One of my favorite road trips in Arizona has always been the drive from Phoenix to the Tonto National Recreation area, just outside of Payson. There is nothing better than getting out of the stifling heat of Phoenix for a day, and finding yourself in the middle of the beautiful, cool, tall pine forest in less than two hours.
Most people don’t think of national forests when they think of Arizona, but there are six of them in this state, and Tonto National Forest is my favorite, by far. It stretches all throughout the north-central part of the state, in an area affectionately known as “Rim Country.” It gets its nickname from the Mogollon Rim, a huge geological formation that stretches 200 miles across the northern part of Arizona.
The drive down highway 260 is truly beautiful, and before I got my van, I used to take day trips up to Payson all the time in my little Nissan Versa. So after I completed my van conversion, Payson was definitely at the top of the list of places I wanted to go camping.
The First Attempt
Unfortunately, the very first time I drove Spook (my ex-FBI spy van) up the Beeline Highway through the mountains, I was scared out of my wits. Nobody told me that when you get a van, you can suddenly see over the guard rails when you drive up in the mountains! And let me tell you, if you have a terrible fear of heights like I do, seeing over the guard-rails is just not something you want to do.
Anyway, by the time I got to Payson, my nerves were shot, and I decided I didn’t want to go any further. So instead of heading east on highway AZ-260, like I usually did, I just turned right around and headed straight back to Phoenix. (Unfortunately, I didn’t think it through very well, and the drive back was even scarier. Ah, well, live and learn…)
After a few more white-knuckled initiations into mountain-driving, (there’s just nothing like driving through a snow and ice storm in Flagstaff to scare the bejesus out of you) I figured I was finally ready to attempt the drive up the Beeline Highway again, and I am happy to report that the second time, it was much easier.
Camping Near Payson
On a beautiful day in May, my dog Lucy and I headed up to Payson. (Lucy, by the way, is a great road trip companion. She just sits in the passenger seat and looks out the window. If you happen to sit in her seat when she’s in the van, she’ll insist on sitting on your lap. And if you don’t want her to sit in your lap, well, she’ll just pester you until you change your mind. She’s stubborn that way.)
Anyway, I went online and found a free campsite just off highway 260, and after driving about half a mile down the dirt forest road, I found the perfect little spot. It was right next to a creek and it even had a stone campfire circle already set up. I couldn’t figure out why nobody else had snagged the site, but I grabbed it as quickly as I could.
I took Lucy for a walk, and then started organizing my campsite. So far, so good. But then, she started acting a little weird; she was just standing there, staring at something off in the distance. (This was very unusual for her, because usually, she just barks her head off at anything that moves. Or doesn’t move. (Once, she stalked a cactus for 20 minutes straight.)
Finally, I got curious to see what she was staring at, so I stepped back a few feet to see around a rather large pine tree that was blocking my view. And that’s when I finally saw it. At first, I thought it was very, very tall dog. Then I thought, well, maybe it’s a very tall, fat dog. Then it moved closer to us, and I realized it was not a dog at all, but rather a very tall, fat cow…and it was heading straight towards us. At about the same time, I also noticed two other things. First, and most importantly, I noticed that there was not a fence in between us and the cow. And secondly, I noticed that the cow had horns.
At this point, my mind immediately went into free- association- mode; cow…horns…bull……and it didn’t take me long until the voice inside my head was screaming: Holy cow, there is a wild bull headed straight for us, and there is no fence! Now, I know it was probably not an actual wild bull. It was probably a free-range bull. Or a steer. Or, it could have even been a free-range female cow with horns. I don’t know because, although I did grow up in Nebraska, I did not grow up on a farm, and to be honest, I didn’t care to get close enough to find out.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do at this point. Should I freeze? Should I leave? Should I introduce myself? Perhaps if I were more “woke,” I would have stopped and asked it which pronouns it preferred to go by, just so I could be sure not to offend it. But I guess I’m just more practical.
In any case, about halfway in the midst of trying to figure out if this cow/bull/steer was in the middle of my campsite…or if I was in the middle of his/her dinner buffet… I saw a second cow. I was slightly relieved, because this one had no horns, but that relief only lasted a mere second, because then I noticed that the first cow started quickening its pace.
And that is when my survival instincts (finally) kicked in. I grabbed Lucy and threw her in the cargo area. Then I got in, and floored it. But then after driving about a foot, I suddenly thought — Wait a minute… bulls are attracted to moving targets, aren’t they? At that point, I quickly put on the brakes, and prayed to God the cow wouldn’t ram my the side of my van. Because you know… body work is expensive.
It was now a stand-off — me sitting in the driver’s seat, scared out of my wits, and the cows were quietly strolling along the creek bed, munching on grass. And let me tell you, it was terrifying.
