Hanging with the Ghost of Al Capone

Ten miles southeast of Camp Verde –known in recollection only as a gas depot off a major highway- we hit mud. The clay in the ground had the patience of a potter shaping a ceramic disk around our wheels. For two hours we toiled up a gradual hill, and then began a gradual descent as chunks of mud hit teeth, tiny pebbles or sharp stones bombard chest all the way to the flats. And the Flats ride as though you were still climbing, and eventually I catch up to Jacob who is standing his bike up with one hand and thrusting his fingers at the large accumulation of mud between his brake mounts and rims. His tire won’t move at all, and he ceases work momentarily to vent his frustrations. Just as I’m about to leave on account of his heavy complaints he gestures to a car completely stuck in the mud, ditched by its owner on the wayside. The sun was near about finishing up its work with this chunk of horizon, usually we find camp by dark yet I had an unusual ambition to reach a most intriguing destination. It was also the first instance in nearly three and a half months of the temperature not plummeting exponentially with each minute past sundown; it was a pleasant motivation factor driving us to be a little more audacious in night riding. In another six miles we were supposed to hit the Verde River hot springs, where one could rub shoulders with the ghost of a most notorious gangster. Al Capone, and perhaps a whole entourage of depression era hipsters, used to hang out and bathe at a resort built around the Verde River hot springs. As always, going was much tougher than then mileage would have us predict; a real ‘workout’ of a climb for three miles culminating in a near vertical drop of some fifteen hundred feet. All the while spinning out of control down the descent in pitch darkness I couldn’t help but dread the insanely steep climb in store for me in the morning. Toward the end of hill I caught sight of a sign with my headlamp: ‘Absolutely no Nudity’. Then I saw lights, heard faint music emanating from the bottom of the river valley; the possibility that someone down there might actually take that posted rule seriously nearly eclipsed my dreams of having a soothing evening in the mineral baths.

In front of an ancient hydro-electric power station we set up camp, and ferociously ate a pot of oatmeal. Some campers nearby informed us that the springs were a bit difficult to find, especially at night, and that it would be better to wait for another camper –who was planning on making the trip shortly- to lead the way. The man and his frisky dog arrived at our camp and immediately began wearing our ears down to stubble with his rants. He must have been infatuated with the sound of his own voice because he rarely paused long enough to imply a desire for a response. A brief river crossing was required to make it to the hot springs. Our guide carried his dog across the cold water –a soggy dog would be an unpleasant cuddle buddy in a small tent. Of course it was a futile effort, as soon as we arrived at the pools the dog jumped right into the water; a fine layer of dog hair floated on the surface of the lukewarm pool (98 degrees). The second pool was a blissful hundred and five degrees plus. Unfortunately the hot pool was blocked off from view of the moon rising above the mountains by walls covered with graffiti. Concrete foundations of the old resort still commanded walkways around the pools, and two towering palm trees imparted their malady of tropical invasiveness. Long after everyone else had made the trek back to camp, I remained soaking my bones, hypnotized by the pale moon light that had finally ascended above the reach of the graffiti covered walls. Luckily I refrained from passing out right there in the pool, although it was a most tempting crash pad.

We were trying to shoot for the town of Payson the next day, some fifty miles away. In just two days time we had an appointment to meet a friend from Flagstaff at the trailhead leading to Four Peaks –some hundred and twenty miles away. In parting, our guide from the night before informed us that it was all uphill to the town of Strawberry. It was encouraging news considering the dirt trails were still soggy with mud. We climbed the steep switchbacks that we had breezed down the night before. Then there was a short flat section where we might as well have been climbing with the resistance of the mud. Then there was a fifteen mile hill where one could see the switchbacks wind up nearly four thousand feet above… an infinite maze of cuts angled into the mountain side. Around mile eight I set into my lowest gear and spun my legs just fast enough to keep my speedometer from falling asleep. I had been biking the entire day without any shirt or socks, but when I crested the summit of the hill the sun was already dropping low, the temperature fell with it, and the road (once again) returned to snow pack. Already I missed the warm weather spell.

Strawberry has but one attraction: a small inn/restraint that sits betwixt two highways. While waiting for my touring buddies to arrive I sat outside and shivered, trying to savor –what I mistakenly believed to be- the last of our cold weather. It was all you can eat Fish Fry night at the Strawberry Inn, much to our delight. Two different fires were blazing in the restaurant, yet the room was still in the frigid grip of Al Capone’s flesh deprived spirit fist. We ordered hot coffee and all you can eat fish plates. After plate number three was set down, the waitress’s pace reduced to that of a gang-banger suffering a minor flesh wound, slowly losing consciousness. At plate number six, the waitress non-apologetically told us she was clean out of fish. Well this information did not go over well at all. Starving and emaciated, we were in right mood to cause riot over the indecency of the situation. Luckily some nice folks from a town even smaller than Strawberry invited us to spend the night at there home. The lady of the house expressed unreserved enthusiasm, while the husband requested a peep at Jacob’s driver’s license (not without a sense of humor). We made poor mileage that day, yet we managed to climb well over four thousand feet in twenty five miles. Our rendezvous at the Four Peaks would just have to wait.

