on the San Marcos golf course in Chandler, which is an hour and 15 minutes away and located just southeast of Phoenix.

It would be hard to beat his lifestyle for freedom and diversity! It's a little hard not to envy someone that young who has already figured out what makes him content with his life.

By now, it was already 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and we decided it was time to head up Fish Creek Hill and on to Tortilla Flats and Canyon Lake.

My nephew's camera was busy this entire portion of the trip and at the top of Fish Creek Hill, we stopped along the road and climbed even higher on foot for a picture that I am sure, when my sister sees the view, will bring questions about how close her son was to the edge.

Down the road we went from there to Tortilla Flats and the newly rebuilt restaurant and general store. I thought I would take this opportunity to call home and give a progress report but was informed by the man behind the counter that I certainly would not call from Tortilla Flats.

No phone lines. He said that even for radio contact you had to go three miles up the road to get to higher ground. Imagine, one hour from bustling downtown Phoenix and not a phone in sight! It was kind of a remote and peaceful feeling.

Canyon Lake will show up in our pictures of this trip, but further exploration of the marina and lake will have to wait until another time.

It was getting dark and we had told our families we would be home before dark. From Canyon Lake it is 30 minutes down the Apache Trail to Apache Junction and places such as the "Miners Camp" restaurant.

Seating at the "Miners Camp" consists of old wooden benches and the food is served 'family' style on big tin platters along with tin pitchers of milk. The view behind the old wooden building that houses the restaurant is of the Superstition Mountains and Weavers Needle. From the Apache Trail in Apache Junction it was just minutes to the newly completed Superstition Freeway and from their a straight shot to home.

We did arrive home before dark, as we had promised, with lots of pictures, some leftover worms that were just glad to have survived the fishing and a desire to be on our way again enjoying another adventure.

Although my nephew Palmer is no stranger to travel (he has seen Europe, Hawaii and a multitude of other places), he never once in our long day lost interest in the beauty of Arizona.

It is purely coincidental that Palmer is now ten years old. I believe he had the same feeling of wonder and awe that I did 36 years ago. We haven't set the exact date, but we have already decided that our next trip will be to Crown King.

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