More than 200 curves, and 350,000 documented miles.
Few people have traveled the Catalina Highway as often as LeRoy Day, who drove the school bus from the small mountaintop community of Summerhaven to Tucson-area schools for 24 years.
He averaged about 20 kids a day before the Aspen Fire, which burned nearly 85,000 acres and consumed 340 buildings on Mount Lemmon in the summer of 2003.
People lost their cabins. Fewer students rode the bus. This year he had one student, a high school senior who graduated in May.
Day and his wife, Jeanne Mayer, wanted to live somewhere with a change in seasons. They also like knowing their mountain neighbors. Both volunteer with the local fire department.
The winding two-lane highway is a mini-getaway for many Tucsonans, but it’s a regular commute for others — some heading down in the morning, others heading up to work at the shops and businesses.
Lance Armstrong reportedly rented a cabin at the top of Mount Lemmon and rode up and down the highway while training years ago.
And last summer, The Economist’s 1843 magazine declared the Catalina Highway one of “The Seven Best Rides in the World” for cycling. Calling it “two hours of flow-state-bliss,” the article ranked the ride on the highway right up there with trails in France and Italy.
“It is not the country’s highest or toughest climb by a long shot,” cyclist Tom Vanderbilt wrote, “but what it offers, across several dozen miles and some 7,000 feet of elevation gain on the Catalina Highway, is a wonderfully curving, generously shouldered, steadily rising route from the hot desert floor into cool, thickly timbered ski country — with endless Cinemascope views and eerie rock formations the whole way.”
Now, with the advance of the Burro Fire, the highway is the line that firefighters are using in their fight to keep flames from advancing to the mountaintop village of Summerhaven.
The Pima County Office of Emergency Management notified the mountain’s 40-some residents to evacuate Monday.
“They’ve used that as a control line, a barrier that could check the spread of the fire,” said Lisa Keibler, a public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service assigned to the Burro Fire.
Fire crews started at the base of the mountain and worked all the way to the top of the 26-mile stretch of roadway to remove roadside debris and vegetation such as dried pine needles and low branches that could fuel the fire.
“Trying to keep it east of the Catalina Highway is what we’re trying to do,” Keibler said Friday afternoon. West of the Catalina Highway are the homes and cabins.
This is the third time that fire has forced Linda and John Mulay from their Summerhaven home. They keep a small place in Tucson, but spend most of the year on the mountain.
“The Bullock Fire (in 2002) came right up the road, it was really close. Then Aspen took it all,” she said.
The couple were better-prepared this time. They had already cleared their property so there would be less to burn. They also brought their family photos down the mountain. “It’s tough to have all this going on again,” Linda said.
What makes living at 8,000 feet so special?
“It’s such a small community, everybody knows everybody,” said John .
“It’s just a nice quiet place to be.”
And, he added, it’s only an hour’s drive from Tucson, and higher in elevation than Flagstaff, which takes more than four hours to reach. The White Mountains are about the same distance.
The couple travel to Tucson every couple of weeks during the summer.
“We enjoy it,” Linda said of the drive. “We’re always watching for the deer. It’s nice, and to go from the heat and the cool you can just feel it as you drive up.”
Work started on the road in 1933 and was completed in 1950.
It offers the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada.
Officially named the General Hitchcock Highway, the road honors U.S. Postmaster General Frank Harris Hitchcock, who brought together the funds and resources to build it.