The next day we breezed through Payson and arrived in the town of Rye just in time for happy hour. Rye consisted mainly of an unattractive bar, yet there was a wonderfully back woods creep heap of a junkyard piled high with all kinds of weird pedal bikes and motor bikes. It was a museum as much as a junkyard, and had on display Big wheel tall bikes, two wheel drive dirt bikes, a tandem fixed gear, exercise bikes from the 60’s, tricycles, an antique rickshaw, a shiny recumbent with a CD Radio among all kinds of bright front and rear lights and running lights along the frame among thousands more mesmerizing contraptions. Jacob was looking a little too closely at a cruiser bike with stick-shift like gear throttle when the owner of the place emerged from a rusty pile of steel and nearly wrung his neck limp.

“Don’t you be touchin any of that� says an older man with a long mane of graying hair blending into a flowing white beard.
“I was just looking�. Jacob defends himself.

“Well if you were just looking, than there’d be no need for your hands to moseying so close to the bike.� He fumes out his agitation, and seems like he’ll be quick in cooling down a bit, but suddenly he burst out in fumes once more. “Some guy was over here two days ago and broke the accelerator to one of my motorcycles. He wouldn’t take any responsibility for his actions and I was about ready to break his fingers.�

A good majority of the stuff in his yard looked decrepit and ready to shatter at the shrill cry of a baby, but we weren’t ready to argue with the man. He calmed down once we started asking him questions on the origins of his collection. The man had been collecting parts and buying up whole bike stores for many years; he most likely had a monopoly on the trade for miles around. He offered Goat a job doing handy mechanic work; I was a bit relieved when Goat just laughed off the suggestion, it seemed he had very likely leaped right off the last peak of purgatory with excitement over the endless possibilities of freak bike production.

We lay about and napped a bit in front of Rye’s bar, and by and by some old jolly man, shaped like St. Nick came and grilled us about our bikes. He was accompanied by a much skinnier man wearing glasses and sporting mutton shops of very sparse but very long hair. Our new acquaintance let it be known that his name was ‘Bear’, and that he was into collecting, shaping and selling gem stones. I could tell that his skinny friend John was eyeing my Gun case with interest. I cracked open the case and brought out my guitar much to his delight –it was good for the rest of us as well because Bear wouldn’t stop jabbering away about various disconnected thoughts like our trip, the merciless landscape, about the recent loss of his driver’s license. John picked up the guitar and picked away at some blues standards. He tried teaching me some different tunings; showed me what was proper for slide guitar, and told me about some new folk musicians to check out. I must have been spacing out on account of the good music because suddenly some thin old lady was standing right next to me making small talk with John.

“That wouldn’t be rock music you’re playing there.� She looked disgusted at having had to pronounce the word ‘rock’. “Ain’t none of that is worth listening to, its all just noise, plain and simple.�

John just kept on strumming and said real calm, “Well I admit most of what’s being played on radio and what’s mainstream isn’t even decent, but you can easily pick out some good stuff�.

“No it’s all bad. You can’t even dance to that noise.� She turns to me and asks: “Can you actually admit to feeling like dancing to that rock and roll?�

“Well, I…â€� didn’t know exactly how not to offend her but still keep her engaged on this eccentric rant. “Yeah, I can easily dance to Rock, and do so on a regular basis.â€�

“Yeah, and what do you do… the chicken hobble.� She brought her wrists to her breast and waved her arms like a chicken, trying to make me feel the absurdity of Rock dancing. “The only music worth dancing to is good ole’ country music. But not the country music you hear on the radio. Boy, whenever I find myself in a place where there’s music I don’t care to hear, I stick plugs in my ear; I carry them around with me wherever I go.�

I tried to get her to explain what style of country she listened to, but received no satisfying answer. She had a face that exuded a character like out of a Mark twain novel; I signaled to Goat to get my camera out’a my bag on the sly. Right as I was about to take a candid shot, the old lady started to take off.

“Wait, I would really like to have just a photograph of this moment.� I tried coaxing her to stay. “My memory’s horrid, and I just think this a moment’s something special.�

“Sorry sonny, I don’t do photos.� She patted my shoulder and looked all too scared that I might snap a shot on the sly. “Might have the F.B.I after me for all I know.� She was off already down the dirt road.

The big man ‘Bear’ bestowed upon each of us a smoky quartz necklace before we took off. Apparently they were stones possessing special powers dealing with friendships and the like. That night we climbed the snowy slopes of the Four Peaks with Ryan, our Flagstaff friend, and slept out in view of the sprawling mass of Phoenix, glowing with its eerie urban energy.

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