Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Driving Arizona

Saguaro National Park. Saguaros live 200 years and can reach 78 feet (~24m) tall.
On a recent trip we went to Arizona, mainly. Up here in Quebec there was snow on the ground when we flew off to Arizona - there still is some here at this writing - and I imagined that Arizona, which borders Mexico, would be warm and snowless. But no, there was snow on the ground there, too, at least in the mid to northern part of the state, and it was as often as not quite cold. This would be an ideal season to drive an elderly Porsche like mine, which is not equipped with air conditioning although it has heating, but we saw (almost) no Porsches on the roads of Arizona.

This lack of Porsches was puzzling, considering the very active Arizona Region of the Porsche Club of America; perhaps we frequented the wrong neighborhoods. Where we were, 85% of the vehicles were pickup trucks of vague vintage, except for the tourists' cars and the like. In my perspective the exciting parts of the state mainly reside in the Navajo Nation, where a utilitarian truck is the obvious option. Sports car? No. Most of the Navajo Nation is located in Arizona; it sits in three states and it is the largest land area assigned to a mainly autonomous Native American jurisdiction within the United States.

Anyway, driving in Arizona, in any sort of 'car', was a real treat to me, even in my small rental Ford. The paved roads are deliciously smooth and sinuous, the landscape is stunning always, the scale of the spaces is humbling, the air is mainly clear - unless there is a haboob happening, which is routine, but it was simply very windy when we were there. Back home the frost-heaved highways keep the speed of all travel modest, and your Porsche's suspension gets mercilessly tested by those Quebec roads, but slowly. Mine is still in my shop awaiting dry dirt roads, instead of mud.

Arizona offers a surreal and curiously spiritual experience to the visitor, and I don't even regard myself as a spiritual person.   

The first sentence of Albert Einstein's wonderful essay
An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man is the following: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty." This says a great deal about how you might feel upon first seeing Monument Valley, or Antelope Canyon, or the Grand Canyon, or Canyon de Chelly. They overwhelm, but they are real and directly before you even though they are part of the 'other' as they stand alone, timeless, and alive. And unfathomable, and beautiful. Etherial is an overused word and is somehow unexpected in this case, but it works, never mind the stone and colossal scale.

Click on any image for a larger version.

Spider Rock (800 feet or ~244 meters tall) in Canyon de Chelly is considered a center of the Navajo spiritual universe. 

Going to all of these places during the heavy tourist season would result in another impression, but if you aim your camera away from the gawkers you may be okay. The heavy tourist season hadn't started yet; we were okay.

Monument Valley
But, speaking of driving, you are permitted to drive your own vehicle into Monument Valley, for a fee. It's a poor idea to do this. The Navajo Nation is happy to collect your money, however, they have no interest in the type of vehicle that you are driving. Pay and go, and if the bottom of your car gets torn off you will be reminded that there is a 'rough road' sign somewhere. We saw plenty of low-slung cars crawling along and zig-zagging while crunching and scraping noises escaped from underneath to accompany the grimaces of the drivers. Also, without an official Navajo guide you will not be told where to drive, nor what you are looking at. Find a good tour in a closed Suburban or Jeep; this is much more comfortable and you will be able to hear the guide more easily - and ask questions when you want to.

You can drive into Canyon de Chelly, too, but there are restrictions as to the type of vehicle permitted, plus there you must be accompanied by a Navajo guide. This is better all around if you feel that you have to do your own driving. Forget any Porsche but a Cayenne in these places, and note that all-wheel drive vehicles are not allowed in Canyon de Chelly. Maybe that excludes the Cayenne, too.

More of the sublime before we get to the ridiculous. Antelope Canyon is a sublime 'slot' canyon in Navajo land on the northern edge of Arizona. I was told that there are about 150 slot canyons on Navajo land, but south of Interstate Highway 70 in Utah there are over 1,000, also they exist all over the world. None are as commercially exploited as Antelope is and there is a mixed blessing and also curse in this. It is said that Antelope is the most dramatic and exotic of all; of course this is subjective and self-serving as an appraisal, since this description was provided by one of the mandatory Navajo guides in upper Antelope, and the Navajos know which side their bread is buttered on. They know too well about commercialization, but also not well enough.

A slot canyon is a narrow canyon, most often narrowest on its top (maybe 3+ feet - 1 meter) wide up there, but getting a good deal wider down in the depths. As a result, light is always dramatic as it bounces down the sculpted walls, and the colors change with every passing wisp of cloud. The forms to be seen are beautiful beyond belief and it is impossible to take an uninteresting photograph in the place. The blessing with Antelope is that it is easily accessible by 4x4 from Paige, AZ; the curse is that the Navajo Nation evidently enforces no limit on the number of awed viewers that get packed into the canyon every day, which means around 1,700 people per day in the peak season. It's only about one-quarter mile (402 meters) long and the interesting part is mostly in the middle! Oh, and the average width is around six or eight feet. The drive to the canyon follows a deep-sand dry wash, and it's fun to churn along in a jacked-up truck with huge tires, but then that's the ten-year-old in me.

This visitor density results in the sardine syndrome, with tourists photographing each other's heads if they are not careful, and all of them are rushed through like herds of animals on the way to market. They will kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Okay, those visitors are not there because this is yet another over-hyped, mediocre roadside attraction - it truly is stunning to see. But, if you go to see such a thing, consider doing a bit of research on alternative slot canyons, especially if you are up to doing a little 'canyoneering' that might get you muddy.

