Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Day 23 - All hail Arizona!

Day 23 from Flagstaff, Ariz., one of the most famous stops along Route 66, except there is no signage along Interstate-40 to indicate which exit to take to get to the “Mother Road.” I sit in a rather inexpensive (modesty prevents from calling this place “cheap”) Best Western on Route 66 itself. The westbound Santa Fe has announced its presence twice in a half-hour so the prospects of a quiet night seem remote (I was right).
Oh, well, you get what you pay for and I’m not paying much. I need the bucks for more gasoline, which is getting cheaper as the days go by. In Flagstaff, some 7,000 feet of elevation (and I feel each and every foot), unleaded prices sit at $2.85 – a hopeful sign.
Dinner was spent at a classic restaurant I stumbled upon in a book about Route 66 and each city’s eateries. The authors recommended the Grand Canyon CafĂ© and said that one had to order the chicken fried steak. True to their word, it was a superb effort, with fresh-cut fries, excellent brown gravy (served under the steak, not on top), and soup, salad and veggies for less than eight bucks.
The interior looked like it hadn’t changed since the 1950s, complete with half-moon booths with one of those table-top juke boxes at each station. I doubt if they work, but it was fun to read the playlist.
The sign was pure old school neon, with the classic “Chop Suey” distinguishing this restaurant. Yes, they have a large Chinese menu to go with the chicken fried steaks and hamburgers.
Flagstaff also has a quaint historic downtown district with shops, restaurants and other things that attract tourists.
Before this trip, “Arizona” was an old 1960s Mark Lindsay song about a Native American girl (he of the old Paul Revere and the Raiders). Now I know it as a state of vast nothingness – and I say that in the most complimentary way. In fact, I pin it on Arizonans as a medal of achievement.
Most of the state is completely un-civilized in the best possible manner. You see what Nature has provided for scenery and it’s spectacular. Mountains to the left, mountains to the right (Democrats scrambling to the middle? Oops …) and desert in between. Population centers are few and far between. You have the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, which houses most of the Grand Canyon State’s people. There are other smaller cities (Flagstaff, Sedona, Kingman, Winslow, Lake Havasu City, Yuma), but Phoenix and its suburbs (Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler and Glendale being the largest) dominate. That leaves vast stretches of nothing as you drive (at 75 mph mind you) on I-10 or I-40 and you couldn’t ask for more.
Without actually counting the number of national parks sites in Arizona, compared to other states (obviously places like Virginia and California are rich in history and have lots of national parks), this state is loaded – north to south, east to west. There are five within close proximity of Flagstaff, not counting the Grand Canyon, and this day was spent visiting most of them.
Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) is the remnant of a Sinagua village built between 1125-1400. It is located near the small town of Clarkdale and 15 minutes from Montezuma Castle National Monument, near Camp Verde – a five-story, 20-room dwelling built in the early 12th century. Combined with Casa Grande Ruins, in Coolidge, between Tucson and Phoenix, it offers those interested in archaeology and geology a window into ancient civilizations and just how advanced these people were. And just like that, they disappeared from the face of the earth. Hence, the name HoHoKam (“those who have gone”).
North of Flagstaff sits the Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki parks, with a distant vision of the Painted Desert as a bonus. Wupatki has several pueblo ruins, quite intricate in their construction and use of materials. Sunset Crater has thousands of acres of old lava flow beds, similar to the lava beds on the Big Island in Hawaii (tomorrow will be a stop at Walnut Canyon, Petrified Forest and Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site).
Except it’s all in Arizona. When you add the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the Saguaro National Park and much, much more, you can forgive that parts of the state are hotter than the radiator in a Yugo.
Of all the towns I have driven through, the most unusual was 5,000 feet in the air. After the umpteenth excursion on a twisty-winding mountain road (Mingus Mountain in this case and I’ve about had my fill of going a nervous 20 mph for fear of falling over the edge), I came upon Jerome, Ariz., an old mining town of cooper, silver and gold that once held 15,000 residents. It appears to be a mix of those Italian towns with ridiculously narrow streets, homes built into the side of Mingus Mountain and literally on five levels. You go 15 mph past antique shops, restaurants and other interesting places for those with the stomach for such heights (not me). It is not a ghost town as suggested on a public access station, but it ain’t San Francisco.
How they can live up there in beyond me, but much of Arizona possesses that kind of fascination. Which is why I toast them. On to Gallup, New Mexico.

No comments: