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Exploring La Posada, More AZ Ruins & Wigwam Slumber

Friday, October 26th, 2012

October 10, 2012 — Wednesday

La Posada and its Turquoise Room deserve all its accolades.  We started the day with a hearty Southwestern breakfast, scrambled eggs over polenta and huevos rancheros, both delish.  We struck up a conversation with an older couple at the next table just finishing breakfast who said their tummies were sublimely happy.  She wore a leg cast, the result of a stroke she said, but that wasn’t keeping them from vacation adventures.  When they left and wished us well on the rest of our 66 trip, we noticed that she walked with a pronounced limp and some facial droop, but he lent a strong shoulder and held her hand, even though he used a cane with his other hand.  I’m glad I’m doing this trip in my prime, and watching this couple re-affirmed for me that age and disability don’t have to stop my traveling the world.

We were ready to wander the glory of La Posada, considered the masterpiece of architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.  If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she blazed a big trail in the early 1900’s–first as a woman in a field dominated by men at the time, and second, as one of the great Southwest architects.  Many know her for Hopi House, the gift shop at the Grand Canyon opposite El Tovar Lodge.  Her Hopi House work was admired by the El Tovar architect, and the famous Fred Harvey whose visionary string of hotels with restaurants at train stops brought travelers to the Southwest.

Harvey let Miss Colter loose with an unlimited budget for La Posada, and she ran with it, designing the hotel, furnishings, even the gardens, all inspired by Spanish/Southwestern haciendas with Mexican and native influences.  La Posada debuted in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression, declined steadily, closed in 1957, suffered gutting in 1961 for Santa Fe Railway offices, and hit the auction block in 1993.  Enter the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1994 which put the hotel on its endangered list, then Allan Affeldt and artist wife Tina Mion who purchased it in 1997 and lovingly restored it.

She’s a beauty, La Posada.  It’s like walking through a topnotch gallery, Southwestern museum and hotel rolled into one.  Everywhere you look there is something beautiful and singular…stained glass, native pots and baskets, massive paintings, murals, tile creations, copper, leather, to-lust-for rugs, crazy fun sculptures…a tasteful explosion of art and crafts in a hotel designed and restored to the tiniest detail.  It was fun to wander the halls and look at the names of the rooms–Hollywood stars, politicians, luminaries of the past.  A couple of the maids proudly showed me some just-cleaned rooms and whispered their favorites.  (I might be persuaded to share this info with a generous donation.)  Even the gardens are notable.  How marvelous it must have been for those 1930-50’s travelers to step off the train, walk across a rolling green lawn with shade niches, and relax in any of the three gardens after a great meal.  As I wandered through the sunken garden with its cascades of blooms and wildflowers, a group of locals traded insights and aspirations, a nice mix of present with past.

I could have stayed longer, much longer, and will another visit.  Meantime, Margaret had walked downtown Winslow and pronounced it tired out except for its “Standing on the Corner” park in honor of the Eagles’ song, “Take It Easy”, which goes like this:  Well, I’m standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, what a fine sight to see.  There’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.  Take it easy…Winslow, hopefully, will find the same rebirth as La Posada.

Route 66 and native ruins were calling, so we answered.  Our first stop was  Walnut Canyon National Monument an hour west of Winslow.  Walnut Canyon preserves more than 300 dwellings built into ledges and caves in a 400-foot gorge. It’s a hefty 337 steps from the visitor center down, down and down the trail. past 25 of these cliff dwelling rooms, believed to have been inhabited by Sinaguans 1000-1200.  These hardy people farmed the canyon floor in good weather and retreated to the cliffs in bad weather or enemy invasion.  At 5’3″, I had to duck when I entered most of these cliff rooms, so these were short people and clearly fit.  My bionic knees did fine, but I needed several pauses to catch my breath on the climb back up, but it gave me a chance to watch the scores of shiny crows circling, landing the ledges, and circling again.  Margaret, in more Sinaguan shape, actually ran up the last sets of stairs…envy and admiration for her and those early native peoples.

