TEMPE, Ariz. — Three hours before kickoff, there’s not a fan inside Sun Devil Stadium. It’s even a struggle to find tailgaters in the surrounding parking lots.
But just behind the cement-block press box, hundreds of Missouri and Iowa fans are on a pregame hike up the town’s most notable landmark — the Tempe Butte, or as people around here call it, “A” Mountain.
The peak of “A” Mountain doesn’t provide any view of the field below, but Missouri fans seem to appreciate what it does offer compared to the hill they’re used to inside Memorial Stadium.
“It’s a lot more rock than the Rock M,” one climber said.
From the peak, which is nearly 350 feet above ground level, there’s a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain ranges and a bright blue sky without a cloud.
Both teams’ attire blends perfectly into the warm desert sunset, with gold hats, shorts and T-shirts speckling the butte.
It’s a mile hike that begins on a winding gravel path to the pinnacle. That’s just the warm-up. Quickly the curves disappear, and the trail tilts vertically. Both groups of black-and-gold groupies slow their pace as their shins and calves begin to feel the burn.
Along the way there are several signs describing the varied wildlife native to the area. The most talked-about inhabitants are the snakes.
About three-quarters of the way up, the stairs start. The thick wood steps seem as if they were built for people 6-feet-4-inches or taller. It takes every bit of extension to reach up to the next level.
As the pace slows even more and the breaks become more often, several Midwesterners turn their heads in unison as a man jogs effortlessly past them.
“Now they’re just trying to make us feel bad,” one mutters.
Finally, about 15 minutes after the trip began, it’s impossible to go up any higher. A group of older men in black polos, pleated pants and dress shoes wipe their brows while stretching.
A few boulders below, a young brother and sister stare out at the vast horizon with their eyes stretched wide.
“It’s soooo cool,” the boy says.
The little adventurers aren’t quite satisfied though. About 20 feet down, they spot some hikers who ventured beyond the handrail and off the track.
Walking past the rail means a better view of the stadium. This part, however, requires some actual climbing. The two are using their hands, knees, shins and whatever else it takes to capture the most perfect picture.
After about a minute, they hit a final obstacle that they’re not willing to pass. A tall, barbed-wire fence stops most people, but a few have spotted a small hole cut at the base of the fence.
Just past the barrier is the best possible view of the field. From there, it’s possible to see Missouri’s endzone, but no one is planning to stick around for the game.
“They sure figured out how to block your view with that press box in the way,” a disgruntled man says. “They made sure no one got a free ticket.”
Right when the sun dips below the mountains to the west, most fans take their final photos and start the trip back down.
No brats or beer. But the perfect tailgate.