Scottsdale / Montrose
|Wednesday July 3rd, 2002
Start: Quemado, New Mexico
End: Scottsdale, Arizona
I'm tired of the bike giving trouble, and have a hunch some of the problems may be the fuel filter. I have extra fuel line, so I make a new fuel line and move the fuel filter and line to the trash in the motel room. Then shower, and it's off to breakfast.
Breakfast is at a rough-looking place across the street from the hotel, called "Steak and Shakes and Pancakes". Looks sort of like a bar from a western movie, and for all I know it was..... There are photos on the walls from the 1900-1930's, of a dirt street out front with wagons and Model T Ford pickups and such parked there. Today, there's a Kawasaki Voyager trike and a Suzuki Intruder parked outside - as well as a nice Jeep Wrangler that looks as though it actually gets used off-road a bit.
We walk in, talk with the couple on the bikes, and order Huevos Rancheros. Ranch eggs, literally. Like chili, it's a dish that has 1,000 variations. In my opinion, most of them are good variations. It's hard to get Huevos Rancheros back home in Ohio, so I enjoy them when I can. Lust is too strong a word, but not by much....
Breakfast done, Sharon and I talk. I've been telling her that this is the day the scenery gets good, if not incredible. We have US-191 in eastern Arizona as well as the Salt River Canyon between Globe and Show Low, Arizona; then there's the desert around Phoenix, and Phoenix itself.
She's never been this way before, and so she simply agrees with my choice of mountain backroads. A secondary reason for our roundabout, mountainous route into Phoenix is to dodge the heat of the low desert.
Our plan is to head south to Silver City, see the Gila Cliff dwellings just north of there, then enter Arizona via Mule Creek Pass. Ride US-191 (formerly US-666) north to Alpine / Springerville / Eagar, then US-60 into Phoenix via Show Low and Globe. That's the plan - but of course it can be modified if need be. It's a priority to get to Scottsdale tonight, we have a luxury hotel room waiting for us.
We head south on NM-32 out of Quemado. Steve in Clovis told us it would be a good road, lots of scenery and new pavement, and since he's local we trust him. Turns out he wasn't kidding..!
Starting down NM-32 out of Quemado, there's not much to see - just desert shrubs like the view out of our motel window.
The next thing we notice is that every trailhead and access point to the National Forest in that area is blocked by yellow police tape, and / or has signs telling that the forest is closed due to fire danger. Ok..... I've never seen a forest closed before, but given that there are huge fires burning just to the west, and given that the locals in Quemado have seen ash fall in their town, as well as heavy smoke, these are special times.
The road climbs up into pine forests on perfect new black asphalt, and we catch and pass a few US Forest Service off-road fire engines working their way uphill. In slow areas, I ask Sharon what she thinks - she tells me that the pine forests and high desert scenes remind her of Mexico proper.
Then coming down from the high points of NM-32, the pines go away to be replaced by large rounded boulders. This is exactly what comes to mind when thinking about western scenery, something just like this. Big dry round rocks, lots of them, piled on top each other, in the desert.
NM-32 intersects with NM-12 at Apache Creek, we turn west on NM-12 and take that into Reserve, New Mexico. A nice little town, but not much there. A gas station, some stores... we need gas, so we stop.
After gassing up, we ask if US-60 is open in Arizona. We're concerned about the fires, many towns along our proposed route had been evacuated in the face of one of the largest wildfires in Arizona history, and though we've seen in the news that folks have mostly returned home that doesn't mean that all roads are open - we'd seen a sign outside Socorro yesterday that told that US-60 was closed at Show Low. The route to bypass Show Low would be long - very long and very hot - if US-60 and AZ-260 happened to be closed.
The woman in the gas station tells me to ask the guy gassing up the green truck outside, he's a local Forest Service firefighter. He tells me that US-60 is now open to Globe and beyond. And then he starts to really talk.... He tells me that the fire should never have been so bad, that it wouldn't have been if the US Forest Service had been allowed to manage the forest properly, that it's the enviromentalists..... and he stops, looks me straight in the eye, and asks if I'm an environmentalist. Uh...no. I like to hike, but I also own a dirt-bike and have owned a 4WD truck, so I don't think the environmentalists want me.
