TORTILLA FLAT, Ariz. — “Where the hell is Tortilla Flat?” reads a T-shirt hanging in the mercantile shop.
“I designed that one,” said Betsy Andry, a co-owner of the small town established as a stage station in 1904. “It’s one of the more popular shirts. That and the snake-bite one.”
The town boasts a population of six.
“There is me, my husband, my sister, my mom and her husband,” Andry said. “Then, I have a good friend. I call her my sister.”
So where is Tortilla Flat? It’s on the Apache Trail, Arizona 88, about halfway between Apache Junction and Roosevelt Lake. To get there, you drive through the Tonto National Forest along a paved, two-lane road that curves past Goldfield, Canyon Lake and across a few one-lane bridges.
You’ll see the town’s four wooden buildings as you descend into the valley. On a busy day, cars line the road because parking at Tortilla Flat is limited. (Don’t risk it; you could get a ticket.)
A creaky wooden deck connects the buildings.
The first stop is the mercantile, known for two things: handcrafted Native American jewelry and comedic tees. It also has lots of quirky souvenirs: custom sheriff’s badges, pony bicycles and mustache tattoos. Employee Mona Gutierrez dons a different ‘stache every day.
“This one is my favorite,” she said, pointing to a purple- and pink-striped one.
Andry takes me next door to the restaurant. The first thing you notice is the thousands of dollar bills that line the walls.
“We estimate that there is roughly about $80,000,” she said. A hundred years ago, before the restaurant existed, there was a bar. “The workers from the Roosevelt Dam would get paid and they would leave a dollar on the wall with their name on it so that when they finished for the day, they could always stop and get a beer.”
Today, customers use permanent markers to write messages on their dollar bills. They don’t get a beer in exchange, just the pride of leaving behind a memory. Once a week, maintenance workers staple the bills to the walls. That doesn’t stop some people from trying to rip them down.
“We sometimes find them in the pop machines,” Andry said.
There’s little space left on the walls, so employees have started stapling dollars in the ice-cream shop next door. If you stop in there, you must try the prickly-pear gelato. Andry said visitors from all over the world come to sample the sweet taste.
“One time, we ran out of prickly pear,” she said, “and we heard about it from customers.”
The last stop is the museum, which used to be a schoolhouse. It is 10 feet by 10 feet and its walls display Tortilla Flat’s history. The timeline includes the fire that burned the town to the ground in 1987. The residents had to rebuild. Remember the tradition of putting dollar bills on the walls? It started decades before the fire, and all that money was lost.
After a few snapshots, we’re done with the tour. Just 140 steps get me from the museum to the mercantile.
“That’s it,” Andry said. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”