Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 2

This is part 2 in the saga of Uncle Day Weekend, a recounting of  our trip up north over part of Labor Day weekend just to get away from the heat.  Part 1, if you remember, focused on the events leading up to the trip itself.

Sunday morning arrived to find us engaged in our usual harried efforts to throw everything together at the last minute before a road trip.   Typically, we start off at harried, progress to flustered, and usually come within sight of completely unhinged, a pattern which normally includes a fair amount of ugliness and some bitter recriminations between Elizabeth and me.  It’s funny; people tell us all the time that we are so good to each other, so kind and respectful.  HA!  That’s just the show we put on for mass consumption; the truth is, we fight like hell.  We rip each other apart at times, and have no compunction about going for the other’s throat (remember the open door, anyone?).  The secret to our success, I suppose, is that as nasty as our confrontations can be in the moment, we get over them quickly, and accept them for what they are: clashes between two people who agree on where we want to go, but almost always disagree about how to get there.  Which is exactly why I didn’t tell her about taking a different way to Flagstaff.
Once all the decisions about what to bring and what will fit have been made, the car is loaded, the kids are in, and we’re finally on the move, the resentments and rancor of the moment are usually allowed to expire.  Within a few minutes, our hands will touch, a few soft words will be spoken, and our natural equilibrium will be restored.  It’s a lesson we learned from twenty-five years of traveling together. There are few forms of misery worse that being truly upset with each other on the road. 

We stopped at Walgreen’s before officially heading out. There, Elizabeth picked up a magazine for Jess, and for Maria she bought a travel edition Etch-A-Sketch, which is a little smaller than the original and uses a stylus to draw with instead of the familiar knobs.  She bought a bag of sunflower seeds for herself.  It’s the only time she ever eats sunflower seeds, but for some reason she consumes them like an addict whenever we go on a road trip.  She insists that she trusts my driving skills implicitly.      

It was 9:30 when we started east on Glendale Avenue.  We passed over the I-17 a few minutes later.  Cue the questions.  “We’re not taking the freeway?” Elizabeth asked, a bit uncomfortably.
“No,” I responded, looking straight ahead.  “I thought we’d try going a different way.”
“Is it faster, Dad?” Jessica asked.  Here we go.  At least I knew I would be able to sit through this interrogation session, seeing as how we were already in the car. 
“No, it’s not faster,” I said.  “But it’s nicer.”  There was a loud moan of despair from the back seat, followed by a bout of low-volume complaining. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said, so I felt no obligation to notice it.
“Freeway, Daddy?”  Maria asked.
“Not this time, sweetie,” I said, watching her in the mirror.  She stared blankly for a moment, then randomly tried to reach over and hit Jessica, and failing that, started scribbling on the Etch-A-Sketch. I caught a sideways look at Elizabeth, who was still watching me with a half skeptical, half what-are-you-planning-to-do-with-us look.
“We’re in no rush to get there, right?  I just wanted to see if we could find a more enjoyable way to go.  You know, take our time, just enjoy the ride.  Besides, the way we’re going will get us out of the heat faster.”  She considered this, and then apparently decided to reserve judgment.  More likely, she had decided to wait for things to start going wrong, and then attack.  Who can blame her?  That’s what I would have done. The questions stopped.  Hmm, I thought. All in all, nowhere near as bad as I expected.  Jessica continued to grumble for a few minutes, and Maria was absorbed in her doodling.  I made a mental note to tell Elizabeth later that the Etch-A-Sketch idea was brilliant.  Well, I thought, relaxing into my seat, I’m one up on my plan already.

We took the 51 north from Glendale Ave, and then caught the 101 east to Shea Boulevard.  I said a silent prayer of thanks to the architects and engineers of the Loop 101 as we leapt over a big chunk of the Valley in a matter of minutes.  I am old enough to remember the days when the 17 was the only real freeway in town, before they even finished the I-10, and the Superstition freeway barely made it to Power Road.  Traveling from west to east across the north valley on surface streets took well over an hour; and here we are, barely a half-hour from home, and I can already see the pathetic example of desert hubris that is the Fountain Hills fountain before us.   

