Friday, June 25, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Long drives can be therapeutic, and at the end of one particularly crazy recent week, I gathered what remained of my wits and embarked on the 4 1/2 hour drive to Phoenix, the city of my childhood.
I was thankful for a cool desert night and a good omen at Hoover Dam. Although so often a nightmarishly slow crossing for the interstate traveler, this was one of those rare weekends when traffic wasn’t backed up for miles. A pleasant surprise, to be sure, although the pace and the switchbacks did make it tricky to gawk at the new bridge that spans the Colorado River chasm.
Even at the risk of a plunge into the river, it’s hard not to stare at the $240 million structure, which later this year will be christened the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. O’Callaghan is best recalled as a famously popular governor of Nevada, although he was so much more than that. A tragic story if ever there was one, Tillman was an Arizona college and pro football star who gave up fame and money to enlist in the Army after 9/11, where he was killed by friendly fire.
Over the years, I have frequently commuted on U.S. 93, even breaking down along the highway a few times, an experience that in the summer allows time to contemplate both the desert scenery and survival. In younger days, I even counted the crosses alongside the highway, and wondered why there were so many southbound signs warning travelers not to drink and drive.
Of course, even a young person knew the road between Kingman and Wickenburg was treacherous — even without alcohol. The two-lane highway was full of twists and banks, dips and hills, pass-if-you-dare blind stretches. Wikieup, a barren valley oasis on this dangerous stretch, offered only a brief respite from the roller coaster. Once you left it, no matter which direction you were headed in, your life was in your hands.
Mile by dangerous mile, the road began to undergo improvements a few years ago, adding passing lanes and divided stretches. Soon, a half-hour had been shaved from the average drive between Kingman and Phoenix. The most recent roadwork includes an odd bypass of metropolitan Wickenburg, which saves about a minute.
The new bridge and connecting highway will make the trip much shorter. Some road warriors say it can clip about 30 minutes off the average drive. But it might save much more time than that, since some days southbound traffic is backed up all the way to the Boulder City turnoff, adding an hour of bumper-to-bumper anxiety that is hell in the summer.
With that sort of time savings, Phoenix residents will find us much more accessible, which is great for our occupancy rates. And a lot of our visitors will like what they see here, perhaps even enough to want to stick around.
For example, a lot of Arizonans moved to their state in the first place because it has a dry climate. These folks ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We get only about half of the 7-inch rainfall Phoenix gets annually.
Both cities swelter in the summer heat, but when it gets too toasty here, we can always head up to Mount Charleston’s 30-degree temperature drop. This will astound our visitors; there’s nothing similar available in the modest foothills of Phoenix, or for miles beyond.
Both cities are continually rebuilding themselves, and although they don’t plan implosion parties in Phoenix, they’re just as aggressive when it comes to makeovers. One favorite story is that when land values spiked in the ’80s, my former high school was leveled to make way for a new development. This transaction soon fell apart, though, forcing depressed alumni to drive past a vacant lot and relegating our dear alma mater to an Internet existence.
With a new and shorter drive, we may even see changes in our shopping patterns. Recent research shows that in the past decade, about one in every six new residents here had moved from Southern California. These emigrants brought with them businesses with names like LA Spas, LA Carburetors, LA Street Clothing and LA Carpet, prompting one to assume there is brand loyalty in things that say “Los Angeles.”
A quick check of listings revealed that we already have 29 businesses with the word “Phoenix” in their name. So Phoenix, we’re here for you, when the new bridge and bypass beckon. Even though the new drive might not be as therapeutic.