Driving south out of Payson on Highway 87 my imagination goes into overdrive. Each place we pass brings to mind stories of people and events: Ox Bow Hill, the Sam Haught and Chilson ranches, Rye Creek, Deer Creek, Mazatzal Mountains, Sunflower. So it goes all the way to Phoenix. Any other direction stimulates more images: west to Pine, Strawberry, Fossil Creek; north to the Rim, Crook Military Road, Happy Jack, Mormon Lake; east to Little Green Valley, Tonto Creek, Kohl’s Ranch, Christopher Creek, Gordon Canyon… and we haven’t yet climbed the Rim to Woods Canyon Lake, Forest Lakes, Heber, Show Low, on and on.
The names carry with them fascinating stories, and in this series of essays I plan to explore a number of Rim Country places. Of course, in our fast-paced society, places are less important than schedules and calendar dates. If a passenger in a car is focused on an iPod or texting friends, no way is he or she going to be captivated by the passing landmarks.
We might take a lesson from the Native Americans who occupied the Rim Country before the “White invasion.” For them, the names of places carried much importance. Places set the boundaries of territories, marked the birthplaces of clans, and located the sacred homes of the Mountain Spirits. More than that, events that happened in those places taught vital lessons and held the moral code of the clan. In other words, places for the Apache and Yavapai were their bible. Their complex languages of special sounds and short syllables could communicate a shorthand version of an entire story that happened there.
Here is an example. The name for a certain hill was “The place where the rattlesnake took revenge.” This name was associated with the story of a boy who disobeyed his parents, an event described in vivid detail by uncles to nephews or grandmothers to daughters while sitting around the campfire or while grinding corn. The story went on to include the consequences of the boy’s disobedience. The disobedient lad was struck by a rattlesnake at this place. He collapsed and died on that hill, unable to drag himself home or seek out a medicine man for help. This was the justice inflicted by the Spirits to bring the moral order back into balance.
After the story was told, the hearers never forgot the lesson, Every time they passed that hill the name of it recalled the story and its lesson. Or when a parent perceived disrespect from a son or daughter, she could simply say the name of the hill, “The hillside where the rattlesnake takes revenge.” The Apache syllables are fewer than needed to say it in English. The boy or girl would then have received the warning.
When we settled our couple of acres along the upper waters of the East Verde River in 1963, we built a cabin that became “home base” for our children and our grandchildren over the next 30 years. In seeking a name for the place, our hearts were fixed on a mountain we had seen in Colorado named “Oh Be Joyful.” That became the place name of our cabin and over the decades the name became steeped with the lore of family experiences. To this day the mention of “Oh Be Joyful” warms the hearts and fires the memories of our family members.
Every family has traditions and lessons that are carried by stories and passed on from generation to generation. In addition to the isolated act of reading or writing a book, we have oral histories that live in those stories. My grandfather used to heap several teaspoons of sugar into his coffee, and when it was suggested that might not be healthy his reply was, “If one’s good, two’s better.” That saying brings back visions of my grandfather, and all the lessons that he used to teach — most of them more worthy than “two’s better.” We lived at my grandparents’ house during the Depression when my dad was out of work, and they had a Swedish maid who used to say, “You’ve got to take the bitter with the better.” It’s a bit of wisdom that stayed with us as a family saying, but every time I hear it I can almost smell the delicious odors of my grandmother’s kitchen.
So perhaps we are not that far from the culture of the Apaches after all, where our history is carried in stories and when they are repeated they bring the past into the present. The storyteller gives speech to the mysterious presence of the ancestors, the experiences they had, and the lessons they learned. It is also true, that over the years of telling these stories, fact is not as important as truth. Truth is measured by the moral lesson embodied in the story.
So it is with the places of the Rim Country. You who live here or visit here or vacation here are immersed in the echoes of voices and events associated with about every place in sight. However, only those who know the story of a given place will hear those voices or understand those events. In this series articles I hope to add to the reader’s enjoyment by learning where a place got its name and what events happened there. My plan is to go alphabetically, so next time we will visit THE APACHE TRAIL.