Taking full advantage of the need for research to complete a forthcoming book on attractions to be found just north and south of Route 66 my dear wife of twenty four years and I saddled up for a Reader’s Digest condensed version of our honeymoon. The final tally – 1,100 miles in 2.5 days, a bit rushed but wonderfully therapeutic.
Planning for this venture consisted of a loose direction of travel – east –, submission of a request for vacation time several weeks ago, determination that the family truckster (the 1988 Ford LTD Crown Victoria Country Squire station wagon) would not be on the road in time, and reservations for a rental car. The Adventurer was not a viable option as there was not enough time to apply for a second mortgage to cover the cost of fuel.
We set out on a beautiful Arizona fall morning just in time to see the sun break over the horizon. As speed was a priority, we bypassed old 66, set the cruise at 75, and girded ourselves for battle on the interstate.
Regardless of time constraints, no trip east or west through northern Arizona is complete without a cruise through Williams. Moreover, for me it is the perfect distance for the first, or last, pit stop on a trip and I know a couple places where fresh coffee and mouth watering pies are still a staple.
Williams epitomizes the new era on Route 66 as well as in many parts of the nation. The community has survived and even thrived as a recreation of a romanticized vision of the past. However, what once was a thriving, vital community ecosystem is now an historic district. The buildings survive and provide atmosphere but they are merely a backdrop and props.
I suppose an appropriate analogy would be our national forest and park system. There is the illusion of wilderness, of an environment our ancestors would recognize. They are, however, little more that large city parks.
Wildlife is managed as large predators that once controlled populations have been removed. More importantly the people are gone, the people who hunted here, the people who farmed here and the people who lived here. It is a recreation, albeit a delightful one.
At Holbrook, we turned onto US 180 and let out a collective sigh of relief, as the interstate became an ever-smaller image in the rear view mirror. To say Holbrook has seen better days are akin to saying Phoenix is warm in mid August.
Filled with dusty vestiges and remnants from better times this historic old town often remains me of an ancient Egyptian tomb long ago plundered by vandals with its glory stolen. From the cut stone construction of the vintage railroad depot to the motel with its tee pee shaped rooms, a Route 66 icon, there is much to see and even more to lament.
The crossing of the Little Colorado River on a vintage bridge is a portal to an earlier time, one that predates the legend of Route 66, its glory days or even the advent of the automobile. These rolling hills dotted with outcroppings of black volcanic stone, petrified wood and accented with the multi colored hues of the lower Painted Desert hint of a more primeval time.
In this part of Arizona the crowding, the urban generic sprawl that has transformed much of the state has yet to extend its tentacles. In St. Johns, a sleepy farming community, on a lazy Sunday afternoon it would be difficult to guess the year by merely taking a leisurely stroll along the main drag.
Springerville has begun to succumb to the trend towards transformation and new condominiums are springing from what a few short years ago was open range and grassy meadows. In spite of the changes that loom on the horizon as towering thunderheads, the old one screen theater is a packed house on Friday and Saturday evening. It is still possible to find a good home cooked meal in a little café where families gather on Sunday after church and the Madonna of the Trail, one of twelve placed along the National Old Trails Highway in the 1920s, still cast a long shadow across the main drag.
We rolled into town, cruised through town and settled on a small café across from the theater for our dinner break. The food was good, the prices reasonable, and the company excellent. For old folks such as my wife and I who prefer the simple life, simple times and each other’s company it just does not get much better.
For some couples it is champagne and candle lit dinners. For us it is barbeque and a coke in the corner where we can watch the kids, fresh from church enjoy an ice cream, while dad and grandpa talk about the ball game with neighbors as the gals swap recipes and poke fun at the fellows impassioned discussions about sports and the waitress is counting the minutes to quitting time. It always helps if the view from the window is of a vintage theater and a saddle shop.
Just outside of Springerville the highway, cut into the flank of a mountain that looms as ruined battlements of a medieval fortress on the horizon, offers ever more impressive views of the plains and valley below before clearing the summit. Here the landscape begins a dramatic transition.
It begins with a narrow lake where the clouds above and the narrow canyon walls of stone that imprison the waters, are reflected in a steely surface broken only by the occasional fisherman in a small skiff. Then in an instant, the world transforms into one of high country meadows, and towering mountains with shoulders shaded dark with foreboding forest of spruce and pine, tinged with the bright colors of fall and the stark white of aspens.
Alpine has become a haven for those seeking respite from the desert heat of summer and a winter playground for those who toil away in the Phoenix valley. However, its remote location has held back a great deal of the tide of summer cottages, lodges, and similar trappings that have transformed many western mountain communities’ into wilderness versions of Disneyland.
