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I’m pedaling for a good reason

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

My aging body won’t set any records, but I’ll be riding in one of the biggest bike races in the U.S. on Nov. 22–the 31st annual El Tour de Tucson.

I will join the “Ride for Home Team” of Habitat for Humanity Tucson. Habitat is a cause close to my heart because it builds or repairs homes for hardworking families. Habitat calls its mission “a hand up, not a hand out.”

Join me! You can donate a little or a lot. Pop a check in the mail to me, or check out my personal race page where you can donate online: http://bit.ly//Donna McKinnis

The deadline for donations is October 10.

Thanks for your consideration and send a mental “good luck” my way on race day!

Final Day & Driving Home

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

October 19, 2912  —  Friday

After last night’s sunset finish, I started driving again.  I hoped to get southeast of the LA/San Diego heavy traffic, but three hours of bumper-to-bumper driving only landed me in Anaheim, best known as the home of Disneyland.  I didn’t care about Disney magic at that point, I just wanted a bite to eat and lots of sleep.  On the map, Anaheim looks like a hop-skip from Santa Monica, but not at 6:00 P.M.

This morning I woke up refreshed and smiling  —  tonight I would be home with Steve and sleeping in my own bed.

I can’t remember how many freeways I crossed as I headed southeast to avoid downtown San Diego.  Let’s just say it was plenty of freeways, but I did notice that LA now offers toll booths for solo drivers who want to drive the HOV lanes.

Just before I crossed the state line into Arizona, a really long train sped past me, headed west.  The whistle blew, and I swear it sounded like it was saying “so long, California.”

The stretch from the CA/AZ line to Tucson is great for thinking or listening to music.  California’s rocky hills gave way to Arizona’s sand dunes and then vast chunks of desert.  When I spotted the sign, Tucson–160 miles, the next thing I saw was one lone saguaro cactus, the perfect welcome back symbol.

At the far north end of Tucson, the sunset became more spectacular with each mile…gold melting to fiery red, then hot pinks and deep purples.  Welcome home, Donna!

I looked at the clock.  I hoped to pull into my garage at 6:00 P.M. with yet another 6 to describe the 66 trip.  Nope, wouldn’t make it.  At 6:04 I turned onto my home street and drove super slow, paused at the edge of my driveway, watched the clock, and at 6:06 P.M. precisely turned off the motor.

Home.  Six weeks plus two days of travel are over.  My car wears the miles with an obvious badge of road honor: dust, mud and dead bugs.  The trip odometer reads 8,227 miles.  Route 66 Chicago to LA directly is 2,451 miles.  That means the Route 66 drive would have been about 5,000 miles — and I drove 3,227 extra miles in side trips, getting lost and the occasional backtrack.

I am grinning ear to ear, depleted and full up at the same time.  This was the trip of a lifetime, a fabulous adventure start to finish, and even though the word is over-used today, AWESOME.

The Road Ends at the Pacific Ocean

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

October 18, 2012  — Thursday

I decided to go backwards to finish Route 66.

I wanted to backtrack further east where Route 66 enters the LA metro area  — picking up where I left off Monday when I veered west on the interstate to Granada Hills.  Route 66 is like a dotted line across Los Angeles County, more or less parallel to I-10  It’s a challenge to stay on the route as it changes names in a myriad of suburbs, or disappears and reappears a few blocks or miles later.

Deep breath.  Expect traffic, getting lost, lots of jockeying while driving.

First stop: San Bernardino for the McDonald’s/Route 66 Museum, housed in the first McDonald’s built in the USA in 1948.  I remember my first Mc-Burger for 15 cents in the late 1950’s in little Saybrook, Ohio.  That burger and the golden arches seemed exotic back then.  The San Bernadino museum is crazy packed with McDonald memorabilia, plus plenty of 66 stuff.  As I snapped a photo of the building, I met a fellow 66er, a Michigan guy in a leather jacket and a classic car, who said the best time to visit is the Route 66 Rendezvous, the third weekend of September, when a half million car buffs celebrate the Mother Road and classic cars.  Leaving town, I cruised by the California Theater, a 1928 Spanish Colonial showpiece and an early “soundie” movie theater where Will Rogers made his last public performance.

Next up:  Wigwam Village in Rialto built in 1958, similar to the one I’d stayed at in Holbrook, Arizona.  This one was restored with love in 2004, including a pool, playground, and plenty of grass and flowers.  A tiny Oriental lady showed one wigwam to me, and this one looked marginally larger and more modern than the one in Arizona.

