A great way to start the day, sunrise on the Colorado River at Fenders River Resort in Needles, California.
It was a perfect morning for a bit of reflection and some desert exploration. I was alone with my thoughts for the first time since hearing that my pa had passed, and there was a hint of a chill in the air as the light of dawn chased the shadows. Seldom do I sleep in later than 5:00 A.M. and this morning was no exception. That habit was a part of my legacy. For as long as I can remember the day started early and years spent working farms and ranches have ensured that it is an ingrained habit.
I had held emotions and thoughts in check even during the drive to Needles, California at the historic El Garces. That also was a part of my legacy as there was a job to be done but it was a challenge since the drive took me past the ruins of the old homestead that I had helped pa build in the late 1960s and along old Route 66 where I had been taught to drive.
An abandoned alignment of Route 66 in the Mojave Desert near Needles, California.
Now, however, was time to give thought to the loss. For more than a half century I have found solace in the desert. And so I slipped from our room at Fenders River Road Resort, the only motel that is located on the National Old Trails Road, Route 66 and the Colorado River, and walked to the river as the sun broke in the east. Then after a bit of reflection I began walking into the desert along Route 66 with little to no thought as to distance or direction. And so it was a bit of a surprise to notice that at some point in my wanderings I had left the highway and was following a long abandoned segment of iconic Route 66.
Route 66 figures prominently in my life and so I consider it a part of my legacy as well. Aside from being taught to drive on a bypassed alignment, I learned to ride a bicycle on this iconic old highway. My first job was on old Route 66. I learned to drive a truck on Route 66. And Route 66, and the desert, figures prominently in the story of how my inquisitive nature and passion for the quest, for exploration was kindled.
A long vanished truck stop along Route 66 in the Mojave Desert of California.
As I followed the broken asphalt and faded white line deeper into the desert, the ruins of a once thriving truck stop or service station complex was discovered. Judging by the extensive trash piles, and the pile of bulldozed ruins, my best guess is that it had been in operation during the mid 1950s and into the 1960s. Had we stopped here during my childhood travels?
As I wandered around the overgrown remnants of the complex a tsunami of memories engulfed me. The road trip figured prominently in my relationship with pa. We hauled hay from Mohave Valley over Sitgreaves Pass to the homestead in the Sacramento Valley. We hauled scrap metal from Silver City in New Mexico to Phoenix and Tucson. We hauled appliances in Michigan. We moved the family from Arizona to New Mexico, from New Mexico to Michigan and from Michigan to Arizona. And we stopped at thousands of dusty old truck stops and gas stations on our desert odysseys.
Dusty memories and remnants abound in the desert.
With my eyes closed I could hear the ringing of the gas station bell and smell the hot engines. I could smell the tires, the oil, the gear oil, the diesel fuel and the exhaust. I could feel the hot desert sun on my face, and see pa checking the radiator as the gallons pouring into the tank were counted with the clanging of the gas pump. I could taste the cold soda pop, the hamburger and hear the accents as people from Michigan and Florida and Wyoming mingled in the cafe.
It was here that I bid adios to the man that instilled in me a hunger for the open road, for adventure, and a passion for the empty places and the desert.
The historic Hotel Brunswick on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona
The celebrity association is lengthy. At one of the hotels an impromptu reception was held for Clark Gable and Carol Lombard after their wedding in the spring of 1939. Edsel Ford and his travel companions had stayed at the hotel in July 1915. The neighboring hotel was the boyhood playground for character actor Andy Devine. In 1925 during the filming of Go West it was used as the headquarters for Buster Keaton’s film company. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were guests. Legendary western writer Louis L ‘Amour did a bit of amateur boxing in the Sump, a bar in the cellar.
Today the forlorn old relics stand in stark contrast to the renaissance that is transforming the historic district in Kingman, Arizona. For at least thirty years there were half hearted attempts to give the Hotel Brunswick a new lease on life. In the mid ’90s the front portico was replaced returning the hotel to its original appearance, and a restaurant and bar operated on the ground floor. When the owners went bust, it sat empty for many years. The next investor gutted the downstairs, and began work on the rooms. And then he gave up on the project and put the hotel up for sale. That is the hotels current status.