The sun was casting long shadows across the meadows and deepening the dark forest of the mountain slopes when we crossed the line into New Mexico. A pullout near the summit offered a wonderful opportunity to stretch the legs, savor the clean, pine scented mountain breezes, and feel the invigorating fall breeze on the face.
As the highway descends into New Mexico it twists and turns with the land passing through thick stands of pine that frame wondrous views. After passing through a number of quaint communities where time has slowed to a crawl the highway drops into Glenwood and an overwhelming sense that in this corner of the world all is well overwhelms me.
Even though it is only late afternoon and Silver City is a mere sixty miles down the road my ritual dictates the days travel ends here. As is our custom, we check into the Whitewater Motel, a veritable time capsule from an era when reservations were for those who stayed at the Waldorf and Packard was still the car of choice for the discriminating few.
The Whitewater has been serving guests, at least this one, since the early 1970s and the only concession to he modern era has been the addition of cable television. The shaded veranda that runs the length of the building at the rear still provides each room with a view of the San Francisco River with banks crowded by centuries old trees, a well manicured lawn and a home made swing set where the younger set unwind after a long day on the road.
After checking in and unloading luggage my wife and I, as is our custom, strolled hand in hand through the ever-deepening shadows across the bridge, past the closed garage where trees now block the door and to Blue Front Bar & Café. Here the local cowboys play pool with the few tourists who stop in and the food is first rate.
I am a man who believes a road trip is an opportunity to experience the new. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. Here I always order a coffee and search the menu to ensure that under hot sandwiches the “Stevie” is listed. I will let you make your own jokes about ordering a hot “Stevie” but this is first-rate food and when you are with your best friend what can be better?
I will also add that this is part one of my sure cure for the worst colds you can imagine. As it turns out on this trip, I was battling one of the worst colds yet encountered and though it was now day ten of suffering and I still was not up to snuff. Part two would help things along nicely as it always did.
The next morning, after a good nights rest, we again saddled up just as first light was breaking over the eastern ridges. The drive from Glenwood to Silver City is a pleasant one through rolling hills, and small farming communities all overshadowed by the towering escarpments of the Mogollon Mountains.
In Silver City, just past the signs that announce the city limits and the crest of the Continental Divide, I took the Market Street detour. This is the old highway but I enjoy it because you enter the city past businesses and homes that reflect more than a century of history rather than through a parade of fast food temples.
After twisting through the narrow streets and the wide boulevard that runs from the courthouse to the “Big Ditch” we parked at the visitor center. All of this is the “historic district.”
In Silver City, however, this term means more than vintage buildings with restored facades. Here the community has retained and preserved its soul.
Yes, antique stores, coffee shops, and art galleries have replaced the hardware stores and general mercantile stores but you still have authentic food where a grandmother shares the art of making tortillas with her granddaughter just as her grandmother did. You can also get you hair cut in a barbershop, not a salon, where grandfathers bring their grandsons just as their grandfather did.
As this was a whirlwind trip and Silver City was a bit of a deviation from the primary route our stay was a short one. It began with part two of my sure fire cure for the common cold, huevos rancheros and refried beans smothered in green chili sauce made from locally grown chilies and home made tortillas at the Silver Café. Most folks head for the pharmacy with the onslaught of a cold, since the early 1970s I have headed here when ever possible.
With a full stomach we headed for Walmart, Silver City has embraced the modern without complete abandonment of its heart and soul. Here we did what everyone does at Walmart, buy everything needed with one stop, and then get out.
The next stop was for fuel. For reasons unknown the price for gasoline here was almost twenty cents more than at home or anywhere on the trip with the exception of Hannagan Meadows.
Here English is more often than not a second language, as it has been for most of the past two centuries. If I had forgotten that, a stop at the gas station would have reminded me.
Full of gas, in more ways than one, we back tracked north on US 180 and then rolled west on state route 78. This narrow old road begins as two lanes of asphalt rolling across grass covered hills. On occasion it crosses small streams, no bridges here, passes by forlorn ranches, slips through Mule Creek, less than a wide spot in the road, and then into deep forest.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the highway crosses the Arizona line, and drops precipitously through a series of sharp twists and turns that provide spectacular views to the desert below.
Running north on US 191, formerly US 666, from the junction of state route 78 to Alpine is not really a drive. Nor does it qualify as a full-blown expedition. It is more like an exercise in the testing of patience and steering components interspersed with spectacular and even breathtaking scenery.
To summarize, it is less than 100 miles from Clifton to Alpine and yet if it is not winter, when this road can become a snowy, icy adventure sure to test the driving prowess of the best driver from North Dakota, you can plan on three to four hours.
We rolled through the forlorn ruins of Clifton, the dusty world of a company owned mining town that is Morenci, skirted the gaping maw of the open pit mine, and began the climb into one of Arizona’s most wonderful places. Sharp curves and steep grades give way to hairpin curves and steep down grades, which are in turn followed with wide curves with steep grades that begin and end in the middle.
