Exploring the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

eleanor-hunting-bear.jpgIn the morning after our near-encounter with the black bear, we decided to redeem ourselves by searching for signs of bear activity near the campground.  If there were trash, food, or other human debris around, those things might help explain the presence of bears.  But the campground was clean, and the bear-resistant trash cans seemed to be intact.

It was hard to say where the roaring sound came from exactly, but we took a guess and hiked up the hill across the road.  As frequent hikers, we’ve been accustomed to identifying animal scat along the trail, and I was hoping to see some fresh bear scat.  (Because you know he does it in the woods.) But our bear didn’t leave such a clue.  We found plenty of horse manure (there is a horse trail nearby), cattle manure (free range, at least at one time), and elk droppings.

Looking for bear scat always reminds me of the joke about the guy who sells bear bells to hikers.  He say they work pretty well for scaring off black bears, but not so well for grizzly bears.  Fortunately, you can tell if there are grizzlies in the area by identifying their scat.  Black bear scat has berries in it, and grizzly bear scat has bells in it.

The other clue we were seeking was claw marks on trees.  We’ve seen those many times in other forests, but again, nothing here.  Was our bear a tourist like us?

Further up the Devil’s Highway, we stopped at an overlook of the Blue Range Primitive Area. You just can’t stop seeing fantastic views in this part of the country.  Eventually the road starts to wind down a little, rolling through gorgeous and peaceful areas like Hannagan’s Meadow, and eventually to the misty town of Alpine.

Alpine is a little piece of Montana plunked down in Arizona.  It’s small, rustic, and scattered with cabins.  Accounting for the altitude, coming up here is the equivalent of traveling up to the Canadian border, and you can see signs of that everywhere.  Buildings are made from logs.  Eaves and pavements show the slightly rotted hints of a long hard winter.  Green meadows and tall forests cover the rolling hills.  Nothing is like the hot desert down below in southern Arizona.  We decided to have a second breakfast at the Bear Wallow Cafe, just because we could, and to enjoy the feeling of having gone to a completely different climate/culture/community seemingly 1,000 miles north of home base.

North of Alpine is the crossroads town of Springerville, best known for the ancient ruins called Casa Malpais.  The ruins have been the subject of much controversy since they were discovered, re-discovered, and then partially re-buried for preservation purposes.  You can take a tour from the community center daily for $8, but we arrived just after a tour and didn’t want to wait a few hours for the next one.  Even still, the little free museum and video presentation were worth the stop, along with the extremely helpful volunteer who was staffing the place.

From Springerville we finally exited Rt 191 and switched to a westerly course along Rt 260.  This road brings you along the north edge of the Mogollon Rim, which is still mostly National Forest territory, studded with little towns.  Everyone talks about Greer, a tiny tourist hamlet just off Rt 260, so we popped in there to take a look.  It is mostly a town of resorts, restaurants, and several very pleasant-looking campgrounds in the pines.  Some of the houses in the area look like the type that rich software executives build as $25 million getaways and then only visit a few times a year.

The road also passes through Indian reservations, which you can almost always tell these days by the presence of a casino hotel. Looking at the ominous skies, we had a bad feeling about the likelihood of thunderstorms in the evening, and so we checked at the Hon-Dah hotel but it was booked solid for a Native American art show.  Likewise, the town of Pinetop-Lakeside (four miles further) was nearly booked solid.  But the clouds weren’t looking any better as the afternoon wore on.  We checked three hotels and two cabin rental places before we finally found a berth at the modest Motel Six at an immodest peak-season price.

When you’ve spent the night sleeping in your car, and then relocated to a tent, a Motel Six looks pretty comfy.  In the old days we used to alternate tenting and motels a lot, on the theory that the motel experience gave us a chance to shower, recharge the electronics, get a better night of sleep, and pick up some ice for our cooler.

I also was happy to have The Weather Channel, and see a monster set of thunderstorms develop over the area not long after we checked in.  These were real gully-washers, complete with lightning every 2-3 seconds, and high winds.  The power went out at the motel for an hour (an event the manager said happens weekly during monsoon season), and the force of the storms’ gust front was so powerful that it caused dust storms as far as Phoenix. It was a good night to skip tenting.

Not an exciting night on the road?  Sometimes you have to just find pleasure in holing up and watching the rain.  After the storms we went out for ice cream cups and brought them back to the motel to eat while watching a movie.  It wasn’t much, but it was perhaps all we needed before another day of exploring and tenting along the Mogollon Rim … which I’ll cover in the next blog.

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