We didn’t just drive out of Phoenix. A friend and I struggled, clawed, and cussed our way out of town. It had been a rough week and Friday wasn’t going quietly. Our hope was to leave work early and cruise up to the White Mountains for a less sweaty weekend in the pines at Hawley Lake. But last minute projects, forgotten tasks, unexpected interruptions all conspired to irritate us and make our escape much more desirable.
When we did finally escape, we realized we hadn’t truly packed for our camping trip. We needed food. Then a new ice chest. Then gas. Then we fought rush hour traffic. We almost started boxing each other.
But we made it to I-60 going east, the city peeling away from the landscape just as the last bit of sunlight bled out its colors into the towering monsoon clouds. As darkness fell, our cat claws of frustration relaxed and withdrew. We put in a Taj Mahal CD and drove on with a soundtrack of sweet West Indies blues.
After a quick pancake dinner in Globe, we headed for Show Low to the north. It wasn’t until after winding through the low-speed switchbacks of the Salt River Canyon that we realized it was near midnight and we had no idea where we’d sleep for the night. Between us and Show Low was White Mountain Apache land, and in my experience nothing good comes of getting caught on any reservation without a permit.
Near Show Low, we found Friday wasn’t through dealing out some bad luck. Despite our trusty map of back roads, the hunt for a place to sleep became impossible in the dark. Road after road denied a good campsite. Others never appeared in our headlights, or were overcrowded lakeside campgrounds full of trailers – like beached whales of metal and plastic.
Finally, one road continued on into the hills. Then we saw city lights approaching again. What?! We backtracked to the only side road we’d seen – a paved cul-de-sac for some unfinished housing community. We parked there and slept for the night before our cranky personalities turned into angry pumpkins.
In the morning, we found we’d driven in a loop and were 2 miles from downtown Show Low. After breakfast, we hightailed it out of civilization and in search of an ‘unbeaten path’.
With our bellies full and the fresh pine air in our lungs, we headed up the 60 to the town of Vernon. It’s a quiet shell of a settlement that started around 1910. Heading down its main road, forest route 3140, we found a cemetery on the edge of town. Traipsing past the headstones we built our own story of the town’s history. The oldest headstones implied it may have been a children’s cemetery through the 1920s. With time, other family members began to join their children in the afterlife.
With our morbid exploration done, we continued on, passing ranches with names of the buried. Our wheels crunched to a stop at the remnants of an old sawmill named for yet another six-foot-under resident. Nothing remained but foundations and the ghosts of a milling community that had survived the Great Depression only to die out when the modern world found them.
We continued on, as a thunderstorm built overhead. One enticing side road took us up to the 50-foot Lake Mountain fire lookout tower, built in 1926. From here, we watched a “beneficial burn” on a nearby hillside with Ken “Skip” Schipper. An easy-going retired teacher, he proudly showed us a paper sitting atop the triangulation compass. The X’s were recorded lightning strikes over the last day. When I questioned two X’s at the center of the map, where the tower stood, he chuckled.
Nor was it the first time he’d been struck by lightning. Strikes are exceptionally common on the Mogollon Rim. Nearby Gentry Tower was struck while he was there and in a phone conversation with his son. He hung up, the side of his head still tingling with electricity.
I glanced at Skip’s chair; an old wooden thing with vintage glass telephone pole insulator caps shoved onto each leg – possibly the same insulators used in the early days for a bare telephone wire strung 25 miles north through the trees to Show Low so rangers could be warned of smoke sightings. The tower is metal, though. I wonder if the insulators really help much.
A mile to the southeast, Los Burros Ranger station has stood since 1910 to watch over the logging resources of ponderosa pine. It is now the oldest BLM structure in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. A ranger would ride with a mule and supplies up Lake Mountain to climb the iron pegs up an old tree to watch for fires. Its gnarled, dead stump is all that remains, visible from the new tower.
After descending the fire tower, we drove on down our dusty road through a mid-day sprinkle and thunderclaps. Another former mill town appeared, McNary. At an elevation of 7,316 feet, it’s the highest town in Arizona. (Flagstaff is 6,899 feet). At the grocery store we bought our $8 camping permit for the Indian reservation.
By the time we were winding through the hills to Hawley Lake, the rain was steady and strong. The forest was dense with undergrowth. Spanish moss clung to the trees as we crawled up through the pines to a 300-acre lake with docks, cabins, a small store and diner of sorts, as well as boat rentals.
After briefly considering a $120-a-night cabin, we moved on. Route 26 (60 on old maps) took us through thickets of some of the largest, oldest aspen trees I’ve ever seen in Arizona.
We followed an old pickup rattling down the trail slowly, until we could pass. We spotted a sign, and turned around to explore a side road Christmas Tree Lake. An Indian ranger drove by and stopped us. Examining our permits, he sternly admonished us for even thinking of visiting the lake without a special permit.
“If you’d only driven past that sign there, I’d have fined you,” he growled.
