Desert Adventure, Day Three: Phoenix, AZ to Tucson, AZ

January 31 2012 by Jason Fogelson
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_MG_8480.jpgAt some point in the middle of a motorcycle trip I always begin to feel like I've been on the road forever, and that the ride will never end. It's a great feeling, and it means that I'm getting into my groove and really living in the moment. Today feels like that.

The BEST WESTERN PLUS InnSuites Phoenix Hotel & Suites has a big, bright breakfast room right off of the lobby, and we take advantage of the hot food buffet. I don't eat a lot of eggs at home, but for some reason there's nothing better on the road.

_MG_8489.jpgWe check out of our room, load up the bike and head across town. Along the way, we pass the iconic Camelback Mountain, a 1,200-foot tall red sandstone formation in the middle of town. Camelback Mountain is a public park within the city, open year-round for hiking and recreation. It's a stunning natural feature in the middle of a big city, and part of Phoenix's unique charm and beauty.

_MG_8470.jpgWe're headed to Scottsdale, one of the cities adjacent to Phoenix and part of the metropolitan area. Phoenix is nice; Scottsdale is even nicer. We ride through some very elegant neighborhoods with architecturally significant homes in the Southwestern style. No wonder -- Scottsdale is home to Taliesen West, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's personal winter home, studio and architectural campus. I always think of Frank Lloyd Wright as primarily a creature of the Midwest and Northeast, but he spent a significant amount of time in the Southwest and in Scottsdale in particular, where he was able to further develop his concepts of indoor/outdoor living space. Taliesen West is run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and is open for public guided tours most days of the year. It also has one of the best museum stores I've ever encountered (one of Robin's favorite stops on any trip), full of unique Wright-designed and Wright-inspired pieces. This place is a must-see for architecture buffs, worth the visit to the Phoenix area all on its own.

_MG_8476.jpgWe reluctantly pull ourselves away from Scottsdale, and ride south toward Tucson. Interstate 10 would make quick business of the ride, but we prefer the scenic route. We ride east on US-60 to Apache Junction, the pick up AZ-79 South toward Tucson. Here, we encounter a whole other kind of desert terrain than we have seen before. This part of the world looks sunbaked, even in the dead of winter. Paint is faded on the few buildings we pass, and many cars on the road look as if they have been sandblasted. About 75 miles along the road, we come to the town of Florence.

Florence is the home to the oldest functioning Arizona State Prison complex, a boundary of which runs right along AZ-79 in the middle of town. Florence State Prison houses almost 4,000 inmates in six housing units, and pretty much dominates the town. It doesn't look like anyplace you'd want to be sentenced to -- I doubt that any prison has much of a welcoming appearance. I don't know where you'd go if you escaped Florence -- the landscape nearby is pretty unforgiving, forming a virtual prison beyond the walls.

Despite the prison's presence, we discover an unexpected treasure in Florence. The Mount Athos Restaurant and Cafe is a New York City-style Greek diner in the middle of the desert. It has been in operation since 2005, and seems to be thriving, with a broad diner menu and lively clientele. We have a delicious sandwich lunch while trying to figure out whether our fellow patrons were lawyers, guards, visitors or recently-released inmates. They seem like normal folk, unfortunately for our vivid imaginations.

_MG_8488.jpgOn the border of the prison, we stop at the Florence Prison Retail Outlet Store. The small roadside shop features arts and crafts made by the inmates. From pencil line drawings to elaborate Papier Mache monsters, the cleverness and skill of the inmates is on display, and for sale at very reasonable prices.

Just south of town, we pass by a sad monument on AZ-79, the Tom Mix Monument. A lunch stop and woeful horse statue have been erected on the spot where the great silent movie cowboy met his maker in a car accident back in 1940. True western fans may want to pause and pay their respects. A tip of the Stetson would be appropriate, but skip the 6-shooter salute (unless you want to wind up back in Florence making license plates).

Soon, we're riding into Tucson. Urban sprawl greets us, and we ride through miles and miles of suburbs before finding our downtown destination. Coming from Los Angeles, we're familiar with the suburban sprawl. We're kind of amazed to discover that Tucson, like Phoenix before it, is very clean. In LA we're used to graffiti and garbage, and we're living through a period of very lax attention to our public roads. Arizona doesn't seem to be suffering from the same maladies, at least not in relative terms.

_MG_8494.jpgWe roll in to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Royal Sun Inn & Suites to discover yet another lovely property. The Southwestern motif suits a hotel very well, especially when it is actually in the Southwest. We check in to our room, and call our friends Will and Emma, who live nearby. Will and Emma are both novelists, and they moved to Tucson a few years ago to get away from the hustle and bustle of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. We miss them very much, and we're glad that they're around to give us a tour of Tucson and some local insight.

We ride though the University District of Tucson on the way to Will and Emma's rural ranch. The University of Arizona is a major four-year public research university, established in 1885. Over 35,000 students attend the school's undergrad, graduate and professional/medical schools. The University of Arizona is an NCAA Division-1 school, and a member of the PAC 12 Conference. It is a beautiful campus, in the middle of a friendly, sophisticated desert city. Any city with a school this big and important has got something going for it.

Will and Emma greet us at the door of their ranch house, and give us a walking tour of their property. It's a great little setup, with horses and wilderness and a writing cabin and multiple private dwellings. Will tells us about the various dangerous plants and critters he has encountered while maintaining the property. "We always tell people to remember that the plants all bite here," he warns. "It wouldn't take long for the desert to reclaim this whole property if we didn't keep on top of it."

It's time for some dinner now. Robin rides with Will and Emma in their car, and I follow on the Electra Glide as we head back toward El Charro Cafe for Mexican food. El Charro has five locations in Tucson, and claims to be the "Nation's Oldest Mexican Restaurant in continuous operation by the same family," since 1922. The restaurant is best known for its Carne Seca, beef that has been dried in the desert sun. Of course, I order the Famous Carne Seca Plate, and Robin orders the El Charro Carne Seca Enchiladas. Will and Emma, unfortunately, are vegetarians. I say "unfortunately" because they're missing out on some great beef here. They seem perfectly delighted with their meals, despite the lack of animal flesh. Will talks us into sharing a Homemade Pastel de Tres Leches, which turns out to be one of the best desserts in the desert. We leave some very clean plates behind at El Charro.

We bid Will and Emma farewell with promises to see each other again soon. Good friends make travel even better, and the fact that Will and Emma are in Tucson secures a place for the city in my heart.

Back at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Royal Sun Inn & Suites, Robin retires to take a bath in the oversized Jacuzzi tub in our room. I sit outside in the nighttime desert air for a while, enjoying a cigar and studying our maps for tomorrow. More desert is in our future, and I'm savoring the atmosphere.

Distance traveled: 164 miles

NEXT: Desert Adventure, Day Four: Tucson, AZ to Yuma, AZ

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