Drakes and Hymes pull out of the gas station onto AZ-77 and head north ‘round the bend. It is a fantastic March afternoon in Arizona. Brittlebush, poppies, thistles, Larkspur and Ocotillo paint the surrounding hillsides in shades of yellow, violet, and orange, while the rustle of a cool breeze navigating the trees before it blows through open windows reminds Drakes of yet another reason he loves this state as much as he does. Summer will arrive soon enough, but today the weather is picture perfect.
The two drivers in the two cars have not gone two miles before they come to a traffic change on the highway. It seems the road is being widened, but with the creek flowing through a small ravine along the east shoulder, the only option is to remove material from the rock face on the west. Traffic is reduced to a single lane for nearly a mile around the blind curve, with automated traffic lights standing guard to protect motorists from being blown up or buried alive when the side of the mountain comes crashing down. An Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer idles his Crown Victoria interceptor in the shade hints at impatient drivers taking their chances with oncoming traffic (or explosions and rock slides) in recent days.
This is a classic highway construction scenario. A Saturday afternoon, no workers present as far as anyone can tell, yet the changing of the automated signals is apparently on a 15 minute cycle. Engines are turned off, drivers step out of their vehicles and walk to the shoulder to admire the creek flowing past, a hundred feet down in the ravine. The group of bikers silence their Harleys and dismount for cigarettes and small talk. Others remain at the wheel, engines continuing to idle, powering radios, DVD players and even air conditioning. They know that the light will change the minute they step out of the car and they will never get another chance to continue their journey. They sit; exasperated huffs and puffs and sighs join the hydrocarbons emitted from their tailpipes and the raw beauty of Arizona surrounding them is all but invisible to their impatiently rolling eyes.
Having just spent a good amount of time standing around outside their vehicles back in Winkleman, Drakes and Hymes remain in their vehicles, however they turn them off and use the time to chat back and forth on 2-way radios about their intended destination – the “ghost town” Christmas, Arizona. The maps they’ve printed show the turn off is an un-named road 6.8 miles from the intersection where the gas station was located. By their estimates, they will be looking for a primitive road which might look like a driveway if it looks like anything at all, and it will be less than five miles up the 2-lane road on the left. This is going to be interesting. They find themselves towards the front of a pack of more than 30 vehicles waiting what seems like an eternity for a traffic light in the middle of nowhere to change. There is no center median, so if they slow to make a turn – or even just look for a turn – they will be holding back some 30 already held-back motorists. They decide to go with the flow and keep their eyes peeled for the turn, they can pass it and come back if they have to.
The light finally turns green and the sound of the awakening hogs echoes through the canyon. Slowly, the long line of cars crosses the center line and files between sheer rock face and concrete barriers. Five miles per hour, ten, fifteen, the posted limit is fifteen, but some drivers, unconcerned with the rough and dirty road surface press on to twenty and even thirty miles an hour as they make their way through the narrow pass. The odometer clicks off the distance from the gas station – three miles, four miles – the automated signal at the opposite end of the construction zone appears, the line of cars shifts back into the proper lane – five miles – everyone applies a liberal measure of throttle in a mad dash to the 65mph speed limit and the ten over to which they feel entitled. It’s a drag race – six miles. Drakes and Hymers find themselves in the front running pack doing 65, 70, 75 miles per hour and climbing as the digits on the odometers tick past faster and faster. Six miles, six point one, six point two, six point three, six point four, six point five – “We should see it any second now! On the left. Any road on the left” is the call that comes across the radio clipped securely to the shoulder belt. Six point seven, six point eight, six point nine?
“Did we pass it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. Did you?”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“Next chance to pull off the highway, take it.”
A broad expanse of open shoulder appears on the left. Amber bulbs signal intent before the black Subaru Wagon and grey Mitsubishi sedan trade asphalt for hard-packed dirt and gravel in a giant cloud of dust. Both take advantage of the opportunity to park the car sideways with a quick shot of e-brake. The stragglers bringing up the rear of the long line of cars traveling at or below the speed limit caravan past while Drakes and Hymes roll windows down and re-think their plan of attack.
“It should only be a couple miles back, this time on the right.”
“Yeah, but man, I didn’t see anything back there. It was nothing but rocks.”
“Well let’s go back by and see what we can find. Those traffic lights should make it easier to make some u-turns if we need to.”
The two cars pull onto AZ-77, headed back towards the missed turn-off and the gas station. Despite multiple u-turns and several passes, they find no road; only sheer rock faces apparently made from piled overburden. Without more comprehensive maps on hand, the two now find themselves relying upon general knowledge of the area gained through hours of research prior to this outing. They know Christmas is located between AZ-77 and AZ-177; somewhere up and over those mountains to the west.