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Near Fredonia

Near Fredonia

During the 25 years I lived in Arizona, I saw pretty much every dusty corner of the state, either on assignment for my newspaper, or on my own. I came to love the state — warts and all. And it has warts: Arizona politics is dismaying, its inhabitants sometimes astonishingly parochial, its sense of itself as “special” endearing; I’ve lived in enough different places to know that they each think of themselves as special: You can outright choke on Seattle; North Carolina Public Television crowds out PBS programming with self-congratulatory programs on local history, local events, restaurants, the cult of barbecue, its exceptionally progressive foresight, and its sports heroes. The self-regard is truly cloying. Arizona hasn’t a patch on that, even counting Arizona Highways magazine.

Brewery Gulch, Bisbee

Brewery Gulch, Bisbee

And speaking of warts, the city of Phoenix is essentially Cleveland in the Desert: ugly with traffic, convenience stores and real-estate deals. But in Arizona, the land is essential: The desert is like nothing else.

Red Mesa, Navajo Reservation

Red Mesa, Navajo Reservation

Arizona has a particular difficulty because its image of itself is incredibly beautiful. It is the Grand Canyon State, and its landscape has filled more calendars and books than horsehair has filled sofa cushions. The Arizona Highways effect prettifies the state so to anyone with clear eyes, it is no longer recognizable. Arizona for most people is a fictional Arizona, a fantasy landscape drawn by John Ford’s Monument Valley, Ansel Adams’ Grand Canyon, or the “Tonto Rim” of Zane Grey. The landscape we mail out to the rest of the world is one of pristine wilderness and vast vistas. This is not, however, the Arizona I came to love. Quartzsite in the middle of winter is not part of this picture, neither is Apache Junction or Sacaton.

Morenci

Morenci

My Arizona has been worked over pretty thoroughly, by mining companies, by ranching conglomerates, by real-estate developers, by tract housing, road-building, tourist traps, warehouses and farm tractors. It is canals, cotton gins, interstates, gas stations and Circle-Ks. And since leaving the state four years ago for retirement in North Carolina, I have often grown homesick for my Arizona.Washingtonias gone to beard

I actually love the forgotten places, the abandoned garages on the abandoned Route 66 that parallels Interstate 40. I love the grade crossings by the trash dumps near Mobile; the painted concrete dinosaurs that advertise eateries and tourist spots; the gravel roads across dry washes; the busted-out Gillespie Dam, choked with willows; the mountains of junked cars in South Phoenix wrecking yards; the eroded bentonite hills north of Cameron; the worked-out copper pits in Ajo and Bisbee — great gaping holes in the earth. I’ve been everywhere from San Luis to the Four Corners, from Hoover Dam to the Slaughter Ranch. How can you not love seeing the white expanse of the Wilcox Playa from a distance, knowing that when you get there, you can visit the statue of Rex Allen and have some great barbecue from Rodney’s hole-in-the-wall?

Yuma

Yuma

It isn’t that I don’t like the Grand Canyon. How can you not? But I love the North Rim, the 60-mile dirt road down to Toroweap, the beginning of the whole thing at Lees Ferry. Old apple trees and weathered wood buildings tell you about when old John Lee lived there and supervised the crossing of the Colorado River.

Coyote melons

Coyote melons

I began a few weeks ago collecting material for a potential book about this Arizona, as a kind of counterbalance to all the pretty-face calendar art that oozes from that quarter of the Southwest. Whether it ever actually turns into a book or not, I thought I might share a few of my images with my readers on the blog.

Roper Lake, Mt. Graham in storm

Roper Lake, Mt. Graham in storm

I have some 320 pictures filed for use in the book. I will post maybe 10 or 15 at a time for the blog. I hope they spark some of the same love for the real Arizona that I continue to feel from afar.

Tumacacori

Tumacacori

Click on any image to enlarge.

Morenci pit

Morenci pit

toroweap 6I’ve been to the Grand Canyon enough times that I couldn’t accurately count.

But sometimes familiarity makes us lose the magic. If I’ve been to Mather Point once, I’ve been a dozen times, at all hours of the day. And while it is still beautiful, still breathtaking, there is something missing — that virgin sense of seeing it for the first time.arizona highways magazine cover

This is replaced by the proxy pleasure of watching someone else see it for the first time, but now I’ve had even that vicarious fun often enough that I know what to expect.

But there are other places to see the canyon besides the official viewpoints of the National Park Service.

One of my first images of the Grand Canyon came when I was a child in the Christmas edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which was once a year available on the magazine racks in New Jersey. One of the pictures in it was a stunning photograph of the Canyon from Toroweap Overlook. I never forgot that name, it seemed so odd — although I don’t know why an Indian name should seem exotic to a Jersey boy living between Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus.toroweap 15

Nevertheless, I always wanted to go to Toroweap, to see that vertical panorama, the 3,000-foot drop to the river.

