The Superstition Mountains are home to many legends, and the tale of Elisha Marcus Reavis is but one. For two decades he called the mountains home, living in hermetic solitude, venturing into society only to sell his crops. Whether it was from his mysterious nature or wild, unkempt appearance, tall tales of him were told even during his own lifetime. His reasons and motivations for living there are phantoms by now, but I decided to hike there to see if I could find out why.
Born in Illinois in 1827, he spent his early adult years traveling to and from California and Arizona, looking for gold like many others, but finding no success. He married, had two children, but for reasons lost to time, eventually separated from them in 1869, and decided to settle near Wickenburg in Vulture City. Once the most productive gold mine in Arizona, where 5,000 men labored in the roots of the mountain, it’s now nothing more than crumbling bricks and wooden skeletons, wind and forgotten memories.
Reavis then traveled east to Fort McDowell in 1872, where some say he bought a horse ranch with his gold earnings. He resided there until ’76, when some time afterwards, he decided to explore the Superstition Mountains, where he made his home in a hidden, fertile valley – he then stepped out of the history books, and walked into folktale.
From Phoenix, the trailhead to Reavis Ranch lies between mile marker 227 and 228 on the AZ-88, an old highway that turns into grated dirt shortly after Tortilla Flat. Following a back-road for another three miles, it ends at a parking lot and official trailhead marked by the Forest Service.
Until now, the landscape has been desert, brush and cactus as any Phoenician is familiar with, but looking towards the southeast from the parking lot, you can see hints of lush green towards the crowns of the mountains. Most people would scoff at the idea of rivers and pine trees in the Superstitions, but the idea becomes reality the closer you get to Reavis Ranch. Perhaps that’s what caught his eye all those years ago.
From the parking lot, the trail begins upwards and onwards, where you can see Four Peaks in all its splendor, and the shimmering Roosevelt Lake in the distance. From the trailhead to the ranch, you’ll pass through five distinct spheres of life: Sonoran desert, high shrubland, mountain prairie, pine forest, and finally the fertile Reavis valley filled with all manner of trees, including apple.
They say a sleeping thunder-god rests in the Superstitions, and if that’s true I certainly felt the Breath of God, as I was blown about by frigid, rushing winds all along the mountain saddles. Reavis would have met these same winds, and maybe he saw them as a challenge, a portent of something worthwhile at the end of the road.
On one of these windy saddles, about four miles from the trailhead, you’ll find the first of three “gates.” It’s an old, blackened gatepost, sticking out of the yellow grass, with two rings of rusty barbed wire hanging from a hook. It almost seems like something out of a dream or a French minimalist film, striking a sharp contrast between it and the environment – the pictures don’t do it justice.
Pressing on after nearly six miles of uphill hiking, a beacon of hope stands against the sky: the second gate. An ancient tree standing tall with its roots exposed, it’s the first tree on the trail so far, and marks when it finally begins to drift downhill into denser country.
I took a rest underneath the tree’s wide arms and thought about the stories of Reavis. Some say that at his ranch, he fought against ten Apache raiders, and with uncanny accuracy, killed three with his rifle. After running out of ammo, he charged the rest stark-naked, wielding a butcher-knife in one hand and a hatchet in the other, screaming like a mad devil and shouting curses in strange tongues. They say the Apache fled in terror, thinking he was possessed by evil spirits, and henceforth never ventured near his valley again. Maybe they were right.
As the trail continues down, the shrubs gradually become stunted trees, which grow taller and taller the closer you get to the ranch. Then suddenly, everything changes. Coming around the bend of a hill, a lush mountain-prairie of green grass and grey trees, nestled on a slope between two hills.
After passing through the prairie and walking through a dry riverbed, and along another set of mountainsides, the third and final gate appears:the Plow Saddle marker. From here, it’s only a couple miles to the ranch, and there’s an log that’s perfect for enjoying the scene.
Reavis was a polarizing figure. Although there are stories of his madness and violence, he was also said to have a large library of rare books in his home, and was educated and well-spoken. People tend to ascribe qualities of insanity or genius to lonesome men, envying their independence and believing that they must be hiding some kind of power for themselves. In the old myths, it is the hermit on the mountain who has secret knowledge for the hero to discover, and myths are true in a way that facts are not.
After nearly 10 miles of hiking, the trail descends a final time and reveals a long, narrow oasis: Reavis Valley. From here the path is shaded by all kinds of trees, and follows a river that runs parallel to it. Then the land opens up into an even field nearly 15 acres large, with an apple orchard still thriving and growing in straight rows, surrounded by broken fences. The wind blows very gently, the soil is dark and the river never ceases to flow. If there was ever a perfect place for a ranch, it was here.
By now the sun had begun to set behind the tall peaks, and I made my camp a short walk up the trail from the ranch, tucked into a grove of trees and next to a stream. For all the stories about Reavis that may be false, one is certainly true, and recorded in the legal documents of the time. In 1877, Reavis and man named Lewis were camping at Picket Post mountain near Superior. They made some tea using water from a keg they were carrying, and shortly after drinking it, Reavis fell ill and Lewis began convulsing uncontrollably. Reavis got on his mule and rode for Hewitt Station five miles away, and returned with a team who could help – but it was too late. Lewis was found dead, laying belly-down on the campfire, which had burned halfway through him before being extinguished by bodily fluids. Reavis later testified he bought the kegs at a store in Florence, and a subsequent investigation found that they and a few others had been tainted with arsenic. Maybe Lewis had been a dear friend, and the survivor’s guilt of his death made Reavis want to get away from it all. Or maybe the arsenic had damaged his brain, and he really did go crazy.
Sitting by my campfire, I began to understand Reavis a little better. Wandering through the country; a failed marriage or a dead wife; no success in mining gold; getting restless every few years. Here was a place that was unclaimed by anyone, a little slice of paradise in a harsh and unforgiving desert. He could live here the way he wanted, farm the way he saw fit, and sell his crops at prices he thought best. A land of his own creation, not bound by the written laws of men, answerable only to God. He didn’t have to shave, bathe, or change his appearance to suit others. Here, he was king.
For nearly 20 years the hermit called this place home, but eventually the dream ended. James Dalabaugh, a friend of Reavis, checked in on him in April of 1896. Reavis had said he was preparing a trip to Mesa to buy seed potatoes, and a short time later, Dalabaugh departed and went to check on his mining properties in the area. In May, he ended up at JF Ranch, a day’s travel from Reavis’ ranch, and learned that Reavis had not come through here, even though it was on the only trail leading south. Reavis rode his favorite burro and traveled with a team of up to 15 of them, so he was a hard sight to miss. Dalabaugh headed up the trail, and just four miles from the ranch, he found Reavis’s body, dried and nearly rotted away.
Some say he was finally killed by Apaches, others, by a mountain lion. But Reavis was nearly 70, and he may very well died of a heart attack. Nobody will ever know for sure. No matter the cause, he died as he had lived – alone. But whether he was a secret scholar of the mountain, a devil disguised as a man, or simply someone who wanted to live on his own terms, Reavis lives on in the stories of the desert.
In a land of such raw, untamed nature and wild weather, a quiet oasis can be found hidden among the chaos. Perhaps Reavis, after looking for most of his life, had finally found a place that was just like him.