Time for a big zigzag.  I wanted to see the fabled Mission Inn in Riverside, off Route 66 an hour south.  Friends tell me it’s flabbergastingly gorgeous at Christmas.  It’s also pretty flabbergasting on an ordinary October day.  The Mission Inn is the star of Riverside’s downtown Historic Square Mile, boasting 25 Spanish Renaissance historic buildings.  The Mission Inn, built between 1902 and 1931, occupies a whole city block.  She’s a true grande dame with a long, long lobby, domed ceilings, wrought iron balconies, tile floors, stained glass, gardens tucked here and there, cobbled paths, and a luxurious spa.  The last guided tour had already started, so I wandered in wonder.  Off the lobby sits an elegant wood-paneled bar lined with photos of past presidents, offering  the Taft Appletini, Hoover Lemon Drop, JFK Cosmopolitan, and the Presidential Martini Selection honoring Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon, Reagan and George W.  Everywhere you look at the Mission Inn, something beautiful appears…nooks and crannies tastefully filled with antiques, art, massive flower arrangements, welcoming benches, gilt, curlicues, and other architectural goodies. Its outdoor restaurant built around a splashing fountain feels like Rome.  At its St. Francis Chapel, a wedding awaited, but the staff allowed me a peek to see its massive gold-leaf Mexican altar and seven Tiffany mosaic stained glass windows.   Hotel staff are friendly and helpful.  All is charm and history in capitals.  Definitely a special place to stay in the future.

Back to 66, I slowly crept west.   Fontana first, where the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded and home to the Art Deco-styled Center Stage Theater…Rancho Cucamonga, such fun to say, with its old wine barrel because it once boasted the oldest vineyard in California, the Sycamore Inn which was a former stagecoach stop before cars, and the Magic Lamp Inn with its neon sign that spouts a gas flame…Upland and Claremont…Laverne’s covered wagon and Lordsburgls Old Town district…San Dimas, the setting for the cult film “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and its Walker House, the last standing California railroad hotel, now a restaurant…Glendora’s two Route 66 corridors, the older one with classic California bungalows…Azusa and Duarte…Monrovia’s Mayan-style Aztec Hotel built just in time for the inauguration of California 66…Arcadia’s famous Santa Anita Park racetrack mixing Art Deco, Spanish Revival, American Colonial and New Orleans styles into one glorious architectural success…and finally to Pasadena, with its Rose Parade, classic homes, art, palm-lined streets, and green lawns rolling up to homes built in a fascinating variety of styles.  Next time, I want to see the Bunny Museum, the private home of a couple who invite visitors to see their 20,000 plus collection of bunny items and meet their real bunny pets.

Pasadena also marks where you need extreme patience to follow the route, especially late afternoon as rush hour sets in and you want to get to the ocean by sunset.  Slowly and patiently, I inched through Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and its world-famous sign, then tony Beverly Hills synonymous with movie stars, the rich, the famous.

And at last, Santa Monica.  Route 66 actually ended at Olympic near Ocean Avenue, opposite what is now Palisades Park.  In the park is a small monument dedicated to Will Rogers, that reads: “Highway 66 was the first road he traveled in a career that led him straight to the hearts of his countrymen.”

Today, the popular and symbolic finish of Route 66 is technically blocks away, ending at the 1908 Santa Monica Pier.  Talk about a photo op!  A long wooden pier walks you past a 9-story ferris wheel, a 5-story roller coaster, a midway, countless souvenir shops and food stalls.  You see people everywhere and hear accents from all over the world: couples walking hand in hand (including guy couples and lady couples), families with strollers and excited kids, performers with their hat or music case waiting for donations, folks with dogs or the occasional monkey or parrot, and people fishing either side of the pier.  It’s a moving circus of life seaside.

The air is balmy.  The sun begins to set.  I am tired, hungry and thirsty but this end-of-the-road scene works its magic and I’m re-energized.  I ask two Brazilian guys holding hands to take my photo in front of the final Route 66 marker.  I had planned to toast the sunset finish with champagne, but I settled happily for an ice cream cone.  An Australian couple snapped a final photo, me leaning against the pier railing, a glowing gold sun sinking halfway into the Pacific behind me.  Finished.  I am beyond happy.

Smidge of 66 and A Fountain of Friendship

Friday, November 30th, 2012

October 17, 2012  —  Wednesday

This was a day for friends.

Marti and I had a last breakfast at her kitchen counter, then a drive through her neighborhood…more Eichler homes…Granada Hills old and new, and its hills fit its name…gorgeous flowers and landscaping so appealing they almost make you forget the awful traffic…and a Route 66 sign not far from her house.  Some goodbye hugs, and I pointed the car east to central LA.

Next stop: The Autry National Center in Griffith Park with Diane, another LA Olympics friend.  The Autry Museum is a mega-complex with Western and Native art, and a terrific cross-section of early Hollywood and the cowboy movies, a collection amassed by none other than Gene Autry of singing cowboy fame.  Its standing collection is sterling, especially the movie memorabilia and film clips.  Serendipity!  The Autry’s special exhibition was “Katsina in Hopi Life”.  The Hopi of northeastern Arizona are near and dear to my heart because they still live as they have lived for centuries.  One of the Hopi’s best-known arts is the katsina or kachina carved dolls, which represent spiritual beings who deliver the Hopi peoples’ prayers to a higher power.  This exhibit showed ancient and contemporary katsina, a magnificent collection.  We walked, we talked, we did lunch in the Autry’s cafe.  Such a great afternoon of sharing, surrounded by beautiful art.  Time to say goodbye to Diane as we went our separate ways through LA traffic.

I wished I could beam me and the car to Altadena, east of Pasadena on the eastern end of LA County, but no, back on the freeway.  An hour later I found my way to Deb and Boyd, just in time to meet their charmingly cockeyed dog, Sir Harry, having a romp in the back yard.  Deb is an old arts administration friend dating from Columbus, Ohio and Atlanta; hubby Boyd is a teacher/journalist/photographer/theatre guy with a dashing patch over one eye.  I laughed myself silly when he took a telemarketing phone call and told the caller he and his wife were destitute, surviving on bread and water.  “They never call back!” cracked Boyd.  We had a wonderful evening over dinner at Dish Restaurant in nearby La Canada, one of those LA places with great food, good service, ambience, casual and chic simultaneously.

As the day ended, I contemplated friendship.  I am blessed with two solid handfuls of good friends, the kind of friends you call with good news and count on when life is rough.  We email some, we phone some, we see each other when possible, but sometimes it’s five or more years between get-togethers.  We catch up, but we can jump just as easily into deep sharing.  This trip has been as much about sharing with friends as it has been exploring Route 66.  These friends are family to me, and on each leg of this journey, each has made me feel as though I’ve “come home.”

LA Renewal & Discoveries

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

October 16, 2012  — Tuesday

I had forgotten how pleasant it can be to wake up in Southern California, not to mention in an Eichler home.

I’d never heard of Eichler, but friend Marti brought me up to speed.  Joseph Eichler was the first developer to build communities of distinctive, modern quality homes in California, a creative alternative to the post-war lookalike boxes.  Eichler’s golden building years were 1950 to 1974, primarily in San Francisco, as well as  developments sprinkled in Southern California.   Considered a visionary then and now, an Eichler home is known for “bringing the outside in,” and his signature feature is an open-air atrium foyer.

Marti’s 1956 mostly wood home is nestled into a hilly corner in Granada Hills, a solid hour north of downtown LA. The front door opens into a large atrium with a shade cloth “roof”.  Straight through the atrium is the masterly living room and a glass looking into the back garden, another wall with a stone fireplace, and a peek toward a corridor leading to the bed/bath wing.  Everything is wood, still modern looking, nicely designed with skylights and architectural features a la Frank Lloyd Wright without his stern stiffness.  I found the three-quarter and sloped walls distinctive, allowing light throughout the house in an interesting simplicity.

Learning about Eichler and breakfast with Marti at the kitchen counter was a nice way to start the day.  I didn’t know Marti when I lived intermittently in LA, San Diego and San Juan Capistrano.  Steve and I met Marti and her late husband, Tom, through Clan MacInnes in 1997 and have been friends since.  Over the years, Marti of Michigan, has become a true California Valley girl.  Even so, she’d never been to the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum just north in Simi Valley, close by LA traffic standards.

As you drive up the Reagan’s winding drive of palms and colorful flowers, there’s an impressive view of Simi valley and the ocean below.  President Ronnie’s hillside Spanish Mission complex is equally impressive.  The museum houses 24 exhibit galleries, a full-scale replica of his Oval Office down to the jellybeans, a section of the Berlin Wall, and the suit Reagan wore when shot by John Hinckley.   The 3-level Air Force One Pavilion is jaw-dropping huge, allowing you walk through the cockpit and presidential quarters of his retired Air Force One, a Boeing 707 that flew seven presidents.  Even the cafe impresses with custom panini sandwiches, wine, beer, and healthy California cuisine–and you can eat in the glass-walled cafe or on the sunny patio.  The gift shop has an extensive collection of books and unique Reagan Library Christmas ornaments.

