Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 3

Alright, I know this is late, and I apologize profusely to those of you who waited with (was that baited, SB?) breath for this installment, and were disappointed when it didn't appear on Sunday as promised.  As I mentioned in replying to some of you individually, life sometimes intrudes on our plans, and this weekend was a great example of that.  Jessica had her 10th birthday on Saturday, and our weekend was booked with a sleepover Friday night, and then a family party on Saturday.  Now, I'm not using that as an excuse, since I had known that Jessica was turning 10 on Saturday for awhile now, maybe even weeks.  I still thought I had everything under control, but then there are the unaccounted things that happen, and we had one of those on Sunday.  So, with final apologies for the delay, let's get right back to the action, shall we?  I hope it proves worth the extra wait.  

The story left off with us trying to find a place in or around Strawberry, AZ, to have our picnic lunch on the way to Flagstaff.  We pick things up around noon on Sunday of Labor (Uncle) Day weekend . . .

 Uncle Day Weekend – Part 3

We scoured the roadside for picnic areas, but saw nothing more than a few areas where the trees pulled back from the road to create a rocky, semi-grassy opening.  My internal stressometer was starting to pick up signals.  “We’re going to need a place that has a bathroom,” Elizabeth reminded me as our heads pivoted swiftly from side to side.  I gestured with one arm to the acres of open land around us.
“We’re in one,” I said.
“We’re going to need a real bathroom,” she said, forcing me to meet her eyes. End of discussion on that point.  The pressure was definitely building inside the car.  This little snafu had the potential to become a major negative check mark in the mental tally I was keeping.  The kids had been great so far; they were watching Beauty and the Beast on the portable DVD player.  But how much longer?  Eight miles passed, then nine.  I wasn’t enjoying the pine trees and the thick white clouds in the sky anymore.  We drove past a filling station with a diner next to it.  “There,” Elizabeth said, pointing. 
“I thought we brought our lunch.  If we eat there, it’s going to seriously impact our budget,” I insisted. Some people spend their lives defending their country, others their honor.  I am the great defender of the budget.

“Not the diner, tonto. Next to the diner.  I think I saw some picnic tables under the trees.” For the record, tonto is not a term of admiration, and it isn’t a reference to the Lone Ranger’s trusted Native American ally.  In this tonto, the o’s are both long, the t’s are almost d’s, and it’s Spanish slang for dummy.  We turned the car around, and there, right next to the diner, was a very small picnic area.  There was also a substantial line of porta-potties.  Jackpot, I thought. Oh, wait - even better - jackpotties.     

The picnic area was small, with one table under the trees, and one table out in the sun.  The table under the trees was taken by a couple and their dog, and the other one was chained to a tree, so we grabbed a blanket and laid it out over the lumpy, but shady ground, and quickly set up for lunch.  To our left, on the far side of the fiberglass jons, a sizable contingent of ATV riders were congregated by their trucks and trailers.  It must have been a popular place for embarking on trail rides.  Well, I thought, that explained the five porta-potties for two picnic tables.  About thirty feet behind us, the barbed wire fence separated the property from the adjoining forest land.  We could see well into the interior; there was a hollow between two gently sloping sides where the trees were thinly spaced.  The mixture of sun, clouds and shade produced a dappled appearance on the yellow-needled floor.  It glowed like golden hay. 

We sat on the ground, under the shade of a few tall ponderosa pines, feeling the delicious coolness of a breeze as it was kicked out in front of the building clouds.  The couple offered us their table as they packed away the remains of their meal, but we decided to stay where we were.  The thick layer of needles beneath us made the ground more than tolerable.  We feasted on cold fried chicken, and a bowl of pre-cut watermelon, and consumed with a different kind of hunger the sweetness in the air that we had been truly starving for.  We lingered, leisurely lunching, enveloped in the comfort of the high country.  I placed four tick marks this time under “Glad We Came This Way,” one for each of us.

While we ate, we talked about taking a walk into the forest land behind us. There was a v-shaped gate in the fence close by, and we thought Maria especially would appreciate some time to scramble and stretch.  After lunch, we loaded everything back into the Sportage.  Before we could answer nature’s call, however, it was necessary to first answer nature’s other call.  Gathering the troops and starting towards the porta-potties, we noticed a man going down the line of stalls, opening and closing the door to each one.  He got to the last one, shook his head, and then saw us.  “Forget it,” he said with a disgusted look on his face.
“They’re all out of service?” I asked.  He shook his head again.
“Full,” he said, turning back to his ATV buddies with what looked to me like a certain amount of physical discomfort. 
“Ewww,” we all said, looking at each other.  We reversed course and headed instead towards the gas station and diner.  The bathroom at the gas station was closed, and our moral sensibilities precluded us from attempting to use the diner’s bathroom without dining there.   
“Do you think there are bathrooms up the road?” Elizabeth asked.
“I don’t know.  Once we passed the 260 junction, the road’s all new to me.  I can tell you from the maps that towns are going to be few and far between from now till Flagstaff.”  Our eyes turned in unison to the towering forest beyond the diner.  I tried to smile wryly.  “I told you,” I said, waving with my arm again like I had in the car. 
“Shut up,” was her terse reply.  Actually, I have to give her credit.  She would have been well within her rights to jump all over me at that point, but she didn’t.  The high country euphoria must have been working its magical effects.  “All right,” she said determinedly.  “I need to get some stuff from the car.”  This is one reason why I love traveling with her.  She’s a gamer.

When it comes to describing what happened over the next twenty minutes or so, let it suffice to say that we killed two birds with one stone, taking our nature walk and answering her call all in one fell swoop.  Let it also suffice to say that it was an adventure unto itself about which I am under orders not to discuss in any detail.  Let it further suffice to say that I once again wondered how I found myself so completely surrounded by females in my life.  And let it finally suffice to say that I had to place the first tick mark in the “Wish We Didn’t Come This Way” column.

Back on the road, at least Maria and I were happy; of course, Maria’s still in diapers.  The turnoff to Lake Mary Road was a mere mile or two from our lunch spot.  We turned left onto it, and almost immediately saw a campground; a big, developed campground, with lots of picnic tables and trees, and to top it off, prominently featured bathrooms.  We all had a good laugh at discovering that, let me tell you.  Oh how we laughed and laughed.  In fact, if you’ll excuse me for just a moment . . . yes, I just wanted to check. We’re still laughing about that one.  What a riot.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Lake Mary Road, to be honest.  All I knew was that it showed on the map as being paved, and that it would take us the rest of the way to Flagstaff.  I had some concerns about the quality of the road, and possible construction, and bandits on horses, because I’ve seen a lot of Westerns where bandits attack travelers, and it always seems to happen in places that look like this.  The road, however, proved to be a very pleasant surprise. The asphalt looked freshly done, the surface was smooth, and traffic was light.  You know how some roads just feel good to drive on?  Lake Mary Road, on that Sunday afternoon on Uncle Day Weekend, was exactly that kind of road.  To think I had even considered taking the 17.  It seemed like pure madness to me now.  Why would anyone prefer that over this? 

I realize it is starting to sound like I’m setting you up for something, like I’m about to write “it was just then that a giant meteor smashed into the earth right in front of us, destroyed the road, wrecked the car, and knocked out communications with the outside world, forcing us to make our way back to civilization over rugged mountain terrain, our lives in peril every step of the way, even requiring us to consume our own fingers and toes in order to survive,” or, “suddenly, from behind us, a large, roving gang of motorcycle hoodlums circled our car, drove us off the road, and abducted us to their lonely mountain camp, forcing us at knife-point to listen to the story behind every single one of their tats before we create a diversion by convincing them that Sturgis is this weekend, and that they were missing it, and then escaping in the resulting chaos.”  Trust me, I get it.  Being a highly-trained pessimist myself, you wouldn’t even believe the vastly more improbable dangers I imagined the next blind curve might hold.  But darn it all, sometimes we just have to accept the possibility that there is no lethal threat laying in wait for us, and that a pleasant drive is, in reality, a pleasant drive. 

So we drove north on Lake Mary Road, passing through the forests and open meadows, skimming along the undulations of the land, which were soft and rolling now that we were near elevation.  We skirted the perimeter of LDS Lake, which on the map is called “Mormon Lake,” but I’m sticking with LDS because I’m not sure if they’re back to okay again with the term “Mormon.”  The bowl of land in which the lake sat was mostly empty, clearly nowhere near its capacity, as evidenced by the man in a boat in the middle of the lake, who got out, picked up his small canoe, and started walking back to shore.  The water was brown and kind of green, and didn’t look enticing at all.  Still, it was water, and that made it beautiful.   
Next we reached Lake Mary, from which the road gets its name, a slender strand of a lake that runs for several miles in length, but never gets wide enough to capture the imagination of Evel Knievel-like thrill-seekers.  It was about two in the afternoon, and Maria had just fallen asleep in her carseat.  If we let her sleep the rest of the way to the motel in Flagstaff, she would probably be up until eleven that night.  We decided to pull into one of the campgrounds down by the shore, and check out the lake.

We parked, and walked to the water’s edge to see how cold it was. The shore, if you can call it that, was mud and rocks, with a fair amount of broken beer-bottle glass, rusted metal fragments, and plastic bits embedded in the glop.  All in all, not the ideal place to play for a little one, which of course meant Maria was drawn like a guided missile to the rockiest, muddiest, debris riddenest part of the shoreline, and immediately made herself at home by plopping down into the brown ooze.   That girl loves to make a mess.  What amazes me is the speed with which she does it.  It happens within a moment, and at first you just assume that you must have blinked and missed it, but then you realize there wasn’t enough time.  I looked down at her instantly mud-caked shoes and legs, the mud already coating her arms and shirt, and the splatters on her face.  She’s like a freak of nature, I thought, a cross between Pig-Pen and the Flash.