He loosens up, and resumes his talk about how they'd like to thin the forest with controlled logging, and sell off diseased and burned timber, for the good of the forest, but that environmentalist groups have blocked such sales, prefering that the timber rot where it fell because that's natural. This man's position is that a thinned forest is a healthy forest, and that it's good to thin the trees out a bit.
I stroke my shaved head, and say "Thin - like this?" He stops, looks at me for a second, puts a hand on my shoulder and says "No; not that thin son...." He's grinning - a bit of humor goes a long way with strangers.
We talk a little more, he's in the process of setting up a command post for the local firefighters. Nobody knows which way the fires will move, or if lightning will spark more fires, and everybody's on edge. I thank him for the info, wish him good luck with the fires, and then we're out of there.
We head south towards the ghost town / former mining town of Mogollon, via US-180. I explain to Sharon that I think the haze in the air is due to the fires, the sky is normally very clear out here.
The last time I'd been this way was 1984, I was 21 years old and northbound on a brand-new Kawasaki GPz-550, riding it for all it was worth. Now I realize that I didn't see much scenery riding that way, concentrating on the road - there's no time to sightsee when you're exploring limits and watching for police cars that could be anywhere. What was I thinking back then? This is a very pretty part of New Mexico - high desert, medium sized mountains, curvy roads. I guess priorities change, and we all grow up eventually.
We get to the turnoff for Mogollon. Back in 1984, the road started off as pavement and then slowly turned to dirt before reaching Mogollon. A GPz-550 at 425 lbs. makes an acceptable adventure tourer on dirt roads, fun even. But the map shows pavement all the way to Mogollon now, which is a relief. I'm not a big enough man to ride the fully-loaded Concours as a dirt bike.
But it turns out we can't get to Mogollon. About 3 miles in, the road is closed. No explanation, so we assume it's due to fire danger or smoke. Given the severity of the fire threat, we don't cross the barriers. Another time, and I'd be tempted, but I don't think anybody here would have a sense of humor about an out-of-state tourist crossing a fire line on a motorcycle. We return the way we came, back to US-180.
We continue south to Glenwood, and stop at the general store / gas station there for cold drinks. The ice-water in our drinking bladders is nice, but sometimes cold fruit juices are even better. We each have a can of fruit juice in the general store.
While there, a BMW R11GS pulls up to the pump. I talk with the riders, a man and woman from Hawaii. They bought the bike via the Internet, it was exactly as represented, they flew into some town back east to pick it up and have been touring the States since then. Their tour is almost done, after which the GS will reside in Los Angeles where they can access it for more summer rides as time permits. Cool plan, I'm jealous..!
They tell me about some hot springs in the area, primitive ones, they hope to find them and take a dip. Hot springs don't sound good to me when I'm already hot, so I wish them luck and then listen to the engine when they leave... The air-compressor exhaust note of an Oilhead BMW twin may not be exciting the way a Ducati or inline-four is exciting, but for me it brings back lots of good memories of when I rode an Oilhead.
We get to the turn-off for Mule Creek and Mule Creek Pass. It's very HOT out at this point, we're sucking on our ice water in the bladders as we roll along, and that's about the only thing that makes the riding tolerable. I'm not usually one to complain about heat or cold, but there are limits; and if it were just a bit hotter I'd find a motel room, sleep till dark, and then make a run into Phoenix by night. We scratch Silver City and the Gila Cliff dwellings off our list, it's just too far. We need to be in Scottsdale tonight.
We turn west to Mule Creek Pass. Along the way, there's no way to forget about the fires, signs at every point that you enter National Forest lands remind you that the forests are closed due to extreme fire danger - that all trailheads and access points and scenic overlooks and roadside rests and picnic areas are CLOSED. In other words, don't stop. Don't pull off the road for a picture or a picnic. Move along, nothing to see here...
We make it into the Morenci / Clifton area, and it's hot, seriously hot. The heat is oppressive and never-ending. As soon as you shut off the bike, the cooling fan kicks in and dumps more hot air on you. Heat radiates up from black asphalt, mixing with the engine heat and the radiator heat being blasted out the side vent by the fan. Yes, it's a dry heat - but so is an oven. And that's what it feels like, an oven, a never-ending all over heat source that just keeps beating on you from all directions. Hanging out in a convenience store never felt so good as it does now...
