My first taste of a “real desert” occurred on Day Four (Aug. 28, 1975), as my family left a chilly San Diego at 6:00 A.M., bound for Tucson, Arizona. The 425-mile drive took us through the following:
• El Centro, California: As the only American city to lie entirely below sea level (-39 feet), El Centro sits in the far southeastern corner of California. My only memory driving through El Centro was our brief stop to eat at a Jack in the Box and stealing an aluminum cigarette ashtray from the restaurant, even though 11-year-olds aren’t supposed to smoke.
• Yuma, Arizona: On the way to Phoenix and Yuma, I wrote “then came rocks followed by lots of sand in the desert. Then the land got real rocky again. They’re lots of ‘Rest Areas’ on the way.”
For some unknown reason, my parents decided to stop and visit the Territorial State Prison in Yuma. Maybe they just needed to rest their legs from the long drive. No longer in use, the prison still stank. “It was hot and the cells really smelled awful! But I found a dime!”
• Tucson, Arizona: Somewhere on the road to Tucson, we stopped at a Dairy Queen and got chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cones. The thermometer read 108 degrees. We also stopped at an A&W for rootbeers. These fast-food icons are so 1970’s. Good luck if you can still find the few left remaining.
By nightfall, we had checked into a Ramada Inn with “an air-conditioned room on the bottom floor facing the pool. We ate (dinner) at Ye Olde Lantern restaurant. In the nighttime, it’s warm outside.”
Ye Olde Lantern closed in 2006. The giant glowing yellow lantern atop the sign was an iconic landmark in Tucson. Now that it’s lights out for Ye Olde Lantern, I will have to find another place to get my “steak and seafood” next time I’m in Tucson.
Interactive Google Map of the places mentioned above: