When I saw the giant snake lying across the road, I realized we were probably in over our heads.
This moment was one of several memorable instances during our just-concluded work/play trip to central Arizona. Our base of operations was Prescott, the first territorial capital of the 48th state, located in the high desert halfway between Flagstaff and Phoenix.
The circumstance of our great hullabaloo was something that simply cannot be experienced in Indiana. My wife and I were miles from a paved road in Prescott National Forest, without a winch, high-clearance vehicle jack, auxiliary lighting, extra water or cell phone service. The ‘road’ we were traversing was actually a rock-strewn, washed-out snake path that had undoubtedly killed far sturdier vehicles than the citified SUV were were driving.
At a top speed that sometimes reached ‘saunter’ we were trying to find the Puntenney ghost town, built around a limestone kiln at the turn of the last century. The small town supporting the operation had long since vanished into the chaparral, along with the railroad line that serviced the whole affair. Not many people had every heard of the place, which was reason enough to use to attempt to find it. This little adventure sounded like a good idea at the time; that time being over breakfast while still wearing my pajamas and slippers.
Unfortunately, I realized too late that ‘cross-country travel’ in the desert southwest is serious business. By comparison, I have been noted for a serious lack of seriousness and that personal shortcoming was soon graphically highlighted.
This realization arrived as we slowly rock-crawled a downhill curve, balancing on knife-edged wheel ruts that threatened to destroy our oil pan or transmission with the slightest miscue, when we came to a ford crossing a dry stream bed. There, basking in all his glory, was a massive snake blocking the road.
It would be impossible to back up the slope and I was afraid the snake would puncture our tires with its huge fangs if we drove over it; we now had what is commonly known as a “Mexican Standoff.”
Of course, I’m exaggerating. The snake was only about six feet long, which is still six feet too many in my book, but after a few moments of indecision and a quick mental check of general snake classifications, I decided it wasn’t poisonous. Even better, during the extended mental cogitation, the snake slowly slithered off the trail after realizing we probably didn’t have any spare pack rats (a prime desert snake food.)
Shortly finally, after two hours of work, worry and risk, we found the town site and kiln. As a trained, experienced wordsmith, I can say without hyperbole: it wasn’t worth the trouble.
The site was neat, but more of a “pull over Dad, that ruin looks interesting”-type of affair rather than something that was worth shortening both my life and the life of my vehicle by at least 25 percent. Even if my vehicle survives until trade-in, I’ll have a tough time explaining the cactus scars and fingerprints embedded in the steering wheel.
The rest of the day was fabulous, especially if you like dust. The area is laboring under a stereotypical desert drought and choking brown dust, along with dried-out sinuses, is a constant companion to everything you do. Shrouded in that ever-present gagging brown cloud, we drove the dirt Perkinsville Road toward Jerome. This trek, certainly do-able by most vehicles if you don’t mind miles of tooth-rattle washboard, offers unlimited, unspoiled scenic vistas that required only a little imagination to believe you have traveled back to 1890.
The area is a mix of hidden ranches tucked behind hills and junipers, open-range cattle grazing alongside the road, technicolor rocks rising into the impeccable blue sky and the speed goats.
If you aren’t familiar, the ever-present pronghorn antelope is called “speed goat” by the locals. If you’ve ever seen one light the afterburners while fleeing a too-close photographer, the name is quite descriptive.
We also took a side trip to the fabulously-named Skull Valley. The drive from Prescott to Skull Valley is a short 12-mile jaunt but looks like the setting for the old Disney film “The Living Desert.” After climbing high through the ponderosa pine forests of Granite Mountain, you descent through pinyon-juniper scrub and finally into into an incredible landscape that looks like the special effects department was working overtime. With red, baked rocks jumbled haphazardly, prickly pear cactus basking in the heat alongside sagebrush and tumbleweed, this area looks more like “The West” than anyplace outside the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. The only thing missing is John Wayne.
In fact, if you squint your eyes just right, you might see him riding through the shimmering heat waves across the short grass.
I did, but I think the dust was affecting my vision.