El Rancho lobby fireplace

Grand Tour 15: High and Low, Wide and Steep

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

From the low of a mine to the height of the Continental Divide and from the width of the plain to the steepness of Gallup’s streets, this is a day on the move. And a chat with the ghost of Jimmy Stewart.

May 12, 2018, Albuquerque to Gallup: We begin the day with a tour of Old Town Albuquerque. As seems to be our pattern as early risers, we arrive before it opens and pretty much have the place to ourselves in the cool of the morning. The pattern here is pretty much what we have seen in Santa Fe and even in the Taos Pueblo, a collection of early buildings around a working church. None of the buildings are preserved as historical artifacts. they are all commercial locations. basically souvenir or art stores or restaurants.

There are three types of Old Town, I think. There are the reconstructions that operate as museums, like Upper Canada Village, Colonial Williamsburg, or Fortress Louisburg. Commerce on such sites it usually restricted to restaurants, serving more or less period food in more or less period costume. The only other selling on the site tends to be confined to giftshop in a visitor’s center, usually a modern building slightly off the old site.

Then there is the section of a working city that happens to have been there for a long time, and is given an Old Town designation largely for tourist purposes. But the tourist angle here is supplementary rather than the main focus, for these are still working parts of the modern city. Quebec City is the example that springs most readily to mind. These tend to be a North American phenomena because in Europe practically every modern city has such an “old town” at its heart. In only a few, such as York, do they really make a thing of it (or such is my impression). Otherwise it is just part of visiting the city.

And then there is a third kind, of a type I have seen only in the US (though I am in no way implying that they do not exist elsewhere). These are the old towns a separate districts set apart from the modern city and not part of its ordinary life, but not treated as museums the way Colonial Williamsburg or The Lincoln House in Springfield are. Rather, they operate as a kind of antique high-end shopping mall, full of restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and gift shops.

It the buildings have historical significance, this will be noted with a plaque, but the building is not run to educate but to generate a profit. San Diego Old Town, for instance, is a recreation of an historic village, but many of the building host businesses.  Here in Old Town Albuquerque, every building, regardless of its history or significance, seems to be a working commercial enterprise and it’s heart.

Old Town Albuquerque

Even the church—Saint Philip Neari, a beautiful church in a simple classical style—follows this pattern. It is a working place of worship which allows tourist to visit but closes regularly for mass as it is the parish church of the local area. Everything, in short, is working.

St. Philip Neri Church

Interior St. Philip Neri

I am of two minds about this working style of Old Town. I love that these old churches are still working parish churches. But I could wish to see more historic reconstruction and interpretation of the surrounding buildings. How and when does a community decide whether it’s Old Town should become a museum or a tourist trap?

I have noted earlier that the role of the museum is changing. In Springfield the Lincoln Museum operates as a shine (and as a tourist magnet for the town the contains it). The Poeh Cultural Centre operates as a bastion of culture and cultural myth. The Plaza District in Santa Fe and Old Town Albuquerque operate as shopping malls.

On the road again the Garmin again dumps us on the freeway despite my having performed what I thought with the necessary incantations to make it behave. Anna pulls out the easy guide and get us back on course, and, once clear of the city, the Garmin seems to settle down and follow route 66 properly again.

Map of route from Albuquerque to Gallup


At first the country seems very flat but then mesas start to appear and quickly approach and we find ourselves on the old road twisting along at the foot of high sandstone cliffs.

Mesa beside old road

A feature of this stretch is a tightening radius bend apparently called Dead Man’s Curve. The tightening radius at the end of the bend could certainly send the unwary driver off the road. But because the cliff is on the outside of the turn rather than the inside, it seems more likely that it would stuff the overconfident driver into the scrub brush than kill them.

Surviving Dead Man’s Curve, we drove on to Grants, NM, where we stopped for lunch. We were expecting something like Tucumcari, a sort of semi-ghost town full of boarded up buildings and at first it looked like that is what we would find. But then we came up on a handsome new building housing El Cafecito, a neighborhood restaurant with an obviously bustling local trade. This obviously is not a dying town or a town in stasis. It is a town where people build new buildings and open new businesses.

This impression is confirmed as we drive into town heading for the New Mexico Mining Museum, again a modern well-designed building set in a town square with the park, green lawns, and handsome shade trees.Boring tool, New Mexico Mining Museum

The main exhibit at the mining museum is underground in a mine, which makes sense for a mining museum. I plead claustrophobia and decline to go down, but Anna goes on the tour, leaving me to chat with the young man at the desk. He has only been on the job a few days and is eager to learn about the people who pass through. I remark on my impressions of the town and he tells me that Grants is indeed the first of the Route 66 towns that really seems to be thriving and we should expect to see more of this as we head West. This current prosperity comes despite the collapse of uranium mining in the area. He asks me about social differences between the USA and Canada. I give the standard line about a Canadian being an unarmed American with health care. He too is puzzled by his countrymen’s fascination with firearms. Afterwards I realize I should have talked about hockey and Tim Horton’s as well. But really the differences are not that great, and no, Americans, we Canadians are not so polite, we are no more or less as polite than you are. A little more introverted perhaps.

Leaving Grants we run between the freeway and the railway tracks. Again the tracks are busy one massive freight train following another. The commerce moving through this corridor seems almost as vast as the landscape. We pass a train that is traveling parallel to us. It takes 20 minutes before we find and pass the 5 locomotives at the head of the train.

Freight Train

Our next stop is the continental divide and the Top of the World Souvenir Shop which is our first encounter with the Navajo rather than Pueblo style of Indian souvenirs. The shop is a combination of genuinely elegant pieces and some of the worst kitsch we have seen including a cowboy and Indians play set with small plastic figures in garish colors. Really?

Beside the gift shop there are two hand painted and weather-beaten signs proclaiming the continental divide. The elevation is 7275 feet says one. It is 7245 feet says the other. Clearly this debate has been going on for a long time, and no one seems moved to intervene and settle it.

Continental divide sign

Rival Continental Divide sign

You would expect the continental divide to occur at the top of some twisty mountain pass, and we will cross it in such places later in the trip, but here it occurs in the middle of a pretty flat plain with a row of red mesas off to the North and green hills further away to the South. And yet as we drive on, we can tell the difference. Though the road is broad and straight and the land we are travelling through is a plain, it has been rising and the view ahead was usually of the road rising ahead of us. Once over the divide, the road falls away and the horizon is a row of distant mountains.

Highway with hills in distance

Here we are forced to leave the old road and join I40. The scenery is dramatic but hard to put into words. There is a seemingly endless series of mesas off in the distance to the north and then across the horizon like a wall before us. These seem vastly far. Anna snaps pictures as an aid to memory, but there is a vastness to the landscape that camera cannot capture. I think it is necessary to drive through such landscapes to get the full dramatic effect. The scale and distance and sheer abundance of the landscape is only apparent when you move through it and allow it to roll out before you. It is too vast to be appreciated standing still. Only by moving through it can you begin to grasp its vastness.

Coming into Gallup on the old road one enters a truly garish strip. This is authentic Route 66, Anna reminds me, garishly authentic. Indeed, the easy guide describes this as one of the best sections of Route 66 in the West. I get that Route 66 is about 50’s kitsch and neon, and this is the kitschiest, neonist, most garish strip you are likely to see on this or any road. But given the scenery we have been traveling through, I can’t count this as the best section of Route 66. Not even close. It is not a scene that the camera can easily capture, especially driving through in the middle of the day. Google “Gallup neon” and you will get a whole bunch of images of individual signs but nothing the captures the whole. In any case, we were too busy looking for our hotel to remember to take any photos.

The El Rancho hotel is a former hangout of movie stars who filmed westerns in the area. We are in the Jimmy Stewart room. There is a gallery around the lobby plastered with the head shots of stars, many of them now long forgotten.

Movie Star headshots at El Rancho

We decide to walk to the downtown, which Google Maps says it’s a 22-minute walk. But when we go outside a vicious wind is blowing dust in our faces so we decide to have a beer in the hotel instead. I go out later to walk to church and thankfully the wind has died down. Google Maps says it is a 13-minute walk. It does not say that it is steeply uphill, and I had forgotten what altitude I am at. I had to walk very slowly and I collapsed exhausted in the pew when I got to Sacred Heart cathedral.

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sacred Heart is a large red brick church, and quite modern in construction. It is red brick inside as well but it is a proper church shaped building and the architecture and proportions all make the red brick interior work. Indeed, red brick seem entirely appropriate to the surroundings. Decoration is minimal, which is fine, since the darkness of the red brick allows the stained-glass windows to really shine. The windows are pictorial, not the bland abstract designs you find in many modern churches. The pictorial art is modern but very much a homage to the ancient craft. The overall effect is a building that is both of its time and of all Christian time. A Christian from almost any era could walk into this church as they could walk into any of the mission churches, and know exactly where they were. They would find much to marvel at, but they would know they were in a church. Which they would not at Saint Thomas the Apostle in Amarillo. (Yes, I am still harping on about that. It matters what things look like.)

Mass is said by young African priest who’s homily is long, passionate, and at times a full-on harangue. He ends it with a hymn sung solo and acapella from the pulpit in a voice that might make him a millionaire in another line of work. I have not heard anything like it in my life. If Africa continues to send missionaries to North America, turn about being fair play, the parishes of North America are in for a bit of a treat, and a bit of a shock.

We had dinner in the restaurant of the El Rancho Hotel. We ordered chili with beans, a dish which is here called “The Anthony Quinn”. The waitress is very concerned that these two pale people are not going to be able to handle the local chili. She insists on bringing us a sample to try before taking the order. It is, indeed, hot, and very good. I was brought up on curries and have been gradually turning up the heat on Anna for 30 years. We are undaunted, therefore, and we both order green chili with beans. Billy Connolly could not have been more wrong about the food on Route 66. Where was he eating? Rule of thumb: If your lips are not still burning an hour after you eat, it wasn’t hot enough.

I wrote this diary entry in the lobby of the El Rancho Hotel. Most of the hotels we have been staying in don’t have a real lobby. In the bigger business hotels that do have a lobby, it functions mostly as a place for business associates to meet to go out to eat or wait for taxis. Those kinds of lobbies are not places you would choose to sit and work, to write, read, or chat. The lobby of the El Rancho is all that, two stories tall and decorated in a magnificent western style with heavy wood, tile floors, southwest style rugs, comfortable chairs of chunky would design with rich orange and red cushions. There are Navajo rugs hanging from the balustrade of the balcony.

Lobby of the El Rancho

The staircase made of half logs with railings made of natural branches, deeply vanished.

El Rancho Staircase

The centerpiece is a magnificent fireplace set in a space that is almost a grotto.

El Rancho lobby fireplace

Lighting comes from three-tiered wagon wheel chandeliers and the set of elegant stained glass hanging lamps supplemented by robust dark wood table lamps. It is simply a nice place to be, and one can almost imagine Jimmy Stewart emerging from the bar, a whiskey in hand, and flopping down in the chair beside you to talk about tomorrow’s filming.

Series Navigation << Grand Tour 14: Holy Jumble and the Intrusiveness of TourismGrand Tour 16: Finding Fern Seed and Elephants in Petroglyphs and Rock and Roll >>
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