Monday, August 24, 2009

The Apache Trail in a Model-T

August 24, 2009 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Phil Rauso recently called me up and asked me if I would like to go for a ride in his Ford Model T over the Apache Trail. He included an invite for breakfast at Tortilla Flat. This call was on Monday, August 17, 2009. I met Phil at the legendary Bluebird Mine and Curio shop on the Apache Trail about four miles northeast of Apache Junction at 7:30 a.m. My expectation was riding over the Apache Trail in a ninety-five year old vintage automobile designed by Henry Ford.

When Phil arrived with his car I was astonished at its condition. The radiator, lights and trim were highly polished brass. The black paint on the vehicle was absolutely spectacular. It was the original Ford black with several coats of lacquer.

The vehicle was actually called a “Hack Cab”. The car had been used to transport people from the train depot to hotels in Chicago between 1915 and 1927 when the car was finally retired. Phil and Debbie Rauso purchased the car in Chicago from a museum, brought it to Arizona and restored it. “Hack Cabs” could carry six people because they had a special body design. Actually the “Old Geezer”, a nickname Phil had for the car, started out as a Ford Model T pickup. The body was removed and the “Hack Cab” body was put on the frame. Phil’s plan for the “Old Geezer” now was to make trips over the Apache Trail and once again give tourist the thrill of riding over the famous mountain road in a vintage vehicle such as the Model T Ford.

Phil arrived at the Bluebird Mine and Curio shop at precisely at 7:30 a.m. I loaded my camera and tripod into his Model T and we were off and running at about thirty miles an hour. Our plan was to stop at Tortilla Flat for breakfast and return to the Bluebird Mine. We stopped briefly near Canyon Lake and took some photos of the “Old Geezer”. We arrived at Tortilla Flat about 9 a.m. and sat down for breakfast. The car attracted a lot of attention on the road and at Tortilla Flat. Few people could believe Phil was driving this ninety-five year old car over the Apache Trail. The car was quite valuable and many people just couldn’t imagine him doing this.

After breakfast at Tortilla Flat and several discussions with curious tourist we planned to depart. Now remember, we were in an old Model T Ford that was totally open. The sun was quite warm and the temperature was beginning to climb. We were two bold men when we decided to do the infamous and legendary Fish Creek Hill with the Model T on a warm summer day. If we had picked a cool winter day the traffic would have been impossible. Phil had been told the “Old Geezer” would never pull Fish Creek Hill. If we went down the ten per cent grade we could never get the car back up the hill on its on. We had our challenge, “Do Fish Creek Hill.

We departed Tortilla Flat about 10 a.m. driving east toward Mesquite and Rye Creek. On the paved road the “Old Geezer” did fine, however we didn’t know for sure how the car would perform on the unimproved portion of the Apache Trail (State Route 88). Here we were riding along an officially designated Arizona historical road in a 1915 Model T Ford Hack Cab. As we drove along the paved portion we thought about the many almost weekly headlines from the 1920’s— Headlines about the horseless vehicles that were tested on the infamous ten per-cent grade of Fish Creek Hill. Many of these cars passed the test, but many of them also failed. Some old Fords had to back up steep hills because of the location of their fuel tanks.

The pavement finally ended some five miles east of Tortilla Flat and we were now on a rough dirt road filled with potholes and washboards. Now the “Old Geezer” began to shake and rattle like a bucket of bolts. The Model T suspension let us feel each bump and hump. I commented that we were now experiencing a 1915 ride over the Apache Trail. Phil certainly agreed with my comment.

We soon understood why the old timers wore dusters and goggles. The first real grade on a rough dirt road began as we passed the Tortilla Ranch Trailhead and climbed to the top of Fish Creek Hill arriving at the vista parking lot. Once on top, we stopped and looked down. Just for a moment, you have to wonder if we were not making a mistake taking a car this old down Fish Creek Hill.

We started descending the hill. Phil placed the car in its lowest gear and often braked as we drove down. We finally reached Inspiration Point about one third of the way down. We stopped here to stretch our legs and catch our breath. What breath-taking scenery there was from Inspiration Point! It was here I got out of the car with my camera and started walking down Fish Creek Hill toward the bridge. I wanted to find a good vantage point to take photographs of the car coming down the hill. For a moment I thought about walking down Fish Creek Hill. When my Uncle Riley Brunson use to freight for the Packard Store in Tonto Basin my Aunt Elise walked down Fish Creek Hill because my uncle thought it was to dangerous for her and the children to ride. He felt teams and wagons were too unpredictable to risk his family.

I thought about Aunt Elise as I walked down Fish Creek Hill. At some point I got back into the old Model T and watched carefully as Phil skillfully negotiated the hill. From Inspiration Point to Fish Creek Bridge is about one mile. At five miles per hour it took us a while to get to the bottom. We crossed Fish Creek Bridge and stopped for a breather. We rested and had a drink of water before our planned climb up Fish Creek Hill in the old car.

Phil started “Old Geezer” but the car died on us. He tried several times. All of a sudden I could envision us hiking up Fish Creek Hill and back to Tortilla Flat. Finally the old car started and kept running. I jumped in and we began a historic climb to the top. This is probably the first 1915 Model T to climb Fish Creek Hill in eighty-five years or more.

Climbing the hill in “Old Geezer” I was on the outside looking down into Fish Creek Canyon. The side of the canyon is a graveyard of rusting old hulls of cars that didn’t make it. Some of the cars were a thousand feet below the road’s edge. The old Model T was doing great on the climb back to the top of Fish Creek. My heart probably was running faster than the engine; after all if we went over the side I would be the first one over. It is always more fun to be first, right?

It was a slow climb to the top, and for the most part uneventful except for the beautiful scenery and spectacular vistas. The “Old Geezer” climbed Fish Creek Hill without any problems at all. It was quite an experience to ride in a ninety-five year old car on the Apache Trail all the way from the Bluebird Mine and Gift Shop to the Fish Creek Canyon Bridge and back.