Monday, October 26, 2009

Greetings from the Grand Canyon State!

New Horizons. This afternoon finds us in Kingman, where we’re catching our proverbial breath, and making final preparations for the coastal push. I’m taking a break from sorting out the accumulated oddments that have joined the journey since it’s beginning in Chicago (e.g. postcards, magnets, caps, pens, coasters, stickers, pins…) Most of the items were of-the-moment purchases by TJ – somewhere between here and the Santa Monica Pier we’ll get them boxed and delivered to his loft. He’s incommunicado just now – and while not unusual, he’s likely overseas and embroiled in corporate and creative work. This collection of curios leaves me with the thought that our great adventure has become somewhat of a relay race. Seagram and I are running the last leg, “taking it home”. Just now my dutiful friend and relay runner is at large. His plan was to stop in at the local branch of the Mojave County Library to catch up on work (writing, schedules, research), and then see to the resolution of a few minor car issues. (Likely he’ll find his way to one of the local Starbucks, if history does indeed repeat itself!) When we set out from Albuquerque, I was concerned that Seagram’s level of enthusiasm might not be sustained for the fullness of our 640+ mile drive. However, for someone who’s spent the last 10 years exploring exotic locales worldwide – and has become accustomed to car services and subways when he’s home – he’s taken nicely to the both the Mustang and the more mundane aspects of our daily mileage. He admitted sotto voce that the “cool factor” the car imparted to him was “priceless”.

As we drove from Gallup into eastern Arizona, an olio of trading posts and “travel centers” of various vintages and states of repair (or disrepair?) met us. At first we were flush with amusement and nostalgia to encounter these outposts. But upon leaving the red rock bluffs beyond the state line, we entered into a more desolate landscape and a distinctly somber state of mind. It was clear that the trip had become somewhat of a vision quest for Seagram. He commented with regularity how needed this diversion was – what serendipity that have met up at this particular time – and that he’d been living fast and hard, but to what end? With poignancy he revealed that “I spent most of my young life cultivating the hipster burn-out persona, but it’s feeling like the real deal now – not just youthful affectation fueled by endlessly amping The Ramones and lighting up Camels…” That said, Seagram observed that he viewed the car as our conveyance, rather than our focus. It was energizing for him to step outside of his usual world of deadlines, production logistics and schedules – to just step on the gas, see where the road would take us.

“Runnin’ Down the Road…” Our first Arizona meander was Petrified Forest National Park, with an orientation stop at the Painted Desert Visitors Center. We were both impressed that the surrounding landscape was home to one of the “world’s largest concentrations of petrified wood, historic structures” and “archaeological sites”. Seagram was particularly intrigued by the park’s artists in residence program, and loved the idea of geocaching among the rock formations and petrified wood findings. We followed the Park’s list of suggested activities for a one-hour visit, which afforded us a 28-mile drive throughout the site, a stop at Kachina Point, a bit of exploring down Blue Mesa Road, and a stop at Rainbow Forest Museum. We added in Painted Desert Inn (today a museum and bookstore only), where Harvey Girls served diners and travelers when the Fred Harvey Company took over management of the Inn. As it turned out, one of Seagram’s favorite (and more adventurous) aunts was a Harvey Girl. As we left the park, factoids tumbled out rapidly from Seagram. Quoting from a guide, he asked if I knew that “Petrified Forest National Park is almost solid quartz, weighing in at 168 pounds per cubic foot?” He further read that “it's so hard, you can only cut it with a diamond tipped saw!” Petrified wood, fossils, petroglyphs, wildlife – the park is indeed quite an assemblage natural elements.

In need of food and gasoline after our Petrified Forest excursion, we next exited the highway at Holbrook. Unable to resist the temptation of the central business district and its main street, we followed an historic walk that began at the Navajo County Courthouse. Holbrook’s twist on the usual array of historical oddments – old signs, buildings, tourist sites – added nicely to our ongoing inventory of roadside impressions. Interestingly, the Little Colorado River runs past Holbrook on its way to join the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon.

