Classic Roads: US Highway 191 - Arizona

Classic Roads: US Highway 191 - Arizona
A little north of Tombstone, the coyote (Roadrunnerus digestus) emerges from the low scrub brush on the dusty shoulder of Arizona's Route 80. He stops mid-trot and watches with apparent nonchalance as our RoadRUNNER Gold Wing (Burn-em-upus asphaltus) breezes by. But I'm not fooled by his insouciance  -  years of Saturday mornings have taught me that Wile E. Coyote always has something up his sleeve. The rest of the way to Douglas, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for anything tagged "Acme."

Kathy and I get a good laugh out of the incident. We both loved the "Roadrunner" cartoons as kids and now here we are, two RoadRUNNERs speeding across the barren desert. Almost every time we'd pass something after the coyote our adenoidal impressions of the speedy bird's "beep-beep" crackled across the Wing's intercom the rest of the way to the Mexican border and our tour's beginning in Douglas, Arizona. It's funny how much silliness desolate roads can inspire.

Continuing south, we race the setting sun and ominous skies boiling up on the far horizon. Blackening and billowing, the clouds quickly spawn storms, and two leaden veils of rain descend one after the other in the vast distance. Though separated by hundreds of miles, the dark masses seem to work in Wagnerian concert as branching traceries of lightning dance left and right briefly animating the cascades. It's a thrilling, humbling experience, and our place in the grand scheme of things has never been so obvious. Riding on in all due haste, we hoped this celestial cauldron wouldn't be stirred and upended above our heads.

Rolling into Douglas, we find our digs, the Hotel Gadsden, just as a startlingly cool breeze converges on the empty streets. The resulting Venturi effect whips up a whirling waltz of dust and stray paper that seems appropriate for a sleepy Mexican border town. Gear in hand, we stroll through the heavy hotel doors and enter another era.

Dueling storms darken the horizon.

The lobby's two-story-high ceiling, complete with vaulted, stained-glass skylights, is supported by four marble columns, each capped with 14-carat gold leaf said to have been worth $ 20,000 in 1929. A resplendent Tiffany mural depicting desert trees and cacti spans forty-two feet across the mezzanine of the sweeping, white marble stairway. Despite the dim lighting, we can see the gouged-out space missing a chunk of marble on the seventh stair, an accident attributed to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and whatever whim it was that caused him to take his horse for an impromptu ride through the lobby. They didn't call it the Wild West for nothing.

What's In a Number?

The following morning all remnants of the dark clouds are gone, replaced by a sky almost unnaturally blue. We were warned it would be hot and early-morning temperatures in the high 80s certainly qualify  -  but hey, it's a dry heat. Undaunted, we begin our northward journey on 191, the route through Arizona that used to be known as Highway 666. Back in 1992, it turned into Highway 191 after the state requested the renumbering due to the quantity of signage thefts. Weighed against everything else under consideration if and when Judgment Day arrives, illegal possession of a Route 666 sign may fall on the lighter, venial side of the scale. I don't know about that, and I wouldn't presume to, but I do like the idea of riding Highway 191 better. The last time I checked, Father Damien was out of the picture.

Near the small town of Sunsites we see signs for the Cochise Stronghold Recreation Area. The sheer granite cliffs of the Dragoon Mountains were once the refuge for Cochise, the famed leader of the Chiricahua band of the Apache tribe. Master strategists within this impenetrable region, Cochise and his braves harassed settlers and the Army from 1861 to 1871. Cochise, allegedly never conquered in battle, died peacefully in 1874 and his grave lies somewhere in these hills. Its exact location remains a mystery. Unfortunately for us, as the road turns to dirt, I quickly realize that Gold Wings and loose surfaces don't play well together; and so, like the many others who have searched for Cochise, we are repelled before we can even get close.

Upon reaching the pavement, our voices lose the timbre of two small-time traffic reporters yammering in a Korean-War-era helicopter, and the Gold Wing's handlebars cease bucking like a roto-tiller churning up rocky river bottom. [Note to self: Save the dirt roads for the dual-sports.] We approach Interstate 10 and watch dust devils swirling up white sands that dance across the distant Wilcox Playa. After a short eastward foray along the big road, we again reconnect with Highway 191. The lifeless, broiled terrain suddenly inspires Kathy. She's now convinced that she's going to spot and recover that icon of Southwestern souvenirs: her very own sun-bleached cow skull. I laugh and tell her she's seen one too many westerns. Minutes later, a tumbleweed rolls across the roadway.