The old Chevy truck had so many dents they overlapped. The various layers of paint applied over the years had given way to desert sunburn induced rust. The haze of blue smoke rolling from the exhaust pipe, as well as from the various holes in the muffler hinted that the old motor was pretty tired, and the knocking sound emanating from under the hood sound like a death knell for the old workhorse. Judging by the hard lean to the passenger side it was a fair bet there was at least one broken spring and that the shocks were shot. The old dog in the back mirrored the truck with his asthmatic wheezing, missing patches of fur, and broken tail. The driver mirrored the dog and the truck with his deeply lined face framed by grey whisker stubble and a battered hat that offered few hints of its original shape or color. The heavy sweat stains on his shirt served as evidence that it had been worn for a bit more than a day or two and the jeans stuffed into well used high topped boots had been worn slick. You didn’t have to look to hard into those washed out green eyes to see more than a hint of crazy and the faint white scars on the battered knuckles hinted that this fellow was once a real scrapper. Still, beggars can’t be choosers and after almost a full day of basting in my own juices under a broiling Arizona sun while trying to thumb a ride to Silver City, that old truck and its crazy driver seemed like the greatest thing since pop top beer cans. So, when that old boy stopped and asked if I wanted a ride there was little hesitation as I tossed my gear in the back with the tick infested dog, and climbed into the cab. As if the truck, its driver, and the dog weren’t enough of a hint that this ride would be one to remember, there was the offer of a warm Coors, a gearshift held in high gear with a bungee cord hooked to the exposed seat spring, and what appeared to be a couple of petrified dog turds on the floor. But the best was yet to come. At what I guessed to be about 45 miles per hour, that old truck shook so bad I couldn’t focus through my vibrating glasses. You might be able to imagine what it was like when he punched the pedal to the floor to pass a car on a double yellow line but the cacophony from that engine, that gear box, and the rear differential sounded as though demons had created a concert of mechanical torture. With the flick of a bony wrist he whipped the old truck back into the proper lane without spilling a drop of his beer and missed the bus by at least a couple of layers of paint. It was about this point in time I began to seriously miss my spot in the gravel under that blazing sun back at the junction with US 666. I suppose if I had the sense God gave a shiny brown rock, and wasn’t in such a hurry to get to Silver City, I would have spent the night in Safford and tried again in the morning. But when he asked me to take the wheel, after he topped off the tank and picked up a few dozen bottles of beer, my doubts vanished like ice cream in Amboy on a hot July day. Over the years I had owned my share of derelict trucks but this one made them look like new Cadillacs. Third gear was pretty well gone and the clutch slipped so you got it rolling in second, wound it up pretty tight, and then double clutched to get her into high. Then the trick was to cinch it down with the bungee cord before it popped out of gear. The speedometer didn’t work and there was a pair of vice grips on the door as a replacement for the long gone window crank. I prayed the oil pressure gauge wasn’t accurate as it hovered some where around ten pounds. While I was at it there was a prayer for the temperature gauge as it seemed to be stuck at around 220 degrees and another that the looming thunderheads over the Peloncillo Mountains wouldn’t begin dumping rain as the one windshield wiper arm on the passenger side was missing its blade. Steering was another matter entirely. Trying to keep that truck in one lane was allot like trying to herd cats with fifty pound weights tied to your arms. But, as I found out when we came to the junction at Guthrie, it was the brakes that were the most fun of all. On the first try they went to the floor sort of like stepping on a grape. On the second try the pedal only went to a point about an inch from the floor and then the steering wheel whipped to the right. On the the third try the truck stopped on a dime but in a sort of sideways manner as one wheel on each end of the truck grabbed hold. As bad as things were I wasn’t about to spend a night under the stars at that lonely junction. It was only about forty miles to where we would part ways as he was headed for Cliff and I for Silver City. Now we had just started the long, steep climb to the New Mexico line, an endeavor that necessitated intermittent switches between lugging the engine in high and winding it up tight in second, when my well intoxicated passenger awoke from his slumber and let out a blood curdling yell. I about jumped out of my skin and my instinctive jerk of the wheel had me all over the road. The yell was proceeded by his banging a fist on the dash and yelling at me to stop. Now, as noted this old truck didn’t exactly stop, it sort of waltzed for a bit before gravity on the grade took hold. I suppose we were still rolling at about 15, or maybe even 20 miles per hour when he opened the door and sailed out into the deepening dusk. To say I was surprised would be just