Searching for Paradise in the High Desert of Northern Arizona

“Northern Arizona?!?!  Why in the world would you want to live in the desert without any water?”  This was my Dad’s response when I told him we were going to Northern Arizona to look at land in May of 2014.Flowering cactus near St. John's AZ

This trip was a first for Carrie and I in many ways.  It was our first time away from our Daughter who was 4 years old.  It was our first flight.  It was our first time west of the Midwest.  It was a quick and enjoyable trip, but it was for all intents and purposes, a business trip.

After flying from Akron Canton into Phoenix, by way of Atlanta, we were already drained having been up for 12 hours. We then had a 3 hour drive ahead of us to see our first properties in Heber-Overgaard, AZ that same day.

The drive was interesting. Starting in the low hot desert we saw the majestic Saguaro cactus, to myriad yellow flowering shrubs on the ascent up the Mogollon Rim, to the soaring tall pines up on the rim, and finally the juniper and pinon, and sage brush scrub landscapes of the high desert.  It was in the high desert regions where our would-be home awaited.

Because of a flight delay and the time needed t     o get our rental car, we were late to our first stop.  Instead of seeing upwards of 1 dozen 40 acre properties all along a 60+ mile stretch, we were limited to several properties in the Heber-Overgaard area.  The properties were rough and rustic about 20 minutes off of pavement and an hour or more in either direction on the highway to a town of much size. The road back to the properties wound through the tall pines opening into the junipers.  We drove through an erie stretch that was some time ago ravaged by wildfire. Burnt tree trunks lied here and there and stuck up like dark totem poles in spots.  We met the realtor at a community water well. There were people living out there in the remote area, but scattered.  Rustic and rough accommodations were seen on neighboring properties, all off grid.  Power was by solar, wind, or propane.  The water co-op allowed the neighbors to fill their water tanks for domestic purposes only, but you could drill a well if you please.  Despite only 12 inches of rain annually, groundwater in that part of the state is in fact, abundant!  None of these properties captured our imagination, but the man that showed us around gave us the assurance that this could be done.  He and his wife had lived in that neighborhood for 20 years!  He let us know that living in the high desert was tough but rewarding!

From there, we drove the hour to Show Low, AZ, a town literally won in a card game by the luck of the draw.  It had a nice new and updated  feel to it but with an old west heart.  It existed where the tall pines met the blue green juniper forest.  The vistas were beautiful with red mesas and ridges dotting the landscape to the west and north and the White Mountains to the east and south.  The next day we spent almost all day visiting properties from scrub land to land heavily treed with 20 foot tall junipers to those in between.   The landscape feature called a “wash” were abundant.  These are small canyons carved by ephemeral rivers. The rivers run for several hours to a day after the heavy downpours they call Monsoons. The erosive power of water was evident everywhere!  This part of the state averages about 12 inches of rain annually, most of it in the summer months of July and August.  My mind raced with water harvesting techniques that might green each property we visited.

Juniper Vista near Snowflake, AZ

One property had two of these “washes” that cut off the corners of the property as the water would come down the side of a nearby mesa.  Gabions or Check Dams could possibly have helped us to harvest and utilize the water that would rush through these streams. In the opposite direction you could see the White Mountains off in the distance.  This is the property to this day I feel like “the one that got away!”  Forty acres for only $12,500!  The major drawback was that it was about a 45 minute rough ride on a pitted unmaintained dirt road just to get back to pavement and then another 15 minutes to the modest sized towns of either Show Low or Snow Flake.  It was the remoteness that most concerned Carrie more so than me.  Despite being remote, it had permanent residences on either side. Junipers and Buttes beyond, Near Show Low, AZ

As much of the land is bare amongst the patches of buffalo grass and sagebrush, many attractive rock specimens could easily be found right on the surface!   We found small pieces of petrified wood on private land many miles from the Petrified Forest National Park!  We collected a handful of various colored and shaped rocks to take home to our daughter who loves collecting rocks!