Time to leave Reagan, Marti and the Valley.  Time to drive far east, past Pasadena, at rush hour no less.  My old friend from the 1984 LA Olympics, Lynne, had only a hour that day in a busy week of teaching and commuting, but the hectic drive to meet her at — where else? Starbucks natch — was way worth it for some friendship face time.  Typically SoCal, we sat outdoors and gabbed like crazy, surrounded by cars and passing sidewalkers.  Too soon, Lynne sped away to teach an evening class far across LA and I drove back to Marti, still in rush hour.  Three hours of driving for a one-hour meeting, only in LA.

I made it back to Marti’s at dusk, just in time for us to whisk to one of her favorite haunts, the 94th Aeros Squadron Restaurant facing the Van Nuys municipal airport landing strip.  We squeaked in for happy hour and plane watching.  Back at Marti’s home, her three cats greeted us as we settled down to talk some more.

Not a Route 66 day, but nice nonetheless.  One thing I love about LA is its many faces in its many, many suburbs.

California, Here I Come

Monday, November 26th, 2012

October 15, 2012 — Monday

Needles, California is known as one of the hottest places in the USA, and true to its reputation, the temperature was already mid-90s at 8:00 A.M.  I drove back to the bridge over the Colorado to see it in daylight, pleasant enough, especially the line of palm trees along the river that seemed to say “welcome to California.”

Entering Needles on the east is an old wagon, said to be the same 20-mule-team wagon used in the “Death Valley Days” TV show  starring Ronald Reagan.  In downtown Needles , El Garces railroad depot-hotel commands an older version of Route 66.  West of Chambless, for several miles you can try to decipher several miles of grafitti on a berm wall, as well as rocks that spell out words.  Some strange stuff there.  Next comes Amboy with its iconic 1950s Roy’s Motel & Cafe.  In 2005 the whole town was bought by a new owner, still working to restore it to tourist glory.  Just north of Amboy sits a 135′ tall thermometer, near Baker and Death Valley, but a quick check of my watch and the map convinced me to check its temperature another time since it’s not on 66.

The California 66 drive between Needles and Riverside on the far east side of Los Angeles is two-lane road that seems to stretch forever, sometimes with scrub, sometimes with trees and grass, but mostly a vast gaze across a valley floor with mountains in the distance  —  until a bitsy town pops up.  Bingo, like Newberry Springs, home of the Bagdad Cafe, where the movie with the same name was filmed with Julia Roberts.   The next pop-up is Daggett with its 1908 Desert Market, where miners cashed in their ore, and the Ski Lodge Roof House, a wood building with a soaring chalet-like roof.

Side trip time!  Just north of Daggett is the 1881 mining town, Calico.  In its heyday, miners hauled out silver and borax.  Today the “ghost town” covers about 60 acres, one-third of its buildings original, the rest carefully recreated to match.  When mining went bust, Calico was saved by Walter Knott, as in Knott’s Berry Farm jams, jellies and theme parks.  I spent a long hour walking Calico’s uphill business district, miners’ homes, an actual mine, and a delightful narrow-gage train that chugs a 20-minute loop through the mountains and desert.  Lots of shops and cafes here, all geared for families and foreigners eager to relive The Old West, and a favorite location for not-too-far Hollywood film and TV studios. As I walked, and baked in the high 90s heat, I heard Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Korean, and almost every foreigner had bought something.  My recommendation: the Sweet Shop with its homemade candies and rich fudge, especially the maple walnut.  Leaving, I noted its annual Spring Festival includes the World Tobacco Spitting Contest.

I cranked on to Barstow, with its historic Main Street Murals and a former Harvey House hotel, Casa del Desierto, a gorgeous old deco building, but closed today.  I reluctantly skipped the World Burlesque Museum & Hall of Fame in Helendale and further west, the Forest of Bottle Trees, begun by folk artist Elmer Long in 2000 and still creating interesting art with bottles.  My “visit next time” list keeps getting longer.

