Sunday 13 August 2017
Well, the gods decided to punish me for a moment of hubris on the final day of my road trip. I congratulated myself on my personal organisation as I packed up in the last motel of the trip. I hadn't lost a single thing. It wasn't until I was over an hour out of Barstow I remembered that the chargers for my phone and my laptop were still plugged into the walls. That meant an expensive shopping trip when I arrived in Las Vegas.
Instead, I took the interstate to Newberry Springs and joined there. Newberry Springs, another Route 66 ghost town, contains an important place of Route 66 pilgrimage - the Bagdad Cafe.
The cafe is famous because of the German 1988 movie of the same name. It's not in Bagdad - as I discovered yesterday, it's nothing more than a tree in the middle of nowhere. The remaining buildings of the town having been razed in 1991. The movie was filmed at the nearby Sidewinder Cafe in Newberry Springs, which has since renamed itself to capitalise on the movie's popularity.
From Newberry Springs they're resurfaced the road, making for a fast, easy drive back to Ludlow. Sometimes (although I shouldn't admit this) I found myself going faster than the cars on the nearby interstate.
Back at Ludlow, I stopped to take a look at the Crucero Road that goes deep into the Mojave desert - it's just a dirt track, and I know my Jeep wouldn't be up to it. I'll save that for another day - and anyway, I had a much easier drive into the desert coming up.
It was an important stop on the Union Pacific Railroad as it was one of the few places to get water in the Mojave desert. The depot expanded to include a restaurant and other facilities in a grand station in the Spanish Style.
After Kelso, it's more desert road, surrounded by cactus, until picking up the main road into Las Vegas - and the end of my road trip! 2,960 miles later ...
Saturday 12 August 2017
So, yesterday was a chance to drive again my favourite stretch of Route 66 - and the first stretch I ever drove.
This section of road had a dreadful reputation, all narrow winding switchback roads with no barriers and many long drops. It's challenging enough in a modern car - what it was like in a 1930s Chevrolet I can't imagine.
When the gold ran out, the road planners couldn't bypass the place quickly enough, building a straight, smooth road through the river valley.
It's a great drive though, although you can't be in a hurry. The road is well made, but still winds, snake like. There was more traffic than when I did this route before - but that's been true across Route 66. I'm glad tourism has picked up and all these little businesses that survived are earning a little money again. Although a selfish part of me liked the feeling of discovery and being alone on these roads.
Oatman looks like a movie set for a Western, but it's the real thing, complete with pesky burros wandering the streets. It's hard to believe now, but Clark Gable and Carole Lombard came here for the honeymoon*. They stayed at the Oatman Hotel, whose only guests now seem to be the wild burros.
From Oatman, it's a drive across the desert to Needles (named after a local rock formation), where I stayed on my previous road trip. I was very pleased to see that the ruins of the old Harvey House hotel have now been completely restored into a beautiful station building. I must find my old photographs. Again, this added to the feeling of regeneration I'm seeing across some stretches of the old road.
There's a tiny bit of I-40, before I leave the road again to head to Goffs. Now I'm driving along side the Santa Fe railway, keeping pace with the huge, mile long trains, while the I-40 takes a more direct route across the desert.
Goffs was once a refuelling stop, but no train has stopped there for years. With no railway, and no Route 66, it's now a ruined general stores and a lot of trailers. I can't help but wonder who lives out here.
The road now curves back to the I-40 - and a stretch of road I got to do for the first time. Previously, the road to Topcock was closed, but now I got to drive this wonderful, empty stretch.
Alas, the gods of Route 66, they give and they take away. Now there's a stretch of the road I can't do, from Fenner to Cadiz, as they're doing resurfacing work and replacing some bridges. So I bomb along the I-40, turn off at the Kelbaker road and zip down to Amboy.
Amboy houses the iconic Roy's. This is a modernist motel with a huge pointed sign like a beacon in the desert. The place closed years ago, but not allowed to disintegrate. Instead it earns its money as a location for adverts and pop video shoots. A picture of it won the Sony World Photography awards this year - much to my amusement - I should have entered some of my pictures of it!
A bit of smiling and hand waving and miming eventually got the point over. After much apologising, they moved their car so I could take an SUV-free photograph. It's a good picture, but not as good as the one that won the award.
Next, it's time to hunt some ghost towns. Bagdad is just a tree, in the middle of nowhere. Siberia is a few bricks and a tyre with the name of the town on it stuck on a pole. Then it's Ludlow.
When the trains no longer need to stop there, they picked up the town and moved it north, to straddle Route 66. When Route 66 bypassed them, they moved it north again to service the I-40. There's still a collection of gas stations, a rather good little cafe and a motel I was tempted to stay in.
In the end, I couldn't resist the temptation to get a little more Route 66. I shot down to Barstow, where I am now, staying in a Route 66 themed, Bangladeshi run, motel!
* Well, apparently, this is a classic Route myth! Says Blue Miller, via Facebook -
"I have to say that, despite the set up room and the lovely legend, that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon (or even the night) at the Oatman Hotel is sadly, just that - a legend invented by an enterprising hotel owner!
They were, however, married in the Methodist Church in Kingman on 29th March 1939. The Oatman Hotel owner got his facts a little squirrelly because a sign in the hotel reads that they spent their wedding night of 18th March there!
What actually happened was that, on a day off from Gone With The Wind, Gable and Lombard drove to Arizona, got a marriage license from a very surprised Miss Viola Olsen, the clerk, were wed a hour later and then drove straight back to Hollywood where the news was announced at Miss Lombard's home in Bel-Air at a press conference early the next morning."
It's a great legend, repeated in so many places I had no reason to doubt it - but the truth is just as interesting. Here's some more detective work on this - http://laughlinbuzz.blogspot.mx/2017/01/clark-gable-carole-lombard-in-oatman-az.html
Friday 11 August 2017
I left Flagstaff nice and early, skipping breakfast as I knew I'd find somewhere soon enough en-route. The first stretch out of town reminded me of the mountain drives from last week - pine covered hills and windy roads. Route 66 runs alongside the I-40 as a frontage road for a while.
After a few miles, the tarmac disappeared altogether, leaving a red dirt road. An ominous sign warned me that I was about to enter private land, that I was welcome to keep driving, but any problems were my own responsibility.
My Jeep Renegade is a fake SUV - it looks rugged, but it's actually a two wheel drive, four cylinder Fiat 500 in a wolf's clothing - so I wasn't going to risk it. I couldn't get phone coverage to see on Google Maps how long long this dirt stretch was.
Looking now, I was right to avoid it - it was dirt road almost the entire way, until it rejoined the more modern Route 66 outside of Williams. I was little sad I'd missed out on an adventure - but equally, it was possible I might have had too much adventure if I'd gone that way.
For this reason, Williams has more life than most old Route 66 towns. In fact it's 80% gift shop. Behind the store fronts it's all one huge Western and Route 66 gift shop. Yup, there's even salt taffy. But, the Pine County Restaurant looked perfect for breakfast, and indeed it was.
From Williams it was back on the I-40 until the next detour back to the old road, and this time Ash Fork. A much more typical Route 66 remnant this one. There's a few deserted motels, a general store that's been trading since 1930, but now 'for sale by owner', like many other struggling businesses.
They were the first to realise there might be a nostalgic demand for old Route 66. They got the state of Arizona to preserve the road between Seligman and Kingman, leading to Seligman being named "Birthplace of Historic Route 66". That, and many quirky characterful stores, meant that Seligman has long been a 'must-stop' for people interested in Route 66. Apparently, Seligman is the inspiration for Radiator Spings in the Pixar movie 'Cars'.
The Route 66 Association was formed here, and there's a good museum too. It was also ridiculously, blisteringly hot when I arrived.
After all those warm summer evenings up in the mountains, I forgot how searingly hot the deserts of Arizona (and later California) can be.
I will hide in my motel until it's dark, then venture out to Mr D'z Route 66 Diner for dinner!
Thursday 10 August 2017
Holbrook to Flagstaff was down on my plan as one of my easy drives. Not many miles, but plenty to see. Unlike yesterday, where the old road was buried under the I-40, there's a few sections of real Route 66 still remaining on this drive.
