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June 25, 2000

"Riding Through the Desert in a Car With No Air"

As much as I hated to admit it, my days of hiking had been officially put on hold, now that I was nearing the end of my pregnancy. Despite the fact I was aching to be out in the backcountry again, I had no choice but to hang up my backpack and wait until I have recuperated enough to be able to begin hiking again. But that doesn't mean that John and I can't go on a weekend adventure, does it?

Unfortunately, when we began planning this adventure, we had a difficult time trying to come up with something for us to do, what with all of the forest service restrictions that were in place. The long drought had brought with it extreme fire dangers - and several wildfires - which led to the enforcement of closures in many of Arizona's national forests. Forty to sixty percent of the Coconino National Forests were closed, including most of the trails in Sedona. Much of the Kaibab National Forest was closed, due to two wildfires that had burned out of control, one of which was in the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness Area. (On a side note, the old forest service cabin where John and I once played naked was saved from the fire.) As a result of the closures, there weren't many places where we could go to escape from the heat of the city.

That isn't to say that we didn't have ideas. After much pondering, I suggested that we find a place where we could have a picnic and go swimming, perhaps either at the Verde River or West Clear Creek. John liked the idea, but he came up with an even better plan: Lake Havasu City, where we could swim in the waters of the Colorado River and have our picnic on the beach. Since I had never been there, I loved the idea of exploring a new area of the state, so I said, "Yeah, let's do that!"

Our day trip was planned so that we could do as much exploring as possible. The route we picked made a complete loop through four counties, beginning in Maricopa County on Interstate 17 and ending on Interstate 10. On Sunday morning, June 25, we left the house at 6:00 a.m.; and after stopping for breakfast and ice at the Texaco Station on the way out of town, we embarked on our adventure.

The first leg of our journey took us through the city of Wickenburg. Normally, to get there, people often take US 60, meaning that they are forced to drive through Sun City before they can hit the open highway. Unfortunately, that route is not the best, because the residents of Sun City drive at least ten miles under the speed limit, and chances are that we would hit every light red. Instead of braving the early Sunday morning retirees, John and I chose an alternate route. We took I-17 to the Carefree Highway (State Route 74), which connects with US 60 just ten miles south of Wickenburg. That route probably cut a half an hour off of our trip, and there wasn't any traffic at all - not even from Lake Pleasant! It was also much more scenic than Sun City.

After passing through Wickenburg (where we stopped only briefly to use the bathroom), we merged onto US 93, which is the highway that goes all the way to Las Vegas. Highway 93 has a lot of interesting things to see along the way. It is called the Joshua Tree Scenic Parkway, because all along the roadway, the landscape is dotted - sometimes sparsely, sometimes heavily - with Joshua trees. We also passed by Burro Creek, where there is a bridge that is famous among BASE jumpers (we stopped there to sightsee and to stretch our legs). There are also a lot of hiking trails in that region, but we would have to wait until another day to explore them.

Highway 93 also took us through the small towns of Wikieup and Nothing - two "don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-'em" towns out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing, for example, consists of a few mobile homes and a couple of roadside stores. John suggested that they build a new convenience store/gas station on a nice flat piece of land, so that you could "Get Gas in Nothing Flat." (There's a comedian in every crowd.) In Wikieup, I pointed out the Indian trading post where I once stopped during a road trip to Vegas with Marcheta and Debbie; the trading post had a peacock farm in the back, which was something we didn't expect to find in the middle of nowhere.

We reached Kingman around 9:30 a.m. After stopping there to get gas, we began the next leg of our adventure: a side trip down the Oatman Highway, through the ghost town of Oatman. The Oatman Highway is about fifty or sixty miles long, and it is in the middle of nowhere! Surrounded on either side by BLM wilderness areas (Warm Springs WA to the south and Mount Nutt WA to the north), this highway, which is also known as the Backcountry Byway, winds through some very beautiful desert as well as crumbling ghost towns and old abandoned mines. To add to the sense of desolation, we were almost completely alone on the road; we passed maybe three or four other vehicles on the way to Oatman. I can't imagine what it would have been like to break down along this highway, because it would probably be days before anyone would be along to help.
I get my kicks on Route 66
Fortunately, we didn't break down along the Oatman Highway, but we did make several stops to sightsee. Our first stop was at the Backcountry Byway kiosk, which included a map of the road and points of interest to see along the way. Then, as we continued along the road and began our ascent to Sitgreaves Pass (the highest point along the road), we stopped several more times to check out some of the mine shafts and tunnels that had been carved into the rocks. One tunnel in particular was only ten feet long, as though digging had been abandoned before gold was ever located there. Other mine shafts that we found had been blocked by fencing and bore signs that read "Private Property - No Trespassing". As we came up to the ghost town called Goldroad, we found what appeared to be an active mine. An old mine cart outside of the main building advertised mine tours, but there didn't seem to be a high demand for them that day. All around the mine, we found the remnants of the town that had once been Goldroad. All that remained were crumbling stone buildings and foundations.

After passing over Sitgraves Pass, we finally arrived in Oatman, a once booming mining town that had been established in the early 1900's. The Oatman mines were abandoned in the 1930's, and Oatman became a ghost town when its population dropped from several thousand to sixty people. Today, a few hundred people live in Oatman, which is now a tourist attraction much like Jerome, but to a smaller scale.

