On most days there is an unnerving sense that I have stumbled into the middle of a French film with Japanese subtitles and that there will be a test afterwards. With the exception of the number of stars on the flag, the address for the White House, and the fact that the sun still rises in the east, there is little I recognize from my childhood.
Jim Hinckley on Route 66
Before you write me off as the old coot that is not quite as old as dirt but that is just a bit older than rope, let me tell you a bit about the magic summer of 1967. That was the first year we drove east after our relocation to the vast wilderness of Arizona the previous summer. My dad wasn’t a big fan of the military even though he devoted almost twenty years to service, first with a stint in the Navy during World War II, and later with the Coast Guard. Still, the structured life instilled in boot camp had stayed with him and one manifestation was the insistence that each day begin at 05:00. The exception to the rule was in regards to day one of a trip. Then the day began at 04:30. Most of our adventures were taken in vehicles that looked as though they might be used in a remake of the Grapes of Wrath. For this trip we enjoyed the relative luxury of dad’s 1964 Ford Fairlane sedan, a car he had purchased in late 1965. As I was only a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to time but based on later experiences am quite sure we were on the road by 06:00. As stop one for this adventure was to visit family in Pisgah on Sand Mountain in Alabama, we rolled east on US 66. In retrospect, I now see with clarity that summer was one of those rare moments in time when a change in direction, like 9-11 or December 7, 1941, for the nation, the world, and my family was blindingly evident and we were right smack dab in the middle of it. This was the first time we had traveled without my older sister as she had married a Marine that summer. It was also the first summer I remember, with clarity, seeing men that looked as though they were trying to imitate Jesus with long hair and beards, and that wore costumes rather than clothes. It was the first trip where we stayed in motels more often than we camped along the road, and the first time I sensed an unease in dad. Our earlier road trips were not the sepia toned images that illicit sighs of longing for the good old days. They were always an odd blending of travel circa 1935 and the modern era. We camped along the road, ate meals from cans or made sandwiches, washed the sweat from our faces in streams or at road side pumps, fixed inner tubes along the highway, and drank warm water. Most of all, we had fun. In spite of long hours in the car, suffering through the long hot days without air conditioning, the mosquito’s, and the melted crayons, we had fun. We splashed in creeks while dad fixed a tire, and sometimes dad would surprise us with a cold coke, or peach soda in Georgia, at a gas station where the smell of tires, grease, gear oil, and hot engines filled the air. We climbed on rocks and in trees, and made friends on the road as we met the same families at different roadside parks. This trip was different. We stayed in motels more than we camped out. We ate in restaurants more than had picnics. We had fun as these new found luxuries added a never before experienced dimension to the cross country adventure, but there was an emptiness, a loneliness. We didn’t play in a park with kids in Amarillo and with the same kids in a park in Oklahoma. We might see them at the same motel but with the luxury of color television, the evening was spent indoors instead of rolling around in the grass, laying under the stars, or chasing fireflies. Perhaps all of this is why that summer at the farm on Sand Point is so memorable. There, in that little corner of the world, the waves of change were pounding a beach far removed from Pisgah. On Sand Mountain they still cooked sorghum, share cropped the land, and played checkers in front of the dry goods store in Dunton. My uncle still ran the grist mill on Pisgah Creek and, rumor had it, ran shine north to Monteagle in Tennessee with a few stops along the way. It wasn’t a perfect world on Sand Mountain. Dirt poor were more than words there, it was a way of life. The men often died young. In spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on the mountain the only color seen in the faces of the people was weathered leather brown with a shading of red, at least from the wrist down and between the rim of the hat and collar. Company from as far away as Arizona was a big thing on the mountain and was always cause for a celebration. There would be a big spread under the willow come sunset when a soft, honeysuckle scented breeze began to chase the sticky heat away – fried chicken and turnip greens, poke salad and home