We eat a quick breakfast in PJ’s Cafe and Bar at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Inn Suites Yuma Mall Hotel & Suites. A hot buffet with eggs and sausage – yum. We’re going to explore Yuma a little bit before we ride back into California.
I’m not sure why prisons are such an attraction. I hope never to be incarcerated, but I love visiting old jails and prisons, and hearing the stories about the men and women who lived in them. Back in the day, working at a prison was almost as bad as being a convict. Guards and inmates shared conditions, and an isolated jail was as much of a hardship on the employees as it was on the prisoners.
Yuma Territorial Prison is now an Arizona State Historic Park, open to the public for a reasonable fee ($5 for adults, $2 for youths 7-13, children under 7 free). Yuma is one of the most famous prisons of Old West legend, inspiring many books and films over the years. The prison was active from 1876 until 1909, and then served as Yuma High School from 1910 to 1914. (The high school sports teams were known as “The Criminals.”) The facilities served various other purposes throughout the Teens, Twenties and Thirties, including as an informal hobo gathering place during the Great Depression. Local residents banded together to preserve the prison in 1939, and the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historical Park was opened to the public in 1961. Preservation and restoration efforts have continued since then. A museum has been erected on the site of the old mess hall, with a great collection of artifacts and photographs from the prison’s active years. We explore the museum and the prison grounds for an hour or so, imagining what it must have been like to serve a sentence in the stark environment. On the grounds, crews are preparing for one of the many special events that are held at the park every year. We’ve arrived just before the annual Gathering of the Gunfighters, which takes place in mid-January. The Gathering is a convention (of sorts) for Old West historical reenactment groups, and it draws thousands of visitors every year.
We can’t hang around and wait for a bank robbery, unfortunately. We’ve got to mosey along and get back on the road. After a pricey visit to the museum store, we’re back on the bike and on Interstate 8 once again. We ride the superslab through the California portion of the Sonoran Desert. We ride through El Centro, an industrial town in Imperial County. We stop for gas and food at the Golden Acorn Casino, an Indian casino near Campo. I try a Sonoran Dog, which I had heard about from friends. It’s a grilled hot dog, wrapped in bacon, topped with cheese, jalapenos, onions and diced tomatoes. If that sounds like a mouthful, you’re right. Robin tosses a few coins in a cat-themed slot machine before we leave the casino. I’d much rather be riding a motorcycle on a beautiful day like today than sitting around in a windowless hall surrounded by flashing lights, ringing bells and piped-in hits from the Seventies, but that’s just me, I guess. And Robin, too, lucky for me.
We get back on the bike, freshly gassed up, and back on the road. We’re able to depart the Interstate at this point, and pick up California 94. I’ve driven CA-94 a few times, but I’ve never ridden it on a motorcycle. I’m very excited, because it is a great road.
What makes a great road? A combination of factors, really. Any road can be great on a given day, to be honest — it has a lot to do with your state of mind. But a road that passes through beautiful scenery, has a lot of curves and changes in elevation, and few cross streets or intersections is the start of a great road. Add in the opportunity for discovery around every corner, and a changing landscape with surprising vistas, and you’ve got a great road. Smooth pavement is a bonus. CA-94 has all of this, and more.
We zip through the landscape. I focus on smoothness over speed, trying to give Robin the feeling of flying through the countryside. I can tell that she’s delighted, and I’m having a great time. We must be going pretty quickly, because we overtake a sportbike along the way. I hang back, giving him room until I find a long enough straightaway to pass without risk, and without startling the other biker. We wave as we go by, and he seems to take our passing as a challenge, picking up his pace to keep up with us. I resist the competitive urge, and stick with my smooth approach. After a few curves, he disappears from my mirror, dropping off the pace. Smooth wins over fast, every time.
We glide into San Diego in the early afternoon. We follow the signs to Old Town San Diego, because we’ll be staying at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Hacienda Hotel Old Town, right in the heart of Old Town. The hotel turns out to be a rambling Spanish-style building, a true hacienda. We park in the adjacent enclosed parking lot, and check in. I ask the Concierge for a restaurant recommendation for the evening, and he’s bubbling with suggestions. Even better, he hands me several business cards with offers for discounted meals and special free menu items.
After changing back into regular clothes, we go out to explore Old Town. The BEST WESTERN PLUS Hacienda Hotel really is right in Old Town, adjacent to the State Historic Park. Old Town is a very cool collection of original adobe buildings, museums, stores and restaurants that provide a glimpse into what life was like in the area from 1821 to 1872, as Mexican pueblo culture and American settler culture met and melded. It’s history with shopping, something for everybody. We walk around Old Town, drinking in the atmosphere, reading historical plaques and checking out all the tourists. People from all over the globe come to Old Town, and a blend of languages fills the air. It’s a lovely place.
We meander over to the Cafe Coyote for dinner. Of all the restaurants that the concierge recommended, this one sounded the most promising. We choose to eat indoors, rather than on the outdoor patio under heaters. Robin is always cold. Cafe Coyote is colorful and bright, with a mix of Mexican tiles and murals painted with local scenes. The food turns out to be delicious, classic California Mexican, with big portions and fresh ingredients. I have the fish tacos, one of my favorite San Diego specialties, while Robin has a chicken enchilada. Even though the neighborhood is decidedly touristy, the food is authentic and well worth eating. Thanks, Concierge! Excellent recommendation.
The last night before returning home is always a little bittersweet. We’re certainly eager to get home to our pets and our regular lives, but we’ve had such a great time in the desert. Tomorrow’s ride will take us through mostly urban environments, with one very special surprise stop in the middle. I can hardly wait.
Distance traveled: 214 miles
NEXT: Desert Adventure, Day Six: San Diego, CA to Los Angeles