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May 17th, 2009

Signs Of The Old Road





I could tell I was close to the Mexican border this morning.  It was the first time there was salsa in the Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar!  Nogales is an old town, and it sits astride the border – literally.  You can see that as the town grew it didn’t pay attention to the border – but now, there is a huge scar down the city that is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. 
 
From the hill overlooking the town it’s very evident – that by a mere chance of fate, being born on one side or the other of an imaginary line pretty much determines the chances one will have in life.  It’s a very sobering thought. 

There are more Border Patrol agents than I’ve seen in my life.  It’s like being in the midst of an army camp.  And there are billboards all over Arizona advertising that the Border Patrol is hiring too.  I’ll be honest, these people scare me.  They set up roadblocks on the freeway and search cars – with no probable cause or reason. They demand proof of citizenship, just like the Nazis did (Papers please?).  Its really aggravating sitting on a motorcycle in the heat idling away in the line at a checkpoint set up 25 miles in from the border.  All in the name of “security”.  Funny, I don’t feel very secure around them.

I started at the border crossing on “Grand Avenue” which according to my old maps, is where US-89 started.  Now it’s an un-numbered road that winds through downtown Nogales, and eventually ends up as a ramp to I-19.  I could have hopped on and off of I-19 but chose not to, until I got to Tumacacori.  I jumped off the freeway here as it started a long stretch of old US-89 and goes past a wonderful old Spanish mission that dates from the late 1700s. 
It’s a peaceful and tranquil setting, and at 830am, it was cool as the sun had yet to turn itself on “high”.  I enjoyed strolling around the grounds and the old church for 45 minutes before heading back up what is now called “Old Nogales Highway”.  I like that name – at least it has some meaning, and tells me I’m on the right road.  It wound through miles of Pecan groves before transitioning into South Tucson.

When looking for the old road there are clues and signs that generally tell you that you are on it.  Chief among them are old small motels with very dated neon signs.  The only place you find them is on what was the main road into town – just like now you find the “Quality Inn” or “Super 8” on the freeway offramps of the “new” road into town. 
I had the notion back in College to travel at night and take pictures of these great old signs for a coffee table book.  I even did manage to take a few pictures back then – but the book idea died, and now there are even fewer of these signs left to document.

I stopped for gas just a bit north of Tucson.  After filling up I ran inside for an “adult sippy cup” of Gatorade.  I took a moment to chat with the clerk who started it by commenting on me getting through the “child proof” packaging on the bottle.  I told her how these were great for being on the bike as they were “one handed” and didn’t spill – an “adult sippy cup”.  This invited her to comment on how she “didn’t have those when she was a kid – nowadays kids don’t learn not to spill because they have sippy cups.”  I said “don’t get me started – kids today can’t find their way out of a paper bag if the don’t have a GPS.”  By now the other clerk joined in and we all lamented how we didn’t have text messages, GPS, or DVD’s in cars which means kids get lost and don’t know anything about where they are because they never pay attention to where they are going.  I suppose my parents said the same thing about FM radio and automatic transmission.  Such is progress.

By now the old road was out in the country – numbered as AZ-79.  My old maps showed this was once US-89, and it eventually brought me to Florence – home of the Arizona State Pen.  I stopped for some water at a McDonalds that was full of women with kids – and no men.  It took me a minute, but I realized it was Saturday and these were all wives or girlfriends visiting inmates. 

