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HIGHWAY 89 FROM BORDER TO BORDER IS AMERICA'S MOST SCENIC ROUTE

It could be America's most scenic highway. I think so, anyway, and I've covered a lot of beautiful miles in this country. It's not a famous route, as far as I can tell. No one has written songs about it, or turned it into a TV series. I had difficulty even in finding a guidebook in which it was featured - and I looked. The road is mostly a two-laner, and it roams for maybe 1,500 miles through the heart of the Rocky Mountain West.

Officially, it is U.S. 89, a thin red line that sort of wiggles its way up the map from Nogales, Ariz., on the Mexican border to Glacier National Park in Montana on the Canadian border. You have to look hard to trace the route the whole distance because it takes an occasional odd sidestep. En route, it crosses five mountain states, links six of the nation's most popular national parks, passes through at least two Indian reservations and rarely wanders very far from a national forest.The motorist who makes the journey, as I did this summer, is rewarded with an amazing Western sampler of sun-baked deserts, high mountain passes, remote lakes, tumbling rivers and streams, ghost towns, hidden canyons, Indian ruins, an old Spanish mission, hot-springs resorts, authentic cowboy bars, red-rock cliffs, sprawling cattle ranches, generally sunny skies, three dozen cafes named "Wagon Wheel" and enough wildlife to stock a good zoo.

Mostly it is a lightly trafficked road, although the going clogs a bit in Tucson, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, the only big cities along the way. The idea of driving the highway the entire length came to me gradually, or perhaps I would have completed its impressive itinerary much earlier. I've vacationed several times in the West, and I began to realize that every time I went somewhere wonderful - the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Yellowstone - I got there on U.S. 89. When I finally took time to learn that the highway makes an uninterrupted run from border to border, I was hooked. The fact that I drove 89 in '89 was coincidental, but I saw it as a good omen.

There is a peculiar satisfaction in tracing a road from beginning to end, like pursuing the source of a long river from its mouth to a mountain spring.

One rule I set and stuck to was that I would stop and get out of the car anytime anything presented itself as a diversion.

The first marker was a tribute to Tom Mix, the old-time Hollywood cowboy, which I spotted on the way from Tucson to Phoenix. This stretch of U.S. 89 is known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway, a scenic desert ride through a wild cactus garden. Mix apparently died here in an automobile accident in 1940, and he is remembered with an eight-foot-high stone pillar topped with a sculpture of a riderless horse. I had barely begun my trip, and I was deep in the heart of the romantic Old West.

Just east of the Grand Canyon, the highway cuts for 60 miles through the Navajo Indian Reservation, more Arizona desert country. The whole way is lined with sun-weathered stands where Indian families sell handmade jewelry of turquoise and silver, carved Hopi kachina dolls, decorative baskets, woven Navajo rugs and other crafts.

Yielding to my rule, I pulled in to Chief Yellowhorse's outdoor emporium, drawn by the bright flapping pennants that gave color to the seared landscape.

The little town of Jacob Lake is hardly more than a mountain crossroads in the middle of Arizona's Kaibab National Forest, but it provided unexpected diversion for much of an afternoon. I had stopped only for lunch, but right away I met Horace Lee Long, a 39-year-old itinerant artist from Texas. Long is what is known as a "character," which I don't mean as a criticism. He's an independent soul who drives the strangest vehicle I have ever seen - a painter's studio on wheels.

Since I had parked in the adjoining space, I popped my head into the bubble to say hello, noting as we shook hands the fresh little pine tree growing from beside the vehicle's well-worn gas pedal. A chatty kind of guy, Long told me that his mobile studio barely had wheezed its way into Jacob Lake when something in the engine expired. He was selling his scenic pencil sketches for $10 each to the curious, such as me, to pay for the repairs. Had I been suckered, a city rube taken in by a mountain sharpie? Nah. That close-up look at the motorized garden was worth the price.