There is a haunting beauty in the mezzanine of the Hotel Beale lit by a morning glow from the skylight. #jimhinckleysamerica
The historic Hotel Beale faces a very uncertain future. The owners don’t want to sell or to invest in the property. The city continues to try and facilitate a solution. Even though the owners recently replaced a few windows and added a touch of paint, the building is nearing a point where it could be cost prohibitive to renovate. The roof has been leaking, and as a result one corner of the upper joists and the floor joists are in jeopardy. There is extensive mold and as the hotel has a massive steam boiler in the cellar, a great deal of asbestos sheeting as well as wrapping on pipes. The saving grace is that the hotel is built on rock with extensive use of masonry. And the addition constructed in 1916 made extensive use of reinforced concrete.
For decades before its closure the hotel served as a flop house with little maintenance performed. For most of the next thirty years its primary function has been use as a storage facility. From furnishings purchased during the 1916 remodel to old gas pumps, snow tires, refrigerators, Vespa’s, refrigerators, car parts, barbershop equipment and tools the old hotel appears like a hoarders dream. Surprisingly many original fixtures are still in place including the wood check in counter with frosted glass, the switchboard and hotel safe.
The National Old Trails Highway at the dawning of Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona
Both hotels face an uncertain future. Both hotels are key to the continued transformation of the historic business districts. Both hotels could be transformed from tarnished gems into crown jewels.
David Rice Atchison, credit U.S. Senate Historical Office
In the era before Google when people had to conduct research laboriously I would have bet good money that almost no one was familiar with President David Atchison. His tombstone in Plattsburg, Missouri reads, “David Rice Atchison, 1807-1886, President of the U.S. for one day.” My pop always told me that it was better to fill the head with useless knowledge than no knowledge at all. Here is an example of how the study of history can make that possible. However, the story of this forgotten chapter in American history and other political hiccups also exemplify the relevance of studying the past to understand the present, and to glimpse a bit of the future. Even more importantly a grounding in history is crucial if an individual is to maintain a bit of sanity and stability when the country’s government seems like a Japanese film with Russian subtitles.
Until the 1930s, congress and the president officially commenced their terms at noon on March 4. In 1849 that date fell on a Sunday, and as a result President Zachary Taylor delayed his inauguration until the following day. This resulted in a bit of a constitutional quandary. Who would serve as president from noon of March 4 to noon of March 5?
David Atchison, was a pro-slavery Democrat from Missouri that served in the U.S. Senate from 1843 to 1855. On more than twelve occasions he was appointed president pro tempore to serve during vice presidential absences from the proceedings. In 1849 the Senate president pro tempore followed the vice president in line of presidential succession. As both the president and vice president term in office expired at noon on March 4, this technically meant that Atchison was officially the president.
Credit Library of Congress
Who remembers the infamous hanging chad incident and the resultant outcry when it was determined that Al Gore was not president? That takes us to the story of President Samuel J. Tilden and one of the most contentious and controversial presidential elections in our nations history. The count wasn’t even close as Democratic candidate Tilden had 4,288,456 votes compared to 4,034,311 for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden had also taken the electoral college votes, sort of. He won 184 votes, Hayes 165. The fly in the ointment was 20 votes that were unresolved in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina with each party reporting its candidate had won the state. In Oregon one elector was declared illegal and replaced.
To resolve the disagreement the Electoral Commission was formed on January 29, 1877. The debate was heated and divisive, and continued until the first weeks of March. The resultant comprise awarded all 20 of the disputed electoral votes to Hayes who was declared president. In return for the Democrats’ surrender, Hayes agreed to serve only one four-year term as President without seeking re-election. The Republicans also agreed to vote to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending the era of post Civil War reconstruction.
If you insist on picking sides during the ongoing political feud between Democrats and Republicans like it was a ball game with a fifty dollar bet riding on the outcome, and are of the opinion that our elected officials have reached a new high in lows, consider an incident in the Senate on 1850. Senators Harry Foote of Mississippi and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had been engaged in an ever escalating feud for the better part of a decade. On April 17, it all came to a head when during a debate Benton jumped from his chair and charged Foote who responded by pulling a revolver from his coat. Foote had a reputation for violence and hostility. He had been involved in four duels, and shot three times. In one incident he attacked another senator and the two men entered into a brawl in the Senate chambers.
