Northwestern Arizona Surprises

October 13, 2012 — Saturday

Snow!  Mother Nature definitely delivered her first white stuff to the San Francisco Peaks, but nothing below on city streets.  It was chilly when I dropped Margaret at the shuttle pickup for Phoenix Airport and said goodbye to her, my last 66 driving companion.

By the time I drove solo out of Flag, the chill was warming to the low 80s, especially spectacular with the snow-capped peaks against a sunny, azure blue sky.  Resuming Route 66, I headed west for Williams.  Along the way I checked out the Parks in the Pine General Store, established 1921 before Route 66 existed, then buzzed along Route 66 until it stopped abruptly in the Coconino National Forest.  I mean abrupt, like hit the brakes right now abrupt.  The pavement had vanished and my car was sitting on a dirt path covered with pine needles.  Ugh, nothing to do but turn around and drive 16 miles back to the first possible interstate entrance.

Route 66 re-appeared on the east end of Williams, and the route has a unusual twist here: it’s one-way westbound, loops at the west end of town, and returns one-way eastbound.  I drove both and liked what I saw.  What I heard was even better, the whistle of a vintage diesel train.  Williams is known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, and its daily round-trip train carries passengers 60 miles north, straight to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and back, a terrific way to do the GC in one day.  I sighed longingly as the train left, another trip another time.

As consolation, I walked through the depot/museum, a former Harvey House hotel back in the days when over half of the canyon visitors went by train.  The charming depot museum, decked out in red/white/blue bunting, has good exhibits and helpful staff at its visitor center desk.

I found further consolation at the wall-size pie cooler in Pine Country Restaurant, celebrating its 15th anniversary.  Homemade vegetable soup and a piece of Boston Creme pie as high as my hand hit the spot.  The place was jammed, and everywhere I looked I saw pie.  That big case held every known kind of pie, plus some “pieNventions”.  Too many pies, too little time.  I liked their sign by the register: “unattended children will be used as soup base.”

Fortified, I walked the town, admiring the old-fashioned globe lamps and tubs of colorful flowers lining the streets.  Great shopping, especially 66 memorabilia.  A horse and carriage clopped along beside me, and I listened as the driver talked about longtime businesses like Turquoise Teepee and Rod’s Steak House since 1945, Cruisen’s Cafe 66 with its huge 66 mural, sidewalk patio and barbecue smoker going full blast, and the  gaudy but great 1912 Sultana Theater now closed except for special events.

I found myself wondering why I’ve never been to Williams in the almost 20 years I’ve lived in Arizona.  In fact, like many travelers in and out of state, I just passed it by on I-40.  Definitely a place to visit again.  Indeed, it would be tough to pick a hotel.  A caboose or rail car at the Grand Canyon Motel & RV Park on the east end of town?  Or the downtown corner Grand Canyon Hotel, built in 1891 and Arizona’s oldest hotel, today a boutique hotel of antiques, modern amenities, WiFi cafe and European style? Or the Lodge on Route 66 smack downtown, which recreates the property’s former family-run charm, where guests can still park in front of their unit and rest in a a rustic chair beside their door, but luxuriate in travertine floors, plush linens and flat-screen TVs, or spring for a suite with fireplace, dining nook, mini-kitchen and sleeper sofa?

I really wanted to stay in Williams, but 66 and my overnight destination of Seligman were calling.  Headed west, I stopped in Ash Fork to see its landmark Desoto Beauty Shop with a 1960 DeSoto parked on the roof.  This former 66 gas station is one of the most photographed Arizona 66 icons, drawing busloads of European and Asian visitors, many who want to be photographed in the salon barber chair.

Just past Ash Fork at exit 139 begins the longest unbroken section remaining of old 66, Seligman to Topock at the California border.  I reveled in the moment, blasting along the two-lane ribbon of road that seemed to dip and roll into infinity, the afternoon sun giving its golden glow to everything, and of course, the Burma Shave signs.  There were three sets of the much loved, old style Burma Shave signs of droll slogans, including:

He tried to cross

as a fast train neared.

Death came to him,

he volunteered.

Just outside Seligman, I passed a dozen horses grazing under gigantic trees, everything dappled in sunlight and shadow.  It was so perfect I turned around to see it again, then captured it by I-phone.  As I pulled into Seligman, a tumbleweed blew past my front bumper.  Could this day get any better?!

Yes, thanks to Seligman.  As I drove the main drag, I saw not a single name hotel, only Mom & Pop motels, no chain restaurants, only local cafes, at least a dozen intriguing shops, and the legendary Snow Cap Drive-In.  Seligman would be fun.

First off, you pronounce it “suh lig mun.”  For years I’ve been mispronouncing it sell-igg-man and wasn’t even sure where it was.  By the time I ordered a chocolate malt from the pretty but sassy waitress at the Snow Cap, I was falling for Seligman.  The wackadoo Snow Cap was founded by local Juan Delgadillo, who built a small drive-in out of scrap lumber from the nearby railroad in 1953, then added a large, adjoining covered patio and filled the back parking lot with crazy signs, broken-down vintage cars, an outhouse, a weird phone booth, and much more, a veritable walking cemetery of wonderful strangeness.  When I ordered my malt, Pretty Waitress gave me her business card, which said “My Card.”  The walls were plastered with business cards and odd signs: “eat here and get gas”…or “slightly used napkins and straws”.  Turns out, the pretty, sassy waitress is Aerie, Juan’s granddaughter.  Clearly, she learned from the master.  The chocolate malt, my first on the trip, was a 12 on the 1-10 scale.

Time to find a motel.  I checked my AAA guide for the motels I passed earlier.  One offered free breakfast, Canyon Lodge.  When I cruised by it, its parking lot was full of Harleys, uh oh, but I was intrigued by its sign: ask about our theme rooms.   I did, and my room turned out to be The 66 Room, its walls nicely dotted with 66 signs and photos of route icons, a 66 lamp, and a 66 fabric shower curtain that I immediately coveted.  My spotless room with double beds also had a mini fridge, microwave, coffeemaker, small table and chairs, desk and free breakfast — all for $52.20 including tax.  The Harley folks, no problem, quiet Europeans also doing 66.  Thank you, oh great gods of Route 66, for the Canyon Lodge in Seligman.

As I nodded into dreamland, I knew I was I crazy in love with Seligman..




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