So we backtracked to a sign near Kinney Junction, warning of reintroduced Mexican grey wolves. That’s comforting. From there we followed a new road; Indian Route 25.
It was time to find a campsite, and it didn’t take long. Beautiful! Overlooking a stream. Dense trees and a bridge nearby. Then… stinky wooden outhouse, small hills of trash, litter everywhere. We needed to camp, though – the night before had been too irritating.
Indian country is beautiful, less-traveled and abounds with opportunities to see things you might not otherwise. So don’t throw your trash down. Please?
The next morning proved this point beautifully.
We woke up early and continued along Route 25 (61 on old maps), watching the landscape change quickly as the elevation dropped. Coming down a hairpin turn, near Goklish Canyon, we saw a green sliver of crop fields and a fence below.
We descended into the valley and drove along the fence line. A small group of what seemed like wild horses walked along the road. When we approached, they dodged into the trees, slipping out onto the roadway behind us with suspicion in their eyes and two foals tagging along.
But wait, there’s more! If that wasn’t enough, we spotted a 100-foot stump of a ponderosa. Atop the tree, overlooking the White River was the scruff of an eagle’s nest. There a golden eagle basked in the midday sun.
Our brains were on overloaded by the time we reached a paved road to Whiteriver on Highway 73. To clear our heads, we stopped at the one grocery store in town for supplies to make sandwiches on our tailgate.
At a nearby gas station, an elderly Indian man named Ross wandered up to us. As we let the gas tank fill, he made small talk.
Then, asking where we were from and where we had been, he lit up at my mention of Hawley Lake. For 20 minutes, he talked of the dozens of wonderful lakes; Reservation Lake, Hurricane Lake, and the dams he’d help build. He shared experiences of running eight different boilers, and being rousted at 3 a.m. to run and fix one before anybody froze in the night. His wife was from Whiteriver, and he was from Cedar Creek. He talked of his culture, about husbands and wives usually being from different cities, always moving to the husband’s town. As I leaned against the tailgate eating a sandwich, he continued sharing stories, glancing at us for a moment, then letting his eyes trail off in another memory to share. We were lost in them a few minutes too, before realizing he had some 70 years worth of stories and we couldn’t possibly have stayed for all of them.
Ross was an unexpected, delightful conclusion to our trip. We passed Ross’ hometown and headed home with daydreams of eagles, wolves, rivers and… boilers.
If you go:
White Mountain Apache permits can be bought at several places, including the gas station at the junction of US 60 and Highway 73, or at the McNary general store.
Cabins at Hawley Lake range in price between $115 and $200. There is also a lodge with rooms around $75. Office closes around 5 p.m.
McNary lived, died with logging industry
In the small cabin at Los Burros Ranger Station in 1918, 250 million board-feet of timber were sold to the Apache Lumber Company in nearby McNary. Soon the logging and mill town of Cooley was booming with activity as the logging industry thrived.
Despite this early success, the company ran into financial trouble in the early 1920s. In 1923, W.M. Cady and James G. McNary bought and renamed it the Cady Lumber Co. As experienced lumber mill operators from Louisiana, they had come to Arizona after stripping all the useful timber in the forests around their original mill.
First named Cluf Cienega, then Cooley, the town was now called McNary.
Situated on Apache Indian land, McNary quickly became a multicultural town, after James McNary loaded two trains with about 500 of his “experienced and faithful employees to Arizona” – all-Black laborers from Louisiana.
The following year, 700 Black migrants came from Louisiana to this transplanted company town, lured by the promise of steady work and good living conditions. More minorities followed throughout the 1920s.
The town soon boasted a “Negro” quarter called “The Hill,” and a Spanish-American quarter. Each had its own elementary school, church and café. A small group of Navajo bush-cutters lived in town, and an Apache community continued to grow just west of town.
McNary’s 1,500-plus residents spent their days working and their evenings dancing, as one former resident, Ollie Mae Cottrell, recalled in a 1999 interview conducted by Northern Arizona University: “We danced regular dancin’, danced the Mexican dance, danced the Indian dance. We did it all ‘cause my daddy, he was part Indian.”
In another interview, Lola Espinoza recalls life in McNary: “Well, they had dances for the Mexican people…. And the Mexican had their Mexican dances in the Mexican part of town. See we were kind of segregated to begin with. Because the whites stayed on the top part of the hill, and the Mexicans and the colored stayed on the lower part of the hill, but different areas. And the Indians had their little ‘Indian town’ way back behind the mill.”
After struggling through the Great Depression, the McNary lumber industry was revived with the post-WWII housing boom and the town became known for its diversity and relatively composed race relations.
In 1952, four years after a fire destroyed much of the milling operations, James McNary sold his portion of the company. By the 1970s, the Apache tribe started its own lumber company and stopped sales to McNary’s mill. A fire destroyed the lumber mill in 1979 and many Black residents relocated. By 1990 there were just about 12 Black families living on “The Hill,” and McNary’s lumber boom had ended.