Tucson turns

David Feela - 07/07/2016

When we arrived in Tucson, dragging our little 13-foot Scamp trailer behind us, I was reminded of W.C. Fields who’d coined a memorable phrase describing how he dragged his canoe behind him while carving his way through a wall of human flesh. Luckily, we only had to carve our way through Tucson’s rush hour traffic. Using a dog-eared atlas, Pam plotted the path of least resistance through the northern suburbs on our way to Mount Lemmon, where we planned to settle in for a week of Scamping. I can’t remember ever running my truck air-conditioner so early, but the temperature outside hovered above 90 and the engine was working hard, hauling our load. Our friends promised it would be cooler in the mountains. And quieter.

We’d never before camped above Tucson, among the saguaros. We hoped they would tickle us with their prickly shade. Molino Basin, a Forest Service facility, is supposedly crowded only on the weekends, so we planned our arrival for Monday afternoon. The campground did not accept reservations, so we hoped the rumor was true. If not, we’d driven 10 hard hours on a lark. Plus our backup plan was lame: find a motel and leave our trailer locked up in the parking lot. But at this point it all amounted to speculation. First we’d have to find our way up the mountain.

“Stay on East Ina, then Skyline to Sunrise, then it looks like North Kolb which should put us on Sabino Canyon Road,” my GPS instructed. It’s an organic navigational system – the woman in the seat beside me – so I used the option of asking questions.

“How soon before the first turn?”  

“No turns what-so-ever. By the looks of this map, Ina becomes Skyline and Skyline transforms itself into Sunrise and Kolb. It’s all one road.”

“Then why do they keep changing its name?”

“Boredom?” was all the reply I heard before an SUV honked and sped around us, one finger signaling its intention. We encountered many more traffic maneuvers like this before we made it to the safety of our campground. Apparently, tourists pulling trailers along semi-residential ring-roads during rush hour are way too frequent for the average Tucsonian.

We also discovered a few more subtle insights about Tucson road planning, the most important being that no city I’ve ever driven through posts as many side roads with “No Outlet” signs (roughly translated to mean dead ends), making what I’m calling “the Tucson” turn not just fashionable, but indispensable. 

Take Snyder Road, for example. To reach Catalina Highway from the north side of town, a driver is required to make an elaborate detour, adding many miles to a potentially simple route, had the crow been allowed to choose it. 

Naively, the GPS got excited and announced, “That road goes in the direction we want to go,” and I flicked my left turn signal on and exited Sabino Canyon. 

At first Snyder looked promising. It manifested itself like a golden shortcut, eliminating any merging onto Tanque Verde, or Wrightstown or Bear Canyon, which would inevitably lead to unscheduled U-turns. The sun had nearly exhausted itself and my butt complained about its seat time. Oh please, I silently wished, let Snyder be my Northwest Passage.  

It wasn’t. 

What’s worse, the road itself was sweet. There was little congestion as it meandered through a lovely neighborhood of houses, and it remained virtually free of traffic signals. If it took us to Catalina Highway I would stop the truck, get out, and kiss the desert sand. Instead, it petered out, emptied into an arroyo without so much as announcing its intention to do so. It ended. Stopped. Was no more. We both stepped out of the truck and stared in disbelief. Then I backed up, turned the truck and trailer around, and we retraced our route toward the busy side of town. 

Eventually we negotiated the traffic and found Catalina Highway, only to pass what appeared to be the other half of Snyder Road. 

“I’m sorry,” I sputtered, “but I’ve got to take this left just to see where – and if – we missed a turn.” I executed another U-turn.

When the pavement ended we were on the other side of the same arroyo where we’d been foiled half an hour ago. We climbed out of the truck and stared across the divide, the ghosts of our optimism staring back at us.

“Come on,” I said. “let’s get out of here before we find ourselves stuck in some kind of vortex.” I fired up the engine and executed my final Tucson turn, 180 degrees of deja vu, and the GPS just laughed.


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