HIghway 60: Three Days in the American Interior: Day One: Phoenix, AZ – Socorro, NM

Last October I had the opportunity to spend three days on the road in the U.S. taking one daughter’s car from Arizona to her sister in Indiana.  As an expatriate, and someone who has fancied himself a world traveler, I’ve spent a good deal of my life seeing what there is outside our borders. Of course, I’ve been to many the major cities, know my native state, California, well,and have seen some of the big draws that bring visitors from around the world -Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier and so on, Since I was a kid in the 50s and got interested in rocks, Indians, archeology, the way a lot of boys did then through books written just for them, I’ve had a hankering to visit the Southwest, another region that has a following world wide, so I was excited about my passage through Arizona and New Mexico. Beyond these, a  previous trip to Fort Wayne had opened my mind to the states so dismissively labelled “flyover” by us coastal types.

What this trip showed me was that America is vast, not only in size and population, but in the infinity of natural features, untouched areas, regional variations in architecture and food, in a word that trope, diversity, means something here. The homogenization of America is much overstated.

I was pleased when a friend told me my pictures from the trip made America look exotic. What he did not know was that I did not have to “make” the country look exotic using photographers’ tricks or a particular vision, but instead merely snapped what I saw to the best of my limited equipment and even more restricted ability, both technical and artistic.

“Exotic.:”

  1. Intriguingly unusual or different; excitingly strange:

America is full of the exotic

And my expatriate eye helped me see the wonder in the familiar. “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”
Thomas Wolfe,
You Can’t Go Home Again

Sometimes I shouted out in joyful wonder at what I saw; at others near tears I quiet gratitude for what we have.

Day One Phoenix, AZ to Socorro NM

Dawdling, I make a late start, around nine, having been warned that this is the height of rush hour. Arizonans, apparently make an earlier start than that, as traffic is flowing smoothly. It is a lovely morning, a few tufts of cloud here and there, but the sky overwhelmingly a desert blue, There is no hint of haze or brown smudge on the horizon,and I reflect on how clean the air is in America.

Route 60 is here for a few miles part of I-10, but at the Superstition Freeway exit, I part company with the interstate, and will stay off for the next two days, with the exception of a few miles in New Mexico.

In Superior, AZ, a hint of the hidden gardens of Andalucia.

Closed Superior Copper Co. mine and smelter

The masonry chimney rising to the blue sky. Historic in this context doesn’t mean anything important ever happened, but that there will be a downtown with old buildings and small businesses trying to find a niche in today’s

Remember high schools with windows? So different from the supermax facilities we build today.

Sprouse-Reitz five&dime, once a mainstay of western small towns

economy. This is seen all over the country,

Copper may be returning to the Superior Area as enabling legislation makes its way through Congress, and local pro job people and environmentalists square off. In the meantime, Superior is a picturesque place, with many shuttered small businesses of a very Old West flavor, and a few that someone is attempting to revive. It’s mid day, but there is almost no one in the streets, and the only place open seems to be the post office.

The town is dominated by an eroded peak, Apache Leap. Its economic history

Apache Leap

is encapsulated in a series of murals, which while appearing ancient, date from the 80s. The mines closed in 1981, and is only staffed by a security post, The murals are in the political and

Rivera inspired style I’m familiar with from San Francisco’s Mission District. One sees miners of a distinctly mestizo cast( and perhaps Apache as well). The word “Aztlan” which has come to represent Mexican irredentism, is displayed in large, but flaking letters. Whether these murals were a protest at the mine closing, or a simple memorial to a lost way of life, the militant spirit behind them is no where evident in Superior today.

Aztlan, the "Lost Territories."

Wednesday, noon, Superior, AZ

The most notable structure is McPherson’ s Magma hotel, dating from 1912, which once hosted business men and politicians, but is now derelict, with the structure on the National Register of Historic places, but there are no plans to renovate or reopen,

There is a small cafe, and I think that a quick cup of coffee and a chat with locals might help me learn more about Superior, but the place seems to have been first renovated, then closed. All along the highway, I will see people trying to make a go in fading small towns, by opening businesses dependent on passers by. It’s a dicey proposition at best, but I can understand the appeal of living in places that are quiet, safe – and cheap. On the same street workman are renovating another building. I suspect it may have

been some kind of emporium. A very large open space is dominated by a handsome hanging clock and a glorious hammered hammered zinc ceiling. There is no sign as to what the plans or the place might be. The workmen nod when I ask to photograph the clock, but seem skittish even though I’ve spoken in Spanish.  This is Arizona, and its understandable why they. legal or not, might be wary of strangers,

Reminds me of the low riders in SF Cinco de Mayo parades.

A quick turn around side streets discloses another mural, this one not political but a whimsical picture of Chicano culture, from traditional Mexican dances to low riders. The homes are mostly tiny clapboard structures, but up a rise toward the copper plant, a large, newish and rather eccentric two story house stands out, The desert attracts people with their own very special visions of how they they wish to live.

Back on the main street, I find the one business that while not then open still seems to be functioning, a cantina, Even here the smoke Nazis are in charge, as the outside bench and butt cans attest. It just seems odd so far fro anywhere, that locals who want to drink Tecate and shoot pool find the state attempting to protect

their health. 

At the end of the street is a county office and a high school, in good repair, but fenced off and not used. So that’s Superior -post office, county office and a couple of guard statons at a closed school and copper mine, Leaving town, I congratulate myself on my immense good fortune in finding the place, fortune that will appear at almost every turn in the next days.


Back on the road and immediately into a twisting canyon road, which unfortunately has no pull outs anywhere for photography. Past the summit is a level area with a few homes called “Top of the World,” that looks like it might have bee a recreational destination long ago there are abandoned cafes and motor courts, and a few houses and trailer here and there. Before air conditioning, this must have been a summer refuge from the desert heat below.

Leaving Superior, headed east

Then a descent to a long arid dry plain,with mountains blue in the distance, This reminds me of a drive to Sedona from Phoenix the previous week: You can count on Arizona to produce something new every few miles: immense vistas, abrupt and complete changes in geology and vegetation.

In Miami, more old smelters,

Active mine and smelter, Miami, AZ

but active extraction as well. Freeport McMoran has a big establishment here. And my first fill up offered two surprises. The first shouldn’t have been a shock: A bit over 50 bucks for the fill up. I make the tank to be around 13 gallons, The last time I spent that much was in France, in 1998.

And a momentary bit of panic as the pump asked me for my zip code…I don’t live America and have a collection of addresses for various purposes. I was able to remember, but this was one more in a string of momentary bewildering confrontations with technical advances in retail services.

Signs tout the upcoming town

Old time atmosphere in Claypool

Claypool, as an antiquer’s paradise so I pull in for a look. Just as in Superior, an old smelter dominates the town from a height, as one did also in Globe down the road. There must be some technical reason as to the consistency in siting. Claypool is doing better as a tourist draw than Superior, but again, just as one entrepreneur is busy renovating and old building, his neighbor  is having a going out of business sale.

Claypool is a bit more lively that Superior

Inactive mine, Claypool

All over small town America one finds fine old buildings such as these. Each in its time represented the pride and enterprise of its builders and owners, the fulfillment of a dream.

Boneyard, Claypool

You can only easily get decent Mexican food in two places: Mexico,and the United States. In other words you need Mexicans. I grew up in southern L.A County, and the highlight of the month was when my father, on payday, would stop at the tortilla factory and bring us homemade Mexican that the ladies sold out the back door of the plant.  Then we moved to the wilderness of New York, Mexican food speaking. If you love Mexican food( and if you don’t, well – I just think soothing is missing from your life) then you know the ache of deprivation if you been long without it. I once met a young guy doing a Fulbright in rural Java.  He was on a weekend toot in a bar in Surabaya, a big city there.  From Phoenix, he asked me what I missed about the States.  I said the food, especially Mexican.  “Is there any other kind?” he said.

Indeed.

A fine combination plate : the tamales are made on site. That soft, but solid hand shaped masa, and the delicious reward of spicy meat in the center. Salsa flecked with fresh cilantro.  Fire and herbal coolness. The red and green of the the Mexican Republic’s flag, in your grateful mouth.