The next thought that went through my mind was that it was pretty silly that I was terrified of this cow, because humans eat cows, and not the other way around. And then I wondered if it could smell the steak I had at my parents’ house the night before. I knew I should have stayed being a vegetarian. Luckily, though, neither of the cows seemed to be very interested in me or my dog, and they just moseyed on down the creek bed. When I was sure they were gone, we finally got out of the van again.
Now, I did not know this at the time, but apparently, the guy who was camped in the next site over was watching me the entire time, and he thought this was all quite hilarious. I know this, because after the cows left, he came over to introduce himself. He told me he thought it was pretty darn funny that I almost drove away because of a cow. But I corrected him – No, it was two cows.
My New Neighbor
His name was Cody, and he told me he had been there for almost two weeks, which is the maximum amount you can stay on BLM land without having to move at least 25 miles away. (In case you’re wondering, BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. I once told one of my friends that I like to go camping on BLM land, and he got a confused look on his face and said — “Black Lives Matter lets people camp on their land?”)
Anyway, Cody and I talked and laughed for a while, and then he invited me over later that night to watch a movie on the side of his camper. He had this really cool portable projector that could project a movie from his laptop onto any surface, and I said that sounded really fun, and I’d be over later.
Well, a few hours later, it was starting to get dark, so I started getting ready to head over to watch the movie. And that’s when Lucy started staring off into the distance again. Sure enough, I looked around the side of the van, the cows were back. Now, I know Cody told me the cows would not bother me, but let me tell you, knowing that is one thing, but seeing a huge cow with horns less than 5 feet from my van is another. Once again, my survival instincts kicked in. I scooped Lucy up in my arms and put her in the van and waited for the cows to go away again, but this time, they didn’t. They just stood there, and ate. And ate. And ate. (How rude.)
I wasn’t sure what to do. I really didn’t want to ditch my new friend, but I was not about to walk across the path of that wild cow. About fifteen minutes later, the sun had almost completely set, and the cows still had not moved. Finally, Cody came out of his camper and start setting up the projector. I wanted to yell and tell him that the cows were back, but I was worried that I might startle them. (After all, we didn’t want a stampede of two cows on our hands, did we? No, siree.) But I also wanted to watch the movie.
So, finally, very slowly, I opened one of the cargo doors on my van, and very carefully, I looked both ways and checked for cows. And then, and only then, did I step outside.
“Cody?” I whispered urgently.
He didn’t hear me, so I whispered even louder. “Cody!”
He still didn’t hear me.
Finally, I just yelled. “Cody!!”
This time, he saw me, cowering (cow-ering?) behind my van door.
“Hey!” he yelled back. “Are you coming over?”
“I can’t,” I said, as I pointed at the two huge cows munching on grass next to my van. “The cows are back!”
“That’s ok. They won’t hurt you,” he said.
Well, I don’t care what he said, I was too scared to move. Now, I know how utterly (udderly?) ridiculous that sounds. After all, I grew up in the Midwest, so I know cows are not aggressive creatures at all. But at this point, I felt as if I was in a sequel of Jurassic Park, trying to evade some velociraptors.
I finally gathered up all my courage, scooped up Lucy, and ran. Within mere seconds, I made it safely over to Cody’s campsite. Whew…that was close .Cody set up some lawn chairs, blankets, and snacks, and we watched Coming to America 2 (which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed) in the middle of a forest, under the stars.
Just as I was finally beginning to relax and think that life just can’t get much better than this, Cody turned to me and asked “Do you hear that?” I couldn’t hear anything except for the movie and my tinnitus.
“Hear what?” I asked.
“The cows. They’re so close, you can hear them eating the grass.”
Oh. Shit. He did not just say that, did he? (Oh, but he did.)
I stifled the urge to pick up my dog and run. (After all, I didn’t want to appear rude.) Instead, I just put her in my lap, and held her there for rest of the movie. She was not happy about this, but I was afraid to let her back down onto the ground, because you know…she might upset the cows.
Luckily, we made it through the entire movie without once getting attacked by a wild cow. But after the movie was finished, they were both still there, right behind us, just munching away on their late night snack of grass and flowers. Cody was nice enough to escort me and Lucy back to the van…..just in case.
The next morning, the cows were gone, and Cody and I exchanged phone numbers and info about our favorite camping spots that we’ve come across. All in all, it was a great trip. I went back to that same campsite a couple more times this summer, with the intention of trying to make friends with the cows. Or at least, trying to live peacefully among them, without getting scared out of my wits. (Just call me Dances with Cows.) But sadly, the cows weren’t there. I hated to think of what happened to them, so at that point, I decided that I was definitey going back to being a vegetarian.
Now, I can’t promise that I will never eat meat again (because let’s be honest… I’ve fallen off the vegetarian wagon before), but one thing I can promise you is that I’ll never be able to watch Eddie Murphy again without thinking about those darn cows.
P.S. .And now, all this story-telling has made me come up with an idea for a Jurassic Park spoof comedy about about cows that hunt in pairs…veloci-cows. (What can I say…I’m weird. Lol.)