Cross-Country, Part 8 (Bonus!)

Finally the end.  Or was it?

We’d driven most of the way across the United States.  Then we spent a week in Phoenix, Arizona.  However, we weren’t completely done.  Our rental home agreement ended two days before our return flight so we needed to spend a little time somewhere else.  Originally my wife figured we could go down to Tucson.   Instead we completed the cross-country journey by heading towards San Diego on Interstate 8.  I explained some of that in an earlier episode so I won’t repeat how we came to that decision.  Nonetheless it appended a bonus segment onto the trip and a few more things to talk about

Yuma Territorial Prison

Prison Cells

Very few communities of any size existed anywhere between Phoenix and San Diego (map).  In fact, pretty much only Yuma stood out.  It rose from the desert just on the Arizona side of the line, about half-way along our six hour drive.  That made it a perfect place to stop and stretch our legs.

Originally I wanted to cross into México at the Andrade – Los Algodones border station a few miles west of Yuma.  Looking at Los Algodones on Google Street View (image), it seemed the town existed primarily to provide cheap medical services and pharmaceuticals to retirees from the United States.  I figured we’d walk around, maybe grab some lunch and perhaps some souvenirs.  I even brought our passports.  My wife never felt comfortable with the idea and she vetoed it at the last moment, probably for good reasons.

So we made do with what we could find in Yuma.  A quick search of the Intertubes turned up the Yuma Territorial Prison.  I’ve visited old prisons before so it seemed like a worthy place to spend an hour or two.  The prison opened in 1876 — long before Arizona statehood — and housed prisoners until 1909.  The strangest bit of trivia I discovered there was that the local high school sports team calls itself the Criminals as a result (photo).


Dunes

Dunes

I’d never driven this particular stretch of interstate before so it came as quite a surprise when we crossed into California and the terrain transformed into a sea of sand.  We’d entered the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.  Nobody can say definitively how this feature formed.  However, a prevailing theory focused on sands that blew from the beach of an inland lake that existed when the Colorado River took a different course than it does today.  Regardless, it seemed out of place and somewhat otherworldly.  Lots of people seemed to be having a good time running their dune buggies up and over the hillsides though.


Plenty of Rest

Rest Below Sea Level

Twelve Mile Circle once bemoaned the decline of public restrooms along interstate highways.  That didn’t seem to be a problem along I-8.  Few services and fewer towns within this desolate stretch pretty much necessitated them.  Oddly, by some strange set of circumstances, we ended up stopping at all four of them on Interstate 8; two heading west and two returning east.

My favorite rest stop had to have been the one in California’s Imperial Valley (map).   This spot happened to be located remarkably close — barely more than a mile — from the lowest overland elevation in the entire interstate highway system.  This would put it at about 50 feet (16 metres) below sea level.

We crossed the valley and then headed up into the Laguna Mountains. There we encountered another anomaly, one of the widest splits between opposing lanes on a U.S. highway.  Interstate 8 sure packed a lot of entertainment into such an “empty” stretch, at least for those of us fascinated by weird geography.


San Diego

Bea-Eater Birds at the San Diego Zoo

Finally we dropped down from the mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean at San Diego.  The drive truly became cross-country.  The next day we returned to Phoenix and then flew home the following morning.

Now the trip ended.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 7 (A Week in Phoenix)

We drove for five long days and finally arrived in Arizona.  However, the adventure did not end there.

Phoenix had always been the ultimate goal.  Our decision to go on a road trip sprang from that choice.  My wife and younger son wanted no part of the drive and flew to Phoenix instead.  There they settled into a rental home we found on Airbnb and waited for me and the older son to arrive by car.  We finally got there and still had a bunch of days in Arizona ahead of us.

Water in the Desert

Goodyear, Arizona

The whole reason behind our destination tied to my wife’s desire to run a specific race.  She chose a rental home near the upcoming race in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear.  The housing development clustered on two man-made bodies of water called North and South Lakes (map), rather unimaginatively.   It all seemed fine on the mild January days we visited.  It even rained a little bit, helping to replenish the lakes.  I enjoyed gazing upon them and strolling around them too.  Still, I wondered what happened in summer.  How much of this precious water in the desert evaporated for such a meaningless decorative purpose?  How much longer can something like this last?

We also experienced a bit of irony.  My wife hurt her foot shortly before we left home and she couldn’t run.  We no longer had a reason to go to Phoenix.  However, by that point I’d already planned my route and I had no intentions of backing out.  I had counties to count.


Arizona Commemorative Air Force

B-17 Flying Fortress

I’d visited six zoos on the long drive with my older son.  Now it only seemed fair to spend some time with my younger son.  He loves vintage aircraft and enjoys visiting airplane museums.  That led us to the Arizona Commemorative Air Force in the nearby city of Mesa.  The main facility held a wide range of combat aircraft covering the history flight, with a particular focus on the Second World War.  An adjoining hanger included restorations in progress as well as fully-functioning aircraft that could roll onto the runways of Falcon Field Airport (map) and reach the skies.