made biscuits, fresh tomatoes and melons, pork chops and corn on the cob, corn bread with butter and sorghum, string beans and sugar peas. Desert was always a treat. Apple and peach cobbler topped with ice cream the kids earned by sweating over a crank, preserves and biscuits, all washed down with sweet tea, for the younger folks, and something a bit harder for the older set. When Burton pulled his fiddle from the truck, Troy dusted off the guitar, and German gathered up his Jews harp and banjo, it was time to swat at mosquitoes, watch the fire flies dance in the night sky, and listen to Donald in his deep Baritone voice tinged with a drawl sing ballads about forlorn tales of lost loves, of runaway trains, of the evils of corn liquor and of the saving grace of the Lord. My day always ended with reluctance as the kids were herded off to bed, but not before Burton pulled a shiny dime from our ears. Our time on the mountain was short that year. We still had family to see in Chattanooga and Jackson in Michigan before making the long drive home. So, with sadness we said our goodbyes, I returned the speckled hen that in my mind was going to make a better traveling companion than my sister, and the folks standing in the farm yard were were soon swept from sight by the pink tinged dust that swirled behind dad’s Ford. It was two years before we returned to Sand Mountain. In that time our cities burned as more than two hundred years of prejudices ignited a firestorm fueled by a few who saw an opportunity to prosper from misery by appointing themselves the Messiah. We had put a man on the moon, filled our living rooms with battlefield carnage every evening, and sent many of the nations finest young men to die in a foreign land for causes that never seemed to be quite clear. A new generation swept through our institutions of higher learning wholly convinced they were the first in history to be enlightened but never realizing their zeal and passion was merely the misguided ignorance of youth. In their quest to transform the world and cleanse the nation by fire, they burned and plowed under the best along with the worst. The gap between those with the wisdom only garnered with age and the passionate vision reserved for the idealistic and naive youth, widened as never before. We became a nation divided with no sense of purpose or direction. Route 66 was almost gone, buried by the rush to nowhere it had spawned. Gnawing at the rotted pillars of a megalithic industry were the upstarts such as Honda and Datsun. And on Sand Mountain the waves of change had finally reached its summit. Lung cancer had silenced Don’s voice. His boy had left the mountain, forsaken the good things learned there, and traded them for the hollow, empty veneer of good times in the big city. Now he was paying the price with a twenty year sentence in Hunstville. Troy, was gone. A heart attack had dropped him in a corn row on a hot summers day. The land owner had decided there was more money in housing than in shared crops. The old Fordson had went to the junk man in Scottsboro. On the mountain, only the shadow of what had made it special, and the bad remained. Burton still banked in Scottsboro where he made his mark on checks to cash but the mill was closed and ignorance made manifest in prejudice held sway for another decade or so. The mosquito’s still swarmed thick but the juicy cantaloupe, the reward for braving their hordes, was no more. Our trips to the mountain came further apart and the drives east and west were made on the four lane more often than on the two lane. Camping by the roadside, splashing in roadside creeks, and fixing a tire along the road became dust covered memories. Ice cream came from the store, not earned by the sweat of the brow. The hamburger we ate in Flagstaff had the same taste and came in the same wrapper as the one we ate in Missouri, and the family at the table next to ours was black or white. Yes, there is little in this grand old nation that I recognize from my youth and for that I am grateful, and for that, I am deeply saddened. I remember when …
When it comes to my ability, or willingness, to adapt to change, a few friends have noted I am almost glacial in regards to speed. I realize the fact that the eight track tape player was updated to a cassette player in 1996, the rotary phone to a push button in 2000, and the general use of vehicles manufactured during the era of the Nixon presidency or before for primary transportation may give that impression.
The reality is that I have some rather simple adages that serve as anchors to provide a bit of stability in a world that seems intent on getting downstream as quickly as possible. If its not broke, why fix it or replace it. If it won’t make the job easier or you are only going to use it once a year, why buy it.
