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Weekend Escape

Digging the Scene at an Arizona Ranch

Mom and son play archeologist and cowboy at a mountain retreat where outdoor adventure reigns

June 23, 2002|KARIN KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — The sun baked our hats and seemed to burn through our sunscreen as we knelt in the dirt scraping away at the compacted soil. I could sense Sam's thought: "Mom took me on vacation for this?"

Archeology has been my semi- secret passion since I was 11, Sam's age, and swooned over "The Source," by James Michener. But aside from occasional weekend stints at generally unrewarding local digs, this would-be Indiana Jones had been stymied. Volunteering at most digs requires a hefty time commitment and is often expensive. Digs that allow kids are virtually nonexistent.

One exception: the X Diamond & MLY Ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona. A working cattle and dude ranch, it also has a stone-walled Native American house dating back more than 1,000 years. Guests are welcome to join the dig for a day, or even just part of one, no experience required--and kids are welcomed. As it turned out, this little archeologist-for-a-day experiment, combined with horseback riding in Apache National Forest and fly-fishing in a nearby river, made the long trip to the ranch worth the effort.

Early on the Friday before Memorial Day, Sam and I flew off for our mother-son adventure to the 100-degree heat of Phoenix, leaving my husband home with the girls for four days. (The preschooler would have broken all the pottery shards into even tinier pieces, and the teenager is mainly interested in what she can dig up at Banana Republic.)

The ranch is near the Apache and Navajo reservations, a few miles from the New Mexico border. This meant a 230-mile drive from Phoenix, much of it scenic and some of it breathtaking. Even Sam, not given to cooing over scenery, was agape at the outcrops of rock and dramatic drops of Salt River Canyon, about halfway through the drive. The ranch sits at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet in a region usually at least 15 degrees cooler than Phoenix; average highs are in the mid-80s, even in summer.

We stopped for kitchen provisions in Springerville, then drove about 10 miles farther to the ranch, spotting occasional antelope bounding through the meadows. Rubes that we are, we didn't realize that you don't check in at the X Diamond ranch house. You just stop along the road at your cabin. The doors are unlocked. The keys, which few people seem to use, are on the table.

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The ranch, along the Little Colorado River, is still owned by the descendants of its 1879 founders, and it still raises cattle. It turned dude ranch about 10 years ago, though that aspect is understated. The X Diamond has only seven units, most of them recently built log cabins secluded along the road. All have full kitchens--practically a necessity because the nearest restaurant is back in Springerville. Prices range from $48 to $175 a night, depending on the season and accommodations.

Sam and I were in the Phobe, a $95-a-night renovated 1890s log cabin named after its first resident. The Phobe is a homey little place, each room a slightly different age, it would seem. Board games are stacked in a cabinet, and big windows overlook a meadow and canyon wall. The river is down there, too, hidden by shrubbery. Sam fell in love with the sleeping porch and immediately tried out the climbing tree in the sideyard. The cabin is one of the few with a phone and TV. It also has a master bedroom, a paneled living room, an eat-in kitchen--and no other buildings in sight.

Achy from sitting all day, we hiked until dinnertime. Sam befriended the ranch dogs and horses, and we came across a couple of beaver dams along the river. I wasn't up for cooking, so we drove to another nearby town, Greer, and ate at the Rendezvous Diner, where it took a long time to get a meal (no one seemed to mind) but the chili was good.

Saturday was to be our big adventure. After breakfast overlooking what I soon thought of as our personal meadow, we headed to the ranch house to meet Charles Rand, the site archeologist. Rand is a passionate amateur, a former youth counselor from San Francisco who retired to this area to learn about and pursue Native American digs. For no pay, he works the so-called Little Bear site at the ranch, aiming to restore the 25-room house. He has a long way to go. Just a few of the rooms have undergone significant excavation.

The word "house" can be misleading when it comes to ancient ruins. The main sign that people lived here are the rocks found scattered in mounded lines, roughly delineating the rooms. Uncovering the walls means digging several feet down.

Rand handed us buckets, each containing a kneepad, a trowel, a dustpan and brushes. Experience had taught me to bring shade hats, gardening or work gloves, cold water and sunscreen. Neckerchiefs are a good idea, too--one soaked with cold water and kept around the neck or on top of the head.

We got a short lesson first: The site, Rand said, dates from AD 600 to 900 and was inhabited for a time by people he identified as ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni.

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