Route 66: The Desert in Decay

After a spectacular top-down cruise through the red sandstone mountains of northern Arizona on October 10, I thought I might have shot my bolt. You see, the problem with spectacular top-down cruises is not merely that they end; there’s an almost addictive desire to do something even better the next day. And that’s simply not realistic—at least not in any sustainable way. So as I headed down Interstate 40 from Flagstaff to Winslow, where I would spend a 27th consecutive night in a motel room, I wondered whether I would encounter another day as thoroughly enjoyable.

It didn’t help that the last sixty miles of the day were flat and utterly boring, but a diversion presented itself at the halfway point. About 30 miles east of Flagstaff, I took a brief detour to check out a famous Arizona landmark: the impact crater caused by a piece of an asteroid that smashed into the desert some 50,000 years ago. The tourist attraction used to be free, but now a commercial enterprise charges $16 for the privilege of gazing at the gigantic crater. The visitor center was about to close for the afternoon, so I headed back to the interstate after viewing the crater’s outer rim from the parking lot.

Needing gas the next morning, I headed into Winslow in the gray light of dawn for a tour of the town. Highway signs indicated the historic portion of Route 66, and I hoped to also find some references to the stanza from the classic hit “Take It Easy”:

Well, I’m a-standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my lord
In a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me

(The Eagles, 1972)

The song is catchy and fun, but the ride into the center of town on October 11 was depressing. Winslow is a city in decay. Until a half-century ago, Route 66 was the main two-lane artery between Chicago and Los Angeles, but its days were numbered. President Dwight Eisenhower, having seen the tremendous mobilization capabilities of the autobahn in Germany during World War II, had initiated a construction plan for extensive superhighways that would crisscross the United States. In time, hundreds of small towns were bypassed by the Interstate Highway System, their once-flourishing business districts left to rot because commerce followed the new interstates. Winslow was no exception. Where I-40 loops to the north there are new hotels, gas stations, and fast-food franchises that manage to turn a profit; but the center of town appears forsaken, with weed-choked vacant lots, decrepit buildings, and grimy gas stations. The cars on the street look beat, as Jack Kerouac would say, as do most of the people driving them. I managed to find the street corner, commemorated on one side with a bronze statue and mural, and on the other by a store trying to capitalize on the tune’s fame.

East of Winslow, between Joseph City and Holbrook, I stopped at the Geronimo Trading Post to get souvenirs for my family back home. It was fun browsing through selections of Navajo pottery, turquois jewelry, and pieces of highly-polished petrified wood; but I had an agenda and was soon back on the road. Navigating through Holbrook, I got on US-180 for a few miles to the entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. This was a much-anticipated visit, for I had clear memories of visiting the site as a mere 8-year-old in the summer of 1967—the same year my Mustang rolled off the assembly line!

You can buy almost anything of regional interest at the trading post, including tepees, old chuck wagons, and huge pieces of petrified wood.

I would have to look through my father’s old Kodachrome slides for confirmation, but I’m certain there were significantly more petrified trees in the park 45 years ago. Apparently, during the past decades, much the wood has been removed by entrepreneurs (see my photo of the trading post), hence the strongly-worded warnings to visitors by the NPS not to pilfer even the tiniest bit of petrified wood within park boundaries. The few fallen trees that remain have been cut into forlorn-looking sections. Still, the petrified wood itself is not the real highlight; that distinction goes to the winding blacktop that connects the southern entrance of the park to the Painted Desert visitor’s center, more than twenty miles distant near Interstate 40. At first, cloudy skies muted many of the colors across this fascinating landscape, but by late morning the sun began to illuminate the outcroppings in all their glory.

Few fallen trees remain in the desolate landscape of the Petrified Forest National Park.

In the badlands just a few miles north of the Petrified Forest, portions of the Painted Desert yield an amazing contrast of colors.

By early afternoon I was back on I-40, heading east, though I soon took another detour to pass directly through Gallup, New Mexico, one of ten towns (besides Chicago and Los Angeles) named in the lyrics of the hip, timeless “Route 66.” About twice the size of Winslow, Gallup seems to have been more successful weathering the I-40 impact, although it’s obvious from cruising the main drag that many of the motels and restaurants are struggling. After spending the night in Moriarty, NM, I continued to follow Kerouac’s trail on Route 66 as far east as Tucumcari. There, according to a sketch in the author’s journal, his bus turned north and passed through Dalhart, TX on its way to the Midwest.

