White Mountain Octobers, Northeast Arizona
by Susan Strom
2009. The Moon hung suspended like a miner’s lamp over the high prairies that lie between wide swaths of forest in the White Mountains of Arizona. The pure, dark sky presented itself not flatly, but with dimension, like the blackness of a long, deep well. “Well, Moon, it is you and I.” Under the floating Moon, I contemplated if I should continue on to Eagar and Springerville, unsure what lie ahead or if there was lodging at all along this lonely road through this wide open moor. I could continue to trek into the night but I thought for sure I might be missing beautiful country for lack of light. If what lie before me imitate what I had seen today, the road ahead is one not to miss.
I had just photographed a sunset scene at a lake called A-1, at 8,900 ft elevation.
I decided to turn about and lodge in Lakeside for the night. I would double back and cross again through the White Mountain Apache land’s aspen forests and pass by A-1 Lake by moonlight. I must be on elk watch vigilantly. The animals of colossal size enjoy the warmth of the road’s pavement and hitting one would end my trip, and perhaps my life. An Apache hunter had taught me how they move in the woods and I knew they rove out of the trees at twilight. In autumn, as it is now, the bugling of the males seeking mates confirms their presence.
A cozy bed awaited me at Motel Nine Pines in Lakeside. The owners are very nice and I enjoyed the mountain-themed rooms, with quilts, log porches, and lamps in antler style. In this type of bed I sleep soundly. I unpacked my little bags and cameras and settled in. I looked forward to taking coffee on the porch in the morning, and seeing my breath in the chilly air. Breath is rarely seen in the desert around Scottsdale where I live, about 3 ½ hours drive from here.
I returned the following fall to photograph additional changing moods of the White Mountains. A laze with coffee was postponed as I awoke before dawn and ambled out to notice even as yet in early October, I would have to de-ice my car. The prospect of first light over A-1 Lake on the Apache lands was too enticing. I made quick work of the morning at Motel Nine Pines and got on the road to the tribal permit office at Hon Dah when it opened. Quickly achieving a permit, I was on my way out Highway 260 east and past McNary.
Slanted spears of sunlight angled through the ponderosas as a blue-gray haze crept along the forest floor. I had heard of a controlled burn to be scheduled and welcomed the serendipity of the forest’s ghostly appearance in the camera.
A-1 Lake emerged from the trees and I took the small drive to the waterline. Aspen leaves scattered the drive like chocolate coins in their gold foil wrappers, leaving the bottoms of the aspens’ white trunks bare like spears and the tops still adorned with leaves.
The half-dressed trees portended that autumn arrives but slips away yet again so quickly. The transitory nature of autumn’s beauty in the White Mountains always reminds me to avail myself of every opportunity for a photograph in the moment. As in life, re-dos are not possible for magic moments, so embracing their high points at present wraps them up like gifts to us before the moments are gone. Hopefully, climaxes of life at least end up in camera or journal. Aspens will change, as the moments tick off too quickly, but we can be a part of it at the very least.
At the lakeside, the water surface and morning sky were still intertwined as the water became a perfect mirror for the day’s new sky. Aspen in their golden robes lined the shore and reflected perfectly in the mirror. Winds were absent. The water lay still as a stone, taking on the turquoise hue of sky and the aspens the color of a lemon on fire. I flew out of the car and set up my equipment lest the wind breathe on all this and wipe the scene away.
Frame after frame jumped into the camera. I was grateful for arriving on time. What puzzled me most was that the spectacle, although accessible by highway, was seen by only me. I shared this magic moment with only the birds and the wind as I pondered the absence of naturalists and other photographers. Perhaps A-1 was just too far from cities or predawn darkness was just too early to set out. Perhaps Arizona is so big that our 116,000 square miles scatters those who explore it over the expanse of a great land, one with many miles between porch lights.
Expectedly, the mountain winds began to stir within minutes, perturbing the mirror and turning it into a quivering satin sheet of gold and blue. I knew the still scene was unlikely to emerge again for the day as the winds arrived. I started to take down my gear. A couple en route to somewhere else pulled in and spoke to me briefly. They were pleased to see the beautiful lake but missed the morning’s glassy moment, now thankfully frozen in time in my camera. The sun was gaining brightness and chasing morning’s gentle light away. I too turned to leave. The lake was now alone again under a paler sky, as photographer’s light would leave the stage until sunset.
