A Tale of an Arizona Flash Flood

It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. (And for the wise guys among you there was only one summer between those years. That’s obviously why kids fail grades though, that way they get more summers.) Anyway, we decided we were going camping, our favorite pastime, where Oak Creek meets the Verde River. My cousins Terry , Gary and Jim ( married to Terry’s sister Deanna) were my comrades on this particular trip. All were older than me. Keep this in mind as I tell you this hair raising tale of an Arizona flash flood as all the stupidity associated with said tale should be applied to the older people involved not me. I was little more than a babe in arms. Jim on the other hand was in college at NAU and I am sure that he was and probably still is, IQ wise, a genus. He later went to work for Motorola semiconductors back when microprocessors were first being developed. I tell ya the guy was smart….just plain smart. However, as is often the case with smart people, for all his book learning smarts he had not a lick of common sense. Now common sense is a rather ambiguous user defined term generally used to alienate and degrade those who do not share your opinion. President Clinton, for example, referred to common sense gun control measures which to me is an oxymoron. I can’t see the common sense in pissing off a bunch of people who own guns. However, if you have ever wondered what exactly common sense actually is…well let’s just say all you need to do is spend some time with someone who has none and then you’ll understand perfectly. Such was the case with Jim.

It was a beautiful August day with a few harmless looking puffy white clouds gracing the skyline as we left Prescott in a ol’ ford pickup truck loaded with all our camping gear, fishing poles, guns etc. . I don’t remember the year of the truck but it was the kind with the starter pedal on the floor and running boards under the doors to make it easy to step into the pickup. The truck actually belonged to Terry’s dad H. M. whom I fondly knew as Uncle Em, the hardest working man I ever met. He owned the Bordens plant in Prescott (or should I say it owned him) and when you’re in the milk delivery business you go to work before dawn and quit after dusk six days a week minimum. He just had this vehicle overhauled. As kids we figured this must have cost a few hundred thousand dollars with all the fuss that was made over this ‘new’ engine and all the begging required to get permission to take it. “Now you kids take it easy on that truck it’s got a brand new engine in it and be careful” we were told. “Oh we will….we’ll treat it like a new born baby.” After all what could go wrong anyway? I’ve since discovered that teenagers just don’t think the same as regular people.

So baby that truck we did, out of Prescott past Granite Dells, the best swimming hole Arizona ever had, up over Mingus mountain by the lodge at Potato Patch (it has since burned down) and down that stretch of highway 89A that runs through Jerome to Clarkdale. You could say it gives new meaning to the term ‘winding’ and if your riding shotgun ( the window seat on the passenger side) you could easily ‘dip your cookies’ just looking down the sear cliffs that loom only a few feet from your door. ( It’s been said that there are spots along that stretch of road where the cliffs are so steep and the drop is so far that if you did go over you wouldn’t have to worry about dying in the crash at the bottom because you would have died of old age before you hit. Keep in mind I didn’t say that; after all this is a true story.) So on through Cottonwood to the right that takes one to Cornville, we headed, till we found a likely dirt road that might take us to the junction of Oak Creek and the Verde River. As I remember, we had to try a couple of different roads as none of us had actually been there before.

But find it we did and the fun began! We swam, we fished, we threw rocks in the water, we shot the twenty-two’s we had about as much fun as four kids legally can. In my memory that afternoon was one of those rare precious pure timeless experiences you just wish you could somehow go back to and stay there forever. I call these experiences ‘pure time’. This particular camping trip and other experiences have since taught me that ‘pure time’ is often proceeded by or followed by ‘pure disaster'; for as we frolicked gaily in the sun all day our harmless fluffy white clouds had been consumed by a monstrous black demon cumulonimbus that loomed ominously to the immediate north. That would be uphill from us. Now to this point there was but one problem in our thinking – namely we hadn’t done any. Presently, however, not being completely without wits, we decided to get the hell out of there while we still could. As the sun was setting we loaded everything back into the pickup, piled in and began our dash for the main road only a few miles away. Unknown to us the black monster already had designs on our destiny as he began to release huge drops that spread out like dollar size pancakes on the windshield intermixed with little balls of hail. There were two great realizations at this point. First, a brand new engine has absolutely nothing to with the efficacy of vacuum type windshield wipers. Those things were practically useless. It might as well have been pancake batter on the windshield for all the good those things were. Second, we had crossed a number of those infamous little ‘normally dry’ creek beds during our truck in earlier that day. Now all of us were Arizona boys and so we knew the potential flash flood danger. That’s why we were in such a hurry to get back to the main road. One after another we crossed those little ‘normally dry’ creek beds as luck was with us and they were indeed still dry until we came to the last one, which was but a stones throw from the main road. It had a ‘little’ water flowing in it. By now it was dark and our lights shown on the chocolate water flowing in this little ‘normally dry’ creek. It wasn’t raging, in fact, it seemed almost gentle. Pulled off the road beside us was an intelligent looking couple sitting there waiting. They looked at us with a look that seemed to say, “you aren’t really stupid enough to try crossing that are you?”

I don’t remember whose idea it actually was to cross, probably Jim’s. (It certainly wasn’t the youngest’.) In we went and viola another great realization. Water can easily be deeper that it looks! The truck died just as we hit the middle of this little 20 foot wide steam. Furthermore, the truck formed something of a dam as the water was just deep enough to come over the running board on the passenger side. As a result the water instantly rose till it almost came in the window on the passenger side. Terry, who was the driver and the first to perceive the implications of our recent action, bailed out on his side, the down stream side, which was still only knee deep or so. Jim, the genius, who was next to him slid over and began to try to start the truck. As I felt the truck slowly begin to slip down stream I said the heck with this and jumped over Jim out of the truck the way Terry had gone. As I began hastily making my way toward the back of the truck I notice a little 3 foot high water fall to my right only a few feet away. The truck was sliding toward it. I barely made it between the bed of the truck and the bank of the creek as the truck slipped by. To this day I don’t know exactly how Jim and Gary made it out but I suspect they must have jumped up in the back of the truck in order to overt the creek bank. And from the bank we watched as the truck went over the little 3 foot water fall on to it’s side, lights still on as it floated away in the darkness. We turned toward the intelligent people in the waiting car who had kindly turned their lights on so we could see. They had a look on there faces that seemed to say “you are, you really are that stupid!”

We decided to wait with them as the water subsided. I doubt that it was more than an hour till the ‘normally dry’ creek bed was all but dry again. It was almost as if the whole incident had been constructed solely to teach us a little patience. If only we had waited.

The couple gave us a ride to Cottonwood where we called home with the grim news of the trucks demise not to mention all the camping stuff in the back. For some strange reason our folks came and got us even though our stupidity had given them every right to disown us. Oddly they gave us just a little hell for losing the truck but a lot of love for just being okay.

We found the truck half buried in sand and silt a mile or two down the normally dry creek bed the next day. We even found a couple of the guns, some articles of clothing and various other things but mostly you could say it was a total loss except for what we learned. In the 37 years since that summer I have encountered many ‘normally dry’ creek beds with gently flowing chocolate water. I’ve always let the water subside before crossing.

By Ken Ralston (www.blueskykitchen.com)

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