a bit of an understatement. I got the truck stopped, shut it down, and as we were on a steep grade, set the parking brake (put a rock under the wheel). There was an eerie silence that was only broken by the ticking of that hot engine. Now, I will be honest. At that point in time I really didn’t have a clue as to what to do. As it turned out, the decision was made for me when he came strolling up the road whistling like a song bird. With the exception of a scrape on the face, a long rip in his jeans, and skinned knuckles, he seemed no worse for wear. Apparently when it came time to get rid of used beer he wasn’t a very patient man. By now it was full dark and as there was no moon, it was blacker than ten foot up a water hose. That and the little matter of being parked on a very steep grade on a road with very narrow shoulders made the fact we would have to roll start the truck a bit disconcerting. With my passenger on board and nursing another bottle, I pulled the rock from behind the wheel, rolled back a short ways, whipped the wheel to get the truck facing downhill, and let her fly. On the first effort she popped and snorted but refused to start. By now were picking up speed at a pretty fair clip as this grade is in excess of seven percent and if the increasing shimmy wasn’t an indicator of that, the blur of the bushes illuminated by the one headlight surely was. I dropped the gear shift into high, slipped the clutch, and for that effort was rewarded with a bang of gun shot decibels. There are few things on this earth that will give you reflection on what it means to meet your maker more than a truck with one light, no brakes, steering that seemed to be for novelty use only, careening through the night on a steep mountain road with a cackling passenger. I really don’t remember much about the last mile or so. All I can tell you is that the road made a steep drop, a sharp bend, and then went over a small hill before making another sharp turn along a sand wash. I can also tell you that old Chevy trucks make really poor gliders and that few things will a slow a truck down quicker than launching it nose first into a sand wash. To this day I like to believe it was a beer that exploded on the seat. I also like to think the goose egg on my head had something to do with the selective amnesia. When I last saw my crazy benefactor he was sitting on a rock next to his broken truck, sipping on a beer when he wasn’t laughing, with his dog at his feet. To this day I don’t know what happened to him. As for me I set out into the night across the desert toward the lights of Clifton a half dozen or so miles to the north with the absolute conviction that in the morning I would call my brother in law in Silver City, and offer anything and everything if he would come get me. The steering wheel shaped bruise on my chest, and the bruise on my head served as temporary reminders that not everything that seems like a blessing really is. The bent finger reminds me of that to this day.
I was never quite sure why that big blue Cadillac tripped my trigger. I mean the thing was a land yacht big enough to warrant its own zip code. I could have sold the wheels, screwed a mail box to the front fender, and called it home. There was just something in that sculpted body accentuated by the chrome, the light blue paint, and white vinyl top that fit perfectly with my growing hunger for a road trip to anywhere but where I was at and in the blink of an eye two one hundred dollar bills passed from my hand to the aged owner. With the title in hand I slipped behind the wheel into the glove leather white seats, slid the key with its gold Cadillac crest into the ignition, fired up that whisper quiet V8, dropped the transmission into drive, and pointed the old Coupe DeVille down the dusty drive way. The job at the lumber mill had played out the day before my old Ford truck coughed up a cloud of black smoke and pitched a rod through the block. That was about two weeks before I found the old Cadillac and about two days before I had decided it was time to try my hand somewhere else. So, I changed the oil, packed the wheel bearings, greased the chassis, tossed my worldly possessions into the cavernous trunk and less than twelve hours after making the purchase, rolled east on Route 66 with that Cadillac emblem in a chrome wreath perched on the prow pointing the way. There was no destination in mind as I had a pocket full of jack and the game plan was simple, drive until I found someplace interesting or until a lack of funds prompted finding employment. My first stop was at the Whiting Brothers station in Ashfork to top off the tank. This was my first visit to the flagstone capital since the job at the quarry blew up, literally, but little had changed. I made pretty good time having given in to the urge to see what the old car would do on a couple of occasions but it was well past dark when I rolled into Williams and checked into the Norris Motel, an old favorite of mine. It was a delightfully cool evening that seemed perfect for a long walk to Rod’s Steak House. I didn’t really give thought to the interstate highway being built to the north of town that evening and am quite sure it never entered my mind that Williams, and the Arizona that I knew and loved, was about to change in a very big way. That evenings walk, as well as the morning walk to Old Smoky’s for breakfast, are frozen with clarity in my mind as that Williams was swept away with the opening of the interstate before my return two years later. At some point between Williams and Flagstaff the idea had crept into my mind that it might be nice to see if old Harry Two Bulls was still hanging around the trading post at The Gap so I turned north on US 89 and as traffic was light to nonexistent, let that Cadillac fly. I first met Harry some years before at the 66 Club in Flagstaff after a rodeo and our paths had crossed often enough that a friendship of sorts had developed. Harry looked as though he had studied hard to look the part of an Indian with his weathered and lined face shaded by a battered felt hat adorned with a handmade rattlesnake skin hat band and feather. He always wore a light blue, long sleeved work shirt and a stained vest, well worn Levi’s cinched to his thin waist with a hand tooled leather belt and tarnished rodeo buckle, and scuffed boots down at the heel. As is so often the case the cover gave no hint of the story inside. Harry was a Navajo but his family left the res shortly before his fifth birthday and he grew up in the barrios of east Los Angeles. At 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, at age 19, as he told the story, he was freezing his backside off in Korea. On his return, he set out to discover his Indian heritage, went home to Window Rock, signed on with the railroad, and, in his spare time, learned the fine art of being a saddle bronc rider on the rodeo circuit. That was our common thread as I too fancied my self to be a bronc buster. Harry left the railroad with a pretty fair pension after an accident put in the hospital for almost six months and in a wheel chair for a year. With his railroad and rodeo days behind him he turned to learning the art of the silversmith and became a pretty fair artist. That was his reasons for hanging around the trading post at The Gap. And that was why he was in Winslow when I last saw him. So, with a two year old invitation to visit I rolled north through the forest onto the colorful plains framed by majestic mountains and stark knobs of stone. The trading post at The Gap hadn’t changed much since my last visit, in fact it probably hadn’t changed much in the last half century. There is something soothing to the soul to find places like that. Well, as it turned out Harry hadn’t been at The Gap for awhile and the last anyone had heard he was selling his goods from a stand out near Tec Nos Pos. So, with no place else to go, I turned back south to the junction with US 160 and headed out onto the res through the technicolor world of the Painted Desert. That old Cadillac sucked the fuel but it floated down the road with such ease it was almost as though I were piloting a yacht on calm seas. If the money would hold out I felt as though it were possible to drive forever with that old car. As often happens reality soon crashed with blinding force into the dream and at some point, in the middle of absolute nowhere on the road between Tuba City and Kayenta, the Cadillac began to stumble and buck. That was just before the fuel pump gave up the ghost. Well the good thing about times like that is decisions are not tough to make as the options are few. So, I pulled off the fuel pump, grabbed my canteen, locked the car, and began the long walk to Kayenta some twenty miles to the north. At that point in time my youthful ignorance led me to attribute good fortune to luck rather than see it as blessings. I had walked less than a mile under that blazing late summer sun when an Indian family on the way to Kayenta for supplies stopped and gave me a lift. Even better, they said they could give me a ride back to the car the next morning and that I was welcome to stay with them at a cousins house that evening. Well, long story made short, the parts house had a fuel pump, I had a good dinner and a good nights rest, made some new friends, and was back on the road by the next afternoon. The sun had yet to sink in the west when I made Tec Nos Pos but here to Harry’s trail was cold with the best guess being that he was living in Holbrook or Winslow, so I put my planned visit on the back burner and pointed the prow of that Cadillac to Durango. I made it as far as Cortez before again changing my mind and following the wind into Utah. Now, in the dusty little towns that cling to the highways for life in that wild and inhospitable land drifters are seldom appreciated but are always wanted as there is always a need for a good hand at a service station or cafe. I was sipping on coffee in a little cafe in Monticello when the conversation with the tired waitress aged beyond her years, as it often did in these tattered old cafes, turned towards work and what brought me to town. Well, as it turned out the job was an easy one with some pretty good benefits, namely a free room in exchange for duties as a night clerk but a dusting of snow on the Cadillac two weeks later had me on the road south faster than butter melts on the pavement in Amboy in July. Few things filled me with the urge to hole up more than a dusting of snow or a good frost and in an instant the wanderlust was replaced by thoughts of a warm place to while away the winter. Well, at the time it seemed like a good idea but as it turned out El Paso, and Juarez, weren’t a very good idea. But that, and the last ride of the Cadillac, are another story for another day.
Don’t forget to check back this weekend for part two of the Kingman Army Airfield story as well as our book reviews and travel tips.
Part One – On April 14, 1940, the early morning stillness in Kingman, Arizona was shattered by the thundering roar of a B-17 as it made its landing approach to Port Kingman, an airfield initially established by Charles Lindbergh. It was the ghost of Christmas future for this dusty little town nestled along Route 66 and the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad in the foothills of the Cerbat Mountains. As the clouds of war boiled into towering thunderheads on the eastern and western horizons, and it became increasingly obvious that the neutrality of the United States would soon be abandoned, President Roosevelt guided the nation through the period of transition. One manifestation of the changes that were about to transform the country was Senate Bill 4066 introduced by Senator McCarran of Nevada, the namesake for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. This bill addressed the importance and vulnerability of the electric power grid in the western United States and proposed establishment of a military post to protect the cornerstone of that infrastructure, Boulder Dam, now Hoover Dam. It was this bill, as well as a report issued by the War Department that detailed the importance of Route 66 in the southwest as a military artery and and a location feasibility study by the Civil Aeronautics Authority for the establishment of military airfields in Arizona that prompted the Mohave County Chamber of Commerce to send a telegram to President Roosevelt extolling the attributes of the Hualapai Valley bisected by the railroad and Route 66 east of Kingman. Port Kingman had served as a key component in the development of TAT, a pioneering transcontinental passenger airline that combined the use of trains and planes for rapid cross country travel. Now the dusty desert airfield served as a key hub in the transport of military aircraft added weight to the barrage of sales pitches being put forth by the Mohave County Chamber of Commerce. In January of 1941, with announcement that completion of US 93 from Kingman to Boulder Dam was being given top priority as a result of its potential military importance, the city prepared its most aggressive effort to acquire a military airfield to date. On March 27, the efforts bore fruit in the form of Major John Horton, assistant director of the West Coast Air Training Corps, and Captain Mauhan from Moffett Field who arrived in California arrived in Kingman for a two day inspection of possible sites for a newly proposed airfield that would serve as a primary training facility. Horton’s report submitted on April 3rd proved favorable enough to warrant engineering evaluations on April 17th, and a more detailed inspection tour on the 29th. On May 1st the final report with recommendation for approval was submitted to the Army Air Corps. Indicative of the increasing priorities being given to military construction is the speed with which the project was given the green light. On June 5th it was announced that bids were being accepted for construction of an advance bomber training school to be built along Route 66 east of Kingman in Hualapai Valley. On the first of July, Camp Sibert with 850 troops assigned, was established near Boulder Dam and negotiations for lease of lands from the Neal family ranch in the Hualapai Valley commenced. Meanwhile Port Kingman was transformed into a temporary military facility with planes making refueling stops, cadets training with Curtiss aircraft, and military aircraft being transferred to pilots of the Brazilian Air Force. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, completion of the airfield was given the highest priority and construction of Davis Dam on the Colorado River was temporarily suspended with crews and equipment relocated to Kingman.