That said, the place is sublime. Click on any of these images of mine for a larger version. It was worth what it took to make these photos of tiny Antelope.

The Mother Road

Before the building of the Interstate Highway System ten years after WWII - a project championed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower - the roadways across the U.S.A. were small, slow, sometimes unpaved, spottily marked, and unevenly mapped.  Eisenhower envisioned a high-capacity, well-marked, and fast system of roads connecting all areas of the United States, so that even remote parts of the country could have access to improved transport, commerce, and easy freedom of travel.

Nevertheless, the first single highway that reached from the east of the country all the way to Los Angeles on the west coast, and that was paved all the way, was U.S. Route 66.

The road signs were individualized by state. 
This one has rare glass reflectors in the '66'.
Known by several names throughout the years including the "Mother Road," "Main Street of America," and the "Will Rogers Highway," Route 66 served travelers for a half century, before totally succumbing to the 'new and improved' interstate system. 

Established in 1926, road signs began to be erected the following year, but, it would be several years before the 2,448 mile (3,940 km) highway would be continuously paved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Running through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the highway became one of the most famous roads in America. For decades, this historic path served thousands who were migrating west, especially during the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930's.

Over the years, the road underwent many improvements and realignments, changing its course and overall length, and moving its endpoint farther west to Santa Monica, California.
(The preceding five sentences are paraphrased from the website Legends of America.) 

As happened with the earlier trans-continental railroads in the U.S., and Canada, towns sprang up along 66's path, businesses were invented to service those towns, as well as travelers passing through them. Some of those businesses were a bit goofy. There is a lot more info on the Web about this road, so let me get to my recent experience of artifacts left along its path.

Today, many of the small towns along the no longer official Route 66 are shabby and somewhat derelict, at least in my limited experience. We wound up in Holbrook, AZ, one evening. Basically it fits this description. Here we found the Wigwam Motel #6, one of three remaining of the original seven 'Wigwam Villages'. It is a quintessential example of vulgar Americana and, therefore, fits nicely into the experience of visiting run-down small towns along a defunct piece of roadway, fruitlessly looking to spot at least one Porsche in Arizona.

Chester E. Lewis built #6 in 1950, which makes it the last to be constructed, maybe, as there seems to be some confusion over the final franchise built vs. the last Wigwam Village built - that was not a franchise. In any case, it's based on the design of Frank A. Redford, who built the first example in 1933. Lewis purchased rights to Redford's design, as well as the right to use the name "Wigwam Village" (although it's identified on its sign as 'Wigwam Motel') but with a novel royalty agreement to use the name: coin operated radios were installed in Lewis's Wigwam Village, and every dime (10¢) inserted for 30 minutes of listening would be sent to Redford as payment for the name's use.

The concrete 'wigwams' (better identified as tipis) have a door with two skinny, curtained windows, and two small diamond-shaped windows at knee height, one of which is filled by an air conditioner. In other words, you can't see out. There is a bathroom, but the mirror above the sink is mounted onto the sloped wall, meaning that you must squat down in order to see up into it. You take a shower on a slant, too.

Old cars and other junk that Chester favored are scattered around the motel to give a sort of time-warp effect, bringing you back to the '50's and '60's when this place was newer, in a time preceding the Interstate Highway, which later bypassed Holbrook. Chester's daughter, Elinor, still presides at the registration desk of this family-run relic of 66's heyday. I enjoyed it for its pure silliness.

The Porsche Pimpmobile 

Finally, I did see one, and only one Porsche in Arizona. It was a Cayenne, and I saw it on the south side of Tucson, near the airport. I'm sorry, I'm probably insulting the owner of that SUV, but it looked for all the world like a pimpmobile. I thought I was in Chicago, or New York where such vehicles regularly run around. Maybe not Porsche pimpmobiles in those places, so this must have been unique to the environs of Tucson.

I apologize to you, too, but I don't have a picture of the 'car' because I was driving and that Cayenne scooted by at too excited a pace to grab a photo, but there was no mistaking it. Pure pimpmobile. This means extra, extra wide whitewall tires, so it didn't have the current, trendy low profile rubber seen on giant diameter wheels that are ubiquitous, but it did seem to have chrome wheel spinners, along with absolute tonnage of other chrome bits. There was a massive hood ornament, plus other shiny gizmos attached up there - little fins and things; of course the windows were blacked out, and that 'mobile' was a bright bronze, almost copper color. I might carry on, but I'm sure you can imagine it and I hope you aren't ill.

Poor Arizona. That state is filled with natural and cultural wonders, but I'm unable to include a brazen pimpmobile as being culturally significant, even if it was a Porsche. Perhaps that's my mistake. My innocent 40+ year old 911 was there to greet me when I got home. That was nice.

There was much more to Arizona, but thanks for reading as much as you did. Maybe some day. . .


tedd9146 said...

Wow!!! Surprised you saw none of the Porsches to be seen in Arizona! We've lived here for 25 years now and KNOW there is a fairly vast representaion within the two major cities and quite a few north into Sedona and Flagstaff! Sorry you were not able to view any more than a gawd awful sounding Cayenne...not a good representation AT ALL! Sorry for your Porsche drought in Arizona!

J911 said...

It was a surprise, because I know that there are plenty of Porsches in Arizona. Well, the state was beautiful enough to make up for it. Thanks for your remarks.