Today was the first of a four day drive back to our starting point in Las Vegas. Much of that journey would be on, or close to, Historic Route 66. Excited at the prospect, we left Albuquerque on I-40 west. We had contemplated heading east initially to sample breakfast in the famous 66 Diner, but decided to press on – besides there would be other worthwhile sights to see before we arrived in Gallup (“Indian Jewelry Capital of the World”) for our overnight stop.
The first priority was to fill the car, which we did at the 66 Pit Stop. Although we had not eaten, we could not be tempted at such an early hour by the “world famous” burger that was a speciality here. A short while later we drove through Laguna, the self-styled “New Home of the Laguna Burger”, which appeared to reinforce our earlier decision not to risk the “old” one back at the gas station.
The Navajo and Laguna reservations hugged us on either side of the road as we looked for opportunities to slip off the interstate and test the four wheel drive credentials of the car on the often rough road that passed for America’s Main Street. It did not take long for us to skirt our first dead animal of the day – a calf shortly before the exit for Hajillee.
At Grants – the midpoint and principal town on today’s journey – we came across, or at least acknowledged for the first time, a phenomenon that was to thrill, fascinate and haunt us in equal measure for the next three days – the sight of cargo trains of centipede proportions, motored by upwards of five engines, proceeding magisterially along the tracks only a few yards from the main road.
We had long become accustomed to gargantuan trucks hurtling past us in excess of the speed limit, but this was something else, something that I had, clearly erroneously, thought was a thing of the past in the land where the automobile is king, when hobos rode the rails during the Depression.
If the sight was not awe-inspiring enough, the sound of the train’s deep, mournful whistle sent the same chill through me as only the bell of the Campanile di San Marco in Venice had previously done.
We drove through Grants on The Mother Road past a series of uninspiring motels, eating establishments and local businesses with such exotic names as Tim’s Muffler Service, Loeffler’s Guns and Handy Andy Quick Shop before turning back onto I-40 (the two roads, and for that matter, the railroad were rarely far apart) for the short drive to Milan.
It was nearly 12.30pm and last night’s rib eye steak was long forgotten. This was not the first time that the romance of the road and the anticipation of what might await us over the horizon had overcome any hunger.
As we were about to swap the frontage road for the interstate again we spotted the Kiva Cafe and adjoining Chaco Canyon Trading Company. Having had no breakfast this would effectively be the only meal today before dinner. That was my rationalisation anyway for indulging in the Chaco Cheeseburger with bacon, fried egg and steak fries. Janet plumped for the much healthier guacomole wrap (though I do recall the mysterious disappearance of a number of my steak fries).
Waiting for our meal, we became reacquainted with our friend, Ben Goode, whose books had graced the diner in Mesquite on our first day on the road. Intriguing titles such as How to Make People Think You’re Normal, Men Exposed and The Joy of Being Broke were propped behind the condiments on our table.
The diner is truly one of the marvels of American culture, and especially of the road, and this was no exception. Wholesome, inexpensive food, friendly service (our server, Monique, was lovely), unlimited coffee and the opportunity for some serious people watching – an unbeatable combination. Moreover, they perform the valuable service of reminding us that we are not as fat as we thought we were – a condition that could only be sustained if we did not visit such establishments too often.
The couple at the next table were a case in point. She was probably in her late forties, around thirty stone with long greasy, grey hair, the number of her chins only marginally surpassed by the amount of zits on her face, and wearing a voluminous flowery blouse and tight denim shorts. He must have been in his seventies, around half his companion’s weight and wearing check shirt, blue jeans and USA baseball cap. They satisfied themselves with huge sodas whilst they waited for their meal, a vast morass of nachos and salsa that they were still devouring with relish when we left.
The restaurant was adjacent to a new, sparkling adobe-style trading post where local Native Americans worked at their craft a few feet from the counters that displayed the finished products.
Initially resuming our journey on the interstate, we soon spotted another stretch of old Route 66 to explore. The Bluewater Inn and Motel lay derelict, an all too common sight on the road’s (approximate) 2,448 miles, and one we were to witness several times again in the next few days.
But there was some life left in this particular old dog. The inn and motel had long shut up shop but the sight of a couple of dozen used cars, pickup trucks and VW microbuses indicated that there might be a business going on here. Indeed, as I stepped out of the car to take some photographs of the wistful scene, an elderly man in a Chevy pulled up alongside and invited me to “take all the pictures you like”. At first I thought he was being sarcastic and that this was his way of telling me to skedaddle, but he seemed genuinely friendly, adding he was “just trying to make a living”. We pulled away, hoping that he would make a sale that day.
Back on the I-40 and with fifty miles to go to our destination, billboards advertising the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, “home to the movie stars”, started to appear. Another mile long hot dog of a train trundled past a mere thirty yards away from us.
Banks of mesas re-emerged as we passed through Prewitt and Thoreau before reaching Continental Divide, where a line of highly elevated terrain causes rainfall on one side to drain away to one body of water and the other to a different one, in this case the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The number of signs extolling the wonders of the El Rancho Hotel were only exceeded by those recommending a stop at the Indian Market. However, this was a classic example of product marketing over the quality of the product itself, though I did succumb to purchasing a Route 66 t-shirt.
We passed the towns of Gonzales, Wingate, Iyanbito and Church Rock before leaving the I-40 one last time to arrive at the El Rancho Hotel on Historic Route 66.
When we had booked our overnight stop, our guidebook had insisted that, because of its historic significance, this was “absolutely the place to stay” in Gallup, despite the presence of a number of considerably cheaper motels. A member of the National Register of Historic Places, the El Rancho, with its slogan “Charm of Yesterday, Convenience of Tomorrow”, had provided a bed for dozens of movie stars from the golden era of Hollywood whilst they were filming in the area.
As we wandered down the corridors on each of its three floors, we encountered rooms named after just about every actor and actress that had graced the silver screen either side of the second world war. JohnWayne, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas were just a few.
I fully expected us to be given the one room that commemorated an actor we had never heard of, hence my surprise and delight at having been allocated the Humphrey Bogart room!
Sadly, the reality did not live up to the star billing. This was palpably the worst room we stayed in on the entire trip – dark, cramped, small bed, tiny bath, no iron/ironing board (cut-off versions only available at reception) or tea or coffee making facilities – and the wi-fi was temperamental. Moreover, the evening meal in the restaurant was bland and the bar dark and expensive. But hey – it was steeped in history, and it is that that the hotel trades on and derives its undoubted success from. And that is why we chose it.
And to be fair, it had character – the saloon-like lobby / lounge, the Indian store, the framed photographs of the movie stars and the murals depicting western scenes all contributed to an authentic atmosphere. It was just that many of the convenient features expected by modern travellers were missing, perhaps intentionally so. And the size of the rooms was a major constraint.
If any evidence was needed that we had now enrolled in the army of Historic Route 66 devotees, the line of Harleys parked outside the hotel sealed the deal.
Once we had squeezed both ourselves and our luggage into our room we walked along the road to Goodfellas Sports Lounge. To describe it as dingy and characterless would be an understatement, but we received a friendly enough greeting from the three good ol’ boys sat talking football and politics at the only other occupied table. Fortunately, Joe Pesci was not around at this time. And the Coors light beers were refreshing after a day on the road.
Whilst the bar might have been expensive, two (very) large Jack Daniel’s went some way to erase the memory of a disappointing dinner, as well as induce a reasonable night’s sleep, only interrupted periodically by the baleful, beautiful whistle of the Burlington North and Santa Fe Railroad.
Now that’s almost worth being an insomniac for!