If you look, you still find signs of the old road out here in the desert too -- abandoned gas stations and cafes -- their signs rusting away. (Left below) Just north of Florence, where US-60 comes down from Globe, is “Florence Junction”.  I have a B&W photo I took in a college art class here – with an abandoned gas station and a full moon rising up behind the mountain, and the US-89/US-60 sign. (Right below)
I had captioned it with a line from a novel I’d read “Is there anything more pretty than the sight of an American blacktop road heading nowhere in the moonlight.”  The gas station – which was abandoned 27 years ago, is now completely gone, and I could find no trace of it other than one sign remnant.  The whole area has been done over into a cloverleaf interchange, and there is nothing sadder to an old road rider than a sign saying the old road is closed.
I had to take the divided highway for a few miles but just before it became the “Superstition Freeway” I bailed off for the ride down what I knew from my days here as the old road – joint US-89/US-60/US-70. It was a long HOT HOT HOT ride through Apache Junction, Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix and the other suburb cities, down Apache Trail, Main Street, Mill Avenue, Van Buren Street, and Grand Avenue.  See, I still remember them from those years ago!  I knew I was on the old road -- even though they had taken down the highway signs.  It was a sad trip in many ways – seeing how much had changed, and how much of the old road was gone.  But like coming into Tucson – the signs were there, I just had to look for them.  I was very glad to see that my favorite “Diving Lady” motel sign was still up – I just wished it was at night so I could see if she still was lit.  Judging from the condition, I bet she was.  And I was also glad to see “Mel’s Diner” still there – you may recognize it as the exterior shot of “Mel’s Diner” in the old TV show Alice.
 
As the endless Phoenix suburbs transitioned into desert, I was able to pick up the speed and as the road climbed it got cooler.  Just north of Wikenburg, I turned off onto AZ-89.  At last, the number was correct.  This road was a delight to ride, as it twisted and turned, climbing up into the mountains around Prescott.  The air almost deliciously cool after the heat of the Phoenix valley.  I had hoped to make it as far as Williams Junction outside of Flagstaff, but the heat took too much out of me and so I stopped in Prescott for the night. 

The first thing I did was hit the shower.  I washed enough dirt and sweat and sun screen off to leave a rather dirty bathroom – but it sure felt good to get clean.  After drying off I noticed I’d been cooked to a nice “medium rare” tone too.  At least from here on out I won’t be enduring the extreme heat I have been.  I have a choice here in Prescott too – which is one of the oldest towns in Arizona.  I can take old US-89 (now AZ-89) or old US-89A (now AZ-69).    AZ-89 takes me up to Williams Junction where old 89 met up with old US-66 (now I-40), while old 89A goes through Sedona – perhaps the prettiest part of the state.  Looking at my old map, both seem “valid” if I’m retracing old 89, both show up on the map.  We’ll see how I feel in the morning.  You know I could have taken I-19 and I-10, and I-17 to get here today – done it in about 4 hours as opposed to the 11 I took.  I would have been a cooler too.  But I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.  After all, I got to see my old friend “Chief Kiva” again.

Riding in all that heat and traffic through Phoenix really took it out of me I guess, as I slept later than I wanted to and got a slow start from Prescott this morning.  It was warm when I left, riding in a short-sleeve t-shirt.  I had my choice of routes to get up to Flagstaff – the original US-89, now AZ-89 which goes due north and hits up with I-40 at Williams (which in the old days was US-66/US-89), or I could take AZ-89A which goes up and over the mountains to Jerome and through Sedona before terminating in Flagstaff.  As is common these days the junction was a traffic circle – and I’d yet to make up my mind when I hit it – so I went around it TWICE before saying to myself, “take the scenic route.”  Since both were original alignments of US-89, I figured it was OK.  I was glad I did.  This was another of those roads that is a tribute to the early road builders – they hacked this path up and over the mountains, winding and twisting and looping all over the place – which is an ideal road for a motorcycle, and not so ideal for a Motorhome or RV.  They even signed it as "Historic 89A".
 
