What is New River, Arizona?
New River is Welcoming.
New River is an unincorporated part of Maricopa County, Arizona -- the county known nationally as home to the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It's a settlement from the 1800's; in 1881, George Hall established a stage station here. It still has a "settlement" sort of feel -- no master plan (thank heavens) and no overweening HOA's demanding compliance with house-color CCR's.
New River is hard to categorize, but it doesn't have an identity crisis by any means. New River people know what New River is: it's a gritty, welcoming place where, as you walk along the roadsides with your dog, you keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes but not for human predators. People wave as they drive by; if they don't know you, they figure they might some day. Heck, there's even a community arena, a memorial to a horse-loving little girl whose life was taken in an air tragedy. Those of us who ride there know how much she would have loved it.
Neighbors in New River know each other, and if you need your pipes fixed or your well dug, odds are it'll be a neighbor who's doing the work. That neighbor might live seven miles away, but they're still a neighbor -- after all, you both know the same people, and someone referred you.
New River is No River.
Arizona boasts a few rivers ... and even more dry riverbeds we call rivers. A few times a year, those rivers run. We natives used to joke about how the bridges over the rivers washed out every time there was water in the riverbed, but you could always rely on those bridges when you didn't need them.
New River's actual "river" is a wide, sand-and-river-rock bed with plenty of bridges but not much water below. That is, until the rain hits. During the February rainy season, and the heavier precipitation of the violent monsoons of summer, the riverbed turns into a seasonal stream that flows with great force; recent erosion is readily apparent after each big storm.
The strength of desert run-off is not to be taken lightly. Washes are deathtraps in which people perish annually trying to cross, and the size of trees, boulders, and the occasional Hummer carried along on the white-capped water are evidence of its daunting power.
New River is Great Little Local Haunts.
If you enjoy ambience of a certain western-biker hybrid flavor, you'll enjoy hanging out at the Roadrunner's roomy patio for breakfast or late-night dancing and live music. There, you can watch live bull-riding on busy nights. Weekend mornings, you can listen to the colorful language of the bikers swearing up a blue streak -- and I'm just talking about the women.
If you're looking for a terrific meal, my own favorite is The Station, just up the road a bit farther. You'll be surprised at the excellent menu and the relaxed feel of the dining room. The ribeye steak can't be beat, and make sure you try the rosemary fries. With weather like ours, it's no surprise that The Station boasts a patio, too. If you've had a few beers, you won't mind hearing the karaoke on Sunday evening; if you haven't, you'll be tempted.
In between the two, right along New River Road, is a sports bar called Gizmo's, in an odd little strip mall called "River Side Plaza."
The Lethal Toll of Winding Roads
- The Crosses of New River Road
On a brief seven-mile stretch of a winding desert road, crosses draw your eye away from the mountain vistas and saguaro sentinels. They're a poignant tribute to motorists who died along the way.
New River is Winding Roads.
New River Road itself is a winding road dotted with roadside shrines to those travelers who didn't make the curves. From the main artery, many other winding, take-your-time roads amble away in a sort of UPS-driver's navigational hell.
The curvy roads and hilly lands make for an organic feel, a tapestry of rugged beauty. Straight lines and symmetry cause tension; any artist can tell you that. New River is tough without the tense.
New River is Hoods Up!
The casual visitor to New River might think there are an awful lot of inoperable vehicles cluttering up peoples' driveways. Nope -- they aren't junkers. If you're from the area, you know those hoods are up because of the persistent efforts of the ridiculously cute (but indescribably destructive) creature known as the packrat. By its proper name, the "wood rat" is a large grey rodent with white paws and a white belly that builds elaborate and well-fortified multi-compartment nests that are sometimes several feet high. They look like heaps of desert debris raked up into a mound, with extra servings of cholla cactus pods. The packrat loves to insulate its luxurious bedroom with soft, fluffy materials, much like your pet hamster does in its Habitrail set. However, those materials don't come from PetsMart -- they come from the firewall insulator in my truck, and the trucks of other victims like myself.
Packrats are industrious critters that work the midnight shift, scurrying back and forth from hunting ground to nest. They build those nests in car engines or neglected sheds. They gnaw wires and spark plugs. They think air cleaners are designed just for them. Once they're in an engine, they won't leave it alone -- they attack the same area or part each time you replace it. They leave cute little paw prints all over as evidence.
