I wake up with an impending sense of doom. No, not from a pulmonary aneurysm (the nurses will get that joke), but from the knowledge that, yes, again I must drive back to The Beast (a.k.a. Phoenix). I do my homework, I pack, I clean, I do anything to put off having to leave my home to head back to the Valley of the Sun, but finally the hour of departure is upon me.
I load up my VW Jetta and pull out of the parking lot, watching my apartment building get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, knowing that I will be back in least than a week, but not wanting to leave just the same. I get onto I-17, the Downhill Racetrack, they call it, which will take me directly from Flagstaff straight into the heart of darkness.
In fewer than 150 miles I drop more than a vertical mile….TWICE! Let me explain. I leave Flagstaff, which lies at roughly 7000 ft above sea level, and for the first 60 or so miles of the trip, it is a beautiful, relaxing drive of gently curving highway passing through some of the prettiest land in the continental United States. Then I reach the Verde River Valley and the town of Camp Verde, at about 2000 ft above sea level, a net vertical drop of almost a mile. At this point I begin to grip the steering wheel with white knuckles, cinch up my seat belt and let my adrenal glad finally earn its keep.
I pass the small town of Camp Verde and before me looms the Verde Ridge, a steep rock escarpment which, after much twisting and turning, will bring me back up to about 6000 ft in the space of about 15 miles. Normally, this would be fun…great views, fun twisty driving….and it would be except that I am not the only one on the road this day. Unfortunately, there are lines of semi trucks slowly trudging up the slope and Grandpa Irving who thinks that if he passes 60mph he will spontaneously combust. Or, from the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Mid-Life-Crisis in his sports car, which if he lived to be 150 years old could never pay off, weaving in out of traffic and Billy Bob in his F-one-bazillion-fifty riding my ass with what I am pretty sure is a Chevy Aveo stuck in his grill like a sad little grasshopper. Either way, the next 15 minutes will be nerve racking and a test of my driving skills to say the least.
I do my best to pass slow vehicles in a timely manner even though we are heading up a 6% grade and my little four cylinder Jetta has balls about the size of juvenile humming bird’s. With luck I make it to the top and come over the crest of the ridge with not just my sanity but also my life.
The next hour of driving is fairly uneventful. By now I can do the twists and turns with my eyes closed and I can tell you exactly where the first saguaro cactus will show up. It’s when I hit the town of Anthem, the northern most suburb of The Beast, that I have to get my game face on. One would think that once you reach the suburbs, you aren’t far from the city. Not true in the case of The Beast. The city defines the term “urban sprawl”, from top to bottom it stretches almost 40 miles and is almost double that from side to side.
Lucky for me, I live in North Phoenix, so it is just another 15 miles, which amounts to 30 minutes of travel time with traffic, until I get to my place. In this time I am cut off twice, almost rear-ended and told I am “number 1” by a woman who looks to be in her mid to late 70s. Yeah, they drive aggressively around here. (If you didn’t get the “number 1” joke, click here.)
I finally make it home, in one piece, luckily. The drive from Flagstaff is such a contradiction. Most often, the trip goes just how I described it above, stressful and not very fun, but at the same time I am driving through some of the most beautiful country there is. It’s really a shame that I don’t take more time to enjoy the scenery rather than stressing about the driving habits of Grandpa Irving. When will I learn?