No matter.  I was on a mission to see Victorville’s California Route 66 Museum before closing.  Dang!  The sign said open to 5:00 pm, but the door was locked.  As I walked back to my car, the back door opened and a smiling lady said hello.  When I told her my 66  saga, she ducked back inside, turned on the lights, and told two other volunteers: “This lady has been driving all day to see our museum so she can say she’s seen every state museum along Route 66.  Let’s give her a little look.”

And so I met Chick, Sharon and Betty who give new meaning to hospitality.  Sharon answered questions and reeled off info on California’s 286 miles of 66.  Chick, a lady by the way, was full of stories.  Betty rung up my fabulous Betty Boop tea set purchase.  It’s a terrific place, this museum, a diner here, a vintage car there, and enough displays to make any 66 lover weep with joy.  They didn’t rush me and made sure I signed the guest book with my ID tag: 66th birthday trip in 6 weeks with 6 companions starting 6:06 A.M. on September 6th.   They hugged me goodbye.  As I drove off, I noticed Chick’s big black auto and its tag, CHIXCAH.   Ladies, I loved meeting you.  You do 66 and Victorville proud, and I hope you’re all still there when I visit next.  Here’s a gigantic thank you!

I did a quick driving tour of downtown Victorville.  Its formal entrance is a massive arched 66 sign facing Route 66.  It looked nice, something else to come back for.  On the way out of town, I passed its iconic New Coral Motel and was pleased to see Trigger atop its sign, fortunately left behind when the Roy Rogers  Museum moved from Victorville to Branson, MO in 2003.  Hi yo, Trigger!

The day was fading fast, so I said a temporary goodbye to Route 66 and jumped on the interstate.  Instant shock.  After 5+ weeks of driving mostly 2-lane road, suddenly I was on I-15 in the middle of 6 lanes full of cars headed into Los Angeles.  Ulp.  Oh yeah, California traffic…I remember it from my 1980s years of living in sunny Southern Cal.  I still hate the traffic.  Another deep breath, firm grip on the wheel, a wee grit of teeth, and away I drive south and west to Granada Hills where good friend Marti waits to welcome me to her unique Eichler home.

Adios Arizona & Creeping into California

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

October 14, 2012  —  Sunday

The free breakfast at Canyon Lodge is worth paying for.  The lodge’s breakfast room is a compact, cheery alcove just behind the check-in desk.  I loved its serving containers of juice and milk in the fridge, baskets with individually wrapped pastries and snacks, fresh fruit, assortment of teas, uniform cereal dispensers, and special touches.  This galley kitchen/breakfast room could serve an astronaut.  Managers Reinhard (tall & thin) and Mike (short & thin) are easy-going guys who do everything at the lodge: reservations, breakfast, housekeeping, laundry and maintenance.   Their attention to detail shows.  I give Canyon Lodge four gold stars.

After breakfast, I was ready to meet the Mayor of Route 66.  For months I had been reading about Angel Delgadillo, 85, the local barber who helped save Seligman from vanishing after  the interstate bypassed it.  Angel was born right on the road that became Route 66.  Like his father, he became a barber and opened for business opposite his brother, Juan of the Snow Cap Drive-In that I visited yesterday.  The brothers watched sadly as Dust Bowl families passed through Kingman for the promised land in California, then enjoyed the stream of 66 travelers until 1978 when the interstate turned 66 into toast.  Angel, a great storyteller, said the town was so dead after the interstate that you could lie down in the middle of the road and not worry about getting run over.   Nine years later, Angel was the driving force of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, successfully lobbying the state for historic highway status.

The rest is history.  Seligman was reborn.  Angel and his wife, Vilma, opened a souvenir shop, doubling as visitor center.  Other Route 66 states asked Angel for advice and how-to, then followed suit, launching a national revival of the fondly remembered route.

Today Angel is retired as a barber, but he still serves as an unofficial 66 ambassador.  Every day he rides his bicycle to the souvenir barber shop.  Instead of shaves and haircuts, he poses with tourists from all over the world for a photo at the barber chair, shakes hands, and spends a few minutes with anyone who wants to meet him.  And that is a long line.  Angel has done hundreds of interviews and met thousands of visitors.  His barbershop walls and ceiling are covered with business cards.  I wander around, sad that I missed his morning visit, but enjoy buying some 66 souvenirs and talking with his charming daughter, Mirna, and cute great-niece, Kayla, who manage the shop and gently nudge Angel to take lunch and nap breaks at home.

Suddenly Angel enters, and like a rock star, throngs of visitors rush to meet him…Japanese and French from tour buses, Harley riders, and a German guy in a cowboy hat behind me who offers to snap a photo when I meet Angel.

When my turn comes, Angel greets me with the same ear-to-ear beaming smile I’ve watched him give everyone for the last ten minutes.  When I tell him that this is my special 66th birthday trip doing Route 66 in six weeks with six different companions, he laughs like a kid who just made his first home run.  When I add that I started at 6:06 A.M. on September 6th on purpose, his eyes light up and I think his face might pop from smiling so wide.   “I love that,” he says and hugs me goodbye.  I feel really lucky to have met the Angel and Mayor of Route 66.

Time to move on, more of 66 awaits, and I want to set foot on the glass-floored Grand Canyon Skywalk built on Hualapai Nation land 4,000 feet over the canyon floor.  On the way, I stop at Hackberry General Store, which pops up on 66 in the middle of Arizona nowhere, with rusty vintage signs swinging in the breeze and old jalopies parked around the building.  I push on to Peach Springs, chuckling at three more sets of silly Burma Shave signs.  When I reach Peach Springs in early afternoon, the Hualapai Visitors Center advises me that I won’t make it to the Skywalk that afternoon because it’s several more hours of driving, plus a shuttle.  Part of me is disappointed, but another part is relieved.  Another time, hopefully with someone to hold my hand.

Back to the unbroken stretch of 66.  Between Peach Springs and Kingman, I am racing interstate traffic on my left and a really long train on my right, so long I can’t see where the train starts or ends.  The sun roof is open, one of those 66 songs is playing, I dub this the freeway/car/train sandwich, and the train blows its whistle.   This moment is perfect.

Hours later, I reach Kingman and its excellent Mohave Museum of History & Arts with a 66 wing.  The museum has a wonderful old-fashioned movie theatre showing “158 Miles to Yesterday,” a lively film tracking the route’s birth, death and comeback.  Suddenly Angel appears as the narrator, flashing that same mile-wide smile, like seeing an old friend.

It’s time for supper and another Arizona 66 icon, Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner.  It’s a fun place with vinyl booths, checkered tile floor,  and chrome and 66 stuff aplenty.  Mr. D’s specialties are its own root beer, banana splits, bacon cheeseburgers, and chilli dogs.  The chilli dog with cheese is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.  It sits on their specially made butter bun, piled with deliciousness the width of my hand.  It’s unbelievably good, but I manage only half of it, wondering who could eat the double dog version.  I visit the Ladies, which has beefcake photos of famous stars, wait patiently for the Men’s Room to empty, peer in and see a bevy of female beauties.  A cutie patootie waiter boxes the other half of my chili dog and hands me my souvenir Dr. D root beer bottle.  The whole staff waves me out the door and wishes me a good trip.

Back on 66, the route leaves Kingman and it doesn’t take long to see the terrain change.  The road leaves behind trees and cactus, starts to climb, then twist.  By late afternoon I’m slowing to 15 mph to take hairpin curves.  Dusk arrives steadily and I am navigating one switchback after another.  The scenery is spectacular: rocky high, deep valleys of black, a sliver moon rising slowly.  One truck passes me doing 20 mph around a curve that drops frighteningly far down.  I drive another hour without seeing another vehicle, and finally I arrive in Oatman.

Mining made Oatman big business in the 1930s and right up to WWII.   A true Old West mining town, Oatman went through a ghost town phase, then revived in the early 1960s when parts of “How The West Was Won” were filmed here.  Wooden plank sidewalks line the main drag, the only drag, through this steep town, and its most famous residents are wild burros, descendants of the boom mining years.  There are feed dispensers scattered around town, but so are piles of burro droppings.  I arrive in the dark, no burros about, but no shortage of droppings.  Nothing is open but one lone bar.  Still, I enjoy walking the planks and peering into store windows.

I checked the map for an alternative to the hairpin mountain road I’d been driving.  Nope.  I took a deep breath and left Oatman.  Within a mile the only light was the moon.  For two hours I wrestled the narrow, sometimes crumbling road in the deep dark, climbing, twisting, dropping, praying that the next curve would show me Golden Shores just outside the Arizona line.  I talked to myself and invented my own Burma Shave sign epitaph:

Here lies Donna Copen McKinnis,

who drove AZ 66 mountains alone in the dark.

She had a great time, but then in a blip,

she reached eternal rest and the end of her trip.