In an era of orchestrated disinformation and divisive politics, an historic perspective is crucial. Can you imagine a president being viewed as a progressive Republican? That would be Teddy Roosevelt. If you think America is on the cusp of transitioning from constitutional republic to dictatorship wait until you read about the administration of President Wilson and his unprecedented policies. Concerned about presidential corruption? Take a gander at the Harding administration that was rotten at every level and read about a president that was only saved from impeachment by death.
I was once told that being involved in politics is like making sausage. It is a messy business. Put simply, politics is universal in nature. It is like cleaning stables. It comes in different colors but it all smells about the same. And like stables, we become informed and we vote to ensure that the …. doesn’t get to deep.
Author Jim Hinckley in the WWI trenches near Ypres Belgium enhanced the viewing of the movie 1917. Photo Dries Bessels
Sobering. Disturbing. Haunting. These words are apt descriptors for a few of the places visited during my travels over the years. On a cold, drizzly day in January, I stood in the trenches near Sanctuary Wood a short distance from Ypres Belgium where thousands of Canadian soldiers died from a gas attack in 1915. On a hot summer afternoon I visited the site on the Washita River in western Oklahoma where General Custer massacred hundreds of Cheyenne; men, women and children. Another summers afternoon found me in deep contemplation on the overgrown breastworks that marked the site of the brutal Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia. Nothing, however, prepared me for the experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
As have many people over the years, I have long puzzled over how a nation such as Germany could commit the atrocities associated with the holocaust. This was a Christian nation, an advanced industrial nation, a nation of educated and cultured people. American soldiers in WWII noted how the country felt like America in many aspects. In a quest for answers I developed a deep fascination about Germany, specifically the period between the unification of 1871 that resulted in the creation of the modern state and 1945. In turn this led to a quest for understanding and the study of other periods of genocide and holocaust; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the decimation of American Indians, the Spanish Conquistador’s annihilation of the Aztec and Inca, the attacks of the Apache and Navajo against the pueblo dwellers of New Mexico. Again, even though I knew that the horrors of the holocaust had been repeated countless times throughout history nothing prepared me for that day in the summer of 2018 when I visited the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Kiosks such as these bring the atrocities committed at the site to life.
It was a working holiday of sorts as the trip included the European Route 66 Festival in Zlin Czechia and a journey across scenic, beautiful Germany. It was also an emotional trip as it included our 35th anniversary celebration in a German castle high above the Rhine River courtesy some dear friends who live near Frankfurt. On the road to Zlin, traveling with the owners of Netherlands based U.S. Bikers, friends we have known for many years, we made a stop in Nuremburg and toured the Palace of Justice courts where the post war trials were held as well as the museum at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. That set the stage. As we continued our trip east the following day was marked by subdued conversation, deep contemplation, and a sense of heaviness that was difficult to shake.
For many years I had lived with a silent promise. If I had an opportunity a visit would be made to one of the death camps. But I also wondered if it was something I could do. Was I strong enough?
After the festival we returned to Frankfurt with friends from the Netherlands on a rather circuitous route; north through the Czech Republic to Poland, south through Slovakia to Bratislava, and west to Germany through Austria. Before leaving Zlin we had discussed a stop at Auschwitz and the implications. We had no illusions. This would be difficult. It would be disturbing. Still, nothing prepared me for the visit. Nothing can prepare a person for this visit.
We arrived at Birkenau in time for a stunning sunset. Even though it was a day of record breaking heat, and the sunset was spectacular, the sense of a chill was tangible. The heaviness was palpable. Standing at that gate, peering into the camp through the wire there was a feeling that the horrors of the past were only thinly masked by the veil of time.
Our attempts to recover the joy and excitement we were sharing before the visit were futile. The laughter at dinner was hollow, the food seemed to have lost its flavor. And that evening I was privileged with an increasingly rare opportunity; an encounter with a survivor, a witness. The owner of the small B & B where were stayed in Oswiecim, Poland, site of the infamous camps, was born in the city but had worked in Italy as well as England. Her grandmother was also born in the town, a rarity in itself, and had been forced to work in the camp offices at Birkenau. Our conversation ran late into the evening but sleep was elusive. They were genuinely surprised that so many people from throughout the world would travel to see the site of such horrors. They also lamented how the sites had transformed over the years. Now there was more than just the camp. In the former rail yard a short distance from the main gate at Birkenau there was the surreal site of a modern glass and steel cafe and book store that were packed with visitors.
