Thursday, April 24, 2014

Into uncharted terrain.

I haven't had a solo road trip in perhaps a year and the last time I sallied forth I drove off into a blizzard on my way to see my kids and attend the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Denver. But I've driven that route up I25 so many times that it hardly feels unusual. So when I was offered the chance to have a bike ride and party with 30 or so of my cycling e-friends I jumped at it. Not only for that particular experience but to drive beyond the western edge of my motoring experience; that is to say well beyond central Arizona. 

Just out of college I took a couple of grand tours of the west sleeping in my pickup truck and visiting all the major sites. I visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon on one of those trips driving in from Utah before finally turning left and heading back to my home of the time in Rochester, N.Y.  The Grand Canyon visit was as far west as I've driven in the US, at least from somewhere east. Of course I've driven all over Oregon and California and Washington but those trips started at coastal airports. The furthest east I've been in California happens to be the Fashion Square Mall in San Diego. So this trip offered the possibility to fill in a large blank space in my travel experience. I loaded up the car, kissed MLW goodbye and headed west.

It's been more than 10 years since I last drove on I40 from Albuquerque towards Flagstaff. That trip was just days after 9/11 and for a business meeting in Phoenix. I remember no one wanted to fly at that time but I had to be there so MLW and I turned it into a mini vacation, taking in the sites, shopping in Scottsdale and even visiting the Meteor Crater on the way home. Every time I drive through New Mexico I'm reminded of just how beautiful a state it is. So many things we have here would be a state or national park elsewhere. We're blessed in so many ways - people, weather, scenery - that sometimes we just forget. But a drive in the country brings it all home in such a short period of time. Today was no different, high clouds slightly shading the sun brought out the reds and ochers in the buttes near Grants. Mt. Taylor had no snow. The Malpais lava looked as sinister as ever. Reaching Gallup around mid-afternoon the landscape changed and the road was hemmed in by big weathered offshoots of the Mogollon Rim, classic western landscape. 

The temperatures had been mild but jumped up rapidly as I crossed into Arizona. It was as though the state wasn't going to let its reputation for scorching go unproven. I drove across the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest passing tourist shops with giant stone tree trunks and fake dinosaurs out front, placed in hopes of generating some business. All that kitsch offset by rounded hillocks composed of varying shades of purple and white sand. Climbing towards Flagstaff the land changed commensurate with the elevation and I was now surrounded by tall pines. 

A really big hill leads down and out of that more pleasant zone, quickly reminding you that you are in the desert. Sage brush and sub blasted mountains trailed off into the distance, as far as I could see. The next hour or so was more this, the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert and not all that different than what we see on our regular trips to Mexico. Cooler perhaps, but still very hot in appearance. As I passed through Williams, Arizona I realized I'd crossed into a new place, one where I had never driven before. 

The desert changed a bit here - different cacti, smaller bushes. The temperature continued to rise,  seeming to accelerate as I started to descend into the flood plain of the Colorado River. It was now in the high 90's, more than 30 degrees more than what I had left behind. I passed through Kingman and the road took a big turn south, moving the afternoon sun into the passenger window and giving my left arm a break. I crossed the Colorado about 6 PM marveling at just how much water it held even while knowing that by the time it dumps into the Sea of Cortez, that water will have all been diverted to the region's thirsty cities. 

I was running low on gas so I stopped to refuel in Needles. There were three stations, all with identical prices that were almost $1.50 a gallon more than my local station. When you're driving a boat with a 44 gallon tank, that kind of price difference is shocking but having no choice, I picked one and pulled up. It was hot and windy and dry, and the clothing I'd left home in was suddenly inappropriate. I popped my card in the pump and was promptly refused so I took it in and talked with the kid behind the counter. He tried it again and it was denied. Another victim of credit card fraud algorithms. I gave him a different card, guesstimated the pre-approval amount and went out and filled up. 

There is a long, long climb out of the river valley and as I rose, the temperatures once again fell to more reasonable levels. The sun was getting low now, and the shadows were long in the valleys on both sides of the highway. The terrain took another turn, the mountains appearing even more blasted and lifeless than those I'd passed earlier. Cresting the hill and looking south, I did a double take at what was laid out before me - the black stony mountains seemed to be half-submerged in a sea of soft gray ash. I stared but my brain wasn't processing what I was seeing. It didn't look real. There were only two colors, black and charcoal and the whole scene looked painted. Only when I got to the bottom of the hill and looked out across the now level plain did it become clear - an endless sea of small buff sagebrush extending to the bases of the distant peaks. Those bushes plus some late afternoon haze had conspired to create that fantastic, impossible vista. 

It was starting to get late as I rolled onto the flats of the Mojave and I began thinking about finding a hotel having passed up multiple opportunities in Kingman due to the early hour. Now though I was beginning to think I'd been hasty as nothing was presenting itself. Barstow was still 1.5 hours off and I was hoping that Ludllow would be a possibility, but driving past it was clear it was not. Resigned now to continuing I was starting to wonder what I was going to do. The sun was dead ahead turning the highway into a bright golden ribbon, working with the countless bug bodies on my windshield to further impair my vision. I was glad when it finally went down and even allowed my mind to wander west with it imagining it falling below the horizon and into the Pacific. 

Barstow finally appeared on the horizon and I chose to bypass the first exit hoping that a hotel would be closer to the next one. That turned out to be a fruitless wish so I took the next opportunity and followed the signs towards downtown. After a couple of miles it still hadn't appeared so I took the next major right and headed back to where I knew the highway was. The business density started to increase so I was hopeful, but the hotels looked liked they'd been cloned from the old motor inns I remembered from my childhood Florida trips in the 1960's. I don't expect much, but I do like hotel names I recognize and there were none. As I got closer to completing the big loop I'd started when I left the interstate I saw a Ramada and decided that was it, but I couldn't find a way in. Every driveway seemed to be a 1-way exit. I drove past, did a grand u-turn and headed back, finally finding a way into the maze. I parked, checked in and called it a day. 

I have to say my night time exposure to Barstow is not all that encouraging. I can't wait to see it in the daytime. The hotel is nice enough but the clientele seems to be the type that feels it's okay to leave empty beer bottles on the curb in front of their cars. I did find a Starbucks down the road, so perhaps all is not lost. But for now, I am glad to be out of the car and lying in bed. Tomorrow is another day. 



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