We’re back this evening from an overnight Yuma trip where I was reminded what is important in local news. While we were getting ready to leave the motel, we had the TV on. Like most local stations throughout the country, Yuma’s local broadcast talent was on doling out the news, weather, and traffic. I know, it’s good to know how long it will take to get to work. But in this case, instead of helping the viewers avoid the freeway bottlenecks, Channel 11 reported how long the lines were at the Customs and Immigration inspection stations. And you thought your daily commute was silly.
We we’re traveling to a new town, one of the tools we rely on is the Web Site, Trip Advisor. You can search for things to do, hotels and restaurants. It’s like Yelp. The restaurant reviews are pretty helpful, but you have to watch out for people who have an axe to grind. I’ve even written a few reviews. Before our trip to Springerville, one of my chores was to check the restaurant reviews. When I did, I found two of the top-ten restaurants served Mexican food (the 11th ranked restaurant was McDonald’s). One of them is at the top of the list while the other is tenth.
My all time favorite joint for south of the border food is family owned and they have a couple of places in the Phoenix, and another in Springerville. I love their food because it’s New Mexican style. You may have already guessed that I’m talking about Los Dos Molinos. Their main location is on Central Avenue south of Baseline; in the old Tom Mix house (the link is for those who have no idea who Tom Mix was). The food is spicy hot and the Margaritas will knock you back on your spurs. A shock to me was that it is the underdog on Trip Advisor’s list.
The highest ranked place in town is Booga Red’s, and they also serve American and Southwestern (?) style meals. Cars are always parked in front and they’re open for breakfast. The style of their food is Nortino. It’s milder; like you’d expect at Macayo’s.
For the shootout, The Queen and I ate dinner at both restaurants and tried to order the same menu items — which was impossible. The judges are Queen Anne and me, we get one vote each. The common items that we judged are the chips and salsa, the margaritas, a taco and a tamales. I’ll be talking about the other stuff we ordered. Are you ready … bring out the chips and salsa.
Chips and Salsa
This is the first impression that you get at any place that serves Mexican food. The worst that I ever had was in Salina, Kansas, where they didn’t have a clue, and served cinnamon bun bites instead. There is a big difference between tonight’s candidates.
At Los Dos, they serve red and green salsa. Of course, you don’t really eat it. You only hold the chip over your favorite color and let it absorb the fumes. If you accidentally dip your chip into the salsa, carefully shake it off, and immediately order a glass of milk. Their chips are thicker and darker, but they need to be. If they were thinner, they would instantaneously burst into flames. We didn’t finish the chips and salsa.
Booga Red’s chips are light and thin and taste good, but the salsa is a clone of Pace, the salsa that you buy in Safeway. There aren’t any chunks, not enough jalapeños and no cilantro. We ate all the salsa.
(Los Dos – 1, Booga Red’s – 1)
When you order a margarita at Los Dos, they ask you if you want a single, double or three shots of tequila. The mix is distinctly house made. Anne didn’t like it because it was sweet instead of tart, but that didn’t stop her from ordering a second.
I thought the Booga Red’s margarita was indistinguishable from the pre-mixed Costco bottles. The tequila was probably in there but it wasn’t up-front. I still ordered a second.
(Los Dos – 1, Booga Red’s – 1)
This is where it gets complicated. The nightly special at Los Dos Molinos was Posole which I am very fond of and rarely find on a menu, while Anne ordered a quesadillas at Booga Red’s, so there’s nothing to judge here. I must say that my soup lacked flavor. It needed more seasoning (not just chilies), it needed to simmer longer and it needed more of the ingredients that make up a great Posole, however the pork was fork-tender (as only Los Dos Molinos can do). My other complaint was that Mama’s Carnitas were not on the menu, and that is my favorite and why I go there. As for quesadillas, you can do those in the microwave in fifteen seconds.
Tacos and Tamales
OK, we’re down to the basics. At Los Dos, the tamales was everything you would expect. Course ground masa with a spicy pork filling and, in this case, topped with a red enchilada sauce. If the masa was made with blue corn, I would have died right on the spot. I tried to order a shredded beef taco, but Angelina insisted that I try the Carne Adovada — marinated pork — and I was glad. I can count on one hand the number of tacos that I’ve had better.
Booga Red’s shredded beef taco was very good, and I’d order it again. It was light on flavor but the shell was cooked properly and held up as you ate it. The tamales on the other hand was something I’ve never seen. The masa was light and airy, almost flour like, and it had whole kernels of corn mixed in?!? I ordered mine enchilada style with green chili on top. This close to New Mexico, I expected tears in my eyes, but instead it was a tasty chili gravy. It was good but bland, just like I like my Cream of Wheat.
