Musings & Meditations

Friends, Family, and the Open Road

Posted in Travel by Pam Keesey on May 24, 2008

Day 1: Photostream
When I first started telling friends and family of my plans to drive across two states not just once, but twice, in just under four days, travelling more than 2,000 miles in the process, their initial response was one of bemusement. “Are you sure you’re up for that?” and “Don’t push yourself too hard” were comments that I heard several times. But as I described my motivation, and more than that, my itinerary, the more interested and supportive people became. My mother shared her own adventure of driving Route 66 back in 1961 with two friends from nursing, beginning in Chicago and arriving in San Francisco. My father recalled a portion of his youth spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along Route 66 and his recollection of places like Meteor Crater.

As the trip drew near, people offered good wishes, hopes of their own for just such a trip, and moral support along the way. And as Friday evening approached, my new and very good friend Paul made sure I ate and, on far too little sleep and too much wine, made sure I got to the airport by 4:20 Saturday morning. One of the disadvantages of such a cheap flight is a departure at such an ungodly hour. But with only a carry on bag, and a very short security line, it was an easy task. Filled with anticipation, I watched out the window as we lifted into the air, watching Puget Sound fade into the distance as we departed Seattle.

As we settled into the three hour flight, I watched the light change as the sun rose, and managed to catch a glimpse of Mt. St. Helens from the air, an amazing sight, and a photo opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

I dozed off for a little while, so it didn’t seem long before I heard the pilot announcing our pending arrival in Phoenix. The reality was starting to hit that I’d soon be on the road and in the midst of my adventure. When I looked out the window and saw the sun casting a shadow of the plane encircled by a rainbow of light against the clouds below, I couldn’t help but think that it was a good omen.

I held onto the positive feeling as I stood waiting for far too long at the rental car center. What I hoped would be a quick pickup took an hour in line and five minutes at the counter. But, having signed my agreement and picked up the keys, I was on my way.

Flying down I-10, I was on my way to the first stop on my itinerary, past Parker to Lake Havasu City. Founded in 1964, Lake Havasu City bought London Bridge — yes, that London Bridge — for 2.5 million dollars. Dismantled, and each brick labeled and then loaded onto a freighter, the bridge was shipped to Arizona, and then reassembled across Lake Havasu. With its water sports, sno-cone stands, and hot dog vendors, Lake Havasu’s London Bridge is somewhat different than London’s own London Bridge, but it can’t be argued that Lake Havasu’s London Bridge doesn’t have its own appeal. A tacky appeal, perhaps, but an appeal nonetheless.

With London Bridge under my belt, I was off to Route 66. I headed north toward Topock, just outside of which I found the beginning of Route 66 in Arizona and continued on into the breath-taking landscape of the Black Mountains as I headed toward Oatman.

Originally an old west town, Oatman found new vitality as a stop along old Route 66. Soon bypassed, however, Oatman settled into its ghost town status, and now functions more as a Route 66 novelty town than a real settlement. In addition to its ties to Route 66, Oatman is known for being the honeymoon destination for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, one of Hollywood’s most famous couples. In fact, the Oatman Hotel features Gable and Lombard’s honeymoon suite as one of its most visited — and, I assume, most prized — attractions.

One of the beauties of driving old Route 66 through Oatman is driving through Sitgreaves Pass, a winding road through the beautiful Black Mountains, a gorgeous and dramatic landscape that couldn’t be captured in photographs, especially with no shoulder to pull over to and rain looming on the not-so-distant horizon.

Approaching Kingman, recognizable Route 66 landmarks were becoming more common. First there was Cool Springs Cabins, closed in 1966, and then restored by Ned Leuchtner in 2004. Beautiful stonework and wonderful vintage gas pumps are definitely part of the appeal of this lovely little roadside stop.

Kingman is at the crossroads of Route 66 and I-40 and, as such, has survived in ways that towns like Oatman have not. Having grown into a respectable mid-size Arizona town, Kingman is teeming with residences and small businesses. It also manages to cash in on its connection to Route 66. The Powerhouse Museum is a tribute to Route 66, but one that really doesn’t have the charm or the appeal of the road itself.

Heading north from Kingman, following an alignment of Route 66 that was bypassed in 1978, took me to Hackberry, another town — or what’s left of it — surviving almost exclusively on its connection to the Mother Road. The General Store is a landmark, and the animal skulls with the hide slowly desiccating and separating from the bone left quite an impression.

From Hackberry it was on to Peach Springs, tribal headquarters of the Hualapai Nation. Like many of the reservations I’ve been through over the years, signs of rural poverty were quite marked. Businesses were long closed, houses were falling apart, and cars sat with no sign of having been moved in years. At the same time, families were sitting together in front of the houses, laughing and enjoying each others company while children played in the yard. The Hualapai Nation runs the only native-owned Grand Canyon rafting company. One of these days, when I return to the area to raft the Colorado River, I think it will be the Hualapai company I’ll be rafting with.

Just east of Peach Springs is one of Route 66’s oldest and most well known tourist traps: Grand Canyon Caverns. The stone and steel dinosaurs on the grounds had a certain Flinstones quality to them. And when I found out that I was “just in time” for the last tour, I paid the $14.95 to go down to the caverns themselves.

