(Excerpt from our forthcoming book Dear Bob and Sue: Season 3 – not yet available for sale.)
January 10, 2018 (Wednesday)
Tonto National Forest
Dear Bob and Sue,
This morning, Matt was still feeling traumatized by his dump station fiasco. All he had for breakfast was a cup of coffee and the good luck Green Apple Jolly Rancher he’s had in his backpack for the last couple of years. He said he wasn’t quite ready to eat eggs or yogurt yet; I can’t say I blame him.
Before leaving, we secured everything in the RV, double-checking that we hadn’t left anything in the upper bunk area that could slide off the edge. On our drive here from Chiricahua, my iPad launched itself off the mattress and fortunately landed on the padded bench below. Our first order of business when we left the park was to buy Matt some new tennis shoes to replace the ones that he threw away yesterday. We found a Walmart close by. I went in search of sunscreen, and when I met Matt at the checkout line, he was juggling a shoe box, a couple of packages of underwear (I didn’t ask) and a bunch of little pies.
“Look what I found!” he exclaimed. “Fifty-cent pies! A pie for only 50 cents! Can you believe that? I got a variety to make it interesting.”
“Good idea,” I told him. “That’s about as close as we’re going to get to fresh fruit on this trip.”
When we were back in the RV, it only took us about an hour to drive the 60 miles north to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, located just southeast of Phoenix. We didn’t know much about the monument except that it protects some archeological ruins, and based on our rudimentary Spanish, one of them resembles a big house.
We stopped in the Visitor Center first and asked for Holly, one of their volunteer rangers who had contacted us a month ago, offering to give us a personal tour if we were ever in the area. She and her husband Paul are full-time RVers, originally from San Diego, who volunteer at various National Park units like Casa Grande during the winter, and U.S. Forest Service sites like Oregon’s Newberry National Volcanic Monument in the summer. They volunteer around the country as do thousands of other volunteers who federal and state agencies rely on.
Holly gave us a tour of the property, starting with a small parking area where their trailer and several others belonging to volunteers were parked. Their trailer was gigantic; it made our RV look like a matchbox truck. “This is our home,” Holly told us. “And on the days when we’re not volunteering, we go out and explore all kinds of amazing places in southern Arizona and other areas near our volunteer gigs.”
Walking toward Casa Grande, you can’t help but notice its massive roof covering; it’s the first thing you see as you’re driving in. Holly mentioned that it’s more than just protection from the elements; it’s a historic structure as well. The original roof was built in 1903 out of corrugated iron supported by redwood timbers and replaced in the 1930s with a steel roof and support poles. Skylights installed on all sides shed light on the ruin.
As we circled the perimeter of Casa Grande (visitors aren’t allowed to go inside), Holly’s husband Paul joined us, and they explained what we were looking at. One of the largest prehistoric structures ever built in North America, the massive building consists of three-story outer rooms surrounding a four-story inner structure. The walls are 4 ft thick at the base, tapering toward the top. Juniper pine and fir tree timbers support the windows, ceilings, and walls, which were covered in caliche, a mixture of sand, clay and calcium carbonate, nearly 3,000 tons of it.
“It looks like someone important must have lived here,” I said.
“Actually, no one knows the purpose of Casa Grande,” Paul told us. “It could have been a meeting place, an observation tower for farmers, or a celestial observatory. At one time this area was an entire walled village with as many as 2,000 residents. You can see the outlines of some of the other structures.”
Holly said that Casa Grande was built by the ancient Sonoran Desert people around 1350 and although they were gone by 1450, they had lived in the area for over a thousand years, trading and developing complex irrigations systems for farming. When they abandoned Casa Grande, they left no written accounts, and to this day their reason for leaving is still a mystery.
The most surprising thing we learned about Casa Grande is that it was the first archeological ruin to receive protection from the federal government. In the late 1800s, people started arriving in droves when a new railroad line with a connecting stagecoach ran right by Casa Grande, and some of the visitors caused severe damage from souvenir hunting, graffiti, and vandalism. In 1892, to protect it, President Benjamin Harrison set aside one square mile surrounding the ruins as the nation’s very first prehistoric and cultural reserve. The General Land Office took over the management of the ruins until 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson made it a National Monument and the management was transferred to the National Park Service.
It was fun spending time with Holly and Paul; they were enthusiastic and passionate about the monument. After we said our goodbyes, we headed towards Tonto National Monument, about an hour and a half to the northeast. It sits near the southern shore of Lake Theodore Roosevelt, which is part of Tonto National Forest. Lake Roosevelt is a reservoir formed by the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River, and from everything we read, it’s a popular destination for boating and fishing.
A half a dozen campgrounds are clustered around Lake Roosevelt, but when we were making our camping reservations ahead of the trip, we learned that they’re all first-come, first served, which made me nervous. I had become increasingly worried throughout the day that all the campsites would be taken, and then where would we go with a 19-foot RV? Matt assured me we could always go to a Walmart and spend the night in the parking lot, but I think he just wanted to buy more pies.
By the time we arrived at the monument’s entrance, it was 4 o’clock, too late to see any of the ruins, so we continued on another mile to the National Forest Visitor Center. We were hoping a ranger would know about the campgrounds’ capacities and save us the hassle of driving around looking for an open spot in the dark.
“The campgrounds are virtually empty, folks,” the ranger told us. “You can have your pick. Windy Hill is a nice one, and it’s close by.”
“Where is everybody?” I asked. “Is it deserted because it’s January?”
“That, and the fact that it’s only 40 degrees outside with rain in the forecast.”
After we drove through the entirety of Windy Hill looking for the best spot, we settled on one not too far from the bathroom, and not too close. There were only about four other RV’s in the entire place, and we couldn’t see any of them from our campsite. By 5:30 it was pitch dark, and we ate our freeze-dried dinner by the light of a lantern.
Windy Hill doesn’t have hook-ups, which until three days ago I thought meant having sex with a stranger. Actually, it does mean that, but in the RV world, it also refers to an electrical outlet and a water hose that are available at some campsites. If those aren’t an option, you have to rely on your generator for power and whatever water is already in your tank.
I tried to read my book, but the wind howled, and the RV shook, and when I looked out the window I couldn’t see anything but a black hole where the lake was. I watched Matt typing on his laptop, pausing for long periods while he stared at the screen.
“How’s your writing going?” I asked him. “Are you stuck?”
“No, it’s going just fine. Why do you want to know?
“Because,” I whispered, “This place is creepy. It seems like something out of The Shining.”
“You mean the movie about the family trapped alone in a deserted hotel in the winter and the husband, who has writer’s block, goes crazy and tries to kill his wife?”
I nodded my head. “That’s the one. By any chance, is there an ax in this RV?”
He resumed typing.
I’m going to sign off now. If you never hear from me again, we’re parked in the Rock Squirrel Loop (bad omen) of Windy Hill Campground.