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Lie of the Land

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I showed Miss Ellie Black River and White River.

I explained how Black River and White River join to form Salt River, and that’s why there are striped bass in Salt River.

“No!” she said. “You can’t say that.”

Good thing I didn’t take her to Blue River. I’m saving that for next year.

Miss Ellie was born in Oakland, California. She spent most of her life in Marin County and San Francisco, before she moved to Arizona a decade ago. Seeing my native Arizona through her eyes has been a continuing joy. But she asks some funny questions.

She asked me once if the Papago Buttes were man-made or natural.

“Hey,” I said, “we don’t make phony rocks in Arizona. That’s a California thing.”

I have been humbled. On two recent trips, I saw three different sets of man-made rocks, cleverly crafted to keep Arizona hills from falling onto highways. I had to apologize to Miss Ellie. (I also had to apologize for claiming I helped build the pipeline that carries milk and honey to California. Proud Californians can get testy.)

But let me tell you about our recent travels. After the desert stopped blooming and the summer heat set in, we hung around through a boring month of June.

I whiled away the time photographing lizards in our back yard. One big collared lizard, Earl, sits on a pilaster in the back wall and stares at me. He was making me crazy. The day that Earl walked across the yard with a coyote in his mouth, we figured we needed to get out of here.

We realized that we were free to go explore the other Arizona, the one above 6,000 feet elevation. I spent a large part of my life north of the Mogollon Rim, but I haven’t gone there much in recent years because of breathing problems.

The breathing has gotten easier, and I got an oxygen prescription for when I get above 5,000 feet. (A doctor asked recently how long I’d been oxygen-dependent, and I said, “All my life.” Doctors can be testy, too.)

Arizona goes up to 12,643 feet at the top of the San Francisco Peaks, but I only go to about 9,000. I showed Miss Ellie Alpine and Hannegan Meadow and the headwaters of Black River. I’d forgotten how beautiful they are.

In Springerville, we spent quality time with family from my first marriage, and watched a Made-In-USA Fourth of July parade.

I showed Miss Ellie a bunch of small lakes, which are man-made in Arizona. When you’ve spent a few years in Wickenburg, Nelson Reservoir looks like Lake Erie.

Our second trip was last weekend, when our friend L.V. Yates invited my brother Dean and me to perform at a group campground near Blue Ridge Ranger Station.

Blue Ridge is above the Rim, and a few miles northeast of Long Valley on Arizona 87. Dean and I had spent a lot of time in that country when we were kids. But as he says, you go away for 50 years, and they change everything around.

Each time we crossed the Mogollon Rim, I told Miss Ellie how it was when we built the Rim, back during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration did most of the work, but the CCCs helped.

The Mogollon Escarpment runs from the Mogollon Mountains in New Mexico clear up to Grand Wash Cliffs northeast of Kingman, sometimes vanishing under more recent creations like the White Mountains.

Most Arizonans know the Rim as a 40-mile-long cliff that rises 2,000 feet above Pine, Payson and Christopher Creek.

Engineers thought at first it would be enough to simply jack up the Rim until it reached a height suitable for providing spectacular views. But the jacks kept slipping, and several men were seriously injured.

Then one of the CCC kids, a farm boy from downtown Chicago, suggested simply letting the air out of the country below the Rim. You can still find those old air holes around if you know where to look. They look like old mine shafts.

One of the toughest mysteries to explain is why the post office for Happy Jack, AZ 86024 is actually at Long Valley. This is a true story. I couldn’t make it up, and wouldn’t.

Long Valley is, as its name suggests, longer than it is wide. It’s not very wide, so it’s not all that long, either.

One of the places where Dean and I lived when we were kids was at the Long Valley Ranger Station of the U.S. Forest Service. It was at the south end of Long Valley, a couple of miles south of Clints Well, which is at the north end of Long Valley.

At Clints Well, the old dirt road that came up from Payson used to split, forming a nice “Y.” The left leg went to Flagstaff, the right leg to Winslow. A little country store, made of logs, sat in the crotch of the Y.

The only thing between Clints Well and the ranger station was the Fuller family’s Long Valley Ranch, along the east side of the road.

But they’ve changed the roads around, and the paved highway splits a ways south of Clints Well, at the place that now purports to be Long Valley.

That spot used to be open roadside across from the rodeo arena at Fuller’s ranch. Now there’s a busy complex there: garage, gas station, store, cafe, a Forest Service information office–and the Happy Jack post office.

We left Long Valley in 1947 and became some of the original residents of Happy Jack, a logging camp 15 miles up the road toward Flagstaff. Turn left at the old Long Valley store and drive 15 miles and there was a busy little metropolis of 500 people or so.

Happy Jack lasted for 30 years. By that time, Dean and I had left for the big city, and our parents had moved to Blue Ridge, which I won’t even try to explain.

When Happy Jack was razed, they moved the Happy Jack post office to Long Valley, which tends to make people think that Long Valley is actually Happy Jack.

To clarify the situation, the Forest Service moved the Long Valley Ranger Station to the site of Happy Jack. The old station in Long Valley has been obliterated.

Since I am one of the few people still alive who understands this mishmash (maybe the only one who cares), I once wrote newspaper columns trying to explain it. The last time I was in the Happy Jack post office, some of those old columns were posted on the bulletin board there.

We didn’t stop to see if they are still there. I could see that my explanations were glazing Miss Ellie’s eyes. And I still had to explain to my Bay Area beauty how the San Francisco Peaks came to be in Arizona.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

1 comment to Lie of the Land

  • Thanks for pointing out the actual location of the Happy Jack post office! I will be receiving some general delivery mail there next month, and am glad I didn’t go all the way to the real Happy Jack only to find the PO no longer there.