Before speeding on full bore to Flagstaff, we stopped for the night at Winslow – and carved out the better part of the next day to discover it’s hidden charms. First on our list was a visit to the La Posada – formerly a Fred Harvey Hotel. Built in 1929 for ATSF railroad and designed by Mary Colter, we admired the impressive restoration that’s underway. A must see point of interest was the “Standin’ on the Corner” Park and Mural, located at 2nd & Campbell. Of course, we burst into song – remembering what we could of the Eagles hit song commemorated by the site. While downtown, we also walked the 1st Street Pathway from the Hubbell Trading Post (said to soon be new visitor center) and back to La Posada Hotel – and unexpectedly enjoyable 6-block long landscaped pathway. We were sure not to miss the Peter Toth monument– a hand-carved totem pole– and also dropped in on the Old Trails Historical Museum. Re-purposed from an older bank building in the business district, we saw all manner of local, cultural, Native American and Route 66 artifacts. Seagram insisted that we finished our time in Winslow by driving out to McHood Park (5 miles south of Winslow), and have lunch at in the deep rock canyon area of Clear Creek.

Flagged Down by Flagstaff. We ended up taking a pass on Meteor Crater, but on our approach to Flagstaff found the San Francisco Peaks to be other-worldly in their subtle might and beauty. As we drove into town on Route 66 (the main east-west artery), it was obvious to us both that “Flag” was worth a few days of rest and investigation. Passing an assortment of old motor courts and numerous contemporary motels, we made our way to the Visitors Center downtown. The Center shares space with Amtrak in the old train depot, and has a gift shop chock full of Route 66 souvenirs. Seagram was transfixed by the selection, but opted to “think about” the various babbles that caught his eye. We left car there, and walked down S. Beaver to the NAU campus (passing through a funky neighborhood of restaurants and houses), then returned and crossed over into downtown. Heritage Square– on Aspen Ave between Leroux and San Francisco Streets– presents a wonderful continuum of ageless buildings and outlets that contribute to the thriving business district. We’d hoped to stay at the historic Hotel Monte Vista, but we unable to get rooms at the last minute. Plan B diverted us to Little America– which turned out to be more in the spirit of our odyssey. The two-level low-slung brick hotel makes a subtle, unassuming impression amidst stands of Ponderosas – and reminded me of the glamour and élan attached to Albuquerque’s fabled Western Skies. The Mustang fit right in. You could all but feel and taste the era when barge-like sedans would roll in off the highway into the parking lot, and road-weary guests would check into outsized, finely appointed rooms. Naturally we wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, but time was again not on our side. Seagram was getting close enough to home that responsibility and commitments were beginning to weigh on him. We opted to take full advantage of Flagstaff’s rich array of sights, including Lowell Observatory, a quick jaunt to the entrance of Oak Creek Canyon (featuring a generous vendors space and spectacular look-out) and the Museum of Northern Arizona. We became semi-regulars at Little America’s Western Gold Restaurant; even though Seagram makes a good living with his sophisticated palate and culinary skills, he cannot resist a buffet! We finally broke with routine to enjoy a dinner at the Galaxy Diner on West Route 66-a great convergence of retro chrome siding and neon that says 50s. Suddenly we were transported back to the diner fare that had sustained TJ and me over many miles of asphalt and concrete.

Onward Anew. A morning in Williams allowed us to discover the town’s frontier and railroad roots. We especially enjoyed the funky / touristy shops and eateries along the main street, and relished our stop at the Grand Canyon Railway Depot. Built by the ATSF railroad, the depot had been home to The Fray Marcos Hotel and a Harvey House. After settling in to Kingman for the remainder of the day, we are again assembling road sign “refrigerator magnets” to arrange as a poetic epic. Driving through Route 66 points of interest such as Ash Fork, Seligman, Truxton, Valentine, Kingman – and with Goldroad, Oatman, Topock left to go – we’re beginning to see how the story of this journey will write itself. I’m starting to feel excitement at the prospect of reaching our destination. Travel is a force of personal change and transformation. I can’t wait to see who we are when we arrive at the Pier, and inhale the elixir of Pacific Ocean air.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Greetings from the Land of Enchantment (Part 2)!

Leavin’ on a Jet Plane. With a nightcap (e.g. carry-out coffee) in hand, and the crossword from today’s Gallup Independent mostly completed, I’m awash in the ambience and mystique of El Rancho Hotel in Gallup. This “Home of the Movie Stars” – as pronounced by the hotel’s promotional materials – has been our base camp for the last couple of days. Seagram’s busy in the parking lot checking the car’s vital signs and pre-packing gear for tomorrow’s departure – his toils well-illuminated by El Rancho’s prodigious neon displays. While in Albuquerque, and then the stretch Route 66 in western New Mexico, we’ve traveled not only into the mythic past of the highway. We also revisited the myth of our own memories and lives from younger days spent in a different way along this road.

