The Wayside Inn

A lengthy account of a trip for a hamburger.

Three-Niner-Lima’s attitude indicator was replaced for the second time in a month earlier this week. The first replacement unit I’d purchased had a “balancing problem.” It was a reconditioned unit ($970 vs $1,795 for a new unit) and the place I’d bought it from in Chandler repaired it at no cost.

The hobbs meter was replaced at the same time. A hobbs meter is like an odometer for an aircraft. It measures the amount of time the engine runs. It didn’t cost much to replace, but it can’t be preset with the previous meter’s number. So when I climbed into Three-Niner-Lima, on December 5, the meter read 0000.0. Very strange. The old one, which got terminally ill on my flight from Placerville to Mammoth CA, read 1068.5.

So it was two helicopter components that I needed to test that day. I wanted to give the new attitude indicator a thorough workout. And I wanted to make sure that the hobbs meter didn’t read 0000.0 when I got back from my test flight.

It was a beautiful morning when I took off from Wickenburg and headed west. My plan was to scout out the location of a house Mike and I were supposed to photograph in Forepaugh. The woman had given me a description that included phrases like “red roof,” “pasture of green grass,” and “round pen made of cut telephone poles.”The air was smooth and the wind was light, out of the south. I flew along highway 60, then altered course to fly over Forepaugh, where, as usual, nothing was going on. I headed for the first red-roofed house I could see. It had a round pen, but it wasn’t made out of telephone pole. And no green grass. A few more red-roofed houses were also the wrong ones. Then I caught a glimpse of green in the near distance. I flew over to investigate. Bingo.

All the time, of course, I was checking the attitude indicator. It was pointing straight up when I was flying straight and pointing to the appropriate side by the appropriate amount when I banked to the left or right. The first broken on had indicated I was doing aerobatics when I wasn’t. And the second broken one listed 5° to the right when I was flying straight. So far, this one was a major improvement.

I headed north, toward Robson’s Mining World off highway 71. Robson’s is a cluster of off-the-grid buildings nestled up against a small mountain range. It’s a picturesque place from the ground, with dense saguaro growth and other Sonoran desert vegetation around its quaint western buildings. Very quiet. I don’t fly over because I know the sound of my rotors would shatter the silence, which I consider one of the best features of the place.

Instead, I headed northeast along 71. There’s a place along the road where someone has spelled out “Congress Jct 15 mi” in rocks, complete with an arrow pointing to Congress. It’s hard to find sometimes and I decided to find a few landmarks near it so I’d be able to locate it any time I wanted to show someone. I found it and noted my landmarks.

The attitude indicator was still working fine.

I was done with what I’d planned to do, but I wasn’t ready to go back. I decided to fly along the back side of the mountains at Robson’s. I dropped down to about 300 feet AGL and flew across the empty desert, looking for interesting spots below me. I found a deep eroded washbed and began following that to the northwest. The wash widened. A few deer ran across it. I followed it with my eyes and realized that it went all the way to Alamo Lake.

Alamo Lake is a manmade lake (all Arizona lakes except one are manmade) north of 60, west of 93, and east of 95. It’s out there, in the middle of the desert, where the Bill Williams River, Santa Maria River, the Big Sandy Wash, Burro Creek, and Date Creek meet. The earthen dam was originally built for flood control downstream on the Bill Williams. I don’t think there are any canals or pipelines coming out of the lake and I don’t think the dam generates any power — except perhaps for the state park facility along the lake’s southern shore. The lake is popular with fisherman. It isn’t large enough for serious boating. Besides, it’s too far away from civilization. Heck, it takes about an hour and a half to drive there from Wickenburg. Add an hour from Phoenix and you have an inconvenient body of water.

Mike and I went camping there twice. The first time was in a tent, when we first came to Arizona to find a place to live. We were woken by coyotes, which we weren’t really familiar with, and Mike suggested that we sleep in the car. The car, at the time, was my Toyota MR-2, a microscopic two-seater. In my opinion, sleeping in that car was not an option.

The second time was in Mike’s old Suburban, with the horses. We camped in what the park people consider an equestrian campground. I think the single hitching post is what makes it equestrian. We couldn’t want for the ranger to bring water for the horses, so we rode them down to the lake. A completely silent electric-powered fishing boat glided into my horses view. It was his first experience with such a monstrous thing and he did what he usually did on first scary experiences: he got up on his hind legs and did a 180° turn, dumping me on the ground in the process. I still remember lying flat on my back on the sand (thank heaven it wasn’t rock), looking up at my horse’s face, which seemed to say: “What are you doing down there?”Anyway, Alamo Lake is a good place to get away to if you want to get away, especially if you like quiet. Other than that, leave it for the fishermen.

