I am blessed and spoiled rotten. My dearest friend loves to visit the coast and so when I asked where she would like to celebrate her birthday, I did so with plans in mind for a trip to Carlsbad.
A view from on high along the Senator Highway.
Always full of surprises, she instead suggested an adventure to Crown King, Arizona for a much needed weekend escape that could also be combined with a bit of business. That was the catalyst for a Route 66 detour of truly epic proportions, an adventure into Arizona history as well as some of the states most spectacular backcountry.
Initial plans were to leave bright and early on Saturday as is our tradition when embarking on an adventure. Besides this was to be a weekend without cell phones, home repair issues, deadlines or emails, this was a weekend for simply enjoying the company of a dear friend without intrusion or interruption.
However, a pair of back to back interviews on the second hour of Rudy Maxa’s World program (podcast available by following this link) necessitated a slight schedule adjustment. As a result we had to forego the luxury of a leisurely trip on Route 66, and instead kicked off the adventure by following I-40 to Ash Fork.
The “good road” to Crown King.
Perhaps before continuing with this story, and sharing the discovery of a few treasures, an excellent restaurant, a quaint motel, and scenic wonders, I should first explain something about Crown King. This old mining town is not a place you get to by taking a wrong turn.
There are only four roads into town. The “good road” begins at Mayer, Arizona as a graded county road that served as the highway between Phoenix and Flagstaff, and Prescott, before the advent of the interstate highway.
From the ghost town of Cleator, the road continues as one lane gravel road, with pull outs, maintained ever six weeks. It literally follows the historic rail bed through a series of rock cuts and up a series of switchbacks. It is a dusty 28 mile drive that requires at least one hour and a stout heart.
The second choice is the historic Senator Highway, a mid 19th century toll road that connected the territorial capital at Prescott with the mining boom towns of the Bradshaw Mining District.
The “good road” follows the narrow course of the old rail bed through rock cuts.
A four wheel drive in good weather may not be required but it will come in handy. Ground clearance, patience, and a sense of adventure, however, is a must as the 39 mile drive will require a minimum of three hours and a lot of tire rubber left on rocks as well as a few stream crossings.
The other two roads are best left to the crazy people who own heavily modified off road equipment. Trust me, you will not be using either of these roads to make the twisted climb from cactus strewn desert to pine forested mountains if you drive a stock 4×4.
So, even though we had decided to drive the “good road” the late start dictated making time. Hence the use of I-40.
Times change, that is a simple fact of life. We may miss the past but if we are to keep smiling as the years progress there is a need to accept that adage.
Still, my wife and I miss Arizona, or at least the Arizona now replaced by sprawling suburbia, forty acre pretend ranches, and air conditioned, gadgetry laden boulevard cruisers masquerading as pick up trucks. As a result, the well worn Iron Horse restaurant in Chino Valley, our lunch stop, proved to be a real treat.
Before this became a suburb of Prescott with the trappings of the modern generic age, Chino Valley was at the heart of vast ranches where pronghorn antelope roamed free on the grassy plains stretching toward the distant mountains. As soon as we stepped through the screen door it was apparent that we had discovered a magical place where time had stood still.
The well worn tables were clean, the atmosphere was heavy with the smell of coffee, bacon, dust, leather, and laughter. The waitress greeted each customer by name and each customer was a tangible link to another time.
Men with dusty boots and spurs, sun bleached, sweat stained Montana style Stetson hats, laughed and joked, their wives mirrored years of hard honest work under the desert sun. My dearest friend and I had accidently discovered a remnant of the Arizona we remembered from our youth, a place where grown men didn’t squint into the sun as the bill on their cap was shading their neck and the friendly conversation centered on stock prices, the drought, or hunting.
Antelope in Chino Valley.
It was with twinge of sadness that we left the restaurant, stepped into modern suburbia, and motored south through the roundabout. This, however, was to be an adventure into the Arizona of old and as though the stage had been set for such an outing, a herd of antelope grazed along the highway near the new convenience store that opened since our last visit.
We continued the journey along the parkway, through the suburbia that now sweeps through Prescott Valley and that threatens to engulf Dewey, gassed up just before Mayer, and then turned onto the dusty track that leads to the past. At historic Cordes Junction, a dusty, forlorn and empty crossroads where the wind whipped the sands into a face stinging frenzy, a bit of trouble with the Jeep required a little bit of old fashioned ingenuity.
I had stopped to take a few pictures but when opening the rear tail gate the latch broke. And so we made the rest of the adventure with a bright blue ratchet strap keeping the gear in the Jeep and off the road. However, in spite of various efforts this did little to keep the sands and dust from swirling through the interior.
Cordes Junction, Arizona.
From old Cordes Junction the graded gravel road gently follows the contour of the land with a series of twists and turns over ridges and through the desert and with each turn the imposing mountains loom closer. At Cleator, a ghost town with a functioning century old general store, and a very busy bar, the adventure truly began.