Dropping into New Mexico briefly, we returned to Arizona and toured the old downtown of Clifton before heading to nearby Morenci. One sight that will always remain with us was the gargantuan open-pit Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci (Home of the World's Largest Leaching Facility, a sign boasted), which we passed as we began heading up US-191 and the Coronado Trail. Said to be one of the best driving roads in the world, its more than 435 corners awaited us. But nothing prepared us for the shock of the gaping hole that had been excavated, or the colorful sight of the toxic tailings of rock and soil from which copper had already been extracted by the chemical-pressure process known as leaching, piled high alongside the pit, in mosaic mountains of southwestern pastels.
Dump trucks and dozers the size of ocean liners with tires two stories high dwarfed men and their cars; no one photo could capture the depth or breadth of the mine, which ran for miles. And everywhere there was fine, choking dust that, mixed with gasoline fumes rising from the porous fuel systems of the old cars in the hot sun, caused eyes and throats to sting. Earlier, outside the Morenci Club, where we'd stopped for lunch, an unsteady middle-aged miner and his toothless, overweight girlfriend (scary? you betcha) engaged us in conversation in a parking lot filled with exotica. The couple was drunk by noon on the miner's day off, and the nihilistic bent of their line of banter as they described events in the mine left us to reflect on what a hard life really might look like.
Although a bad coil wire caused us to temporarily lose our spark on the first day out, the Vette, following Comer's lightning-fast diagnosis and repair, otherwise ran like a train. It Hoovered fuel like a train, too, with a single 14-mpg tank marking our apex of efficiency, making fill-ups a more-than-once-daily occurrence. Although the Vette proved less hairy than big-block Cobras I've driven, don't for a moment think that driving one is anything less than what they used to call man's work. Ignoring the issue of temporary hearing loss, I pinched my fingers releasing the industrial-strength shifter's reverse lockout three times. And the manual steering of this champion understeerer was heavy and low-geared, with so much cranking required that by the end of day two -- as the steering inputs became more frenetic -- my hands had blistered, while the upper-body workout I received would leave me primed to try out for the Lithuanian Olympic shot-put team. Ingrams, futilely holding onto a grab handle as we navigated hundreds of sheer cliff corners at ever-faster speeds, built great strength in his right forearm.
That was because, with experience, I had begun to heed the truism that if one wants to change direction in a big-block Vette, he needs to use the power to steer. And, on this afternoon of extreme mountain twisties, the corners never stopped coming, which entertained me but which to my friend started seeming cruel and unusual. "I keep thinking we're coming down, but then we go up again," Ingrams moaned. "Like a bad acid trip," I barked over the clamor.
Which suddenly had me flashing back to a blue 427 roadster I'd admired as a teenager. It belonged to the guy who flipped pies at the local pizzeria. An off-the-boat Italian, he always reminded us of an extra-stoned-looking version of Chico Marx. Exiting a parking spot in front of Benny's Pizzeria one day, he got on his Vette so hard the next thing we knew he'd done a screeching, accidental 180. Startled and desperately attempting to maintain his cool in a cloud of settling tire smoke, he pottered off in the opposite direction, as if that was what he'd intended to do all along. The memory of his shame haunted me as I tried to keep up with the hard-charging Comer and a well-driven Ferrari while watching Ingrams nervously eye the sheer cliffs we might slither over at any moment.
Happily, sobriety, modern tires, and greater sensitivity than that displayed by the Pizza Man helped us keep it on the black stuff. Not that we weren't grateful when the winding road finally straightened itself out. And then this amazing road turned into God's Own Highway, with cool air, gentle bends, and lovely scenery encouraging us to turn up the wick. Passed by a state trooper on a sport touring bike while going 100 mph, we watched in amazement as he signaled other cars following us to pass. It was safe, he indicated. How beautiful is this? I thought.
I loved this cop and I loved this Corvette, but I'd decided by then that, if it were my money and I could have only one mid-year Corvette, I'd prefer a small-block. While it wouldn't be right to say that the 427's extra 100 pounds of bigger engine don't do it any favors, they are outweighed by the negatives of having so much weight up front, making driving more of an aerobic exercise than I'd like. I feel the same way about Shelby Cobras. Give me a 289 over a 427 every time, especially if it's the honey of a right-size Cobra (and one-time Shelby PR car) owned by New Yorker Ron Krolick. After stopping at La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona, for lunch on day three, we drove this one out of town and it felt just right.
Burbling into Sedona late one afternoon, we caught up with the poles of Arizona's bifurcated socioeconomic structure. Not far from people living in corrugated metal shacks, we were almost blinded by the reflection of the sun off the platinum blonde hair belonging to a lady of means as she left her gated community in an open Maserati GranSport. The juxtaposition was as weird as the beauty of the Arizona desert is when compared to the strip-mall anonymity that characterizes its big cities. What a land of contrasts.
By now it had dawned on us that despite our best efforts -- baseball caps, sunglasses, and thrice daily applications of sunscreen -- pasty me and fair-skinned Ingrams had been burnt to a crackly crisp. It hurt to smile or chew, and we had begun looking like creatures from the purple lagoon. When I returned home two days later, my cracked and hardened face made me look about 130 years old. Within a few days, layers of skin would peel off completely and I was once again a new man.
But that was mostly because I had gone and heard the Sound of Music, all 427 cubic inches of it.
Leave it to the guys
The Copperstate 1000 kicked off twenty-one years ago, the brainchild of Phoenix's Men's Arts Council (www.mensartscouncil.com/cs/), as an unusual way to raise money for the Phoenix Art Museum. A happy association with the Arizona Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol Division (the staties) sees the event raising funds for both the Museum and the officers' benevolent 10-90 Copperstate Foundation; attending the event is the highlight of the year for many of the troopers. The 2011 chair, Keith McLaine, introduced us to several council members, sweethearts all, on this year's run, and I asked them over cocktails one night about the unusual situation where a museum has a men's support group running one of the most awesome car events I'd ever attended.
"Is this some kind of gay thing?"
"Yes," "No, it's a great way to get away from our wives," and "Who wants to know?" were the three main strains of reply. Quite.