Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tonto Natural Bridge

One of my favorite things to do is hike. Especially if it involves a little low-grade rock climbing. So this past June we decided to get away for the weekend. I hadn’t been away from my computer for more than 24 hours in over three years. The Mac and I needed a break from each other. We went up to a town in the local mountains called Payson. And just outside Payson is Tonto Natural Bridge.

The official brochure says:

It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point.

The discovery of the small and beautiful valley between Pine and Payson was documented in 1877 by David Gowan, a prospector who stumbled across the bridge as he was chased by Apaches.

Gowan hid for two nights and three days in one of several caves that dot the inside of the bridge [I read this before I went down there. There are many, many caves dotting the sides of the tunnel. He could have easily hidden down there and never have been discovered. It was interesting thinking about what all could be hiding in those caves while we were hiking around there. We did see a few squirrels.]. On the third day, he left the cave to explore the tunnel and green valley surrounding it. Gowan then claimed squatter's rights.

In 1898 he persuaded his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow, to bring his family over from Scotland [Me again. Can you imagine the culture shock of coming from Scotland to Arizona?] and settle the land permanently. After a week of difficult travel from Flagstaff, the Goodfellows arrived at the edge of the mountain and lowered their possessions down the 500 foot slopes into the valley by ropes and burros.

Today, visitors can stand on top of the bridge or hike down below to capture the true size and beauty of this geologic wonder [We did both].

End of official brochure.

It was a lot of fun. I want to go back up there again sometime when it’s not so hot. And when I actually have a camera instead of trying to grab stills off my video camera. Ugh. So I apologize for the quality of the pictures.

We started out on top of the bridge, looking down into the gorge and watching water cascade off the top of the bridge. Seeing water running that freely in the desert in June is an amazing thing.

But that wasn’t enough for me, and I convinced Peter that since we were all wearing sensible shoes (i.e. tennis shoes, not flip flops like we saw on some people) that we could make it down there. Next time I’ll wear hiking boots for the stability but it was still quite do-able in tennies.

We’re smart hikers. We had a daypack with six bottles of water. We had slathered up with sunscreen. We wore hats and appropriate footgear. And we had a map.

So off we set down a fairly steep 200 foot descent into the gorge, not really certain what we’d find when we got down there or what we’d do, but we were up for the adventure.

We started noticing that Calvin wasn’t as energetic as usual. In fact his cheeks looked rather pink. I touched his forehead, his neck, his belly. He was burning up. He started crying. That night we discovered he was running a fever of 102. He was a trouper, though.

We were mostly down, and at the bottom it was much shadier and cooler where the water made a nice size stream. We decided he’d feel better down there, so Peter putting him on his shoulders and continued down the descent. Railroad ties were used to make mini-terraces where the trail was too steep to traverse without them. So Peter is trying to navigate these one-foot drops while balancing our son on his shoulders. I was impressed.

We got to the bottom and discovered this beautiful little forest with the stream running through the middle of it. We could look straight up the gorge 200 feet to where we had been standing 30 minutes previously.

But once we’d rounded the bend we could see the travertine bridge that formed a huge tunnel. It’s impossible to grasp the scope of it without actually being there.

We took our time exploring under the bridge. We decided to continue through the tunnel, which would involving scaling some slick sandstone and travertine rocks which hovered about 30 feet over the river at bottom of the tunnel. We started, got partway, saw the 30 foot cliffs we would need to navigate and decided to regroup.

Peter went to ask the park ranger if he thought we could make it with the kids. He said he thought we could. Little signs with arrows were bolted into the rock, indicating which way you could start imagining a path. In the rocks there were only shallow hand- and footholds created by water dripping and eroding the soft, slick stone. And Peter did a really cool Carl Sagen impression that I caught on video.

When I was watching the video I shot, there’s an extended period of time where I apparently left the camera running after I stuck it back in my cargo shorts. The lens cover is on so everything is back. But there’s sound. And it’s kind of revealing. You can hear me crunching over rocks and splashing in the pond. A few coughs and grunts. And Peter and I giving instructions to the kids on how to scramble the rocks.

“Go here, step there. Wait for Dad. I’ll hand him to you. Are you okay?”
“Stand on that ledge. Grab Dad. You want to go around and catch him?”
“Jump down here. There you go. Good boy.”
“Got it? You okay?”
“Don’t get too far ahead.” That was to my daughter who was taking to these cliffs like a mountain goat.
“You got him? I’m going to get up here and you can hand him to me. All right. Up over here? Perfect. How are your knees?” That last comment was because Peter and I are both getting old.
“Jen, you need to be above him.”

What I love most about this section of dialogue is what it reveals: team work. I don’t know all the reasons why I love rock climbing. It’s physical. It’s problem solving. You have to look ahead, but not too far ahead. You have to set a goal and then figure out how to get there. Sometimes you go where others have. Sometimes you don’t. But in this section I love how it revealed how we work as a family. Peter on one end, me on the other, bracketing our children. Showing them the path and being there to catch them when they fall.

We did some other fun things that weekend. Saw a fish hatchery. Fed bison (They grunt and need to be brushed.). But I hope most of all that we made some memories with our kids.


  1. That sounds really cool! I can totally see you as the mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing chick who's totally into it. Cute matching outfits and all.

    Okay, sorry been reading too many chick-lits lately. Putting seeing the video on my must do list in Phoenix. :)

  2. I actually got a little lump in my throat over the whole team-work-bracketing-the-kiddoes thing. Very sweet.

    Here's to memories.

  3. Oh, that's so kewl to find those "hidden" moments reveal beauty about your family. :-D Way kewl. Sounds like you had fun!!

  4. Shocking, this is what happens when people leave their keyboards? :) Now please get back to work. VBG

  5. Yeah, Diana, that comment from a woman who remodeled a house herself and lived to tell about it, despite said house's best intentions to kill her! :)

  6. I want to see Peter's Carl Sagan impersonation. He was still at Cornell when Phil was there so I know Phil would enjoy that, too. I know, he's old but he's my old man. I think I'll keep him--Phil, that is (not Carl or Peter).
    Abundant blessings,
    Jenny Cary

  7. What a beautiful story! I've never heard of Travertine bridges before and now you've got me wanting to visit!
    Great description and pics!

  8. Hi,
    My name is William Keith Goodfellow.
    I am English but now live in France.
    My late father William Dorward Goodfellow was born and raised in Inverbervie Scotland - his mother, my grandmother was a Gowan and directly related to the Gowan family who left Scotland for the USA and discovered the Tonto Natural Bridge. My e-mail is keith@gitesjustfor2.com if there are any Goodfellows out there!

  9. Wow, it's amazing how the Internet has made the world a smaller place. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that information with us.

  10. Hi
    David Gowan who discovered the bridge in 1877 was the nephew of my 4 x great grandfather. I am trying to trace that part of my family tree and would be greatful of any information you have on him or the Goodfellows who went out to help him.

    My own name before I married was Gowans. You can contact me via my blog.