If you are out of style long enough, you will be in style. This one serves as a milepost of just how many years I have wandered this earth, especially in regards to my love for vintage trucks. It wasn’t all that long ago that a vintage truck seemed to be the bastard step child at the family reunion when it came to respectable car shows or auctions. For me the love affair with the simplistic styling and the rugged dependability of old trucks has been a very long one. My first clear memory of a truck was somewhere around 1963. I remember it as a washed out blue thing streaked with rust and what appeared to be an over sized dog house on the rear. From pictures, I later learned it was a well used, 1950 Ford F100, a victim of the tin worm spawned by the ample salts applied to winter roads in Michigan. Perhaps the reason I remember that old truck so clearly is that my dad had built a padded playhouse/storage locker on the back and that is where we lived for two days on a family adventure that went wrong. See, my dad came home on leave and decided the family needed a small vacation. So, the truck was loaded, the kids were made comfortable in the back, and off we went on an adventure to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We were deep in south Ohio when something very major went wrong. I can still hear my dad cussing, smell the hot engine, and feel the sweat roll down my back on that hot summer afternoon as mosquito’s and flies tormented us. Dad managed to get the truck off the road and on to a shaded side road on a ridge above a creek. I am not sure about the details but that night we camped out in the back of the old Ford. The next morning I stood in the tall grass and watched my dad walk off down the highway with something very big and greasy in his hands. He came back that afternoon and began tinkering under the hood but we were to busy to notice as we splashed about in the creek. That night it was another camp out and then the following day we began the long drive back to Port Huron with what seemed like ten thousand stops for my dad to look under the hood. Between that point in time and the fall of 1977 when I acquired my first pick up, a well worn, very battered 1942 Chevrolet half ton model, old trucks seem to have served as a stage or back drop for most major events in my life. In the summer of 1966, dad purchased a one owner, highly optioned 1953 Chevrolet 3100, a truck that would later be the first I drove legally, the first I wrecked, and the first I learned to tune up. There was a 1949 Studebaker stake bed, the first truck I drove over Sitgreaves Pass. Now that was an adventure! When I close my eyes the vision of white knuckled hands grasping a monster steering wheel and a road that seemed to have shriveled under the onslaught of the searing heat seen through a dusty, sand pitted windshield is so clear the terrifying sensation of that over loaded truck leaning into the curves can still be felt. To this day I don’t know how I got that truck to the top of Sitgreaves Pass nor do I recall how long I sat next to the skeleton of the gravity feed pumps at the ruins of Snell’s Summit Station shaking as though it was twenty below instead of one hundred and ten above. Added incentive for my appreciation of old work horses came in the guise of the fact they were dirt cheap to buy, parts were even cheaper, and even with my limited mechanical skills, and box of swap meet acquired tools, I could keep them on the road. From the acquisition of my first old Chevy there have been a small herd of these old plow horses in my stable. There was a 1949 Chevy panel truck that I envisioned as a camper before trading it for a 1956 Ford Fairlane. A 1946 GMC provided transportation from the job near Chino Valley to Kingman on weekends when I came to town to see my dearest friend. I introduced my wife to the wonders and majestic beauty of the Colorado Rockies in the cab of a 1970 Chevy. A ’64 Dodge was the truck I drove to the church that wonderful day in September 27 years ago when we became man and wife. It was a ’74 Ford F100 that carried my family on our first camping trip to New Mexico. A small heard of Advance Design Chevies, a series of trucks built between 1948 and the first part of the 1955 model year, served as my primary focus. Of course, a few years ago people began seeing these trucks as collectors items and my discovery was that I had been out of style so long that now I was in style. Anything in style or perceived as trendy equates to being overpriced and my old trucks were no exception. So, with reluctance, I bid adios to the loyal old trucks that had provided us with transportation to our favorite camping spots, hauled the materials to build our home, and that kept the drive way well oiled this past quarter century.
Then came Barney, the newest addition to the stable, our tried and true 1968 Dodge Adventurer. In my world Barney is a new truck but the good Lord knows my heart and that veneer of modernity is a thin one with this old work horse. We have a straight axle in front and an oil bath air cleaner under the hood. The rear view mirror is an off the shelf, 1950 era component and cooling is of the old 50/50 style – roll the window down half way and drive fifty. But somewhere out there is the 1931 Ford, a truck I have sought for more than a quarter century, a truck that will take us on the grandest adventure of all, a journey to 48 states and Canada. That, however, is a chapter yet to be written.
The best adventures on the road less traveled are those unfettered from schedule or destination. Exceptions to the rule are those rare instances when planning how the day will end becomes the spice that adds flavor to the adventure.