As we left the parking lot, the “hayball” was still there.  When we drove in, there was a  car with a giant ball of hay and a sign:  I Googled it later and read:  Hay Ball Wonderment Journey by artist Michael Shaugnessy…a project that melds public art, sculpture, performance, photography, video, social analysis and the art of roadside attraction…through a journey along back roads and communities across the USA.   My shoutout to Michael:  dude, your hay ball is super cool and a fun moment on my Rt. 66 Trip.

The Jackrabbit 66 icon was equally fun.  Back in the day, periodic signs counted down the remaining miles to the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City.  A billboard at the trading post announces:  HERE IT IS!  And indeed, like the 66 travelers of yesteryear, we stopped and snapped photos with the giant jackrabbit.  Silly, blatant commercialism, and worthwhile.

From silly to ancient, we entered Homolovi State Park, ruins of the Anasazi culture who tilled the area’s rich flood plain and sandy slopes before migrating north to join people already living on the mesas, people known today as the Hopi. The park encompasses 4,000 acres, and the Hopi still consider it part of their homeland.  A long, winding, uphill paved walkway–kudos on the handicap access and periodic rest benches–takes you right to the ruins and in places you are actually encouraged to dig in the sand and rock for ancient sherds of pottery and artifacts.  Like many before us, we looked, found a few sherds, and left them atop a big flat rock for archeologists to check.  Two young kids with Mom and Dad were having a ball digging and searching.

At dusk we drove into the Wigwam Village Motel in Holbrook.  Right, we spent the night in a concrete wigwam, one of seven tepee villages built across America 1930-1950.  Open any Rt. 66 book, and you’ll find a photo of the Holbrook wigwams.  We actually had to backtrack to stay here, because they were fully booked the night before by a biker group also 66-ing.  I really wanted to stay in a tepee, so what’s a few more miles?

The Wigwam’s white tepees are arranged around a big parking lot, interspersed with classic cars.   Big, no.  Fancy, not really.  They’re basic, clean, simply furnished.  TV, yes, wall mounted.  AC, check.  Heat, check, tucked under the TV.  Basic athroom, with small shower, smaller sink, and toilet.  The room held two double beds with Southwestern blankets and spreads, two tall night lamps in Western arts & craft style, one small desk and a chair.  Wifi, nope, but available in the lobby, where the lovely Leila takes your money, gives you a warm welcome, big smile, ice, directions, and dinner possibilities.  Leila, pronounced lee-luh, tells me she’s a hometown girl, who left and came back to Holbrook for “a bit”  and never dreamed a little while would turn into years.  She’s happy bringing up her daughter in the town where she was born, a town fading away then, but  alive today with hotels, eateries, shops, plenty of Route 66 spirit.  A potential new industry would bring 1,000 more jobs and growth, so cross your fingers for Holbrook.

Now I can say I have slept in a tepee.

Arizona Wonders

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

October 9, 2012 — Tuesday

Today was a glorious day for a jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly National Monument with a native Navajo guide.  This was a side trip from 66 that Margaret and I both were anticipating.

The Thunderbird Lodge prepared us well for the 3.5 hour bouncy ride, oatmeal for Margaret and a blue corn pancake with fresh strawberries for me (yep, it’s really blue from special blue corn  ground into flour).

The open-top jeep held 14 people, plus David the guide who was born in the canyon and has been giving informative jeep tours for over 20 years.  Good thing he knew how to handle that jeep, because the terrain was rough, rocky, twisty and full of deep sand.  A not so PC observation: the decades-old feud about land between the Navajo and Hopi Tribes was not mentioned directly, but there were plenty of statements about the Navajo ancestral ties to the land.

It had been many years since my only other visit to Canyon de Chelly, a summer trip in the mid-1980’s with Steve when we hiked into the canyon and crossed a calf-high stream to see its famous and much-photographed White House Ruins.  Much has changed since then.  Today the only way to hike in is from the top of the mesa–a tough and steep trail down 2.5 miles–or hire a Navajo guide.  I couldn’t wait to ford the stream in the jeep.  Alas, no longer.  Now the jeep stops behind a fence, so that you cross a wood plank bridge over the stream instead of wading through it, and today the stream was bone dry.  The ruins remain, but now you must look at them from behind a fence, and I was kicking myself for not packing binoculars.  Even though I understand today’s need for preservation and protection from relic-hunters and grafitti, I am deeply glad to have to have walked through the cold, rushing stream and the cave ruins years ago.

The jeep tour was beyond great.  Even though the jeep really jostled our innards, the scenery made up for it.  We saw  petroglyphs aplenty and three sites with ruins, two of them accessible only with a guide.  We passed simple hogan homes unreachable after a winter storm, cute-as-could-be Native children, horses, a deer standing stone still, circling buzzards, the occasional hawk, sheep with identifying bells, cattle, and for each thing we saw or heard, there was ten times that much land that seemed untouched.  Flying along with the wind on your face under a wide, blue sky and looking out and up at the canyon cliffs in varying shades of red, beige and black, it doesn’t get any better.  Magnificent.  This is another world, where time seems to suspend and The Great Native Spirits are alive, well and working to preserve Mother Earth.

By early afternoon Margaret and I were back in the car, headed for more natural beauty in Arizona’s Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert National Park.  We drove the 28-mile park trail through the 221,621-acre of petrified logs and trees, with colors ranging from black to cement grey to mottled pink/purple/red/blue.  Over 225 million years ago, this was high, dry grassland with hundreds of trees, which fell during floods and washed into floodplains where they eventually became petrified.  The Painted Desert colors, which come from the multitude of minerals in the water when the trees were submerged, are at their glowing best in early morning or before dusk.  Indeed, the colors change by the hour and season.  The two parks contain ancient pueblo ruins, petroglyphs, and many viewpoints to pause and admire.  Two of the most interesting areas were The Tepees of cone-shaped rock formations and the mass of dark, brooding hills which instantly gave new meaning to “badlands”.

We left the park at sundown, ready to resume Route 66 and indulge in some hospitable luxury at La Posada Hotel in Winslow.

La Posada, one of the 66 crown jewels, put us in the Albert Einstein Suite, decorated in High Southwestern crossed with Colonial Spain.  The beds had massive footboards that you could barely see over when lying down, a generous built-in seating area around and under full bookcases, Navajo rugs mixed with Orientals, and a wonderful vintage-tiled bathroom with a long, deep tub that whispered “have a beautiful bath tonight.”

As soon as we registered, and on the advice of the front desk, we went straight to the hotel’s four-star Turquoise Dining Room.   A stylish hostess with a long tunic flowing behind her told us in no uncertain terms we would have to wait an hour plus because we hadn’t made advance reservations.  When we asked about the many empty tables, she said they were reserved for a tour group.  I wasn’t happy about the delay because I had been looking forward to this hotel and dining room as a trip highlight, so I mentally dubbed her “the dragon lady.”  We freshened up, had a drink at the bar, and poof, another hostess called our names early.  We noted that those empty tables were still empty.  Oh well.  Life is too short for feeling grumpy over small stuff, plus it was really nice to wear casual clothes in a four-star dining room.  The food and service were outstanding.

After dinner, I debated a relaxing bath versus writing for this blog.  Folks, I looked longingly at that tub, the lovely toiletries and large, soft sage green towels, but I chose blog over bath.  We writers know about sacrifice.