People here in the desert have learned that it helps to leave your hood open and to place a small light beneath the engine compartment. Strangers can't figure out the accent lighting beneath the cars!
New River is Nostalgic.
Rows of mailboxes may be a thing of the past in most cities, but they're still a part of the landscape in New River. Like the windmills that dot the hills here, they evoke a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time, when friends didn't communicate in 142 characters or less.
Many of the properties are decorated with old gas station signs or split-rail fences. Faded green tractors and buckboards vie for attention alongside dried up old saddles posted on fence rails. People here aren't ready to toss away the past in favor of brighter, shinier plastic accessories.
New River is Farm Animals.
One of the joys of New River is the presence of livestock. Just along a short stretch of New River Road, you can take in views of Barbados sheep, all kinds of cattle (including zebus), too many horses to count (including miniatures), and sundry sort of other furred and feathered denizens. All those critters mean there's a need for feed stores, and there are a couple to choose from. It's great hearing the honking of geese rather than the honking of cars, and the braying of jackasses isn't so bad when they're the kind with long ears rather than neckties.
You don't need to worry if you've forgotten the eggs after driving miles to the nearest grocery store -- your neighbor has them, just up the street.
New River is Misspelled Signs.
This isn't a critique. Part of the charm of New River is the lack of glossy, homogeneous commercial sheen. Here, signs may be spelled a bit creatively, but they've got a whole lot more personality (and warmth) than the ones at the McStrip Malls just down the freeway at Anthem. Give me a place with Dratf beers and Muttin busting any day over a soulless chain restaurant. Dratf beers? Maybe they're an interesting type of Heffeweisen, anyway.
New River is Nudists and Mormons.
As you drive along New River Road, you'll pass a sign that says Shangri-La Ranch. If you pay attention to the weather-beaten sign with the silhouettes of a nude man and woman, you might wonder about it for just a moment until you're a bit farther north and the grand spire on the local LDS Church draws your attention away. Shangri-La is the local nudist colony. I say "local" as if every community has one. Heck, the rest of you might have your Mormon temples, but how many have a nudist resort just a stone's throw from your temple?
New River is Rocks.
The rock fairy was good to New River -- so good, in fact, that the rock-lined driveways, rock walls, and rock wishing wells are ubiquitous. The rocks, scattered abundantly by ancient volcanoes, completely cover some properties; others are partially-cleared, whether by hand or by mechanical means, to make way for horses or vehicles. To the north, in the Tonto, the rocks are often ginormous boulders, awesome and powerful in their presence; in New River, the rocks are just big enough to be a nuisance, positioned as they are to trip a horse or dent the undercarriage of your packrat-eaten car.
New River is Stunning Mountain Views.
It seems that every property in New River has been blessed with a gorgeous mountain view. To the north is the Tonto National Forest, millions of acres of desert trails and mountains. Many of the highest peaks bear reminders of those who've been this way before: ruins of dwelling places, rock art carved into boulders, and well-worn metates left behind by women who'd ground grain upon them.
In the winter, it's not uncommon to see snow on the mountaintops, forming an interesting juxtaposition of saguaro cactus and snow-capped peaks.
New River is All About the Outdoors.
Whether by foot, by hoof, or by quad, residents of New River spend plenty of time enjoying the astonishing scenery up close and personal. Trails extend throughout the community and out into the Tonto. For those who prefer to stay close to home, nature comes right up to the window -- the area is home to bobcats, coyotes, deer, javelina, skunks, jackrabbits, cottontails, and plenty of rodents. Rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, lizards, coral snakes, and impressively large bull snakes live in close proximity to several types of scorpions, tarantulas, and a variety of other arthropods and insects. The bird life is nearly unbelievable: valley quail, mourning doves, flickers, hummingbirds, abundant hawks, phainopepla, and cactus wrens are but a few of my own favorites.
Hunting and recreational shooting are popular pastimes, and the desert silence is punctuated with the sound of gunshots. Wear brightly-colored clothing if you're headed out into the Tonto during bird season. Not every weekend warrior is careful of his backdrop when the bevy of quail burst out from the mesquite grove.
It's an interesting place, rugged and steeped in history, populated by interesting characters with stories to tell. No one really knows why it's called New River; the river is no river, and it certainly isn't new. It's a great place for exploring the outdoors or for exploring one's own inner peace. Somewhere, halfway between the guns of autumn and the howling of the coyotes, is serenity.
Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller
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