Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Phoenix, Arizona - Part Three

There are a number of longer day and overnight trips to take for the Phoenix tourist but, in my opinion, the best (and not too lengthy) of them all is the Apache Trail – the road built to allow the construction of the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River.

Taking the 101 loop south from Scottsdale to I-60, the early part of the route hurls you along the Western edge of the metropolis, with the Superstition Mountains visible in the Eastern distance. Turning to face the mountains on Route 60, the freeway progressively constricts from an eight-lane runway to a more manageable two-lane dual carriageway with seemingly perfect relation to declining traffic levels.

Beyond Apache Junction, the route leaves the freeway and heads North for a short distance into the town before resuming an Eastward trajectory into the hills. This link between freeway and AJ offers a full-service petrol station and store, which is a good place to top the tank and take on supplies, as opportunities for the remainder of the route are limited.

Leaving Apache Junction, the first point of interest is the ‘abandoned mining town’ of Goldfield. I use inverted commas because, like a lot of these attractions in the US, little if anything is authentic, other than the location (which is only approximate, not actual). It’s a fun (free) way to spend half an hour or so, with plentiful if somewhat tacky photo opportunities. Actually, it’s also worth mentioning at this point that the other, similar, attraction in the area is ‘Rawhide’. Ahem. Not only is this entirely unoriginal in its construction, it is not even original in its location, having been removed some years ago to a vacant lot in the grounds of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. It’s noted for its steakhouse, apparently, and theatrical shoot-outs – but opening hours are limited by the heat to evenings in Summer. On our visit on a previous trip, it was clearly still a bit too hot for the horse-mounted hombres, and the shoot-out was postponed.

Back to Goldfield however and the Apache Trail heads further East into the Superstitions. After a few miles, the entrance to Tonto National Park is passed (no fee) and the road begins to dip and rear up around hummocky scrub land on its way to Canyon Lake. It’s at the viewing point above the lake that you’ll see at least one of the targets (or origins) of the many watercraft that you’ll have been following and passing along this seemingly unlikeliest of roads to be carrying marine traffic. Indeed, just outside Apache Junction, the roadside boat dealer and repairer looks mighty incongruous next to the ubiquitous saguaro cacti.

High above the lake, the outlook is over a glistening body of water streaked by all manner of boats, jet skis and surfers – all achieving seemingly impossible speeds and only narrowly missing each other. It’s quite a spectacle.

Heading further into the wilderness, the next stop is Tortilla Flat – locally prefixed by the slogan ‘Where the **** is’ and suffixed by a ‘?’. It’s a justifiable question.

Founded originally as a camp for the road and dam builders, the population numbered several thousands in its heyday. The little remaining amounts to a saloon, shop, ‘museum’ and a few other limited services. If your Tatarama preference is for glass-encased scorpion paperweights, then this is the place for you. If you are of such nervous disposition that such a souvenir gives you the shakes however, then you should probably chuck-a-u-ey at this point and head back to civilisation, for beyond Tortilla Flat, the tarmac runs out and the real fun begins.

Legend has it that Phoenix residents consider the Apache Trail to be an essential day out when entertaining first-time visitors. The act is, apparently, to wait until the first steep downhill grade, whereupon the driver stamps the floor repeatedly underneath the pedals and shouts ‘**** the brakes, the ****ing brakes have gone!!!!!!!’ Cue much panic and subsequent mirth, and the hope that the driver remembers that next time s/he does want to brake, they aim for the pedal and not the floor. On most occasions, there won’t actually be time to make that mistake inadvertently.....

A couple of miles on from Tortilla Flat, once the metalling has ceased and the dust and dirt road takes over, Fish Creek is the principal attraction. The road twists, falls, hugs and swings around the side spurs of this dramatic canyon. Nothing like the size of its Grand cousin in the North of the State, the charm and impact of Fish Creek lies in its lack of people and commercialisation, the total immersion that the road provides into the landscape and the regular pricks of fear that come from not being quite sure how close you just came to plunging over the edge.

There’s a good little spot to stop and look with a car park, basic loos and a concrete boardwalk to a viewpoint opening on to one of the wider vistas. The Apache Trail is popular with motor bikers, and the viewpoint seems to be especially popular for their ash-scattering ceremonies. The likelihood being, of course, that this was both the penultimate and ultimate resting place of the unlucky urn-occupant....

As the road continues to challenge the realities of friction (or lack thereof), gravity, and the oncoming selection of vehicles which are clearly unsuitable by virtue of oversize or under-ruggedness for the terrain they traverse, it’s a popular pastime to look back and upwards toward the road just travelled – and spot the pan-caked wrecks of vehicles that failed to make it as far as you have. Much fun.

Apache Lake succeeds Fish Creek as the next attraction, from where boats can be hired to variously speed or chug up and down the serpentine expanse of water. The Lake access is somewhat below the Trail and the road to it is steep and narrow enough to mean that a decision to take it can’t be reversed until the car park at the bottom is ultimately reached.

There’s a rudimentary cafe and general store down there, along with the boat ramps and marina.

If your progress thus far has been ‘cautious’, then you may not feel you have time to drop down to the lake and, in fairness, you’re probably not going to lose sleep over passing this detour by. The better views, thanks to the elevation, are actually from the Apache Trail itself until, a few miles further on, the road comes down to meet the waterline of the upper reaches of the lake, from which vantage point you can get a good idea of what lake life, fishing from pontoon boats, is really like.