The next day we drove out to the far eastern edge of the state, Saint John’s, AZ.  We were shown a single property, but it’s view was spectacular!  The property was ringed by buttes with a glowing red mesa about a mile away.  Between a large gap in the nearby mountains and buttes, you could see views about 50 miles in the distance across open range on toward the painted desert!  The picture above may be of this, but it dose not do justice to what it is like in person. This property had a Homeowners Association (HOA) for maintaining the roads to make it easy to get back to the small berg of St. John’s only about 15 minutes away.  St. John’s was rather small and so remote we decided to pass at that time.

The remainder of the day we traveled north 90 minutes to the Petrified Forest, stopping out front to visit the amazing visitors shop with myriad polished pieces and entire logs of petrified wood available for purchase!  From there, we drove a couple more hours by the famed Meteor Crater near that famous corner in Winslow, Arizona.  We stopped and hiked at Walnut Creek Canyon outside of Flagstaff.  Here, Cliff dwellers lived in the canyon walls.  It was so different than what I had thought of as Arizona before my trip!  It was cool, and moist with an abundance of plant life!  No wonder the natives had made this home so many centuries ago!

Cliff Dwelling in Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, AZ

From there, it was on to Williams, AZ, “The Gateway  to the Grand Canyon”.  We loved this little town!  Is it a tourist trap?  Of course!  But it had charming little shops and restaurants that played on it’s Route 66 past.  One of our favorite parts of our trip was getting up early and seeing the sunrise over Bill Williams Mountain looking right down Route 66! Sunrise down Route 66, Williams, AZ

We had one more very remote property to visit that day half way between Williams and the Grand Canyon.  It was a nice property; however, in addition to being remote, the groundwater in this area of the state is nonexistent!  You must truck in all water, or as I would have tried, harvest it from your roof tops and the land!  This was a determining factor in not pursuing this piece.

From there, we made it up to the Grand Canyon!  To look upon this site, the mind can not immediately comprehend what it is seeing!  It is like a tapestry as far as your eyes can see in all directions at once! To add to the surrealness, it was lightly snowing this day of May 12, 2014 there at the Grand Canyon.  It was barely flurrying on the south rim that day, but across to the north, you could see the snow accumulating as it is higher in elevation!Snow falls gently across the Grand Canyon

They say Northern Arizona has 4 gentle seasons, and I think we saw all 4 in our brief visit!  I wish we had more time to spend there, but we had to drive straight through 5 hours south to Phoenix to get a short night’s sleep before flying home. We made a single stop to see the sunset at Sunset View rest area.  Our timing was impeccable!

Arizona Sunset, Sunset Point Rest Area, AZArizona Sunset, Sunset Point Rest Area, AZ

The people we met in Northern Arizona were all so very nice!  There was however an interesting political undercurrent to the conversations with the realtors in particular.  A definite Libertarian vibe given off:  a hatred for any and all rules, regulations, taxes, and the government.  I found it fascinating how in the span of 2 minutes you would be told how great it is to be able to live off grid with solar and wind power out there in the high desert and then hear disparaging words about the power company’s wind mills barely viewable in the distance and that coal power is being killed by the President, and he was going to take all of our guns away too.  We heard some pretty crazy conspiracy theories beyond this too.

Another new aspect for us:  “Open Range” laws.  What a foreign concept to us Ohioans!  The properties were all 40 acres, so the perimeter was 1 mile.  Because of Open Range laws, we would need to fence in the property or else cattle could graze on it at will!  If the cattle destroys our gardens, trees, whatever… It is our problem.   Fencing the entire perimeter we were told would cost almost as much as a few of the properties we were shown!  Someone told us that killing someone else’s cow is nearly as bad as murdering a person!  Also, if we wanted to graze any cattle, we would need at least 100 acres for a single cow calf pair each month!  I wondered, would be true with permaculture principles being used? I would like to challenge it and find out!

Being out there in the high desert did speak to a different era in history, and a different mindset of total liberation, self reliance, and freedom.  The vast distance from family, starting from scratch, limited rainfall, and the remoteness all are obstacles that we must consider if we do decide to give living in the High Desert a try.  Did I mention rattle snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas…  But the thought of greening the desert, creating an oasis, this is the challenge that excites my imagination.

“Freedom lies in being bold.” – Robert Frost

2 thoughts on “Searching for Paradise in the High Desert of Northern Arizona

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