Best Freeway 2021 | Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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Freeway drivers of metro Phoenix, we know your struggle. Traffic congestion, poor road conditions, and idiot drivers are vexations that frequently make you want to take the nearest exit and stick with surface streets. Not so with the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway. The 22-mile-long portion of the Valley beltway from 59th Avenue on the west side all the way to Ahwatukee, which opened in late 2019, is flat-out fun to drive. There are zero bumps or blemishes in the young asphalt, so you just glide along. It rolls through a part of the Valley unspoiled by development, allowing unobstructed epic views of craggy mountains on either side or a chance to partake in the sweet smell of fresh-cut alfalfa coming from the farms of Laveen. Another benefit: Fewer people living nearby means there's less traffic to deal with during your trip. Feel free to open it up a little, cue up a rock anthem, roll down your windows, and enjoy the ride.

Quaint, quirky, and kitschy roadside attractions can be found in various corners of the Valley, but only the best ones are unique enough to seek out. The 25-foot-tall, 1,200-pound fiberglass Hobo Joe statue in downtown Buckeye qualifies, as it's one of the largest local roadside oddities and has an interesting and mysterious backstory. Old-school Arizonans will recognize the jaunty vagabond as being identical to the namesake mascot of the defunct Hobo Joe's Coffee Shop chain, which ties into the statue's origins. Built in the 1980s by now-deceased fiberglass pool manufacturer Marvin Ransdell, it may have been created for one of the restaurants, depending on the source. (Ransdell's relatives say that's the case and he was never paid for his work, but the widow of Hobo Joe's late co-founder Herb Applegate disputes the claims.) The statue was given to the late Ramon Gillum, a local meatpacker and friend of Ransdell's, and stood outside of his Buckeye slaughterhouse for decades before being removed in 2016 to be restored and repainted. It's now mounted in the parking lot behind a liquor store, where it's popular with tourists and visitors. Way to go, Joe.

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