Thursday, July 15, 2010

Midnight Ride on Superstition Mountain

I read a news story about a huge search for three men lost in the Superstition Mountains. I'm concerned for those men as I'm familiar with being stranded in those same mountains.

The first ten years of my life, I mostly lived in Arizona. The last year we lived there, we lived in Globe, Arizona. Our grandparents lived down in the 'valley' in Chandler. Once when we had been there for a visit, Mom and Dad decided to take the scenic route back home. They planned to stop for a picnic and then travel on home.

In 1959, the summer we traveled along the back side of Superstition Mountain, the road wasn't paved. Actually, there were few paved back roads at that time in Arizona, with most of them being graded dirt. Our route was graded gravel, which was considered a step up in the hierarchy of roads.

We had an old pick-up with a mattress in the back. My older two brothers, Jack and Tommie, sat back there with me. Amazing isn't it? No seat belts, no cover, just the three of us crouched up against the back of the truck cab to buffer us against the wind. Jack was seven and Tommie was five. Our baby brother, Danny was three so he sat in the cab with Mommy and Daddy.

We started for home in late afternoon. The first part of the trip, of course, was paved until we reached Apache Junction where we stopped for gas. It was the last gas station for a long way. Back then, the gas stations handed out premiums when you bought gas. The Apache Junction station handed out glassware with different kinds of cactus on them. Mommy collected the glassware, putting together different sets… ice tea glasses, juice glasses, etc. I still have one set that she saved for my hope chest.

After Daddy filled up our gas tank, we left the main road and started down the route around the back of Superstition Mountain. In fairly rapid succession, it went from narrow blacktop to gravel.

Perhaps a couple of hours later, Daddy spotted a nice little clearing at the side of the road and pulled off. There was a sparkling little brook there, several cottonwood trees and a bit of grass. Mommy spread out a quilt and set out the food. I don't have any idea what we ate. It doesn't even seem important, but I vividly remember Jack and Tommie racing up and down the side of the brook with me as we floated leaves and tossed small stones in the water, enjoying the splashing.

After we ate, Mommy let us take off our shoes and wade in the water. Danny meandered down to the brook and sat down in the water and that was the end of the playtime! Mommy dried him off and changed his clothes. Daddy packed up the quilt and food and we all piled back into the truck.

Just as darkness fell, there was a loud popping sound and Daddy stopped the truck. He got out and raised the hood while we leaned over the side of the truck, trying to 'see'. Mommy told us to sit down, but you know kids--we bounced around back there, sort of impatient to get moving. At last, Daddy slammed the hood down and climbed back in the truck. The fan belt was gone, we were in the middle of nowhere, and it was a long way home.

To conserve the power in the battery, Daddy alternately turned on the truck to drive up the hills and turned it off so we could coast down the hills. This was not only wearing, but time consuming. And when we coasted down with no headlights, it was dark.

It got later and the moon came up, lighting the mountain with a soft golden glow. When I was just a kid, there were already ghost stories abounding about Superstition Mountain. There were stories about Indians and lost gold mines and disappearing prospectors. As a child, all of the stories sort of jumble together and reality isn't any part of them.

With the sun down, it got colder and Mommy gave us the quilt to cover up with. Huddled under the quilt, we just prayed for the truck to go faster. First Tommie and then Jack fell asleep, leaving me alone in my wary wakefulness.

Then the coyotes began to howl. Long mournful yodeling ululations floated down the dark mountain. I shivered and burrowed further down between my brothers. The truck went around a curve and a long finger of the mountain loomed above us.

Beginning high on the peak, rank upon rank of saguaro men marched down the mountainside, pursuing our truck. More eerie yips and barks poured over us. Ocotillo tepees spiked up through the moonlight. Ghostly aspen and cottonwood leaves whispered in the shadows.

I tightly closed my eyes and then slowly nudged the quilt until it was over our heads, covering us completely. Somewhere, in my fervent prayers for safety, I slipped into sleep.

I remember briefly waking when we reached a dam with a small general store. And I remember listening to my father talk of this trip much later when I was older. Apparently, the owners of the store lived above it. Daddy woke them up and they came up with a suitable fan belt. We finally arrived home in the wee hours of the morning.

As an adult, of course, we simply view the terrible inconveniences of such an ordeal. But even now, more than fifty years later, I haven't forgotten the delicious terror of that ride along Superstition Mountain.



  1. Good heavens! Can you imagine how harrowing that must have been for your parents?

    The only time I remember being stranded as a kid was in Denver or Colorado Springs or somewhere like that when we had to sit out car repair on the porch of the ??Antler Hotel??, which was the biggest hotel I had ever seen in my life up to that time. I believe the car gave out on us AFTER we went up Pike's Peak, thank goodness!

  2. I've driven through there, and it's spooky enough by day. What a memory!

  3. What a wonderful story!! So vivid and real!

  4. Wow! Amazing tale! I love the Superstitions - they are so beautiful, rugged, dangerous - and it's so easy to get lost. They are one of my very favorite places to hike in Arizona.
    I'm glad you came out okay. Hope they find the men.

  5. Wow, is right, Julia! What an experience!