A week is a relatively short period of time, a mere seven days divided into periods of twenty- four hours each. Still, it is quite amazing that there can be so many changes in that period of time or that so many things can take place.
“Mohave Green” rattlesnake
Last Saturday it was a busy morning at the office followed by a leisurely lunch at Yesterday’s in Chloride with Dave, a friend from Australia. This Saturday it was a busy morning at the office, a much needed drive on a dusty and rock strewn trail into the Black Mountains with my dearest friend to unwind, a close encounter with a Mohave green, a variation of the western diamondback rattlesnake, and making this blog available for subscription on the Kindle reader. It was an unseasonably cool afternoon and as a result the snake came as a bit of a surprise but as is often the case we scared him as much as he startled us. You may click on the photo to enlarge and get a better idea of how well these critters can hide in the brush.
If you are unfamiliar with the old mining town of Chloride, and happen to be motoring through Kingman on Route 66, or to Las Vegas, you need to add this to your list of stops. Bring your appetite and try out the food as well as the interesting atmosphere at Yesterday’s. Chloride is accessed via about twenty miles of paved roads, US 93 north from Kingman and then a short drive on a county road. However, a variation of this is to follow the old highway, now a graded gravel road into Chloride for a different perspective. You can pick up the well signed road by turning north on Mineral Park Road from US 93, the road to the landfill and the big, looming open pit mine at the base of the mountains. In between these two Saturday’s were a whirlwind of activities and frustrations. Magnifying everything was the effort to regain some strength as I am still as weak as a kitten. Monday, a day off, was spent making financial arrangements with the hospital (my brief visit pencils out to just over $1,000 per hour), correspondence pertaining to the Route 66 encyclopedia, learning how much we owe in taxes for 2010, a bit of writing, and a consultation with the attorney as we work to resolve a few loose legal strings pertaining to mom’s estate and related issues. It was a productive, expensive, and tiring day to say the least. At work it was the busiest week we have had in almost a year. It was almost as though someone kicked over an ant hill and everyone decided to move at the same time. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0760338434&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrObviously, from the perspective that this job is what supports the writing habit this was a real blessing. From the perspective of falling behind on the encyclopedia it was a bit disconcerting as there was little energy left in the evenings to work on it. Promotions and arrangements for promotion were about the best I could do as for the next few months the schedule is quite full. There is the Kabam festival in May, assistance to a German film crew filming a documentary about Route 66 in the same month, preparation of photographs for entry in a contest being sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, preparation of the Ghost Towns of Route 66 photo exhibit, a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Amarillo on June 9 to promote the new book, Ghost Towns of Route 66, and then the big kick off for that book at the international Route 66 festival. Friday was the topper that necessitated the need for a long drive into the Black Mountains, a complete physical in the morning and a lengthy court hearing in the afternoon. The outcome for both was excellent but the added stress was something I would have liked to avoid. For the week to come I have a great deal to look forward to. Tomorrow it will be an afternoon with the grand kids and looking through some new material supplied by Joe Sonderman. With all of the assistance Joe has provided, including access to his vast Route 66 post card collection, I may have to list him as a coauthor. Likewise with Mike Ward. On weekends I have been posting travel tips and book reviews but fell behind as a result of my illness. Last week I received two new books from Veloce Publishing that will need to be read and reviewed. One, Russian Motor Vehicleshttp://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=1845843002&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr, really has my attention and a review will be provided next week. As for travel tips, I would like to expand on my recommendation for Chloride. This dusty little mining town nestled in the foothills of the towering Cerbat Mountains is best explored on foot. Particular points of interest include the historic cemetery and the old train depot. In between are a wide array of historic homes, vintage service stations, and a small herd of vintage vehicles basking under the Arizona sun. So, sturdy shoes and a wide brimmed hat are strongly suggested. Likewise with a camera. In the week to come I have some exciting Route 66 news to share, a few updates on Amarillo, and, of course, some interesting ideas for weekend getaways. So, stay tuned.