What could be more useless? I thought, watching it blast its foamy water in the air, a timed ejaculation of foolishness.   We live in a place where every drop of water should be treated like gold, and the wise founders of Fountain Hills had this for a stroke of genius:  Hey, let’s create a fake lake and use it to do nothing but shoot water 300 feet into the air once an hour just because we can.  As a kid I thought the fountain was cool.  What kid doesn’t like to see water projected into the sky like the tail of the biggest Estes rocket ever?  Come to think of it, maybe that’s how they got the idea to begin with.  Maybe the founders asked the kids what they wanted to see more than anything, and this was the result.  In that case, the town just as easily could have been called Twinkie Hills, with a 300 foot Twinkie, or Guinea Pig Hills, because what kid doesn’t love a Guinea Pig, especially a giant, 300 foot one?  As an adult, though, having done my biggest research paper in college on water issues in Arizona, I had the same reaction every time we passed by: idiots.  Forget the $15,000 in student loans, the real price of higher education is not being able to be oblivious to how much stupid stuff is going on around you.  Ah, forget about it, I told myself.  That’s nothing compared to what happens in Las Vegas every day.  At least those people you expect to act like idiots.

We turned left onto the Beeline highway, and left the metropolis behind.  It didn’t take long for the re-emerging desert terrain to scrub away the slight sliminess of Fountain Hills.  It never does.  The desert heals the people who love it quickly.  Even the aggravating appearance of hillside homes miles beyond the outskirts of town wasn’t enough to overcome the feeling of rejuvenation.  This day, the recovery was aided by seeing that this end of the valley obviously received a lot more rain than we lowly west-siders this monsoon season.  The rocky slopes of the high desert hills have more than a touch of green about them.  The land here felt fuller, not as stressed.     

The great thing about Highway 87 (also known as the Beeline) is how rapidly you move up in elevation.  The road rises much more steeply than the I-17 does, and you reach the pine trees much, much sooner.  In less than an hour after leaving the greater Phoenix area, you are within sight of pine trees.  On the 17, you have to come within 30 miles of Flagstaff in order to ensconce yourself in conifers. Psychologically, it’s a huge difference.  By the time you reach Payson on the Beeline, you can roll down the window and smell pine.  Sometimes it’s roasting pine, as it can still be uncomfortably warm, but it’s clear you’ve entered a high-altitude life zone. 

On our approach to the town of Payson, we continued to comment to each other about how green things are.  There have been years when driving through this same area is nothing but a study in infinite shades of brown.  It’s like driving through a landscape of toast.   This year, however, it appeared that the regular portion of rain that was scheduled for our area was delivered here instead, and that lifted my spirits noticeably.  I was happy to see that it went somewhere useful.  This part of the state has been ravaged by fires in recent years, and it was nice to see healthy green growth in the middle of summer for a change.  I deposited a mental tick mark into the “Glad We Came This Way” column.  

We passed through Payson without stopping.  We passed the McDonald’s at the intersection of the Beeline and Highway 260, which carries the bulk of traffic heading to points east such as Show Low, Snowflake, and yes, even Heber (sorry cousins, maybe next time!).   I can count the number of times on one finger when we haven’t stopped at this McDonald’s, which is probably true for most people, especially families traveling together.  It seems everybody has a story to tell set at this McDonald’s, and most have more than one.  It has to be one of the most eventful locations in the country.  I would put it up against the one in Times Square any day.  If they ever wrote a book about the things that went on there, it would be filled with strange and unbelievable tales, all completely true.  However, on this day, the girls are still comfortable; no one needs to stop for the bathroom, and we rolled right on by.  I interpreted this as a providential omen, and placed a second tick mark into “Glad We Came This Way.”

Continuing to head north, and up, on highway 87 (no longer called the Beeline because the segment connecting Phoenix and Payson is now behind us), we reveled in the sight of heavy, filled-sponge clouds through the split in the trees above us. The weight of heat had been lifted from our heads.  My foot had eased up, not just because we were driving a twisty two-lane road.  The tension in the front seat was tangibly being tugged away by the mountain breezes, even though our windows were still not down.  As we reached the community of Pine, traffic came to a stop.  We looked at each other with pinched mouths.  What is it, we asked each other.  A wreck?  Construction?  UFO?  I was just about to add the first tick mark to the “Wish We Didn’t Come This Way” column, when we discovered that a holiday weekend celebration was impeding our forward movement.  A small-town festival, with jerky stands, and fresh fruit, and fry bread, and booths selling jewelry and candles, and dreamcatchers . . .

Elizabeth and I looked at each other and smiled: genuine, relaxed smiles.  The highway was being crowded on both sides, on the right by cars parked haphazardly on the shoulder, and on the left by all the booths and people.  Fresh arrivals who parked on the right crossed the two lanes with varying amounts of hesitation, which is what reduced traffic to stop-and-crawl.   Neither Elizabeth nor I seriously considered stopping; we barely even mentioned it, although we both would have liked to.  Under these conditions, Maria’s mysterious ability to vanish and reappear suddenly in unexpected places ruled out the possibility of calling an audible here.  With unsought patience, we crept along intermittently, spectators to the simple pleasures of small-town exuberance. 

It didn’t take more than a few minutes to pass through, and soon we were back up to speed.  A few more miles of ponderosa pine brought us to Strawberry.  Elizabeth packed a picnic lunch, and I had a vague notion that we could eat it at the historic Strawberry schoolhouse.  We followed the sign and made the turn onto Fossil Creek Road, and began ticking off the 1.9 miles the sign said was the distance to the school site.  For some reason, I expected to find a little log cabin schoolhouse in a park-like setting, with trees and grass, and maybe even a table of two.  We drove right by it the first time, because it was on such a small lot.  After we went a few clicks past what our odometer told us should have been the spot, we turned around.  Then Elizabeth caught it, a home-sized lot set back a little from the road.  A small, home-sized lot, with a log cabin-type house on rocky, bare dirt, without a tree on the property.  Obviously, this would not suffice as a picnic spot; we would have taken up most of the parking area if we tried to spread out a blanket.  At least I was right about the log-cabin part.  After driving back to the highway, we stopped at a small general store.  I bought lemonade tea in a can so I could ask the man behind the counter if he knew of any suitable places for a picnic in Strawberry. 
“Which way you headin’?”  he asked.
“North,” I replied.
“Ah, that’s too bad,” he said.  “If you were headin’ south, there’s some good spots in Pine for a picnic.”
“We can’t go back,” I said.  “Besides, they were pretty busy.”
“Welp,” the man started, scratching his head.  “If you go seven or eight miles ahead, there should be a few picnic-type areas you could use.”
That sounded kind of vague.  “Anything in particular I should look for?”
“Nope.  Seven or eight miles up the road.  That’s about it.”
“Strawberry doesn’t have a park or anything like that?”
“Welp, there is that little schoolhouse on Fossil Creek Road.  Some people consider that  a park.”
“We were already there.  We’re looking for something, you know, with a little grass, and some trees.  You know, for a picnic.” Didn’t everyone picture the same thing I did when it comes to picnics?
He shook his head.  “Can’t really think of anything fitting that description.”
“Okay.  Well, thanks.” 

We drove the next seven or eight miles prowling for a place to picnic along the highway. 

Sorry, but this is turning out to be a much longer story than I expected.  How I can be surprised, when I was there for everything that happened, is beyond my ability to explain.  However, I need some more time to finish, so I'm posting this as part two.  Part three will appear on Sunday.  


  1. I can't believe that I am actually being drawn into this story. Considering our recent trips to that area to scout for possible family reunion spots, I know all of the places you're referring to. It is a testament to you entertaining and affective writing. However, I'll refrain from telling my Fountain Hills dwelling aunt to check out this story on your blog! :)

  2. Hutton - I'm sure the fountain wasn't her idea, was it? In retrospect, using the word "slimy" to describe the town was pretty strong...wish I could say I didn't mean it.

  3. Kevin I am disappointed that Part 3 wasn't here. I wait with baited breath..

  4. or how about bated breath.... No nightcrawlers involved here...

  5. SB - Sorry 'bout that. It was not my intention to leave anyone hanging. I know you're probably teasing me, but I feel badly about not keeping my commitment to the blog yesterday. Sometimes, however, life intrudes, and that's exactly what happened. I think I'm going to blog about it in some fashion, so I'll spare you the details now. As far as Uncle Day Weekend (which is quickly becoming the longest weekend of my life!) goes, I think I can say that you should see it Tuesday morning at the latest. Thanks for letting me know you're reading (and enjoying) the story.

    And as far as baited/bated goes, don't feel too badly; I spelled breath with an e at the end, and I just noticed that I misspelled the names of Sturgis (I spelled Sturges), and Evel Knievel (I spelled Evil Kneivel). I've corrected them now, but I'm sure there are more in there . . .

  6. After rushing through toast and yogurt I have to say I was not disappointed with part 2.

  7. Hope McK - I'm so glad to hear how well part 2 went with your breakfast of toast and yogurt. I can't tell you how many people have complained about that particular combination. I have heard, however, that peanut butter toast and a hard-boiled egg goes exceptionally well with part 3, and, believe it or not, the old classic bagels and lox with part 4. I don't know why. I'm just glad part 2 turned out well for you.