It was also surprisingly uncomfortable standing there in mid-afternoon next to the water.  The clouds had backed off, and the sun was beaming its diluted, but still more than adequate, warmth on our heads and backs.  After a few minutes of staring at the lake, the novelty quickly wore off, and Elizabeth and Jessica decided to head back up the rocky slope to the relative comfort of the trees and the shade.  That left Maria and I on the barren shore.  I looked down at her again; she was holding a black rock in one hand, and a sizable piece of glass in the other.  “Look, Daddy, beautiful,” she said, thrusting the glass towards me.   I gently grasped her wrist and disarmed her, and then checked her hand for cuts.  I spent the next fifteen minutes or so clearing the area of additional hazards while she picked up rocks and threw them at the boats passing by.  She stood up and started moving around, looking for bigger rocks to throw.  When she almost fell face-first into a sharp cluster, I decided playtime was over.  I washed her off as best I could, and we went to join Elizabeth and Jessica.      

After stopping at the bathroom to change Maria’s clothes and diaper, we piled back in the car and got back on the road.  The afternoon was wearing on, and Flagstaff was now only a short drive away.  Maria was fully awake and alert, having had only fifteen minutes of a nap prior to us stopping at the lake.  Good, I thought.  Maybe we can get to bed early tonight.  I don’t know if it’s a sign of old age, or a result of the schedule I’ve set for myself, but I’ve begun to measure the quality of each day by how early I can go to bed that night.  Maria is causing problems in this area because even though she wakes up around 6:30 in the morning, she’s staying up until nine or later at night.  I’m already waking up at 4 so I can write for a few hours before she wakes up, and not getting to bed until 10:30 or 11.   And now her naps are getting shorter, too.  I can feel the rumble of tectonic plates shifting, internal shivers of things to come, and I’ve caught myself fighting to control my sense of panic when I think about where this all may be heading.  I need that naptime, and I don’t know what I’m going to do if it goes away.  I tried to shake off the negative cloud of that problem. Today, at least, that shouldn’t be a problem, I reassured myself.  All this excitement has got to wear her out.  I almost believed it.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves at Flagstaff’s doorstep.  The feeling I had is similar to the feeling I used to get when, as kids, we would go to visit my grandparents.  It was a long drive to get there, but the distinct and palpable welcome feeling upon arriving always made the troubles of traveling worthwhile.  It just felt so good to be there. 

By the time we found the motel, checked in, and unloaded the bags, it was 4:30 in the afternoon.  We still had some time to find something to do in Flag, but the threat of serious economic danger had been minimized.  I love it when a plan comes together, I thought, wishing I had a cigar to chomp on at that moment.  What to do in Flagstaff was the question.  The answers would come, I was confident, but now was the time to relax for a moment on the bed, close my eyes for a minute or two, and just listen to the sound of the kids as they dropped objects on the floor of our second-story room, and laughed at the funny, hollow sound they made.

To be continued . . .   


  1. Once again, an enjoyable post. We too have driven along that stretch of Lake Mary road - LDS lake recedes tremendously in the summer (it's more like LDS swamp) and Lake Mary looks very pretty from the road. Overall, that drive is beautiful!
    Keep up the good story. I can't wait till the next installment.
    Signed: Your commarade - Surviving in a house filled with women.

  2. Hutton - "Lake Mary looks very pretty from the road" Ha ha ha! Very good! I believe that's the only way we're going to see Lake Mary in the future. Thanks for the comments!

    P.S. "Surviving a house full of women" - sounds like the basis for a blog to me!

  3. Kevin thanks for the next installment, enjoyed very much. It has been years since I enjoyed the north woods. I know the place you had lunch and I have also had the Lake Mary experience. Although the word lake is used loosely. I grew up in Wisconsin where we launched boats from the dock, not carried them over the mud to the water.

  4. I guess I am fortunate that I got behind on reading your blog because I am having the pleaseure of reading the installments on the same day, albeit in between chores etc. I can just imagine being in the car with all of you even though I have never traveled that way.

  5. Hope - you've never traveled by car before? And here I had taken you for such a knowledgeable and sophisticated gadabout.

    If you really want to know what it's like, you and your hubby could invite us to go see your boat in South Carolina(am I remembering correctly?). That would be one helluva road trip for you, and give me enough material to keep my blog going for about three more years!

  6. SB - Sorry I missed your comment from 9/20! I also hail from Wisconsin originally, and have a very different set of terms for various standing bodies of water.