Good Ole Gallup & Hello Arizona

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

October 8, 2012 — Monday

We woke up in Gallup, NM, at the 66 classic El Rancho Hotel  & Motel where movie star photos line lobby and mezzanine walls, the Hollywood luminaries who stayed here while making movies in the area.  Turns out the hotel was built by the brother of movie director D.W. Griffith.  Thank goodness El Rey hasn’t changed much.  The hotel has wisely preserved its impressive lobby of leather and overstuffed everything, massive chandeliers, and movie memorabilia.  We stayed in the Lucille Ball room, where the only Lucy touch was one photo.  The staff let us see the Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite with a built-in closet large enough to sleep in.  Each room is named for the star who actually slept there, and each has at least one photo of its namesake.  The rooms aren’t fancy, but they’re pleasant, clean and maintained nicely.  Just off the lobby is the Ortega Trading Post gift shop, the same Ortega who restored El Rancho and continues five generations of trading and selling high quality native art.

Downtown Gallup has Rt. 66 parallel with the railroad, which brought trade to the area.  On weekends the town is full of natives buying or trading their pottery, baskets, rugs and jewelry for food and supplies.  The main drag is lined with shops, especially the grand-daddy Richardson’s Trading Post established 1913.  Other notable Gallup buildings are the former Rex Hotel, renovated El Morro Theater and McKinley County Courthouse with what is believed to be largest WPA mural still in existence.

The modest Gallup Chamber of Commerce holds the Navajo Code Talkers’ Room, which tells how Navajo recruits used their native language to devise a military code the Japanese never cracked.  The Code Talkers were initially 29 young Navajo men who could read and write and had the equivalent of a high school education, recruited into the Marines and trained intensively in May 1942.  The initial code was 211 words plus one word for every letter of the alphabet.  Those first Code Talkers were so successful that their numbers swelled to 200 by October, and by the end of WWII, there were over 300.  Their code was never broken and not even one misquote or translation mistake within our own military branches.  To commemorate their valor and distinctive service, President Reagan created Navajo Code Talkers Day on August 14, 1982.  In July 1971, 70 living Code Talkers reunited to share stories, documented on film with the aid of  a grant.  In the 1976 Bicentennial, 22 Code Talkers marched in the national Washington, D.C. parade.  Today in 2012, fewer than five Code Talkers remain.  The Navajo Nation plans to expand the one-room Gallup exhibit to a full-fledged museum in the Window Rock/Four Corners area once enough funds are raised.

We passed the Red Rock State Park where the venerated annual InterTribal Indian Ceremonial has been held each September since 1922, the same place I visited on my 1986 pueblo/reservation swing.  I remember that first visit because I bought an exquisite jade Corn Maiden fetish, the wonderful Pow-Wow competitive dancing with drums, flute and chanting, and the port-a-toilet door that blew open just as I started to pull up my jeans.  The park sits in the middle of huge and very red rock formations, impressive then and now.

Just out of Gallup we left New Mexico and entered Arizona, my home state.  Once again we left 66 to drive north to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) on the Navajo Reservation, and yes, in Arizona you say reservation not pueblo.  This is a beautiful drive through big sky, chaparral grasses and hundreds of squatty but full junipers and pinon trees.

Midway we stopped at Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, established in the 1870’s and the oldest continuously operating trading post in the USA.  Today it is operated by the National Park Service and a small complex surrounds the original wood and rock main building.  The trading post itself has a general store on the left, with canned goods, cookware, hardware and home essentials.  On the right are several rooms:  one room has dozens of native baskets on the ceiling, kachinas on the walls, pottery on shelves and jewelry in cases.  Then there’s the rug room with ancient guns lining one wall and piles of the rightly famed Navajo rugs.  A small office with a massive desk has collector quality, turn-of-the-century kachinas, not for sale, just standing in clumps to be admired.  Indeed, Hubbell’s native art collection rivals any museum.  On my first trip west, I stopped at Hubbell and bought my first kachina, a small, flat wooden doll, the one given to babies for protection and a long, healthy life.  That kachina hangs on our tree each Christmas.  No kachinas this trip, but I did buy a pair of long, rectangular turquoise earrings with an inlaid mosaic of other native stones.  I love buying something special at someplace special, and each time I see it, use it or wear it, I think of that special place.

