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Posts Tagged ‘John Wayne’


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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Our visit to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park had been the most eagerly anticipated part of our road trip, and a week after we had flown into Las Vegas, the day had arrived.

Although today’s drive from Page, Arizona was only 104 miles, we were understandably anxious to get an early start to maximise our time in the Navajo Nation. So the trip to Glen Canyon Dam in the cool morning air was a brief one. Janet’s smile in the photo above pre-dated her discovery, several miles down the road, that she had left her Team GB baseball cap in the hotel.

Our customary diet of country and classic rock on the car radio seemed inappropriate for today, and we replaced it with Sacred Spirit II, More Chants and Dances of the Native Americans, the CD we had bought expressly for this leg of the trip. It was to play on endless loop for the next couple of days, lending a haunting, rhythmic backdrop to our travels.

As we headed east we began to encounter a sight that would become very familiar over the next ten days – tables by the roadside containing native american jewelery and, on occasions, pottery and rugs made by local people. Some of it might have been tourist “tat” but there is no doubting that the business is a valuable, even essential, addition to the local economy. On some stretches of road, however, there were as many abandoned as thriving stalls, though most still flying ragged American and Indian flags. More upscale trading posts, notably at Shonto, provided a shinier, and more expensive, face.

Much of  US-98 through Kaibito and Shonto was scrub and desert with occasional homesteads and trailers dotting the landscape.

As we turned onto US-160 the amount of traffic increased, though as on this entire road trip, such statements are relative – it meant that we were joined by a handful of vehicles travelling in either direction. Congestion is almost an unknown concept in this land.

That said, a huge Lux Bux America bullied its way past several RVs ahead of us as we bypassed the Black Mesa mine and Navajo National Monument.

Our overnight stop, the Hampton Inn at Kayenta, was 24 miles south west of the tribal park and directly on the route. We reached it shortly after midday, and as it was three and a half hours before our booked tour, we called in to check whether our room might be ready. After a half hour wait, during which we availed ourselves of the complimentary tea and coffee, we placed our luggage in the room and set off for Monument Valley.

Careful to avoid the cattle and horses grazing by the roadside, we took US-163, one of dozens of ramrod straight roads on this trip, joining a steady procession of tourist buses and Cruise America RVs intent on witnessing the archetypal western landscape. Low rise homes of brick and wood mingled with churches, including the Living Word Assembly of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and health, recreation and animal care centres before the scenery took on the familiar look of desert, sagebrush and isolated, thrusting buttes.

The mood in the car of approaching awe and solemnity was briefly shattered as a sign proclaimed that the highway had been adopted by “the family of Jimmy Krank” (this reference will sadly be lost on my American readers).

We entered Tsi-Bii-Ndzisgali, the Navajo for Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park meaning “the valley within the rock” ,with an hour and a half to spare. Although we were hungry we were more desperate for our first live view of that most iconic of movie locations. We may have seen it a hundred times on screen but nothing can prepare you for encountering it laid out before your eyes for the first time.

And there it was! The official leaflet proclaims it the “8th wonder of the world”. Those that have seen both compare it with the Pyramids at Giza, and the majority declare that it surpasses its Egyptian counterpart. I am content to take their word for that. Surely Wordsworth was stood here rather than gazing at Westminster Bridge when he declared “earth could not pass by a sight so touching in its majesty”.

Curiosity sated, our attention turned to lunch. Built less than four years ago in a style and colour sympathetic to its age old neighbours, the View Hotel provides luxury accommodation and stunning views. We found a table by the picture window overlooking the East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, John Wayne’s favourite view, and ordered Navajo Tacos, fry bread with ground beef, pinto beans, onion and lashings of lettuce and cheese. Janet had the good sense to ask for the small plate whilst I succumbed to gluttony and had the large version, to the amusement I recall of the server, a decision I almost came to regret on the helter-skelter jeep ride in the backcountry later in the afternoon.