Of course, seeing TJ off at the Albuquerque International Sunport was bittersweet. Surrounded by a totemic array that included three duffle bags, two laptops, miscellaneous taped-up boxes and his backpack – TJ and his gear created a singular tableau. Glancing back toward the car from the Sky Cap’s stand, he gave us the thumbs up sign, waved mightily, and took a long and appraising look at the Mustang. His wistful grin hinted at the enormous bond he felt with the vehicle – they were co-conspirators, sharing a secret or crafting a scheme. It astonished me that TJ was game to let Seagram and me finish the drive without him. Although the two never hit it off in earlier years, somehow in the last 48 hours they’d found common ground in this caper, and seemed surprisingly simpatico on most fronts. Perhaps some of evidence of middle age’s calming effect on the long arm of college angst and hubris…? As TJ turned around and headed into the terminal, I could tell that he was excited about embarking on his next odyssey. Being an unabashed nomad, he could never resist the call of a new adventure or challenge. And, Seagram was revved up to carry on with the mission at hand – delivering precious automotive cargo to its new home.

Duke City by Day. Since finishing college, Seagram (like TJ) had been in and out of Albuquerque countless times. But once they navigated the airport, they would immediately head north on I-25 for business, a weekend party, or a spiritual retreat. Consequently, Seagram hadn’t seen anything of ABQ proper in years. It was a given that with our combined years of residence in Albuquerque, Seagram and I were no strangers to its attractions. Driven to make up for lost time and experience what he knew well in a new way, Seagram suggested a more deliberate approach to revisiting our favorite haunts on 66 – the local edition. Thinking of his recent research and writings about the Slow Food Movement’s growth in the US, Seagram reasoned that we could apply a similar principle to our meanders. We would re-trace the steps from our UNM years along Central Avenue – literally. Catching the Route 66 bus at a stop just off Central and Tramway, we improvised a Gray Line Tour – riding west until reaching the stop nearest to Monroe and Central. Seagram relished that East Central had remained just as it was years ago – gritty, edgy, no-nonsense and wide-open. An unassuming mix of manufactured housing outlets, independent mechanics, small businesses, chain motels and fast food spots persisted and thrived, even if the signs and storefronts changed with some regularity. As we continued farther west, the concentration of mom and pop restaurants stood out to us more, as did the number of old motor courts and inns in various stages of repair. Ghosts of our past lives met us at corner after corner. Our ersatz bus tour drew past Griff’s (where one of Seagram’s friends fortified himself each night on a double burger and rings before starting his shift as night auditor at a nearby motel), the State Fair Grounds (Seagram had worked as a seasonal employee at the race track), and then the tall beacon that we will always call the First National Bank building, (even thought it now carries Bank of the West’s name). After exiting the bus near Monroe, we walked to the Hiland Theater and admired its grand, if empty marquee. Both of us recalled more than one occasion in the 1980s when we waited in lines that wrapped around the old Walgreen’s store (and then along the east side of the building) to see blockbuster movies on the venue’s huge screen. We returned to our westward walk – with Seagram remembering low-on-the-line-up touring bands that stayed at the Zia Motel and old Ramada Inn long before they lapsed into sketchy destinations and were razed. He was relieved to find the De Anza remained somewhat in tact; his grandparents stayed there when visiting snowbird friends in the 1960s and 1970s. Intrigued to see how other area motor courts had been re-purposed, Seagram felt an immediate kinship with the Aztec Motel’s outsider/folk art flourishes.

Continuing on past Carlisle, we picked up a snack at La Montanita Co-op in the Nob Hill Business Center, and took an inventory of chic and whimsical store fronts as we munched and walked. We figured that we’d officially entered the University area as we strode beneath the neon Route 66 “arch” that spans Central just each of Girard. Memories flooded into our conversation as our path crossed Harvard: record buying jags at Budget Tapes & Records, scoring concert tickets and jeans at the General Store, raucous nights at Okie Joe’s, pre-Starbuck’s era espresso at the Purple Hippo, and the parade of hippies, heads, iconoclasts and poets who waved their freak flags high and mighty at Yale Park. On the block west of Yale, we fell into peels of laugher walking past what had been Don Pancho’s Theatre. Who could say how many times we’d seen the revival house’s double-feature of “The Last Waltz” and “No Nukes”, or how many friends we knew who’d had a vehicle towed from the parking lot designated for customers of the St. Germain “Purple Flame” laundry. We both recalled a morning spent recovering a car from savage and towing lots on South Broadway. After a fashion we again boarded the 66 bus, and took in the landmarks of Huning-Highland, Downtown (especially the KiMo Theatre), the Country Club area, and Old Town. The tour ended with an early evening dinner at Dog House drive-in. The neon sign had just lit up – with the wiener dog ardently munching on a string of frankfurters while his tail wagged in delight.