The lunch crowd includes a lot of older people – this is Arizona – and they are

Globe, Arizona

clearly regulars greeting the waitresses by name. On the walls, many framed pictures of the family running the place, their parents and grandparents, back to sepia prints. As well as with local pols, and certificates of appreciation for contributions to various civic causes. Immigration is such a confusing issue. I’m glad these people are here, not just for the excellent lunch they provide, but because they have clearly not only made their own lives over generations, but have built the community as well.

When I come out, the bikers are still at it.

Past Globe the road climbed again. Then came wonder. A great canyon extended to the West and the way climbed and followed it towards the North and east. This was the Salt River canyon. I had never heard of it.

Salt river Canyon, looking Northwest. Of curse I had heard of the Salt River Project, providing hydro power for Phoenix and irrigation for the vast fields of cotton in western Arizona, but this was a revleation

Suddenly, I find myself shouting out loud: Holy shit! This is better than an unexpected check in the mail. An immense winding gorge, eroded rock strata piled in colored ribbons, twists away to the northwest. Again, Arizona delights, surprises, and this time, overwhelms.

There weren’t any turnouts for a while, but a road crew was working and I was able to slow down and take some one handed shots. A glorious spiral of switchbacks brought me down to the canyon floor and a bridge across the river. Then a climb and a pullout. From here the most spectacular part of the canyon was in line with the sun, so with a point and shoot and no filters, there wasn’t much I could do but shade the lens with my hand and hope for the best, but the view in the other direction where the canyon narrows and

This is Apache country.

disappears into the mountains was perfect.

There was another guy there, about my age, and oddly enough also an expatriate, working in the Philippines and Thailand. Having seen much of the world, he decided that it was time to see something of his own country. He too was astonished by what lay before us.

Then up again, and at the summit I looked down into completely different country. Low mountains and pine forested mesas, rising dark green above shadowy canyons. Country that could hide a kingdom, and that did shelter the Apache for so long,

The road headed northeast with the high country to my right, a grassy plain on the left.Then a  sign, “Mangas.”  42 miles up into the mesas. Mangas Colorado? The great warrior? Too far to peel of the high way see what it was about. I’ve since been unable to find any trace of this place on the maps I find on the net,but I would love to go back there and take that right turn.

A anybody who grew up in the 50s could not resit a sign saying "Ft. Apache 22."

Then, another sign, one I could not resist. Fort Apache. For anyone my age, the 44 round trip mile detour was mandatory. Fort Apache was the 50s television home of Rusty and his dog Rin Tin Tin. Off the highway and on to a reservation road, the speed limit dropped ten miles. The road followed the White River with the mountains to the west. Gentle, empty country, a crossroads gas station half way, and then a descent into autumn gold White River, center of the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

I had one of these.

Decent looking homes, some clearly government issue projects going up ,with Interior Department contract numbers and funding information on signs. The town is clean and orderly with a handsome setting on the river bank.

Fort Apache itself is another mile down the road.

Not at all the palisaded wood stockade of the TV show, but a rectangular layout of buildings centered on an Indian school from the late nineteenth century.  One log structure remains, the home of General Crook, the Indian fighter, whom the Apache called Nantan Lupan, “Grey Wolf.,”and having defeated them worked for their benefit. I pay my five bucks at the visitor center, a well run place with more interest the ten minutes I had to give it, and walked around the grounds. I was the only visitor and there was no sound save the soft wind rustling the late season leaves.

General Crook's home, oldest structure at Ft. Apache

Back to Highway 60.

To the North a plain dotted with eroded mesas and ancient volcanic cones, one can see eons here. A light rain begins to fall.  To the Northwest the land slopes and mist fills a great depression, above which in a golden break in the weather the late evening sun shines on a distant power plat that seems to float above the greyness.  There is little traffic.  Occasional gates for ranch roads. 

Show Low, that oddly named town, then Springerville, the gateway to the White Mountains as it advertises itself.  As I enter, something flashes in my eyes.  It’s one of those portable speed registers, and this one take pictures.,  Another, and unwelcome innovation over the time I’ve been away. A quick tap on the brakes  and a slow ride through town.  A likely looking place, but it’s not yet 5 and I elect to continue.