The final goal of your route is the mighty Roosevelt Dam, which holds back the waters of Roosevelt Lake behind it. At the time of its original completion in 1911, it was the largest masonry dam in the World, with Lake Roosevelt being its largest artificial lake. It’s no understatement to say that no single project did more to facilitate the large-scale settlement of Central Arizona, thanks to the irrigation possibilities which it opened up.

In 1989, the rebuilding of the dam was completed following a survey and research project which proved that the original structure was not in fact high or strong enough to withstand the recalculated maximum ‘100 year’ water level of Lake Roosevelt. It’s this new, larger and sleeker construction which quite suddenly looms up in front of the Apache Trailer – an almost shocking return to the built environment from the seemingly little-touched wilderness just passed-through.

Again, there is a useful little car park and boardwalk to view the downstream side of the dam and then, as the road paving begins again and the dam itself is passed, there is another opportunity to get out of the car and view the reverse side, the bridge carrying Route 88 and the utterly different landscape of Lake Roosevelt and its surrounding topography.

It’s almost another World from hereon in, particularly thanks to the unaccustomed smoothness of progress. Taking a right turn on to 88, the wide, gently undulating road follows the shores of Roosevelt before climbing away from the water and then running down again to a point just outside the town of Globe, named in honour of a huge, globe-shaped boulder of silver discovered there in the 1870s. The area still plays host to a major copper mining operation, which is largely the concern of the Resolution Copper Company, a new joint venture between BHP and Rio Tinto.

Turning right again on to I-60 to begin the closing of the loop back to Phoenix, the edges of Globe give way to its twin town, Miami. Visitors to Broken Hill in New South Wales in the early 80s will feel much at home here, as the first shoots of a regeneration into a centre for arts and antiques push through the dereliction of a town whose boom times were, until recently, considered long past. It will be interesting to see how Miami progresses as, just as the place seemed to be rattling its death, the commodity markets have seen the price of copper and the other minerals mined locally rocket. All of a sudden, uneconomic lodes become economic, and the towns are feeling a surge of the extractive activity that the nascent tourist business was thought essential to replace.

Miami’s Main Street is certainly worth the slight deviation to the west of the main highway to at least get a glimpse of the heart of America, tarnished and worn but architecturally fairly unchanged since before the Depression.

Although the bulk of the aahs and oohs of the day will have come from the unpaved section between Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt Dam, the trip gives up one last treat for the eye as I-60 weaves its way through Queen Creek Canyon, a rugged gorge at the Western end of the Pinal Mountains. The traffic is much heavier by now, so take it steady and look out for one of the few lay-bys if you want to take in the views a little more safely. It’s an area popular with hikers and climbers and you may well see lycra-clad waifs spidering up the improbably vertical and even reverse-overhanging walls. Fools.

The road (which is in places being upgraded to bring the reach of the dual-carriageway yet further East toward the town of Superior) grows steadily busier and then, beyond the improvement zone, the existing dual carriageway passes the effective start point of the day’s tour – the turn off for Apache Junction. Gradually, the road widens to more and more lanes until it becomes the eight lane freeway which links back on to the 101 Loop North to Scottsdale and the respite of the hotel pool. It’s at this point that you’ll notice the outside temperature reading in the car climbing again from the (relative) cool of the higher ground just left, although inevitably, as here, you’ll run out of memory card two degrees before the high is reached!

For this Apache Trail adventure, we’d rented another damnable Ford Explorer to undertake the trip, and left it until the last weekend of the holiday so that we could benefit from a good rate with Hertz (this time booked through using the bmi Corporate Discount Plan number), picked up from the on-site desk at the hotel and to be dropped off back at Sky Harbor.

The Ambassadors had confirmed that a 4pm checkout was available (perfect for the 7.25pm BA to Heathrow) and we spent the last hours at the hotel around the Canyon Suites pool in the company of precisely two other couples.

Come departure time, we were literally deluged with offers of assistance, and the folio was ready for inspection at the front desk. For only the second time on the trip (the other being way back at the other Starwood property we used – the Four Points in Kamloops) the bill was cent-perfect, having had each fourth night comped, the internet charges zero-ed and all the other lines totalled correctly.

Although the senior Ambassador was not on shift, I felt it appropriate to leave a gratuity for the whole team and gave this to one of the more junior Ambassadors in a sealed envelope with a note to pass on. Although it only amounted to a few dollars per person per day, I was delighted to receive an email of thanks from the senior guy within a few days of returning home. He and his team have since been of further assistance, I believe, to number of visiting friends and colleagues.

At long last, tanned and relaxed after the hectic schedule of the first half of the trip, the door staff loaded up the Explorer for us and we headed back to the Rental Car Centre at Sky Harbor.

There was a slight hitch enroute however, as the car had initially been provided with the tank 7/8 full. Unfortunately, the fuel gauge wouldn’t play ball during refilling, and I accidentally topped the tank. On arrival back at the car drop-off, I mentioned this to the guy zapping the cars in and he sent me off to the office. Without a murmur, the desk agent refunded $15, which was probably slightly more than the overfill was worth. Having become used to fairly rubbish Hertz service almost everywhere, this was a doubly pleasant surprise.

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