East Toward Tucson

A long stretch of low scrub desert, dotted by ironwood trees and lava fields, rolls from Yuma east to Tucson. The view from Interstate 8 offers broad views of several craggy mountain ranges to the south that the Air Force uses for bombing practice, part of the vast Barry M. Goldwater Range; to the north runs the Gila River, at least when there’s water in it. At exit 67, the Dateland Date Gardens (tel. 928/454-2772) is a place knowledgeable desert rats prize for its thick and creamy date shakes, a lifesaver on a hot afternoon.

The next exit to watch for is exit 102 (Painted Rock Dam Rd.), which will lead you north to an impressive collection of centuries-old petroglyphs and pictographs at the Bureau of Land Management’s Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. (Head north 11 miles on Painted Rock Dam Rd., turn left onto dirt Rocky Point Rd., and continue another 1/2 mile to the parking area.) There is a $2 day-use fee here. For more information, contact the BLM Lower Sonoran Field Office, Rocky Point Rd., Gila Bend (https://www.blm.gov/visit/painted-rock-petroglyph-site; [tel] 623/580-5500).

The Center of the World—West of Yuma, I-8 heads out across the California desert toward San Diego, soon passing through barren, windswept sand dunes that Hollywood has long used to represent the Sahara. This region may seem like it’s a long way from anywhere, but if you pull off the freeway 9 miles west of Yuma at exit 164 (Sidewinder Rd.), you’ll find yourself in the “town” of Felicity (tel. 760/572-0100), which, according to town founder Jacques-Andres Istel, is the Official Center of the World. At this unusual attraction, based on Istel’s children’s book, Coe The Good Dragon at the Center of the World, you can stand inside a pyramid at the “exact” center of the world. As a bonus, you can admire Istel’s monument to the history of French aviation and marvel at his granite remembrance walls. It’s open for tours from Thanksgiving to Easter. I’ve long argued that the surrealism quotient is much higher in the desert states than elsewhere in America, and Istel’s surreal concoction adds strength to my view. It’s a lot of fun besides, and it’s nowhere near the strangest thing you’re likely to see out this way.


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