June 7, 2011

The End of the Road

This was a family vacation that could have ended in disaster. All the makings were there. But, luck, maybe God's grace, and a strong family will allow us to look back on those three days with good memories and even a laugh or two.

It all began with a coupon. Last December one of the services that e-mails me various deals each morning had something I couldn't pass up. It was for two nights at a cabin in one of our favorite spots for almost 60% off the regular price. About 5 hours driving time from Phoenix, the tiny town of Greer sits high up in the White Mountains of Arizona. It is usually at least 25 degrees cooler than home. There are a handful of restaurants, a few antique stores, forests, trout ponds, and more visible stars at night than any place else on earth. The discount was good for a cabin large enough for everyone, including the grandkids. I ordered the coupon and reserved the first weekend in June. Plans were made and we were looking forward to our first family getaway of the summer.



wmicentral.com
  On the 10th of May, my birthday, and less than a month before the trip, the historic Greer Lodge and restaurant burned to the ground. Built in 1948, the lodge was one of the best known resorts in all of Arizona. Within an hour or two, all that was left was a chimney and smoldering ashes.

Our reservations were not in that building but in one of the cabins next to the lodge. Naturally I assumed that our plans had gone up in flames, too. How could the owners possibly stay open after such a disaster? I waited a day and then placed a call. Amazingly, the cabins were untouched and operating without a hitch. Our trip was still on. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

The first morning began with a mini caravan of cars, loaded with food and supplies. In Payson, we all stopped for a bathroom break and breakfast. That was when I noticed a copy of the morning paper on a nearby table. The bold headlines were announcing a major, out of control, wildfire in eastern Arizona, not too far from our destination. I scanned the article but assumed it was nothing to worry about. Summertime in Arizona means forest fires. It is commonplace. We all piled back in the car and drove on.

taken by Betty Lowry on June 4th
About 2 hours from Greer I began to notice that the horizon was filling with smoke from an obviously large fire. The closer we got, the larger it became. As we turned on the road that leads to the town we noticed forest service trucks everywhere. While the main road was open, the side roads into the forest were all blocked by signs and police cars.

We continued on, finally reaching the town and the cabins. Several dozen other families were in the process of checking in or moving into their cabins. The clerks assured us we were safe and the fire was quite a distance away. Of course, the fenced-in remains of the lodge were sitting there as a stark reminder of the power of fire.

After a tremendous dinner at a local restaurant, some fun times around one of the trout ponds, and a few hours of card games, we turned in for the night. We weren't really worried about the fire; the smoke seemed to be dissipating. Plans were set for the next day.

At 12:20 in the morning there was loud pounding on the cabin's front door. I was instantly awake and opening the door to a fireman. He calmly informed me the fire was now only 8 miles away, out of control, and heading straight for us. We didn't have to evacuate yet, but we should start packing and be ready to go if he returned.

After about 20 seconds of deliberation, we decided not to wait for the second notice. In less than 30 minutes we had everything and everybody back in the cars and on our way.  I left the key in the door, the door propped open, and the porch light on so the police would know we had evacuated. Driving all night, we arrived home just before 6 AM, about 22 hours after we had left. Eventually we learned that all guests were evacuated safely and the resort shut down that same morning. 

Greer is literally at the end of the road. There is one way in and one way out through a forest, a forest that was on fire. Being trapped in a town in the middle of an out-of-control forest fire was not an option.


Later that day, the family decided to finish the vacation. A tent was set up inside my daughter & son-in-law's home for the kids to sleep in. We pretended to fish from the second floor balcony. The dinner and breakfast menu was kept intact and we dined on paper plates. We even fixed s'mores over the stove instead of a campfire. The grandkids had a fabulous time in both locations. The vacation was a success.

What could have been a disaster, or at the very least, a huge disappointment became a happy, memorable three days. The strength of family and the resilience of young children made it happen.

I just hope to never repeat the experience.

Weekend Update: as of Saturday afternoon, the main section of Greer has been spared. Unfortunately, two dozen homes on the outskirts of town were destroyed, along with several outbuildings and storage sheds. The fire fighters have done a heroic job of keeping the fires from racing down the center of Greer.

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14 comments:

  1. OMG! That's awful. Glad you're safe and you made the best of it.

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  2. Thanks Morrison,

    Yes we are quite lucky it turned into a positive. I wonder if we were the last group of people to experience the beauty of Greer. It will take the forest at least a decade to come back and a generation to be what it once was.

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  3. Well, naturally, I was distressed by the first part of your story, but I so loved the end. You must have a most remarkable family. How creative and flexible to continue the camping trip at home! I know you must feel like a lucky guy.

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  4. Hi Galen,

    The grandkids never missed a beat, seeing the entire experience as a fun family vacation interrupted by an overnight car ride.

    Yes, I am a very lucky guy.

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  5. And now you know why our family left an amazing house in Flagstaff and moved to Kansas. Tornados are normal here- but I could not do one more year of evacuation to Phoenix :>( In the seven years we lived in our two story log home- that opened to the peaks, we were evacuated nine times!

    I am SOOO sad to hear about the Payson area- I went to scout camp there. Your solution was an excellent one! I am praying the winds calm and the fires slow down.

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  6. Hi JBO,

    The Payson area is not affected. That is where I first saw a report about the fire in the newspaper. But the fire is at least 150 miles east of Payson and moving northeast.

    We owned a cabin for several years east of Payson near where the original Zane Grey cabin was located. During the huge Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 our cabin was within half a mile of the final fire line. We sold it shortly thereafter after getting tired of worrying every summer that it would burn up.

    Forest fires are about the only natural disaster Arizona faces. But, with so much of the state forested (no it isn't all desert!) this happens virtually every year.

    Still, I couldn't handle the destructive power of a tornado. At least with a forest fire you have hours or days to get out of the way. With a tornado you may have seconds.

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  7. Oh my gosh! Good you left when you did. And congratulations for making the most of the situation and showing your grandkids a fun time. Some years back, my wife, Wendy, did a 60 mile horse ride in and around Springerville, Arizona. As I understand, that town too has been evacuated. We wish the best for the residents of Arizona’s beautiful high country. Bill

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  8. Good Evening Bill,

    Yes, as of this evening the fire fighters have been pulled out of Greer, pretty much dooming it. There has been a total evacuation of Eagar and Springerville. There is still zero containment.

    This is the part of the state desert dwellers escape to in the summer. This is a disaster for the entire state, and now parts of New Mexico.

    We may have been the last visitors to this glorious little town.

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  9. I am so happy you didn't get "trapped" and I cannot believe the resort stayed open despite the lodge part burning down. Wasn't that where the reception area for the hotel was located?
    Anyway, what a great idea to put tents up in the hose. Everyone will talk about this vacation forever.

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  10. Sonia,

    The main lodge had the primary restaurant and public spaces. Now, arson is being cited as the cause of that May 10th fire.

    There are about 50 cabins around the lodge that weren't harmed in that fire, and so far are still standing.

    Yes, the entire experience will be a family memory forever.

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  11. Not at all familiar with Arizona (You say it's not all desert?), and have no knowledge of the currently endangered high country forests or resort areas. Can however feel your anxiety about perhaps losing these special comfortable places.

    In the June 4th photo, your loved one has captured a good visual description of the over scale and starkly out-of-place event. Pray healing renewal for the areas burned, safety for the firefighters, and responsible remorse from perpetrators of this type of arson

    ..

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  12. QwkDrw,

    Apparently the entire event, now burning an area larger than Rhode Island, was started by an unattended campfire. The stupidity of some people is beyond belief.

    The last news is encouraging. The fire is about 10% contained, the winds have died down, and the towns of Greer, Eagar, and Springerville have escaped major damage. A few dozen homes were destroyed but it could have been much, much worse.

    The popular image of Arizona is unending sand dunes and desert, cactus, and a steady stream of people pouring across the border with Mexico. While that image sells, it isn't true.

    I'll pass on your kind words about Betty's photo.

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  13. Bob,
    That makes the news of the big fire more real. It's just an interesting event from far away with none of the drama and tragedy of the real thing. It may not have been the vacation of your dreams but I bet that no one in your family will ever forget it.

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  14. Good morning, Ralph,

    You are absolutely right. This one 22 hour trip will be a "vacation" and experience that will become part of family lore. The grandkids are probably too young to remember it long term, but their parents and Aunt will keep the story alive...and probably embellish it a bit as the years go bye!

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