At last, town lights emerged down in the valley.  Golden Shores, I hoped, and two passing EMS guys confirmed I was on the right road.  Buy gas on the Arizona side, they said.  I drove on to tiny Topock and at its crossroads, stopped to fill up at an Arco station before crossing the bridge over the Colorado River into California.  Gas was $3.89 per gallon.  Across the bridge in Needles, CA the first gas station sign read $5.05 per gallon.

At 10:00 P.M. I checked into a nice chain hotel, heated my half chili dog in the microwave, drank a glass of wine, and fell asleep watching the news.  Adios Arizona, I loved you end to end  —  and next time I will drive the Kingman/Oatman/Topock section in daylight.

Northwestern Arizona Surprises

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

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..

 

 

 

Flagstaff: Cool In Every Way

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

October 12, 2012 — Friday

Flagstaff, Arizona is one of those great, unsung places.  Locals and most other Arizonans call it Flag.  It’s cool, laid-back, good funky, fun, and definitely eclectic.  Think cosmo/combo/college town: lumberjack plaid flannels with jeans, preppy, sports enthusiasts, farmers, cowboys, Native Americans and aging hippies, all nestled in the Grand Canyon’s highest foothills.

Flagstaf is a short hour’s drive from Sedona.  I was still chuckling at the crazy chance meeting of a couple at breakfast who turned out to be the uncle and aunt-in-law of the groom we saw married on the mesa yesterday during The Pink Jeep tour.  They enjoyed telling me about the symbolism of the previous day, 10-11-12, and how the bride wore tennis shoes and hitched up the train of her dress to walk down the red dirt and rock mesa path, then changed into her white wedding shoes, and that the wedding couple were so happy they didn’t care they got rained on and her dress had red mud all over the back.

Good thing their wedding wasn’t today…gloomy grey, rain, sleet, even hail pellets, and still more rain in both Sedona and Flag.  We walked most of downtown Flag’s main streets, a vibrant mix of interesting restaurants, cafes, coffee bars, Native American arts, galleries, former Goldwater’s Department Store turned into a mountain sporting goods shop, 66 motels with neon signs, and vintage architecture.  It all suits this outdoorsy 66/college town.  We wandered through the historic Hotel Monte Vista, partially funded by the late author, Zane Grey, for tourists who wanted to see the Wild West he made famous in his 1920s Western novels.  Rooms are named for Grey and other celebrities who stayed here, like Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Spencer Tracy and Teddy Roosevelt.  Some say it’s full of paranormal encounters.  A few blocks away stands the stately Hotel Weatherford, smaller but also historic, and rumored to have its own share of ghosts.

We dodged the rain to tour Riordan Mansion State Park, a 40-room mansion built by two Riordan brothers who married two sisters from another prominent family.  The two couples lived in matching full-sized homes joined by a large family room, a vintage duplex.  Built in 1904 in the Arts and Crafts style with a mission influence, the Riordan Mansion was designed by Charles Whittlesey, who also designed the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Lodge.  The house looked very much like Frank Lloyd Wright, and bingo, Whittlesey and Wright studied architecture together with a common mentor, the famous Louis Sullivan.  The house is a beauty, meticulously restored and enthusiastically described by volunteer and staff guides. Riordan would be a treasure anywhere in the country and I would love to see it decked out in vintage Christmas finery.

Late afternoon we rushed to a loft apartment in a mixed use industrial building to see Penny, my longtime friend from Hands Across America-Arizona.  We had a nice visit over tea, catching up.

Come suppertime, Margaret and I headed to The Galaxy Diner on Route 66, crammed with a busload of French tourists.  American, French or Flag locals, everyone was having a great time.  A local singer with guitar was belting out rock tunes from the Fifties.  I ordered my first classic hamburger of this trip, checked out the memorabilia, and listened in as the French folks raved about the diner and its food.  Cool place.

Cool temps, too.  The temperature had dropped into the high 30’s and we scooted into our hotel lobby to enjoy a roaring fire and chat with fellow tourists.  As I fell asleep, I wondered if Flag’s distinctive San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon might get their first snow.

Seduced by Sedona

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

October 11, 2012 — Thursday

Sedona evokes sighs and wows.  This is Red Rock Country, where the earth is truly red.  Its rock formations impress with their towering beauty, and you know immediately you’re in the foothills of the Grand Canyon just north.  Add a thriving arts scene, New Age practitioners and worshipers, stunning but pricey real estate that draws East Coasters and Hollywooders, a sprinkling of hippies, world-class galleries, endless shopping, great resorts and restaurants, well, Sedona’s a grand mishmash.

