I’ve just discovered that I love desert.
No, not double-cream-topped, Belgian-choc-filled, Heston Blumenthal-frozen Masterchef-style dessert, but the sun-scorched, dusty, cactus-smattered, don’t-go-wandering-off-or-you’ll-die environment of America’s Wild West. On my first-ever visit, I’ve become smitten by Arizona, and all of the (ahem) good, the bad and the ugliness it crams inside 300,000 square kilometres.
Everything, from the gleaming capitalist excess of Scottsdale, to the barren desolation of Navajo Country. It’s an utterly fascinating place.
It is entirely plausible that this Clint Eastwood tragic’s perception of the Arizona experience has been (desert) rose-tinged through the high-octane filtration of wickedly quick Mercedes-AMG GT Roadsters – a small squadron of them in a variety of colour and spec – low-flying across some of southwestern America’s finest driving roads.
Our target for this hit-and-run, two-day sortee is the excellent, if utterly unimaginatively named tourist route, called Highway 89 A.
Terrible name, right? For a colourful and varied near-600-kilometre return road loop starting from the northern tip of state capital Phoenix to famous red rocks of Sedona, a stone’s throw from Flagstaff, it’s quite a crappy name.
Even the boring 206-kilometre path of more leisurely transit between the two, Interstate 17, has a suitable cool ‘Black Canyon Freeway’ title.
Does the Highway 89 A sit upon high as a list-topper of World’s Greatest Roads? Well, no. But when we’ve saddled up in a 410kW twin-turbocharged, V8-powered, two-seater land missiles that make a jaunt through a Turkish prison a barrel of laughs, you have a road trip marriage made in Heaven and an experience spawning memories for a lifetime.
Instead, after a short stretch of Highway 17 exiting the state capital, we head east along the West Carefree Highway (seriously) near the town of Surprise (erm, surprisingly) past the beautiful Lake Pleasant (obviously) across flat and featureless scrub towards Morristown before joining Highway 60 north-east, which is peppered with used car lots, gas stations and dodgy two-star motor inns.
The air is already thick with the dusty, old wild west cliche and the dilapidated reminisce of America’s mining boom of the late-19th century, complete with kitchy scrap-made horse statues and tinges of native Americana almost everywhere you look, though the most interesting thing in eye-shot thus far is our $350k rag-top roadster.
About 120 kilometres into the trip we veer off and head north along the single-carriageway State route 89, opening up the AMG taps and blasting through the gold rush ghost town of Congress – “spotto two Studebakers in a barn” – before arriving at the foot of the Yarnell Hill climb, the first of today’s driving curves.
And, hot damn Billy Bob, are they good.
Sadly, Yarnell Hill inked the history books in 2013 as the location of one of the deadliest wildfires in US history (19 firemen were killed), but today it’s a source of bliss. For reasons known best to those tasked linking Congress with Yarnell further north, two roads were built: one billiard-smooth, dual-laned facsimile of a racetrack going up the hill; an entirely separate dual-to-single piece of hot mix heaven going back down.
Rising 400 metres in elevation in just six kilometres, it blends constant radius sweepers, good line of sight, almost no traffic to be seen and, a rare treat, no risk of oncoming traffic.
A rare gift horse, then, and I wasn’t compelled to peer into its mouth. I engage the GT C’s Sport+ mode and let her rip. It’s a helluva lot of car, though a piece of exceptionally manicured blacktop, it’s near tailor-made for super sportscar use. It’s a thrilling marriage.
And while I’ll divulge that the four litres of hand-built V8 sounds heavenly once bounced at full noise off the Yarnell Hill(Climb) rock face, I’ll pledge the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution about further details lest I inadvertently incriminate myself…
I do two passes before slipping the AMG into quiet Comfort mode and keep moving north, attempting to slip as inconspicuously through the towns of Yarnell and Peeples Valley lest I raise the ire of the locals.
Not that I actually see many during this sunny Spring mid-week jaunt – if the small towns along Highway 89 are ghost towns by definition there’s some effort gone into putting it into practice.
Still, opinion on all manner of topics around these parts seem rarely spoken if frequently expressed in road-side signage. Some theorise that the measure of one’s freedom can be counted in firearms in possession at any given moment. Others extol a local desire to craft hanging tree ornamentation from Democratic presidential candidates.
Given my Solarbeam-coloured slice of German hyper-roadster is making a bold enough statement by its sheer presence, I’m careful to keep my own viewpoints on things non-motoring locked inside that dull grey matter…
The trip meter clicks over the ‘100 mile’ mark (160 kilometres) as I cruise past a local sheriff who looks a dead-ringer for Tommy Lee Jones’s character Ed Tom Bell from the neo-western thriller No Country For Old Men.
It’s a masterpiece, a personal favourite, but one where every bit character bites the big one in some terrible manner and, given my immediate surroundings look lifted straight out of a movie cut scene, I check the mirrors twice before rolling into the throttle for the twisty curves ahead.
The next 20 kilometres, from Wilhoit up through pine-thickened national forest to the historic tourist town of Prescott, is a relentless squiggle of low- to medium-radius corners covering a barrage of surface changes that are intent on fully flexing the GT C Roadster’s dynamic and road holding mettle.
Sport+ engaged, bi-turbo V8 roaring and cracking from one apex to the next, it’s almost too much car for such a confined route. And certainly too much of the challenge, I muse, for Ed Tom Bell’s Ford F-150 at anything like the clip that the AMG can generate.
The big plus is that almost all of the corners are on camber, allowing Big Yellow’s Michelins to bite in hard in the mid corner, the rag-top bobbing through corners left and right with tremendous poise, accuracy and g-force.
There’s very little breathing space from one corner to the next – even the car’s enormous rolling punch is just enough to dispatch the occasional slow moving four-wheeled targets – and, thankfully, effort has ben invested in short overtaking sections despite the treacherous landscape allowing little hot mix real estate between boulder walls to the left and Armco drops to the right.
Unlike a great many travellers along driving roads back home, the locals here seems more than happy to wave by other cars that become sudden, blazing yellow blobs of paintwork in their rearview mirrors.
That said, respect for locals’ well beings, provided through tempered pace and patience, is recommended, not merely because some threat of touring a land of rights to bear arms but because so few motorcyclists here – almost all of them on plus-sized Harley Davidsons – seem bother about wearing helmets, so the consequences of even a low-speed traffic incident doesn’t bear thinking about…
Prescott’s a gem of town, a mix of Wild West kitsch and trendy, hipster-bohemian cafe culture; of wall-to-wall country clothing stores alongside the Whiskey Row entertainment strip; of hiking trails and lakes; of average coffee the effusively friendly locals are incredibly proud of.
A good place to cool the heels, then, and hang about…until our squadron hears that Ed Tom Bell had nabbed one of our pilots in a flight of fancy, thus lightening his wallet to the tune of “500 greenbacks”.
We swap cars – some flawed logic about “losing the scent”, I believe – and hightail it north-east across Prescott Valley, this time aboard a hopefully less-conspicuous ‘Designo Selenite Grey Magno’, or satin grey, example of the AMG roadster.
It’s not far before we reengage the twisty stuff in the Black Hills of Yavapai County to Jerome, built of the side of a hill some 1600 metres above sea level.
With similar thrills and engagement to the approach to Prescott, Highway 89 A is a driving route that just keeps on giving (though, confusingly, some online sources suggest ‘State Route 89 A’ actually begins from Prescott heading north).
On the trip thus far, Jerome rates as the most authentic taste of the old west, a living ghost town reputed to have commercially mined a billion dollars worth of precious materials back in its colourful distant past that earned it a reputation as once the Wickedest Town in the West.
Derelict, seemingly lost in time yet rife with galleries and souvenir shops, and for a fiver you can take a self-guided tour through the rusty scrap car morgue that is Gold King Mine Ghost Town and Antique Auto Yard.
About 280 kilometres in, around Cottonwood, ’89 A’ changes complexion once more, transforming into dual-carriageway blast that runs flat across the scrubby desert north-west towards Sedona.
The view through the windshield slowly reveals the famous rich terracotta-coloured sandstone of the grandiose hills and valleys around the famously beautiful Red Rock State Park that looming in the distance. In North America, the Kia Carnival people-mover is branded the Sedona, though even my wildest imagination can’t seem to fathom why…
Chance are that a great many readers will be familiar with Sedona Red Rocks, if perhaps vaguely so: its memorable and inimitable sandstone vistas have played backdrop to more than 90 different Hollywood movies and more television shows than anyone cares to count.
Needless to say, a quick sticky beak is essential prior to moving on the final section of our road trip north…
Skirting the town of Sedona, Highway 89 A becomes the Si Birch Memorial Highway for a section before transforming into yet another top-shelf slice of engaging and picturesque driving nirvana.
Here, the route runs for about 20 kilometre through the bottom of the Oak Creek Canyon that, according to even the most cursory internet search, is second only to The Grand Canyon as Arizona’s most popular tourist attraction.
