The Interstate killed Route 66, but it also gave it life. Without the Interstate it would be an overcrowded highway. Because of it, it is a delightful tourist route. We visit the town where the new Route 66 was born. And I look upward and do not see stars.
May 17, 2018: Flagstaff to Peach Springs: We make a late start today as we have little ground to cover, but it has me reflecting on the Route 66 experience. Has it been about the lost Americana, the neon, the kitsch, the mom-and-pop diner? Not really. For me it has been about the landscape and about the pleasures of the two-lane road, especially when you have it largely to yourself. In this regard the Interstate did not kill Route 66 as a tourist route, it created it. It created it by taking an ordinary busy highway and making it peaceful and enjoyable and filled with nostalgia. Without the interstate, I suspect, Route 66 would be just another choked and tedious highway.
But what does strike me about the sentimentality for the old cars, the old diners, the old motels, is that driving them, eating at them, sleeping in them, would be a misery compared to their modern equivalents. The danger, noise, harshness, unreliability, the sheer hard work of driving those cars; the claustrophobic nightmare a sleeping in a concrete teepee; the monotony of diner food; the garish tackiness of the neon—no one in their right mind should be sentimental for any of it.
If there is sentimentality for this era, I suspect it is really for its optimism. Travel then may have been hard by our standards, but for millions such travel was possible for the first time. I have heard it said that most people throughout history never travelled more than thirty miles from the place they were born. I don’t know if that is true, but I suspect it is not far from it. Travel, before the age of the automobile and the paved road, was expensive and hazardous. Long distance travel is routine now, but that is a very new thing. Route 66 is one of the beacons of the dawning of the age of travel for ordinary people and ordinary eccentrics.
It is hardly surprising, then, that despite the horror of two world wars, this was an era that had for many people, an unalloyed sense of confidence in progress. The Victorian optimism was shattered by World War I. The 50s and 60s gave a brief rebirth to optimism which the digital age has never been able to summon up again, no matter how much actual progress we have made and continue to make. We remain obsessed with the downsides and the omissions of our civilization and our technology. Sentimentality for the 50s, I suspect, must surely be sentimentality for a time in which our material progress actually made us feel better about ourselves.
Flagstaff has put us back on Route 66 after our long detour to Second Mesa and the Grand Canyon. And here we are on some of the most prominent and well signed sections of the Mother Road. No tiny historic route marker hiding behind trees here. Route 66 decorations are incorporated into the big highway signs, with multiple signs at every freeway off ramp. If Route 66 in New Mexico has to take a back seat to the Santa Fe Trail, in Arizona it is the star of the show.
But Arizona seems to have spent all of its scenic tokens on the Grand Canyon. If the old road is well signed, it is not exactly spectacular. The landscape as we leave Flagstaff on the old road is typical Arizona yellow grass and shrub prairie, which gradually grows lumpier and curvier as we go, with a few low sandstone outcrops here and there, but none of the dramatic bluffs and mesas of earlier days. This scenery has become our new normal from which we seek variation. A week ago it was a novelty.
Our first stop is Williams. We had not been intending to spend long here, but my tummy is a bit upset so we decide to dose me with Pepto Bismol and walk around until it settles down. Williams turns out to be quite the tourist trap. It is actually a dual tourist trap, being both a Route 66 town and the road and rail gateway to the Grand Canyon. A good eight blocks by two blocks of downtown Williams has become a giant souvenir shop and restaurant complex. I say complex because it is difficult to tell when one curio shop ends and the next begins. There maybe three or four distinct storefronts on the outside, but inside, arches have been cut between rooms and between buildings so that a single store might consist of eight or ten rooms filled with a variety of Route 66 and Grand Canyon kitsch.
This is all highly professional tourist industry stuff with all the exteriors restored to period and historically placqued. All the merchandise is professionally presented in well-lit, clean, air conditioned stores. The eateries, similarly, are immaculate and varied and often attached to the shops, so that one need not stop shopping to eat. Downtown Williams, in other words, is a mall. A Route 66 and Grand Canyon souvenir mall. We have lunch in an Italian grill and pizzeria which is attached at the back to a brewery and at the side to a restored gas station/museum and curio shop.
Williams, in short, is the Macy’s of tourism, right down to the professionally run and immaculate visitors information center. It is in Williams that I find something I have been searching for since Chicago—an Oxford shirt with a Route 66 logo. I don’t wear T-shirts, or anything with short sleeves, which means the vast majority of tourist-ware does not work for me. But here is where I find what I am looking for. Whatever it is in Route 66 or Grand Canyon kitsch or craft you might be looking for, I suspect you will find it in Williams.
Williams makes only one concession to eccentricity, ordinary or otherwise, a Stop sign with additional signs saying “One Way” and “All Ways”.
The humorous conjunction and apparent contradiction of One Way vs. All Way aside, the technical writer in me can’t help thinking that, at very least, the All Way sign should be above the One Way sign as it modifies the Stop sign. I also can’t help thinking that the stop cannot be all-way since nothing can be approaching from the right, but perhaps that is too much of a niggle. Do other people stop and laugh at this sign, or is it just me?
I stress the professionalism of Williams, so as to contrast it with the delightful and bizarre approach of Seligman. I talked about the ordinary eccentricity of Route 66. Williams has nothing eccentric about it at all. It is all perfectly calculated marketing. Seligman has nothing of the ordinary about it. It is all eccentricity all the time. Some of it seems to be calculated eccentricity, as in Delgadillo’s Barber shop, which is now a curio shop with the old Barber shop reserved as a museum/shrine in one corner. Other places seem just wackadoodle, created on the premise of parking some old junk in front, painted bright colors, and sell-whatever-miscellaneous-junk-I-can-get-my hands-on nuttiness. Or dress-up-mannequins-in-slutty-clothes-and-put-them-on-the- veranda-nuttiness.
Seligman is everything Williams isn’t, which, calculated or not, is the best thing it could be. If you don’t like one, you will probably like the other, and if you like both, you will probably stop at both, and shop at both, like we did. Plus I found another Oxford shirt at Delgadillo’s. 2000 miles and nothing, then two—actually 3—inside of 40 miles.
Seligman is the birth place of the new Route 66—the beginning of the fight back against the freeway—and it may be the best pure Route 66 town of them all. It is certainly the funkiest.
We have ice cream at Delgadillo’s Snowcap, where Anna gets mustard squirted on her sleeve by the man behind the counter—a prank because it is just yellow string shot from a mustard bottle. How many times must the people behind the counter have pulled that one over the decades? Yet they contrived to look amused every time they make someone jump back startled and then look down puzzled at their unstained garments. When we asked for the restroom, we were directed to the outhouses. This is not a prank. They have actual out houses. In the middle of town. In the middle of the shopping district. This is eccentricity beyond the ordinary.
Past Seligman, the landscape is typical Arizona for a while, then we drop down and are suddenly in a wide empty yellow grass plain free of the usual shrubs, but trimmed with low hills with the usual Arizona carpeting. We crossed this plain on the usual ruler-straight roads and presently reach some low hills and shortly thereafter the Grand Canyon Caverns Motel. This too is a work of studied eccentricity, with a tumbledown appearance and a collection of junk out front that makes you worry about the kind of room you will be getting. But in fact the rooms are fine—neat, clean, and well maintained, with good furniture and beds. This place clearly knows when customers want authenticity and when they want modern comfort.
The restaurant is a mile up the road at the caverns entrance. The road is lined with flags, hundreds of them, though none we recognize. There is also a dinosaur crossing with a large metallic dinosaur waiting for its turned to cross, and a 50s police car parked half behind the bush as if waiting to pounce on speeders. It is a calculated eccentricity that pushes it a bit too far, though it will doubtless delight the kids.
The restaurant is in the same style as the motel, tumbledown and fronted with junk. The menu is limited, but the food is well enough prepared. Not a highlight but not the nightmare the exterior and the limited menu leads you to fear it may be.
The motel grounds are a kind of small oasis with mature deciduous trees such as we have not seen in 1000 miles. I’m not sure if there is some hidden water source here—none is obvious—or if this is the product of 100 years of deliberate watering. Whichever it is, it is a welcome change after so many desert days.
I have been looking forward to our stay at the Grand Canyon Cavern’s Inn since we planned the trip, not for any particular feature of the Inn, and certainly not for the caverns, from which my claustrophobia excludes me. But the Grand Canyon Caverns happen to be right out in the Arizona desert with no habitation in sight. The restaurant and the Inn are the only buildings for miles, and that means that there will be almost no light pollution in the sky. Truly dark skies, such as most of us never see anymore, are a chance to see the night sky in all its glory. Before the sun went down, I scouted out the best dark sky location. Beyond the three buildings that make up the motel there is a paved area out of sight of the lights over the motel doors.
We made our way there after the sun went down and as soon as we turned the corner of the building it was indeed truly dark. We were not the only ones there. Half the guests in the motel seemed to have had the same idea and we could hear — though not see — other couples all around us exclaiming at the glories of the night sky. And here I suffered my biggest disappointment of the entire trip. I looked up, and all I could see were a million fuzzballs of light.
This was the first noticeable symptom of what would later be diagnosed as cataracts. It is remarkable how much you can lose and not be aware of it. Cataracts not only make your vision fuzzy, particularly when your pupils are dilated, they also give your vision a yellowish tinge. I had no idea that anything was wrong until that moment. It would be two years before I could get my cataracts diagnosed and fixed. I had to give up driving at night while I waited for the operations, both of them much delayed by the COVID pandemic. The results are marvelous. The operation is quick and painless and the recovery is swift. The quality of the implanted lenses is superb. I could suddenly see with a level of detail that I had forgotten was there, and the change in colors was striking. Now that I have had my cataracts removed — and had my astigmatism largely corrected at the same time, I see better than I have in years. For this reason alone I would like to go back to Peach Springs and see if I can see the stars.