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,”
reminded me as our heads pivoted swiftly from side to side. I gestured with one
arm to the acres of open land around us. Elizabeth
“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,”
said, pointing. Elizabeth
“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?”
“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
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. Flagstaff
“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 .
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?
Flagstaff 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
which on the map is called “ ,” 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. Mormon
Next we reached
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 Lake Mary, ,
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. Flagstaff
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
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. Flagstaff
Before we knew it, we found ourselves at
’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. Flagstaff
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
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
To be continued . . .