Exploring past ages along the Apache Trail

Most tourists see American history through a camera with only one lens. Its focal point is squarely on the American Revolution -- although it also brings in views of events as distant as the Pilgrims and as close as the Civil War. Outside that 250-year limit, everything blurs; and even within it, the lens somehow highlights only that which is Eastern, Europeanized, or directly related to the present day.

But turn northeast at Apache Junction, Ariz., 31 miles east of Phoenix, and you notice a strange thing: The standard tourist lens has nothing to focus on. You'll need, instead, three interchangeable lenses: a close-up model for the gold-rush days of the late 1800s; a long-range one to bring into view the Indian culture of the 13th century; and a vast barrel of a lens capable of seeing back into prehistoric geology. For the Apache Trail -- part of a 160-mile loop of road winding through some of Arizona's breathtaking desent mountains -- makes one thing quite clear: American history is a great deal more than Plymouth Rock and Bunker Hill and Appomattox. It is a history of massive geological pressures , vast ebbs and flows of tribal civilizations, and the irresistible expansiveness of a young nation's western frontier. And it is all there to read in a daylong drive through a section of the Tonto National Forest so little traveled that many Arizonans have yet to see it.

Driving east from Phoenix on the first leg of that trip, you'll have a chance to reflect, first, on how much this city is really an oasis. City-dwellers, with water and persistence, have softened this part of the Upper Sonoran Desert with rows of palms, thick pads of lawn, and groves of sweetsmelling orange trees. None of those amenities reach the Apache Trail.

Here the spines are out in force, on everything from the sharp points of the towering saguaro (the many-armed organ-pipe cactus) to the fiercely prickled needles of the chainfruit cholla. The landscape adds a spikiness of its own, with sudden chunks of hardedged mountains thrusting up into the sky and littering the gulches between with angular shards of rock. Even the animals seem possessed of that sharpness -- fanged like the rattlesnake or beaked like the Gila woodpecker. It is a place where life clings to the margin, adapting to a bright, arid landscape with a toughness that keeps the onlooker at a healthy distance.

Yet to look closely at the Apache Trail is not only to see history but to feel its force upon the present. Your first stop, shortly after Apache Junction , should be at Lost Dutchman State Park. Choose a temperate day (this is not a trip for summer; when the whole region desiccates in 100-degree-plus heat), and you'll find spectacular views of the red-cliffed Superstition Mountains rising abruptly above the mesquite and shale. Trails frequented by jack rabbits lead toward the mountains, where legend has it that a certain Jacob Walz (the so-called "Dutchman," who was in fact a German prospector) found a gold mine, the whereabouts of which he never revealed. Apocryphal maps of his route still turn up, purportedly handed down over the generations from the Dutchman himself.

A few miles farther, the road climbs to an overview a Canyon Lake. It's the second of a four-part necklace of long, narrow, manmade lakes that have transformed the deep canyon of the Salt River into a recreation haven -- while transforming urban Phoenix into a well-watered lushness by means of the Salt River Project. You can see Canyon Lake on an hour-and-a-half boat cruise -- or, if you're already warm, from a duck's-eye view with a swim at the public beach. If you're used to northern lakes, where log cabins nestle among shorelines of pines, don't be surprised at your surroundings: Here the dominant dwelling is an unshaded mobile home, and the shores and high hillsides are of cactus-covered rock. Dry, sunny, and easygoing, the lake has its own frontier charm.

As does Tortilla Flat, a resurrected ghost town east of Canyon Lake. Here, very real horses saddled for trail-riding stand next to the ersaltz buildings of a shack-fronted motel, souvenir store, and cafe. Real, however, are the antiques docorating the broad porches -- buckets and bits and picks and lanterns , all strangely at odds with the gleaming motorcycles and shinning vans parked on the street. Take a good look at them if you like bright chrome. Five miles past Tortilla Flat the pavement ends in a cloud of dust.

The next 22 miles are gravel -- wide, firm, and able to stand 44-mile-an-hour speeds in some places, but rough and twisting nonetheless. Don't let it deter you, however: The landscape grows increasingly impressive as you wind up high passes and, suddenly, down the narrow ribbon of the sometimes one-lane stretch into Fish Creek Canyon. That road is a real thriller, and you'll want to take it slowly. Heading east, however, you've at least got the comfort of being on the inside, close to the canyon wall. Take advantage of the frequent turnouts to soak up the view and let the occasional oncoming car go past.

Climbing up from the Fish Creek bridge (worth a stop to look into its pools of clear water), the road reaches a mesa high above Apache Lake, the third in the chain. By now (if you've left Phoenix after a leisurely breakfast) it should be lunchtime, and you'll do no better than to take the access road down to the Apache Lake Marina and Resort. Again, don't look for amenities: This is a place of Formica tables with take flowers, metal chairs covered with red Naugahyde, and rough-and-ready walls and ceilings. But the views of the lake are superb, the tacos crisp, the salad huge and excellent, and the menu alive with surprising quotations from writers like Meredith, Cummings, and Shakespeare. It's also pleasantly Western and informal: Of 11 men in the dining room on the March day we were there, six ate with their hats on.

You pick up pavement again at Roosevelt Lake, the fourth and largest of the Salt River Project reservoirs. Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911 and named after President Theodore Roosevelt, remains the largest masonry

dam in the world -- a majestic castle of cut stone wedged forcibly into a narrow canyon. A few miles beyond comes the highlight of the journey -- Tonto National Monument, where cliff-dwelling Salado Indians built a 20-room stone village in a natural cave high above the valley some 700 years ago.

A steep half-mile foot trail rises up to the well-preserved ruins, which command expansive views of Roosevelt Lake 1,000 feet below.Ducking through narrow doorways and peering through windows in the thick stone walls, you'll have time to muse over the lives of a race that lived in the valley below -- until driven to this high fortress by some unknown threat. Even then, it continued to farm the valley -- where, until the dam flooded the plain after 1911, its ancient irrigation canals could still be seen, and from which the people lugged corn, squash, beans, cotton, and all their water up to the cliff house. Take in the slide show at the visitor's center (open until 5 p.m.) near the parking lot, and be sure to start up the trail before 4 o'clock, when it closes to uphill climbers.

Unless you want to turn back and take Fish Creek Canyon in reverse, continue on Arizona route 88 into the Globe-Miami area, where the trail ends in a sobering view of two still active mining communities. An estimated 160 tons of tailings -- the crushed rock remaining after minerals have been removed -- are heaped along the highway into vast ridges, swirling up into eddies of dust in the dry wind. Here you can get gas, fast foods, and a tour of the Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company facility.

From there, US 60 whisks back toward Phoenix through the towering walls of Queen Creek Canyon. If time permits, you can wander through the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum three miles west of Superior, where desert plants from around the world, gathered up by mining mogul William Boyce Thompson, now form a field museum for the University of Arizona. A short hop away (in Western terms, that's about 60 miles) and you've come full circle -- back to Phoenix, and a fuller awareness that modern civilization, cool and refreshing as it is, is just one of many ways to live.

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