Visitors who take a brief drive up Highway 87 to the top of the Mogollon Rim and look back on Strawberry Valley are in for a stunning view.
The twin communities of Pine and Strawberry are tucked right under the rim in a lushly wooded setting. Higher than Payson's 5,000-foot altitude, Pine stands at 5,400 feet and Strawberry (named for the wild berries that abound in the area) at 6,000 feet.
But despite their beautiful forest backdrop, or, perhaps more accurately, because of it, no other communities in the Rim country have been impacted by the decade-long drought like Pine and Strawberry.
From bark beetles to water shortages to catastrophic fire danger, the beleaguered residents of the two communities a dozen or so miles up the Beeline Highway from Payson have survived trying times.
But a wet year, a concerted effort to remove dead trees and reduce the fire danger, and a community beautification project have the residents of Pine and Strawberry in an upbeat mood these days.
"We had a great year last year, everybody did," Dianne Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who spans both communities, is in a position to know. She owns Sunny Mountain Realty in Pine, and has lived in Strawberry since 1979.
2004 began on a positive note, as the U.S. Forest Service encircled the two communities with a much-needed fuel break that encompasses more than 700 acres.
"We started on those fuel breaks in September 2003, and completed them in January 2004," Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said.
"The fuel break we put around Pine and Strawberry is 330 feet wide," he said.
While it doesn't guarantee the communities will be safe from forest fire, it's a big improvement.
"Nothing is absolute when it comes to wildfires," Roberts said. "But we know when things get huffing and puffing and blowing and a fire comes up to something like that it just tends to lay right down."
When two wildfires threatened the Pine-Strawberry area in the spring and summer, residents were fearful the fuel break might be put to an early test.
First it was the Webber Fire that began in late March and was doused with the help of a steady rain five days later after topping out at 4,311 acres.
Fortunately the fire, named because it started near Webber Creek, moved toward the Mogollon Rim instead of the Pine-Strawberry area. But the Webber Fire was only a prelude to what would follow in late June.
While the Willow Fire was actually much closer to Payson than it was to Pine-Strawberry, it was the latter communities that were more at risk. But firefighters drew a line and stood their ground at the East Verde River, and were able to hold it.
The fire reached 119,500 acres before it was finally contained on July 19.
Less than a month later, Pine residents learned they would be paying more for water when the Arizona Corporation Commission granted Pine Water Company, a subsidiary of Brooke Utilities, a rate increase of 8.1 percent in the winter and 33.1 percent in the summer. The average customer, using 3,269 gallons of water a month in the summer saw an increase from $29.56 to $39.33 a month.
The decision also addressed a water loss rate of 12.6 percent, which Commissioner Mike Gleason called "unacceptable," and the company's history of inconsistent customer service. The company was also instructed to "participate in all appropriate efforts to discover and implement a regional approach to solving water shortage problems in the Payson/Pine/Strawberry area."
But one of the solutions generated by that regional approach -- a new source of water for northern Gila County from Blue Ridge Reservoir -- apparently won't do the residents of Pine and Strawberry much good. The cost of getting it to the two communities would be prohibitive according to most experts.
Commissioner Bill Mundell characterized Pine's water woes as the worst the commission has had to deal with. In December, the corporation commission staff reinforced the point by issuing a report calling for a moratorium on new hookups in the areas serviced by Pine Water Company.
"Staff has determined that the Pine Water's 19-well production source could adequately serve up to 555 service connections during the peak month," the report said. "During the peak month, Pine Water had 1,992 active accounts, consisting of 1,752 accounts that used water and 240 accounts that did not use water."
As of press time the involved parties, including Gila County, were attempting to work out a compromise that would allow a minimum number of new hookups. Mitchell, for one, is hoping they're successful.
"The moratorium wouldn't be good for anybody, anywhere -- it never is," she said.
Rather, Mitchell pointed to the positives in the two communities. Not only has the fire danger been reduced, but so has the devastation wreaked by bark beetles.
The tiny creatures, about the size of a match head, have ravaged the Rim country, and especially the Pine-Strawberry area in recent years, killing literally thousands of drought-stressed ponderosa pine trees.
But above-average precipitation in 2004 and an especially wet winter has residents hopeful that the worst might be over.
"With all the moisture, they've really subsided," Mitchell said. "You're not seeing it like you did a few years ago."
For Mitchell it's the people, not the bugs, that make Pine and Strawberry a special to live.
"We have a great historical society and all kinds of small organizations like the beautification group that's working to make Payson look nice by putting out benches," she said. "They also landscaped in front of the post office. They're trying to improve the community by making it look nice. Then there's the old Strawberry Schoolhouse (the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona)."
Pine and Strawberry continue to lure summer visitors with a charming and growing collection of art galleries, antique shops, old farm houses, and specialty tours. But Mitchell loves living here year-round.
"It's not just in the summertime," she said. "There's always something going on for people to enjoy."
Ask her why she has lived in the Pine-Strawberry area for over a quarter of a century -- through good times and bad -- and Mitchell paints a vivid portrait of small town life in America.
"It's the quaintness of the communities, the beauty of it all, and the way we're surrounded by the forest," she said. "We'll never become a large city; we're just a nice small bedroom community of people who like solitude and quiet. Yet it's convenient to everything and there are plenty of things to do. It's just a place where people enjoy living."