I did a quick mental calculation and confirmed that there was an extra day before I had to arrive in Tucson. My initial miscalculation was based on the incorrect assumption that I could spend a full two days exploring the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Parks.
I now had a decision to make, should I somehow extend that experience or find a new one elsewhere. I looked at my road atlas, and I did a Google search; several possibilities appeared of which one looked intriguing. Apache Lake was a large reservoir lake located in Arizona’s remote and mountainous Tonto National Forest. Created by damming the Salt River in 1925 it was long and narrow, as such artificial lakes often are. Posted photos made the body of water look surreal and misplaced because it was surrounded by buttes and had mountain tips poking out of it. Further exploration yielded that the lake had a campground, a motel, a lodge, and even a restaurant; all located in a single compound on its eastern shore. It seemed like an ideal place to spend my excess 24 hours.
Apache Lake is isolated, and the closest city on my northern route was Payson, which was 1 hour and 40 minutes away via the twisting and winding roads of the Superstition Mountains. I made a mental note to gas up in Payson as there didn’t seem to be many other options beyond there.
I put away my morning cooking gear and secured Violet’s living space making sure that I strapped down any loose items. I took out her rugs and gave them a good shake and then proceeded to sweep her floor with the little whisk broom that I purchased from Walmart. Carpets replaced I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from my Dometic chest style fridge, and then pulled shut her sliding door. I was now ready for the three and a half hour drive from Holbrook, Arizona to Apache Lake.
The Superstition Mountains are tall, but they don’t compare to the Rockies that I drove through a few days earlier. Also, I was feeling more confident driving Violet in the mountains as I had figured out how to downshift her transmission, which made it easier to navigate the 8 percent downhill road grades.
Up and down I went as I drove into more and more remote forest. AZ-377 S, AZ-260 W and AZ-188 S to AZ-88 W, I followed Google Maps commands to go further and further into the wilderness. As the road narrowed, I started to spot dirt forest roads splintering off from the highway into what appeared to be oblivion. I drove on.
After many twists and turns, I came upon the magnificent Lake Roosevelt. This large body of water was also created by damming off the Salt River. I drove on. Google Maps instructed me to turn on Arizona State Road 88, a much narrower and worn roadway. After many more twists and turns, I came to a sizeable flattened piece of earth on a precipice. I looked back to see the gigantic Roosevelt Dam directly behind me; it sent shivers up my spine. For a split second, I wondered what would happen if it’s immense structure burst. I refocused my thoughts and looked ahead. Google Maps was instructing me to drive forward towards a road that was heralded by a yellow caution sign that read, “Pavement Ends.” I drove on. I was now navigating the Apache Trail.
Soon caution alarms started to sound in my head. The road was very narrow, almost certainly too tight in my mind to accommodate two-way traffic. There was no shoulder, only a small strip of piled dirt that demarcated the edge of the road from the abyss on the other side. Hundreds of feet below I could see the Salt River winding from Roosevelt Dam. The way was pitched upward as it had to climb the mountain before it. I drove on.
I started to feel a panic that emanated from my abdomen, moved into my thorax, and terminated as a lump in my throat. I deliberately started to slow my breathing to calm myself. I drove on.
The road was not only unpaved and narrow, but it was also in terrible condition consisting of a continuous deep washboard pattern that was further sprinkled with potholes. Violet the van was shaking uncontrollably, and I had a real concern that she could be damaged to the point of becoming inoperable. There was no place to pull off, and my T-Mobile cell service was fading in and out. I flipped on the Verizon hotspot to boost reception, but neither carrier could compete with the granite mountain that was blocking reception. I drove on.
I wanted to turn around, but there was no place to do this. The road was so narrow, and it appeared to flow in a single direction. I had a real concern that if I did manage to reverse my course, I could face a car coming directly at me. In my mind, if that happened, one of us would have to reverse either up or down the mountain. Of course, an impossible option. I continued to focus on breathing.
I attempted to drive in the middle of the road so I could stay as far away from the edge as possible. As I turned into a hairpin twist, I was immediately confronted by a huge, bus-sized RV approaching me from the opposite direction. This tiny dirt road was for two way traffic! I reacted by automatically swinging my steering wheel to the right as Violet’s front right wheel brushed into the dirt curb that separated me from the valley below. My heart raced as I tried to stop Violet from moving forward. I looked up towards the massive Class A RV and glimpsed the driver who appeared to be in his 30’s. His sweaty face and horrified continence suggested that like me he was unaware of the challenge of the Apache Trail. As he passed me, it was clear that we could easily touch each other. I drove on.
This dirt road was 14 miles long, but that distance translated to over an hour of driving as my speed varied from 10-20 MPH. Violet continued to shake uncontrollably as secured objects broke free and crashed about her cabin. A box crashed into the back of my head and sprayed me with its contents of bolts. I drove on.
