Quick trip to Phoenix has ups, downs

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WALLA WALLA - A don't-spare-the-horses road trip to Phoenix recently to attend a family funeral won't go down as one of our more enjoyable getaways.

And the funeral had nothing to do with it. Joe Donaldson lived 86 mostly adventuresome years and was fondly remembered by a loving family.

But there were, as they say, extenuating circumstances.

We lit out early on a Friday morning with snowflakes swirling in every direction. The sky was so ominous that I cautioned Margaret - my wife and co-pilot - that we might not make it over Cabbage Hill.

But by the time we climbed Milton Hill and approached Athena, sun breaks began to appear. And even though we encountered some slush on Interstate 84 near the summit, we traversed the Blue Mountain pass without incident.

It was smooth sailing from there, in fact, all the way to Ely, Nev., which was our first-night goal and about the midway point in our two-day, 1,200-mile itinerary.

Now, if you've never been to Ely, well, you've not missed much. It's a low-end high-desert town of around 4,000 that is easily the largest population base on the 500-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 93 between Twin Falls, Idaho, and Las Vegas.

What does impress me about Ely is its elevation. Even though it is surrounded by much higher mountain peaks, it stands at 6,427 feet, more than 2,000 feet higher than the mountain pass we navigated between Pendleton and La Grande.

So I shouldn't have been surprised the following morning when we awoke to what appeared to be a full-scale blizzard. But on we went, hopeful that our southerly route would eventually work to our advantage.

And it did.

By the time we climbed a steep grade and made it the first 25 miles, we were out of the worst of it. And in another hour we had left the snow behind us and were well on our way to the land of cactus and palm trees.

But the storm system that was pounding the higher elevations with snow was dumping buckets of rain in the valleys as we skirted Vegas, soared over Hoover Dam on the new bypass and crossed the state line into Arizona land. And we encountered one cloud burst after another all the way to Phoenix.

Just north of Kingman, we came upon what appeared to be a gruesome head-on collision on our side of the freeway that surely was weather related as the downpours turned the blacktop into a ribbon of water that looked more like the Snake River than a highway.

We arrived in Phoenix just before sundown. And after some minor setbacks due to road-work detours, we checked in at what appeared to be a brand new property on McDowell Road just off of the 101 loop.

As it turned out, the place was overrun with young teens, all of them in town for a variety of athletic competitions. The lobby was often jammed with kids packing hockey sticks and skates, soccer balls and golf gear. We also saw evidence of baseball equipment and were told there were gymnasts as well.

Later on, we noted roadside posters directing gymnasts to the nearby University of Phoenix Stadium, which is home to the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, not to mention many of the top collegiate football bowl games.

It's not the most attractive stadium, I must admit. Metallic silver in color and circular in design, it looks like an overweight flying saucer that has crash landed in the middle of the desert.

But I'm sure the folks in Arizona appreciate the stadium's climate-controlled interior, especially during the fall when the NFL season is in full swing and the desert heat still rages outside.

Arizonans are also excited about their new spring training baseball facility, Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, which opens this season and will be home to the Colorado Rockies and the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rockies and the D'backs both previously trained in Tucson.

Salt River Fields is the third new Cactus League facility to be built in the Phoenix area in the past three years. Goodyear Stadium in Avondale and Camelback Ranch in Glendale were finished in 2009, boosting the city's total to 10 spring training stadiums.

The Dodgers and the White Sox share Camelback Ranch and the Indians and the Reds train at Goodyear Stadium. The Dodgers and the Indians switched from Florida's Grapefruit League to the Cactus League in 2009, and the Reds followed them last season.

The Cactus League is now home to 15 major league teams, with the other 15 clubs remaining in Florida.

The boys of summer were already in town. But the first Cactus League games weren't scheduled until after our departure, so we'll just have to wait another year to enjoy the warm sun and azure skies that are so much a part of spring training baseball.

Truth is, I didn't enjoy much of anything after that first day in Phoenix.

The funeral was scheduled for Monday, and after a late dinner Sunday night my stomach began to do back flips. It was about 11 when I bolted to the bathroom for the first time.

No need to share the details. Suffice to say that I did not attend the funeral, and two days after returning home I still felt the after effects from what I am sure was food poisoning.

Which made the drive home an uneasy challenge.

We hit the road early Tuesday under cloudless skies. And because driving conditions were ideal - not to mention reports of another winter storm system that was zeroing in on the Northwest - I decided to push it.

By 8 that night we were in Twin Falls, where it was as cold as an iceberg but clear of snow. And though I anticipated bad weather ahead, I never flipped on the windshield wipers until we were on the homestretch between Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla.

No matter, we were glad to be home.

Several of our kids also attended Joe's funeral, but they all flew. However, by my calculations, travel expenses for the two of us were about $550 while a single round trip plane ticket from Walla Walla to Phoenix was priced in the neighborhood of $800.

But, as one of the kids put it, "time is money."

To which, I thought, bad roads and food poisoning aside, "ain't retirement grand?"

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