The distance plotted out for tomorrow is at last manageable so we allow ourselves a little time to tonight to relax and stretch out. As we blast George Straits’ twangy “Amarillo Morning,” in our Ford Mustang we hit Club 212, the local gay nightclub. Unfortunately, Sunday night at 9 P.M. does not appear to be peak hours and not wanting to wait for the 11 P.M. drag show (as if it would even start on time anyway), we enjoy one drink, a round of pool, and shove off.
Our Monday commute the following brisk and sunny Texas morning is behind ten upside-down Cadillacs, which looks like giant, spray-painted dominoes gleaming in the mud. Cadillac Ranch, perhaps the most famous of all Route 66 landmarks, is just as much a beauty up close and in person as it is imagined in the mind and the battery on my iPhone wears thin photographing it.
We reach the Midpoint Café, the official Route 66 halfway point, just several days before it officially closes for the season, and it is here that we learn that the ultimate US road trip isn’t taken by many Amer- icans at all, but rather is mythologized by European and Australian biker and auto clubs who spend weeks conducting the kind of nose to tail tour of the route that Ryan and I are trying to pull off in just eight days. It is also around this point in the journey in which expectations are no longer placed squarely on small towns and roadside nostalgia but also on the breathtaking scenery which changes like the flick of a switch upon entering New Mexico.
Tucumcari, a town whose names is derived from a Comanche word that likely means ambush, is our first taste of the Land of Enchantment and if any town on the route looks untouched from its heyday, it’s this one. Perfectly dry, dusty, and pancake flat, its main thoroughfare is a dense half mile of still thriving vintage motels and restaurants such as the Blue Swallow Motel, La Cita Restaurant, Motel Safari, and KIX on 66, a basic diner where we stuff our empty gullets.
For much of New Mexico, Route 66 and I-40 are one in the same, which sucks the charm completely out of the road, but does allow us to play catch up on time. The road splits at US-84 which was in fact Route 66 before its 1937 realignment and we follow this scenic route as it ascends into the Santa Fe National Forest and onward to the state capital.
The pretty Spanish Pueblo Revival architecture of Sante Fe is marred, in my opinion, by the ubiquity of turquoise jewelry, ersatz Native American souvenirs, and dream catchers, although I realize I stand mostly alone in my unmannerly dislike for the oldest US state capital. Although I’m not vibing with it as much as I’d hoped, one saving grace is an escape from the one-two-three punch of burgers, fries, and milkshakes that has thus far clogged my aging arteries. We slurp margaritas and devour enchiladas at legendary Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen and although there is not a single queer bar in sight, we enjoy the strong drinks and blasts of rock ‘n’ roll at subterranean dive bar Matador, a gay-friendly hangout in the center of town. Afterward, we retired to the El Rey Inn, a collection of Spanish villas around several pretty courtyards and a Route 66 classic.
It is considered a fool’s errand to drive the original Route 66 from Santa Fe to Albuquerque without a 4WD so instead we opt for the splendid Turquoise Trail (NM-14,) which slithers around pretty Placer and South Mountains and provides an oasis in unexpected Madrid, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outpost populated with Wild West shanties and aging hippies. We give the proprietor of kitschy Connie’s Photo Park a few bucks so that we can stick or heads in the cutout slots and snap goofy pics of ourselves looking like a pioneer couple. We also reluctantly buy a couple snacks and soft drinks at Java Junction in exchange for a key to the outhouse.
One man’s junkyard is another man’s treasure trove and that is true of Albuquerque, a city of 600,000 that is maligned for its monotonous sprawl, but is a goldmine for midcentury aficionados as the original Route 66 still serves as one of the city’s main thoroughfare’s, and pro- vides visitors with a perfect snapshot of this desert metropolis. Down- town, as unspectacular as its critics paint it, has nevertheless livened up its core with 66 signage and monuments, and we love all of them.
The problem with driving a bitchin’ Ford Mustang crosscountry is that every straight dude in middle America wants to talk to us and we’re never sure how to tell these guys we have no idea what kind of engine Carol has. Not that we don’t appreciate the occasional camaraderie as the road between Albuquerque and the Arizona border is largely desolate with a passing freight train providing the day’s best entertainment. Gallup, as referenced in the song, does provide us with the splendid El Rancho Hotel & Motel, an Old West relic built in 1936 for the brother of legendary film director D.W. Griffith and for awhile a important hangout for the movie industry.
But Gallup is enjoyed only briefly as our eyes remain fixed on the Petrified Forest National Park, the afternoon’s big prize. Littered with petrified wood and pastel-colored badlands, the forest is a trip highlight and one that gives our thumbs a workout as we snap away at the swirling alien landscape.
Mother Nature has begun painting the sky her familiar sunset shades when we land in Holbrook, Arizona, a convenient layover for visitors to the Petrified National Forest but also an essential stopping point for Route 66 travelers thanks to the Wigwam Motel, a still-functioning lodging consisting of a collection of photogenic teepees and a monument to roadside kitsch. The waitstaff at Mesa Italiana, one of a half-dozen restaurants in town, seems besieged by the 7 P.M. dinner rush. The patrons are almost exclusively seniors, and we wonder how small towns like this will survive as its residents will one day be forced to hand the reigns over to the next generation which appears to be nonexistent. We photograph several pretty murals the next morning and also meet a cashier at the local Safe- way whose real name is Mona Lisa.
Although we bristle at the notion that many travelers veer off the Mother Road at around this point for a Las Vegas detour (how dare they!) the Arizona portion of the journey becomes a cheat day for us as well, but for a different reason. In Flagstaff, we swerve north onto Route 89, which ascends toward one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon.