Wickenburg is an Island

Some more thoughts on living at the edge of nowhere.

Last night, we went out to dinner at House Berlin with our friends, the Wurths.

House Berlin is one of my favorite places to eat in Wickenburg. The food is always good and lately the service is good again, too.

The Wurths are a semi-retired couple who moved into Wickenburg not long after we did seven or eight years ago. Jim had been an airline pilot for Eastern Airlines and took early retirement before Eastern went bust. Judith had been a flight attendant back in the days when they were still called stewardesses and had done a few other things I didn’t know much about. Now they live in Wickenburg where they manufacture and sell battery-based aircraft starting devices called StartPacs.

Jim flies a helicopter now and that’s how I know him. He has a 1969 Hughes 500c, exquisitely refurbished and painted. As he likes to say, it’s the Porsche of helicopters. He gave me a ride up the Hassayampa River once that was quite memorable, primarily because of the positive and negative Gs he pulled. In a helicopter. My little Robinson R22, which I owned at the time, couldn’t fly like that. But then again, it didn’t cost $500/hour to fly, either.

Anyway, we went out to dinner and had a nice meal. Jim and Judith had just gotten back from a trade show in Reno, NV, where they’d sold a lot of StartPacs to agricultural operators — companies that do crop dusting, etc. They had lots of stories to tell about the aircraft they’d seen and the stories they’d heard. Judith had caught a cold from Jim and was quieter than usual, looking more tired than I did. (I’d spent the day with Mike and some other friends cleaning up my rental house.)

I’d driven my Honda S2000 to the restaurant and parked out front with the top down. It had been an extremely warm day, with temperatures reaching the 80s in the late afternoon, so it had been nice to get out in the convertible. I rarely drive the car; I’ve had it since August 2003 and it has just over 7000 miles on it now. The car is an eye-catcher in Wickenburg, which probably has more pickup trucks per capita (among year-round residents, of course) than any other town in Arizona. At least that’s how it seems. When I go out with the car, I like to park it in an obvious place, top down, to draw attention to the business I’m visiting. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, this is a cool place. Come on in and check it out.”

[A side story here. Earlier this year, members of the helicopter owners group I belong to descended (literally) on the Wayside Inn, just southeast of Alamo Lake. Five helicopters and a Citabria airplane landed at the restaurant and went in for lunch. (The Citabria landed on the dirt road that runs past the place.) The Wayside Inn is in the middle of nowhere (not even close to the edge) and doesn’t get much business. (Location, location, location.) But with five helicopters and an airplane outside, it seemed that everyone who drove by stopped and came in to eat. Every single table was full. Frankly, I think they should feed us for free when we come in, just to drum up business.]

I left the top down on the car for the drive home. It was only 7 PM, but it was dark and very cool. The desert is like that in the winter. Imagine that the sun is a big heat lamp shining down on the desert. The angle of the sun in the winter is low, so it never really gets very hot. But when the sun goes down and that heat lamp is gone, the air cools very quickly. It’s not unusual to lose 20°F in an hour. But I had the windows rolled up and the heater on in the car, so we were quite cosy.

The moonless sky was full of stars. It was a beautiful night, despite the cold, and although I was tired, I didn’t feel like going home. I felt like going for a drive.

I thought back to the days I lived in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan. Sometimes, on the spur of the moment, we’d drive into the city for a few hours, riding down the streets, dodging the yellow taxis, listening to the sound of the car horns bounce off the tall buildings on the side of the road. We’d drive down Broadway through Times Square, past Herald Square and Washington Square. We’d see the punkers and cross-dressers and plain old college kids in Greenwich Village and sometimes, if we got a parking spot, would hop out and take a walk around. Other times, we’d head down to Chinatown or Little Italy for Chinese food or some Italian pastries at Ferrarra’s. (I remember a few years ago taking a $14 round trip cab ride from midtown to Little Italy, just to pick up a box of pastries — they’re that good.) We’d drive down past the Municipal Building, where I worked for several years, and City Hall. Then we’d drive up the east side on the FDR drive, past the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges. The lights of the city’s skyscrapers would be to our left as we headed north while the darkness of the East River was to our right. Past the Queensboro Bridge (immortalized by it’s other name in the Simon and Garfunkel song) and the tramway to Roosevelt Island. Onto the Harlem River Drive, past Yankee Stadium, and up the ramp to the Cross Bronx Expressway. Then a short drive over the George Washington Bridge and into the darkness of the Palisades Parkway to the north. A while later, we’d be home again, full of memories, Chinese food, or pastries — more likely a combination of these. Although we lived on a quiet, tree-lined street in a town so small that few people knew of its existence — Harrington Park — we were only 26 miles from midtown Manhattan. Two hours was often enough time to have a brief evening out in the big city.

Last night, in Wickenburg, reminded me of an early or late summer night in New Jersey. The weather was about the same. But that’s where the similarities end.

Wickenburg, you see, is an island surrounded by desert. When you drive away from Wickenburg at night, you drive into darkness. Eventually, that darkness is replaced with another town or more. Go southeast and you’ll pass through Morristown, Circle City, and Wittman, none of which are very impressive day or night before you finally get to Surprise, which is growing rapidly, spreading northward at an alarming rate. That’s where you’ll find the bright lights of the strip malls and big box stores and parking lots. Go west and you’ll eventually pass through Aquila, Wenden, Salome, Hope, and Brenda before finally hitting I-10. These tiny communities make Wickenburg seem like a thriving metropolis. Go north and you’ll pass through Congress, Yarnell, and Peeples Valley on your way to distance Prescott, which is a thriving metropolis.

And Phoenix, to the southeast, is not only distant, but it’s a poor substitute for New York.

So I guess it’s safe to say that Wickenburg just isn’t a good starting point to take an evening drive. It’s an island that is surrounded by distance rather than water.

All this passed through my mind in the distance between Double D and Safeway on West Wickenburg Way. So we just went home.

If anyone knows of a place to get good Italian pastries — and I mean real Italian pastries — in the Phoenix area, please let me know. It might be worth a drive just to check it out.

What do you think?