One that's still holding on is the Jack Rabbitt trading post. They make absolutely sure you know to take the exit. They post huge, bright yellow signs with their characteristic rabbit logo on for many miles in advance. There's not much at the store itself - the usual collection of Route 66 fridge magnets, 'authentic' Indian goods and supplies for weary travellers. But it's good to see it holding on.
Next came Winslow, and to begin with it lived up to my expectations for a bypassed Route 66 town. Deserted motels and shells of long closed businesses. I passed all the way through on the west bound road, and was about to rejoin the I-40 when I had a nagging feeling I'd missed something. So I swung around and took the east bound Route 66 back - and find people, lots of people, all posing around The Corner.
There's Eagles themed gift shops on the other two corners and a themed coffee shop on the other. Eagles tunes float out from the shop HiFi's. Young girls and old old bikers pose by the statue and get their photo taken. I forget how popular the song - and the band - are here.
These luxurious hotels, run with military precision, appeared at major train junctions and tourist spots across the USA. Few remain - certainly not as well preserved as this one. I've long planned to write a more in depth post about how important these hotels were.
I was particularly glad to see the latter, as you only see the arrows after you've passed the exit (and can't turn round for tens of miles). This time I'd planned for it, and pulled off early, knowing it was coming up.
From there it was an hour of bumping along on the deserted and crumbling sections of old Route 66. It skirts around hills and valleys the I-40 just ploughs through, until I reached Flagstaff. This is my third time there and the city is as charming as ever. A few compact blocks of living downtown with restaurants, bars and (mostly gift) shops.
I stayed in the Weatherford, where I stayed the first time. Like the first time I wished it had lifts, as my case is heavy to drag up three flights of stairs. The rooms are tiny by modern standards, but absolutely fine.
Tomorrow, it's another relatively short drive on Route 66 to Kingman, with plenty more distractions.
Tuesday 8 August 2017
I drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Holbrook, Arizona, and this leg has intrigued me for a while. I drove it back in 2012, but I have almost no notes or photographs for this leg, and I've been trying to remember why. It's a good, long stretch, some 240 miles.
(Edit - 10th Sept 2017 - I'm not being fair here. The stretch from Albuquerque, through New Mexico, has lots of real Route 66, including the wonderfully named Dead Man's Curve. However, the stretch from the Arizona border to Holbrook is almost all I-40 and think that affected my mood when I arrived! If you want to avoid this stretch, I strongly recommended the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest detours - that's what I did the first year)
There's a few distractions - a great, authentic diner (imaginatively named the 66 Diner) in Albuquerque set me up for the day. There's a short stretch of old road going through Grants, New Mexico.
There's not much left in Grants any more. All along the road are empty, disintegrating motels and cafes. The I-40 bypassed all this, and modern cars can drive much further without the need for a pit stop.
There's a certain post-apocalyptic feel to Grants, as I seemed to be the only car on the road. I stopped to take a few photos, but I was soon back on the I-40.
The next distraction is the Continental Divide - on one side of this all rivers flow to the Atlantic, and on the other, to the Pacific. Straddling the divide is the Indian Village Trading Post, one of the most famous on this route. This is mainly because of the huge billboards advertising it start almost as soon as you leave Albuquerque. The shop itself doesn't contain much I hadn't seen before - but was cheaper than most.
Indian trading posts are a feature of this area. Route 66 marks the southern boundary of the Navajo Nation, an area that contains not only the huge Navajo reservation, but the Hopi, Apache and many others.
This was most marked in the small town of Gallup (where last time I stopped for the night). The population of this little town is 50% Indian, and most of the rest of the population is Hispanic (this is New Mexico after all). I felt that I stood out. I stopped there for a coffee, then back on the road to Holbrook.
Holbrook is small (5,000 population) and would be another unremarkable Route 66 town - closed businesses and crumbling motels - except for one remarkable feature. The Wigwam Motel. Fifteen concrete Wigwams arranged in a circle, each large enough to house everything you'd expect from a motel room. There used to be many of these along Route 66 - their novelty hoping to attract drivers-by - and this is one of three remaining.
