Hit the Road: Why do Arizona’s saguaros disappear at the California border?

Hit the Road: Why do Arizona’s saguaros disappear at the California border?
Something to contemplate on the 400-mile drive from North County to Phoenix Metro: Why do Arizona’s saguaros disappear at the California border? Photo by E’Louise Ondash

It’s 9 a.m. on a September day in Quartzite, Arizona, and the temperature is already 100 degrees.

This blip-of-a-town, about 20 miles east of the California border on Interstate 10, is the site of my usual break at my usual truck stop to buy my usual Dairy Queen Cappuccino MooLatte en route to Phoenix/Tempe. The MooLatte, a delicious coffee-and-ice cream concoction, always fuels me through the next third of my trip which ends in Indio.

I began this west-east drive about four-and-a-half hours ago. This Quartzite pit stop is mandatory not only for refreshments but because it’s one of the first opportunities to buy gas for less than $3 a gallon after crossing the Colorado River.

Driving the 400 miles between North County and Phoenix provides at least six hours to think about life’s mysteries, like who named Sore Finger Road 990 miles west of Phoenix) and why? At least one account says that there is a formation south of Interstate 10 that looks like a bandaged finger. Courtesy photo

Back at the Dairy Queen counter, I order my MooLatte.

“We’re out of ice cream,” the young woman behind the counter says matter-of-factly.

“Out of ice cream?” I repeat. “How can you be out of ice cream?”

“It hasn’t come in yet,” she explains, pointing to the soft-serve ice cream machine that I assumed could never run dry.

This is not good; time for Plan B.

I head out into the stifling heat and across the inferno-of-a-parking lot to another fast food establishment. I’ll have to settle for a MooLatte substitute — a frozen coffee drink that is so sweet I can hardly swallow it, but it’s all I’ve got.

I’ve driven this round-trip route to Tempe dozens of times over the past years: head east on Highway 78; north on Interstate 15; north on Interstate 215; east on highway 60 which eventually merges into Interstate 10, then straight on into the Valley of the Sun.

Reverse the route when heading home.

Many can do the one-way trip in less than six hours, but I’ve rarely cracked seven hours. Two hours in the car and I must move, so I divide the 400-mile trip into thirds.  First leg: home to Jackson Street in Indio, where there’s an ample, uncrowded parking lot for walking, a McDonald’s with a remodeled restroom, and icy, sugar-free vanilla lattes.

Middle leg: Indio to the aforementioned Quartzite for fuel, a walk and a Cappuccino MooLatte (when the ice cream has come in).

Last leg: Quartzite to Tempe/Mesa, where I have multiple siblings.

A decade ago, this last leg was a walk (drive) in the park, but the Phoenix Metro population has mushroomed to a staggering 4.7 million, many of these refugees from California’s high housing prices. The metro area now begins about 40 miles west of downtown and extends about that far east and north. Where once there were a couple of interstates and one state highway, there now are intimidating inner loops, outer loops, overpasses, underpasses, frontage roads and even a few tunnels. It makes me appreciate the hours in the open desert where there is time to contemplate the mysteries of the miles:

  • Who named Sore Finger Road (90 miles west of Phoenix) and why?
  • What’s in that General Patton Memorial Museum at Chiriaco Summit? (One of these days I’ll stop and see.)
  • What’s with Desert Center anyway? (It appears to be nothing but a bunch of burnt up, topless palm trees.)
  • How is it that the stately saguaros stop growing right at the Arizona-California border?
  • Can you really tell the difference between 112 degrees and 117 degrees?
  • What does it feel like to be in the middle of a haboob?

Actually, I learned the answer to that last question in July: It’s really windy and gritty and if you’re stupid enough to stay outside, you’ll likely get drenched, too.

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