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Echoes of a Wild West that was

America's rugged frontier history can still knock you for a loop in the eastern part of the state, a land of lore, ghosts and grandeur.

October 19, 2003|Kristin Johannsen | Special to The Times

Douglas, Ariz. — I can still remember my amazement when I learned in fifth-grade geography class that Arizona didn't become a state until 1912, a year my grandparents could remember. Arizona's rowdy frontier days, I learned, lasted well into the 20th century.

As I got older and allegedly wiser, I no longer pictured scenes of six-guns and stagecoaches here, but even so, finding such names as Cochise, Ft. Bowie and Apache Pass on the state's official 2003 highway map made me start dreaming again. It sounded like a road trip waiting to happen, so last May, my husband, Kevin, and I embarked on a three-day drive in the eastern part of the state.

Bypassing the booming cities (and 325 golf courses), we followed U.S. 191 from Springerville south to the Mexican border, seeking out what one old guidebook calls "the sunburnt West of yesterday."

Springerville, our starting point 220 miles northeast of Phoenix, has long been a crossroads for travelers. Nineteenth century pioneers trekked through this town of 1,800 on the way to California, and a local tourist brochure features the 1928 statue called the "Madonna of the Trail," a haggard-looking pioneer woman striding purposefully forward with her children. We found her still forging ahead in a McDonald's parking lot, her huge sunbonnet shielding her from the modern world.

South of town, U.S. 191 climbs into the Blue Range as the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway. It's named, of course, for Francisco Coronado, who passed this way in 1540, seeking the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. He never found gold but instead mapped out a wildly beautiful territory for the Spanish crown.

How wild? Just south of town, a sign warns motorists, "Elk crossing next 15 miles." Mexican gray wolves prowl the backwoods. The highway winds through stands of dark pine and bright aspen, crawls along ridgelines and nearly loops back on itself.

A drive south takes travelers from alpine meadows to open desert within a few hours, a range of climate zones equivalent to driving from Canada to Mexico. At Hannagan Meadow, the road reaches 9,100 feet, and a marker here commemorates the opening of the Coronado Trail in June 1926. I marveled that anyone could wrestle a Model T up here, but Hannagan Meadow Lodge, a rustic red wooden hotel with a steep metal roof, has been welcoming travelers since then.

Driving the Coronado Trail's 120 miles of blind curves and snaky switchbacks would take about four hours if a traveler were willing to skip the overlooks -- but who could?

At Blue Vista overlook, we were mesmerized by line upon line of mountains, shading green into blue and finally melting into haze. A sign identifies dozens of such summits as Raspberry Peak, Sunflower Mesa, Heliograph. Forest stretches unbroken to the horizon.

The trail's southern end plummets 5,000 feet in dizzying hairpin bends, and we reentered the real world with a shock, staring down into a huge open-pit copper mine. The Morenci Mine has turned miles of mountains into a poisoned canyon. Morenci, we read in an old guide, began as a mining town so steep that children allegedly had to be tethered to keep them from falling out of backyards. A few miles east, the once-rich mining town of Clifton is still alive but not exactly kicking. In the town's prime, its main street ran through a canyon. Today the opulent storefronts along Chase Creek Street are boarded up, and buildings are crumbling. As we drove slowly, three men sitting on the curb noticed our out-of-state license plate. "Hey, Kentucky!" one yelled.

We stopped to talk. One of the men, Paul ("just Paul"), told us he had paid $6,000 for a building here eight years ago and had worked on it ever since, rewiring the building and repairing its walls. He said the purpose of the building would be revealed to him when it was finished. He He took us through the lumber-strewn shop and into a cavelike room carved into the cliff. It felt 20 degrees cooler than outdoors.

About 50 miles south of Clifton, a brief stretch of Interstate 10 brought us near the site of Ft. Bowie, one of Arizona's most historic patches of ground.

It was originally a railroad surveyors' camp and in 1858 became a station on the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route between St. Louis and Los Angeles. For two years the Apache let wagons cross their homeland undisturbed. In 1861, Apache leader Cochise was wrongly accused of raiding a ranch, and the U.S. Army tricked him into a meeting to arrest him. Furious, he escaped and led his warriors on a bitter 10-year campaign against settlers.

In 1862, the Apache ambushed Union troops marching to fight Confederates in New Mexico, a half-forgotten footnote to the Civil War, and Ft. Bowie was built to guard Apache Pass. Today the peaceful landscape belies its bloody past. A gentle half-hour walk through a blooming desert of cholla cactus brought us to the remains of the fort. We passed a cemetery with replicas of the long-vanished markers ("In memory of Col. Stone. Supposed to be").

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