On the edge of the parking lot stands a Kaibab forest ranger station, where a sign advertised free two-hour van tours of the forest back roads. The purpose is to introduce traveling Americans to the work of the U.S. Forest Service and maybe get across the message that not all logging on federal property is bad news. I was willing to listen to the pitch for the chance to explore a ponderosa pine forest with an expert.

In Utah, the highway drops sharply from beautiful Logan Canyon north of Salt Lake to Bear Lake, a 20-mile-long deep-blue reservoir. This is raspberry country, and the little tourist village of Garden City reaps a bonanza selling fresh raspberry milkshakes and homemade jellies and jams to passing motorists. For a place in the middle of nowhere, the summer lines in front of the two shake shops - LaBeau's and Quick 'n' Tasty - stay surprisingly long. You can't miss the shops; their signs are huge and garish. The shakes, however, are spoon thick, fruit-filled and delicious.

Near the end of its long passage, Highway 89 enters the 1.5-million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In the dusty town of Browning, Mont., tribe members have re-created a Blackfeet Indian tepee encampment of a century ago, which is open during the summer.

Authentic dances in colorful feathered regalia are part of the program, and inside each tepee craftsworkers demonstrate such traditional skills as making bows and arrows; the long, decorated Indian pipes; and naturally dyed beads from porcupine quills. Highway 89 begins in the south in a parched desert, where the beauty is in the awesome emptiness of the land, broken only by distant mountains and an occasional stately old cactus that seems the only sign of life in sight. It ends in the north on the very edge of a lush mountain wilderness of glacial lakes and soaring peaks. I suspect the south-to-north route is the best direction to make the trip because the landscape grows more abundant rather than emptier each day of the drive.

In Arizona, the highway divides at two separate points to become U.S. 89 and Alternate 89. In both cases, I took the alternate routes because they are the most scenic. My goal was to drive all of Highway 89, but I wasn't going to quibble on fine points. I did cheat a couple of times, however. An old truck road, it plunges right into the heart of Phoenix and Salt Lake. To avoid the congestion, I switched briefly to expressways.

North of Prescott, a picturesque resort town in Arizona's central highlands, Alternate 89 very quickly ascends into Prescott National Forest and all but loses itself in a tangle of high peaks and sheer drops. For about 20 miles, the going is tricky. You want to inhale the scenery but best you keep your eyes on the road. At the end of this stretch, the reward is Jerome, an old copper-mining town that clings perilously in terraced steps down the steep mountain slope. The setting is spectacular, and the once-almost-abandoned town is becoming a busy artists' colony.

Alternate 89 appears for the second time just south of Page, where it provides a shortcut to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. For much of the way, you get a really fine view of the Vermilion Cliffs, a high, flat-topped mesa with dramatic cliffs of pinks, purples and reds. First stop, though, is the Navajo Bridge, which spans the icy green Colorado River high above Marble Canyon.

From the bridge approach, you get as good a view of the rushing river far below as you will on either the North or South rims of the Grand Canyon. In southern Utah, Highway 89 slips conveniently between Zion National Park to the west and Bryce Canyon National Park on the east. The 24-mile cutoff to Zion is one of this country's most spectacular roadways. At first it climbs through unusual and colorful rock formations to the canyon's rim and then, like a roller coaster, it plunges suddenly in breathtaking zigzags to the floor of the canyon. Bryce is an Alice in Wonderland fantasy, an incredible garden of pink-rock formations that - depending on your imagination - appear as grotesque monsters or giant Muppets.

From Logan, at the northern end of the state, the highway makes its exit almost as spectacularly. Keep a watch for fresh fruit stands beside the road. I stopped for apricots right off the tree selling for 25 cents a dozen. The road then climbs for about 35 miles between the steep walls of Logan Canyon to almost 8,000 feet before the big drop to the raspberries of Bear Lake.

At this point, the highway nips off the southeast corner of Idaho and then crosses into the hay-growing valleys of western Wyoming. For much of the way into Jackson, a bright and noisy tourist town, the highway follows the canyon of the Snake River. About every two minutes or so, inflated rafts loaded with day-trippers from town bounced by in a frenzy of white water.