Historic Bisbee, Arizona
Just as with the road trip itself, at the end of a long day there can be adventures that renew, restore, and invigorate, or adventures that frustrate, cast a dark pall over the thrill of the journey, and that leave you longing for home.
Balance is key. Reservations tie you to the schedule and transform the road trip into a job with deadlines to be met. Reservations for special places ensure that at the end of a long day, a new adventure begins.
In all of my travels, I have found few places worthy of tethering me to a schedule when on an adventure to no place in particular. The rare exceptions are truly gems that can become the destination time after time.
Southeastern Arizona is a veritable cornucopia of historic and scenic treasures that can easily consume vacation after vacation. However, when it comes to choices for lodging at the end of a long day there is but one, the historic Copper Queen, the oldest continuously operated hotel in Arizona, nestled deep in the time capsule that is Bisbee. With exception of the addition of an elevator about seventy years ago, and a few modern amenities such as television, there is little to indicate change since the hotels opening in 1902. Moderately priced, the hotel is clean, well maintained, and is centrally located to a wide array of attractions and restaurants.
Courthouse square, Prescott, Arizona
I discovered the hotel, and Bisbee, some years ago while drifting about the southwest in search of job and a place to soothe a troubled soul. To this day I remember that cold winter morning when the tunnel at the top of Mule Pass opened before me to reveal a charming village nestled in a narrow canyon that seemed to be suspended in time. It was several years ago that I introduced my dearest friend to the charms and wonders of the slightly tarnished territorial era gem that is Bisbee and the delights of the Copper Queen. We were were on a meandering road with the destination being Bisbee for our anniversary. On that wonderful adventure we rolled south from Kingman, battled the seemingly endless sea of traffic that now flows between Wickenburg and Tucson, and then set the pace at slow and easy as we turned south at Benson. As the road followed the gentle contours of the landscape we could feel the peace and serenity of the vast Sonoran Desert landscapes, punctuated by little oasis such as St. David and riparian areas act as balm to our weary minds. We stopped long enough in Tombstone to gawk at the tourists and to pay homage to the memory of my wife’s family, many of whom hail from this legendary mining town including her dad and grandfather. The old town has survived, and even prospered, on the legend of a gunfight that lasted less than a few minutes but we prefer the authentic even if that means the empty. We had a wonderful time in Bisbee and the staff of the Copper Queen Hotel ensured it was an anniversary never to be forgotten. So, the Copper Queen rates very high on our list of places worthy of a reservation. It also makes an excellent base camp for exploring places such as Tombstone, about thirty miles to the north, Douglas, the ghost towns of Fairbank, Dos Cabezas, and Pearce, and the natural wonders that abound in the area such as Kartchner Caverns. I can’t remember a time when Prescott, Arizona did not grab my attention. It was 1967 or 1968 when the search for a well drilling rig brought us to the former capital of the Arizona territory. My impression, tainted with the innocence of childhood, was that this was the west enshrined in the cinematic epics starring John Wayne. From that day to this, Prescott has association with some of my fondest memories. On one our first big dates, I borrowed a car from a friend and drove my future wife to Prescott for a day at Sharlotte Hall, a wonderful blend of botanical gardens and historic structures including the territorial governors home, and a nice dinner at a little cafe near the Hotel St. Michaels. A weekend trip to Prescott constituted our honeymoon as I was so broke that if steamboats were being sold for a dime a piece, all I would be able to do was tell folks how cheap they were. Prescott is unique in a number of ways one of which is the number of historic hotels. There are several in the historic district that have provided quality lodging for seventy, eighty, and ninety years but for us only one stands out, the lovely Hassayampa Inn that dates to the 1920s.
