Not too long ago I received a random, seemingly innocent text message from a good friend: “Hey, just wondering – which Vegas chapel did you guys get married in?”
Needless to say, it didn’t take a huge mental leap to figure out something was up…I give full credit to my persuasive texting skills that, after some initial denials and backpedaling, it took me less than three minutes to get her to spill the beans and admit her secret plan. And of course, being just a hop, skip and a jump – OK, about five driving hours – away in Arizona, there’s no way I was NOT going to be there for her big day.
The 74 (Carefree Hwy) to Wickenburg
I love road trips. There’s something about the idea of being on the open road with the world (well, at least the continental U.S.) spread out limitless before you that has always spoken to me. On a road trip it’s just you, whichever year’s road atlas happens to be in your vehicle, and miles of endless possibilities.
When I road trip I usually have a final destination in mind, but the feeling of freedom reigns; around each corner there’s an opportunity to throw all plans out the window, do a U-turn and head in the complete opposite direction on nothing but a whim.
I have to admit, part of me wished I were going to be passing through more interesting and possibly cooler (temperature-wise) territory; the road from Phoenix to Las Vegas is a special kind of scenic – very dry and barren – and after the first couple of times it’s better enjoyed when you have time to stop and explore as opposed to viewing from a speeding vehicle. But a road trip is a road trip. Besides, the sun was shining, my special Road Trip CD was blasting, and it was a Tuesday and I wasn’t at work. What more could I ask for?
Carefree Hwy near Lake Pleasant
My route began on the 74, also known as the Carefree Highway; a flat, straight stretch of road slightly less picturesque than its name, which would take me out of the sprawling Phoenix valley.
I gleefully passed at least five RVs (in my mind the ultimate pinnacle of road trip freedom) before even leaving the Phoenix city limits – each and every one towing a Jeep no less, and each a more fascinating conglomeration of adventure potential than the last.
I nearly bounced out of my seat with excitement at the fifth, which far surpassed all the others; not only was it pulling a Jeep, but the industrious owners had also managed to strap what looked like a small pontoon boat to the top of the vehicle. Ingenious! Out of habit, I risked life and limb craning my neck trying to get a good look at the passengers, as if by simply laying eyes on them I might gain some insight into their plans.
Were they old? Retired? Or maybe an impetuous young couple living their dream and eeking it out along the way with nothing between them and the road but their hulking house on wheels? Their forms were shadowy in the sun’s glare but even so, I spent a few moments daydreaming about the conversations playing out in the wheelhouse before snapping back to reality and the road ahead.
It took about an hour to get to Wickenburg, a quintessential Western town and the former ‘Dude Ranch Capital of the World’, nestled in the floodplain of the Hassayampa River. The area was originally settled by the western Yavapai along the river they called Haseyamo, which means ‘following the water as far as it goes’. Inhabited in turn by subsequent waves of hunters & trappers, miners, and finally ranchers and farmers, the town was officially founded in 1863 by gold-seeker Henry Wickenburg, discoverer of the famed Vulture Mine, the most productive gold mine in Arizona history.
As I entered Wickenburg, I couldn’t help but notice the huge Smith & Western sign on the east side of the highway. The outer yard of the establishment was filled to bursting with practically life-sized rusted metal dinosaurs and a hodge-podge of other random knick-knacks, all disturbingly at odds with the smaller print on the sign:
My gaze shifted back and forth from the sign to the yard a few times as I passed, trying to reconcile the two. I never solved the puzzle but made a mental note to stop in next time to see what it was all about.
I was on a bit of a tight schedule, so with what has become a bona-fide talent born of many road trips, I managed to snap an acceptable picture of both the ‘Welcome to Wickenburg’ sign and the Smith & Western shop without exiting my vehicle or in fact even stopping (thanks in part to the 35 mph speed limit).
Unfortunately there’s no not stopping for gas. And on my road trips, that’s become pretty much synonymous with stopping for Corn Nuts. In some inexplicable phenomenon, I can go months without Corn Nuts so much as crossing my mind, and then the minute I’m in a roadside gas station on a road trip, they’re all I can think about.
Corn Nuts: The Ultimate Road Trip Companion
- Thankfully, they do have Corn Nuts in Wickenburg, and at a very fair price I might add. I took to the highway again, reveling in my new, teeth-cracking distraction until approximately half a bag of Corn Nuts outside of Wickenburg my jaw began to seize up – yes, this can happen with Corn Nuts, it’s only a question of when – and I was forced to find another form of amusement. Right about then I began to take notice of the particularly picturesque street names.
Quiet Hills Road, Echo Hill Drive, Burro Creek Crossing, Cholla Canyon Ranch Road, Chicken Springs Loop, Lower Trout Creek Road, Windmill Ranch Road, Cattle Chute Pass Road, Crazy Horse Road…it went on and on. Are the street names so much more descriptive and interesting out here in the West, or have I just never paid attention anywhere else? Then there are the place names…Rattlesnake Wash, Coyote Pass, Calamity Wash…wow, why hadn’t I ever noticed this before? Could the Corn Nuts be raising my consciousness to some higher level?
