Into the Desert
“We accept: Cash, Checks, and Pelts”
Now I knew we were getting somewhere. We were two days into our two-week road trip, on our way back from a hike that started at a trailhead seven miles from the last paved road, and I hadn’t seen the sign on the way out because it was on the east side of the building. Now we were heading back west, out of “town,” and this gem couldn’t have not caught my eye. I imagine it reflects normal commerce in this part of the country, where people get their running water from huge drums indiscriminately placed in their front yards next to rusting pick-ups that haven’t moved since who knows when, but for me this was quite literally a sign that I was off of the beaten path.
When I planned our route on Google Maps, I had made the critical mistake of not switching on the satellite view. In pasty tan with its neat grid-patterned urban planning and longitudinal roads labeled 1st through 21st street, Dolan Springs looks like a quaint downtown area nestled up against a picturesque mountain backdrop. A smaller Denver or Salt Lake City, maybe.
Dolan Springs is not like Denver or Salt Lake City. Not at all. It’s the kind of place where people seem to, literally, live off of the grid. The roads are unpaved, most of the intersections are devoid of signage, and the homes are shacks built largely from scrap metal, wood, and plastic. Having seen this – and the jackrabbit that bolted across our path 20 minutes ago – the sign on the way out really doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
But, let’s go back to the beginning.
We’re Underway, But Not Headed Where We’d Planned
We’re in Phoenix, and it’s hot, and we’re not even out of the airport. It’s May, and back home in Baltimore, we’ve still got a few months of chilly weather ahead. Here, you wonder if they even sell long pants in the stores. The guy at the rental counter isn’t any help in this regard.
His nametag says, “Thor”. I’ve never met a Thor before, so, oppressive heat aside, this trip is off to a pretty good start. We’ve got a plan that I assembled months ago, but the goal really is just to know that we have a place to stay each night while seeing what we see along the way. Well, ok, there’s a little bit more to it than that. We both have things we want to see and places we want to go, but by no means have we planned out every minute of every day. That’s how we ended up in Dolan Springs, after all. But, we’ll get back to that in a bit.
When I say, “we,” I mean me, of course, and my incredible and adventurous wife. We’re in our late 20s, both well-educated professionals who feel a bit out of place in careers that don’t exactly feel like our own. This trip is the first major departure from the doldrums of our office jobs since our Costa Rica trip two years ago – and a much-needed one at that.
Thor asks where we’re going, and I explain that we are at the dawn of a road trip that will take us to Bozeman, roughly 1,000 miles away, via a roughly 3,500-mile route that traverses eight states and takes us from the California coast to the still-snowy mountains of Yellowstone National Park.
“Sounds like the trip of a lifetime,” says Thor. I cringe, revolting at the idea that these might actually be the best two weeks of the rest of my life. But, I anxiously await Thor’s disclosure of our rental options all the same.
We decide against the four-wheel drive. It’s too expensive, and while we’re planning an adventure, as far as I know we’re not going anywhere that no one else has been before. Two-wheel drive should be fine…
I also tell Thor that our first stop – and the reason we’ve landed in Phoenix – is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. “If you’re going north, you’ve got to see Sedona,” Thor says. “It’s got the best views in Arizona.” It’s not on our route, but it’s not far off of it either, and Thor’s seems like quite the claim.
We choose a nondescript dark grey, two-wheel drive SUV. Fifteen minutes later we’re on the highway, with Sedona mapped as the destination point in our GPS.
I probably could have written this story without mentioning Sedona. I’m sure it’s incredible, but as a waypoint on the road to the Grand Canyon, when you’ve just gotten off of a five-hour flight with a layover and have a busy day ahead, and when there’s traffic and it’s hot – and I mean hot – let’s just say that Thor’s recommendation left a lot to be desired. We did get some great Mexican food in town, though.
Leaving Sedona behind, we had Flagstaff in our sights. This would be another quick in-and-out, but it’s such an iconic piece of Americana that we felt like we had to stop at least long enough to stretch our legs and breathe the desert air.
A New Appreciation for the Rearview Mirror
A road trip like this is about exploration in more ways than one. This profundity is something that I learned along the way, and it is one that I think has served me well in my life since. While I tend to think of exploration in the grand, romantic way that sends you on a well-planned but freedom-seeking road trip into the West, there are more-minute forms of exploration as well. In these circumstances, realizing that you are exploring is what helps you take it all in as you go along.
About twenty minutes north of Flagstaff (we had parked at the Visitor Center on Route 66, picked up our Grand Canyon passes and taken a quick stroll before getting on Route 180 heading out of town), I looked in the rearview mirror. This being a 3,500-mile road trip and me being a good driver, this was not an uncommon occurrence – except in one important regard:
What I saw gave me a completely new appreciation for this small, smudgy piece of glass.
What I saw was Humphreys Peak. If you are not familiar, Humphreys Peak sits to the east of Route 180, about 12 miles north of Flagstaff. Route 180 is flat and empty, but it has a lot of bends—in large part because it circumnavigates Humphreys Peak. When it straightens out, Humphreys Peak is directly in your rearview mirror.
It was an incredible view. A massive, solitary snowcapped peak in the middle of the desert—utterly pristine and, for me, completely unexpected. While I had done my research, there were undoubtedly countless sights along the way that we were going to bypass none the wiser. I didn’t view that as a fault—we had planned an ambitious route, and the route was our goal. We wanted to tour the West, hitting the highlights and picking up some local flavor along the way. So, until I saw it, I didn’t know that Humphreys Peak existed.
We pulled over so I could take some photos. There, alone in the desert, that’s when it hit me: For the next two weeks every moment would be an experience in the unknown.
It is also where I developed my affinity for the rearview mirror. When you are on a one-way road trip, you are going to miss things if you do not look behind you. You are going to miss things anyway—you can’t constantly look in the rearview, and if you do you’ll miss what’s in front of you instead. But, Humphreys Peak and then the glorious sign on our out-and-back through Dolan Springs, these provided enduring reminders that what lies behind can be just as novel as what lies ahead.
The South Rim, and Then On to Day Two
The Grand Canyon was also incredible, as is to be expected. My father had taken my brother and me as children, and I can still conjure up the feeling I experienced when its vastness hit me for the first time. This time was much the same, though I think the anticipation built up from my prior visit mitigated the experience just a bit. We arrived in the early afternoon, and stayed well past dusk. When it was too dark to see, utterly exhausted and ready for bed, we drove one more hour in the black desert night to our first resting point in Williams, AZ.
In the morning we would have a two-hour drive to Dolan Springs.
This is the first in an as-yet-to-be-numbered series of posts that will recount our 3,505-mile, eight-state road trip from Phoenix, AZ to Bozeman, MT. Part 2 will pick up with our entirely unexpected and equally unforgettable experience in Dolan Springs.