On the back of my 4Runner is a large bumper sticker with the word ARIZONA and the black outline of a jackrabbit against a garish yellow background. It was supposed to go on the bumper, which my wife would probably prefer, but wound up loud and proud on the hatch, and whenever I'm in California visiting my daughter, you can hear the chorus of condescending knee slapping and sniggers, because, first, I'm from Arizona and, second, I'm driving 125 mph slower than they are. The bumper sticker is from the venerable Jackrabbit Trading Post along Route 66. It was still there last time I checked, but these places have a habit of drying up and rolling away like tumbleweeds, so who knows.
Old highways are at their best at 5 or 6 in the morning, just as the sun is coming up and coffee-jacked truckers and travelers are gearing up for that next 500 miles. I've commented before that one of the nice things about dropping people off early at Tucson International Airport is that you get to witness this awakening, when the road is open and all things are possible. On this morning, I was dawdling along Old Benson Highway--what was once part of the majestic U.S. Route 80, that inched and swerved its way from Douglas to Gila Bend and beyond. For over 50 years it carried our forefathers and mothers to a better place, or, at least, a place that was the opposite of Green Bay in January.
But all good things hit a speed bump and, eventually, wind up in that junk yard in Stand By Me with the rabid dog. Old Benson Highway bottomed out in the 1980s with the completion of the Interstate Highway System, as did Route 66 and any number of other two-lane blacktops. Today, there is a minor resurgence of the old motels and cafes that served tourists and even the likes of John Wayne when he was in town filming El Dorado. For every four or five motor courts and roadside diners melting into the asphalt, one or two, such as the Owl Lodge Apartments, are hanging in there--maybe even applying a fresh coat of paint.
Where the highway meets East Ajo Way, I stopped to photograph the red and blue racing stripes on a whitewashed, brick gas station that still retained its two--100% analog--gas pumps. It's now the All Makes Auto Repair. The sun was just clawing its way over the Rincons. A fellow on a bike with an unwieldy leaf blower stopped and asked if I needed any leaves blown from one spot to another. I said no, I didn't own the place, and then we both admired the paint job and wondered how hot it was going to get. Hot, we agreed, but not too hot. And then we went our separate ways, the way it has always been on America's lost byways.