By 9:30 a.m. the rain started.
By 10 a.m., it hailed.
And then — it snowed and organizers called off the Lorraine Cline Poker Run, but I had made it out early and decided to finish come hail or high water.
Besides, I had driven the entire 44-mile dirt road on a beautiful early October day the previous year with a veteran guide and an extra spare tire. I thought, “No problem, I know what I’m doing.” I like adventures, so long as someone has a map and both a Plan A and a Plan B. I’ve never been much for striking off into the unknown.
Little did I know the flurries of snow, a muddy road and mystery tire tracks would lead me off on an adventure I never expected.
The day started early at the O – C (Oh Bar See) ranch in Tonto Basin owned by the Cline family.
Each year during the last weekend in April, the decedents of Lorraine Cline — Laci Sopeland and her mom Terri Cline — host a rollicking weekend of fun to honor Lorraine, who died from cancer and raise money for Rim Country residents suffering from cancer.
On Friday night, a deep-pit barbecue, silent and live auctions and drawing for a $14,000 ATV brought in thousands of dollars and ended up going late with toe-tapping dancing with the band, the Moonshine Mafia headed up by Laci’s husband Clay.
The next morning, about 300 ATVs lined the ranch’s roads to sign up to pick up playing cards at seven different stations along the 44-mile route to assemble a seven-card-draw poker hand — with the high hand winning a cash price collected from the entry fees. All the money raised will help local cancer patients and their families.
It was hard to believe that many of the off-road vehicles reside in Rim Country, but many came up from Phoenix to hang out with residents and friends who own vacation homes in the Basin.
During years when it does not rain, organizers say off-roaders end up caked with enough dust to start a small garden.
Yet this year, only a couple dozen of those hundreds of off-road vehicles made it onto the course, myself among them.
On the road by 9 a.m. clutching my blue card, I trundled up the road as the storm clouds gathered — determined to have an adventure no matter what.
The other riders decided to stay at the ranch, content to catch up with old friends, grab a breakfast burrito and cup of coffee, and chat before heading out. Seemed to me, the socializing was the whole point of the event to those folks.
The route snakes up the Sierra Ancha Mountains that serve as the eastern boundary to Tonto Basin on Forest Service roads. The environment changes from saguaro and cholla cactus to ponderosa pines and mountain meadows. Along the way, monsoon rains have carved enough gullies to make the route something only serious off-road vehicles can handle.
Despite the snow flurries, the Jeep’s soft top and heater kept the inside warm and dry, inspiring a surge of pity for the bundled-up ATV riders with their open tops huddled under layers of clothes topped off with rain ponchos.
As the rain started and the limestone clay on top of the mountain stuck to the tires in clumps, those bundled ATV riders sported ponchos spattered with mud and jaunty waves. Each time they passed, I shivered, thanking the Lord for my heater: I mean a girl’s gotta have standards.
As we jostled along the route, ruts started to form. Ever seen the consequences of off-road vehicles cruising through limestone mud? Not pretty. Tires can leave deep ruts that harden into cement berms once everything dries out.
I worried about the road with 300-plus ATVs carving it up, but the cancellation of the event saved the already battered road.
Just past the second card pickup spot, the cloud overtook me — white wispy fingers raced ahead of me and I laughed out loud at the novelty driving up into a cloud — a childhood fantasy that proved much colder than I’d imagined.
Soon the pitter-patter of rain turned to the pinging of hail. The road ahead turned completely white, while I gasped in delight.
After driving about 15 miles, I came up on the third card pickup station manned by longtime Tonto Basin resident John Dryer, his wife Carol and Mark and Sandy Ivey.
The four huddled under a flimsy tarp, badly underdressed. Doc Ivey shivered while he told stories with lips blue from the cold.
Then, an intrepid ATV rider in a drenched poncho pulled up to say he was one of the last riders released onto the course.
“I think they’ve shut down the race,” he said. A few more riders trickled in and Dryer told everyone to head back.
“But John, don’t you think we could make it the rest of the way? I mean we did it with you last time,” I said. In the fall when we went, we’d listed to a 45-degree angle to get around boulders exposed in the wash. Back then; I swore we would tip over — even on a dry road. The rain would make everything worse — but I just could not admit defeat and turn around.
John looked at me dubiously.
In that moment, I made my decision. “OK John, we’re going to finish the route. See you back at the ranch,” I gave him my famous last words.
I hopped into the Jeep and took off.
Shortly after leaving John, we trundled past a blue arrow hanging askew on a juniper.
“Is that the turn?” I wondered, but fresh tire tracks led me on straight and I did not remember the turn toward the DuPont cabin looking as it did on this rain and snow drenched day.
But the straightaway went on and on and on.
Five miles later obviously on the wrong road with the gas meter dripping and my nerves gangling, we hit a road sign: “Young, 8 miles.”
No way! I had wanted to visit Young for a long time, but had no idea you could get there from here. Note to self: Always stash a Forest Service map or two in the glove box.
I texted Laci, “Missed the turn, got lost, going to Young.”
Ironically, I’d met a young man at the Friday barbecue, who started his culinary career in Young at a historic restaurant called The Antlers. I told him it sounded like a lovely place to have lunch.
Eight miles later, we pulled into the Antlers parking lot — famished — just in the time for lunch. Inside wood stoves pumped out cozy heat and locals crowded the tables, bouncing babies and greeting friends.
I grabbed a basket full of fried mushrooms and a beer.
The sun broke through the clouds during lunch. The dirt roads leading in and out of town were dusted with snow, the sky skudded with clouds.
Topping the Rim to drive down 260 past Christopher Creek and into Payson, I tried to text Laci again, but to no avail. When I finally got reception again in Payson at 4 p.m., I found the message from John Dryer wondering whether we’d survived. I called him up to reassure him and tell him about the grand adventure. He laughed his booming laugh — trust a journalist to get lost and end up drinking beer by a wood-burning stove.
Those Tonto Basin folks just want to make sure everyone has a good time whether you follow the plan or not.