(Los Dos – 1, Booga Red’s – 1)
Desert (this is actually cheating)
At Los Dos Molinos, Angelina makes her own Sangria, that’s a wine and fruit juice mix. It’s awful and most of us stopped drinking it in the sixties. However, after she makes the wine, she uses the smashed fruit to make an upside-down cake. It’s baked in a skillet like a normal pineapple one, only the fruit marinades the cake half-way through. I’ll be really honest here, pineapple upside-down cake is my favorite and I bake one each year for my birthday. This was better than anything I have ever made, and mine are damn good.
Booga Red’s — < the sound of crickets>.
(Los Dos 2, Booga Red’s – 0, but this doesn’t count)
If you’re keeping score, you’ve noticed that we have a tie. You can tell which of us enjoys a little adventure. Now, I regret to tell everyone that Anne thinks that the best tacos come from … Taco Bell. Because she obviously has no taste, she is disqualified from the judging panel. So, the winner is … whoever you like the most. If you like safe and tasty food, Booga Red’s is the place for you. We both enjoyed our meal there. If you’re one of Satin’s children, I recommend Los Dos Molinos, because it’s beyond the normal.
And now we return you to regularly scheduled programming.
Over the 2011 Memorial Day weekend, a forest fire started in the mountains overlooking Springerville. They called it, The Wallow fire, the largest forest fire in Arizona’s history. Crews fought the blaze for over a month before containing it, but the fire did an enormous amount of damage and one of its victims was the little town of Greer. The reports that came over the TV news were not good. We feared that Greer had burnt to the ground.
Anne and I have a fond memory of the quaint town tucked into a White Mountain valley. When we decided to get married, she sold her Atlanta home and moved to Phoenix. She drove across the county alone, but I flew to Albuquerque and we made the rest of the trip together. Rather than take the Interstates, I thought it would be nice to show-off some of Arizona. We drove south along the Rio Grande to Socorro, and picked up U.S. Highway 60 so that we could enter Arizona the back way. If this seems familiar, it should. Our route took us past the Very Large Array, through Springerville, and we spent her first Arizona night in a Greer cabin. During the night, we had a late winter storm, and on the morning of April 15th, we found that it had snowed. Ironically, that delighted her. After she finished playing in the fresh snow, we scraped off her car and continued the trip to Phoenix.
Yesterday we drove up to Greer for lunch, expecting to see a barren blackened valley. We didn’t find that. We saw the burn scar along the mountain ridge flanking the valley’s east side, but the valley floor seemed untouched. The Molly Butler Lodge was unchanged and even the Greer Peaks Lodge, reportedly damaged by the fire, had long been repaired and open for business. What had changed however, was the little town of quaint cabins has become a community of large expensive mansions that were second homes for the wealthy. With its proximity to the Sunrise Ski Resort, Greer was looking more like Vail, without the expensive downtown shops.
We stopped at the crowed Rendezvous Cafe and had lunch. The food was great and we took in all the kitsch cluttering the walls (why is that still a thing?). While we ate, we watched hummingbirds fight over the feeders outside. On the specials board, they had home-made cherry cobbler, so we couldn’t pass that up and added a dollop of ice cream. “That’s some mighty fine cherry pie, ma’am.”
After lunch, we vainly searched for our little cabin Perhaps it fell victim to the fire, or maybe they tore it down to make room for a McMansion. In either case, we couldn’t find it. After we gave up looking, we drove around taking pictures until a light rain started. It seemed like a good excuse to call it a day and head back to the trailer for an afternoon nap. We left Greer behind assured that it was fine and we’d visit again.
P.S. Since this is our last day in Springerville, we’ll be posting the results of “The Great Springerville Mexican Food Shootout” this afternoon. Stay tuned for that. For now, Queen Anne and I are busy watching the eclipse.
In the spring of 1959, my dad traded in his ’52 Ford Business Coupé for a brand new Ford station wagon. It was two-tone — white over red — with red vinyl seats, push button radio and 4-60 air conditioning — you’d roll all four windows down at 60 miles an hour for greatest effect. Neither my three sisters nor I had a clue why he bought the new car. His pride and joy was the ’56 Crown Victoria that was in the garage. We didn’t need a reason, and we didn’t care. It was new and shiny and had pretty wide white walls. As we found out later, he bought it so we could visit his uncle in California. The six of us were taking a two-week road trip from Pittsburgh to LA and back. We were the Griswolds prototype.