Westward Ho. With the Mustang freshly fueled and detailed, we made an early departure from Albuquerque, ascending Nine Mile Hill with a sense of expectation and curiosity as to the sights and experiences that we’d meet ahead. Driving west, we kept a log of Route 66 landmarks and points of interest. Seagram envisioned a travelogue project that he could build from our brief observations and recordings – a collage that deconstructed traditional postcard elements into discrete blasts of text and image. He liked to do this with the classic French dishes he was adept at cooking – his streak of culinary anarchy shining through. Along the way we walked across the historic Rio Puerco bridge and admired scenic views of Laguna Pueblo. Seeing the exit to Cubero, Seagram noted that Ernest Hemingway worked on The Old Man and Sea there. Farther on we stopped to inspect and photograph the old Whiting Brothers sign between McCartys and San Fidel, and diverted to Acoma Pueblo’s Sky City Cultural Center and Haaku Museum. By this point along the highway, we’d enjoyed regular sightings of trains – both BNSF freight and Amtrak. Trainspotting was officially adopted as our version of the license plate game – with the passenger dutifully calling out and recording train engines as they appeared. In Grants we visited the New Mexico Mining Museum, learning about the mechanics and logistics of working underground in this risky, but potentially profitable, pursuit. We also took time to hike and explore Mount Taylor – one of four sacred mountains to the Navajo. And after a tasty repast at El Cafecito, we headed to our lodging. We both ended the day by imaging the postcards that we would write that night to share such a comfortable and engaging fall day.

Red Rocks Rock. We’d decided to stay in Gallup for a few days. Seagram’s schedule included two more weeks of down time, and he seemed to revel in taking what he termed an “olde time car trip.” One of the reasons he left the east for college was the mythic call of the West. Seagram’s family traveled extensively in Europe when he was young – but until his arrival in New Mexico as a UNM freshman he’d never been west of the Mississippi. He loved the Mustang, was in his groove, and was hungry for more. The town and place name signs we passed en route to Gallup seemed like poetry to Seagram – word magnets that you could re-arrange on a refrigerator: Milan, Bluewater, Prewitt, Thoreau (pronounced “threw” we both announced), the Continental Divide, and our favorite – Iyanbito. Seagram was enthralled by El Rancho. With hundreds of celebrity photos decorating the dark wood walls of the lobby and halls, he felt transported to the pages of an old movie magazine – or even one of the B movies that had been filmed in the area during the “golden years of cinema”. The guest room appointments in the original section of the hotel – twin wagon wheel headboards, heavily lacquered western-style furniture, and original tile and fittings in the bathrooms – made it all the more vivid and transporting. Our days included a trip to the Zuni Mountains, and hiking the Pyramid Rock Trail plus the High Desert Trail System. We also poured over hundreds of jewelry creations from Zuni, Navajo and Hopi artists at trading posts such as Richardson’s, Perry Null and Joe Milo’s. Seagram caved, and become the proud owner of a handsome and substantial thunderbird bolo tie. When we were overwhelmed by the fun of those explorations in addition to downtown walks, or trainspotting time at the old station between the tracks and US 66, we fell into a table at the venerable Earl’s Restaurant. What could be better than a promise of a hearty, square meal fulfilled at any time of day? We discovered beautiful handmade jewelry, arts and crafts sold by Native artists through Earl’s vendor program (shop along the front of the building, or from your table as artisan’s and their family members stop by to showcase their creations). And, we were charmed by the end note of a free desert (jello or soft serve) after the filling fare of New Mexican favorites or down-home American entrees.

As with our separation from TJ, leaving New Mexico is bittersweet. You miss the familiar places and people you’ve come to know and value…but you also can’t help to wonder with excitement might be waiting down the road. Maybe that’s why I always find myself coming back to New Mexico; the adventures and their allure are abundant, but there’s no place like home.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Greetings from the Land of Enchantment (Part 1)!

A Twist in the Road… As I write this missive, the evening finds me reflecting on the turn of events that led to an extended “stopover” in Albuquerque. While waiting on my blue plate special – and my dining companions – I’m enjoying the cool comfort of a classic chocolate shake at the retro-themed 66 Diner on Central Avenue. A welcome bit of calm after the unexpectedly action-packed couple of days we experienced in eastern New Mexico.