I finally spotted the turnoff to Apache Lake. Ahead the Apache Trail continued with a new caution sign stating that the next 5 miles were only a single lane. I turned right and started the descent down. I pulled into the resorts parking lot feeling like I could pass out from adrenaline. It was not a good feeling. In my usual fashion, I tried to center myself and gather more information with the idea that knowledge is power. Although I did have a cell signal, it wouldn’t support data, and I finally gave up.
When I exited Violet, I was literally vibrating. Some of my oscillations were due to the emotional aftermath of my harrowing journey, some were due to physically being shaken for oven an hour. I did a quick assessment of Violet’s condition, and she appeared to be intact. However, her internal contents were strewed throughout her cabin in a twisted and incoherent mass.
I walked into the lobby of the lodge and made my way to the desk. A young Hispanic man greeted me. “Wow, that road in is pretty rough, how do you guys commute here every day,” I said trying to appear calmer than I really was. “Yeah,” he noted. “It is pretty bumpy, we actually live on site here,” I asked him if the trail south towards Phoenix was any better, but he couldn’t give me a clear answer. He told me to find a spot to camp and to then return. I drove down towards the lake, but I couldn’t really determine where the campsites were. At that point, I was on complete overload, and my ability to problem solve had reached its absolute limit. I drove back to the lodge and asked him how much it would cost to stay at the motel. He replied, “Seventy bucks,” and I booked a room for the night.
The small motel was in clear sight of the lodge, but the road to it was not. I got temporarily lost driving there. When I finally reached the motel’s parking lot, it was completely empty. I was the only guest. I entered my room using a standard key with a diamond shaped key tag stamped with the number 5. Having a real motel key seemed to be a throwback from the 1970s, but I was too shaken to appreciate its novelty.
I entered the room and flipped on the air conditioning unit and was greeted by a familiar musty motel smell. The room was clean but spare. The walls were white, painted cinder blocks, and a single table lamp was the only source of illumination. Surprising there was a relatively new flat screen TV attached to the wall directly opposite the bed. I crumbled onto the bed, shoes and all, and flipped on the TV. A total of 5 channels greeted me, but one of them was frozen in some sort of digital TV mishap. I stumbled onto the beginning of a movie and decided to watch a bit. Within minutes I realized what I was viewing. The film was “Into The Wild,” which is a story of a foolish adventurer who decides to explore the wilderness and winds up dying after prolonged starvation. I elected to turn the TV off.
I attempted to investigate alternative routes to Tucson, but the lack of internet data blocked my efforts. It was now around 5 PM, and I decided that I would go back to the lodge for dinner. When I approached the dining room, I was aware of two things: the waiter looked very surprised to see me, and the large room was completely empty. I sat at a table, and he handed me a menu.
I scanned the menu’s contents and discovered the usual resort fare… burgers, sandwiches, and a few expensive items like steak. I chose a Reuben Sandwich with a side salad, and the waiter disappeared with my order. I continued to be struck by the emptiness of this cavernous room, which reminded me of a scene from “The Shining.” Eventually, the sandwich came, and it was surprisingly good. My total bill was under $10.
On return to my room, I decided to have a drink. I had brought with me a small flask of bourbon to mix with a Coke that was chilling in Violet’s fridge. For some reason, I thought having a little whiskey on the trip would be a manly thing to do, strange as that sounds. This was definitely the time to use it.
The alcohol calmed me, and I reexamined my room’s appointments. I was surprised at the number of ashtrays available. One in the room, one on the little table outside of the room, and three on the picnic table directly across the room. Five ashtrays within 15 feet of my room, I thought, “Well, you don’t see that every day.” The alcohol had its desired effect, and I drifted off into sleep, it was 7:30 PM.
I started to rouse at 9 PM. In the recesses of my mind, I heard what sounded like demonic chanting. I woke a bit more and became aware of a heavy bass riff that was repetitive and persistent. My fogginess assessed the information as some sort of heavy metal rock concert, but that assessment seemed off. The bassline was so loud that my bed was shaking in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, and in the middle of a note, the music cut off only to resume a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself many times. The same song would be played at a quaking volume for anywhere between 1 to 3 minutes, it would then stop abruptly only to resume minutes later. It was creepy.
I looked out of my motel room’s door towards the parking lot to discover that I was still the only car parked. I looked in the opposite direction, and at the far end of the motel, I spied an old car with its interior lit up like a Christmas tree. It was parked on the motel’s walkway and looked completely out-of-place. The car was the source of the music.
Now fully awake, I retired my cellular internet connection, and surprisingly it worked. I was able to to use a couple of my GPS applications, which gave me different routes from Apache Lake to Tucson. One direction took me the 14 miles back towards Roosevelt Dam, the other was a 26 miles long trek south on the Apache Trail. Further research yielded confusing information, but it was clear that at least 14 miles of the 26-mile southern route were also unpaved, and at least 5 miles of that road was only a single lane. There was no easy highway route, and I found my anxiety building.