When my dad was behind the wheel, he focused on the destination. I don’t think the man would have stopped for a bathroom break had not one of us been whining from the back. We started out on Friday evening, and drove all night to Chicago, but not stopping until the next evening in Joplin. Mom may have done a stint, but we were asleep in the back.
We were on Route 66, The Mother Road. We didn’t appreciate its significance then, the TV show wouldn’t air for another year and we were too busy making truckers honk their air horns. My dad was relentless, he wouldn’t stop to see the Jackalope, the Thing, the Grand Canyon, or any of the other cool places that cost time and money. Can you imagine torturing kids like that? Signs along the road … “The Thing – 50 miles”, “The Thing – 10 miles”, 5, 4, 3, etc. At least he didn’t stop the car to kill us. Of course, that would have meant stopping the car.
He did stop at one place — The Petrified Forest — he had to. The stupid road ran right through it. He said we could stop and go through the park and we were giddy. Finally, we’d see something and maybe get a break from the treeless desert we drove through. A forest, with trees; made from rocks … yeah! Imagine our shock when we saw all the rock-trees were knocked over. This wasn’t a respite from the desert, this was just more desert … with cool looking rocks. “There’s so many of them, can I take just one mom … huh? … huh? … Can I?” Even now, I sound so annoying, I want to slap myself.
Within a month of our return from that vacation, my parents sold our Monroeville house and the second car. They got rid of most of our excess baggage and we moved to California. We settled into a Sylmar rental house so quickly that none of us kids missed a day of school. Although our family drove along Route 66 four more times, we never again stopped at the Petrified Forest. After I moved to Arizona decades later, I made two photography outings to the park on my own.
Yesterday, I took Queen Anne to visit the park for her first visit. Despite what Google Maps says, it’s only an hour trip along U.S. Route 180. The road follows the Little Colorado as the river descends from the grass-covered Springerville Volcanic Fields, past the little town of Saint Johns where the cinder cones give way to dirty tan sandstone. The red silt river played hide and seek, only revealing itself when it passed under the empty highway. As the elevation continued to drop, the sandstone formed low tables and — where water eroded the softer underlying shale — large angular blocks broke off and slumped on the red soil below. Further along, I saw a bright white swell that I guessed was Chinle Shale and I knew we were almost there.
When we visit a national park, we head straight to the visitor center. That’s where you learn stuff … besides, I love those giant relief maps — which they didn’t have here. This time, we sat through the documentary film, browsed the museum exhibits, picked up some pamphlets, and bought two photo books before driving north along the road. As a photographer, I want to see the ‘long-shot’ first, so we slowly drove the road’s length. I made mental notes as we went, and tried to figure out how I’d shoot those images after the crowd thinned. After we turned around, we stopped at each pull-out, walked the trails, and photographed what we saw. As the day passed, I watched how the light and the sky changed as clouds formed over the White Mountains and the San Francisco Peaks before they drifted away in the invisible air stream.
We discovered that the park isn’t just about petrified trees, it’s about layers. There are layers of soil and rocks, layers of flora and fauna, and layers of settlers and travelers for everyone to see in an open time capsule. As each rainy season washes away soil, more fossils are uncovered. There are fossils of ferns, grasses, lizards, crocodiles, toads, dinosaurs … and yes, trees. People before us settled this land, and they’ve left things behind for us to find. They left arrowheads, baskets, weaving, petroglyphs, and along the bank of the Puerco River, a pueblo ruin. Other people have traveled through the park. The Mogollon’s had trade routes to and from the Pueblos in New Mexico. In 1853, Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple used those trails to survey the route now used by Burlington Northern Santa Fé Railroad. The tracks were a basis for U.S. Route 66 and now Interstate 40. These routes are layer upon layer of traders and countless migrants moving across the Colorado Plateau.
Even though the National Park’s mission is to preserve and protect natural history, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nod to history more recent. There’s a turn-out north of the Interstate 40 bridge marked by a rusty skeleton of a 1932 Studebaker on blocks. It’s the spot where Route 66 passed through the park. The pavement has returned to grass and sage, and only the telephone poles give away the road’s alignment. The road of my past. While I was photographing the scene, I swore I heard distant echoes of four kids in a red and white station wagon, begging dad to stop.
I wasn’t interested in fishing as a teenager. Fast shiny cars and women were the only things on my mind. I liked the times my dad took me to drown worms, but it was never a thing I did with friends. It wasn’t until I moved to Arizona as a lad of twenty-four that a group of guys accepted me to fish with them. After the first time they invited me to come along on a long weekend trip to Big Lake, I was hooked.