Not much happening in Wikieup
I snapped to attention as an oncoming semi veered uncomfortably close as it whizzed by. Route 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman is one of the most dangerous roads in Arizona. Not only are you contending with a two-lane highway with quite a bit of slow traffic and avid passers, you have the added danger of traveling north on this road, when the people coming towards you are often on a return trip from Las Vegas and not necessarily in their right minds.
To compound the situation, I had somehow managed to wedge myself behind at least four semis (based on my latest neck-craning reconnaissance). This created a new diversion as I furtively crept left at every sign of a passing zone, sometimes rebuffed by oncoming traffic but nonetheless slowly but surely managing to pass all 4 before noticing I was on ‘E’ again and having to pull in for gas at Wikieup. As my tires crunched into the station, I looked forlornly over my shoulder as the four semis I had so painstakingly passed sailed by at a steady 50 mph.
A Joshua Tree
Like many of the towns along the 93, Wikieup appeared nondescript and seemed pretty much deserted, but don’t be fooled into thinking nothing of interest happens here: not only is this unincorporated community of about 300 known as the ‘Rattlesnake Capital of Arizona’, it’s also home to the “World’s Largest Machine Gun and Cannon Shoot”. If you just caught yourself thinking ‘huh?’ or experienced even a slight feeling of curiosity, you may not want to view this video which could just leave you even more perplexed.
For miles before you hit Wikieup, as you make the invisible transition between the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, the land adjacent to the highway is dotted as far as the eye can see with eery silhouettes of Joshua Trees, Dr. Suess-like plants that are actually members of the lily family. It’s worth pausing on this stretch of road (aptly named the ‘Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway’) to snap some shots of this strange desert dweller, named by Mormon settlers for the biblical character Joshua, whom it apparently bore some resemblance to. Must’ve been an awkward-looking guy. Fighting the inclination to stop, I managed to get a not-too-bad shot through my open passenger window without dropping below the speed limit.
Nothing, AZ-Population 4
Not too far beyond Wikieup, my attention was drawn to a dejected-looking sign barely holding on above a cluster of dilapidated buildings on the side of the road. Sadly, this is all that is is left of Nothing, AZ, population 4 – a wanna-be pit-stop for weary travelers that never seemed to catch on.
At one time Nothing had boasted a rock shop, convenience store and gas station, and the town sign had proudly declared, “The staunch citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Believe in the work ethic. Thru the years these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.” As I pass, I feel bad for Nothing, and wish the town founders could have had a positive-thinker among them, or at least someone aware of the cosmic laws dictating that naming your town Nothing might be setting yourself up for failure.
Speaking of Nothing, I was about to experience a lot of it until the next real point of interest, the Hoover Dam. I sped along the highway, giving a quick nod to my astrological sign’s namesake, the Aquarius Mountains, shimmering in the distance to my right. Drowsiness began to descend, inspired by the searing & bland landscape, whose monotony was broken only briefly by the approach of Kingman, founded in 1882 while Arizona was just a territory and named for Lewis Kingman, a surveyor for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which passes through the area.
As I neared the vicinity of the Hoover Dam I began obsessing about what lie directly ahead – my first encounter with one of the scariest things I have ever seen: the new bridge spanning the Colorado River above the dam. I was vaguely aware that my palms were getting sweatier and sweatier as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, anticipation building with every mile.
Scariest bridge in the world and the old highway way, way, way down below
On each trip to Vegas over the past several years, as I drove the winding old highway that traversed the canyon’s bottom, I frequently looked up with horror as they slowly built each side of the bridge – apparently planning, by some intricate feat of engineering, to eventually meet in the middle – thousands of feet above.
Just looking at it literally gave me chills, and while driving below its impossibly-high, arching span, I had voiced an internal vow to avoid it at all costs. From what I understood at the time, it was only going to be an option if you wanted to speed up your trip – it wasn’t going to be the only route.
Now, how I had come to mistakenly believe that I would have a choice, I don’t know. But as I got closer I realized there were no detours, no alternate routes…for through traffic to Las Vegas, the new bridge was now the only way across the canyon! As the bridge appeared, my breathing quickened and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. Suddenly, concrete barriers taller than my vehicle sped past on both sides for two full seconds, and then – I was released safely on the other side.
That was it?!? All that buildup, all that trepidation for nothing? As I reached safety, a part of me silently thanked the architect, who must have had an inkling in some corner of his mind how terrifying it might be, not to mention how many accidents it might cause, for travelers to be forced to gaze down from the dizzying heights at the dam below while still trying to keep an eye on the road ahead. At the same time, another part of me (probably the part that rubber-necks at above-mentioned accidents) was also a teensy bit disappointed that I hadn’t been forced to face my fear.
Gateway to the bowels of the earth
The one redeeming thing about the new bridge was that that it completely removed the necessity of driving past the former Most Terrifying Feature in the vicinity: ‘The Hole’. To me it needs no further description, but if you’re wondering, it is in fact a diversion tunnel at the end of the dam spillway that had been bored, inconceivably huge and cavernous, into the mountainside next to the dam. Now this is a hole unlike any you’ve encountered before; a hole so immense that just driving over it makes you dizzy and produces a feeling akin to that of teetering on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper.
With that final hurdle behind me, the rest of my trip went off without a hitch – well besides the one I witnessed there in Vegas; the reason for my trip. The wedding itself was small and intimate and beautiful. But that is another story…
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque