Adventure on Devil’s Highway

First of all, let me throw in a note here for the Mercedes Benz enthusiasts who are checking this blog for the first time.  An article I wrote about towing with Mercedes was published in the July-August 2010 issue of The STAR, which is the official magazine of the Mercedes Benz Club of America. In it, there’s a little note that “you can follow Rich Luhr’s travels at airstreamlife.com/maze”.

So where’s the Mercedes?  Sorry folks, it’s up in Vermont with the Airstream and my daughter, all in the good care of my parents.  Eleanor and I are on a hiatus from Airstream travel for a few weeks, which means no blogging about MB-based adventures.  We’ll get back to that in late August, when all parties (Eleanor, Emma, Rich, Mercedes, and Airstream) will be reunited and begin traveling down the east coast through September and October. We plan to visit STARFest 2010 in Winchester VA along the way, and there definitely will be some blogging about that.

In the meantime, here we are in Arizona with only a small Honda and a tent for our camping adventures.  We’re doing what traveling we can with what we have: the basics that we used nearly two decades ago when we were unmarried, childless, and quite a bit younger.  Car-camping is certainly less convenient than traveling with an Airstream in tow, but it does make for an interesting change.  On the other hand, I may have cursed myself, when in the previous blog I said that we were “guaranteed” an adventure by going tent camping.  Or perhaps I was just forgetful in not recognizing that tenting carries certain discomforts and tribulations that you generally avoid by traveling in an Airstream. In any case, things got a bit more interesting than we would have liked.

Our first day out started well enough, with a drive up the “Devil’s Highway” (formerly Route 666, now known as SR 191) from Safford, Clifton, and Morenci. We stopped for a Mexican lunch near Safford, explored Roper Lake State Park briefly, and cruised up to the massive Freeport McMoRan Morenci Mine.  The photo below will give you a rough idea of the huge size of that mine — and you can’t even see all of it in this panoramic shot.  There’s quite a bit more both to the left and right.  They’re mining copper and gold here.

morenci-mine-pano-small.jpg

From Morenci the road begins to engage the driver in earnest, with tight climbing turns and zero guardrails, as the landscape changes from low desert to alpine forests of pine and oak.   You need to pay attention and keep both hands on the wheel.  It’s a great driving road, which is why the motorcyclists like it, but beware: there are no services at all for 90 miles north of Morenci, and long vehicles (such as motorhomes 40 feet or longer) can’t negotiate it.  I wouldn’t want to drive anything longer than 25 feet, personally.  And if anyone in the car is prone to motion sickness, keep a window open.

Murphy’s Law struck with a vengeance about halfway into the 90 mile stretch of forest, when the Honda began to lose power intermittently.  No question that the car was working hard due to the altitude and grade.  At 8,000 feet, our 110 horsepower engine was probably putting out a maximum of about 95 hp.  That wasn’t the problem (you can’t go fast along this road anyway).  The intermittent symptom felt like a fuel problem, as the engine randomly and dramatically lost power for several seconds, and then just as suddenly surged back to life.

devils-hwy-curves.jpgThere was nothing to do but keep going.  We were 45 miles from services in either direction.  Very little traffic is on Rt 191, so if the car stopped entirely we might easily have waited for hours for someone to come by, depending on time of day.  The power loss happened five or six times, and then whatever was causing the problem (fuel contamination?) ceased and all was fine from there.  I think the seemingly endless S-turns on the road stirred up some gunk from the bottom of the fuel tank, and the car simply had to pass it like an automotive kidney stone.  Fortunately, if the car had given up, we were set for several days of camping at roadside, including food and water.

strayhorse-campsite.jpgInstead of being stranded, we ended up at a National Forest campground called Strayhorse, elevation 8,200.  On Thursday night it was deserted — perfect by our standards — featuring only a handful of basic tent sites with pit toilets and a water spigot. We set  up camp, made dinner, and enjoyed the beautiful quiet, the cool pine-scented air, and the view down into the valleys below.

It doesn’t take much to disturb such a delicate environment of peace and solitude.  Being alone on the top of a mountain range is great until something goes awry, or when a pair of cars comes up the highway after dark with loud rap music being blared out of the open windows.  Startled out of our sleeping bags, we feared the worst: teenagers had come to party at our isolated location, and we were going to have to deal with them.  Fortunately, it turned out to be just a bathroom stop for their little caravan, and we returned to our bags again.

strayhorse-valley-view.jpgWith the Coleman gas lantern turned off, we noticed something strange, a series of white flashes visible through the fabric of our tent. It was a massive thunderstorm with considerable lightning, wreaking havoc somewhere south of us.  The storm was too far off for us to hear the thunder, but the incredible frequency of lightning made it obvious that this was a big sucker.  If it came up the mountain, we’d be in danger of a lightning strike, so we made plans to bail out for the safety of the car.  We returned to our sleeping bags again, a bit rattled now.

And then we heard it.  It was a loud, drawn-out, and horrifying roar (kind of like this but much longer and with a big huff at the end) and it was coming from the other side of the road.

It was a black bear, and from the sound of things, he was not far away.  We think it was a male announcing his territory. Almost immediately, we heard an fainter answering roar from the valley below.  A few seconds later, our bear repeated his roar, and at that point we were officially terrified.  Our campsite was clean — no food smells to attract a bear — but if a black bear was in the campground, we did not want to sit in a thin nylon tent waiting for him to check us out.  This was the final straw.  We dashed for the protection of the car, sleeping bags and shoes in hand, while I nervously scanned the surrounding woods with my high-powered LED headlamp.

Eleanor actually had the amazing presence of mind to grab her digital camera and flick it into video recording mode, in hopes of capturing the roar, but all we got was some Blair Witch-type video in the tent as we scrambled to find our things.  On the recording you can hear Eleanor say, “Sounds like a bear …” and then after about ten seconds of silence (while the bear roars again but the camera microphone misses it) she says, “Let’s go to the car!”  Just listening to it now still chills me.

We slept in the car until 3 a.m.  The bear called again at about 10:20 pm, but it was further away and I slept through it.  By 3 a.m.  it seemed that being mauled by a hungry bear might be preferable to another minute of contorted sleep in the front seats of the car, so we returned to the tent for the rest of the night.  No more bear.  The thunderstorm never came back, either.  We felt like complete weenies for having abandoned our tent, but in retrospect I think it was the right move to get out of potential danger.

We’ve camped a lot, both in Airstream and tent, and we’ve never heard a bear once. This was a rare experience, confirmed the next day when we dropped in on a ranger station to report it.  The rangers seemed dumbfounded, and then one of them said, “Did you say Strayhorse campground?  I think the Forest Service has been dumping the problem bears up near there.”  Oh great.

So that was Day One of the great tenting trip through northern Arizona.  I was thinking that if the rest of our camping trip followed this exciting pattern, we were going to be lucky to survive.  Fortunately, the rest of the trip was considerable mellower, and I’ll report on that in the next blog entry.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine