A Sunday drive down the Old Apache Trail
To the east of the Phoenix megalopolis runs the Old Apache Trail, which starts out harmlessly enough as Highway 87.
As you wind your way through ravines and red cliffs, the road gets narrower a until a sign announces: pavement ends, gravel next 22 miles.
The onset of gravel gets rid of the weekend motorcyclists, which swarm around legitimate vehicles like horseflies on the smooth Arizona mountain highways.
The Apache Trail forms an innocent little squiggle on the map. It is marked as "scenic."
It should be marked "potentially deadly."
I was driving my Ford Taurus. It turned over to 100,000 miles last week, but it has yet to earn the affection I heaped on my Ford Ranger.
I should have rented a mule.
The Taurus has three separate annoying rattles in its front suspension which I should get fixed but always forget about on the smooth roads which pass near dealerships.
On the washboards of the Old Apache Trail, the car sounded like it was dragging a string of coffee cans.
From nice highway to wide gravel road down to a one-lane gravel road in less than a mile. Things were going in the wrong direction.
Then it got worse. The gravel road started down the side of a canyon. Hairpin curves. A drop of 900 feet in one mile for a 17 percent grade. On washboard.
Get rolling downhill on washboard gravel and you can lose control as surely as if you are on ice.
At least on ice in the Midwest you can slide gently in the ditch, cushioned by snow. On the Old Apache Trail, too much momentum means a tumble down an 800-foot cliff, a Hollywood stunt for which I wouldn't get paid.
I pulled over at the first turn-out to catch my breath. To calm my nerves, I set the satellite radio to the Zen station, which plays hypnotic music meant for hippies in a dimly lit room burning scented candles.
When driving in a tense situation, I forget to breathe. The woman on the Zen station comes on every few minutes to tell you to "breathe....just breathe..."
A needed reminder.
Around the cliffs I crept, not knowing what was fifteen feet ahead. If I met another vehicle, one of us would have to back down.
At this rate, the 22 miles of gravel would take eight hours.
Finally, the bottom, an old bridge called the Fish Creek Crossing.
I found a perch for the Taurus fifteen feet above the bridge, grabbed my camera and got out.
There are times when you just know you have found one of the most beautiful places on earth.
When I looked up to the great rose window at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, I knew.
When I saw the Southern Alps of New Zealand rise 12,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, I knew.
When I looked over the rim of the Grand Canyon, I knew.
When I walked into Fenway Park in Boston, I knew.
And as I looked around at the orange canyon walls, which towered above me at Fish Creek Crossing, I knew.
It was mid-day. Not the best for photography. The hot mid-day sun washes out the colors and irons out the deep shadows, which make the early morning and late evening so dramatic in the wilds of Arizona.
But in the depths of a narrow canyon, the sun bounces from thousand-foot wall to thousand-foot wall, bathing the whole massive natural cathedral in indirect orange light.
No stained-glass windows needed.
At the bottom of the canyon, the cottonwood's leaves glowed gold in the cool shade.
A single shaft of sunlight hit a distant ledge and lit up a massive saguaro cactus 200 feet up the canyon wall.
I took pictures, but so what. Nothing does such a scene justice. It is best to just soak it in.
I soaked in as much as I could before hitting the road. Up, up and up the mule trail twisted with only a six-inch windrow of clay between my rattling Taurus and the abyss.
The gravel finally ended at the majestic Roosevelt Dam, constructed of massive blocks of rock beginning in 1904. When completed in 1911, it was the largest dam in the world.
As the road climbed from the canyon bottom up and over the level of water behind the dam, the Roosevelt Dam Bridge, which is ranked as one of the top ten suspension bridges in the country, burst into full panoramic view.
Five hours after we left, my Taurus rattled back into its suburban garage, having undergone the toughest 100-mile test of its existence.
But what a spectacular Sunday drive!