The rooms were basic but fine, with their original 1950s decoration. Outside each Wigwam was a (rusty) classic car - I had a 1960s Oldsmobile Cutlass. The place was hopelessly photogenic and quite charming. Talking to the owners, almost all their custom is from Europeans, who appreciated the charm of these retro establishments. Americans, in the main, can't see beyond the primitive fittings and lack of facilities.
Still, dinner was tasty and ridiculously cheap, just £9 including beer. I wish Holbrook the best of luck, it seems to be holding on - just.
Monday 7 August 2017
The day started in Taos (after my first waffles of the entire trip). Everyone in the B&B recommended I took the 'high road' into Santa Fe - and I'm glad I did.
It starts back in the thick pine woods of the Carson National Forest that I encountered the day before. From here it passes through many little villages with names like Peñasco and Sipapu - the Spanish and Indian influences are strong up here. The Spanish first colonised the area back in the 1750s, often next to existing Indian pueblos, the two blurring together.
There came a point when the landscape started to change - the lush green valleys gave way to shrub covered desert, and I skirted around the edge of Santa Fe. I've been before, and I didn't need any 'native' gifts or scented candles, so I didn't stop this time. Like Taos, I found it too commercial, too busy, when I visited in 2012.
It's attractive, yet more adobe buildings and Spanish colonial architecture - but touristy and sleepy in the evenings.
The nightlife all happens where Route 66 cuts through the University district in an area called Nob Hill. I didn't stay here last time as the few remaining Route 66 motels had a bad reputation, and were well past their prime.
The two very laid back dudes that run it had lost my reservation (which I had a gut feeling they would), but it wasn't full and the room is nice, if simple. I'm right in the middle of it here, and there's a burger-and-beer bar two doors down I'm off to investigate ...
Sunday 6 August 2017
Today has been a tale of two Taos.
I'm getting more used to driving long distances. I drove the 200 miles from Durango to Taos without stopping. I hadn't planned it that way, I just presumed I'd stop when I tiredness hit, but somehow I kept going. The drive was entertaining without being hard work - plenty to see, but also wide open roads with little traffic.
I went through two national forests - San Juan and Carson. The first felt almost European - how I might imagine the landscapes of Germany or Central Europe. Small farms dotted among green meadows and hills and mountains covered in pine trees.
Pagosa Springs appeared to be the main resort town servicing all this, and it looked very pleasant as I drove through.
I was also aware that this was Indian country. A signpost to Navajo City reminded me I was yet again on the edge of the huge Navajo Nation. Another sign to the Apache reservation gave a small thrill. It brought back memories of all those times we played cowboys and indians as kids.
Carson National Forest felt more remote. It was definitely part of the 'Great American Outdoors', and again I found myself climbing to over 10,000ft. The Forest contains Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest, and was more mountainous than I expected.
After the Carson Forest, the landscape changed again to flat - dead flat - as I was now on the Taos plateau. The Rio Grande carves through this vast flat landscape - which I later learned was a volcanic field, spreading over 7,000sq km.
From here to the Taos Pueblo, one of the highlights of my trip. The Pueblo has been inhabited for over 1,000 years, making it the longest continually inhabited settlement in the United States.
The most arresting features are the two multi-story adobe buildings that sit on either side of the Rio Pueblo, the river that flows through the middle of the village. These structures could be as many as a thousand years old - they were here when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. But much of what's known about the village is conjecture. The Tiwa indians are notoriously private . They won't share their oral history of the village with outsiders, nor will they allow archaeologists to investigate.
After the super-slick commercialism of much of the USA, this place had a medieval, ramshackle feel. In some ways it reminded me of Morocco, without the continual hawkers. The opposite, in fact - although a few of the houses were converted to shops, there seemed little interest in selling to the tourists. One shop I entered, the owner was asleep on a matress on the floor.
I took a guided tour, hoping for more insights than I would get walking around on my own. It started in the church of St Geronimo, where the young student explained that the Indians all had two religions. They would attend church each Sunday and considered themselves Catholics, but they also continued to follow their ancient Indian religion. This was a completely oral tradition, not written down, not shared with anyone outside the Tiwa community.
One of my fellow tourists - I will christen him 'Mr Annoying' - tried to push the guide to at least tell us the name of the religion, but she wouldn't.
She told us that only a few families lived full time within the walls of the Pueblo. Within the walls there was no electricity or running water. Mr Annoying asked why they didn't use solar power or kerosene powered refrigerators, not understanding that this was a matter of choice for the Indians. He also didn't like the fact that their language wasn't written down ("surely it must be somewhere") and pressed her to talk to us in it. Which she wouldn't.
Almost all the Tiwa live out on the reservation. There they have electricity, internet, fridges and all other modern technologies. But each family still had a house within the Pueblo, which they would be expected to maintain. At various times of the year, for big festivals, the families would all move back into the Pueblo. They would then close the doors to the tourists and spend that time living like they always have, celebrating their festivals and religion in complete private.
She also told us about their interactions with the colonists over the years. This goes in someway to explain why they choose to keep themselves to themselves. The Spanish mostly left them to their own devices. They demanded they converted to Catholicism, but once they did, they were left to pretty much self govern.
The American settlers, however, didn't like the idea of self governing Indians, resulting in a war between the Indians and the Americans. The Indian women and children took refuge in their church - the Spanish had taught them that was a sanctuary, that they would be safe here.
Yet the Americans didn't agree and bombed the church, killing most of those inside. The ruins still stand within the Pueblo, I would imagine as a constant reminder not to trust the Americans.
Mr Annoying tried to pick holes in her dates ("you said 1842, but surely, at that time ..."). I thought, as we stood by the ruined church, that was extremely disrespectful.
The house was small inside, containing a kitchen (with modern cabinets!) and a table for guests. They had another house for sleeping in. I stuck a pin into Cambridge on their map of the world to show where I'd come from - and there were pins all over their map.
We talked about the weather - it was pouring with rain at the Pueblo, which made it even more atmospheric - and how they made the bread. The little girl kept wanting to play with the mum's mobile phone. I loved the combination of the modern and the ancient.
After the Pueblo I drove into Taos proper, and the jury is still out. Because of the adobe architecture, it looks a lot like the Pueblo, which makes the differences all the more obvious. The compact town square is a parking lot for all the tourist cars, making it hard to see what it looks like, and each building is a gift shop of some kind. After the simple life of the Tiwa, it all seemed so crass and commercial.
Good luck to them, I say, but something about the town doesn't gel for me. Santa Fe - which many people consider to the be the most beautiful town in the USA - left me cold in the same way.
Next I'm off to Albuquerque - which I really liked when I went back in 2012. It's a real city, young and buzzing, not reliant on tourism like many places I've been recently. I'm looking forward to it - and rejoining Route 66 too!
Saturday 5 August 2017
So I caught the narrow gauge railway the 42 miles to Silverton, up in the mountains. I'd actually driven past Silverton the day before, but this journey was going to take four times as long, and that's what made it special.
The line has been running continuously since 1882, and its impressive black 2-8-2 engines were built in 1920. There's a mixture of rolling stock - I took the budget option, the open gondela, because I wanted the view more than anything else.
The journey starts, with much hooting of the steam whistle. It takes us straight through town and across the crossroads where it surprised me the day before.
The train follows the course of the Animas river (unlike the road which takes a different route). But the river doesn't like to make it easy. When it reaches the Animas canyon, there's no longer any room for the railroad alongside the river.
The teenagers in my carriage proved this by being able to touch the canyon face as it passed outside the carriage. On the other side is a long, sheer drop to the river as it races through the canyon.
Once out of that section, it resumes its route alongside the river, eventually arriving in Silverton, where we get a 2 and a bit hour break.
There were saloons, restaurants and countless gift shops determined to make as much in two hours. I regretted not trying to fit in an overnight stop here, as I wondered how the place would feel once the trains had gone. It was wonderfully remote.
I expected the journey back to be less interesting - I'd brought a pile of books - but actually it was just exciting on the way back.
This time I shared a carriage with an excited Latin family that cheered and gasped every time the train turned a corner and gave them a new view. They cheered every time the train blew its whistle.
Even pouring rain (in an open sided carriage!) didn't dampen our spirits.
Apparently the train just freewheels almost the whole way back to Durango - I'm glad I didn't find that out until I arrived back.
Back in Durango I had a really good beer and a really indifferent dinner (can't complain, I've done very well so far). Now it's time to go to New Mexico.