For the younger set, those under forty, it may come as a surprise to learn that there once was, and in some rare instances still is, a non-generic world. When I speak on this subject I am always amazed by how many of this generation ask questions as though I had been talking about traveling by Conestoga wagon across the trackless waste.
Granted, traveling during that prehistoric time, say between 1955 and 1970, had its disadvantages. Imagine Highway 93, the portion from Kingman to Wickenburg, with, say, twice the traffic. That was the way most of the major highways, especially Route 66, was during their heyday.
Then there was the matter of summer travel. Air conditioning was a fairly rare option in most automobiles of that period so we, not really knowing different, simply lived with the heat as did countless generations before.
Lodging and food were often the biggest gamble. A motel, or hotel, could turn out to be a real dive complete with bugs, broken furniture and paper thin walls, the reason many chose roadside camping, or it could be a memorable experience with friendly owners that invited you in for breakfast, asked you to grab a cantaloupe from the garden before you left or helped you out of a sticky situation, the result of a breakdown. In one instance, sometime around 1963, we stopped at a motel in Ashfork and were asked to limit water use as it was brought in by rail car.
Even though the chains, such as McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s, were starting to explode upon the scene they had yet to crowd out the old-fashioned mom and pop establishments. As a result you could eat meatloaf that made you nervous because of the corral full of horses immediately in back or you could find a retired pastry chef making pies just because he liked to stay busy.
Regional drink specialties were another reason a kid looked forward to travel in those bygone times. One extremely hot sticky night in the delta country of Mississippi we stopped for gas at a place that looked as though it had changed little since it had been built to serve the needs of motorists traveling the dusty roads in their Model T Ford’s. The smells of the south during the summer are truly unique but my fondest memory of that night was the wonderful cool taste of a locally bottled peach soda.
That was another advantage of traveling without air conditioning, the smells that would waft through the car. Some, obviously, were not particularly pleasant but others, such as in the evening after a rain in the desert or in the farm country of the deep south, are beyond description.
I realize that some things change and that there is no way to hold back the hands of time. It is for that reason that I wax nostalgic.
The opportunities to experience these one of a kind adventures, or to allow our children to, are fast disappearing. The family owned eateries and lodging establishments are fast giving way to the generic chains in small town America. In some places the combination of bypassed highways and a dwindling population can even make it difficult to find a place to stay, eat or get fuel especially in the evenings.
And, to be perfectly honest, air conditioning, guaranteed room or meal quality and highways that are more than designated demolition derby tracks have made traveling better. But, like the cars that travel the modern roads, there is something missing – individuality.
With this somewhat long-winded narrative as the foundation I would like to suggest some routes that offer the best of both worlds and at least offer the opportunity to find modern conveniences without much effort.
Heading my list has to be Highway 54 from Tucumcari in New Mexico to Highway 36/Interstate 72, a few miles west of Springfield, Illinois. Lots of small town America, proximity to the Interstate system as well as larger communities allow for indulgence in modern generic eating or lodging and a number of truly American stops (the world’s largest hand dug well in Greensburg, Kansas) place this one in my top ten list.
Closer to home is Highway 180 from Holbrook, Arizona, to Deming, New Mexico. If I were rating a road for sheer beauty and time capsule businesses this would be number one. However, as there is little access to the Interstate once you leave Holbrook, there is little opportunity to take advantage of modern road trip “conveniences” I rate it as number two.
Another that falls into this category, just a bit farther down the scale on roadside beauty, is Highway 60 between Show Low, Arizona, and Socorro, New Mexico. If you try this one I highly recommend a return trip via I25 south, then state highway 152 through the Black Range to Silver City and Highway 180 north to Holbrook. If you enjoy scenery, taking pictures, real ghost towns, wild life and lots of mountains I guarantee this to be a trip without equal.
For a shorter adventure of similar stature, without the ghost towns and absolute wilderness, try Mormon Lake Road (paved) south from Flagstaff to state highway 87. Run south to Payson and turn east on state highway 260. This will take you to Springerville where you can catch Highway 180 north to Holbrook.