City Lights

Nightfall in Phoenix

Even better, the museum offered flights on its antique warbirds.  They weren’t cheap although I’d just taken one kid across the country.  So the other one got a ride in a World War II Douglas C-47 Skytrain as night fell over Phoenix.  Plus I could rationalize it as a Christmas present.  We got to see the twinkling lights of the Valley of the Sun from a much lower altitude than a commercial jetliner.  We were so close we could even see Christmas decorations on people’s lawns.  The valley was remarkably flat and the roads aligned in a practically perfect grid.


Hole in the Rock

Hole in the Rock

I didn’t have to traipse far from town to experience the rugged terrain of the Sonoran Desert.  I simply headed towards Papago Park, right within the heart of Phoenix itself.  Imagine 1,500 acres of wilderness completely surrounded by suburban sprawl and that pretty much described the park.  It included a major zoo, a botanical garden filled with desert plants, miles of hiking trails, and fascinating geological features.

Hole-in-the-Rock (map) dominated the landscape, rising a couple of hundred feet above surrounding flatness.  The natural sandstone formation eroded naturally over a few million years.  Wind and water worked in concert to carve chambers in its surface, including one that cut entirely through the outcrop from one side to the other.  A sign at the trailhead explained that the ancient Hohokam culture considered this a sacred sight and tracked the position of the sun shining through the hole to mark planting seasons.  Hole-in-the-Rock served as something of a geological Stonehenge for these people.

An easy trail led to the window on the backside of the outcrop.  Most people stopped there and ventured no further.  The views of Phoenix were pretty amazing from that point.  However, feeling adventurous and probably acting younger than I should have, I had to continue up towards the summit.  I got there just fine.  Climbing back down was more challenging and a bit scarier.  Even so I managed and — since I’m able to write this — obviously I didn’t fall or injure myself.

Phoenix offered a nice counterpoint to our many days on the road.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 6 (The Western Half)

The first half of the drive seemed almost routine as it ran through terrain familiar to a lifelong resident of the eastern part of the United States.  However we still had a couple of days to go and began moving into unfamiliar territory.  Here I captured a wide swath of previously unvisited counties straight through the heart of Texas and into southern New Mexico and Arizona.

The Weather  Turns

Rainbow West of Abilene

My son and I joked that each new day seemed to bring a different form of precipitation.  We hadn’t encountered anything serious, a little drizzle, some patchy freezing fog, a few snow flurries and an overnight shower as we slept in our hotel room.   That changed once we pushed into central Texas.  We couldn’t visit the Abilene Zoo as the first waves of torrential rain rolled over us.  I can’t recall ever experiencing a thunderstorm in late December before, although I’d rarely strayed this far south during the Christmas season either.  We’d left the freezing cold far behind us days earlier and conditions changed in favor of turbulent weather.

The 170 mile (275 km) stretch from Abilene to Odessa (map) quickly became a formidable driving challenge.  Speeds dropped way down as a matter of safety and I came close to pulling over and waiting it out a couple of times.  Then we’d catch a break for ten or fifteen miles before hitting the next wave.  Still, I felt lucky.  At least we weren’t on the frozen side of the storm.  This same weather pattern pulling moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping water on us created an epic blizzard farther north in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.  Plus, we caught some wonderful rainbows during breaks in the action.


Petroleum and Nowhere

Outside of Van Horn

The central to western part of Texas seemed almost featureless, both monotonously flat and completely empty.  We’d traversed the Permian Basin, the heart of the Mid-Continent Oil Field.  Actually, it did have some features.  However, they were all man-made.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, stretched an endless array of oil wells and related equipment.  Everyone in Midland and Odessa seemed to drive the same white pickup truck with a company logo tied to the petroleum  industry.  Dust and tumbleweeds swirled around us as we pushed through the back side of the storm.  I’m sure local residents loved the setting although it seemed remarkably bleak to me.  Surely, minus the the jobs in the oil field, few people would choose to live there willingly.

The terrain  changed again as we approached Van Horn, Texas (map), where we stayed overnight after the fourth day.  This was the only town of any size in any direction in this remote corner of the state.  Van Horn had a captive audience of travelers on Interstate 10, and knew it.  With no other place to stay before El Paso, another 120 miles (190 km) away, hotels could charge pretty much whatever they wanted.  We paid more here than any other place during our entire trip; and double the rate of a similar hotel room in Arkansas a couple of nights earlier.


Setting Politics Aside

EL Paso Zoo

We headed towards El Paso the next morning.  News stories that week talked incessantly about the border between Mexico and the United States, and whether a wall should be built.   I did my best to ignore the clatter although I got an immediate reminder as we entered the city and drove towards the zoo.  We took Rt 375 (map), the loop that ran directly along the international separation.  Metal fencing and border patrol agents separated the two countries pretty much completely.  Nonetheless, we could easily peer over the fence as we drove by, into the crowded neighborhoods in Ciudad Juárez one the other side .

I put it out of my mind.  Twelve Mile Circle isn’t a politics blog.  We enjoyed the zoo which seemed a thousand miles away from the controversy even though it sat barely a few hundred feet within the U.S.


Completing the Quest

Saguaro Cacti

We crossed New Mexico and pushed into Arizona without much excitement.  The first sighting of cacti signaled the impending end of our journey.  Saguaro grow only in the Sonoran desert, so only in southern Arizona for the U.S. portion of its range.  We rolled into Phoenix where we prepared to stay for a week.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr