I can tell you about the geology at Red Creek – grain by grain. I flew here with a shovel and spent the afternoon filling pot holes. A small but growing arroyo had to be directed away from the narrow dirt track. Two-hundred-pound basalt molars needed to be extracted before they erupted any farther above surface. I shoveled boatloads of pea gravel that had broken down from the surrounding granite hills – pink feldspar, white quartz, black amphibole. Now my back hurts.
It felt right to work up a sweat; it’s wise to cache a little karma when flying in and out of Red Creek. The strip begins abruptly at the top of a forty-foot cliff. Saguaros guard the left side, and a raggedy wind sock luffs on the right. Mesquite and prickly pear cactus line the shoulders. A drop-off wash marks the end. I always drag the strip before landing, checking for washouts or rocks that the tooth fairy hasn’t uprooted. But one shouldn’t be too picky about where on the strip to set down; there are only fourteen hundred feet to choose from.
I can’t remember my first trip to Red Creek. My logbooks say the Buzzard and I have been here seventy-seven times. Not surprising, I suppose, since it lies along the line of retreat from business in gritty Phoenix to my home in Flagstaff. How many times have I landed, chocked the wheels, and hiked the half mile down to the creek’s confluence with the Verde River? Well, apparently about seventy-seven.
The Verde is an anomaly among Arizona rivers: it actually has water. This stretch lies within the Mazatzal Wilderness, a quarter-million acres that were wisely set aside before World War II. I was ecstatic one day to discover river otter tracks in wet sand at the confluence. My friend Boyce, having recently been repatriated from Florida, was enthralled to swim in clear running water without alligators. Ten miles below Red Creek, there are two dams on the Verde before it joins the Salt River, but no dams upstream. Not broken to the plow, the Verde can still mount an impressive flood – a hundred thousand cubic feet a second and more every few years. As a result its banks are periodically scoured and rejuvenated. Within the wilderness, the Verde sports a robust riparian habitat of willow, cottonwood, and sycamore, but as the river slows above the dams, its banks are immediately inundated by non-native tamarisks.
You won’t find the Red Creek strip on your sectional, though I was surprised to spot it on a different kind of chart. An out-dated Forest Service map shows a slim non-wilderness corridor leading down from a ranch that lies seven or eight miles up the creek. The corridor, grandfathered in years ago at the insistence of cowboys, ends above the Verde at an old corral and, fortunately, at this strip. The map said ‘Landing Strip’, so this must be the place. Otherwise Red Creek International only exists within the FAA’s consciousness because airplanes manage to crash here so often.
Last time I landed, a cute little homebuilt sat on the sidelines, its nosewheel cocked at a decidedly un-airworthy angle. Somebody, I’m told, recently drove his Skywagon off the edge of the strip while trying to take off, chewing through a mesquite tree and totaling the plane. My friend Randy groundlooped his Kitfox, patched the broken strut with duct tape, and flew it to Cottonwood. Mark bled off runway faster than airspeed while trying to land, and gently nosed his Skywagon’s propellor into the dirt just before he would have sailed into that dry wash at the end. Mike hit a gopher hole and snapped the nosewheel off his 182. He managed to get out of the plane but ran out of fire extinguisher before his tanks ran out of gas. After the fire cooled down, he took the melted remains of his Skylane home in a small plastic box. I didn’t know the man who tried to land here a couple of years ago on Father’s Day with a friend and two sons. Someone on the ground heard their 180’s engine cough and die before they crashed into that hill across the creek. Maybe they hadn’t richened the mixture? No one could answer.
So why risk coming to Red Creek? Why not land on the paved runway back at Deer Valley for that $100 $200 hamburger? The airplane has always helped me get somewhere that most people don’t go on their own: the sky. But the plane can also get into places on the ground where most people would never venture. Red Creek is such a place. The fact that my palms get a little sweaty on short final just adds to the interest. And if the wind happens to be blowing from the north–a quartering tailwind–the experience is even more poignant. Let’s face it: some of us are cursed with that damned DRD4-7R adventure gene.
Red Creek and the Verde lie at the heart of Arizona’s Transition Zone with nearby mountains jostling each other like loose-cannon icebergs on a storm-shredded sea. Ghosts of the long vanished Sinagua cling to pueblo ruins all along the river banks. Every spring the Sonoran Desert busts its buttons with cactus and wildflowers. This is a landscape long on silence and short on distractions.
The real draw is Red Creek’s night life. The hoot of an owl at dusk, soft as down feathers. The gleeful yipping of coyotes that echoes off the stars. When my wife and I camped here once we listened as a troupe of snuffling javelinas flowed around our tent like water. Another time I dropped off three friends who wanted to stay for a few days. The women set up their camp down by the river. On the second night, Sandy lay awake in her sleeping bag savoring the stillness and the full moon when a cougar appeared just beyond her tent door. The yellow-eyed lion, its tail twitching, thoughtfully watched her for a while and then sauntered insouciant on into the night. Frightening? Maybe a little. Beautiful? Beyond your wildest dreams.