We assembled in the foyer of the hotel to await our guide. As the appointed time approached it appeared that we might be the only people on the tour. However, we were joined by another British couple and a mother and son from New York.  Larson, from Navajo Spirit Tours, appeared shortly afterwards to advise us that our guide, Miesha, was running a few minutes late and engage us in some ice breaking conversation.

Once Miesha had arrived and introduced herself, she drove us to the traditional hogan village, a group of sun-baked mud covered homes, built in harmony with the universe and all living creatures on earth. The large one in the picture, a female hogan, is used as a permanent home, and represents love, peace and kindness, whereas the smaller, conical version, the male hogan, is the location for ceremonies and for war plans to be drawn up (though not for some time I hope). Aside from their spiritual significance, they perform another valuable function in that they retain heat for long hours in the winter and can be 25% cooler than the outside temperature in the summer.

Our next stop gave us close up views, or as close up as visitors are, rightly, allowed to be, of the classic triumvirate of the East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte as well as satisfying any retail urge we might have retained with a dozen or more tables displaying Navajo rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets.

With the notable exception of the aforementioned, the most famous viewing spot in the valley is John Ford’s Point, the place where the great movie director, whose catalogue includes Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, would spend hours contemplating his life and work. More stalls and a caravan selling fry bread and cold drinks completed the scene. The lone cowboy in the photo above appears periodically to enable visitors to satisfy their fantasy still further.

The selling point for this particular tour had been the excursion into the restricted areas of the valley. The self-drive and basic tour options focused purely on the more familiar areas. We were heading into the back country! Shortly after leaving John Ford’s Point we turned off the well trodden road down a narrow path out into the area bounded by the Rain God, Thunderbird and Spearhead Mesas.

The journey was reminiscent of the previous day’s bone-breaking ride to Antelope Canyon as Miesha made the jeep lurch in and out of the dry, rutted terrain. But she delivered us into a quiet, magical expanse that seemed far removed, even from the vistas we had marveled at only a few minutes before.

Here we encountered wild horses, a small party on horseback on a day’s trail, spectacular rock formations and sporadic lush vegetation – and, above all, blissful peace.

We were afforded the opportunity to see close up some of the most celebrated, but less often seen, sights of the valley, including the Totem Pole and Suns Eye (both pictured below).

It is perhaps at this point that I should say a little more about the Navajo in general, and Miesha in particular.

Much of the appeal for me of this road trip had been the opportunity to witness both the landscape and culture of the native american, primarily Navajo, people first hand. But everything I had read in preparation cautioned the visitor on how to interact with them. I was a guest in their land, an impoverished one in many respects. My hosts held deep spiritual beliefs that were far from the mainstream of American life. Some individuals might be difficult, taciturn, even hostile.

It was essential, therefore, to interact with respect and humility – which I hoped I would have done without the friendly warning.

I can only say that I did not have a single conversation or transaction with a Navajo throughout the trip that was not friendly and respectful. Our guide in Antelope Canyon, Rosie, could not have been more helpful or informative. Every restaurant server, trading post or stall owner greeted us with a smile and showed an interest in where we came from and what we were doing in their country and were grateful that we were. Of course, they were aiming to part us from our money at the same time, but that never seemed the primary motivation.

Not only are their beliefs about nature and man’s duty towards it, highly attractive, and ones that western man had largely forgotten, but on an individual basis they were a joy to deal with, on this day and the coming days wherever we went.

Ah yes, Miesha.

When we first met her, and were about to board her jeep, she outlined the three hour tour we were about to embark upon. Ever smiling, quietly spoken, a little diffident perhaps with a girlish giggle at the end of most sentences, she was nonetheless authoritative and immediately gained my confidence.

Not only did she recount the history, myths and, of course, movie relevance, of each sight in the valley, but she regaled us too with stories about her life and that of her family, bringing out the basic principles of the Navajo way of life such as respect for nature, balance in all things, and one that struck me as so contrary to our British and American prejudices – reverence for the wisdom of old age (her grandmother was 99).