There are two main roads to get to Alamo Lake. The paved road, Alamo Lake Road, goes north from Wenden, which is about 50 miles west of Wickenburg. It crosses the valley, goes through Cunningham Pass, crosses another valley, goes through another pass, and ends up at the lake near the park entrance. The unpaved road, Alamo Road, goes west from highway 93, right around Date Creek. It’s well-maintained and follows the Date Creek wash, which cuts deep and wide into the desert on its way to the lake. Although it might be a shorter drive along Alamo Road from Wickenburg, it’s a dusty, dirty drive that requires 4WD in wet weather. So most people take the paved road.

Along Alamo Road (the unpaved road), about 5 miles short of the lake, is a place called Brown’s Crossing. It’s a crossroads out in the desert that used to have a store and gas station. Built to service the dam construction builders on their way to and from the dam in the 1960s (I guess Alamo Lake Road hadn’t been built yet), it was destroyed (I forgot how). The Wayside Inn was built nearby to replace it.

The Wayside Inn is a strange place. (And that is an understatement.) It’s a combination general store, bar, restaurant, pool hall, video rental place, and gas station in the middle of nowhere. Around it is a kind of town consisting of a collection of old, rickety, and somewhat sad trailers, motorhomes, and sheds. I bet about 100 people live there in the winter months. And it wouldn’t surprise me if most of them lived there during the heat of the summer, too. They seem pretty dug in and not the kind of people who have someplace else to go.

With the Wayside Inn as a destination, I followed the wash I was over, then Alamo Road. Then I dropped into Date Creek Wash, flying at about 200 AGL, which was just about level with the top of its cut. I saw plenty of animal tracks, as well as fences and corrals. Not many tire tracks. The rock formations near the end of the wash look like wet sand sculptures. In a few places, there are caves high in the rock walls. As I was climbing out of the canyon to go to the Inn, I thought I saw a cliff dwelling, and swung around for another look. Could be, but I’m not sure. I’d need to get out and explore. Another time, maybe.

An old airstrip had been carved out of the desert on one of the crossroads of Brown’s Crossing years before. It was not maintained and has various shrubs and other desert plants growing on it. Xs on either end tell pilots that it’s closed. I landed on it anyway, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. A man in a red shirt watched me land, then waited by a nearby fence for me to shut down and get out. When I apologized about the dust, he laughed.

This was actually my second time landing at the Wayside Inn. The first was during the summer, when I got a chance to fly a Bell 47 that was doing burro work for the BLM in the area. I’d arrived on a Wednesday, hot, hungry, and thirsty. The Bell’s fuel truck driver was parked on the old runway, reading a magazine. He told me that the restaurant was closed on Wednesdays. I finished my bottled water, then started on his before the Bell returned.

It was a Friday and the restaurant was open. The man in the red shirt told me where I could get through the fence, I followed his instructions, anxious to see what I’d missed that summer. And hungry. Along the way, I met the “doorman,” Charlie, a well-behaved pug who lived on a blanket beside the door.

I’ve already described what’s in the Inn, but I haven’t touched on its atmosphere. Imagine coming into a somewhat decrepit trailer park in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization, on a bright, sunny day. There’s no one around outside, but you hear the diesel generator that powers the place humming away nearby. You step up onto a porch where a cute ugly dog watches you expectantly, then step through an open doorway. Your eyes adjust to the relatively dim light and you see a bar with a television, a pool table, and a bunch of tables and chairs. You sit at the bar and take in the rest of the place, which is a mixture of practical and not-so-practical. Shelves of canned food, a strip of lights along the bar edge, fishing tackle, an ice cream freezer, a video game, shelves of videos for rent. Montel is on the television and although you can’t hear what’s being said, the picture caption tells all: “Racism in the same race.”There was a blond woman behind the bar. She was in her forties or fifties and her face was all made up as if she was ready to go out for a night on the town. She gave me a menu and took my drink order — iced tea since I was flying. Three other people were sitting at the bar, all men. Two of them were young, in their thirties, perhaps, and are probably fishermen. They were eating lunch. The other was older, the usual retired type you see around Arizona. He was drinking a beer.

I ordered a green chili burger and read about the history of the place on the back side of the menu. The older man, who was sitting two seats away from me, seemed as if he wanted to talk, so I started a conversation with him. I learned that he lived in Alaska during the summer and was staying in a camper on a mining claim north of the lake. I asked him how he got to the Inn from his place and he told me there were three roads, then started to go into detail about them. As I suspected, one of the roads wound through what he called “the jungle,” an area at the top end of the lake where you could cross when water levels were low. It got its name from the dead trees (probably cottonwoods) and dense vegetation in the area. It was the shortest route — probably only 10 or 15 miles compared to 40 or more on one of the other routes — but it required 4WD to get through sand and couldn’t be travelled safely when it was raining. When he asked, I told him I was from Wickenburg.