New Mexico

Welcome  to new Mexico somewhere on the rising plain.  Darkness falls and the road rises. Rain and the dark loom of tall pines on either side.  A cleared area, gas station, two motels and a liquor store.  Had there been a bar and cafe, I think I would have stopped.  I’m hoping for a bunk within walking distnace of a country western bar.

Two darkened towns Quemado and Pietown.  Later I will find that there are indeed pies in Pietown.  A sign for the Continental Divide, the beginning of the  long slope to the Mississippi.

Magdalena has a number of motels, a steakhouse and bar, and a sign for a an old hotel, renovated, along with a lot of weathered looking houses and old time businesses, some shuttered, some still running,  and of course, a Dollar store.

The motels  are all full, with many military vehicles parked..  My guess would be National Guard or reserves on maneuvers.  Patriotism and service are very real in the southwest.

So it’s on to Socorro, down in the Rio Grande Valley.  The radio is now heavy on religious stations, in  both English and Spanish.  This will continue all the way through Missouri.

Curves, and extensive road work.  TARP, I wonder?  The distant oasis of light that is Soccoro nears painfully slowly,  When the road work ends, the first sign for a ten mile reduction in speed appears.  These continue at intervals, until I am crawling at 35 with no traffic, and the town still far away.  This reminds me of the yellow caution signs for a two inch step into an aircraft you see in the U.S.  Safety is important, but we carry it too far sometimes for infinitesimal, or non existent gains,

I’m doing 25 and still haven’t entered the town, and the roadsides on both sides are still empty.  Finally, I’m in Socorro , navigating by dead reckoning, and end up at the central plaza.  It looks like exactly you would expect in one of New Mexico’s oldest towns.  There is a cheerfully lit western style bar, and I tell myself that I might come back once I get settled.

The strip leading out to  the interstate turns out to be not far away, and I stop at the first motel I see that that is south of 50 bucks,  Curry smell in the lobby and  the usual Mr. Patel.  I thought this so odd when I stumbled into an Indian motel in Moab, Utah back in 78, but now I expect it, and seek these guys out if I want something a little cheaper than the chains,

After years in Southeast Asia enjoying lodging from 30-to 50 dollars in real hotels with room service, great cable, swimming pools and whatever, I knew I was in for a let down.    How does one describe the smell of a cheap motel?  It’s not a lack of hygiene; these places do get inspected,  Its the smell of old furniture, the smell of transience, the odor of a thousand lives passing though, none staying long enough to make the place home.

It’s late and instead of hitting a bar, I settle for snack food and Dos Equis  from a liquor store conveniently across the street., and check out the cable,as the advertised WIFI is non existent.  Not much.  Even in first class hotels in the US the cable selection is nothing like you get in Asia, but it is fun to watch local TV, see how the high school team is doing, and learn how people make a living from what is advertised.  This is cattle country, and there also seems to be a lot of trucking,.

The bed is clean and I drift off easily, with images of all that i had seen playing a retrospective of a wonderful day, content, knowing that tomorrow would b the same or better.


4 thoughts on “HIghway 60: Three Days in the American Interior: Day One: Phoenix, AZ – Socorro, NM

  1. Just for chuckles, why don’t you submit this piece to the travel section of a newspaper. Or three. I will bet you 5 beers of your choice that it will be published. It is beautiful, simple, informative, and the photos are outstanding. I swear, I have blasted all over this country and never have never seen it in quite this way. I very highly recommend that you immediately get ‘Going Back to Bisbee’ as the perfect entree to your beautiful hors d’oeuvre.

  2. Beautifully composed, Little Guy. I shot a motion picture one winter in the Salt River Canyon. It was the coldest night of my life, but the beauty of the moon and the stars was worth it. And the reptiles and night-creatures reminded me of the deep American psyche. You are a great writer, and a great photographer.

  3. i’M FROM sUPERIOR THAT MOUNTAIN RANGE YOU CALLED APACHE LEAP IS REALLY PICKET POST! APACHE LEAP MOUNTAINS ARE THE ONES GOING TOWARDS
    MIAMI?

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