Sunday, August 05, 2007

Crown King & The Senator Highway

I used my grandfather's Chevy Blazer to drive up to Crown King and then took the 3 hour long Senator Highway all the way to Prescott Arizona. It was quite a drive, with rain threatening flash floods the entire time. I agonized over the decision to do it, but ultimately did. I'm glad I lived in the moment and have absolutely no regrets.

To give some context,while returning to Prescott from Phoenix in my grandfather's truck along Interstate 17, I saw the exit approaching for Crown King and the Senator Highway. The Senator Highway would hardly qualify as such, and basically consists of a narrow, anfractuous, rugged dirt road that winds its way up and through the jagged Bradshaw Mountains. It is the only road that accesses the old mining town (village?) of Crown King that I know of and is a place that few people ever get to see due to its remoteness.

Slowly grinding up the highway, I previously recall going up near Crown King for some rock climbing with Jake Daley many years ago while working at Friendly Pines Summer Camp. I believe that was in 2001. Back then, we drove around the mountains for an hour. Then we drove almost another hour from I-17 to Crown King, but stopped just short to go up some rugged granite slabs for climbing. It was a good time, if hot and dry, and I only wished I had gone all the way into Crown King. But I was concerned about preserving the structural integrity of my rickety old Saturn, and felt I was pushing my luck driving further up the rugged road in the summer Arizona heat as it stood already. I was frankly surprised my little green machine made it through that trip as far as it did without a hitch.
This time though, I had my Grandfather's trusty Chevy Blazer! The Blazer's capacity for navigating 4WD roads in Arizona, ground clearance, engine cooling system, and general capacity for taking a beating in a brutal desert were all several orders of magnitude superior to the scrappy green sedan I used to ride around in. Today could be was my best chance. So I exited the Interstate and started up the mountain, only to see clouds roll in and hear the Arizona monsoon thunderstorms start 30 minutes later. I debated turning back, as I had no desire to get caught overnight behind a flooded creek bed on the wrong side of two canyons. But I was already 30 minutes off Interstate 17, and the thought of going back could prove just as risky, as the lower country and creek beds most likely to flood were behind me, and the higher mountains w in front.

I kept going, hoping to at least reach the minimal services in the booming metropolis of Crown King before being overtaken by any thunderstorm. Despite my misgivings about the weather (at times the rain was so intense I couldn't see 20 feet out the window). I kept following the spectacularly rugged and exposed track as it snaked precariously along a mountain ridgeline. As I finally pulled into Crown King after an hour of stressed nerves, the rain fizzled out into a light, pleasant drizzle. I could breathe a sigh of relief at last as the overcast clouds kept it cool enough to ease my concerns about an engine overheating. (not that I needed to worry about the Blazer, but this was one of the wilder parts of Arizona that leaves no margin for error)

Crown King was even more rustic and "historic" than I imagined. An old mining town settled over a century ago, it still lives in another era. With the exception of the late 1980's pickups (historic in their own right), the town is one of those rare places where isolation and distance have kept father time at bay for far too long. The town is still inhabited by "prospectors" who cling tenaciously to their "claims" and hope to strike it rich. The men in town wear long beards, cowboy hats, dirty overalls, and pistol revolvers. Not one paved road in the town or any building less than 40 years old. This was definitely the "Old West." In the end, I left what appeared to be the General store (and probably had been for the last 115 years) and headed on up to Prescott via the Senator Highway. Only 3o more miles and 3.5 more hours to Prescott!

The pace was a little faster than I had anticipated. I managed to do it in about 3 hours. I never had to use 4 wheel drive, but the constant twists and turns and washed out sections proved to be a constant impediment. This section of the Senator highway also didn't have quite the scenic views that the first half did. I got some great views of the mountains, but the valleys between them were smaller and the cloud cover impeded visibility. Lots of Piñon and Juniper Pine mixed in with lower desert flora. Dashes of scrub oak everywhere completed the palette that was pretty common in the foothills above the desert. Shockingly, quite a few Ponderosa pines still stood in the area. I would have figured the vicious drought of the last few years would have spelled the end to any of these majestic perennials this close to Phoenix, but a surprising number were still holding on.
I also passed the old Palace Station, an old US Forest Service lookout about an hour and a half outside Prescott. See pictures! After another hour or so of slow going dirt road, I wound up pulling into Prescott around 6:30, passing by Friendly Pines Camp. I made many good friends there and have many fond memories of working there. I debated stopping in to say hi, but I don't think anyone except maybe 3 or 4 would even remember me, and I wasn't sure if they were even still there. If I'd had more time, I might have done so, but as things stood, I needed to get the Blazer washed off and get back in time for Evorine's home cooking.

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