Phoenix to San Diego: Unexpected journey through alien territory


Windmill farms are increasingly common in California with the state aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Craig Davis/

By Craig Davis,

Monday morning, and American Airlines couldn’t get it up. My flight stood out as unique among the listings of on-time departures, set apart by the most-dreaded message: “canceled.”

Suddenly, a simple hour-long leg of a working trip via air from Phoenix to San Diego was looming as a major hassle.

As a frequent traveler, I have gradually learned to be more practical and less freaked out at such moments than I was in the past.

The reason for the cancellation was of no interest. Focus shifted to options:

Stare at the walls of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport for the next eight hours and arrive way late for my work assignment;

Or, rent a car and make the 360-mile drive.

The answer seemed obvious: Road trip!

It costs a bit more to drop off a rental car in a different location than the pick-up point. But National threw in the Sirius XM radio on a promotional deal, a major asset on a drive through nowhere.

The fast-paced trek would span a panorama of the stark and varied desert terrain, and show that sometimes places you wouldn’t choose to go on vacation can still be worth seeing.

Given good tunes on a variety of stations, blue skies and sparse traffic once past the city limits, the day brightened as I headed out of Phoenix on Interstate-10 to Arizona 85 and made the swing around Gila Bend before turning west on I-8.


The Space Age Lodge has been a quirky fixture in Gila Bean, Ariz., since 1965. Craig Davis/

The stark town of Gila Bend, once a stagecoach watering stop, was memorable only for the quirky Space Age Lodge and Restaurant, unmistakable by the flying saucer on the roof.

Had time not been of the essence I would have been compelled to stop for a bite and to delve into the history of the place. With no time to get sidetracked I pulled off just long enough for a quick photo.

Subsequent research revealed the Space Age Lodge to be just as it seemed, a relic from the 1960’s when the space race was at the forefront of American consciousness. Now an anachronistic motel operated as a Best Western, it was one of five so-called space age destinations designed by one Al Stovall that has endured with the spirit of the times and sense of humor intact.

There is an amusing account of the aftermath of a fire that caused some damage to the building in 1998 after which a banner was posted outside that read, “Attacked by Aliens!”

Making this drive, there is a feeling of traversing alien territory.

There is an alternative meaning there that becomes apparent while passing close to the Mexican border and encountering the inevitable Border Patrol check point.

The serious purpose is evident in the scoreboard posted with the latest tally of drugs and misplaced persons intercepted during the year. Thankfully, when your face doesn’t fit the demographic they’re seeking, you are quickly waved through.

Best to keep moving rapidly, as the entire route has the aura of an alien landscape in the purer sense. This is not a destination, though it is an interesting panorama of extreme Southwest, passing through at least five types of desert terrain.


The terrain changes dramatically after passing Yuma and entering California. Craig Davis/

I had actually traversed the Arizona leg once before, in 1987, during a tour of spring training camps in the Cactus League. The San Diego Padres trained in Yuma at the time, and I recalled it as the most middle-of-nowhere place I couldn’t wait to leave, an unappealing wasteland of scattered trailer parks with a couple of nondescript grade C hotels near the baseball complex.

Baseball was the impetus for this impromptu journey as well, tailing the Miami Marlins to San Diego. Was surprised to see the sprawling outpost Yuma has become, now a fast-growing area with a population approaching 100,000. Nonetheless, was glad to not be stopping there this time.

Soon after passing Yuma and entering California the sand appears, the dunes looming over both sides of the highway leaving no doubt you’re in the heart of the desert.

There is a popular area to the north of El Centro off Highway 78 near Glamis that offers recreational access to the dunes – the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area.


Sand dunes dominate the landscape in southeast California, one of about five types of desert terrain encountered on the road from Phoenix to San Diego. Craig Davis/

Here, on I-8, the only place to pull over is a seedy rest stop in the middle of the highway (exit left) with barely maintained restrooms. It’s a vulnerable spot and has the feel of the setting for a creepy scene in a Coen brothers movie.

Closer to San Diego the course becomes mountainous. Signs warn of the possibility of high winds over the final 90-mile stretch. Then, crest a hill and the alien motif is complete when the white giants appear, towering over the roadway and scattered toward the horizon like an invading army of metallic mono-pods from a War of the Worlds invasion.

These are the windmill farms that some view as unwanted intruders, but they are becoming more numerous as part of California’s admirable strategy to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Vast stretches of solar panels visible near the highway are part of that as well.

Rather than dig and drill, here they spin and soak up rays with California coolness.

The California I seek comes up after 5 ½ hours, and is a welcome sight when the Pacific Ocean appears suddenly as the ultimate oasis.





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