Heading west from Amarillo, the strategy for our New Mexico portion of the journey was simple: take a leisurely pace on the road so we could fully experience areas of New Mexico that, admittedly, we both didn’t know well. Our first stop after leaving Texas was the historic agricultural community of San Jon. It seemed that the time was right to see the home of high school sports teams we’d heard about on the weekend newscasts over years. After making our rounds of the building relics that once thrived along old highway 66 – and breaking out our Thermos of fresh coffee (a vintage container that Emily gave to TJ as a token of our trip… be it noted that each pour from this talisman has been unfailingly hot and flavorful!) – TJ received an urgent text from his business partner in L.A. They’d been chasing a very lucrative international web design and marketing account for more than a year, and their persistence had finally paid off. The client had agreed to terms and signed the contract, but in doing so stipulated a very aggressive timetable for getting the account up and going. Meetings were imminent and required TJ’s presence…now if not sooner. As we left San Jon and headed for Tucumcari, I took the wheel while TJ texted and phoned contacts (where he had cell service…) trying to figure out his next moves. It was safe to say that the party was over, and it was time to turn out the fanciful neon lights.

Putting the “T” in Tourist. Even though we were facing a detour that exceeded any of the road work or re-routing we’d encountered since leaving Chicago, TJ insisted that we remain true to our mission, and maximize the miles leading up to Albuquerque. First on the itinerary was an overnight stop in Tucumcari – which introduced us to the Blue Swallow Motel. TJ had seen it featured in a number of magazines and travel guides as an authentic taste of historic Route 66 motor inns. Once you see photos of the bright neon sign bearing the motel’s name sake, who could make another choice for the night? Luckily we were able to check in early – TJ immediately set up an impromptu work space and tapped into the motel’s WIFI. After making sure he was provisioned for the afternoon with appropriate levels of beverages and snacks, I set out to investigate a number of sites recommended by The Blue Swallow innkeepers as must-see local spots. Leading off my impromptu tour was the Tucumcari Historical Museum. Occupying a three-floor 1903 school house, the museum showcases exemplars of local and cultural history – continuing the building’s educational role in the community. My camera couldn’t resist a one-of-a-kind tribute to Tucumcari – the sculptural Route 66 Roadside Attraction at the Convention Center. This mighty work is a visually engaging riff on tail fins and tires and all the sweet rides that have driven this roadway over the years. At three stories tall, it’s an impressive commemoration of the area’s roadside heritage and history. The most unexpected treasure of this meander was the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum. This site features the world’s largest collection of full-scale bronze dinosaur skeletons, all cast at a local foundry. Talk about history living large! When I returned to the motel, TJ was in the lobby sending a fax, and exchanging car collecting tips and boasts with the desk clerk. Over dinner at Del’s Restaurant, TJ ran down the timetable he’d devised to push forward on his work. Amidst the details, we both relished our New Mexican entrees – the first chile we'd had in weeks! Established 1956, Del’s continues to make famished travelers (and locals) feel at home. You can’t miss this hospitable spot from the road – look for the big steer atop the large red sign, and the ornamental neon lighting up the building’s eaves.

An early start the next day ensured that we would make it to Albuquerque in time for TJ to pull a few logistical loose ends together, and be on his way the following morning. At this point the most compelling unknown wasn’t the fate of our road trip (game over, apparently) – but how the Mustang would get to L.A. TJ remained resolute to complete trip with the car, so was thinking about storing it until he could return and pick it up. Not surprisingly, we spent 45 minutes discussing the dimensions and security of my garage – as well as those of numerous mutual friends in Albuquerque. Even with this question mark lurking on the horizon, TJ reiterated wanting to make the most of what suddenly seemed to be his last day on the road. Driving west of Tucumcari, we admired the bluffs of the Llano Estacado – the Staked Plains – and took a bit of time to see the ghost service stations at Newkirk and Montoya. The centerpiece of our morning was a detour into Santa Rosa, the “City of Natural Lakes”. Tempting as it was to dive in, we instead enjoyed an above-ground view of the city’s phenomenal Blue Hole. Earnest scuba divers were taking the plunge into waters that reach a depth of 80’, and keep to a constant temperature of 64 degrees. Amazing to discover that even in this arid plains locale, the Blue Hole is comparable to 100’ of ocean depth. Although we had to miss the show of night lights, we were sure to catch a daytime glimpse of notable neon signs dispersed throughout the town, including sites such as the Sun ‘n Sand Motel and the Comet II Restaurant. We also visited the “Bless Me Ultima” Rudolfo Anaya Landscape Park – where a variety of birds were making the most of its fountain and sculpture. We imagined how cool it would be to attend a reading by Mr. Anaya in the park commemorating his masterful work. For lunch we enjoyed a taste of home (e.g. chile) at Joseph’s Bar and Grill, which remembers the legendary Club Café (complete with the revered “Fat Man” sign). Having stoked up on chile verde y rojo, we knew we’d be good to go until we could enjoy our platos favoritos in ABQ. And once back on the highway, we were careful to find the railroad bridge west of town used in John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. It’s the vantage point from which Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) watches a freight train cross the Pecos River at sunset.