I called upon my cognitive skills to calm me. I did see a couple of vehicles in the lodge’s parking lot. Several were of the 4-wheel drive variety, but one was an older Chevy sedan. “It made it up the trail OK,” I thought. Perhaps the road wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Also, I now had some working knowledge of the trail, and I even knew that Violet could survive the rough road.
My cognitive restructuring helped only so much. Honestly, I would have paid someone to drive me out if that had been an option. I still had to decide which route to use the next day. Which way, the known northern route, which was more out of the way, or the more direct southern route, which was utterly unknown? I went to bed.
I woke the next morning around 5 AM and took a long, hot shower. I looked out my door and found that the heavy metal car was no longer there. It was almost as if its purpose was to wake me when the internet connection was better. I chucked at my willingness to attribute a meaning to every random event in my life.
I tried to do more research, but the internet was no longer working. I went back to Violet and pulled out a road atlas from her driver’s door storage pocket. There wasn’t enough detail on the map for this remote spot, and I slotted the atlas back into its door spot.
I decided to try connecting my phone while in the van as I had previously installed a cell phone signal booster. Although the booster didn’t help me when I arrived at the lodge, I was now a block away and at a slightly higher elevation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I tried the phone, and I was able to connect slowly to the web. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with any new information, and so I went back to the motel room to pack up my things. It was now 7 AM, and I had some time to kill as the restaurant didn’t open until 8. I took a walk along the lake with my camera in hand. Now, slightly calmer, I was able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the location. Apache Lake was long and majestic, and there seemed to be a spiritual presence in the air. I took it all in as I needed as much calming I could get.
I still was uncertain which route that I should take, but I wondered if the road towards Phoenix was in better condition, as it would have been the one more traveled. Should I risk the dirt road to Phoenix with the assumption that it was more roadworthy, or should I go back the longer but more familiar route? I needed more information, but there was none to be had.
I went to the lodge’s dining room and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was not alone. At another table were two “country” looking guys. Both appeared to be in their 40’s and were sporting similar goatees. They were wearing jeans and sturdy work-type boots. On their heads were camo colored ball caps, on their torsos they wore long-sleeved Tee styled shirts with a short-sleeved tee shirt pulled over the top.
In the past, I would have been too intimidated to approach them, especially since they had a rough look. However, their garb was similar to the dress of many guys that I see on construction sites, which gave them a familiarity. I boldly walked up to them, introduced myself, and started a conversation. They were very friendly and supportive. They told me that the road in either direction was equally terrible, but also noted that they had pulled a trailered boat on it the other day. This was another confirmation that Violet should be able to successfully get back to the highway if I drove her slowly enough. I decided to return the way that I came. Yes, it would make the overall drive longer, but the familiar factor would reduce my stress. I elected to wait until midday, as I thought the opposing traffic would be the lightest then.
Despite all of the cognitive efforts to neutralize my anxiety, I was still dreading the trip back to the highway. I wasn’t in the sheer panic that I had been in, but I was clearly outside of my comfort zone. I pulled myself into the driver’s seat, attached my iPhone to my dash phone holder, and turned the key. I was off.
I was glad that I chose the northern route when I started to recognize familiar landmarks, and I drove a full 5 miles in complete isolation. I took a sharp curve and faced another huge bus-sized RV approaching me. However, this time, I was more prepared as I knew that the road was two-way. The RV passed without incident. I qualified that encounter with the idea that this would be the only vehicle that I would see on the road so the rest of my trek would be clear sailing. At that moment another huge RV approached and drove past me, oh well. Eventually, I saw Roosevelt Dam in the distance. It’s massiveness frightened me the day before, but it now calmed me as I knew that I soon would be on paved ground. I stopped at the dam to take some photos and to catch my breath. My trauma was over.
Was my Apache Lake adventure worth it? I would say, “No.” The setting was beautiful, but the shear stress of getting there depleted any joy. Did my cognitive restructuring, internet research, and information gathering do the trick in calming me? Again, I would say, “No.” However, my efforts did reduce my anxiety and gave me more of an illusion of control over the situation. Therefore, those efforts served a useful purpose.
The reality, dear reader, is that sometimes you just have to do things that you don’t want to do. Sometimes you have to face your anxiety and move forward despite it. Life is not always easy, and to expect every day to be stress-free is not only unrealistic, but it is also unhealthy. Sometimes dealing with stress makes us grow and become stronger. Sometimes stress is just stress. That is the way life is.
As an aside, I found this quote from Theodore Roosevelt about the Apache Trail as I was getting some background for this post:
“THE APACHE TRAIL COMBINES THE GRANDEUR OF THE ALPS, THE GLORY OF THE ROCKIES, THE MAGNIFICENCE OF THE GRAND CANYON, AND THEN ADDS AN INDEFINABLE SOMETHING THAT NONE OTHERS HAVE, TO ME, IT IS THE MOST AWE-INSPIRING AND MOST SUBLIMELY BEAUTIFUL”
-THEODORE ROOSEVELT, 1911
Well…perhaps I could have enjoyed my adventure more if someone else was driving (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?).