Fortunately I didn’t run into any on my way, but it was slow going.  Jerome was  quaint old mining town turned arts colony, and it is laid out like Park City Utah.  A bit further on was Sedona, the “New Age” capital of the world – lots of rich artsy type, with immaculate buildings that blend into the spectacular red-rock formations.  It’s a great getaway for Phonecians, with lots of spas and art dealers. I reached Flagstaff a little over two and a half hours after I left Prescott – 90 miles, so do the math.  I was happy though, and more or less recovered from the  heat yesterday, and kept myself well hydrated all day today.  I stopped there, along “historic Route 66” for a bit, and wished I had the time to take that road from Chicago to LA.  One day. 
I gassed up and had another bottle of water on the outskirts of Flagstaff before heading off to cross the giant Navajo reservation that takes up that corner of Arizona.  This was all familiar road.  I’d driven it many many times going to and from Salt Lake and Phoenix while living in Arizona going to graduate school and after.  The last time I drove it was in a U-Haul as I moved from Arizona to Seattle in 1989.  This stretch hadn’t changed much – still lots of poverty, lots of roadside stands selling Navajo jewelry and lots and lots of nothing surrounded by giant red cliffs.  I often felt like I was riding through an old Sunday Calivn and Hobbs Cartoon when they’d be off exploring some strange planet.  It was a very lonely road too – hardly any traffic at all, and you could see the road wind for miles. 
It is times like this that I felt very lost, alone, and almost an insignificant spek on the earth – and that I could simply disappear and no one would notice.  There was not even any cell service out there.   In my current mental state, this was not a pleasant thought, and truth be told, I felt so alone I started to cry.  I also remembered driving down this stretch of road in my father’s 1966 pick up truck, loaded with all my possessions, and with my best friend Dave (Ben’s Dad), driving me down to Tempe to go to Graduate School.  The old radio in the truck was an AM only and didn’t work well, especially out there in no-man’s land, so Dave and I entertained ourselves by reciting the dialogue from the movie “Auntie Mame”.  

After the trading post of “Gap”, I had another choice – between US-89 and US-89A.  My 1952 map only shows US-89, which is now 89A.  The current alignment of 89 was built when Glen Canyon Dam was constructed in the early 60s.  So I decided to stay true to the map, and took what is now 89A.  I crossed the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, and then wound across the desert and up onto the Kiabab Plateau.  The higher elevation, cool air, and scent of the pine trees was heaven to me.The road dropped down off the Plateau and into the border town of Fredonia, AZ, and Kanab, UT, where we met up with US-89 again.  Crossing into Utah I jumped up an hour in time since Utah observes Daylight Time.  I was getting hungry too, since I’d only had a Cliff Bar in Flagstaff for lunch.  I decided to stop and eat in Kanab, and found a nice little restaurant called  “Grandma Tina’s Café”.  I parked the bike in the shade and wandered in.  It turns out it was primarily Italian, and I had a wonderful cheese torilini with strawberry shortcake for desert.  It was still early, and I wanted to get closer to Salt Lake, so I looked at the map.  As I said, this stretch of road is very familiar, and I  knew that when Brigham Young colonized the area in the 1850s, he set up towns a day’s ride apart – roughly every 12-15 miles.  I figured I’d find something up road.  About that time I got a text from Tony who asked where I was, so I told him and asked him to look on line for a hotel in Panguitch.  He texted back that there was nothing in my stable of Choice Brand Hotels, or Holiday Inn Express, or Best Western.  Yikes!  There was a Best Western at Bryce Canyon, which was a few miles off of 89, and I figured would be a great place to stay.  I called, and they were booked.  I was starting to think I’d end up staying in Kanab when Tina herself said she knew of a good motel in Panguitch and gave me the number.

I called up to the “Color Country Motel” and found out they had a vacancy, and they had wireless Internet too!  So I told her I’d be there in a couple of hours and headed out up the highway.  I think this was my favorite part of the ride today.  The temperature was just right, and the sun was starting to go down, which makes the colors so vibrant and vivid.  The rocks were red, the trees green, and the sky a cloudless blue.  There was no one on the road except me, as I roared through the small towns between Kanab and Panguitch – each with a small Mormon chapel, and no more than a few houses.  This was the main road for years between Mormon settlements in this valley and down into Arizona, and it doesn’t look or feel like it’s changed in the 20 years since I last drove it.I pulled into Panguitch and found the “Color Country” – an old 1940s roadside joint, with an actual “key” not a key-card for entry into my “cabin”.  It’s small, I don’t expect Norman Bates to show up, but it’s of that genre.  I like it.  The office and my cabin are decorated with framed completed and mounted jigsaw puzzles covered in layers of varnish.  It’s very down home.  It lets me pretend it’s 1950 and I’m still at least a day’s drive from Salt Lake City.  I wonder if that Nash Metropolitan on the lot in Coos Bay is still for sale....

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