Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: Such a fine sight to see... Part II
Date: Fri, 03 Oct 1997 10:04:05 -0700


07:22 KOA Kampground; Seligman, Arizona :: 30 SEP 97

I was hot to get to Seligman where a long stretch of old 66 wanders well off the Interstate path through a few small towns and a canyon. So much of Arizona and New Mexico's old route ended up under the Interstate, or torn up and left unpassable--I was getting tired of running miles of Interstate and frontage road to get snippets of something authentic. I'm not sure about John, but I was already anticipating the Seligman/Kingman stretch.

We were already standing beside Rolling Thunder parked in front of Winslow's Old Trails Museum, ready to climb aboard and make our way at least as far as Williams, west of Flagstaff. It was already closing in on 3PM but Janice Griffiths, standing outside the museum she curates, had my ear telling the story of Cecil Cresswell, the Harvey Girl turned cattle rustler.

Seems Cecil met a Mr. Cresswell while working at Winslow's Harvey House (a marvellous Spanish-style Hotel which goes by the name, La Posada) and eventually married him. Unfortunately, he died not too many years later leaving Cecil little more than a small ranch outside of Winslow. Times were hard and to keep from starving she took to culling a few head of cattle from other people's herds, stole the occasional horse and even towed someone's new boat across the arid New Mexico countryside, putting it to use as a water trough. Not that she was afraid of hard work--she built the house, dug a water catchment, erected a fence-line and corral without assistance--it's just that times were hard.

It's a great story, Arizona's only female cattle rustler, and I let Janice know I thought so. "Oh, I've got so many stories," she said. "Journalists just never stay around long enough to hear them." That got my attention. We said goodbye, John and I climbed into the truck, and as we motored out onto 66 I said to him, "I think I want to stay in Winslow another day."

Janice's mother, Betty Patterson, is also heavily involved with the Old Trails Museum. It was Betty who said, "We lost our soul when [I-40 bypassed 66], and it's taken us nearly 20 years to start getting it back." I was beginning to get a picture of how the process of re-establishing a town's soul works in Winslow, Baxter Springs, McLean and so many other towns along the way. It's a matter of identity; stories, the history they represent, are key elements in defining the identity of individuals and towns.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Estimates vary but Route 66 sometimes brought 9,000 cars a day in a steady flow down the main streets of the small towns it traversed. Traffic could get horrific and I've been told many times it was impossible to cross the street except at intersections controlled by a signal. It took a long time to cross a country under these driving conditions which meant plenty of those cars would be stopping in the towns to fill-up on gas or food, to sleep for the night, to buy some trinket or memento, or just to do something that would break up the monotony of driving so many hours. Route 66 brought business, towns grew, people were happy--life was easy.

Then, one day, the 66 spigot was shut off. "It's like they closed the gate," said Pete (with a Greek last name I can't remember), who's owned and run the Falcon Restaurant and Lounge in Winslow for 43 years. "Everybody wanted the Interstate." Some businesses read the writing on the wall and either folded or moved to the Interstate or another town. Many hung on, but only a few of them would make it through the first few years. Angel Delgadillo knows about hanging on. In 1947 he began cutting hair in Seligman, Arizona. He remembers the day the cars stopped...from 9,000 a day to a mere trickle. Some towns, like Glenrio on the Texas/New Mexico border, faded until all the businesses died. If the town didn't die off altogether its soul shriveled until the meaning of 'town' was a collection of rapidly emptying buildings rather than a community of people.

John likes to say the bypassing of 66 by superslab was inevitable. Janice's husband, Arthur Griffiths, who we would meet that night, told us about the semi-trucks roaring through the two traffic-light town. "We lived on the west side of the second lights and those trucks would start gearing up, gaining speed for the small hill at the edge of town. It was always a little frightening turning off 66 with one of those looming up behind you." Later, standing under the milky-way back at the campground I noticed the distant freeway and the constellations of truck lights streaming steadily in both directions. The Interstates were inevitable and those who don't appreciate the value of being able to zoom across the country, those who don't appreciate bypassing the traffic quagmires of city streets, those who are willing to share clogged business arteries with impatient semi-trucks are stuck in a nostalgia trap. Controlled access highways save time, when time is important, and they save lives--which are always important.

And while everyone else is zooming by Winslow, Seligman and Glenrio via the Interstate, we've got nice wide avenues through pretty towns, ghost towns, towns in resurrection; we've got them all to ourselves.

22:07 Needles Marina RV Park; Needles, California :: 01 OCT 97

Janice Griffiths thinks people are slowing down, growing weary of whizzing about whether on pavement or in their daily grind. They come into her museum, stop a while to find out about someplace other, pass the time talking with people who live in some place other. They go into Peter's restaurant looking for some personal service, a meal that comes on a plate and looks like it might have come from mom's kitchen. The menus of the diners and cafes lining the old highways may vary just a little, but there is usually a twist somewhere, a twist the franchises of monotony never offer. Angel Delgadillo thinks people want to drive on the old highways, not just 66, but all the two lane roads, the ones that go through towns, the ones that people live on. Janice and Pete and Angel think this also is a beginning change, not so much a return to old ways, but a return to old needs. "We have tried fast," people are saying. "We have tried familiar. They have their place, but we miss intimacy and yearn for surprise."

Following the path of old Route 66, going west, you will at some point leave Kingman, Arizona. Watch for the Interstate; before you pass under it watch for the signs. They will tell you the next important town on the I-40. On the Interstates heading west from Kingman the next important town is the City of Angels, Los Angeles, nearly 400 miles away. It is clear across a state you have not yet entered, cozied up to the Pacific ocean.

Beware. If you climb aboard the Interstate here, you will be tempted to stay on it, mile after mile, all the way to the Pacific. On exit signs you will see the names of towns along the way: Topock, Needles, Barstow, Victorville, San Bernardino. Nearing the exit you'll see bright, colourful billboards, and plastic signs atop 100 ft poles tell you what franchises are here. Texaco, Exxon, Comfort Inn, Taco Bell, KFC, McDonalds, Motel 6. You may see rooftops, scattered amongst trees, perhaps some yards with laundry hanging, scattered toys, cars parked in the drive. Just flashes. In fact, you will see little, almost nothing. You will have learned little, almost nothing. You are going to Los Angeles and you will not have gone through Topock, Needles or Barstow. You will know Essex, Amboy and Cadiz only as names on exit signs. And you will know Oatman only as a point on a map, for there are no exit signs for Oatman on the Interstate. And you will learn of Baghdad not at all, because it is not on the map. You will know where you came from and where you arrived. You will remember some countryside, some rooftops, and the same billboards and illuminated plastic signs repeated over and over at every major exit.

And that is what everything will become for your, an exit. Just an exit from the highway. You might see the sign,

Exit 1
Topock
1 mile

and you might think, "Hmmm, I wonder what Topock's like. I've never been to Topock." Then you'll remind yourself, "I'll have to exit the highway. I'll have to interrupt my progress, turn away from my destination. Look, Los Angeles 274 miles ahead. I can make it tonight. But I've heard Topock is nice, and I've never been to Topock." And it will be too late, Topock is gone. Once past the exit, you'll never turn back. Access controlled.

If you keep getting on the Interstate, you will never get to Topock. You will never experience that first scent of water after the desert, never see the road shrouded by shimmering needles in late afternoon sun. On the interstate the exits become markers of progress. "Oh--look, Barstow. Just 120 mlles to Los Angeles. I'll be there for Leno." And Barstow slips by in the night. Interstates are easy to get onto. Signs all over town direct you to them. But we get on one and we're stuck. Interstates--inertia.

Janice and Peter and Angel say people are thinking more about visiting Topock, about standing on a corner in Winslow or getting a haircut in Seligman as they drive down the highway. And not just thinking, they're beginning to take the exit, to turn away from their destination, interrupt their forward progress. "Look, Los Angeles 274 miles ahead. I'll have all day tomorrow to get there. Yes, look, on the map: I wonder what the towns along this thin grey line are like. I've never heard of Amboy. If I stop in Needles tonight, after seeing Topock, there will be plenty of time tomorrow for a thin grey line on the map, for Essex, Amboy and Ludlow. I'll be in Los Angeles for dinner, tomorrow."

Ah, yes, the thin grey line. Like old Route 66 from Seligman to Topock. After Seligman comes Peach Springs then Truxton, Valentine and Hackberry. You went through them all and perhaps stopped at that curious dealer of curios in Hackberry with his Burma Shave signs, the postcards he draws and paints and all the 66 memorabilia and pictures of folks who'd stopped by. After Hackberry comes Kingman and the Interstate junction. Now, watch for the old 66 shields. Beside them are signs that'll tell you, "This way to Oatman, Golden Springs, Topock, Needles." If you need to be in LA tonight, don't follow this trail. It would take you there as sure as the superslab, but not tonight. No, take the interstate to make time.

But if the Pacific Ocean is just the final destination on your journey, and there is always more than the destination to a journey, take 66. The twisty, hair-pin winding, clambering and falling track over Sitgreave's Pass will challenge your driving. You'll pull off the roadway here and there to marvel at red and brown stone mountains peeling under the grave desert sun. You can stop in Oatman where a funky cafe will serve up grilled rattlesnake for supper. Speed up a little after leaving Oatman--45 is too slow for the bee-bop swing of the roadway to Topock. Keep the windows open, no matter how hot, and breathe. Breathe deeply through the nose. Smell the heated desert, all singed rock and dry brush. Then, in Topock, smell the musky abundant life of an oasis.

9:15 Needles Marina RV Park; Needles, California :: 02 OCT 97

Janice and Pete and Angel believe people have more than a visit on their mind. People who've been living the hustle-bustle, the rat race, people who've been living an interstate kind of life--always going somewhere and never stopping anywhere--people are beginning to think perhaps life is better lived like a thin grey line on a map. Slow down, they're thinking. Explore. Eat where you're perceived as more than a transaction of cash for wrapped food. Find a motel that breaks the monotonous form found in room after room along the interstate. Yes, you know what you're getting at a franchise, but what do you get? A rerun, the same-old same-old. And while they're stopped for a moment in Winslow they're thinking, "maybe this wouldn't be such a bad place to live. It needs a little work, for sure, but it looks like the community is willing and able."

The trick is, don't get back on the interstate. Stay on the thin grey line. If you get back on the interstate, you'll be back in Los Angeles in time for Leno. What a dreary life. Controlled access. Inertia. Stop thinking about the destination and seek the path. Interrupt your progress and you'll find it was just inertia dragging you forward. Pull off, exit, turn away from your destination and discover that the destination will still be there tomorrow, by supper.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

All along the thin grey lines, communities are preparing for you. They believed for so long that the interstate had killed them. They lost their souls at the same time we all did, when we got onto the interstates and began racing about to our destinations. But they're realising the superslab is an option, and so are we. What killed them was inertia, people's unwillingness to exit. And the people are learning that's what's killing them.

In a town like Winslow, Arizona rebirth begins with a historical society, an organ of the community which resurrects the stories, and in the effort a few people learn to love their town again. It is no longer a collection of desperate or derelict buildings through which The Mother Road once pumped life. It is a place where Harvey Girls served four-star meals to rail travelers, box lunches to boys on their way to war and a free meal to any desperate dust bowler who asked. A lady cattle rustler lived here, and one night several drunk cowboys dug up a dead man and served him the shot of whiskey he'd ordered but never lived to drink. Charles Lindbergh designed the airport from which some years later Amelia Earhart, perhaps noteworthy more as a woman aviator than an aviator, would clip a wing on takeoff. It's a place where a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed ford slowed down for a look at Jackson Browne.

It takes a few years to compile the stories and artifacts that make a museum, and it takes the love of a few more people to do the work. So the historical society tells the stories to the school, to the chamber of commerce and it contacts the elders of the community to collect more stories. And more people get caught up in the growing love of a town. In time a long abandoned building is purchased, cleaned up and filled with stories and a historical museum is born.

Now a few people begin to see that their own energy can pump as much life into the desperate and derelict buildings as the old highway once did. There is the glorious old Harvey House in town, the grand La Posada Hotel it is called. The railroad owns it, has sealed sections off and uses one wing for office space. The space is inefficient, costly to maintain as office space; the railroad marks it for demolition. But the few people with energy stop it. They lobby the government and receive heritage status for La Posada. Many of the people in the town see their actions as hopelessly optimistic, a waste of energy. Some people see the value and join the effort.

When it is learned the beautiful grounds around the hotel are to be left fallow, to run overgrown, that the railroad will no longer pay to maintain the lush green, the people with energy take on the task themselves and ask for help from the town. 92 volunteers show up on the first day and the grounds are saved and the energy builds. Finally, a buyer is found who will restore the grand hotel and operate it, who will love it the way the town is growing to love it.

One night the lights come on. Glenn Miller's Stardust drifts out into the rangeland. An old man hears the music and from his front porch sees the hotel alight, alive again. He weeps a little as fond memories play through his mind of a time thought long dead. He calls his wife from inside and they sway on the porch swing holding hands on a moonless New Mexico night while the big bands play again. The nay-sayers waver, see that it is good and lovely and come on board.

The town's energies turn to other landmarks, to building park space, to attracting writers and media so the stories can be told to neighbouring towns, across the state, across the country. People hear about the grand old hotel in the little historic town and come to stay even before opening day. They will come back. And the town will come back.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~

The days of wrath are yet to come. The balloon won't sustain you much longer. And not only that, but it's an abstract balloon. You'll all go flying to the West Coast and come staggering back in search of your stone.

  graphical element Jack Kerouac
On the Road An admonition from the character Carlo Marx aka Alan Ginsberg, a real-life friend of Kerouac and the basis for the Marx character in Kerouac's largely autobiographical novel.

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