We fuel up, top up our water bags with ice, and continue north on US-191.
I've ridden US-191 / 666 twice before, but the only other time I've been in the towns of Clifton / Morenci was in 1984. Different trip, but again on the GPz-550 and with a girlfriend on the back. We stopped to eat in Morenci on that trip, and were surprised to find the restaurant full of Arizona Department of Public Safety officers. The waitress suggested we eat and leave quickly, there'd been some violence between striking copper miners and non-union workers that very morning and the National Guard was on it's way.... I listened to the locals then, too. We got the heck out of there, as we were told.
Since then, I've done some web searches on that strike. It's considered a somewhat pivotal moment for labor relations in the Southwest, as well as a victory for big business. Phelps-Dodge continued to work with non-union labor, and I don't know exactly what happened to the union that represented the workers. The point is moot now, I guess. But I've always found it strange that few folks back east have ever heard about that strike - it was big news all over Arizona back then.
Continuing on, we pass the Phelps-Dodge open pit copper mine. I have no idea if this is the biggest open pit copper mine in the world, but it's got to be up there with the biggest. Basically the Phelps-Dodge company has removed a mountain from that range, and where the mountain was is now terraced hillsides in the brown color of the underlying rock. One mountain is simply gone. I suppose that what's left is in everybody's pocket in the form of copper pennies, in houses in the form of copper pipe and wire.
US-191 around the copper mines seems to have random curves, curves that may tighten or loosen on a whim. Very strange, as there's no rhythm at all to the road. I suspect that just getting the road past the mine successfully was the main thing in routing the road, and that constant radius corners were a secondary concern.
At the north edge of Clifton / Morenci (the two towns blend together) there's a mobile sign that tells us that US-191 is open to Springerville. Ok, but what about beyond that point? Sharon and I talk it over, and decide that we shouldn't read more into the sign than what there is - it simply means the road is open to Springerville. Points beyond, unknown.
We cruise north on US-191, formerly US-666. It reminds me of a western version of Deals Gap, but far better. More open, more speed, and about 100 miles of curves to enjoy between Alpine and Morenci. I've ridden Deals Gap, and that 318 curves in 11 miles is all very nice, but 1000 curves in 100 miles is even better. It's the kind of road where your arms get tired from steering back and forth, and your hands get tired from working the brake and clutch. It's a fun way to wear yourself out.
As we're getting ready to roll, we feel a cold front move in and start to see lightning and feel a few scattered drops of rain. It's only a few miles to Alpine, and the cold air and scattered drops feel good, so we don't get into our rain gear.
As we descend, the raindrops become more frequent and bigger... But now it's only 5 miles, we'll be fine. It feels good to be cool after all the heat we've had...
The rain intensifies. But now it's maybe 3 miles, we'll make it. Sure we're soaked, but for 3 miles we can take it.
And the rain intensifies again. Now it's just a couple miles, hang in there. Yes Sharon, it is cold now. Welcome to Arizona..!
We arrive in Alpine and the rain eases. We locate the Bear Waller - it's a rustic sort of place on the main drag of Alpine. Sitting outside is that same BMW R11GS we'd seen in Glenwood - they took the other half of the loop we were on. We talk a bit between eating, about motorcycle trips and BMWs and Alaska. He's got lots of summertime to ride in, and has been thinking about Alaska for awhile. I tell him about my trip, the conversation is fun.
After supper, we head west towards Eagar. This is high desert, plains of golden foxtails, and in many places they've burned. Time and again, we see large patches of black among the gold. Also time and again, and the road appears to have acted as a firewall - the plains on one side of the road being black, while the other side is still gold.
We fuel up in Eagar, and check on which roads are open to Show Low. The residents of Eagar have been on edge due to the fires, and just asking for directions to Show Low generates a lot of conversation about the forest fires that are still burning not far from Show Low. Residents of Show Low have only been back in their homes for a few days at this point, after the town had been evacuated earlier due to fire danger.
