On The Road Again

Yesterday was a day of travel, but just the little-t sort of travel that is concerned with destinations. This morning found me in Oak Creek, just south of Sedona, Arizona. I pulled out the atlas and discovered that there really was only one sensible route to take to reach my destination in California. I didn’t go that way.

The air was brisk, but it was certainly a top-down kind of day. Beef jerky, Gatorade, and the open road. This, my friends, is what America is all about.

I went up Oak Creek Canyon to reach Flagstaff, and wow, what a pleasant stretch of road that is. The leaves on the (I assume) oak trees were still changing, and there was some big, energetic symphonic thing playing on the radio. (I regret now that my little voice recorder is in Prague.) At the top of the canyon I stopped for pictures, then headed toward town. In the days of yore, mariners welcomed the sight of sea gulls which heralded their arrival in the new world; in a similar fashion the pizza delivery truck announced my arrival in town.

I rolled into Flag in a mood for small roads. There is a road out of Flagstaff, due north, that I had never driven. And hey, I needed to go north… a bit. We won’t discuss the three mountain ranges I put in my way by going north, then west, rather than the other way around. I turned my back to the winter sun and north I went.

Highway 89 was a bit of a disappointment. The map showed it running right up the edge of the painted desert, but it follows the echo cliffs, which block out the vast panoramic views I was hoping for. From just above Flagstaff I was under overcast skies, and there was a gloomy aspect to the Indian crap stalls lining the highways, deserted, “OPEN” banners flapping in the wind.

One crap shop that was open was Chief Yellowhorse, which, with a bright red-on-yellow lettering, promised “FRIENDLY INDIANS”. Whew! That’s a relief!

North and north some more, past the turnoff to Tuba city, past the UPS party (bunches of UPS trucks parked off the road, shuffling trailers), heading for Glen Canyon dam, and all along the way the grandeur of nature was undermined by the scars of man. Down this corridor power transmission lines, roads, and run-down buildings, abandoned vehicles, and a general feeling of decay predominate. Farther north, however, the road becomes more interesting as it climbs up onto the Kaibab plateau and makes a run for Utah. At the Glen Canyon Dam (the one Edward Abbey wanted to blow up), there is a cool rock formation that looks like a beehive. It is obscured from the distance by the power station for the dam, and one shoulder of it is cut away for the visitor’s center parking lot. The power station I can understand, and the rocks will be there long after the station has rusted away, but I think the marketing boys didn’t see the value that cool rock would have as an identity for the dam, and they harmed it’s value while catering to the very people who would have appreciated it.

I came out from under the overcast skies somewhere around the Utah border, as I added a bit of west to my journey. I passed though a little farm town in southern Utah, nestled in a narrow valley, that was named Orderville. I am careful with speed limits in all those small towns, but in this place even the name suggested that there would be no shenanigans tolerated. Sure enough, at the school crossing (just past the sign advertising handmade caskets), a truck with police lights waited at the side of the road. At the wheel I couldn’t help but notice the long graceful neck and the full red lips of the cop inside. She was fast asleep. I didn’t take a picture, I just kept driving.

The last time I had been in those parts I had driven through Zion National Park, so this time I elected to pass to the north, to see some new scenery. It is time to add Utah Highway 14 to the list of best roads in the country. I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for all the warnings about how I was doomed to die if my car wasn’t equipped for deep snow. When I got to the summit, to my right was a breathtaking vista, the forest a patchwork far below, bare deciduous trees mingled with the conifers, open meadows with pristine white snow, shimmering with suggested rainbows in the low sun. I just looked; I didn’t take a picture, I just paused and kept driving. The trip down the other side twisted and turned, taking me past a frozen cascade and into a narrow canyon. If you put this road on your to-drive list, I recommend going west to east, as sharp corners are more fun going uphill.

I stopped at Cedar River (Cedar something, anyway) to warm my hands and fuel up, then it was off into the sunset, west toward the Nevada border, into a spectacular sunset that used the whole sky. It got dark quickly once the sun had quit the scene, and I turned on the heater to blow onto my red hands. I was rolling.

When I joined the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (no idea why it’s named that, but it’s even labeled on the map), I passed a sign reading “Next gas 150 miles”. I glanced at my gauge and thought, “No problem.” Ten miles later I looked again and was considerably less confident. I pulled over and put the top up for better aerodynamics and slowed down to 59 miles per hour, rather than the posted limit of 70. Slowing down also extends the time of uncertainty, but after I have covered the first 110 miles I could see that I would make it with plenty of gas to spare. I didn’t speed back up, though; that pace just seemed so comfortable at that point, just rolling along quietly, the road mine and mine alone.

A bit of perspective for European and Eastern US readers (Australian readers need not bother): In the 240 km for which I was driving 18 kph under the speed limit, I was never passed by another car. In fact, I traveled more than 100 km, more than an hour, without seeing any other car moving in either direction. In more than two hours of driving, I met four cars total. This was in the evening, between 18.30 and 21.00, not the middle of the night. There are some big, open spaces out here, places people can (and do) disappear.

I rolled into Tonopah, by far the largest town for a long way in any direction. There were several hotels, and some of them advertised free Internet. My first try was the Clown Hotel. It didn’t look that great, but I wanted to open this episode with “I’m at the Clown Hotel.” You have to jump when you have a chance to use a line like that. You can be sure it will show up in a story some day. Perhaps “From Clown Hotel to Space Age Lodge: A voyage across the desert southwest.”

It was full. So was the Best Western. I wound up at the Ramada, which doesn’t suck but it cost a bit more. My WiFi signal is sporadic, but here I am and here I’ll sleep. There is a casino here, but it only has slot machines, so there’s no temptation on that score. There is television, however, and the late-night cartoons of Adult Swim are doing a wonderful job distracting me. Why does every anime dubbed into English use that horrible, horrible, girl for one of the voices? She must be the worst actor in the world with a steady income.

For all the driving I did, I’m not really that much closer to my destination, and now I face mountain passes and winter storms. Not the smartest bit of route planning I’ve ever done, but you don’t look down from the summit on Utah Highway 14 in the winter when you travel intelligently. I guess maybe I should sleep now. At the moment I don’t have a signal, but hopefully I can post this soon.

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