Plan B… or, the Magic 8 Ball Speaks. On our final approach into the Duke City, we made a quick stop for salty snacks and sweet fizzy drinks at Clines Corners. A familiar roadside diversion to generations of travelers, this highway oasis continues to purvey gas, food, and souvenirs under an eye-catching (and immense) red sign. Roy Cline’s original gas station opened in Lucy, NM – and then moved two times before finding its home at the junction of US 285 and I-40. TJ used this stop as a chance to stock up on trip mementos and curios for friends and associates in L.A. Thinking this was the Route 66 version of hitting the newsstands and duty free shops at an airport, it occurred to me that within days TJ would be in Singapore or Hong Kong doing the same thing – munching on starchy wedges, looking for small tokens of adventure… and wondering if he’d make his flight. With bodies and minds back on Route 66 proper, we rolled on through Moriarity, Edgewood and Tijeras Canyon. Emerging from the western-most part of the canyon, we both were both excited to see Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley open up before us. No doubt about it – we were motoring into the rich pageant of life that is Central Avenue – a character in its own right, with a mix of culture, built environment and history without parallel. Although we had friends and accommodations waiting for us, our first order of business was dinner at the iconic Frontier Restaurant, on Central across from UNM. We found a window booth in the original dining room, and while TJ collected utensils after we ordered, I found a solution to his dilemma with the car. In the next booth sat a lean and lanky 6’2” figure with considerable gray in his short wavy hair. I couldn’t resist interrupting his conversation and asking in a sardonic tone, “are you still working here?” The guy stood up, and with a sideways grin and mock sneer offered the rejoinder “…are you still eating here?” It was my college friend Seagram. Since his days as a short order cook at the Frontier, he’d gone on to culinary school, cooked in both high- and low-brow NY restaurants, managed concert tours for small indie bands, and now produced documentary and cable TV shows. Talk about a hip cat with nine lives. My hunch was pretty strong that he needed an angle for one of his upcoming adventures, and that TJ was just the source to supply the goods.

Viva la City Different! As it turned out, TJ was able to delay his departure by a day and in order to save some money. This reprieve bought some time for another day of meanders, for and scheming with Seagram. We decided to shoot the works and make a day trip to Santa Fe, once a bona fide stop along the Mother Road. Instead of driving (the Mustang was safely ensconced in a friend’s garage), we took the Rail Runner north, and marveled not only at the scenery but also the orbs that surrounded us aloft – flying in the annual Balloon Fiesta. TJ had a number of family members he wanted to see in the City Different, and Seagram wanted to soak in the Plaza, catch up, and talk about future projects. He and I would do Albuquerque justice before we set off to on the final stage of what had become the Mustang’s journey to its new home. By the time we pulled into the Depot station, the guys had thoroughly reviewed the needs of the car, the official delivery route, and how to respond to unexpected automotive scenarios. TJ’s cousins met him, leaving Seagram and me to walk downtown. We tracked down brown “Pre-1937” road signs noting Santa Fe’s early role along the Mother Road, before the alignment changed and went south. After touring La Fonda, the history and art museums, and having a lively lunch at the famed Plaza Café, we met up with TJ at the Depot, and headed and hour south with commuters and tourists alike. Relishing some time to myself, I walked around Downtown after we disembarked from the train at the Alvarado station. The guys took off to deal with car and logistical issues, and I soaked in the rhythm and bustle of the city center. Walking up Central to the 66 Diner proved an invigorating departure from our front seat view of the road over the past few weeks. Psyched and stoked for the adventures we all had ahead, I dropped into a booth at the 66 in time to see the sun set over the West Mesa. The glowing sky of orange, purple and pink was a definite sign that good things were ahead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Greetings from the Lone Star State!