Eventually, somebody tells us that US-60 is open all the way to Show Low and Globe. AZ-260 is closed west of Eagar. Very good, now we know, and we can ride into Phoenix via the mountains.
The area around Springerville, Eagar, McNary, and Show Low is absolutely beautiful. It's heavily forested, and that's the sad part about the fires in this area: the local economy relies on tourism and lumber. If the forests are devastated, lumber and tourism both suffer.
Entering Show Low, and the town at first looks pretty normal. Then you notice that there's an unusually large number of US Forest Service off-road fire trucks, as well as private fire trucks, parked at restaurants and motels. Then you notice the signs, hanging on various homes and businesses all over town, made from bedsheets or cardboard or computer paper or whatever, all saying pretty much the same thing:
"Firecrews - Thank you for saving our town. We love you! You're our heroes! God bless you!"
I suspect the firecrews are treated like heroes in town at the restaurants and hotels, heck, they are heroes to the people whose homes they saved. And I bet that those simple "thank yous" put smiles in the heart of many tired and homesick firefighter each night.
At the east edge of town there's a programable traffic sign that tells that US-60 is open to Globe, but it also warns of possible smoke ahead. We continue, expecting the worst but hoping for the best.
I've told Sharon that although the media has been telling how the Arizona fires are the size of Los Angeles, there are many places in Arizona that you could put a town the size of Los Angeles and never touch a paved road. I hope I'm right...
The scenery between Show Low and the Salt River Canyon looks nearly normal for that part of Arizona: thick pine forests, rocky soil, and as we drop in elevation the pine forest is slowly replaced with mesquite and juniper and such. There's no visible fire, and no smoke either. We don't even smell any smoke, though it is a bit hazy as it's been since western New Mexico. In places there is blackened earth with a white substance at the edges (flame retardant, maybe?), but nowhere that we can see did the fire actually cross US-60.
We make it to the Salt River Canyon just before dusk. For those that haven't been there, imagine a 1/3 scale model of the Grand Canyon (for depth), but with a smooth and twisty multi-lane highway descending to the river, crossing the river, and then ascending the other side in a series of sweeping turns, back up into the high desert. The entire ride lasts maybe 15-20 miles, plenty long enough to be really enjoyable.
Here in the Salt River Canyon, I recall other times, other people, other hobbies. When I worked for Arizona Kawasaki, a Kawasaki dealer in Tempe in the early 1980's, we sponsored a rider on a Kawasaki GPz-550 in production races out at Phoenix International Raceway. The guy would sometimes practice his high-speed cornering in the Salt River Canyon - aside from the fact that there's no ambulances and that those speeds are highly illegal the Canyon was perfect for that. Now I'm not so sure, there seems to be more traffic than I recall from 20 years ago.... There's also excellent whitewater to be had in the canyon if you're into rafting or kayaking and it's springtime.
Sharon is exhausted, but she tells me that the canyon is beautiful. I agree.
Night falls as we cover the distance between the Salt River Canyon and Globe. Entering Globe, we notice we've changed time zones again. Somehow, the exact hour doesn't seem to matter much since we got off I-40 back at Amarillo. I notice that Globe has changed since I lived in Arizona - a lot.
Globe used to be a rundown little mining town 60 miles or so outside Phoenix, comparable to Morenci or Clifton. Globe is no longer rundown, where US-60 enters from the north there's a large shopping mall, a bank, restaurants - and most of it is brands that I recognize. Somehow, it doesn't seem like the quaint Arizona outback that I remember. I have mixed feelings about that, but so what? It's just Globe, the rest of Arizona has been pretty much as I remember. And change is to be expected after being gone 20 years.
We continue west on US-60, into the desert towards Phoenix. It's dark now, which is fine because I don't recall the scenery between Globe and Phoenix to be anything special. We descend from Globe into the greater Phoenix valley in the dark.
Just outside Apache Junction, I see the saguaro cactii at the edge of my headlight beam. It's a familiar shape, and once which seems both beautiful and comical. Saguaros are the cactus with the arms that we all have seen on the "Roadrunner" cartoons..... They're the Arizona stereotype, and as a matter of fact there's almost no saguaro cactus outside Arizona. However, the saguaros only grow at the lower elevations - places where they won't freeze. You can pretty much figure out the hot and cold areas of an Arizona winter by where the saguaro grow - and where they don't grow.
We'd hoped that by arriving very late in Phoenix, we could avoid some of the heat. It turns out we only avoided some of the heat, as we near the city limits of Apache Junction we can feel the heat radiating off the pavement and the earth and the rocks; as well as off the bike's engine and radiator. Sharon leans forward to remind me that I'd said we could avoid the heat by arriving late at night. I reply that we did avoid it, wait'll we wake up tomorrow - you'll see...
Rolling through Apache Junction, Chandler, and Mesa is strange - most of the freeway we're on didn't exist when I lived here. The businesses that have sprung up along the new freeway are amazing to me - I've been carrying a 20 year old picture of the Phoenix valley in my head. I didn't expect all this... nor do I have time to pay it much attention as traffic is moving along about 75 mph and there's freeway construction here and there to deal with. We zip along, keeping up with traffic, and passing street names I'm familiar with... I know every name, and the sequence they should be in, but all the exits are new to me.
We get on the northbound freeway that will take us to Scottsdale, the affluent / resort part of the valley. Oh my... again that strange feeling of knowing the names but not the faces, of zooming past those streets at warp speed - streets that used to be accessible only by riding stoplight to stoplight up Scottsdale Road. Every street, I want to look at the buildings, compare what's there now with the archives in my head.... but it's late, we're both very tired, and we still have to find the hotel.
The northern part of the freeway is absolutely brand new. The landscaping isn't done yet, there's murals in the concrete walls of lizards and cactus and desert - I guess for residents that don't actually manage to get out of town. Perfect pavement, and even at this hour a respectable amount of traffic.
We exit at Frank Lloyd Wright Ave, another street that didn't exist when I lived here, and go to hunt a hotel that didn't exist either. It's a bit much, I have the 20 year old maps in my memory but they don't seem to work in 2002. Princess Drive? Scottsdale Airport? Greenway-Hayden Road? Those two streets never came together before!
Added to that is the fact that our hotel, the Resort Suites, requires a rather circuitous route at best between the condos and golf courses and speed bumps and crosswalks and other resort hotels. We're not staying at the main hotel for the Mensa Annual Gathering; the Resort Suites is the overflow for those who were slow to make plans or reservations.
We arrive around midnight: tired, hot, sweating, and sore. It's been a long 520 mile day, through haze and heat and the worry of fires and road closures, nearly all on 2-lane roads (most of it twisty) and very little of it at anything less than 100ºF. The bike is hot, and the cooling fan is blowing hot air... The pavement is hot, and even at this hour we can feel the heat rising from the ground. The outer walls of the buildings are radiating heat. The fountain is warm. The water in the fountain is warm. The door handles to the lobby are warm.
And the courtyard and lobby of the Resort Suites are, well, pretentious. Good looking young men and women in perfectly pressed shirts. Brick parking lot. Thick fake adobe walls. Recessed balconies protected by mesquite, with palm trees all around for the proper desert resort ambiance.
Sharon signs us in; I'm in a daze. A second desk-clerk, female, tries to flirt with me while Sharon is filling out forms. No, I never even noticed.... I was told about it later. I'm just too tired and dazed to notice anything subtle - by the heat, the changes in the valley, the distance we've covered today, and by our current high-rent surroundings.
And layered over all that is the feeling that it's good to be back in the valley, in spite of the fact that there's been so much change. In spite of the fact that it's July, and Phoenix is coping with a record heat wave. In spite of the growth and the traffic... I like Phoenix, and I've missed the place terribly for a long time.
After signing in, Sharon takes the keys and I pull the bike around to it's proper parking place in the carport. We unload the bike in the dark, walk past the landscaped pool and fake waterfall, past the palm trees, and climb the steps to our room. It's cool inside, and it feels wonderful. We glance at the couch, the two TVs, the refrigerator, the microwave, the dishwasher... more luxury than either of us have at home, but I guess that's what vacations are for.
We walk past all of that, peel back the covers to clean sheets that smell like fabric softener, and go to bed exhausted.