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Super-Sized Road Trip: Leg 1 to Phoenix

January 29th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, NFL, Road trip, Sports Journalism

Day 2 of the series and Leg 1 of the road trip to the 2005 Super Bowl, 350 miles from Ontario, Calif., to Phoenix, part of the 2,431 miles from Ontario to Jacksonville, Fla.

From January 31, 2005

PHOENIX — The grizzled little man named “Mac” handles bets while sitting on a stool in an alcove of the Quartzsite Yacht Club Bar & Grill.

“Some folks like the ponies,” he said, shrugging toward a monitor showing races from Santa Anita, “but you can’t exactly commute from here, son.”

As the agent for an official off-track betting site, Mac takes the money from a handful of chain-smoking horse fanciers, and later gives back some of it. In the background are the clicking balls of a pool game and a couple of dozen patrons guzzling beer or eating fish and chips beneath paintings of tall sailing ships.

It is a queer tableau. Which in no way makes Mac unusual, in the town of Quartzsite.

Imagine about two miles of junk-strewn flea markets, jerky stands, T-shirt shops, gas stations — and lots and lots of folks selling rocks — and you’ve got Quartzsite.

It is home base to tens of thousands of senior citizens encamped under the stars in their RVs, waiting out the winter up north, and what appears to be a batch of semi-addled Haight-Ashbury refugees trying their hand at capitalism and home-made jewelry.

A Californian who bought a restaurant on the site, back in the 1970s, thought it would be amusing to call it the Yacht Club — even though there isn’t enough standing water to float a rubber ducky within 15 miles of the place.

The Yacht Club’s slogan is: “Welcome aboard! Long time, no sea!” It has lots of atmosphere, which is good, because the food isn’t.

We asked Mac if we could get some Super Bowl action (not that we actually bet), and he said, no, he’s a horses-only guy. But he advised taking the Patriots and giving the points.

Quartzsite was the most interesting stop on Leg 1 of our Road to the Super Bowl. Half the year it’s a wide spot on the western Arizona desert road. A snowbird/rock-hound boomtown the other six months.

No one here seems quite normal. It is as if they all chucked their previous lives and fled south, and now they gaze at the moon and the stars and the rocks and find fulfillment, perhaps with the aid of some consciousness-altering substances. Peyote, maybe Lipitor.

Can’t escape Quartzsite without visiting the grave of Hi Jolly, “Syrian camel-driver”.

It is one of those only-in-America ethnocentric stories we love so much. Hadji Ali was a young man from Syria who came to the United States with a batch of camels in the 1850s as part of a U.S. Army experiment to see if the water-sipping dromedaries would be useful pack animals in the desert Southwest.

Well, sure they were, lugging 600 pounds each and going without water for 60 miles at a pop.

But it turned out Army horses and mules couldn’t stand the sight or smell of the camels, and the camels were abandoned. Hadji Ali, whose name had been Americanized to Hi Jolly, attempted his own shipping business with the camels, but that failed and he became better known in those parts for being an interesting character. The first of many.

Hi Jolly died in 1902 and the locals figured a pyramid-shaped grave, topped by a brass camel, would be perfect for a guy born vaguely in the neighborhood of Egypt. The grave was dedicated in 1935 by the governor of Arizona, and it is perfectly tacky, located as it is in a rock garden at the end of a dirt road threading abandoned trailers.

The I-10 from our starting point in Ontario to well past Palm Springs is now part of the L.A. traffic grid. Crowded and stressful. It doesn’t thin out till the climb to Chiriaco Summit.

On the other side of Quartzsite, it’s time to admire the stars. You know, the galaxy has quite a few of them and you can actually see them, in the emptiness running up to Phoenix.

The open road isn’t gone but it certainly is shrinking. What used to be emptiness from Banning almost to Phoenix now has commuters aplenty. L.A. is reaching east and Phoenix is reaching west and we fear someday they will meet, somewhere around Blythe.

We pulled into Phoenix, drove past the ballpark, cruised the depressingly empty downtown and checked in to the Super 8, about a mile from the I-10, our mother road.

We asked Bob, the front-desk clerk, about Phoenix’s one experience with the Super Bowl: Cowboys 27, Steelers 17, Super Bowl XXX, in 1996.

“Didn’t see the game, but it was quite a ruckus,” he said. “The attention and business was crazy.”

Then he gave us something else to worry about. “What happens is, the big hotels overbook by 10 to 15 percent and they send the overflow to us. We didn’t even have to advertise.”

Hmm. Great. So the sad little place we reserved for the Super Bowl is overbooked?

“Count on it,” Bob said. “I’d get there early, if I were you.”

Maybe we can drive faster?

Hey, who do you like in the Super Bowl?

“Who’s playing?” said Bob, returning to his Chinese takeout. “The only time I paid attention was when it was here and I was working all night trying to find people rooms.”

Next: On to El Paso, 334 miles.


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