A Roadside Rest Stop. After a few lesser adventures in lodging, our impromptu passenger Mark (TJ’s cousin) has been hosting us in style at Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo for the past few nights. No cinderblock walls, no gunshot holes in the windows, no local “entertainment” in the wee hours (e.g. parking lot parties that end in fights) … and no “slime in the ice machine” (apologies to Houston TV legend Marvin Zindler). Although we indeed ventured to the TX/NM state line, Mark convinced us to back-track to Amarillo with him for a respite. Who could say no to such a luxe accommodations upgrade? And, we’ve had reason to celebrate: our odyssey is at its halfway mark. So, a perfect time for savoring our progress, and for envisioning the sights and surprises what await as we trek further westward. TJ is running Mark to airport just now – he’s due back in Tulsa and the ER today. And, we’re due back on the road when the ‘Stang pulls into the porte-cochere. With a tall iced tea in hand, I’ve sunk into one of the deep and comfy chairs of the Ambassador’s lobby, and for the moment have forsaken my copy of Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By in favor of writing a bit, and watching conference goers (energy industry execs) mill about and network. Although the portion of Route 66 that runs through Texas is the shortest after Kansas, we’ve had no shortage of diversions during our pass through.

Luck o’ the Irish. As hitchhiker of sorts, we agreed that Mark wasn’t obligated to follow our rules of the road during his travel time. A fortunate loophole for us – as the random AM/FM radio choices had become a little routine to our ears. With iPhone in hand, and downloads in the mix, Mark and TJ created the soundtrack for our Panhandle push. Dubbing it “Kountrytime Karaoki”, we indulged in a bit of Texas-themed ear candy. Since we’re all frustrated garage band heroes, none of us could resist providing duets or back-ups for Ry Cooder ‘s “That’s the Way the Girls are in Texas”, George Strait on “Amarillo by Morning”, and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”. Most entertaining was Lyle Lovett’s “That’s Right, You’re Not from Texas” – even Lyle’s Large Band would have liked what we collectively added to that one.

To be sure, our mobile juke joint “brakes” for roadside attractions, including those of Shamrock, TX. Mark explained that the town is famous for its St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In keeping with this theme, our first detour was the venerable Elmore Park – home to a fragment of the Blarney Stone. We attempted no kissing of the stone, but the boys considered growing beards to honor one of the town’s quirky March 17th traditions. We also explored the Pioneer West Museum in the historic Reynalds Hotel, and took some time to appreciate the restored Tower Service Station and U-Drop Inn. It’s a laudable example of keeping history alive while re-purposing a structure’s function, and a somewhat famous one as well; in the film “Cars”, Ramone’s House of Body Art was modeled on the the U-Drop Inn. Even though we’d tapped Hasty’s Hamburgers for a quick lunch, our Texas-sized appetites could not be quelled by the usual drive-in fare. With rings and burgers freshly consumed, Mark pointed out that Mitchell’s Family Restaurant was just across the way. The glint in his eye was sly and inviting all at once… so with great gusto and an equal dose of guilt (they go hand-in-hand, don’t they?), we sampled a local favorite: chicken-fried bacon served with white gravy. Amazingly, we lived to tell the tale… As we finished our driving tour of the town and headed to our lodging, we found our visual moment of zen: a yester-year gasoline sign fronting an old, boarded-up gas station – and advertising the cost of filling up at $1.13 a gallon!

E Pluribus Unum… Kinda. After our raucous night in Shamrock, Mark’s kind invitation to spend some extra time in Amarillo was a tonic. Over toast and coffee we immediately re-configured our Texas plans. The resulting itinerary made for a big day of small towns – complete with all manner of larger than life, claim-to-fame sights. In McLean we visited Devil’s Rope Museum – the “largest barbed wire historic museum in the world”, and inspected the site of the 1st Phillip’s 66 opened in Texas (we were still fixating on that cheap gas sign in Shamrock, especially as the fuel gauge was nearing empty yet again on the ‘Stang). A few miles beyond Alanreed we doubled back in order to take the eastbound exit off I-40. We had to experience the Route 66 Theme Rest Area at mile marker 129. From the Deco inspired building to the large neon sign announcing the Donley County Route 66 “Safety Rest Area”, we had no doubts that we were enjoying Texas-sized hospitality. (Would we ever be satisfied with a simple turnout and an oil drum trash can again…?) We next encountered Groom, which is famous for the Britten USA Water Tower – or more simply the “leaning water tower”. Word is that the tower’s orientation is skewed to draw motorists off the highway. While studying the angles and pitch of the structure, we mused that perhaps Groom should be called “Pisa of the Panhandle”. Farther down the highway we took a stroll among the tribe of upended VW Beetles at The Bug Farm in Conway. We couldn’t resist “signing” a couple of the chassis as testament to our presence. But before settling into our Amarillo “spa” days, we were sure to visit Adrian – which is the half-way point of Route 66. In observance of this milestone, we ate up burgers and slices of “Ugly Crust Pies” at the MidPoint Café – going strong after 70 years in business (and the inspiration for Flo’s V-8 café in the film “Cars”). Back then through Vega, and on to our impressive digs in Amarillo.

