The Fast and the Curious

Sam Lowe's guidebook speeds through Arizona's mildly unique roadsides

Memorial Day has come and gone, which means it's time again for the summer travel season. And what better way to hit the highway than with a guidebook devoted to humorous, quirky, one-of-a-kind attractions?

Well, Sam Lowe's Arizona Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff is a decent enough effort. Lowe, whom many Arizonans will recognize as a veteran newspaper columnist, is a sure-footed escort through the decaying world of "travel-tainment," and the last remnants of a time when just getting to a location was half the fun. Now, as 21st-century Americans thoroughly immersed in our drive-thru, e-mail-swamped, cell phone-strapped lives, we've lost that capacity--as well as most of the old and fascinatingly bejeweled Route 66. Today, multi-lane interstates dominate, offering gas pumps and homogenized fast-food at the bottom of every exit ramp. Thankfully, Lowe is here to lead us down the roads less traveled.

Too bad, then, that very few of these oddities merit inclusion in Arizona Curiosities. The problem, of course, is the Grand Canyon State, a place where natural beauty beckons to us from every precipice and horizon. To seek out idiosyncratic people, places and things in Arizona is the equivalent of scouring a strip joint for an elegant conversationalist. For instance, why would you pull the car over to pet a burro or cook an egg on the skillet-hot sidewalks of Oatman (home of the annual Oatman Sidewalk Egg Fry) when you can make good time getting to the beautiful mountainside town of Jerome, where outdoor cafes, nifty shopping and a gorgeous desert view beckon?

The "Northwest" chapter of Curiosities is particularly grueling, and it happens to be the one I road-tested last month. Things started strong, with Lowe's spot-on description of artist Roy Purcell's cavern mural in the tiny town of Chloride. The rocky trail to the canyon was treacherous, and Lowe's portrayal of it as "a path left by a giant serpent suffering from the hiccups" was both apt and funny. And the murals were indeed quirky.

Lowe's description of the Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs, on the other hand, was disappointing. He emphasized the daily fire-truck rides at a strip mall (more than mile away from the primary attraction) at the expense of the caverns themselves. The caverns are chock-full of quirkiness, from the fact that it's still deemed a viable fallout shelter by the U.S. government, to the presence of a tour guide like Flo, who takes an unusual amount of pleasure in extinguishing the lights in the caverns and announcing something to the effect of "good luck."

And I hate to nitpick, but "Gertie" is not "a replication of a mummified sloth." Rather, there's a mummified bobcat for tourists to pay their respects to, and Gertie is instead a life-size model of a sloth based on bones that were discovered in the caverns. Not a tremendously significant mix-up, but it gives short shrift to seeing a giant sloth 200 feet underground, its century-old clawmarks still visible on the cavern walls. Another paragraph or two on this attraction's unique charms would have helped.

Peach Springs is one of just a few highlights, and the deeper you get into Northwest Arizona, the less useful Lowe's book becomes. Indeed, taking time to marvel at the only McDonald's in the world to boast teal (rather than golden) arches seems woefully out of place and even a little impudent when confronted by the region's picturesque beauty, particularly places like Slide Rock State Park (a historic apple farm nestled amid a gorgeous creek). Not that Lowe pretends his book is anything other than what it is--a clever jaunt through some kooky sights.

Perhaps it's just that Northwest Arizona is deprived when it comes to roadside oddities. After reading through the other four chapters ("Northwest," "Southeast," "Southwest" and "Valley of the Sun") in Curiosities, I long for an opportunity to pet a South African Black Ostrich in Picacho Peak. Or bask in the outdoor shower in Fountain Hills that's constructed to look like a dinosaur. Or sit in the shadow of a 75-foot Celtic cross in Hereford.

And maybe that's the true measure of success for a guidebook--whether it's "mainstream" or "offbeat"--in which case, Lowe succeeds where others have failed.

Maybe I'll see you on the road, then. Just beware the teal arches!