In those days, camping was something you did because you were on a fishing trip. It was a necessary evil that you endured so that you could be on the water. To compensate for the suffering, we’d bring fine wine, Jack Daniels, and gourmet food — some big steaks at least — and we’d swear that everything taste better in the dirt. There were no tents or Dutch ovens, we cooked everything on a Colman stove or a cowboy fire and we slept in the back of trucks. We were manly men … although we really were young and stupid.
According to my new friends, the only time to fish Big Lake was just as the lake thawed or as it began to freeze. Fishing the spring thaw meant that there was a chance that you could catch a fish that had wintered-over; a big fish. Since it was before the official season, the store was closed and the lake hadn’t been stocked with fingerlings yet. Who wanted to catch a puny fish? They were sardines! We were after the two or three-pound rainbows, or maybe a nice brown trout. Those were rare.
To get to Big Lake for the thaw, you needed a four-wheel drive truck. The road wasn’t paved in the 70’s, and the snow plows didn’t do the forest roads. So as we drove, we might need to stop and engage the front hubs to get over a snow drift or two. That was enough justification to drive a monster truck the other 360 days a year. One year we were late. The Palo Verde were already in bloom. The roads were clear of snow and we didn’t need to four-wheel. What a disappointment.
The trip I remember the fondest was the time I brought back the biggest fish. It was late afternoon of our second day. The sun was behind Mount Baldy and the light was fading fast. Out of our group of ten, we only had a couple of rainbows on the stringer. They were less than a foot each. It was a pathetic day. Up and down the line, guys began complaining. It was cold, the fishing was lousy, it’s time for a drink by the fire. To increase chances, each of us tried different bait, lures or whatever. I had come to the party with a fly rod. Fly fishing was new to me and I was mostly catching my hat or ear. Someone called out, “Last cast.” We were going to call it a day. With my best effort, I cast a black woolly worm onto the water’s surface. It was too dark to see the fly, so I blindly began stripping in the line.
BAM! My rod bent in half. I thought I snagged a rock at first, but then a fish cleared the surface once and then again. It was a huge fish, even in the dark everyone could tell. It took out line, enough line that I feared it would take it all. It put up a nice fight and I finally netted it. Once on the bank we examined the brightly colored rainbow and put it on the scale. It was over five pounds. I smiled and looked up, only to see everyone fishing as hard as they could. We beat the water to a froth for another hour before giving up and heading back to camp. As I recall, it was a great night around the fire.
Anne and I made a pilgrimage to the White Mountains yesterday. We explored the roads and stopping for every photo-op. When we got to Big Lake, these memories flooded my brain, so we sat for a moment on a picnic table. Since those guys were ten to fifteen years my senior, they’re all gone now. I’m grateful they gave me a love of the outdoors and the thrill of catching a fish. Although our camping is more refined now, it’s still fun to act stupid around a campfire.
One of the things tourists do upon arrival is to visit the city park. I don’t know why, but when you browse the brochures, the local park is usually at the top of the list of to-do things. For example, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Park, there’s Central Park in New York, and Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Phoenix has the Margaret T. Hance Deck Park, but I don’t think anyone has ever gone there. These are open spaces within the city that their leaders felt important to protect from development. Springerville has Casa Malpais which isn’t really a park in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a fourteen acre archaeological preserve that the city owns and maintains. In other words, it’s a Pueblo Indian ruins.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966, Casa Malpais was built on a basalt ledge overlooking the Little Colorado River a couple of miles north of Springerville. The Mogollon people lived there from 1250 to 1350, before abandoning the site. Frank Cushing was the first European Archeologist to visit the Pueblo in the 1800s and the University of Arizona did partial excavations a hundred years later. The findings of that dig are on display at the museum on Main Street back in town.
Queen Anne and I wanted to see Casa Malpais yesterday, so we stopped by the museum to get directions. We found out that the pueblo is not open for self guided tours, but guides take visitors out to the site three times daily. Since it only cost $10.00 per person ($8.00 for geezers), we signed up for the next bus. As we waited for our tour, we watched a twenty-minute background film that explained the history and what to expect. The museum hosts made sure we had sturdy shoes, sun block and water before we left. At 1:00 we (just the two of us) boarded the shuttle for what was a private tour. After making sure we had all of our gear, Phil, our guide drove us to the scene.
When we arrived we got off the bus and I slung my camera bag over my shoulder while Anne threw some water in her purse/backpack thingy. Phil asked if we didn’t want to take a walking stick, so we each grabbed one from the rack. Looking up at the cliff, I thought, “This will be fun.” I didn’t see an obvious way to get up there. After we were ready, Phil explained, “The trial over there used to be the only one until the archaeologist brought a drone to film the site a couple of years ago. After studying the films, they realized that there was a second path up the ledge, so we’re going to go up this way and come down on the old trail.” I wondered what he was talking about, I couldn’t see a trail in front of us much less the one over there. While we’re at it, I don’t see any ruins up there either!