Everything she said reinforced her commitment to these principles. A modern 21 year old woman but one deeply rooted in the Navajo life. Hugely talented, she had traveled far with her flute playing and singing. Indeed, her rendition of two songs, one in Navajo and the other in English, whilst her small tour party lay on their backs looking up through Suns Eye, was the most affecting moment of the whole trip for me.

She even made a vain attempt to teach us some Navajo! I think Janet and I did get top marks as we did already know Diné (the people)!

A’he’hee Miesha!

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I have already written in this diary about our frustration at being unable to find a decent alcoholic drink, especially wine, in Utah.

Imagine our relief, therefore, when we left Panguitch in the “elevated” state for Page in Arizona, our base for Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, safe in the knowledge that we would be able to enjoy a bottle with dinner that evening. Although, I suspect, for different reasons, our guidebook declared that the only reason for driving US 89S was to reach Arizona.

Curiously, the first song playing on  97.7 FM The Wolf this morning was the last broadcast as we pulled into the motel the previous evening – Picture to Burn by Taylor Swift. As the cliffs loomed high on either side of the road, reception was lost, though we succeeded in finding 95.9 FM Classic Rock in time for Led Zeppelin to pound out Whole Lotta Love. 

Cruise America and El Monte RVs sailed past in the opposite direction in equal numbers, and I wondered what it might be like to live on the road full time rather than stay in even the cheapest motels. But I think Janet and I enjoy our creature comforts too much to go to such lengths.

We passed a PT Cruiser wedged in a ditch with the local sheriff”s car on the scene. Fishing resorts and ranches peeked through forestry as we drove through Glendale and Orderville. A billboard in the former proclaimed the Buffalo Bistro where the “crazy sausage” was the house speciality.

After filling the car with gas we left the main road to fulfill another of our Lake Panguitch guide’s recommendations – visiting Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Motorised buggies were hurtling over the distant sand hills and, eyeing the largest peak in the distance, from which youngsters were sliding down on a variety of contraptions, we set off in pursuit to do the same.

However, after twenty minutes barefoot yomping, and little appreciable distance travelled, we abandoned our plan. The exertions in Bryce Canyon the day before had taken their toll.

We rejoined the highway and continued our journey to our intended lunch time stop in Kanab, Utah, the self-styled “Greatest Earth on Show”, a town with a strong Mormon tendency but which had a distinct western feel to it.

As the photograph below indicates, the lack of wine was beginning to have an alarming effect on my looks.

Kanab’s justifiable claim to fame is that it was once “Utah’s Little Hollywood”, providing the backdrop to many prominent movies. Plaques extolling such Hollywood greats as Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Maureen O’Hara were positioned along the main street.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find a funky, western oriented cafe and upstairs art gallery open where we had an excellent andouille sausage with cajun (or was it creole?) sauce and Greek salad respectively. Although wine was on the menu we were saving ourselves for Arizona. Isn’t that a film? No, it’s Raising Arizona, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter I think.

It may have been Sunday but we also found a couple of attractive cowboy / Western stores – Gifts of the West and Denny’s Wigwam Western Wear (Denny must have been a big shot in town because he also owned a restaurant and craft shop) – to browse, and spend money, in.

The most amazing building, however, in this surprising town was the Kane County tourist information office with its beautiful murals celebrating its history adorning the exterior.

In view of my dishevelled state, it was understandable that Janet should find herself a cowboy.

Shortly after leaving Kanab a billboard screamed at us: “TARNATIONS! Did you visit Denny’s Wigwam and get your Levi’s from $29.95? NO? Turn round now”. We felt we had already invested enough of our money in the Kane County economy, so ignored the entreaty.

We skirted the vast Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument area where the jagged rocks resembled the longest bar of Toblerone in the world. Buttes and mesas abounded as we crossed into Arizona, celebrating its centennial as a US state, and arrived at the Travelodge in Page (another decent sized room for the price) where we were to spend the next two nights.

After I had booked a tour of Antelope Canyon for the following afternoon, and Janet had tested the pool, we had an excellent dinner in the Dam Bar and Grille –  with wine of course.

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