Mesa Del Caballo

Free spirits have room to roam in Mesa del

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There is a definite "Rim country type," according to local clinical social worker Penny Navis-Schmidt. "For some reason," she said, "this area seems to attract people who don't want to be told what to do, who want self-determination. It's kind of a western renegade mentality. You know, 'Don't fence me in.'"

My experience living in various places large and small tells me Penny is right. And I also suspect that what is true of the Rim country in general is exaggerated in smaller, more isolated communities such as Mesa del Caballo northeast of Payson.

Because we're a little farther out, the Mesa del "type" is just a bit more independent, maybe even a tad more "ornery," than your average Rimaroo.

Mesa del Caballo, which is Spanish for "Mesa of the Horse," is 1.8 miles east of the Beeline off Houston Mesa Road. Completely surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, and just a stone's throw from the ruins of Shoofly Village, it is a rustic community of some 350 homes.

Here, against the magnificent backdrop of the Mogollon Rim, the community's 1,000 or so residents still embrace the noble steeds for which Mesa del was named. Here, people care very deeply about one another, and about many of the aspects of life that people in large metropolitan areas either take for granted or have forgotten to care about.

These are, I believe, some of our defining characteristics, and their daily manifestations are the fabric of life in Mesa del Caballo.

One example is our community's ongoing love affair with the horse. Mesa del was originally founded as a weekend retreat for Valley horse owners. While the overwhelming majority of residents are now year-rounders, the community's stubborn affinity for horses has not wavered.

Often residents who don't own a horse of their own will stop by with a carrot or just stand around and chat while they stroke your horse's mane. It's a part of the Wild West that still seems important to us, something we're not yet ready to part with.

Another manifestation is the way we dress, which is basically any way we want without regard to fashion or style. You won't find much emphasis on status or pressure to conform in Mesa del.

Here, sweats are perfectly acceptable streetwear, and many residents wear overalls, camouflage, and other practical attire. Come summertime, there's a shorts crowd and a those-who-wouldn't-be-caught-dead-wearing-shorts crowd. Nobody really cares.

How else do we reveal our personality as a community? Perhaps in our quickness to express an opinion or belief, especially if it varies from that of the person we're conversing with. If you expect to agree with your neighbor about things, you better head down to the city where it's not only hard to tell one house from another, but also one opinion from another.

Here in Mesa del, we have folks of all political and religious persuasions, including a socialist or two and, it is rumored, even an atheist. It makes for some lively conversations, as long as you're not too thin-skinned about your own beliefs and attitudes.

We also reveal ourselves in the friendships we form. Living in the city, my friends tended to be mirror images of me. Here in Mesa del, they are from very diverse walks of life. There are cowboys, retirees, trash collectors, teachers, firemen, nurses, librarians, mechanics, carpenters, handymen, and housewives, to name a few.

And the friendships are not superficial. We may disagree about President Clinton's merits or how to shore up the sinking foundation of the old stone community center building. But I know I can count on my friends and neighbors when I need them, whether it's just to move a heavy piece of furniture, or to blanket the community with advisory fliers during the inevitable Fourth of July weekend water shortage.

In fact, one of the most telling attributes of the residents here is a long-standing commitment to "taking care of our own." Rarely does a day go by when a neighbor doesn't call and say something like, "I'm heading into town. Is there anything you need?" or, "Want to ride along?"

During the past year, two homes in Mesa del were ravaged by fire. In both cases, the community rallied with potlucks, fund-raisers, and good old-fashioned labor and moral support.

Each year during the holidays, many residents gather at the community center for an old-fashioned potluck/turkey dinner. Not only are Mesa del potlucks the best in the Rim country, but our Christmas potlucks are among the warmest events I have ever attended.

They never fail to rekindle my fondest childhood memories of that joyous holiday memories of friends, family, and good cheer; memories that years of living in the snowless, impersonal Valley had all but obliterated.

People who prefer big cities over small ones often claim "there is so much more to do," and maybe that's true in glittery, superficial, homogenized ways. But what they lose in the process is their freedom, their independence, their spirit.

It's a relief to leave behind a lifestyle where everything is taken care of by big brother and your whole life is laid out in a huge grid a kind of mindless maze that makes it too easy to get turned around and misplace your soul.

Besides, when I've had enough interaction with my neighbors, I can walk or ride out my back gate into some of the most beautiful country anywhere.

With the Rim as a trusted companion and guide, I can stray as far from civilization as I want, lost in my thoughts or simply in the sheer beauty of the area.

Always, of course, secure in the knowledge that if I can't find my way back, my neighbors will eventually come and get me.

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