Back out on the highway, a small side road led me through to a thick and healthy aspen grove. I enjoyed how the fresh, flawless golden leaves sprinkled the conifers with yet more gold coins, as if decorating the young pines for Christmas. Leaves coated the ground in a yellow polka-dot quilt. Others got caught in the arms of pine needles. Still wet, the flat gold surfaces sparkled with morning dew. I would crouch down and photograph the droplets on macro settings, as they splayed out on the little surfaces like diamond chips pavé-set on a bracelet.
A patchwork of thick forest glades and wide open prairies compose the White Mountains. Roaming it, one is cocooned in thick conifers and aspen, only to burst forth minutes later onto an expansive cienega, or high altitude meadow or plain. Beyond the plain, yet another island of woods presents itself on the horizon.
A frozen cienega in autumn offers much to the early-rising photographer as well, as frost clings to meadow plants, sparkling and scattering the spectrum in the sun. A macro setting and tripod can capture the small, magical icy worlds.
Beyond the large prairie at Sunrise ski area turnoff, Highway 260 continues east to Eagar and Springerville, Arizona. First, a glade thick with pine and aspen color presents itself. Pole Knoll is used in winter for cross country skiing, but empty each time I have stopped there in the fall. Fresh, healthy aspen color again is found among the dark green pines. Tall, wheat-like grasses mark the season and wave in the autumn wind.
Eagar and Springerville lie close to the New Mexico state line, on the eastern side of Arizona. Each town has some services but the first time I visited in 2009, I did not stop long to explore as I wished to continue south on Highway 191 to additional forests. Over the first rise south of Eagar and Springerville, one is temporarily deceived by an increasingly arid-looking landscape of mesas, scrub trees and plains.
Around a bend in the road heading south, a sudden and surprising land form emerged out of nowhere.
Sadly, at this juncture I have to write this portion in past tense, as the majesty of the scene was involved in the human-caused Wallow Fire in 2011. Escudilla Mountain of nearly 11,000 feet, was festooned with golden aspen color head to toe. I consider myself lucky to have seen the mountain in its splendor, prior to it becoming a casualty of the largest wildfire in Arizona State history.
Some say Escudilla still lives. Though many aspen groves are said to be charred, the fire jumped to and fro in a patchwork fashion, sparing some of the forest. As yet, I have not been out to look at Escudilla. I would like to remember pre-fire state of it, the mountainside’s astonishing quilt of gold. I do not know to what extent the fall color is suspended on the mountain. Perhaps someone will show photographs to the contrary at some point.
For now, I remember how it literally stopped traffic on Highway 191, as people pulled over to snap a photo of the yellow rising summit in the fall. I did as well, and ventured on the dirt roads to get closer to the peak to take pictures and create memories to sketch from later.
I once left a copy of my drawing with the Motel Nine Pines. Owner, Kenny, enjoyed long hunting trips in the Escudilla and pinned it over the front desk.
Spanish for “bowl”, Escudilla hopefully will enjoy resplendence in future generations. Meanwhile, we can only hope that recent wildland conflagrations will be seared into our memories so as to make us conscientious at the campfire. Forever, Escudilla, remote mountain, you’ll come back some day.
Further south on 191, thick groves of ponderosa, aspen and silvertip carpeted the miles. On that first trip, I drove through, taking readings measuring in the 9,000 ft range with my altimeter. I stopped at the hunting lodge at Hannagan Meadow, also asking the name of the mystery mountain I saw near the small town of Nutrioso. At the time, I did not know the name Escudilla. The lodge was quiet. Again, I was the only one in the lodge café. The server wearing a cowboy hat informed me of the mountain’s name. I stayed awhile, wondering again how I could be the only one there on such a pleasant October day before the snows. Fortunately, to my knowledge, the Hannagan Meadow lodge escaped the fire.
I took several subsequent trips back out to the White Mountains, each revealing new facets of a wildland’s ever-changing personality. A lakeside photo, creekside walk, the chorus of bugling elk in the woods. Stormy skies, a windswept moor, alpenglow on ponderosa.
Nowhere near here is any cliché image of burros and cactus-studded deserts often seen on Arizona postcards. Every season in the White Mountains is different, from a raging Monsoon storm to fall’s gentle paintbrush, to the blizzard conditions of winter. As well, the commonplace architecture of runaway commercialism, big box retail and master-planned Beigelands has not crept in like a mistletoe, as it has in so many cities in the American West. Towns-in-a-kit, weird fake Tuscan-style villages out of place on desert mountainsides, these are a half day's drive at the nearest. In Apache hands, White Mountain wildness remains, in trees, animals and easily detectable seasons, forever and far away, deserving of preservation, admiration, and respect.