“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

 Blogger’s Note: Road trips can offer serendipitous circumstances where, like life, taking a small risk can return rewards in volumes.

In the spring of 1977, friend Michael Milburn and I went on a camping trip in my blue JEEP CJ7, “Alice.” We had been 4-wheeling all day following all manner of forest service roads between Sedona and Clarkdale in the Coconino National Forest in North Central Arizona. The sun was setting, and we were following the Forest Service Map to the confluence of Sycamore Creek and the Verde River to find a place to set up camp. As we approached the area, on forest service road 131, we started seeing posted signs reading, “Private Property, No Trespassing” and “Violators will be Shot!” “This cannot be,” I said to Mike. “This is national forest land. We should be able to camp here.” Just then, the road came to a rocky ford for crossing Sycamore Creek, about 30 feet across, water running moderately and a closed wooden gate on the other side. Since gates were fairly common in national forests to regulate cattle grazing, I thought nothing of it and we proceeded to cross.

About midway across, I noticed the gate was ajar and an old man was limping toward the creek’s edge. I stopped the Jeep, unbuckled my Ruger .45 caliber long colt gun belt and handed it to Mike, so I would not look threatening. In those early days in Arizona, I had become what Edward Abbey described as an “instant cowboy,” an easterner who comes to the west and buys all the accoutrements (cowboy hat, boots, leather vest, 6-gun and Slim Jim Holster) of a Hollywood cowboy, so he can look and feel the part.

Anyway, I handed the gun belt to Mike, climbed out of the Jeep and started rock-hopping over to other side. Then I hear the guy yelling but I could not make out he was saying over the sound of rushing water. As I approached the other side, I could finally size up the man. He was older, likely early 70s with a stubbly grey beard. He held a cane and a small caliber pistol in his left hand. The pistol appeared to be pointed at my feet. “Yer trespassing!” exclaimed the man. “This here is my land. Didn’t you see the signs?” I gazed back at Mike, thinking maybe I need some backup here. I explained that I and my friend were simply looking for a place to camp near the confluence of the Verde and Sycamore Creek and thought all this land was National Forest land. “I lease this land. Been livin’ here more ‘en thirty years,” he said. I apologized and asked if he knew some place where we could pitch a tent. I mentioned we had a case of ice cold Coors beer and some steaks in our cooler we would be happy to share. After what seemed to be a long silence, he replied, “I do. Get in yer Jeep.” He opened the gate wide and motioned for us to follow him while he limped back through the gate.

I rock-hopped back to the Jeep and after a brief explanation to Mike, completed the ford over the creek, following the man to an old 2-story cabin. On the north side, there was a heavily rusted old Jeep pickup truck with a crane winch on it and what seemed to be an outdoor workshop. On the east side, the cabin’s sloped roof and wall was hand-painted with huge multicolored flowers—sunflowers, daisies, etc. There a campfire pit on the south side, a door to the interior, and a porch with bird cages filled with quail nests.

We parked our Jeep in front as the sun was setting and he motioned down a gravel road and said we could set up camp down there. He sat down on an old chair by the fire and asked us about the beer. We grabbed a few bottles of beer from the cooler and joined the man next to his campfire. There were 3 very odd-looking dogs with red eyes that kept close by him.

Over beers and steaks, he told us his story. He said is name was John and when he was a younger man in the 1930s, he helped build the Alaskan Highway. He had been leasing this land, raising quail and quail eggs for sale in Clarkdale, some miles away. He said he used to drive into Clarkdale once a week, but he had been working on the truck once and it fell off the blocks and hurt his leg, so now someone came once every 2 weeks to pick up quail and eggs. The dogs were part Dingo (Australian wild dogs) and he was breeding them with a German Shepard bitch and selling the puppies. He said they make great companions.

I asked him about the flowers painted on the house and he said some, “hippie chicks” as he called them had come by and stayed with him for a time in the late 60s. They painted the flowers and planted “weed” along the creek. We talked well into the night and then headed down road to the confluence and set up camp in the dark.

When we awoke the next morning, we found the “weed,” which was still growing wild—likely descended from the hippie chick days. We broke camp and headed back to his cabin where he made us some eggs and bacon for breakfast. When we departed, we left him the rest of the beer, the ice and the cooler which he very much appreciated, saying he hadn’t had a cold beer in, “better than six months.”

In researching the cabin, I found this article that the homestead was part of the Packard Ranch and that the “Packard Cabin” had burned down in 2004. It was an off-chance meeting—a little serendipity to have met and chatted with “John” to hear his story. The experience changed the way I traveled thereafter. When given the opportunity, I like to sit at “community tables” at restaurants and B&B’s. You never know who you might meet.

“…the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.”Emma Chase, Tamed

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