The lushly wooded resort community of Christopher Creek, located 22 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, finds itself in a state of transition.
One unknown is the completion of a highway bypass that will put the community on an off-ramp. Yet another is the danger of catastrophic fire, a point dramatically brought home last summer when the giant Rodeo-Chediski Fire - at 468,638 acres, the largest in Arizona history - lapped at the boundary of the Christopher-Kohl's Fire District.
Highway 260 bypass
There is concern on the part of the business community that some businesses could go under when the 5.3-mile stretch of Highway 260 between mileposts 272 and 277 goes around instead of through their community. Latest estimates are that the bypass will open in late June.
But many of the people who live and work here are of hardy pioneer stock, and they are doing their best to prepare for that eventuality.
"I always feel we're a point of destination," said Debbie Aschbrenner, owner of Tall Pines Market and Post Office. Aschbrenner has lived in Christopher Creek for nearly 11 years, moving from the San Diego area where she owned a bedspread company.
"We've all sat down and talked about doing some community things when it happens like a fall festival," she said. "We want to do some nice things and advertise them to get people up here."
Kent Courtney, the new Christopher-Kohl's fire chief, echoes Aschbrenner's thoughts. Courtney, who is coming up on his one-year anniversary in Christopher Creek, was a fire chief in Verde Valley before moving to the Rim country.
"The bypass will definitely impact life," Courtney said. "But the general spirit in the community is that it will make things better. Our hope is that Christopher Creek will become a destination community, and that we'll eventually attract more people by being a little bit quieter."
The fire danger might end up being a bigger concern, especially this summer.
"This is one of the most risky places to live in terms of catastrophic fire because we're the only unburned area between the old Dude Fire and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire," Courtney said. "The Dude actually burned into our district from the west side, and the Rodeo-Chediski burned right up against our boundary. It's going to be a horrible summer, much worse than last summer - even if we do get some moisture between now and spring."
Aschbrenner says the lingering drought is not only bad for business, it's also starting to wear on residents.
"It's just so iffy right now with all the waiting to see what's going to happen," she said. "If we don't get rain, it's going to be just like last year. When they talk so much about closing the forest it just affects all of us so bad."
The bark beetle infestation, another drought-related event, has contributed to the unease in Christopher Creek.
"We're second only to Pine-Strawberry in bark beetle devastation," Courtney said.
Other than those concerns, life is good in Christopher Creek for the 500 full-time families who live there.
"It's still an untouched area that has the uniqueness of the small town with easy access to the city," Aschbrenner said. "We still have all four seasons, but not the harsh seasons like the Rim does."
Of course, it's the people who best define a community and Christopher Creek is no exception.
"This is just an awesome place to live," Courtney said. "It's a great community. There are some incredible people here with a good community spirit."
Down Highway 260 a few miles toward Payson lies the rustic resort of Kohl's Ranch, one of the most popular recreation spots in all of the Rim country. While Kohl's Ranch is considered a first class resort today, there was a time when it was just a tiny post office, a store, a bar, and a dance hall with a floor made of wood planks.
"We used to go up there and dance on Saturday nights," one old-timer recalls. There was a fiddler and a piano player.
"You'd dance until the dust was so bad you couldn't breathe. Then everybody would go outside. The dust would settle, and they'd start the music and you'd go back inside."
The old cowboy bar at Kohl's Ranch, the site of those Saturday night dances, was torn down a year ago, with the intention of replacing it with a two-unit residential timeshare that would incorporate "historical elements" of the old cowboy bar.
In January, the current owners of Kohl's Ranch -- Phoenix-based ILX Resorts -- made good on their promise with the unveiling of Horton House.
Historic bar lives on
In a tour of the larger of the two units, architect Rex Hinshaw of Spragins & Hinshaw Architects, explained the painstaking process followed by those involved.
"We looked at the original building and did a complete evaluation, and we could not remodel it and bring it up to today's codes - it was impossible to do," Hinshaw said. "So instead of tearing down, we dismantled it. We took a lot of time at the beginning to analyze and go through the process of seeing how we could maintain remnants of the historical value of the building."
Besides the services of Spragins & Hinshaw, ILX hired Stan Langham Construction, a local builder, as the primary contractor.
The most dramatic feature in the new structure is the old bar itself, carved with the initials and names of hundreds of locals who once bellied up to it for a brew.
"We've re-used the old bar and all the wainscoting and some of the trim you see inside here and several of the windows, and certain other features," Hinshaw said. "Like there's one of the posts that was holding up the porch (now) holding up the mantel here."
Decks at the rear of the two units offer the same spectacular view of Tonto Creek enjoyed by the dancers while they waited for the dust to clear on those early Saturday nights in the Rim country.
"We saved almost all the trees that were on the site of the original building, and the orientation is the same," Hinshaw said. "So it still has a creek view."
Horton House is billed as Payson's most luxurious accommodation - and it might just be. At $1,000 a night it is certainly one of the most expensive.
For more information on the Christopher Creek area, go to www.christophercreekarizona.com.