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April 30, 2017

Texas to Oregon in a classic Mercedes 280se Coupe: Day 5, Kayenta, Arizona to Ely, Nevada

Filed under: 2017 - Texas to Oregon,Cars — chuck goolsbee @ 7:16 pm

The Middle of Nowhere

We have a long way to go today, so I set an alarm for pretty early. We hit the road without breakfast, and based solely on our experience last night, why would we torture ourselves further? The plan is to head for Page, Arizona and have our breakfast there, then check the weather and adjust our route. The roads to Page are US 160 and AZ 98. This will be my first time on the latter. Always love ticking off another blue highway off my list!

Leaving Kayenta

AZ 98 is a fun road. Virtually no traffic, except for a long parade of big yellow School Busses heading into Page. These kids must spend half their days on a bus! The other oddity I notice is an electrified railroad running alongside US 160, and again later it joins AZ 98 for a bit. I’m confused what purpose it serves, until I note that it leads to a coal-fired power generation plant just outside of Page. (Research after the fact shows that it runs a loop to-from a coal mine SSE of Kayenta to the plant just east of Page. See for yourself via satellite imagery.) Seems odd to me to have a big coal plant next to a huge Hydro station (the Glen Canyon dam) but I guess leveraging the tranmission infrastructure makes some sense. I imagine this is similar to the coal plant at Boardman, Oregon, which sits amidst the greatest concentration of hydropower dams in the USA.

In Page, we seek a good breakfast place via typical online tools. We start zeroing in on one and then begin the terrible comedy of GPS turn-by-turn directions that have us spinning in circles in what is clearly a residential area, but is just a block or two off a main retail strip. After the damn GPS lady has us perform two laps of u-turns with nothing like what we’re looking for appearing outside our windows I do the manly thing and say “fuck it, I’ll find my own food, zip over to the obviously main street of town and pull into the first place that is clearly open and serving breakfast. It is nothing special really, and is in fact a fast-food place, but not a national chain or franchise. It is some local joint, drive-in kind of place that was everywhere in the USA before McD’s took over and put all these sorts of places out of business. Testa Rossa has a breakfast burrito, and I have a breakfast sandwich with some onion rings on the side. We split the rings and look at the weather. Things still look pretty bad to the north. Truly awful up in Oregon, but Utah is also covered in sqalls and storms at the edge of this larger system up north.

We have two options if we choose to continue west-bound. US89 and US89A. The latter swings by the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Testa Rossa tells me she has never seen the Grand Canyon, so I suggest we head that way. Doing the South Rim will add a full day to our drive as we’d have to go all the way around to Las Vegas befiore going due north, so I nix that… but I have no idea when the North Rim opens for the year. We choose to head that way anyway and take a chance.

US 89 out of Page is a very pretty road. I remark to Testa Rossa that if any of these rock formations were located in any other state, say Kentucky or Iowa, they would be world famous, but as they are located here, among thousands of other such stunning rock formations, they are just another rock formation. Go figure.

Just another (mind blowing) rock formation amoung the other thousand rock formations we see here.

US 89 runs along the edge of Marble Canyon, which is the canyon on the Colorado River upstream from the Grand Canyon. It drops down through a divide blasted into one of these rock formations down into Marble Canyon, at which point we turn onto US Highway 89A, and double-back north to cross the river at Navajo Bridge, and then through the Vermilion Cliffs area. The location is pretty spectacular to be honest. At a particularly scenic spot, we stop and soak it all in…

Testa Rossa, in a good mood.

She’s in a very good mood. Bolting out of the car into the cool sunshine and dancing all around the rocks as I slowly gather myself and my camera gear. I can understand why she feels this way. This is a spectacular place, and the weather is perfect. Puffy little clouds. Cool temps. Amazing scenery in every direction, but most of all to the north where the Vermilion Cliffs tower above us. Everything is red. Red rocks. Red dirt. Red cliffs.

Red is, after all, her color.

I set about shooting some pretty pictures of the coupe:

Vermilion Cliffs

Vermilion Cliffs

Meanwhile, she’s pirouetting about with wild abandon.

Testa Rossa

She has such a lovely, optimistic outlook on life, and I have to admit, it makes her wonderful to spend time with. I could do a lot worse. I’m stalking angles and seeing the world through a viewfinder. She is dancing, singing, and delighting in the moment. Laughing, she lays herself in a pinup pose across the coupe’s front as I snap away. Let’s just say that image isn’t going to make it onto this family-friendly website, but I will share this more composed and comported version:

I think I’ll keep her.

Back into the car, we get underway, and very soon our bundle of energy is sound asleep. Go figure. I just quietly drive on while she snoozes for a good ninety minutes or more. Throughout this time we’re climbing out of the canyon country and higher into some greenery and mountains. The temps cool, and the vegetation goes from sage to dense juniper, and then into Ponderosa Pine forests. It starts looking a lot like home, meaning the area around Bend, Oregon. Higher and higher we climb, and the car, as always, stays cool and runs well. So well, and so smooth that my snoozing passenger stays comfortably asleep, even as the road switch-backs up some steep sections.

We pass the North Rim entrance to the Grand Canyon, and large signs inform me that it remains closed for the Winter despite being well into Spring. Oh well. Next time. I don’t even wake my slumbering companion. A few dozen miles later however, she awakens and I let her know about the status of the park, and how we’ll have to come back some day so she can see it. Showing no disappointment, she gladly picks up her knitting and continues a project she’s been working away at for this whole trip. At one point I note something in the rear view mirror and say to her, “You know how this car is so evocative of style, and dignified class now watch this.” I slow down and allow a modern day Mercedes pass us. It is a “dust buster” style minivan/crossover ugly thing. She laughs and agrees with me that Mercedes-Benz may have lost the plot recently.

