Living in San Diego has its advantages, but it also means that I get very few chances to visit my family in northwestern Alabama. When I do manage to get back for a visit, it is usually a hurry-up affair sandwiched between other appointments. I arrive tired and rushed and leave in the same condition. Last Christmas, I was determined to improve the quality of our get-together, so I managed to arrange my schedule to take some work with me to justify being away from the office for two weeks.
The computer equipment I had to drag along was too bulky for plane travel, so I elected to drive--not that I minded. I have always enjoyed driving, and there is a lot of beautiful country between here and Alabama--especially if you are willing to deviate from the straightest line.
The first night found me south of Phoenix at the junction of Interstates 8 and 10, near Picacho Peak. I had planned to push further that night, but it was raining and my route pretty much left civilization at that point. Knowing the hazards of these roads under bad weather conditions, I elected to get a good night's sleep and push on early the next morning.
The next day was a charm!. As I left the area, the palm trees stood like sentinels above the fog shrouded farm land, joined only by the eerie beauty of Picacho Peak rearing thousands of feet above the level valley floor. Perhaps it's only my imagination, but I always seem to have a special feeling in the vicinity of that peak. It was the scene of the final battle between the Apache Nation and the U.S. Army. When 5000 warriors found themselves trapped on the peak with no choice but surrender, the entire band leaped to their deaths.
Soon, I was nearing another of Arizona's famous landmarks, Superstition Mountain. With all the modern advances in machinery and technology, its secrets remain hidden. The Lost Dutchman gold mine is still lost and there are bizarre tales concerning the fate of those stupid enough to keep looking.
As the day awoke, I was treated to an example of the aftermath of a rare desert storm. My route led past old and modern mining towns, climbing steadily in altitude and growing steadily colder.
At Globe, I picked up an Apache hitch hiker who told me that the road had been closed the night before and the bus he was on ordered to turn around. He had missed his ride with relatives to the reservation at White Mountain and was grateful that I came along. I, too, was glad that I had stopped the previous night and avoided the snowstorm.
We wound our way higher and higher toward the high country. Soon, we running through deepening patches of ice and snow, but we were behind the cinder truck, so we had good traction and great visibility.
Some of the most enjoyable scenery you will find is spread along Route 60. The Salt River Canyon may not be quite as deep as the Grand Canyon, but it does not lack for beauty. The road winds down one face of the canyon and up the other side, giving the traveler a close up look that is not always available in other canyons.
Along the way, my passenger told me stories of the hunting and wild horse gathering and wildlife of his youth growing up on the reservation. There was more than a little wistfulness in his voice in remembering those times. He is now a factory worker in Tucson and he was coming back to the land of his fathers to get over the wife who had been unfaithful in Tucson.
At White Mountain, I let him out in the snow to grab a ride with some friends further back into the reservation, and headed eastward in that special light that follows a snowstorm in the mountains. I don't know whether it's the total absence of dust in the air, or the way the light reflects off the snow banks, but it is sort of golden and crystal clear and you really can see forever.
There is a unique feeling about driving through country where you know that the landmark you are watching is over 75 miles away, yet there is not a sign of human habitation in all that vastness. Perhaps those born and raised in this country find it nothing to marvel at, but to those of us raised in the East, it is impressive.
There is also a unique feeling in discovering obscure places that aren't really hidden, but you might never hear about them if you didn't go there. One such place is the Plains of San Agustin in New Mexico. It is cattle country. A few small towns are strung like beads along the highway and an occasional ranch house is tucked among the infrequent clumps of cedar and pinon. It is far from any town and anything else that would create electrical interference and is a perfect place for the Very Large Scale Array radio telescope. I counted 27 huge parabolic antennas mounted on railway cars so they can be moved around to perform as if they were a single antenna miles in diameter. With an antenna of this size, we can explore the fringes of the universe.
A hundred miles further down the road, I came to another of my special places I keep in my heart the way small boys keep their marbles or transformers or frogs. It was a ghost town my wife and I almost bought a few years ago. For $160,000, we could have had the entire town--three houses, two barns, a store, several outbuildings, a windmill, railroad siding and about 400 acres of rolling grazing land. It was only 110 miles to the nearest city and perhaps 40 to the nearest store, and we loved it. For some reason we decided not to buy it, but it stuck in my heart.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, but relaxing and enjoyable, filling in some of the few miles of the U.S. road system I haven't already driven.
After enjoying the longest and best visit with my parents and my sister's family that I have had in several years, I headed west. I had intended to follow essentially the same path on my return, but an impulsive decision in Little Rock traffic put me on the trail to Texas.
At Big Spring, Texas, Interstate 20 starts a long swing to the south, adding many miles to the total. Again, on impulse, I left the freeway to explore a possible shortcut through Carlsbad and Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Soon after leaving Big Spring, it became apparent that the decision had been a good one. The west Texas landscape was awesome in its immensity. The wide two-lane road seemed to stretch on forever. Traffic was light, fast and courteous. Conditions were perfect for the kind of relaxation I had hoped for, and the miles clicked away.