11:10 to Yuma - 05/29/2020
I left for my birthday road trip at 11:10 this morning, after dropping off my anxious pug with her boarder, who was thrilled to have the business after weeks of COVID-caused revenue loss. I have not left Tucson in a year. I've never lived in a place as an adult where I have stayed put for an entire year. I was always traveling for business for the first 21 years of my career, and then when I lived in LA I took at least two trips a year, including one every year to see my family in Orlando. This year, I was not able to go to Florida as planned in March due to The Virus. I'm hoping to make that trip in October, but I just couldn't wait til then to get out of town for a few days. It felt strange and yet familiar to be packing up for a little getaway. I used to be so good at it - choose a color to go with black and white, then pack around that; grab my to-go makeup and toiletries bags; don't forget a book and chargers; and go! When I opened my suitcase I discovered that I still had my to-go bags inside it, so it didn't take long for me to be ready.
When I left Tucson, it was already 104 degrees, and I had gotten an e-mail warning from the weather service about excessive heat in the next few days. Great time to head west, further into the Sonoran Desert, right? But honestly, the dry heat here in Arizona doesn't bother me nearly as much as the humidity in the South and the cold in the winter. I had my AC on full blast, as well as the radio, and quickly made the journey up to I-8 west, south of Phoenix. This was my first time on this highway, and the road shimmered in the heat as I got deeper into the desert. Soon my thermostat in the car read 114. I've only seen it hotter one time, when we reached 115 in Tucson two summers ago, and it was 118 in my car. But I was comfortable inside my air-conditioned car. This is not a particularly beautiful section of the desert. Although there was plenty of life - Saguaro cacti, tumbleweeds, desert brush - all of it looked dry and brown. I saw no wildlife. There are no billboards, and no sign of houses even in the distance. It looked as barren as western Nebraska. There weren't too many cars or trucks on the road either. This is not the season to be visiting Yuma, although I read that its population doubles during the winter high season.
As I was contemplating the emptiness of the highway and the land I was driving through, I glanced down at my gas gauge and realized I was sitting on empty. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but on this stretch of road gas stations are about 30 miles apart, and there are no signs to tell you how far to the next services. I'm usually so careful about having plenty of gas. I was kicking myself mentally as I prayed that I would make it the 25 miles to Gila Bend. As the EMPTY light came on, I calculated what I would do if I actually ran out of gas in the 114-degree desert. I had plenty of bottled water, and my phone was charged, so I could call the police or AAA for service. But I didn't want to test how long I would last in the heat. Fortunately, I made it to the frontier town of Gila Bend with about two-tenths of a gallon left in my tank. I have never been more grateful to be driving a Prius.
Everyone I saw on the road was wearing a mask, even in small towns like Gila Bend. It appeared that most businesses were still closed or operating at reduced capacity, as we are in Tucson. As I got closer to Yuma, passing towns like Sentinel (proudly welcoming us to "The Middle of Nowhere" on a billboard outside of town), Dateland (where I stopped and bought strawberry-date jam, which turned out to be delicious), and Wellton (populated with nothing but trailer parks, as far as I could see), I saw more signs of life. There were large fields of a plant I didn't recognize - it might have been sugar - and the largest array of solar panels I have ever seen. One of the local favorite menu items, advertised in Dateland, is a date shake, which I tried several years ago in 29 Palms near Joshua Tree National Park. I didn't enjoy it then, and I wasn't going to try it now. It's a little too gritty and chewy for me.
Suddenly I was in the suburbs of Yuma - lots and lots more trailers. The town is rather spread out, and then the historic area is just off the Colorado River (of Grand Canyon fame) right before the California border. Mexico is very close, but I was told the time to return can take four or more hours right now, so I won't be visiting San Luis or Mexicali this trip. I made my first stop at the Yuma Visitors Center, where I happily gathered information about sights to see, until the nice ladies manning the booth there told me all the museums are still closed and won't be open until June 1 at least (two days from now, after I leave). I was disappointed, but there is still a lot to see. The historic area of downtown is a very well-preserved mid-19th century Old West town, and the imposing Yuma Territorial Prison is easy to spot, even if I don't get to go in. I'm not sure I'd want to, as it is billed as one of the most haunted places in the US, and places like that always bother me. I've had a couple of ghostly encounters in my life and I'm not looking for another one. The ladies also recommended that I visit the waterfront park and the Imperial Sand Dunes National Monument 20 miles away, where parts of Star Wars were filmed. I'll be checking all this out on the weekend.
I gathered up all my tourist booty and headed to the Desert Grove Motel, an inexpensive local property I had booked on Hotels.com. It's not much to look at, but the rooms do have a full kitchen, king-size bed, and free WiFi for less than $50 a night with tax. The pool is closed, there's no breakfast right now, and they don't appear to have an ice machine. It is apparent to me that travel during COVID is quite different and may be for a long time. I probably should have waited a little longer. But I'm cozily ensconced in my room, which the AC has cooled so effectively that it's actually cold. I have a book, Blue Tattoo, purchased at the Visitors Center, a true story about a white women abducted as a child and raised with the Yavapai people until she was ransomed at age 19. She was conflicted her entire life about which people she belonged with. It is my practice to read a book either set in the area or written by someone from the area that I am traveling in, hence my attempt to read Ulysses by James Joyce when I was in Ireland and my success at reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (albeit an abridged version) when I spent three weeks in Paris. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the culture of the western desert for the next three days.