Thus, while making my last Route 66 detour into Tucumcari, I was compelled to dial my iPod to another great song about life on the road:

I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonapah,
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’

(“Willin’,” Little Feat, 1970)

Tucumcari’s main drag shows the same state of decline that the interstate had brought to Winslow, Gallup, and all the other bypassed towns. Some of the old motels and restaurants are literally falling apart, and most of the others are on virtual life support. I was also glad to see that several enterprising businesses have turned a few small motels and garages into quasi museums, but the real commerce is south of town along the interstate. It’s apparent—especially considering the current economic downturn—that the few struggling businesses along the famous route will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs.

The “Old School Garage” in Tucumcari displays several vehicles from the storied history of Route 66, including these cab-over trucks. Jack Kerouac’s hitchhiking adventures included several rides with truckers.

Motel or museum? One of the old businesses still in existence in Tucumcari, the Blue Swallow Motel, still has its original sign that advertises “100% Refrigerated Air.”

All that’s left, if you’ll excuse my homage to another great Eagles song, are some Sad Cafés.

Desert Skies

One of the highlights of my cross-country trip was an unbroken week of sunny days in California. The temperature reached the 90s in northern California during the first days of October, but conditions turned more pleasant—perfect for top-down driving—by the end of the week. I spent the morning of Sunday, October 7 signing books at the Commemorative Air Force museum in Camarillo, then fired up the Mustang at about noon to start the eastward journey back across the country. Aside from one more scheduled event, I had no specific plans other than to continue to trace Jack Kerouac’s route, at least in general terms. Exactly 65 years ago, in October 1947, he rode by bus from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, PA.

I had initially hoped to follow Route 66 out of California, but Kerouac’s bus went straight east on what is now Interstate 10, passing through remote desert towns such as Indio and Blythe. I took a deliberate detour to feed my lifelong interest in all things nautical by paying a quick visit to Long Beach, where I enjoyed a close-up view of the RMS Queen Mary. I did not have time for a full tour—that will have to wait for another trip—but I was glad to spend a few minutes soaking in the beauty of the legendary  passenger ship.

The elegant lady could use a cosmetic freshening, but she’s still beautiful at the age of 76!

After spending the night in Palm Desert, about halfway across California, I continued east on Monday for another 265 miles to Scottsdale, AZ. I took nearly a full day to catch up on paperwork and some blogging, then met my friend and fellow author Barrett Tillman for lunch on Tuesday. We toured Barrett’s “home museum,” the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force museum in Mesa, followed by a tag-team presentation and book signing event that evening at The Poisoned Pen, an independent bookstore in Scottsdale.

I privately felt some relief that the event with Barrett was the last scheduled program of the Sweet Chariot tour. For the rest of the journey, I could concentrate on seeing this great country without worrying about a specific timetable. Appropriately, the next day resulted in one of the most enjoyable and visually entertaining cruises of the entire trip. From Phoenix, I headed up Interstate17 for about 60 miles, and then took Arizona Rt. 69 into the Prescott National Forest. Slightly north of Prescott, I cut back to the east on Rt. 89A, which twists and climbs dramatically into the Verde Valley. The town of Jerome is perched at 5,000 feet, with the surrounding slopes so precipitous that it almost appears to be a community of cliff dwellers.

Looking beyond an outcropping into the Verde Valley, some 5,000 feet below, near Jerome, AZ

After descending back down into the valley, I followed 89A to Red Rock State Park and took a side trip through the fantastic outcroppings of red sandstone near Sedona. The sight was incredible, even though I arrived at high noon (lower sun angles, in the morning and evening, yield more dramatic reddish hues). I had no particular plans for lunch that day, but while driving through Sedona I spied the funky Red Planet Diner, and felt compelled to stop. Glad I did! The inside is pure kitsch, with chrome and stainless steel furniture, a very cool 3-D spaceship mural on the ceiling (complete with lots of ETs), and tabletop collages of old sci-fi movies and TV shows. The service and the food were outstanding.

Cathedral Rock, one of the most photographed outcroppings in Arizona.

Back outside, I dropped the top and motored up 89A from Sedona to Flagstaff. That winding, 30-mile stretch of two-lane was the most satisfying cruise of the trip, with an azure sky overhead and the temperature as ideal as I’ve ever experienced. The sun felt pleasantly warm while sitting at idle, yet the breeze was perfectly balmy out on the highway. With the exception of another top-down cruiser—a new Mini Cooper in front of me—there was virtually no traffic along the picturesque route. I was almost sorry to reach Flagstaff, where I put the top back up for the 60-mile run to Winslow on Interstate 40 (I don’t care to jockey among semis moving at 75 mph with the top down).

One of the most enjoyable cruises of the tour was a 30-mile run north on this picturesque two-lane: Arizona 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff.

On the flip side, I realized that Interstate 40 followed what had once been Route 66. For the next two days, I would be cruising THE road—far and away the most representative cross-country trip in American highway lore. Please join me as we examine what remains of it.

Until then: Roll On!