The first time I headed east out of Mesa, I considered it a rite of passage. After that, I did everything I could to make it an annual pilgrimage.
Back in the old days, the Cubs had a very small office staff. During my time in Media Relations, it wasn’t until the very end that we had four full-time employees.
So for most of spring training, the department was a two-person operation.
Even after moving into Baseball Operations, the Cubs were a lean group.
The point is, during spring training, there wasn’t much time away from the office during daylight hours. Sure, most of your work days were completed in time to eat dinner at a normal time – unlike the regular season – but you couldn’t count on more than one or two off-days each spring.
But if I did get a day to get away, I knew where I was going … Tortilla Flat.
Although it sounds like a town that should have been in the movie “Cars” – you know, a suburb of Radiator Springs – Tortilla Flat was a half-day trip that just cleared my mind and reminded me of the beauty of Arizona.
Think back to the days of old HoHoKam Park and the mountain range behind rightfield. Those were the Superstition Mountains – and the home of Tortilla Flat.
I must have made the trip at least 15 times – avoiding highways every time. Head east out of Mesa on University Drive for about half an hour until reaching the town of Apache Junction … at the fork in the road, make a left turn and start going north to the Apache Trail. It was that simple.
The Apache Trail picked up right at the base of the mountain range. From there, a spectacular 15-to-20 mile two-lane road winding around and through the mountains – with nothing to see but mountains and cactuses/cacti (I’m not sure which word works best). If the car in front of you was going too slow – tough … there was no passing in these parts. If you have a fear of heights, don’t look down; you’re oftentimes riding along the side of a mountain. If you needed a break, there were ample scenic spots to pull to the side of the road, get out of the car, and see nature at its finest. And the best thing was – at least the last time I was there – the further you went along the Apache Trail, the less chance you had of having cell service.
I knew I was closing in on my destination once I started winding through Canyon Lake, where there was some semblance of humanity based on the number of parked cars and boat rides. A couple times, I did take that lazy river ride – when you would hear nothing but the chirping of birds. It was pure relaxation.
A little while later – cross the one-lane bridge, alternating with a car coming at you from the other direction – and you arrived at your destination … Tortilla Flat.
Tortilla Flat is this tiny little town with – and I’m not making this up – a population of seven people. Yes, seven – and they all claim they live there (thanks to loyal reader Mary Hellmann for letting me know about the town's newest addition). The town is literally a one-half block stretch on one side of the road – a restaurant, a gift shop, a country store and a post office. That’s it. The restaurant serves some of the best chili I’ve ever had – and if you order it right, it will make you sweat. For maximum sweatiness (isn’t that a great visual), try eating it while sitting outside on a bright sunshiny day.
After lunch, it was a foregone conclusion that I would walk over to the country store for either the prickly pear ice cream or just to look at the old-time candy or the awesome sounding BBQ sauces that you used to only be able to find in Arizona.
There would always be a little phone-free bonding time with nature – just to soak it all in.
Eventually, it was time to complete the trip and return to the home base. Head west … cross the one-lane bridge … go past Canyon Lake … wind through the mountains … don’t look down – it’s a very steep drop … and eventually get to Apache Junction for the rest of the ride back.
It’s hard to put the beauty of it into words. All mountains … peaks and valleys … all nature … no cell phone.
Most of my trips there, I went with family members. But if the schedule wasn’t right, it was a trip I could take by myself – just to soak it all in.
It’s a half-day trip I highly recommend.