I call Mr. Robert Fuller to let him know I’ve arrived in the small community of Pine, Arizona, to learn the story of his family’s apple tree. It’s the champion Big Tree of its species and was planted by one of his ancestors about a hundred years ago. Rain is beginning to fall again, small drops marking my windshield. A few minutes later, a tall, thin man makes his way across the idle highway from the old house on the other side. He waves and smiles to me; in a moment he opens the passenger door. In spite of the rain, which has picked up since he left the house, he lingers outside. It’s the hesitation of a man who has been raised to make introductions first, before he enters my domain, so to speak. His eyes are bright beneath his ball cap, and his hands are cold but his handshake is firm and friendly.
He gets in the car and unrolls a packet of papers in his hands. It’s the story of his ancestors, Mormon settlers who came to homestead this area beginning in about 1880. Mr. Fuller’s great-great-grandfather, Wyllys Darwin Fuller, also known as Wid, was one of five men chosen to colonize the area, which was a challenging endeavor given the rough terrain and the perceived threat from the Apache. Mr. Fuller tells me of how his ancestors not only scraped a living from the land, but also how they made it hospitable for their families who subsequently arrived, after a time. By 1888, Wid held the contract for mail delivery, responsible for the mail route from Payson, to Pine, and on to Camp Verde, a distance of about sixty miles, which his sons, Frank and Alf, delivered via horse. Sixty miles in today’s vehicles is not far, but on horseback, it was an all-day challenge, requiring multiple exchanges of horses.
It was Alf, Mr. Fuller’s great-uncle, who planted the apple tree I’ve come to see. It stands about a half-dozen miles from where we sit, on the sixty acres of land that he homesteaded around the turn of the previous century.
“Are you ready to see the tree?” Mr. Fuller asks, noting that the rain has let up for the moment.
I nod and we pull out onto the quiet highway, driving north toward Strawberry. Strawberry is more like a hamlet than even a small town, as I’d describe Pine. Summer cabins and homes are tucked into the dense ponderosa pines; there is little in the way of commercial business. We turn and the road dips sharply to ford a now-dry streambed. Eventually the pavement ends and we continue down a soft, rutted road until we reach a locked gate. We enter and walk from here, Mr. Fuller sharing stories as we go. We pass by a modern structure and then turn as we reach a couple of barns made of logs, built by Alf around 1910. The original home on this homestead still stands, a distance beyond where we are walking.
“There it is.”
|Champion Big Tree - Common Apple
He points, and on the other side of a small wash, surrounded by a confusion of corrals, is the apple tree. It is still winter, so the tree is unadorned, bloom-free and leafless, its skeletal essence massive and bulky. I take a few photos from here before we continue down to the tree.
Multiple main branches jut from the tree’s trunk and are themselves each the size of a typical apple tree. The immense trunk, with a girth of more than thirteen feet, rises firmly from the grassy earth. The bark is pocked and swirls up and around the trunk, and this illusion of movement lends a bit of grace to the tree. Suckers sprout from the branches, vertical protuberances that cause Mr. Fuller to lament its condition. At the base, a patch of iris grows, not yet in bloom. Near this, a granite marker identifies the resting place of Alf’s son, Stanley, and Stanley’s wife Elvira. Stanley grew up on the homestead; later he raised his own family here with Elvira. The land now is held in a trust by Stanley Fuller’s descendants.
It is easy to imagine this now-abandoned ranch as a home. The original white house perches on higher ground, flat land beyond the barns. We are in a vast meadow studded with alligator juniper and large oak trees, cradled all around by hillsides crowded with pines. In spite of the adversity these hardy pioneers undoubtedly suffered, this land is idyllic and I feel nostalgic in spite of my own childhood in the city. My parents often took our family to a place not unlike this in southern Arizona, forty years ago.
Mr. Fuller tells me that the apple tree still produces and that the past year was a good one. He presses these apples, and those from trees on his own property, making cider, which he sells at his honey stand in Pine. I wonder how many bushels of tart apples this tree has provided the Fullers over the past century.
There are more Fullers in the Pine Cemetery now than in Pine, he says, adding that only one of the original five families who settled here, the Randalls, still have multiple family members living in the area. He says this without sadness or bitterness. He accepts that there is little economic opportunity in Pine, other than summer tourism, and his own descendants, as he puts it, are scattered. But the tree remains, drawing life from the soil with deep roots, just as the Fuller family has for generations.
|Mr. Robert Fuller with his family's apple tree