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.