Our friends and I dedicated the following day to touring the camp at Birkenau. My memories of that day are a jumble, a conflicted series of haunting emotions. The overwhelming sense of loss when standing in the former processing center and staring at thousands and thousands of family photos; baby pictures, wedding pictures, graduation photos, birthdays, grandparents, work, family picnics, school picnics and knowing that these people, these families, these babies, these children were murdered mere yards from where I was standing. The towering display of personal items; shoes, dolls, baby toys, glasses, dentures, souvenirs from holidays that their owners carried with them until the very end of their life. I know that it was a manifestation of my imagination but mixed with summer smells on the breeze there was a hint of the stench of death. Adding to the poignancy, the overwhelming sense of loss was pushing my dearest friend through the camp in a wheelchair and knowing that she would have been one of the victims.
But most disturbing and frightening of all were some of the school groups. There were far to many teenagers that were being teenagers; pushing, joking, laughing. They seemed wholly unaffected by the reality of this place of death, by the somber faces or even the sobbing visitors. That is something that will haunt and worry me for quite some time, especially in an era where rabid nationalism and old prejudices, and politicians that are quick to use both for profit and power, are blossoming anew.
“The best commentary on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque is that it took us less than three hours to make the sixty-six miles, whereas the seventy-three miles from Las Vegas to Santa Fe took us nearly six.” Emily Post, By Motor to The Golden Gate, 1916. The first coast to coast trip by automobile occurred in 1903. In 1909 factories in America manufactured more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles compared to 125,000 automobiles. And yet in 1915, the year that Emily Post and Edsel Ford followed the National Old Trails Road to see the scenic wonders of the southwest on their journey to the west coast, more than 20,000 people from outside the state of California arrived at the Panama Pacific Exposition by automobile. Needless to say, it was an era of rapid transition.
In this photo from the Don Gray collection you can see both the Sparton sign and the NOTR sign west of Williams, Arizona.
For a number of years I have been gathering information on the infancy of the American auto industry, the rise of the Good Roads movement and the named highways with the intention being the writing of a book about this period of dramatic societal evolution. That was the subject of a presentation made last October at the site of what I had been led to believe would become the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan. And as Jackson and the surrounding area was at the heart of an industrial boom that included more than 25 automobile manufacturers during the first decades of the 20th century, the trip was also about research.
One of the contacts made during this trip was Russell Rein who has been documenting the history of the named highways for many, many years. He is also a passionate student of the history of a leading manufacturer in Jackson, Sparks-Wirthington. This company was the largest manufacturer of automobile horns in the world during the teens, and later became a leading producer of radios and pioneer in television development as well as manufacturing. In 1915, Clifford and Harry Sparks, sons of one of the company founders, set out from Chicago to San Francisco in a new Ford truck putting up road signs that were a public service as well as an advertising campaign. The signs read, “Safety First – Sound Sparton.”
Fast forward to this past Friday. For several years I have been in discussion with Don Gray, a fellow with an interesting family history. The chapter of that history that spans the period 1910 to 1930 is chronicled in an extensive collection of family photos. Yesterday we finally had the opportunity to meet and to peruse his collection during a visit with Andy Sansom, the archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.
All of the materials in his collection were fascinating. As an example, one photo was of his grandfather, on a Michaelson motorcycle at the Padre Canyon Bridge that was under construction at the time. That would be 1914. And then we came to a photo taken on the National Old Trails Road between Ash Fork and Williams, Arizona. One lady in the photograph was standing next to a Sparton sign!
Needless to say the new presentation about the National Trails Road developed for spring and summer 2020 will be revised before its debut in Needles, California on February 7. And it looks like a new chapter in the 5 Minutes With Jimaudio podcast series about the National Old Trails Road has been added.
Meanwhile the search continues. I will be meeting with Don Gray again son. And I will be returning to Jackson this year for more research and a series of presentations that is in development.
Before I40, before Route 66, people got their kicks on the National Old Trails Road in the southwest. That is a story that needs to be told. It has adventure. It has adventurers like Edsel Ford, Emily Post and Ezra Meeker. It has famous and colorful people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman and Louis Chevrolet. It has auto racing, serial killers and pioneering automobile manufacturers giving their vehicles a bit of real world testing.
The National Old Trails Road at the Colorado River. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.