I look around the Jeep at the other’s faces; behind me Beth’s face shows unease and nausea as Alfredo flops around with the sway of the suspension, beside me Chris is lost in concentration on the poor excuse for a road that lies ahead, his white-knuckled hands steadfast at ten and two. The map in my lap aggressively shifts as we bounce over yet another rock, a breeze from the open window flicks the corners like a dog’s panting tongue. I squint down at the bland white map as though this will somehow help discern our location. The road is getting worse. I don’t want to wind up like the ivory pile of gnawed bones we discovered that was once a cow.
“I’m pretty sure we’re here,” I hold the map up and attempt to pinpoint a spot with my bouncing finger a measly two miles from where we began. Over an hour and a half has passed, we still have over eighteen miles to go. If we had known this road’s dreadful condition or if we were into off-roading, we’d be having a much better time and wouldn’t have left with only a few hours of light left. We decide to double back and try a different route tomorrow. At this pace we’re better off walking.
South of Sedona we had set up camp in the high desert after leaving the cool mountain air just North of Red Rocks two days ago. Darelene’s stock suspension received a rigorous workout on the dusty washboarded Forest Road 618 as we searched for a viable spot to pop our top – the Coconino National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map Bill gifted us at Overland Expo promised dispersed camping all along the route but none of the sites seemed inviting or even accessible until we found the intersection of FR 618C.
At night the fire’s crackle and the whisper of the wind was all we could hear as the flames lapped at the millions of stars above us. Just before dawn we awoke to the howl of coyotes nearby. We didn’t want to leave this place, but an adventure to an abandoned hot springs called our name.
Forest Road 708, or Fossil Creek Road as most folks know it, is closed. We park on the side of the road and I call the number on the closure sign, hoping this is only temporary. The recorded voice informs us that the closure is in effect from 9AM until further notice due to high vehicle traffic. In desperation I look at the map and find a tiny road connects to FR 708 from an alternate direction, the black and white striping denotes “open to all vehicles.” We will find ourselves on this unmaintained poor excuse for a road in a few hours, bouncing over boulders, questioning our decisions, and eventually turning back to try Fossil Creek Road again in the morning: FR 9D.
A stones throw past mile marker 241 on HWY 260 East we arrive at our forest road, an unassuming dirt trail masked as a small farmhouse’s driveway. Trusting the signage we turn off the highway and follow the rough road bouncing over dirt, manure, hay and rock past the clapboard farmhouse and around a bend until we reach a vast grassy clearing. An escarpment of the Mogollan Rim is visible in the distance, to the East high power lines trace off to the horizon. At a poorly built fire ring we park Darlene, no use in taking both vehicles, and pile into the Jeep bounding our way down to connect with FR 9D, bubbling with enthusiasm.
Three hours and three miles later we are back where we began: shaken, disheveled, and ready for a relaxing night around a campfire. The sun sets with a colorful wash of blues, oranges and purples, our campfire dances as we stare into the flames, each of us thankful we turned back and didn’t wind up like that cow.
Pre-dawn light rouses us from slumber. With haste we stuff ourselves and our packs with coffee, breakfast, water, cameras, snacks, sunscreen, and a map as we race to Fossil Creek Road before the closure starts.
In triumph we cruise the rugged track towards our destination. Rocks, dips, bumps and washboards of this road feel smooth as silk compared to yesterdays rocky ride. A fine dust covers all, turning our pale skin and black Jeep tawny; far off ghostly plumes kicked up from vehicles reveal the distance we’ve yet to drive.
Seventeen miles of Fossil Creek Road lead to seeming desolation pockmarked by sooty families in dusty camp sites, boxed in by gritty cars, tents and heavy lines of traffic passing by. Why people would choose to come out here only to watch dirty brown motorcades pass them at regular intervals is beyond my comprehension. At FR 502 we make a hard turn South towards Child’s Power Plant, breaking formation from the ghostly procession as it continues in a blanket of dust. The road gradually rises up and over a ridge on a one-and-a-half-lane switchback towards the Verde River, our journey’s end.
The harsh scent of hot brakes sting my nostrils and I tell Chris to downshift lest we lose our ability to stop. We pause at an overlook to let the hot rotors cool, staring down at the Verde River below. It is hard to believe that there once was a resort down here in the early 1900s, that humans would ever try to settle such a desolate area in an attempt to tame this wilderness. Our adventure has already been a trek with modern vehicles and maintained roads, it is inconceivable that folks made this journey with some of the first automobiles on the first primitive roads. In this vast desert there is no sound but the gentle wind shuffling clouds about the turquoise sky, our breaths are insignificant puffs in this immensity.
Overlooking a maintained campground on the river, we park next to an abandoned minivan; it’s tires are flat, the license plate has been removed and the sliding door is missing. I’m smacked by the smell of urine as I peer into the egress at trash, bedding and random automobile parts, hoping it will not be our misfortune to stay the night here. Below us the sounds of primitive drums pound, folks are wandering about half-clothed. Before venturing here I intently read all I could on the area; stories of folks making semi-permanent residence at the campground, prevalent nudity, drug use, and occasional violence had put me on alert, but the energy emanating from below was jovial. We duck under a gate and walk the rustic road past the abandoned Child’s Power Plant. A large spray of graffiti proclaiming “FEED ME YOUR BLOOD! HAIL SATAN!” places my mind and body back on alert – we are three scrawny white folk in the middle of the desert with no help for miles.
Several minutes down the road we pass a rock with a large spray painted ‘X’ that we later learn is the correct place to cross the river, affectionately called “X marks the rock.” Instead we follow the road until a footpath leads us down toward the river where we manage to ford across the surprisingly swift current. Walking downstream a trail manifests and leads us past oddly placed palm trees and crumbled foundations.
The hotel that used to stand where the hot spring pools are located now burnt down in 1962. Before then it apparently was quite the place in the Jazz Age and rumor has it that Al Capone used it as a hideout at times. Now all you see are remnants of the old structure, mis-placed palm trees and the pools.
A series of steps lead us down to a large pool signaling our arrival. Aside from us there are only two couples occupying the springs – one seasoned regulars, the others newcomers like us. The pools are fed from natural springs deep within the rocks, the basin’s drains plugged with bowling pins to hold the supposed magical water in place, the excess dripping out carefully crafted channels leading to the river beside us. Graffiti covers nearly all the man-made structures, colorful in hue and content with caricatures, warnings, biblical quotes and inspirational messages. The dark mineral water has an oily film on the surface and seltzer-like bubbles rise from abyss. We jump in.
A scene from Dante’s Peak comes to mind as we soak in the blissful warmth – campers find themselves boiling alive in a natural spring as a volcano beneath them rumbles to life. We let our cares drift away with the clouds above and balance the heat with a dip into the brisk Verde River, our systems shocked to life from the contrast. We scoot from hot to cold and back again, eventually settling on the banks of the river, basking in the Summer sun like lizards.
The day meanders by, we are alone in a paradise hidden within the desert, grateful for finding this place and having the ability to enjoy it unabated. Hours later the last sips of the water we brought signal time for our exodus from this paradise. Begrudgingly we head back to the vehicle.
The sun nears it’s departure from the sky as we arrive back at camp. Clouds on the horizon threaten storms as we build our nightly fire. We sit around the crackling flames watching once again as they seemingly reach for the heavens; in a valiant effort, embers pop skyward attempting to join their starry brethren above, only to extinguish within the darkness around us. I stare intently at the flames as though searching for a hidden meaning within them, concluding that experiences such as ours this weekend are exactly why we travel and what we should be living for, sharing our stories is necessary.
I smile comfortably in the silence of the night knowing that tomorrow we will awake to solitude in this field, fully able to enjoy our day free from any dirty cavalcade passing by in search of paradise. I think we’ll be coming back soon.