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The Scenic Route

July 31, 2014

Wednesday morning started in Alaska.

We decided to take a scenic route from Flagstaff to Los Angeles by heading south first to Sedona, a town in the mountains and right alongside Coconino National Forest. We were on the road for just a few minutes when Sam asked if I could get a little closer to the 18-wheeler in front of us so he could check its license plate. At the National Parks he found a couple of the state license plates he had been missing, including Hawaii. But for the past few days he’s been stuck on 49 states and has been in search of Alaska. Sure enough, the truck had Alaska plates. Victory!

Tomorrow we start over at zero.

Sedona, in case you were wondering, is a lovely town with lots for vacationers to do–golf courses, spas, art galleries, and restaurants. Sam and I are interested in exactly none of those things. We were there to see rocks. Red ones. We started at Red Rock State Park. Big mistake. About two minutes after paying the $8 entry fee we realized that, besides a decent but very far-away view of Cathedral Rock (one of the more well known of the red rocks), the park is pleasant enough but not unique in any way.

A couple of miles away we found a different state park whose name escapes me. It also was completely underwhelming but it does own the most famous view of Cathedral Rock–the one with the reflecting pool. I’m still stymied in my efforts to upload photos to the blog, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Eventually I’ll get this photo thing sorted out, I really will.

[Photo to come]

The guy at Flagstaff Extreme suggested that we pay a visit to the other colossally famous rock, Bell Rock, which is a few miles away. He said there’s a hiking trail that takes you right up to the base of the rock and that there are always people climbing it, which is fun to see (or do yourself). I had no intention of doing any rock climbing but his advice about seeing downtown Flagstaff and about where to find a place to stay were accurate, so I went with him on Bell Rock too.

The rock itself is really interesting to look at, as it looks like a big bell from certain angles but looks completely different from other vantage points. And boy, is it red.

[Photo to come]

Unfortunately the only parking lot near the trail requires something called a “valid recreation pass” so we parked only long enough to take some pictures and never got terribly close to the bell.

So ultimately Sedona was underwhelming, especially after seeing the red monoliths in Monument Valley. Still, it was a beautiful drive through beautiful scenery in beautiful weather, so I’m not complaining.

Next it was back to our old friend Route 66. In Arizona it passes through some especially quirky little towns full of functioning and iconic Route 66 businesses. We especially liked a tiny town called Williams, which featured all sorts of historical Route 66 attractions as well as one faux-historical attraction: the Historical Route 66 Zip Line.

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Our main goal for the day, however, was to see some alpacas.

After Flagstaff, Kingman is the biggest Arizona city that Route 66 passes through. There’s not a ton to do in Kingman that’s of interest to us–a Route 66 museum, a historic locomotive, a train museum. But just east of Kingman is an alpaca ranch called Alpacas of the Southwest that gives tours for $6 per car. Sam loves animals and he especially loves fluffy animals. I love weird stuff that I can’t do at home. So we’ve been getting progressively excited for the alpacas for the past few days. In fact we started joking about how “alpaca” sounds like “I’ll pack a” and we starting making stupid jokes about it by saying things like, “Are you cold? Alpaca sweater!” and “Alpacas a nice lunch.”

The ranch is small and is run by a husband and wife who are, I would guess, in their early 60s and own 42 alpacas, which they use both for wool and for breeding. The ranch normally closes at 3:30 but they were kind enough to take us at 4:00. The husband gave us the tour, which really was just a talk about alpacas in general and the ranch specifically while we stood in the barn watching and petting alpacas. It was all pretty interesting, considering we knew nothing at all about alpacas when we got there and we now know almost enough to start breeding them. Plus they’re really freaking soft! Sam even got to feed a couple of them, which he loved.

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Almost as interesting was some of the other stuff going on at the ranch while we were there; specifically, the owners also have five dogs that are bred in France and Italy specifically for the purposes of protecting flocks from wily predators like coyotes (which the rancher pronounced as “KAI-oats”). They also have a pig roaming the grounds, which we learned is rather annoying but it keeps away snakes, which are otherwise unavoidable in northern Arizona.

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Like all good businessmen, this one ended the tour in the gift shop, where he sells various products made from wool from his own alpacas. Alpaca wool is much softer than sheep wool and can get even softer depending on the quality of the animal it comes from–and this guy has some quality alpacas. We bought some socks, which will keep our feet warm and dry at home and, just as important, gave us the excuse to add “alpaca pair of socks” to our repertoire of terrible alpaca puns.