Adding to the excitement and fun are surprises that run the gamut from deer or elk in the road, and cowboys pulling horse trailers with anemic, well-worn trucks, to recreational vehicles and new trucks pulling travel trailers. Wee!
Please do not misunderstand, this is not only one of my most favorite drives in the state, it rates in my top ten drives – period. The frosting on the cake is Hannagan Meadow, a vintage lodge, general store and two pump station in operation, almost unchanged since 1926.
In spite of the late afternoon hour and the chilly breeze that comes with being almost 8,000 feet in the mountains in early October we had a picnic under the towering pines. Then it was on to a new destination and the making of a new tradition – Tal-Wi-Wi Lodge.
The setting was nothing short of stunning. Built on a ridge among the towering pines every room has a view of an alpine meadow. The quaint restaurant features an equally stunning view, as does the small bar with a patio.
I am not well versed with the Indian tribes that once hunted these forest or even if Tal-wi-wi is an actual Indian term. Suffice to say if it is an Indian term, my guess is it would have something to do with disaster, or ruins of, or something similar.
The prefabricated modular units, designed to appear rustic, featured a long, rough-cut wood veranda to accentuate that appeance. Inside, the illusion ended. This was a trailer outfitted with the remnants of a Motel 6 yard sale. As it was getting dark and this was the middle of nowhere (gotcha!) there was little to do but suck it up.
The slight pine scented breeze that blew in under the door was quite pleasant as it dissipated the smell of must and mold that hung in the air. As temperatures were supposed to drop into the mid 20s by morning, I was not sure if it would be viewed as pleasantry then.
The furnace worked well with but one caveat. A button on the side that provided two speeds operated the blower. After testing it, we were left with two options – freeze or go deaf. On low speed, it reminded me of an old Chevy truck, run low on oil and driven hard. On high, I was reminded of the time an attempt was made to use the blender for separating nuts from their shells.
Well, we hit the rack early (right after sunset) as the restaurant only opened, during fall and winter, on weekends and there was no television. An hour or so into our blissful sleep we discovered a new problem, the walls only looked like paneling. They were actually thin shits of gauze painted to appear that way.
The wake up call was a rather pleasant one, the trumpet of elk in the meadow below and the lonesome howl of coyote on the hills behind. We showered, I shaved, and we packed and still had several hours to sunrise so we again saddled up and headed out.
Obstacles abound in these mountains during the early morning hours and I am not a real fan of driving at night anyway. With less than five miles on our days run we found the first obstacle – a massive bull elk with two feet on the highway, two in the grass and a look of indecision on his face.
We rolled into Eager for fuel just in time for the morning rush hour – tractors, farmers fueling up on diesel and coffee, and cowboys filling their pockets with jerky and smokes. As it turns out this would be our last stop in Arizona, at least the Arizona I remember and love.
The strip malls, fast food emporiums, tanning parlors, housing tracts, golf course, and condominiums of Pinetop-Lakeside have flowed into the ones from Show Low. This is followed by brief glimpses of what once was.
Overgard and Heber were just a few short years ago picturesque ghost towns among the pines but today there seems to be concerted effort in these communities to emulate Show Low. Still, we managed to find a quite café where hearty meals are still served by a waitress who knows the locals who know the menu by heart.
For a brief moment, driving under the shadow of the Mogollon Rim, it is almost possible to make believe that the transformation you just experienced was but a bad dream. Then you roll into Payson, a once colorful frontier community where on a dark night you would not now know if this were Phoenix, or Los Angeles, or Amarillo, or …
Refusing to let this dampen our spirits, we raided Safeway for snacks, continued our journey under the Mogollon Rim, and dropped into the Verde Valley and the equally generic Camp Verde. Some years ago, on one of our first trips through here, we had stopped at the ranch of my wife’s uncle and enjoyed a lazy afternoon. Today a housing development crowds both sides of the property.
The rest of the trip was a journey through reality, the world of today. We battled the traffic of I17 all the way to Flagstaff. Then we battled the traffic on I40 to Williams.
A stop for fuel for the car, where the owner was not from Mexico and spoke little English, followed a stop for a sandwich at a café where most everyone was Mexican and no one seemed to care about service or food. As we left, I wrote off another favorite stop and silently wished we had stopped at the café down the street, a place where the Greek immigrants take pride in America, are grateful for the business, and offer first-rate food at a reasonable price.
Still more often than not, the company one is with makes or breaks a day or a trip and I was with my best friend. So, we laughed and lamented the changes we had seen on the road and in ourselves, thanked God for the things that had not changed, planned our next adventure on the road of life and pulled onto I40, set the cruise at 75 and headed home.