Hassayampa Inn lobby
Consistently voted the number one historic hotel in Arizona, the Hassayampa Inn offers moderately priced rooms in an historic setting that provides for a very unique atmosphere. Fine dining and entertainment is found on site or with short walks as just a few blocks away is the Prescott Brewery, Mexican restaurants operated by the same family for more than a half century, and even an historic saloon, the Palace, that has survived into the modern era unchanged from the territorial era of Arizona. Now, if money does not factor into your planning, it would be difficult to find a more unique hotel, in a more beautiful setting than the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island nestled between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The name is a gross understatement as this is an opportunity to experience historic lodging as it was in the era of the Titanic. Mackinac Island itself is a treasure that needs to be added to the list of must see attractions for any serious road trip enthusiast. Moreover, no trip to the island is complete without a visit to the Grand Hotel. It was on a grand adventure that included boats and trains when my family was introduced to the wonderland of Mackinac Island. Via Amtrack my wife and son crossed the might Mississippi River for the first time on this wonderful adventure but this is a story for another day. Our plans for this year are to revisit a few old favorites, the Wigwam motels in Holbrook and Rialto, and to add a few more, such as the historic Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, to our list. Where are your favorite places to end a day of adventure on the road less traveled? The final item of the day is a book reccomendation. Route 66 garners the lions share of the attention when it comes to road trips and as a result it is becoming a 2,000 museum and amusement park. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0393059383&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrThere is, however, another historic highway that promises grand adventure on the road less traveled. Michael Wallis, the man who sparked the resurgent interest in Route 66, recently turned his skills and prose to chronicling the history and wonders of the Lincoln Highway. This a great read. It is also a source of inspiration for those giving thought to a grand adventure on America’s second most famous highway.
Today’s heading photo, available as an 8×10 print, is a view looking west along Route 66 at the end of Kingman Canyon. It is a view I never tire of even though it has been a major part of my life since 1966. Of course it wasn’t this empty then, after all this was the Main Street of America in a state of transition. At this point on Route 66 it was still 1939 but just a couple of miles to the west you picked up the four lane that was the ghost of Christmas future. Shortly after rolling into Kingman in the summer of 1966, dad bought a house at the bottom of the valley between Sacramento and Secret Pass Wash right on the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66 now designated as Oatman Road. The house was really a block constructed shell that had started as a model home for one of the land boondoggles that swept the area in the early 1960s. We were modern pioneers in every sense of the word. Initially we had no electricity but this was resolved in the first month. We hauled our water, dad found a job in the Duvall mines, and on weekends he transformed the rough hewn shell into a pretty decent little home.
Site of Fig Springs Station
At this point in time vestiges from the highways glory days were still rather plentiful. Directly across the street was an abandoned wrecking yard that served as a source of parts for the numerous desert rats who lived in the valley and drove ancient trucks and cut down cars. With the exception of the snakes and scorpions it was an incredible place to play that, in retrospect, played a key role in the future development of my passion for vintage iron.
At first we hauled our water from the Campa’s place, the old Oasis station/cafe/dance hall that still stands near the intersection of Oatman and Shinarump Road. With a perfected system that included a massive World War II era Dodge tanker, we began hauling water from the tank at the site of the old Fig Springs station.
When Jack Rittenhouse stopped here in 1946 the facility built by the Bonelli family was closed. Upon our arrival there was little left but a concrete slab, a few tumble down columns, twisted roofing tin, and a kids playhouse built in the shape of the station that served as a home for pack rats and was subsequently filled with cholla balls. Little has changed in the past 45 years. On a recent visit we found the empty slab and the columns as I remembered them. The play house was gone, the tank was dry, but the view, the smell of the greasewood, and the whispering breeze that carried the voices of the past still remained. We tried hauling water from the Kings Dairy, directly to the south of Cool Springs, but the road proved to be rough. Even as a kid, I loved the site of the old dairy with its ruins and stunning view of the valley that unfolded below with the towering Hualapai Mountains as a backdrop. My first solo camping trips were to this site and the various springs in the canyon behind it. The dog and I would leave early in the morning and follow Route 66 to a point near the Little Meadows Wash and then set out across the vast fields of stones. When I first moved to this forlorn, empty, and somewhat scary corner of the world it seemed to be the place warned of in Sunday school. Of course, I was just a kid and my experiences had been with the