A Journey into the depths of Arizona
Twelve miles of rough and dusty road had been traversed when I finally reached the midpoint of my journey. The wilderness gate. The large iron structure sat as a reminder of the Wilderness Act Congress passed in 1940 designating certain lands to remain untrammeled by any motorized vehicles. The Mazatzals had been one of those lucky territories chosen for preservation, leaving it in a wonderful state of quietude. Today I would be partaking of it.
Beyond the gate, between me and a wisp of a road that wrapped around the canyon, lay my destination, the LF Ranch. As I pulled my old truck into a clearing near the gate, a billow of dust that had been following me since Payson engulfed me. I quickly jumped out, grabbed my gear and anxiously awaited a ride to my destination.
Maryann Pratt, an old friend and the LF ranch’s caretaker was to meet me from the wilderness area and transport me into the ranch. Having the only legal vehicular access into this pristine area, her Suburban was a welcome view in contrast to my option of hiking with all my belongings for three miles.
I tossed my gear into the back of her four-wheel drive and we were quickly on our way. I looked forward to my stay at the ranch and exploring the mysterious and secluded Mazatzal’s once again. Maryann has hiked and gathered cattle in these parts for the last twenty years, qualifing her as one of the most knowledgeable guides in this area
Upon arriving at the LF a greeting committee of dogs, chickens, turkeys and guineas came out to meet us. After a pot of Maryann’s rocket fuel coffee, we saddled up the horses and started our trek further into the Mazatzals.
Today we would explore Wet Bottom Canyon, just another small portion of this vast 252,000 acre wilderness. With elevations fluctuating quickly from 2,100 feet to 7,900 feet, one can only imagine the truly rugged variety offered here.
Edging up Bullfrog Ridge on what appeared to be a trail etched into the side of a brush- laden mountain, we approached Windy Gap. Here the ridge separated into a saddle of a pass. We dismounted our horses to glance back over the boundless expanse scrolling out before us. The air seemed quite chilly here with gusts of wind rushing through us on their way north out of
the canyon. Maryann claimed there was never a time that she had passed through here that the wind didn’t blow. Windy Gap was once more living up to its earmarked name.
We descended into Red Metal Canyon and on down toward Bull Springs. There, amongst a grove of Black Walnut Trees sat the LF Line Shack, standing most unpretentiously. The Line Shack or LF Hilton as it was referred to by most, has been in existence for almost 40 years and was nearly as old as the ranch itself. The weathered barnwood that held it erect resembled an old cabin in a dimestore painting.
We unsaddled our sweat-soaked horses and placed our tack in the makeshift storeroom connected to the back of the cabin. Within it Maryann had stored bales of hay, salt blocks for the cattle as well as a few camping implements for the winters when she stayed here managing her herd. Inside the cabin I found the basic necessities of two gas lanterns, a cookstove, dried and canned food, two bunks and a table with a logbook on it for passerbyers. We lit a fire and put on a pot of coffee.
I asked Maryann how the Mazatzals got their name.
“Well, no one knows for sure, but from what I hear it is a Paiute term for places in between. The Paiutes would hold up four fingers to represent the Mazatzal’s Four Peaks and point to the places in between. Some folks pronounce it ‘Ma-zat-zal’ but the locals all just call it ‘Ma-ta-ZEL’ which comes from ‘mad as hell.’ It was said that back when the pioneers tried to make their way through these mountains and found themselves stranded or broken down, it of course made them mad as hell.”
The next morning we stuffed our gear into a daypack and hiked down to Wet Bottom Mesa in search of the various Indian ruins that were scattered about the area. Distinguishing the difference between a pile of rocks and a pithouse took a discerning eye. A variety of metates, or milling stones were found turned over on their tops, resembling turtles edging their way across the desert. Amongst them was at least a dozen Manos or hand stones used to grind mesquite beans or other products into mill. I sketched the area in my notebook, labeling each artifacts placement. The day seemed to end too soon as so much more could have been explored. We had a four-hour ride ahead of us and in order to get back to the ranch before dark we needed to make our way to the cabin.
The ride back was mostly in silence. I wanted to absorb each and every bit of this country into my soul before leaving, not missing a shadow or a scent. The sound of the horse’s hooves rang out a hypnotic tune with the beat of my thoughts. I had forgotten what silence was. One seems to become accustomed to the background sounds of automobiles, voices, and telephones; it seems it is only when we are not directly spoken to that we seem to find what we call silence.
A loud screech from high above us broke my meditation. A large red-tailed hawk was gliding across the sky. I watched him in envy as he soared with such ease over the great expanse of the rugged terrain, then freely he disappeared into the next canyon.
As we approached the ranch, I was a bit disappointed the ride was over. I decided to spend the next two days relaxing, mostly near the East Verde River which wrapped itself about the ranch. In my journal I jotted down a few last notes, and ended my entry with; “The Mazatzal’s seem to remain the same each year I visit here. Sure the hills may be a different shade of green or grey, the river may be running high or low, and the skies may be blue or cloudy, but somehow it’s always the same. That is at least compared to home where change is so harshly apparent. One day I pass a field, the next day a McDonalds. A rolling hill that once served as a grazing utopia for cattle suddenly becomes a terraced subdivision. By tomorrow this time I will be back home with my computer, electricity and fastfood. And each time I leave here I always jokingly remark to Maryann that I am going back to the real world ....but sometimes I wonder.