Living Large. Tempted as we were to hole up in the Ambassador and be pampered for days on end, we took full advantage of the local points of interest. First on our list was the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum. TJ was in his element – taking in the works by Texas, Taos Society, Santa Fe and New Mexico artists. Mark gravitated to the paleontology, geology and archaeology collections (ever the scientist), and we were all captivated by the Museum’s presentation of Native American arts. For something completely different, we then made the pilgrimage to Stanley March 3’s Cadillac Ranch. As we toured the oddly totemic Caddies, I wondered (but not aloud) if anyone had thought to do this with Mustangs… Much graffiting ensued, just as it had with the Conway bugs. Driving around back town, we discovered an SM3 bonus: road sign art installations. The diamond-shaped signs tend to turn up in Amarillo’s residential areas, looking much like standard traffic signs at a distance. Each slogan provides the driver with a variety of insights and existential bon mots: “Hot Pepper”, “Orange Stars in the Sky”, and “Life is Like That Sometimes”. We also toured the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, the American Quarterhorse Hall of Fame – and trekked about in Palo Duro Canyon. Seeing the amazing colors and textures of that landscape portended vistas of New Mexico and Arizona we’d soon be seeing.

Friday Night Lights. To close out our time with Mark in a memorable way, TJ and I thought the obvious choice for dinner was Amarillo’s famed Big Texan Steak Ranch. Surprisingly, Mark demurred, saying that he had other plans for the evening. This from the man who introduced us to chicken fried bacon! With a mixture of intrique and concern about Mark’s seemingly sudden engagement, TJ and I nonetheless set forth in search of our gustatory plunder. Although neither of us attempted the 72-oz steak challenge (free if entirely consumed within one hour), we took advantage of salads, soup, cowboy beans and an abundance of side fixin’s – all under the watchful eyes of elk head mounts and chandeliers whose style screamed wild west tavern. We’d hoped to catch a live music show at the Old Natatorium, but hit the venue on a dark night: no local talent appearing due to emergency maintenance. Upon returning to the Ambassador we were sidetracked by the evening event signs posted in the lobby. Open to suggestion and in search of cheap entertainment, we wandered over to ballrooms, hoping to snag a vicarious taste of the doings. In the first ballroom we found a dinner speaker addressing the energy execs, and noted that small wind turbines with working rotors anchored the centers of each table. The next ballroom was twice the size of the first – festooned for a high school homecoming event. We marveled at the centerpieces: 3’ tall goal posts with corsage like groupings of mums and ribbon streamers cascading down the sides of each, and tiny footballs popping out from the floral mix as if arcing toward the goal posts. As we gently pushed into the overflow SRO crowd, we saw Mark on the podium with a young man wearing a letter jacket over his white shirt and bowtie. TJ grinned and looked up – realization brightening his face. “Of course… now I get it,” he said. “That young man is Joe Tandy. Mark cared for him during his Amarillo years – his first post-residency job. The kid was in a horrible accident, and Mark did the ER in-take. He continued to work with him through the recovery, and they’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s almost like an uncle to Joe – especially since Joe’s grandmother brought him up.” “So this is a big night for them both”, I said. “Truly,” TJ replied, as Mark and a young woman in a formal and dazzling tiara placed the homecoming king’s crown on Joe’s head. “To go from nearly dying as a child to being an all-state football player is something big indeed”. “Texas-sized?” I suggested. “Indeed,” answered TJ, “in every way.”

Getting the Big Picture. Although TJ and I have traveled this road through our childhood nostalgias and romanticisms, Mark travels it from a place of memory and hope. For him, the road is about the past and the future all at once. Even though he’s well acquainted with the ghosts of Route 66, the highway’s magic always has a way of tempering the realism and clarity born of his experiences. Through Mark’s eyes, TJ and I became enchanted by the road all over again.