My idea of heaven is pretty simple. I just need an open road, my dog Luna and a camera.
With no schedule in mind, we set off Sunday morning to drive the Apache Trail and see if the wildflowers had made their way north yet.
Ever since I was a young child, taking photographs has been meditation for me. Apart from Luna, I love to travel alone as most people can’t tolerate the number of times I pull over to photograph something that catches my eye.
A case in point: a bald eagle perched atop a saguaro as we rounded a curve past Tonto Basin toward Roosevelt Lake bridge.
I pulled over, crammed my long lens on my camera and climbed out of the truck to find he was gone. As I stood on the side of the road, he circled around, flew above me and disappeared again.
I guess this is why wildlife photographers spend their days hidden in a blind waiting for the perfect shot — quick dives off the roadway are seldom productive.
Back on the road, we stopped at the last rest area before the start of the Apache Trail near the dam. My eye caught movement and there was the eagle again flying overhead. A sliver of the new moon rising in the east.
He flew off before I could photograph him, again.
I realized this eagle was teasing me.
Near the dam there were only a few small patches of green, yellow daisies, purplehead and cobalt desert lupins.
I knew I would have to continue on if I wanted to photograph something that day.
The Apache Trail snakes along the Salt River past Apache and Canyon lakes, through Tortilla Flat and on to Apache Junction.
It takes about four and a half hours to run a 164-mile loop from Payson — if you don’t stop for photos.
It takes me that long just to drive to Apache Lake and back.
The dirt road was well-graded and smooth initially, but the road got more rutted as we got closer to Apache Lake. I was surprised by the number of motorcyclists on the road as well as luxury vehicles.
Luna and I were in my faithful 20-year-old Chevy truck, built for such adventures, but even so, the road rattled our bones. Luna was a champ, having matured past her young puppy days of jumping around.
The water looked deep blue in the canyon, shifting to shimmering silver in the distance.
When I lived in England as a child, I never understood why my friends from Phoenix would deliberately stand out in the rain. Then I moved to Scottsdale and later Payson and got it. The rain is a gift, giving us lakes like this and wildflowers.
A few brave lupins and isolated poppies were blooming on the side of the road. Prickly pear cacti were still several weeks from producing their colorful blooms. Still, the views were spectacular on this sunny day.
Standing on the side of the road in the sun, listening to the birds, I felt my heart fill with gratitude. It is a luxury to have the time for trips like this.
There’s a small beach with the unlikely name of Chunk Beach where I like to stop. It’s a good place for a picnic or a swim on warmer days. I watched as a woman relaxed in a yellow deck chair, a small boat pulled up at the shore.
We continued driving.
The road climbed with breathtaking views unfolding around every corner.
At my favorite viewpoint, across the river from Buckhorn Creek, there is a tall hill to climb. Here I found the first real patches of poppies and lupins. I climbed up the loose rock and had a panoramic view of the Salt River and the trail as far as the eye could see.
Several ring-billed gulls silently flew beneath the viewpoint. An expansive sense of freedom returned as I drank in the clean air.
It’s easy to forget how beautiful the Arizona countryside is going about our daily lives and staring at computer screens.
A white butterfly floated by.
After several viewpoints, there is an access road to Three Mile Wash, then Forest Road 183 leads to Burn Corral Creek and a campground along the river. The road then moves inland in a series of curves and switchbacks.
By now the rutted road was wearing at my nerves and, with an absence of flowers and water views, I contemplated turning around. I had decided to reach Apache Lake and pushed on.
We were not disappointed. Before the next river access, at Davis Wash, I stumbled on a riotous hillside of yellow-orange poppies.
The Apache Lake viewpoint proved to be the prize. A blanket of poppies with the canyon and lake as the backdrop. It was hot, but this made it all worth it. We both got out and roamed around among the poppies — of course I took photos.
The views home weren’t bad either. I looked up and saw a juvenile bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk swooping around each other.
I won’t say how many photos I took on that drive. I will say that for a late afternoon Sunday adventure, it was more than enough to fill a book. I plan to drive the whole loop, going through Globe and back to Payson, when the wildflowers pop later this spring.
Maybe I will strap a small camera to Luna’s collar and see what shots she gets.