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There's a moment when you reach the southwest extremity of this park's Pedersen loop trail that you stare into madness. The glimpse into the vast vacuum of central/western Arizona is the sort of horizon-less view you see in the movies, where some poor sap's got himself lost in the trackless desert, and now he's shuffling along like a zombie in the middle of nowhere. The outlook from this particular point on the Pedersen is a lot like that: Nowheresville.
Don't go that way.
Instead, trek east a couple of miles and keep going straight, even after the Pedersen bends north. We guarantee you'll have one of the times of your life — if you live. Heh heh.
The route you'll find yourself on travels straight up the gut of the least-accessible mountain range in the greater Phoenix area: the Estrella, or Star, Mountains. Whatever route you choose, it'll be random; there are no sanctioned trails to guide you to the 3,650-foot pinnacle of the range, so it's all about route-finding your way through the lush, virgin terrain. How delightful, you say! Well, that depends on whether you like being slapped across the face or bonked on the head. The going's way steep and way exposed. The vegetation's so thick you can't see your legs, and the vicious flora keeps depositing small, pointy pieces of itself in you. It's prime rattler and Gila monster country, and, as noted, you can't see your legs.
So why torture yourself this way? Here's why: A hike into the Estrellas is a trip into the past. This is what Phoenix — and the upper Sonoran Desert — looked like before we brought the jackhammer down. You'll see flora and fauna that no longer exist elsewhere, you'll drink in panoramic views that few others have seen, and you'll set your feet down in places that no one else has. Ever.
Just don't kill yourself, 'kay?
According to Kevin Smith's 1999 religious farce Dogma, the almighty God regularly descends from the heavens (taking on the corporeal form of Harold and Maude actor Bud Cort, of all people) to indulge in one of his few vices: Skee ball. No, seriously. And though we haven't been a regular visitor to church in decades, we can at least share in the heavenly father's (alleged) passion as we roll wooden balls up the ramps of the skee-ball machines and rack up high scores at GameWorks. The reason we're milking the tickets out of the four skee-ball machines here versus any of the other arcades in town is because of the primo redemption prizes available, including a portable DVD player (30,000 points), an Xbox 360 arcade pack (49,000 points), or a mini motorcycle (55,000 points). It's not the kind of gear you can get at the neighborhood Peter Piper Pizza, we assure you. Sure, it's probably gonna take us until the second coming to score enough tickets to land these big-ticket items (and it may be cheaper to just buy the stuff from the store), but, hey, we're scoring points with God, too.
Kids seem so appealing on paper. Someone to carry on the genetic line, to worship you like a god (until they're 5), to support you in your dotage. In practice, at about noon on any given Saturday afternoon, with the weekend yawning eternally in the distance, the attraction starts to wane. This is why a lot of very smart people got together and created the parent-saving marvel called the diversion. This comes in many forms, from the newly installed splash zone at the neighborhood pocket park (your tax dollars at work) to the off-the-grid theme birthday party (reference the S.S. Titanic bash in the flick Keeping Up with the Steins).
Our favorite way to pass the hours is a trip to Enchanted Island, the Encanto Park landmark that's been diverting desperate parents for years. Besides being situated in the great outdoors and having nothing whatever to do with video games, the Island boasts nine kid-pleasing attractions, including the restored, 1940s-vintage Encanto Carousel, the C.P. Huntington mini-train, the Dragon Wagon rollercoaster, the Rock 'n' Roll teacups, bumper boats, a parachute drop, and the Red Baron airplane ride.
The gem at this place has got to be the vintage carousel. Constructed by the Allan Herschell Company in 1948 and dubbed "Little Beauty," this majestic merry-go-round was saved from the scrapheap after the demolition of the original Kiddieland theme park in the late '80s, thanks to the efforts of a group of locals who pooled their money and their efforts to purchase the carousel and restore it to its original magnificent majesty. Good job, people. Go for a spin on us.
Got an itchy trigger finger, ace? The high-caliber staff at Shooter's World knows just how to scratch it. If you're not packing your own piece, this west-side pistol palace can let you exercise your Second Amendment rights with firearm rentals available for $10 for the first handgun, $6 for each rental after that (shooters must be 18 and over to rent rifles and shotguns; 21 and over to rent handguns). Once you're locked and loaded, take aim in any of the facility's 24 indoor lanes, which are available for $14 per hour, per person, and are perfect for you to play Dirty Harry with the three kinds of targets available. If you don't like the standard bull's eye or silhouette targets, try taking aim at a photo target of your choosing, including that rat bastard Osama bin Laden, a menacing mugger, and even a little old lady wielding a shotgun. Who knew they had armories in Sun City?
Mountain biking at night seems crazier, in theory, than it actually is. Just as in the daytime, it requires zooming up and hurtling down steep dirt tracks, all the while flanked by cholla cactus and pointy boulders. It sure isn't any safer at night, but it's not as risky as you might think if you have a burly lighting system. A while back, we threw down for an expensive Niterider 15-watt lamp with a rechargeable battery, but we got our money's worth out of the gadget.
Our night fun hunting ground is Desert Classic trail, a nine-mile-long dirt roller coaster that hugs the southern foothills of South Mountain. Full disclosure: At night, we mostly ride the trail from the parking lot at the Pima Canyon entrance to the big, white water tanks about three miles in. Though there are a few tricky dips into dry arroyos on this section, the trail up to the tanks is well worn, without many rocky, technical parts. Desert Classic at night isn't the crowded highway it is in the day — on warm summer evenings we're often the only ones out there. Not that we're alone: Sometimes the coyotes come out to play. Once, one of the mangy mutts trotted to less than five feet away as we stood next to the trail, adjusting the iPod. As the light passes over a dark stretch of single-track, we'll also spot the occasional mouse, rabbit, or rattlesnake. Yes, rattlesnakes — that's on top of all the other objective dangers, such as hitting a rock you didn't see because it was, well, too damned dark. But there's one other thing we like about Desert Classic for night riding: If something bad happens, civilization is just a hop, limp, or crawl away.
It's confession time: We indulged in a rather nasty bout of road rage the other day, and it wasn't pretty. Our dirty driving deed went down after some schnook sideswiped us rather abruptly, causing our blood to boil. Instead of declaring, "Live and let live," as any sane person would've done, it was decided that a little roadway revenge was in order. We proceeded to floor it, T-boning them straight into tomorrow, and setting off a six-car pileup. Uma Thurman in full-on Kill Bill mode couldn't have plotted better payback. And the only reason that we're not cooling our heels in a jail cell right now is because this vehicular vengeance involved the bumper cars of the Ram Rods ride at Castles -n- Coasters instead of automobiles. You, too, can unleash your own personal demolition derby, driving like a maniac behind the wheel of the electric-powered coupes and fitting in as much smashing and crashing action as possible during the 10-minute experience. Single rides are $5.50 each on weekdays before 4 p.m. (prices increase in the evening and weekends, as well as for unlimited ride passes; call for rates), leaving you plenty of green to cover the chiropractor bills for your whiplash.