Fuelled (no pun intended) by coffee from the Armco gas station next door, we left the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup early, not only because the journey was 225 miles to Flagstaff where we were scheduled to stay for two nights, but because there were several notable attractions on Historic Route 66 that we were keen to explore.
Although we had become accustomed to the frequency of stores selling Indian merchandise on the road, the profusion of trading posts on the outskirts of the town, including Richardson’s, Pow Wow’s and Ortega’s, reminded us that Gallup, home to members of the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes, was the “Indian Capital of the World”.
Our weakness for such establishments slowed our progress this morning, but we had the consolation of knowing that, on crossing into Arizona, we would be clawing back the hour that we had lost when we entered Utah for the first time a fortnight before. We plumped initially for the Navajo Travel Plaza, essentially an immense truck stop but one that we were lured to by the imposing Indian statue in the forecourt.
On leaving the plaza we made two unplanned detours in an endeavour to get back onto the I-40W. The now ubiquitous Burlington North and Santa Fe Railroad trains snaked eastward alongside desert scrub where sheep scrabbled for scarce food.
On re-entering the Navajo Nation once again, we stopped at the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post near Lupton, a ramshackle collection of wooden buildings selling the usual Native American jewelry, rugs and other gifts.
The most interesting part of the complex were the sheer cliffs that overhung it, where the owners had had large statues built of the animal species that frequented the area. Further along was the Tomahawk Indian Store, housed in “the largest teepee in the southwest”.
I cannot recall for certain whether we actually purchased anything here as a) we bought a lot of Indian jewelry on the trip, and b) the structures looked very much the same once you were inside.
Tempted by its vigorous roadside publicity for the past few miles, we turned off the road next at Indian City near Houck. This comprised two distinct buildings – Chee’s Indian Store, once a Navajo rug stand, and the newer pueblo-style building called, strangely enough, Indian City.
Despite the clean, modern look of the latter I preferred Chee’s, not least as I was able to purchase the beautiful Navajo by Susanne and Jake Page from its extensive bookshelves. I nearly contrived to leave it behind in the shop, however, as the woman at the counter, not having seen it before, wanted to read it first, gushing over the photographs and excitedly explaining to me that her mother still wore the same traditional clothes and jewelry as the women depicted in the book.
We continued to follow the frontage road which ran parallel to the I-40 for a number of miles before arriving at the Fort Courage Trading Post, another store attached to the rickety facade of a western fort. If any reader thinks the place looks familiar, it was the setting for the mid-late sixties TV sitcom, F Troop. Given that it was broadcast on the ITV network in the UK, I never saw it (my parents were BBC loyalists), but Janet was able to relate more to it.
An abandoned gas station and adjoining windmill-shaped pancake house added a note of sadness to the whimsy. The reason I am standing outside the hogan in the photograph above has more to do with the prevailing stench inside than any decision to get the best light for the shot.
Despite the welcome extra hour, we were not making as much progress as we might have liked. And with several stops still before us, we needed to recoup some time. Balanced against that, we were getting hungry. Our previously reliable supply of granola bars on the back seat of the car was dwindling and something more substantial was required.
Our next scheduled “stops” were the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, neither of which provided refreshment facilities beyond the usual gift store fare. We parked and walked to several of the overlooks to survey the stunning colours of the former, but, reluctantly, did not give the Petrified Forest the time it deserved, driving through it without stopping. Had we done so, we would have had to alter the title of this post.
Holbrook, the halfway point on today’s route and natural lunch location, was reached via the gunbarrel straight I-180. As we proceeded through a downtown that was not afraid to flaunt its Route 66 connections, we searched for one of the more fabled dining stops on this section of the road – Joe & Aggie’s Cafe.
Aside from their blend of Mexican and American cuisine, the restaurant doubles up as a small museum displaying Route 66 memorabilia. It also has an enviable place in movie history as the inspiration for the depiction of America’s Main Street in the Pixar film, Cars.
Waiting for our sandwich orders, we had no choice but to listen to an elderly regular proclaiming his pride at receiving his new hearing aid. A pair of bikers at the next table argued about their next move as they shuffled maps around.
Service was friendly and efficient, although the sandwiches did not quite live up to our expectations. We were not permitted to leave the establishment without signing the visitors’ book.
With the temperature nearing ninety degrees, it was a very short drive to the next iconic sight on today’s list – the Wigwam Motel. Once there were similar lodgings all along The Mother Road but only two remain today, the other in Rialto, California.
With its marketing slogan of “Have You Slept in a Wigwam Lately?”, the motel continues to thrive as both a novel lodging option and an open air museum that parades vintage cars outside each “unit”.
Attractive though the 32 feet high “rooms” look from the outside, I doubt I would wish to spend more than a single night in one, and that only for the novelty value. But would I choose the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup over this? I suspect not. On woefully short acquaintance, Holbrook joined the growing list of towns that we would have welcomed the chance to explore further. But not on this trip.