The overlook is reached by 61 miles of dirt road. And those miles start from a point 9 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, which is already as remote as it is possible to be in the state. On the Arizona Strip between the Canyon and Utah, Fredonia is a little town you pass through on the way to Kanab, which is no Chicago either.

Fredonia is 120 miles from the nearest Arizona town of any significance, Flagstaff, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and across the northern margin of the state skirting the Vermilion Cliffs. It is so remote that when you pass the turn off for the Grand Canyon North Rim, you still have to press on into the wilderness to get to Fredonia.toroweap 9

How remote is it? Well, it is technically considered frontier. Any place with fewer than two people per square mile is officially called frontier, said the ranger at Pipe Spring National Monument, which is also in this neck of the woods.

The Arizona Strip easily qualifies. Arizona, for instance, has a population density of about 50 people per square mile. When you subtract the population center of Fredonia, with its 2100 people, the rest of the Strip checks in with .014 people per square mile. That’s fewer than 3 people per 20 square miles.

That is the official definition of empty.toroweap 7

toroweap 17Well, a little past the sign that reads “Six Mile Village, 3 miles” you find a dirt-road turn off with a sign to Toroweap Overlook. It says, “Toroweap Overlook, 61 miles.”

At first, you feel rather confident. Anyone who regularly drives the dirt and gravel back roads in this state will be lulled into a false sense of security.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat, pretty well kept up and surprisingly civilized. You can do a comfortable 50 miles an hour if you don’t mind kicking up a few stones and hearing them clatter against your undercarriage.toroweap 10

But then, after crossing the Antelope Valley, you have to climb the first small plateau and the road begins to wind and narrow. Patches of sand appear in the hollows of the land and you have to slow down or risk losing control of your car.

Yes, I said car. Every guide book I checked out said the trip can be made in a passenger car. And since I am an intrepid risker of my car, I thought that this sounds like a piece of cake. I have driven my car through mountainside cow pastures, through North Carolina woods with no roads, twisting between the trees like a Daniel Boone in a Chevy. I have taken my car on the 30 miles of washboard someone jokingly called a road on the far side of Death Valley from the highway.

I can go anywhere.toroweap 8

But the road to Toroweap became hinkier. About 45 miles in, just after the turn-off for the road to Mt. Trumbull, the road gets questionable. And I mean, like I question that it deserves the name road at all.

Since I was two-thirds of the way to my longed for magic dream, I pushed on.

After all, I am the man who drove my car across Thompson Wash to the north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I am the man who keeps an entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax in the trunk at all times in case I need to dig out of the sand and chop down brush to thrust under the tires for some purchase.toroweap 13

There were some sand pans along the way, where your tires no longer go where you point them and your careen through the powder like a raft going downstream. The steering wheel becomes a tiller and you just try to keep pointed forward. But if you get up a head of steam going into the sand, you can more or less bull your way through.toroweap 14

But after the Tuweep Ranger Station, where you enter the national park lands, it started getting tricky. I had had some touchy moments in the sand, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle in my Pontiac Grand Am. But in the final eight miles from there to the overlook, the road gets positively grim. The sand — I call it sand, but it is really a fine, pulverized powder that sits axle-deep in the roadway — had previously been in recognizable pans, small patches of up to 100 feet in extent. But along the Toroweap Valley, there is a stretch of about a quarter mile of unrelieved sand.toroweap 4

As I was driving along — careening, really — I came upon the ranger in a road grader smoothing the roadbed. He should have saved his effort. The grader was smoothing off the top of the sand, but that didn’t make it any easier to plow through. In fact, the ruts provided better traction for the tires, as long as the high sand in between didn’t contain any large rocks waiting to score the bottom metal of the car.

With the sand passed, the road got narrower and rockier. The rocks were bumpy and you had to take them slowly, especially around the tight curves up and down the canyon, but they were negotiable. The final three miles slowed me down to a pace of between 5 and 10 mph, but I didn’t mind so much, since at least I knew the road wouldn’t swallow my tires.

At the end, Toroweap Overlook was a small rocky parking lot with a port-o-let to one side and a giant hole in the ground to the other.toroweap 2

They view was spectacular and the rawness of the experience made the South Rim look positively urban. There are no guard rails, no interpretive signs, no ranger walks, just an edge of rock with a vertical drop down to the river of three-fifths of a mile. The canyon at Toroweap is very narrow — it is about a mile to the southern rim across the gorge, and directly below, you can hear the roar of the rapids.toroweap 11

Two German couples were there looking down the hole and taking pictures of each other on the ledge. One of the men, seeing my once-bright red sedan now a uniform dun of dust — and comparing it with their two high-water SUVs, came over to me and asked me which route I had taken. When I told him, the looked at me like I was crazy, laughed and said, “In that car? How did you do it?”toroweap 3

And, you know, I’m not completely sure myself. But I knew that ahead of my was another 61 miles of the same thing just to get out again.toroweap 1

So, this is a warning to you. Don’t believe everything you read in a guidebook.

Yes, it is possible to get to Toroweap in your car, if you have the gumption.

But don’t expect any yellow brick road.toroweap 16