And as he walked us out, the rancher said to me, “Now that business is all done, I want to say that I support Israel.” His comment completely took me by surprise and it took me a minute to process. It was pretty random but nice to hear, considering what so many misguided people around the world have had to say about Israel and about Jews in the past few weeks.

But back to Kingman. Originally I had planned to spend the night in Kingman, but it was still pretty early in the evening so we decided instead to drive to our next destination: Needles, California. If you’re taking Route 66 or I-40, Needles is the first town you hit in California. There’s a small mountain range between Kingman and Needles, and the two roads have very different approaches to it. I-40 dips south beneath the mountains and will get you to Needles in a little under an hour; Route 66 takes twice as long because, as it sometimes does, it takes a more scenic route, this time through (and over) those mountains. The part of the road that tackles the mountains is called Sitgreaves Pass and is famous for its winding, steep path, its harrowing switchbacks, and its desert views. In fact you’ll find Sitgreaves Pass on various lists of coolest/craziest/prettiest/most thrilling drives in America.

I always check a few of those lists when I start planning a road trip to see if there are any spectacular drives that I can reasonably include. This time there were a few that were a little too far out of our way to bother with, and two that were worth serious consideration. One was US 12 near Bryce Canyon, but it was on the wrong side of the park for us, and would have taken so much time that we would have had to cut out something else. Another was Kolob Terrace Road, which can be found inside Zion National Park and seemed like a no-brainer at first. But as it turns out, the road is in a remote part of the park and has no outlet, so it would have required a 1.5-hour drive from the Visitors Center and then that very same 1.5-hour drive right back. So it didn’t happen. The third was Sitgreaves Pass, which not only goes somewhere useful but is literally part of the road we’re taking. And since we still had at least two hours of daylight, the choice was easy.

The drive was exactly as advertised–thrilling, beautiful, dizzying, and a bit terrifying. As it leaves Kingman it goes through a barren wasteland dotted by occasional trailer homes. It’s at that point you realize that the pavement is in pretty rough shape. Then you look straight ahead and you see the mountains that this crumbling pavement will take you through.

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Soon the road starts climbing a little and winding a little. And then a little more. Just before the really hairy part begins there’s a service-station-turned-gift-shop that’s so Route-66-ish it still has the original tall, skinny gas pumps from the ’60s.

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Then it’s nothing but cliffside switchbacks on a badly cracked road for about a half hour.

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Just when you get to the other side of the mountains and the road starts to calm down again you realize that you’re officially in a desert and it’s become unreasonably hot out despite the setting sun. And that’s about when you arrive in Oatman, a tiny Old West town with saloons and everything.

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And when I say “everything” I’m including the several donkeys who are randomly walking the streets. Yes, donkeys.

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In fairness, there was a donkey-crossing sign a couple of miles back.

Donkey Crossing

Some more desert, a couple more little towns, and finally we reached the California border. We’re not quite at the end of Route 66 and we’re nowhere near the end of our journey, but we have now literally crossed the country.

Needles is not a big city by any measure. But it is hot. By the time we got to our motel the sun had set but the temperature had somehow risen to 104. A half hour later, when it was completely dark, things cooled off to a much more palatable 101. And if the temperature wasn’t strange enough, our motel certainly is.

We’re staying in a brand new Quality Inn which is in the same building as a Rodeway Inn and they share a lobby. When we arrived the only woman working in the lobby was going back and forth between the two front desks answering the phones of both motels. Unfortunately for everyone involved, she is the slowest-moving hotel industry employee I have ever seen. We were the only people in the lobby but almost 10 minutes passed before she finished checking us in. It turns out that her lack of speed is complemented by her lack of skill. First the keys she gave us didn’t work. She reset them and they worked perfectly. But when I got the door open the family who was already in the room was pretty surprised to see us. Well, I’m not so sure it was a family–there was a man in his late 50s and two girls who looked about 16 and were both wearing towels while sitting in bed watching TV. You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions and write your own backstory, but this is a child-friendly road trip and I’m sticking with “family.”

Eventually everything got sorted out but we didn’t enter our actual room until about an hour after we arrived at the motel.

It was a long and strange day. But I bet it was even longer for the truck driver who came all the way from Alaska.

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