The main attractions in Oatman are the wild burros that reside there. They roam the streets of town, looking for handouts from the tourists. There are signs posted on the shops to discourage people from feeding them junk food, as they tend to leave rather messy dung piles on the streets and sidewalks as a result. However, tourists may feed the burros carrots, which they can purchase from some of the local vendors.

There were lots of burros on Sunday afternoon. As we pulled into town, we saw a mother burro nursing her baby, which was very cute. We also saw a big, pregnant burro outside of one shop. John had me stand next to her so that he could take a picture of us. Perhaps the funniest sight, however, were the burros outside of the bar. They were standing in between two Harleys and a car, and it looked as though someone had "parked" them there.

After leaving Oatman, we continued on our way along the Oatman Highway - and then on Highway 95 - to Lake Havasu City. Our plan was to stop at the Havasu Wildlife Refuge to have lunch, but we missed the turn-off. We spent about fifteen minutes trying to backtrack on the side roads to no avail, so we gave up and went instead to Windsor Beach to have our picnic and to do a little swimming. Fortunately, Windsor Beach was not at all crowded Saturday afternoon, which was a good thing, but we were appalled by the cost to get into the state park. We were expecting the entrance fee to be just a couple of dollars, but instead we found that the price had gone up to $7.00! My guess is that they jacked up the price when MTV showed up to film their Spring Break special there.

We proceeded to the day use picnic area, where there were several immaculate stone picnic benches in a clean, well-maintained area next to the beach. Very few of the tables were being used, so we chose one and sat down to have lunch while we watched the boats on the water. Then, we changed into our swimsuits and went swimming.

The water in Lake Havasu was a little cool that day, but I didn't care, because it felt good to be able to submerge myself in water. Being pregnant, I have found that I am constantly sweating, even when I'm sitting under a fan, or in the ice-cold air conditioning of my car. It is a on-going struggle to stay cool, and the only relief I have been able to get is when I'm in water. I did have trouble going to far into Lake Havasu, because the bottom was very rocky (I wasn't wearing water shoes), so instead, I sat and floated in about two feet of water and let the waves carry me back towards the shore. John did the same, and every time a wave washed by us, we laughed, because it was fun.

Thoroughly refreshed by our swim, we returned to the car and proceeded towards our next destination: London Bridge. Imported in October of 1971, the London Bridge is one of the hottest tourist attractions in Lake Havasu City. On either shore, there are hotels, restaurants, and shops, as well as boat docks from which one can rent paddle boats or go on a short guided tour of the waterways. We were given a coupon for a $10 boat tour, but we had to pass since the next tour wouldn't be leaving for another hour - and we weren't planning to stay that long. We did stay long enough to take a few pictures of the bridge and to walk up and down the boardwalk; we even stopped to buy ice cream from a snack stand that had built out of a double-decker bus. And before we left, we climbed up the stairs to the top of the bridge, so that we could see the view from the top.

At that point, it was time to leave Lake Havasu City and return home; it was already two o'clock, and we still had another four hours of driving ahead of us, in the heat of the day...but fortunately, we were in the Oldsmobile, which had the ice-cold air-conditioning! Upon leaving the city, we continued south along Highway 95 towards Parker Dam, which we found to be an interesting structure. Most of the dam is under water. As we passed over the dam into California, we noticed that the water level was awfully high, despite the recent drought. Does the water level ever get too high, that it goes over the dam?

Once we were in California, we found ourselves on another historic Backcountry Byway (SR 62), which follows along the Colorado River for about twenty miles and eventually ends up in the town of Earp, across the river from the town of Parker, AZ. We also realized that this was a new state for us; although both of us had been in California numerous times, we had never been there together, so we celebrated with a "new state" kiss.

It was a very scenic drive, just as we had been promised. The highway followed every curve of the Colorado River, past resorts that sat on either side of the river. One resort that caught our eye resembled the city of Venice, Italy, because it seemed to have been built on the river, with "canals" in between the buildings. Our scenic drive ended at the town of Earp, where we crossed over the river (by way of bridge, of course) and re-entered Arizona at the town of Parker.

And after we left Parker and began our journey south on Highway 95, we ran into trouble. During our drive through the vast, hot desert between Parker and Quartzite, the ice cold air-conditioning suddenly wasn't so cold anymore. The air grew hotter and hotter until we realized that something was wrong. At that point, we turned off the A/C and rolled down the windows, hoping that perhaps it was just a fluke. After all, we had been running the air almost non-stop since we left the house; it probably needed a break. Then, when we stopped in Quartzite, we learned what had really happened: the compressor was shot. The compressor had become so hot that it melted a large hole in one of its plastic pieces.

Worse yet, we still had over 150 miles to go! Needless to say, our drive home was a hot one as we passed through the desert with all four windows down in an effort to circulate some air through the hot car. Being eight months pregnant in the middle of the summer, I thought the trip would never end. When we finally arrived at home, I immediately jumped into the shower to cool down. (That following week, we paid Matthew, a family friend, to replace the compressor and make the A/C ice cold again. He was successful.)

Despite the trouble with the air-conditioning, though, we had an incredible adventure, one that I will never forget. I enjoyed everything that we saw, and I would very much like to return to Lake Havasu City to spend more time there.


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