Oak Creek Canyon is located within the Coconino National Forest and, as I’m quickly discovering about much of Arizona, thoroughly deserves a longer, harder and closer look than the quick, cursory glance I’m giving everything along this road loop that’s clearly fascinating and compelling for reasons beyond the joys of driving.
And by the time we hit the hairpin turns that north end of the canyon, it’s time to about-face the GT C Roadster’s impossibly long nose and point it south, backtracking towards a home base of downtown Phoenix.
It’s only ‘back at the ranch’, tired and road-weary if still buzzing from both car and road, that I dig a little deeper into what I didn’t get to see during my flying 600-kilometre loop north to within a stone’s throw of Flagstaff, essentially the end point of Highway 89 A.
Cursory research is met with the crushing realisation that I’ve missed the legendary Route 66 – apparently the most authentic and well-kept stretch dubbed Historic Route 66 no less – that passes right through Flagstaff, stretching to Los Angeles, California, in the west and eventually hitting Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the east.
Narrowly avoiding driving even a kilometre of a road that’s sat on my bucket list for as long as I can remember is just the start of the list of Cool Arizonan Things I’ve Still Missed. A little over a hundred kays further north, into the Colorado Plateau, lies the Grand Canyon. Nope, never been.
About 300 kilometres north-east, deep into Navajo Country, lies Monument Valley, a place I’ve wanted to see since I was small child. About 60 kilometres east of Flagstaff is the famous Barringer Meteorite Crater, measuring a full kilometre diameter in the middle of the desert floor.
Unlike the impact of a certain 300,000-ton chunk of nickel-iron, it seems as if I barely scratch Arizona’s surface…
Arizona is an interesting and likeable place. On average, the sun shines here 300 days a year, scorching well into the 40s in Summer, yet much of the state’s landscape is impressively rich and fertile.
The same might be said about much of the population: 43 percent of Arizonan households have swimming pools. So despite being mostly desert, there’s little risk of struggling for a drop to drink: you don’t have to go all ‘Bear Grylls’ on a local Saguro cactus, many of which are over a 100 years old, to find sustenance, as refusing another person a glass of water is against the law. (Besides, harming cacti can land you six month’s gaol).
Nature’s the big lure, too. Around 83 percent of the Arizona land is state-managed forests, reservations and conservation areas, where you might spot wild horses, jaguars, any number of 13 different types of rattlesnake, the Gila monster, or even a coyote chasing a roadrunner, just like in the old cartoons.
Through the windows of a swiftly moving AMG, though, we didn’t manage to spot much wildlife outside the odd bird of prey.
If Jaguars, Mustangs and Roadrunners of the four-wheeled kind – or big-dollar AMGs for that matter – are more your think, the upmarket boomtown of Scottsdale, in greater Phoenix, is home to the famed Barrett-Jackson Auto Show, one of the world’s blue ribband annual auction of classic and collectable cars, which takes place every year in January.
Its showroom is open year round on North Scottsdale Road, not far from Scottsdale Airpark, which houses the private aircraft for mega-rich local, some of which live in some of the most expensive homes in North America.
Suddenly, the notion of punting around in look-at-me AMG roadsters doesn’t seem all that out of place.
If that sounds too high-brow for your tastes, there’s plenty of earthy art and culture on offer, and all of the good, the bad and the ugly you’d expect from America’s second-fastest growing metropolitan region.
No, I have no pressing desire to don spurs and a ten-gallon hat and blast across the heat haze, riding a horse with name parting the tumbleweeds as it whips past the corral toward the saloon in some far flung ghost town.
I can certainly feel that long-awaited Route 66 road trip calling out louder than ever. And when it does, I’ll be taking it little slower through Arizona than I have done on this particular trip.
|Length||Phoenix to Sedona: 290km|
|Durationnnn||4 hours (8 hours round trip)|
|Food||Spoil for choice with great food in Phoenix and Scottsdale; great cafes and the famous Whiskey Bar strip in Prescott; ample restaurants and wineries in Sedona. Being the USA, there’s fast food aplenty|
|Fuel||Fuel stations are found in most country towns from around $US2.10 per gallon, or $US0.55 per litre.|
|Traffic||Weekdays Highway 89 A traffic is light to non-existent, though it gets busier on weekends. Arizona freeway traffic is light to moderate most days, while Phoenix and Scottsdale is generally of medium density|
|Best time||Shoulder seasons (April-May, September-December) are perfect for a region of the US that’s incredibly hot in Summer|