My food came and another waitress or bartender showed up. The man in the red shirt came in, too. We all chatted, talking about things like gambling in Laughlin, Schwan’s deliveries, helicopters, and places like Wickiup and Wickenburg. They told me about how Charlie the dog had reacted to that Bell 47 over the summer. He’d seen it come in for a landing and had run towards it, barking. The rotor wash had tumbled him away in a cloud of dust. He got to his feet and went at it again. But after a few landings, he’d lost interest. I hadn’t seen him coming toward me when I landed.

I asked if airplanes ever landed on the runway and was told that they usually just landed on the road. That started another conversation about one of the local residents who had converted a single-engine kit plane into a twin engine model that had a speed range of 25 to 125 miles an hour. The man in the red shirt had gone flying with him and had used up an entire disposable camera on the flight. The film, however, had been lost at a K-Mart one-hour processing place so they’d never seen the pictures.

It was almost 2 PM and I had to be at the airport to work at 3, so I paid my bill and left them. I took a photo of the outside of the place to remember it better. I’d had a good lunch in a weird place and would be back.

The entrance to the Wayside Inn. If you fly over, you can see its name on the roof.

Back in Three-Niner-Lima, I started up then stored a GPS waypoint so I could tell other pilots about the place. The coordinates are N 34° 14.72′ – W 113° 29.16′.

I took off and, since I was so close to the Santa Maria River (one of my favorite flights), I followed it upstream toward highway 93. I flew low for a while and was surprised to see a few houses down in the flood plain, not far from the lake. No signs of life, though. Just before I reached the deep canyon, I saw another cave that looked like it could have been a prehistoric dwelling. That one would definitely be worth checking out.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. I flew out to 93, then followed that down almost all the way to Wickenburg. Along the way, I veered off to check out a few cattle tanks and people camping out in the desert. I got back to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

The attitude indicator worked fine and my new hobbs meter read 0001.5.

9 thoughts on “The Wayside Inn

  1. I found your website on a google search. The houses you mention going up the Santa Maria are my Grandfather’s and Fathers on the Grapevine Springs Ranch. We are going there for a family reunion. The cave you mention in the bluff past and above the houses was made from water runoff from the higher desert. I’ve been in it several times as a teenager and my initials are carved inside. There is a helicopter pad right on the river about a mile past the houses with some hearty springs within walking distance if you are ever out that way.

  2. Although I don’t comment but a few times in the past, I really miss hearing from you, which is very rare!! And so are you, as a person – very rare. Quite a character, and I always smile reading your essays. You have become a fixture, and I bet you always wanted to be a fixture, right?

    At any rate – just wanted you to know that you really count, that you leave footprints in the sands, make ripples.

    With a remote but sincere hug –


  3. hi my name is Justin young and i would like to comment on the article that you wrote about 5 years ago. i was looking thru the computor about the wayside because interesting as the place sounds its a lot more interesting the more you go. i have been going to that trailer park for at least 10 years now. it is a amazing place to go offroading. oh yeah those trailers are definitly pathetic, what ever it takes to sleep. lol and the lady you were talking about was cindy. that discription explains her perfectly. i like in orange county and my uncle brought me there. the people that run it are his family. i hope you get this message and reply. God bless and hope to hear that you go back sometime

  4. The Wayside Inn has been a very important part of my life for over 20 years. Our family has been fishing and camping there ever since I can remember. My father retired there in the trailer court in 1998. He passed away in 2002 and we kept the trailer until last year when Carl & Cindy sold it. My uncle lived there awhiletoo, but the heat and isolation were not for him, he moved to Prescott when Dad died.We had many good times there, and we still have family get-togethers at the lake.We hunt, fish, and explore there to this day.. Thanks so much for writing about this special place!

  5. We own and live in a park model trailer at the Wayside Inn park, and we have been residents here for the past 10 years. We are, to some, in a

    very remote area and even though, also to some, the Wayside Inn and the residents look tacky. We aren’t tacky, we are dusty from a wonderful ride in the desert or just back from fishing in Alamo Lake. We hear coyotes at night, we have a roadrunner that lives in the park, we have cotton tailed rabbits that come and feed in our yards and from time to time we see deer, elk, bob cats, cougar, havelina, and many species of birds. There is a lot of what I call “park pride” in the caring and sharing of our neighbors. On full moon nights us “Waysiders” ride our ATV’s ,etc., travel out in the desert, build a fire and have a big weiner roast and watch the moon rise up from behind the mountain. Carl and Cindy were gone for awhile, but are back, and along with CJ and Chris, it is a great, and friendly place to live and also have a meal. We love it here at Wayside and just wish that the visitors would be more diligent about not littering, cutting donuts in our roads, cutting across the desert instead of staying on estblished roads and trails and trashing what is and was part of the history of this area. Wake up visitors, what is destroyed is gone forever!

  6. @Arlea Krasovetz
    What can you tell me about the Annual Fish Fry at the Wayside Inn? My husband and I have been invited to join some other people who are going, I just wonder what to expect. I understand that the date for the shindig is Oct 2.

What do you think?