In December, 1972, during the second half of a boring NFL game, I looked over at Jake Schroder and said, “This isn’t much fun! Let’s go four wheelin’.” That’s all it took for our families to go on the most bizarre and dangerous four wheel, trip that we ever took.
Since it was mid afternoon, around 2:00 PM, (no daylight savings time), we decided to drive up to Bartlett Damn on the Verde River, cross the river there and then take a four wheel drive only, road over to Punkin Center and then back home. From our houses in Paradise Valley, Arizona, looking at the map, this appeared to be an uneventful two, plus hour trip, but we’d get to see some new country
We loaded our wives and 3 kids (each) in, my 1968 Ford Bronco and Jake’s, brand new, 1972, Toyota Land Cruiser and headed out Scottsdale road to Carefree and then on to Bartlett Damn. We drove down the dirt road leading to the low water river crossing and to our surprise, water was being let out of Bartlett Lake and we didn’t know if we could cross or not. The low water crossing certainly didn’t look very low.
Locking our hubs and shifting into 4WD Low, the Bronco was first to cross and I thought we’d be swept away. Water came in under the doors and the steering pulled heavily to the right, down river, but we made the 100, foot crossing successfully. The kids thought this was “neat”! Jake followed and since his Land Cruiser was heavier he chugged right across.
Climbing up out of the river bottom we started out on the four, wheel drive only, road to Punkin Center. As we kept climbing up into the low hills, we noticed that it had become cloudy and gotten cooler but we thought nothing of it. We did notice that this road, even by four wheelin’ standards, was very bad.
Creeping slowly along, the road had turned rocky and on outside curves, it leaned dangerously, “down the hill”. We came to one stretch, that years back, had been filled in over a small, creek and the road was so narrow, Jake got out to scout and when he did he noticed the mist and called out, “Beech, it’s misting and it’s gotten much cooler”. He guided me across and then I got out in the mist and guided him across. There was no margin for error. We thought of turning around, but hadn’t found a place where this could be accomplished. This road was bad!
The clouds kept us from seeing, what we knew, was a beautiful sunset and the mist had turned into a light rain, and above the windshield wipers, I noticed an accumulation of ice! Everyone asked, “Where did this storm come from?” From the kids, “Daddy, will it snow?” Now, there’s rain, ice, no turn around and a terrible road, leaving us only one choice, soldier on!
Being 4 hours into our 2, plus, hour trip, where was Punkin Center? We continued creeping and came to another “fill”. Jake jumped out into the icy, rain, flashlight in hand, stuck his head inside my truck and said, laughingly, “Women and children out of the truck!” My family complied and he guided me over. I knew that I was going to slide off and I didn’t even know how far down, that down was! We made it but the wheelbase on Jake’s truck was slightly wider than the Bronco’s. His family jumped out and I guided him slowly over to safety. His big tires saved the day!
It had been dark for over an hour and we hadn’t seen a single light, only our headlights, reflecting on the rain/sleet. The kids were wet and cold now, “Daddy, I’m wet and cold,” they echoed, as I turned the heat/defrost up higher. We creeped on around a hill, with the truck tilting dangerously to the left and when we reached the top we could see the car lights on Beeline Highway and we knew that Punkin Center was close by.
Inching down the hill, as we neared the highway, we noticed a sign beside our, what may be called, road, that read “Road Closed”. That explained a lot! We crept on into the small hamlet of Punkin Center and the one, store, was closed, so we cranked up and drove on down Beeline to Shea and turned right and headed home. Six hours from our start, I pulled into our cul de sac and the kids were all sound asleep.
I still wonder why there was no “Road Closed” sign at the Bartlett Damn end of the road?