We’re dropping like a rock down out of the mountains and into a large valley floor. The trees are now behind us and we’re in sagebrush country once again.

The knitter and the driver.

We pull into Fredonia, AZ (which I ponder if it was named before, or after the Marx Brothers movie) and then turn north into Utah. We’re now clearly heading into some weather. Dark clouds dominate the sky to the northwest. The scenery changes from sage to red rock canyon and back again a few times, before we begin to climb into some mountains and then it arrives. Not rain, but snow. Not enough to stick, but the air and ground are being vigorously scoured by pellets of snow in the strong winds. Normally I love snow and seek it out, but not when I’m driving old cars. Thankfully it never snows enough to be a real threat to driving conditions. Down out of the mountains we’re also out of the storm. Up ahead I see a car whose silhouette I instantly recognize. It is an R107, or as it is known to most, an SL Mercedes. Specifically this one is a 560sl, the last of the R107 cars that were built and sold from 1973 until almost 1990. They are great cars.

560sl, near Bryce Canyon

I wave as we pass. It sports Wyoming plates, so another wandering tourist in a classic Mercedes-Benz.

The weather comes and goes. Rain. Sun. Occasional whirlwinds of that pellet-type snowfall. As we pass through Panguitch, Utah, I spot a an unlikely name for a restaurant:
“Tandoori Taqueria”.
As I ponder the scenario that created such an establishment (now closed, for reasons I find easier to grasp) I realize that it is about lunchtime, and since I’m hungry I imagine Testa Rossa is as well. I see an open place, with the more appealing name of “Cowboy Smokehouse” and hang a u-turn to put us in front of it. With visions of BBQ in my head I’m a bit disappointed to find only sandwiches and burgers on the lunch menu. Go figure. The service is provided with excellence by a very friendly waitress, who possesses the widest hips I have seen in recent memory. As one would expect, the place has the look and feel of an 1880s saloon, however, being in Utah, it is far tamer than what you are imagining. The burger is damn good, and I wash it down with a bottomless glass of iced tea.

I’ve been driving for four and a half days straight, and today is going to be our longest day so far. Testa Rossa volunteers for a shift behind the wheel. I’m feeling a bit tired, so I’m totally OK with taking some time in the right seat. I warn her though that I’m a “car sleeper” if I’m not driving and will likely be out like a light. If the weather gets crazy, if she needs navigational assistance, or if she gets sleepy, she is to wake me and let me take over.

Testa Rossa Driving the Coupe

Sure enough, I’m zonked out seconds after we get underway. Boy, is this car a comfy cruiser!

Oddly though, I sleep lightly and wake up enough to help her make the required turns; onto Utah Highway 20, then north on Interstate 70, and then west on Utah Highway 21. I occasionally wake up and snap a photo. Or chat with her for a while. But mostly I’m happy to get some rest.

Storm we went all the way around.

The weather continues it is on-again/off-again thing, but Testa Rossa has some odd luck and I don’t think a drop of rain nor flake/pellet of snow ever falls on us while she drives. At one point we actually drive counterclockwise three-quarters the way around a storm cell that is clearly producing a LOT of rain. Odd luck indeed.

Inside the Coupe

Utah Highway 21 turns out to be one of those amazeballs western roads, like US 50 or 95. It traverses the Basin and Range landscape of western Utah into Nevada. These areas make for really fun driving. Think of it as long long drag races (basin) connected by twisty road courses (range). The road never fully reaches the vanishing point, as just as it begins to, a mountain range pops up and provides some driving entertainment. Once through the range, you drop down again onto this usually laser-straight road, which races towards the horizon to where yet another mountain range awaits.

At one point I ask Testa Rossa if she will indulge me an unusual photo opportunity. She agrees. We stop the car, right in the highway. Odd right? Well, there are no vehicles in either direction, as far as the eye can see, which is pretty damn far in this case…

Utah Highway 21 through the Basin & Range Topography of western Utah.

I can only imagine how mind-blowing places like this are to Europeans, or easterners. The landscape is usually utterly devoid of any indicators of humanity, except the road of course. Sometimes you’ll see a fence, or a far away ranch building. Maybe a bush here and there. Occasionally some power transmission lines. But mostly these valleys are absolutely empty.

Except cattle.

Free range cattle

Just before the above photo was shot, three of these cattle were actually ON THE ROAD. We stopped reasonably far away, and waited for them to leisurely wander off the asphalt. They are few and far between, but they ARE out there, so you must stay alert. In some ways I’m glad we’re piloting a cruiser, rather than a sportscar, as we’re ambling along rather reasonably, not pushing limits and the pedal to the metal.

Entering Nevada

The road finally reaches Nevada, and becomes Nevada Highway 487. In a short distance we meet US Highway 50, aka “the Loneliest Road“, and head west towards our destination for the day, Ely.

I’ve driven this road a couple of times before. It is much the same as Utah 21 in terms of landscape, but now we have a tiny bit more traffic. The car I recall the most is a Toyota Camry, which I pass not long after we merge with US 50. As we go up and over the next mountain range, it catches us, and I let them by. Then again, on the long flat valley floor, we pass the Camry again. In the next mountain range, as I’m slowly navigating the twisty road, and steep grades, the Toyota overtakes me again. We continue this leap-frogging all the way to Ely.

At Ely, we are staying at the Hotel Nevada. It is something of a landmark with quite a bit of history. All we are looking for is a bed, some wifi, and a dinner.

Hotel Nevada

We check in, but a few blocks away I noted a car wash, and I really want to wash all that dust we picked up in New Mexico off the car. So after I drop the bags in the room, I zip over to get that job done.

Car washed!

The trunk and interior are still dusty but at least the outside is clean!

We grab a drink, dinner, and have a wonderful night’s sleep.

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