We started walking up where the bigger rocks were kicked aside until we got to flat rocks that were reinforced and cemented in place. Ah, a trail — I get it. We’d move forward until we got winded, and Phil would conveniently stop and find something to talk about long enough that we’d catch our breath. The walking stick helped me keep my balance with a camera on one shoulder and bag on the other. Before we knew it, we reached the Grand Kiva — a large meeting hall — with basalt stone walls four-foot tall and equally wide. We listened as Phil talked about two hundred men packed in the smoke-filled ceremonial room. Then we went up more steps till we got to the 150 room apartment house were we heard stories of the ancients and how the volunteers take care of it.
As we walked around the pueblo’s back side, Phil took us aside toward the cliff wall. “This is the lost canyon,” he said pointing at where the lead edge of basalt columns had pulled away from the original cliff. “Jeff and I have explored back there,” he said in such a way that you knew he had a genuine love of this place. Then he showed us three rams head petroglyphs carved into the rocks. “That one marks the summer solstice, the one on the right is the spring equinox and the one in the middle lines up with the cross quarter.” I would never had seen them, much less got a photograph if we were on our own.
We spent two hours on the ledge listening to Phil explain what he knew and us asking questions like a couple of six-year-old. He answered what he could and was honest about what his speculations were. “I wish I could go back 800 years to know that answer, but my best guess is … ” Before we knew it, we were back at the bus. Neither of us had fallen and I hadn’t dropped anything into a bottomless crevice, so I counted the day a success. When I mentioned this, Phil said, “Yeah, last month I went out with four and came back with two. My boss said, this is not good.” On the drive back he told us that story. If you’d like to hear it, sign up for a tour and ask Phil.
Drive east from Springerville on U.S. Highway 60 for an hour and forty-five minutes and you’ll be at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array. It’s a radio astronomy observatory with twenty-seven radio telescopes spread out across an ancient dry lake larger than New York City. You may have seen it in films, most notably Carl Sagan’s Contact staring Jodi Foster. That’s the day trip that Queen Anne and I took yesterday. It’s our third visit. We needed new T-shirts.
It was a perfect day for the road trip – cool, clear and sunny with puffy white clouds scattered about. U.S. 60 climbs out of Round Valley for a short stretch before reaching the high desert volcanic plains that distinguish eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. It’s covered in grass and pinion pine and changes to sage brush as you head east. The terrain is flat, but like a dinner dish. The road would rise to a lip revealing another bowl and the road was visible ten (maybe twenty) miles on the other side, dead straight ahead. “On a day and a road like this, … ” I started to say out loud. ” … you could drive forever,” Anne finished. We’ve been together far too long.
We didn’t see a lot of animals, just a smattering of cattle and a couple of horses. We did come across a small heard of elk cows with calves. They were grazing near the right side of the road, and raised their heads as Fritz passed. About an hour into the trip the road goes through a pass in the Datil Mountains. It’s a small range that separates the open spaces. The most notable thing about them was the road sign marking the Continental Divide. I had forgotten that we would cross it.
The VLA is in the basin below the Datils, and soon we arrived. The sight of all those large telescopes from the road makes you want to ease out of the throttle, but I knew the entrance was still a mile away so I left the cruise control on as we crossed over the rail road tracks on which the telescopes are moved. Finally we pulled into the entrance and headed to the visitors center.
The observatory is very visitor friendly. The center has National Park like displays explaining its mission along side some of the juicy discoveries they made. We watched their twenty-five minute film. Hardly anyone works there, it’s too remote. Instead the labs are fifty miles away in Socorro. There is a self guided tour that costs six bucks, but we got a dollar discount because we’re geezers. Guided bus tours come up from Socorro and we were lucky to run in to an astronomer waiting for a bus to arrive. He offered Anne and I a five minuet spiel then he’d answer our questions. “Have you heard from anyone yet?” I asked.
“We don’t do any SETI work at this site,” was Dale’s response and we both agreed that the movie gave a false impression on that point.
After spending a couple of hours at the VLA we packed our new T-shirts and started back. The light had ‘come in’ and I had all kinds of photo-stops to make, besides we could get some pie in Pie Town. After wasting some film we made it to Pie Town at 5:00, but all three of the cafes were closed (I really wanted some of that fine cherry pie). We continued to dally along the road and made it to the Ritz in time for sunset cocktails on our tree covered veranda. A most rewarding day indeed.