Apparently the caverns were discovered by accident when Walter Peck was on his way to a poker game. Convinced he’d struck it rich with a diamond and gold mine, Peck filed a claim and started his venture. Turns out there was nothing of real worth beyond the natural beauty of the caverns themselves — a rare dry cavern full of crystals and unique snowball-like formations. Thus, a roadside attraction was born.

Seligman’s famous (infamous?) Roadkill Café was hard to miss. Although not original to the route, it has developed quite a following, and I’ve been told the Armadillo Grill is worth a try.

Just off I-40, Williams, the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by the Interstate, has managed to keep a stretch of old Route 66 alive and well. Arriving at dusk, the neon signs were just a hint of what I might expect in Tucumcari on Sunday. Bustling with Route 66 pilgrims and Grand Canyon tourists, the sidewalks and restaurants were full, but I was neither hungry enough nor tired enough to want to stop. And somehow, wandering the few blocks of Route 66 in Williams, Arizona, alone just didn’t have the same appeal as continuing down the stretch of highway to Flagstaff.

My itinerary had me getting into Flagstaff earlier in the evening than I would the next two nights, and having rousted myself — and Paul — out of bed at 3:45 a.m. to get to the airport, it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a relaxed evening.

Flagstaff was chilly, especially by Arizona standards, and people were shivering or wearing winter coats as they walked along the sidewalks. I wandered a bit, catching a few of the sights, before stumbling on what has to be a classic emblem of 1950s American multicultural influences: the Grand Canyon Café & Chop Suey. Established in the mid-to-late 50s, Grand Canyon Café and Chop Suey still serves American and Chinese American classics and is staffed by Chinese Americans and Native Americans. I think the woman who served me was Navajo. Despite all the other dimly lit restaurants with enticing sandwich board signs placed outside their doors, it was at the brightly lit Grand Canyon Café & Chop Suey that I had to have my first real meal out on the road. I opted for the house special, Grand Canyon Chow Mein (Soft Noodle) with Beef, Shrimp, and BBQ Pork. Soon after, an enormous plate of food was set in front of me, and I relaxed and enjoyed the kitschy ’50s diner atmosphere.

While looking for the hostel where I was to spend the night, I stumbled upon another gem, the Monte Vista Lounge, and decided to take some time out and have a drink in honor of my mother, who told me that Seagrams’ 7 & 7 was her and her companions’ drink of choice when driving along Route 66 all those years ago. As I sat at the bar sipping my drink and making notes for my diary, Charlie from Phoenix stopped to chat. He, like so many others, thought it was a “crazy” journey I was on, but one that seemed to appeal to him the more we talked and the more he thought about it. “What are you writing,” he asked. “A love letter?”

“No,” I replied, “Just notes about my trip.”

“Make sure you mention me,” he said.

“I will,” I said.

Du Beau hostel turned out to be quite nice, and I was woman #5 in a dorm-style room for 8. In and of itself, it’s not that significant, except that I was the last one in, and it meant there were no lower bunks left. I climbed into one of the top bunks, and thought of my friend’s message regarding his own adventure with ticks in Florida that day, and reflected on how the first day of my adventure had panned out.

Many of my thoughts were about the novelty of my trip, and the sheer relief of being out and doing something, anything, even if it wasn’t as sunny and warm as I had hoped for. But other things were coming together, too, things that struck me as notable, and signs of what was to come over the next three days.

Among them, I had brought a book and a fully loaded iPod for the trip. With my car adapter and my just-downloaded unabridged audiobook version of the Grapes of Wrath, I thought I had everything I needed to entertain myself during those long stretches of highway. What I realized was that by setting a soundtrack, scrolling through my song list or listening to even a classic American novel, I was setting an agenda for my thought process. Wasn’t that what I was trying to avoid? Wasn’t I trying to let go of thought; be, as they say in Buddhist meditation, mindful, present in the moment, and not guide my process?

In the end, it was the radio that accompanied me throughout. While I sought out new stations once the station I was listening to started to fade, I found that the radio itself had a meditative quality that complimented the stretch of road ahead. I could listen, but not listen, let the words and the music drift in and out of my consciousness, since I wasn’t specifically trying to listen to any one song, any one story. In being able to get lost in my thoughts with the songs in the background, I was opening my mind to an expansion and expression that would have been completely inaccessible if I’d tried to create my own soundtrack.

As it turned out, there’s also a synchronicity to listening to the radio on a road trip in a time of transformation. Songs that I hadn’t heard in years brought back memories, lyrics that lay hidden in the recesses of my subconscious came back to me unexpectedly, sentiments expressed in song resonated with my own emotional state, and brought a depth and breadth to my exploration that may not have happened otherwise.

Song for the day: “Take It to the Limit” by The Eagles

So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time.

Highways & Byways
Day 2: Getting My Kicks (Photostream)
Day 3: Yesterday’s Gone (Photostream)
Day 4: Communing (Photostream)

My Route 66 @ Flickr.com

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