Road to Nowhere

The heat in Phoenix is something so omniprescent that you can’t fight it, and the best defence is running away. Last weekend, we did just that, having been invited by friends to visit their compound (a word which, I will admit, triggered thoughts of something Branch Davidian) a couple of hours drive North of Phoenix. North = higher = cooler – since moving here, I’ve become somewhat familiar with things like the “dry adiabatic lapse rate” which, fact fans, is the way rising air cools at about 3C per 1000 feet.

In Arizona, this translates to a migration to higher ground at every opportunity, and we had picked a good weekend for it, as the temperature in Phoenix reached 44C on Saturday. This trip, however, ended up visiting ground a little higher than even we would have liked. We’d not been to visit our friends’ country mansion before, so had received detailed and beautifully-drawn instructions – unfortunately, they were also fatally-flawed, in that they confused Highway 89 with 89A. “You tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the even-higher road…”

Because Chris had a pinched nerve in her neck, I was the driver on this leg, and Chris’s role was largely dealing with Robert. He is clearly an urban boy, and pretty much as soon as we left Phoenix, the steady whining began coming from the back seat: in addition to the usual bleats of “Are we there yet?” and “Is it much further?”, he was also suffering a constant fear of us running out of petrol, even though the tank never dipped below a quarter-full. Passing a significant number of cars, apparently stalled by the side of the road, didn’t improve matters.

Pretty much as soon as we made the fateful turn onto Highway 89A, we realised something was wrong. This road had curves on it, something I hadn’t seen in the previous six months driving round Phoenix. I struggled to remember what you had to do to go round them…something involving the steering wheel, wasn’t it? And the road also continued to climb: three thousand, four thousand feet up, and still no sign of the promised turning which would take us to Shangri-La.

If it had been daylight, the views would no doubt have been delightful and impressive; as it was, it was probably a good thing that the darkness prevented us from seeing the precipitous drop on the other side of the guard-rail. Chris, on the passenger side, was getting up close and personal with the chasm below us, and I began to wonder if she’d taken Nietzche’s comment about gazing into the abyss to heart. She was certainly brooding in an appropriately silent manner, but might just have been petrified with fear – Chris prefers her roads straight, three lanes in each direction, and possessing a central reservation between you and any oncoming juggernauts.

Me, I was actually enjoying it. In the North of Scotland, where I learned to drive, even the A-class roads are rarely more than one lane each way, curves go with the territory, and you also have to dodge the world’s dumbest creatures, sheep. Having all but drifted off to sleep on the freeway, I was somewhat revelling in 10 m.p.h. hairpins. I remember thinking that the distances on the road signs must have been both as the crow flies and vertically. It may not be the best mindset, but I felt like I was playing an incredibly realistic video game, albeit with one life left, no saves and no continues.

It was thus with a slight sense of regret that I went over the brow of the mountain, at around 7,500 feet, and we fell down the other side, albeit not quite literally. We passed through the almost-deserted town of Jerome, and headed for Cottonwood where we drove into the first hotel we found. Never has a Quality Inn been more welcome. I used a tyre lever and gently pried Chris’s fingers free from the dashboard, where they’d been gouging grooves for the past twenty miles.

On the bright side, when we did finally reach our destination on Saturday, it made the relaxation all the more worthwhile…