Do you remember that classic moment in cinematic history when Dorothy realized she was no longer in Kansas? Her drab world of black, white, and shades of gray had been replaced by vibrant color and wonders never imagined with only the ruins of her home to serve as a link to that former time and place. For most of us that moment of realization, that awareness we are living in a world far removed from the one we knew, is seldom experienced with such clarity. It is a process of awakening, a growing unease fueled by the sense that you have walked in during the middle of a French movie with Japanese subtitles and that there will be a test in the morning. My personal glimpse of mortality in the form of a biopsy confirming cancer a mere two weeks before the death of my mother, which was followed eleven days later by the death of my little sister at age 47, were the catalyst that brought me from that half awake state to full alertness. The world I was living in, working in, and waking up in every morning was not the pre-generic world of neon lit nights, two lane highways, motels without television, family vacations, and station wagons that I remembered from my youth. Any semblance of the quest for morality, for thrift, for self reliance, and for the value of hard, honest work that permeated the America I knew seems to have evaporated like snow on a warm summers day and become as scarce as shiny new hubcaps for a 1950 Olds. Was I being maudlin or were these thoughts merely a manifestation of depression? Could it be my hearty optimism was being buried under reality or was the reality shaded by the heavy shadows on the road I was traveling? Fleeting thoughts of the America that I once knew, and occasional sighs of longing for those halcyon days, began to manifest as a hunger to find traces of that lost civilization. This growing passion was not born of a desire to relive the past, or to be set free from the technological constrictions of the modern era, but to find a mooring, a tether, before setting out into the deeper waters shrouded with the fog of uncertainty that is the future. I was not looking for the America that made the Green Book for the Negro Motorist a necessity for a large segment of the population but the America that negated its need. I was not seeking the free spirited search for self era of the 1960s but the nation that through its liberty and prosperity made such self focused frivolity possible. Family legend has it that I was potty trained along U.S. 66. From that point in time to this day, legendary Route 66 has been an integral component in my life. I learned to drive on an abandoned alignment of that highway in western Arizona. The first time I drove to California on my own was on Route 66. When courting my wife, whose family had a store on Route 66 for two generations, I drove Route 66 from the ranch near Ashfork to Kingman. My office housed in the last remnants of the Hobb’s Truck Stop fronts Route 66. Often we attend church in Peach Springs on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, which means we must drive Route 66. Three of the books I have written were about Route 66. The current project is a compilation of Route 66 history. This half century of memories made it impossible to begin my journey of discovery, my odyssey into the past in search of hope for the future, on any other road than legendary Route 66. The obscurity of this highways forgotten cousin, U.S. 6, and the path it follows through the nation’s heartland made it the choice for the voyage home. Initially I gave thought to making this grand pilgrimage in a 1931 Ford pick up truck. This would provide a link to the world my grandfather knew as I sought remnants from the world I knew. As the dream drew closer to becoming a reality, practicality began to intervene. A Nash or Hudson built during the late forties or early fifties would better meet the requirements of modern traffic while delivering respectable fuel economy and a car from either manufacturer could serve as the rolling link between past and present. The search for a suitable vehicle ended abruptly with the discovery of a 1959 Rambler station wagon. This car would combine the benefits of the Nash or Hudson with cargo and camping space. When I opened the hood of that vintage coral and white road warrior, an epiphany occurred that was almost spiritual in nature. I already owned the perfect vehicle for this adventure. The engine that had propelled this old wagon was the same as the one under the hood of our Jeep Cherokee. Fuel injection and electronic ignition masked the internal components of the same engines used in the Rambler, the Pacer, and the Gremlin. Here was the vehicle that perfectly bridged the past and the present. Here was the vehicle that could transport us along the roads washed from modern maps by waves of progress. Here was the practicality of the ancient wagon in a modern package. The route was set. The vehicle was chosen. Now, all that remains is to make the adventure a reality in my quest for assurance that America is still the shining city on the hill.