A day and night in Sedona was a side trip from Route 66.  It looked like rain as we left Holbrook, driving an hour southwest into the Red Rock along AZ Hwy 89A, often ranked as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the U.S.  The weather got better the closer we got to Sedona, and so did the scenery.  Oak Creek Canyon and its namesake creek flows on the west side of 89A, then seems to hop suddenly to the east side of the road.  Along the way is Slide Rock State Park, aptly named because you can slide down a long canyon of massive, smooth rocks, 70 feet of natural water slide.  Early Autumn leaves dotted the landscape, especially Arizona cottonwoods which are Aspen cousins, their golden leaves quaking in a light breeze.  With every roll, twist, curve and climb in the road, something beautiful emerges.

When we arrived in downtown Sedona, it was a sunny but steamy 88  degrees and it unexpectedly looked like Christmas weekend traffic.  We ambled the main drag’s long line of shops.  Sedona is chockablock with Native arts, jewelry, Western art, tchotchkes, New Age paraphernalia, and a lot of great glass art.  I hit most of the jewelry stores, hoping to replace some pieces stolen when our home was burgled earlier this year.  No luck here, but I felt consoled by a handful of unique pieces I’d already bought on this trip at trading posts or directly from native artists.

We wandered through Tlaquepaque (pronounced tee lockee pockee), designed to recreate a venerable, walled Mexican village.  For a small mall, it charms with its cobbled streets, fountains, gardens, chapel, quiet nooks with benches, and variety of galleries, shops and restaurants.  No McDonald’s here, thank you. We did a quick run to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a striking small church built into a steep red rock mountain.  On a Sedona visit last year with Steve, we noticed a large building project at the base of the church hill.  Egads, that construction is now a Mediterranean-styled mansion with formal gardens, one of those monster mansions on a postage stamp lot.  Whoever owns it must have whined, wheedled and greased many palms because it simply doesn’t belong there.  I wouldn’t mind if an earthquake, lightning or alien ship destroyed it beyond repair.

Late afternoon we began the highlight of the day, The Pink Jeep Tour.  Right, pink jeeps with grinning pink pig logo.  We had a terrific guide and two couples to keep us company.  The sun and heat had changed to thunderheads and dropping temps, so of course it started to rain as we climbed up steep back mountain roads.  Fortunately, the jeep was covered and our guide handled the jeep super well; the information he imparted was like a lesson in geology, nature, biology sugarcoated with humor and his easy style.  He anticipated good photo ops and paused whenever any of us wanted more photo time or a particular shot–unusual but appreciated.  Halfway up the mountain, we paused to watch a couple having their wedding photos taken in the heart of a massive red rock formation.  Everyone yelled “congratulations” and snapped photos.  What a memorable place for a wedding ceremony!  No sunset that day, but the sky was beautifully moody with clouds, and even in grey light, the monolithic rock formations were fabulous: Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Coffeepot Rock, Castle Rock, even Snoopy Rock.  If you ever go to Sedona, spring for a Pink Jeep Tour, worth the time and money.

Here’s a couple of other Sedona recommendations, though we didn’t do them on this visit: see the sunset with a jeep or helicopter tour, or for free on the local airport mesa.  If you’re so inclined, Sedona has countless folks who will read your aura/hand/cards, balance your chakras, massage or tattoo your body, or lead you to its touted energy vortices.  If you’re interested in glass art, some of the world’s best art glass is here, especially on Gallery Row at the far end of town.   Indian ruins, check out nearby Honanki and Palatke.  Spend a long weekend in a creek-side cabin, or pricy but worth it spa resorts, or one of many bed & breakfasts.  Sedona lives up to its reputation, another of unique American places, especially blessed with natural beauty year-round.

This great day ended with a great meal at our Kings Ransom Hotel.  The hotel’s Elote Cafe was hopping busy, and for good reason.   Chef Jeff Smedsted, acclaimed by food magazines and TV shows, creates amazing food based on his 15 years of traveling Mexico and its markets, plus using local food sources.  I savored every spoonful of my Cuitlacoche Corn Soup, with its distinctive Oaxacan corn pollen, corn truffle and white truffle oil blended to a Rockefeller rich mix of wonderfulness.  Our waitress and Margaret out-sassed each other, which added to the fun, and we finished with a Mexican Chocolate Pie that kicked chile essence with each sinful, deep chocolatey bite.

Today’s auspicious 10-11-12 was definitely a day to remember.