Traveling Arizona Highways, in your dreams and on the ground

  • Photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson

    Images Courtesy Tony Fitzpatrick

Even as a kid, I recognized an obsession when I saw one. My father's began late in the Eisenhower years when he got his first subscription to Arizona Highways. A rural route mailman in northern Illinois, he used to rise at 4 a.m. and be home by 1 p.m. As soon as each month's issue came in the afternoon mail, he took the magazine to his bedroom and whiled away a good part of an hour, dreaming of Arizona's stunning, surreal deserts, canyons, mountains, extraordinary flora and warm, glorious colors. Was Arizona just an antidote to the dreary Midwestern winters, or was it a case of true love at first sight?

About 20 issues of Arizona Highways later, in the spring of 1960, Dad took me out of fifth grade for a week of grand adventure. We got into our brand-new Ford Falcon, caught old Route 66 at Dwight, Ill., and met my Uncle Dean (what road story is complete without a Dean?) in Springfield. Dad and Dean took turns driving and we headed nonstop down Highway 66 through Missouri and Oklahoma, despite tornado watches and pelting rain. I slept fitfully, nightmarishly, in the back seat. This was at the tail end of the fabled route's heyday, barely a generation removed from the Joads, and the highway was replete with colorful curio shops and roadside diners where you could order pig-hip sandwiches.

We first stopped for the night in Magdalena, N.M., a sleepy little mountain town. At breakfast the following morning, at a café that featured a working hitching post, I saw a real-life cowboy tip a waitress a dime. In Arizona, we left 66 for a while to make our harrowing way through Salt River Canyon. I was certain that numerous Midwesterners died daily in Salt River Canyon, pitched from their vehicles into the ravines and draws.

In Phoenix, we spent two days visiting a friend of Dad's. I couldn't piece together any of the adult conversation but took pleasure in hanging out with the friend's son, who kept lizards and snakes for pets. Back in Illinois, a week later and 10 pounds heavier (I had inhaled the cherry pie at every one of those quaint diners) my mother told me that Dad was thinking of transferring to the Phoenix Post Office. "Now, he wants to move there," she wailed. "All of us. What next?"

The following summer, 1961, Dad and Mom left us five kids at my grandparents' farm, slid into the very same Falcon, and, for the better part of two weeks, toured Arizona. Mom, a homebody with deep Midwestern roots, had successfully lobbied Dad, an old Navy salt who might even have had a touch of Irish Traveller in him, to stay in Illinois at least until my oldest sister graduated from high school in 1961. The trip was probably Dad's way of greasing the skids for an eventual move. They returned with deep tans and the deed to 10 acres of Arizona high desert about 20 miles east of Kingman, the last major Arizona stop on old 66. To this day, I believe that the purchase was a bargaining chip Mom offered to keep us in the Midwest. At home, she spoke eloquently about the beauty of the land, but seemed extremely relieved by the knowledge that we wouldn't be moving there yet.

"You never know how fast the area will grow," said Dad. He refused to let go of his Arizona dreams; he trusted that his piece of the West would someday bear fruit. He just had no idea how long he would have to wait.

My parents were the only family members to see the land. Polaroids, long lost, that Dad took revealed dry, baked mountains and one distinctive rise that looked something like a face jutting high out of the sand, one-fourth of Mount Rushmore -- Jefferson, maybe.

Decades passed, and Dad followed the progress through the Mohave County Landowners Association newsletter. Things never took off in the wilds of Mohave County. And Dad never got back to the desert, though he often visited my older sister, who moved to Colorado in 1969. He got offers on the Arizona land over the years, but never enough to pry his $250 investment from his grip. Dad died in 1997. My own son, Jim, at the age of 10, got the property as an inheritance. It was Dad's wish; I executed his will.

This past fall, Jim, now 25, and I set out to finally find the land. This time, I got to see Arizona through the eyes of my son, whose love of travel and the West might well be his grandpa's most lasting legacy. Using four maps sent to us by the landowners' association, we drove a rental car across Route 40 -- the former 66 -- from Flagstaff west toward Kingman, devouring the wild, eerie and constantly surprising country. At 62, I understood full well why my dad had loved this country: The colors, the space, the foliage, embrace you. Back when I was young, watching my dad pine for the Arizona desert, I had no idea how decades of work, worry and responsibility create the need for both comfort and escape.

Our turnoff was a little road just before a feature on the map called Tin Mountain. We bumped our way down a harsh and weathered dirt road. When I got out of the car and looked up at 5,900-foot-high Tin Mountain, I recognized it immediately. It was the same handsome mountain, and exactly the same view, that I'd seen in Dad's old photos.

We walked the hilly road, making forays into the California junipers, Joshua trees, cacti and piñon pines. We took pictures of ourselves sifting sand through our hands, like grizzled old prospectors. Fifty years had passed since Dad's $250 sated his obsession; by 2011, the land's value had grown to $9,000. But the treasure of Mohave County was never in the money. It was always in the land itself, where both of us -- all three of us -- felt the rarest fulfillment.

Tony Fitzpatrick is an author and freelance writer in Webster Groves, Missouri.

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