forested hills of southern Tennessee and north Alabama, and the farmlands of Michigan. I am not sure when the transition occurred but by the age of 13, I was hopelessly in love with this wild and rugged land. When the world presses in as it has this past few weeks, I think of those camping trips, the comforting silence, the solitude, and awe inspiring wonder of watching the shadows of morning and evening creep across the valley. I introduced my dearest friend to this little hide away on our first camping trip. At the time I drove an old ’70 Chevy truck and the return trip was, to say the very least, an adventure as the steep, rocky, washed out road was just about to much for that old truck. Today, I would be hard pressed to take the Jeep into the canyon. So, now we have the excuse for long walks. Every kid in the valley drove long before they had a license and I was no exception. With my dad’s old ’53 Chevy truck, and a hunger fueled by tales told by Ed Edgerton, the founder of Ed’s camp that kept us supplied with resh tomatoes, I wandered the deserts and into the foothills of the rugged Black Mountains. Fig Springs and Dripping Springs, Cave Springs and Warm Springs, all became my private hideouts. These were grand times. We left Arizona, moved to New Mexico, I discovered an even more amazing place in Silver City, and then we moved back to Michigan. My hunger fort he deserts of the southwest was so all consuming that I never attended graduation. As soon a school was finished, I provided an address for the mailing of my diploma and worked my way back to Arizona by helping dad relocate the family, again. The rest, as they say, is history. From that date to this very day it is the deserts and mountains of Arizona and New Mexico that I have called home. I entertain flights of fancy about moving to Alaska and that is a frontier that will have to be experienced. But it is the deserts that hold my heart, and it is the majesty of the vast landscapes of the southwest where I feel closest to my creator.
My dad was not much of a talker, he wasn’t one of those folks that seem to enjoy the sound of their own voice. Usually two things came out of his mouth, marching orders or short sentences that spoke volumes. For as long as I can remember every cut or bruise was followed with, “Well, there is another lesson learned.” Part two was usually something like, “Don’t be afraid of scars, each one is a lesson learned and a story to tell.” As I lean toward the philosophical side of life, the idea of scars representing lessons learned and stories to be told took on a broader meaning than just the scars on my knuckles or chin. I began to see old roads as scars upon the land with stories to be told and lessons to be learned from those stories. From above the ruins of Cadiz Summit look out across the vast Mojave Desert where old Route 66 appears as a black scar upon the land. In that scar are the stories of desperate families seeking a new life, cursing truck drivers with rigs laboring to pull the grade under a broiling sun, and men like James Chambless who saw opportunity in the river of traffic that flowed east and west. In each of these stories are lessons to be learned. It is in a similar manner that I view old trucks with their dings, scape’s, and dents. Each tells a tale and with each tale there is a lesson. As old trucks have been an important part of my life for at least forty years it is easy to see my life reflected in them. The years may have taken their toll on the shine, they may be a bit ragged around the edges, but they still are quite capable of a hard days work, and seem to function best on the road less traveled where speed just isn’t important. In a nut shell, that is a portrait of me. With each passing day I become a bit more ragged around the edges, the shine is about gone, but I am still capable of a good days work, and my favorite place to be is on the road less traveled where the pace is what I set and not what the world dictates. Even though I have traveled many miles on the road less traveled with ancient trucks, many of which predated me by a decade or two, it is still my goal to blend my passion for these into a road trip of epic proportions. In this yet unfilled dream, my dearest friend and I take to the back roads of America in a 1931 Ford pick up truck, the only year for an all steel cab in the Model A series. With dings, dents, and a desert patina on the hood and fenders, and our gear stowed in the back under a tarp, we will set out to seek the very essence of what makes this nation great, its people. As this is a dream there are few constraints, especially in regards to time or money, so, dependant on the level of frustration generated by the day, the route taken ebbs and flows from a simple jaunt west along old 66 to a grand adventure to 48 states and even Alaska. All of this leads to another of my dads favorite lines. Have a dream, strive to make it a reality, but in the mean time, live life and don’t dream it away. Okay, a couple of quick notes. Today’s post is a bit shorter than envisioned or promised. Excuses abound ranging from trying to catch up at the office to a cold and very sore face. Still these do not equal justification. This weekend we have our travel tips and book reviews. I think you will find a little something for everyone. The website has languished far to long and has resulted in an endless string of broken promises which is not acceptable. So, does anyone want a website or domain name, Route 66 Info Center? Last on our list of new business is Destination Kingman. Check out the Destination Kingman page on Facebook to get an idea as to why I claim this almost magical place as my adopted hometown.