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For San Diego, the trip is half the fun

Carrie stern
By Carrie stern
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 20, 2003
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Despite snide remarks about the gubernatorial choices and driving styles of our neighbors to the west, it is practically a University of Arizona pastime to head for the coast on weekends and holidays. Until the "Big One" (earthquake) hits and Yuma becomes the long-awaited beachfront property, San Diego is a popular choice for road-tripping Arizonans. An oft-overlooked aspect of the road trip, however, is the journey itself.

San Diego is a place of diverse attractions, great weather and (mostly) nice people. Included in this group is my family, who graciously open their home to their expatriate daughter at a moment's notice. This was our destination one recent Thursday morning.

Just after 7 a.m., I fired up my tricked-out Camry with the Cali plates, tossed some last-minute clothes into the trunk, and hit the road. Riding shotgun was my partner in crime and road trips, Cory.

As we left Tucson and its chilly 45-degree temperatures behind, the Wal-Marts, grocery stores and housing developments faded to ... desert. Desert, cactus and the occasional RV park were the highlights of the Arizona stretch of this journey, but those considering the trip should not be concerned - there are a variety of ways to occupy one's interest. The old standbys of CDs, license plate games and radio channel-surfing will suffice, but for the more ambitious, a road trip through this area can be an educational foray. Small-town radio stations make for good cultural experiences, and roadside gift shops can become safaris of tackiness.

In my case, I became intimately acquainted with the flora of southern Arizona and California. Cory, a horticulturalist, shared his wealth of botanical knowledge freely. Notice how the saguaros east of Tucson have bases that look rather chewed-up? Those are "packrat staircases." The gray trees growing in sandy washes? Those are called smoke trees. Even for those less botanically inclined, having a companion can make five hours through the desert into an extended chat-fest. Hurtling at 75 miles per hour through creosote flats can inspire conversations that might not normally take shape.

Last summer, I was driving to Tucson with my sister and my two birds, and our old Volvo stalled in the empty desert 10 miles east of Dateland. The air conditioner was long deceased, and repeated restartings of the engine garnered us only a few miles. Finally, AAA arrived and towed us 20 miles back to Tacna, the only service station in the area. We had to stay in a motel overnight while the car was fixed. The pets could easily have died in the 100-degree heat, and under different circumstances, it could have been much more serious for all involved. The moral of the story is this: If you go, drive a good car, especially in the summer. Service stations are few and far between. On the other hand, Tacna's Chaparral Motel really isn't so bad for an unexpected stay.

Southeastern California is home to such oddities as the Desert Tower - a peculiar edifice off In-Ko-Pah Road - and the De Anza nudist colony. However, the most puzzling attraction may be the Imperial/San Diego County line. Perhaps "lines" would be a more appropriate word - some quirk of the interstate causes it to run in and out of the two counties for about a mile, resulting in several signs proclaiming entry into each county time after time. We admired the barrel cacti and huge boulders in Devil's Canyon, kept our eyes out in the stretch where we had seen people crossing the freeway in the summer, and relished the slow decrease in temperature. We were almost at our destination!

Just as we began to get antsy, however, we passed Alpine, a small mountain town on the easternmost border of the recent San Diego fires. The sudden desolation in some areas was surreal - charred hillsides, melted signs, and the remnants of homes lay beside the freeway. Several houses remained, some with fire lines only a few yards from the foundation. A veil of smoke still hung over the valleys, and huge pieces of plywood spray-painted with "THANK YOU, FIREFIGHTERS" were propped up next to the road.

Miles later, the four lanes gave way to eight, and we passed into the city. We rolled down the windows and let the sea breeze blow through our hair. Then we rolled them back up because it felt too cold. We were Zonies in the city, long-sleeved and incognito.

San Diego is full of activities and sights to satisfy even the most finicky traveler, but we'll leave the agenda up to you. Just remember: In San Diego, you can't drive 75.

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