Jackson is the jumping-off place for Grand Teton National Park immediately to the north and, just beyond it, Yellowstone. Teton's fame is its ridge of peaks rising almost straight up from the valley. Snow-white glaciers drip from the summit, and a string of clear blue lakes lines its base. Yellowstone, of course, is unique. Nowhere else on earth is there so much spouting steam and bubbling mud. Old Faithful is the famous geyser, but it has competition popping off all around. When a pair goes off simultaneously, you think you must have tumbled into the Devil's caldron.

Probably the least exciting scenery on my route was the 130-mile leg from Great Falls in Montana northwest to Browning - but only in comparison to what had come before. Here the highway passes through the rolling grasslands of the northern prairie. Like the desert, there is appeal in the vast emptiness of the landscape.

Nevertheless, the road is straight and empty, and the miles disappear quickly. At Browning, anticipation builds and shortly the lofty peaks of Glacier National Park come into view. In their shadow, Highway 89 ends at the Canadian border. One danger of long-distance travel is that you hurry too fast to have any fun. This is why I limited myself to a half day behind the wheel. I wanted to experience the Rocky Mountain West as much as see it.

In Tucson, I toured the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a gleaming white Spanish mission built in 1783 and one of the prettiest of them all. It serves the Papago Indians - now known as Tohono O'Odham - who are basketmakers. A couple of shops outside the mission sell the baskets, which are woven from natural materials in traditional designs. They are only lightly decorated with natural dyes, but I was attracted by their sturdy simplicity.

In Scottsdale, I was directed to the Pinnacle Peak Cowboy Restaurant, a mammoth outdoor steakhouse seating, so I was told, 1,600 at a time. The seats, by the way, are picnic tables and benches; a cowboy band plays Western ditties on a small stage, and the steaks grill by the dozens on the barbecue pits. Somewhat sheepishly, I ordered the "cowgirl steak" at $13.95, because it was the only one described on the menu in adjectives less than gigantic.

South of Sedona, Ariz., a resort town in the midst of red-rock grandeur, I toured Montezuma Castle, a 20-room Indian cliff-dwelling dating back to the 12th century. North of Sedona, I splashed in the descending pools of Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon. I hiked along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and beside Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons, and I spotted a mother bear and cub on a trail at Glacier.

One afternoon I explored the sunny streets of downtown Salt Lake, curious to see the famed Mormon headquarters complex. In Montana, two good museums attracted me. One was the C.M. Russell Museum Complex in Great Falls, which displays the largest collection anywhere of the works and memorabilia of the sculptor and painter whose subject was the Old West. And the other was the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, which has a brilliantly colorful collection of Indian ceremonial garb. The beadwork on leggings, moccasins and vests is gorgeous.

Just north of Yellowstone, I soaked under the sky in a naturally fed hot springs at Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, Mont. The excellent dining room at the rambling old Victorian-era resort is a favorite with Hollywood actors such as Dennis Quaid who have bought get-away-from-it-all homes in the surrounding valley of the Yellowstone River.

This was my second trip to Chico, and I have become very fond of the place. It is weather worn, and the rooms are basic at best. Many don't have private bathrooms. But Chico looks like the Old West, sitting solitary and remote at the foot of a forested mountain, and it feels like the Old West. Cowboys from the neighboring ranches tie their horses to the hitching post in front of the saloon. If U.S. 89 is America's most scenic highway, as I contend that it is, then the Chico is the best waystop on the best highway. It is a good place to pause to absorb what you have seen thus far before moving on to even more fine scenery.

I thought I might be exhausted after the drive. Every night in a different hotel or inn, my suitcase never emptied, always in disorder. Many miles in so few days, and I had to keep moving to reach the end before time ran out. Curiously, though, it turned out to be one of the most refreshing trips I've taken in a long time. Maybe it was because the scenery was so constantly invigorating. How many highways can you say that about?