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Posts Tagged ‘American diners’


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 NormalMen 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!

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Firstly, apologies to Brigham Young for the deliberate misquote, but it seemed as apt a title as any for the drive from Las Vegas to Hurricane, Utah where we were to spend the first two nights of our road trip.

It got off to an electrifying start …………………….. with a lie-in and a spa bath. Making the most our deluxe room in Mandalay Bay, I was also able to complete the first post of my road trip blog.

We checked out at the latest possible time and collected the car from valet parking, when the guy who delivered it to us unaccountably disappeared before I was able to make his day by dispensing my customary $2 gratuity. Within a couple of minutes we were on the I-15 north in the direction of Salt Lake City (401 miles). It was already very warm and sunny, with temperatures forecast to tickle 100.

Locating a country music station on the car radio proved more difficult than anticipated, and after rejecting around 20 stations, spewing out everything from hip hop to power ballads, the comforting tones of Kenny Chesney took over. We had landed on 955 FM Vegas Country KWNR and life was good.

The landscape quickly gave the impression that a race of furious giants had ripped up and stamped upon it at some time in the distant past, leaving a jumble of cliffs, hillocks and mounds of varying sizes and colours.

We passed through the Moapa Indian Reservation and alongside the Valley of Fire State Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area before arriving, 85 miles and 70 minutes after setting off, at the town of Mesquite, Nevada.

We cruised through the main street in search of a suitable lunchtime dining option. The signs were gloomy until we spotted Peggy Sue’s 50s Style Family Diner.  Dave Gorman, the English comedian, whose book Unchained America recounted his mission to cross the USA “from sea to shining sea” without paying even a cent to “the man”, would have been proud of us. This was the sort of place you should eat at on the classic road trip.

And Peggy Sue’s was indeed a classic. We were greeted with Laurel and Hardy on the TV at the end of the restaurant and Roy Orbison on the jukebox. The walls were liberally adorned with photographs of movie stars (Marilyn Monroe and James Dean amongst them) and Elvis (obviously), US flags (equally naturally), 45rpm discs, vintage Coca-Cola bottles and metal advertisement signs.

In addition to the customary condiment containers, and in the unlikely event that conversation should slacken in the few short minutes before your order arrived, each table had a series of books on it by Ben Goode, amongst which were  How to Cope when you are surrounded by IDIOTS…….Or if you are one, How to Share a Bad Attitude and The Fine Art of Worrying. They, and many others, could be purchased at the till for a measly $7.99 each.

The waitress was loud (in a good way), enthusiastic and attentive, which set me wondering, not for the first time, why her British counterpart invariably demonstrated the opposite characteristics. And then it occurred to me – why not sack all restaurant waiting staff in the UK and replace them with the London 2012 Games Makers? Moreover, they could work for free – there’s one you hadn’t thought of, Mr Cameron. In fact, the idea could be replicated in other industries.

Shortly after we resumed our journey, we were joined by the Virgin River which wended its muddy way through the steep cliffs on either side.

It is often said that beautiful American roads are too often scarred by huge, garish billboards, but, advertisements for fast food joints, motels and politicians aside,  the prize for the daftest sign today must have been the one that advised us to “Watch for Rocks” The entire landscape comprised rocks of various shades of red, orange and brown!

As we entered Utah where, according to the welcome sign on the state line, our life was about to be “elevated”, we lost an hour (moving from Pacific to Mountain time) but gained a degree (it was 99 now).

We stopped for coffee in St. George, an attractive and civilised town with two bookshops (always a good sign for me) and many public art works, including lovely bronze statues scattered around the main square where gleeful children  froliced through water features.

St. George is home to the dazzlingly white Mormon Temple , the only Latter Day Saints temple completed during Brigham Young’s lifetime, giving it a special place in the Mormon world. We decided not to visit, partly on the advice of our guidebook which advised that non-Mormons were not permitted to enter, but also that any caller to the adjoining visitor center was as likely to leave on a two year mission to Mozambique as be sold a guidebook.

Besides, this particular pasty-faced Brit would rather escape the heavy hundred degree heat for the comfort of the air conditioning in the car.

We left I-15 at junction 9 and took the road leading to Zion National Park. After nine miles we arrived at the Travelodge in Hurricane where we would be staying for the next two nights.

Our unusual dining experiences there will have to wait for the next article.

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