For a brief moment I think Janet thought seriously of exchanging our house and car for the alternatives on display below.
The procession of bizarre attractions just kept on coming. Next stop was the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City. The billboard declaring “Here It Is” is celebrated as one of the most iconic signs on the entirety of Route 66. In the road’s heyday of the post war years, motorists approaching from all directions were forewarned by a succession of yellow and black signs with a crouching rabbit counting down the miles. There may be fewer now, but the sense of anticipation remains.
I doubt we were alone, however, in being disappointed at the failure of the reality, in the form of the average trading post, to live up to the hype. Nonetheless, Janet enjoyed her ride on the giant fibreglass statue in the parking lot – another of those “well, you just have to do it, don’t you?” moments (I didn’t by the way).
The last prominent town before Flagstaff on Route 66 is Winslow, Arizona, a name that resonates with any self-respecting hippie of the late sixties and seventies. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey the song, Take It Easy, which was the first track on the Eagles’ platinum debut album in 1972.
The second verse begins:
Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
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 good burghers of Winslow seized on the marketing opportunity afforded by the song and erected a monument on the northwest corner of Second Street and Kinsley Avenue. It is now a place of pilgrimage for rock fans from all over the world, bringing renewed revenue and profile to the town. Whilst we leant against the figure, a young man on business from Baltimore, swung by and offered to take our photograph.
The girl, by the way, in the flatbed Ford, can be seen in the window behind the statue, which does bear a striking resemblance to a young Jackson Browne.
An excellent gift store selling a large amount of “Standin’ on the Corner” merchandise sits directly opposite the statue. As we perused the t-shirts (yes, I bought two), mugs, fridge magnets, postcards, CDs and miscellaneous items, Eagles DVDs were being shown on the large TV screen overhead.
Incongruously, the store was “manned” by two ladies of mature years who could not have given a better impression of disliking their job if they had tried. Not only did they fail to acknowledge the music (perhaps they had become immune to it), but they also made no effort to engage us in conversation, either about our purchases or our reason for visiting. It is rare not to be asked “where are you folks from” at least.
Anxious to get to Flagstaff before dark we gave Meteor Crater a miss and pushed on. But not without attempting to visit one final location.Bobby Troup’s classic song, (Get Your Kicks) on Route 66, has the line “Flagstaff Arizona, Don’t forget Winona”. We didn’t, Bobby. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t find it!
We took the advice of Roger Naylor, whose beautiful book, Arizona Kicks on Route 66, had been our primary guide, and took exit 211 on I-40, picking up the original Route 66 alignment, Townsend-Winona. The scenery – Ponderosa pine woods, farms and meadows – was lovely, but, somehow, we failed to locate the town. Or perhaps we did and we didn’t realise it.
This late afternoon detour meant we had deviated from our planned itinerary for the day. We were now approaching Flagstaff from the north on I-89 rather than from the east on I-40. After much map rustling and an increasingly fraught exchange of views as dusk descended on the edge of town, we succeeded in spotting the Little America Hotel on East Butler Avenue, sat alongside the entrance to I-40 West (and Route 66) in the direction of Los Angeles – very convenient for our getaway the morning after next.
After our dark, cramped accommodation in Gallup we instantly brightened at the gleaming, welcoming lobby. The hotel consisted of a number of interconnected buildings and we needed to drive through the parking lot for several hundred yards before reaching ours in a lovely, forested setting. Janet did not hesitate in taking advantage of the outdoor heated swimming pool whilst I acquainted myself with a room that resembled a suite.
I write this piece on the morning after Barack Obama has been re-elected President of the United States (and I have had barely an hour’s sleep). That seemed a distant prospect as I watched in disbelief his lacklustre performance in the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney on CNN.
My spirits were raised by the excellent dinner and highly attentive service in the elegant hotel restaurant that followed. It was a few short steps from there to the adjoining bar where we topped up our bottle of Pinot Grigio with a couple of Jack Daniel’s and gin and tonics respectively whilst engaging in a fascinating conversation about the road with a trucker from St. Louis, Missouri. He was en route to Los Angeles, a regular trip in which he covered between 600 and 800 miles a day, a figure we had difficulty in relating to (the shortest route using classified roads between Land’s End and John O’Groats is 874 miles).
Today had been one of the most eagerly awaited legs of the trip, and whilst we had not managed to visit every attraction we had planned, it had not disappointed. Trading posts, a roadside diner, a hotel comprised of wigwams, sitting on a giant jackrabbit, reliving a great pop lyric – we had done them all whilst progressing 225 miles west. The weather, as it almost always appeared to be on the trip, had been lovely. We were now genuine Route 66 groupees. But we had to wait another day for the chance to enjoy it further for tomorrow was “the big one”!