Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How NOT to get out of Prescott, Arizona

For those who love Arizona, but can't handle the summer heat of the lower elevations, Prescott is a huge draw. At 5,400 feet, the summer high temperature averages 89 degrees – nearly 20 degrees less than in Phoenix. It's a town with an "Old West" presence, and there's ample camping opportunity, surrounded as it is by public lands where RVers can stay for low cost – even for free.

The drawback is access.

Like a lot of other "Old West" towns, Prescott is off the beaten path. The major North-South artery, Interstate 70, is miles to the east of Prescott, and it can take a bit of time to get to 70 to make your way south. And if your travel plans on leaving Prescott would take you south and west, well, going way east to turn around and go back west just has a way of grating one's teeth.

Yes, you can assuredly drive south out of Prescott. Arizona 89 runs downhill southwest out of Prescott – intersecting with Arizona 71 at the town of Congress. The 71 will take you on farther south and west, shooting you out toward the likes of Quartzsite, even Los Angeles. And it's a short hop, to boot. Trouble is, right in the middle of it is a thing called Yarnell Hill.

Loved by bold motorcyclists, and held in no small amount of regard (and perhaps disdain) by wise 18-wheeler drivers, Yarnell Hill is a bit of a legend. In four miles the elevation changes 2,500 feet, with up to six percent grades. But it's not the grades that make Yarnell so intimidating – it's the twists and turns of the highway – evocative of a cow's intestinal tract. Throw in a few rock overhangs, some mighty narrow lanes, some pretty serious drop-offs, and an occasional rockslide without warning, and Yarnell Hill rightly earns the title of Arizona's most dangerous drive.

We've "done" Yarnell with an RV a couple of times – both up, and the dreaded downside. It's one of those places that when you make it to the bottom, you'll practically want to get out and do a little ground-kissing. So it was that on our last adventure to Prescott (coming into town via Interstate 17 and the associated western run via Arizona 69) when it came time to leave, we were decidedly looking for an "alternate route" to Quartzsite.

Enter Google Maps. We knew there had to be an alternative, so we plugged in Prescott to Quartzsite, and immediately received the helpful suggestion of traveling down 89, through Yarnell. Pull on the little button, moving the route west eventually gave us the option of going north out of Prescott, then west to Skull Valley. But again, the route still took us to Congress – via Yarnell Hill. A little more tugging on the route gave us the option of traveling through a little burg called Hillside – "a populated place located in Yavapai County." Follow County Road 62 south out of Hillside, 20 miles south, and practically smack into Congress. And looking at the map, the road running into Hillside from the north is drawn the same as the one going out of town.

Ah, what fools us mortal RVers can be. Changing Google Maps default of "map" to "earth view" and then zooming in on earth view would have told us a lot in a minute. To our credit, however, one blogger describes the road between Hillside and Congress as "an easily traveled dirt road."

At the south end of Hillside we suddenly reached the end of the pavement. A sign warned, "Primitive road, use at your own risk." We'd driven plenty of dirt roads, and there was no rain in the forecast. Going back to Prescott could be done, but then we'd either face Yarnell Hill, or a long loop east to go west through Phoenix. "What kind of trouble could there be?" Cell signal strong – on we pushed.

And it was a beautiful start. The topography rolled gently up and down, and a few potholes there were to be avoided. Forget about traffic, we were alone with our thoughts. For the first few miles. Things got a little dicey when we happened upon a power line repair crew – narrow road, but we managed it. A few miles after them, a straggling part of the crew. A flatbed semi carrying very l-o-n-g poles idling beside the road. We pulled up behind, jumped out to ask the driver if perhaps he could pull just a little more to the right – and encountered the Mary Celeste of the Arizona outback. Nice truck, rumbling engine, but nobody home.

With the navigator hanging her head out the side window talking us through the very narrow squeek of dirt between the truck and the left side of the road falloff, we managed to gently nudge past the derelict semi. Somewhere down the line, we finally encountered the driver, who'd apparently got out to scout the road up ahead.

And the road up ahead was worth scouting, because before we could quite reach the half-way mark, the road suddenly got ugly. We'd been hustling along, dodging potholes at a respectable 20 or 25 miles per hour, when suddenly the rig began to shudder, vibrate, shake, and otherwise get completely uncontrollable. The pilot had all he could do to try and keep things from pounding off the roadway – the trailer was shoving the truck on down the "roadway." Washboard! Oh, washboard like we'd never experienced before!

The balance of the trip on CR 62 – Date Creek Road – was a slow motion nightmare. If we dared to get much above five miles per hour, steering control was almost non-existent. At five miles per hour or less, no amount of Super Polygrip would've kept fake teeth in one's mouth. It was simply a matter of taking the pounding and watching the numbers creep past on the GPS. Occasionally courteous locals would wave as they blasted past in pickup trucks, leaving rooster tails of dust to envelop the view, adding just one more treat to the already laughable situation.

Adding to the fun – we came over a rise to discover a wash at the bottom of the hill – not with running water, but with plenty of mud. There was no way out of this one – we just had to hit the accelerator and make a go for it – feeling the wheels slip as we held on for dear life and hoped we didn't run out of momentum before we ran out of mud.

We finally crawled back on the pavement near Congress. A stop and walk-around revealed no outside damage – other than the turning of the normally white front of the trailer an earthy brown from the mud bath. Inside was a different story. The lower kitchen cabinets, which had stuck with us through our trials of thousands of previous miles, gave up and regurgitated their contents onto the kitchen floor. Somehow, too, something had managed to jump up and turn on the kitchen faucet. With the water pump left "on," the pump diligently did its job and pumped the contents of the fresh water tank out of the faucet, into a dishpan, some down the drain, and the balance across the counter and onto the floor.

It took several days to get it all straightened out.

And now, next time we contemplate a trip to Prescott, maybe 15 minutes of white-knuckling down Yarnell Hill beats two hours of torture on Date Creek Road