We tried hard to get to Natural Bridge near Shiprock.  We followed my Arizona map, AAA guide, Margaret’s GPS and watched for the brown national monument signs.  Zip.  Finally we stopped at a gas station (I still believe in gas station directions) and the clerk said it’s closed because this natural stone bridge has a crack and the Navajo Nation needs funds and expertise to prevent collapse and potential harm to visitors.

Onward and northward to Canyon de Chelly, one of American’s national parks and ancient native ruins on Navajo land.  We stayed the night in Chinle, just outside the park entrance, at the Thunderbird Lodge, operated by the National Park Service with a totally Navajo staff.  The motel room was Southwestern style, simple, ample, very clean, and the old-style motel where you pull up and park right in front of your unit.

We looked at local menus and decided the Best Western’s Junction Restaurant looked promising.  Oh yes.  I had a green chile posole stew, a large bowl piled with tender mutton chunks, hominy, corn and vegetables–not to mention a piece of fry bread that was bigger than the dinner plate.  If you’ve never had fry bread, try it when you get out West.  All tribes have a version.  It’s dough patted into balls, flattened by hand, dropped into hot lard oil where it bubbles into a flat, golden, puffy piece of goodness.  Natives eat it plain, dusted with white powdered sugar or honey, or piled with all the fixings of a taco.  Mine was plain, huge and absolutely delicious.

Feels good to return to Native country and my much-loved Arizona.

Best Balloons Ever & New Mexico Pueblos

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

October 7, 2012 — Sunday

My original itinerary had us leaving Albuquerque Sunday morning, but after the amazing Glow Night at the Annual Balloon Fiesta last night, we decided we’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity to see the first mass ascension.  And boy are we glad we did.

Saturday night we did park and ride on school buses to the balloon site.  Sunday morning we had just missed the last bus and were dithering about driving when The Gabby Cabby pulled up and offered us a lift through the driving/parking mess straight to the front gate thanks to a special cab entrance.  Another good decision and worth the price.  Our cabby Tracy had been in ABQ for six years and was as excited as we were to see the sky starting to fill.  Tracy and many other locals said their favorite balloon thing is the Shapes ascension and glow night when uniquely shaped balloons fire up and lift off.  A handful of shape balloons were at those two opening events we saw, and they were terrific.  A real local favorite was Spider Pig, a red pig with a black spider.  We were told Spider Pig caught fire earlier this year at a Phoenix Balloon Festival and its pilot expertly steered it away from the crowd to prevent tragedy.  Spider Pig was making its second appearance in Albuquerque this year, surrounded by crowds on the ground and roars of applause when it lifted off. 

As cabby Tracy pulled into the site, we saw the first balloons in the sky.  We hit the first festival ascension at prime time, as balloons were inflating one by one and 200+ balloons soared above us.  It was great fun to watch odd colors and shapes come to life as gas was fired into the balloon, the balloon rise slowly at a slant, and just when it went totally upright, the pilot or pilots jumped into the basket.  When any balloon lifted off, the pilot waved to the crowd and the crowd cheered and clapped.   A few balloons, alas, never got off the ground and some came down quickly, but most of that 200 flew up and off in “the box”.  ABQ has a unique air current above the city that allows balloons to fly in a rectangle instead of being tossed around like a ball.  If people weren’t taking photos, they were watching the balloons inflate or looking up.  Everyone was smiling like kids at the candy store, no matter their age.  The word “awesome” is over-used today, but the Balloon Fiesta is truly awesome.  I was surprised that they only stay up 1-2 hours, and it was interesting to watch them being flattened, folded, rolled and packed  into regular size vans.  Thrilled to have seen it. 

One last Rt. 66 stop in downtown ABQ, La Posada Hotel,  a former Hilton where magnate Conrad Hilton married Zsa Zsa Gabor.  This 1030’s hotel hosted luminaries and VIPs, and today is Hotel Andaluz, which has retained much of Posada’s Southwestern beauty, but has added contemporary art touches and boasts that it’s the only American hotel with full LEEDS green certification.

Margaret and I left Rt. 66 for a side trip south and some pueblo hopping.  We hit Isleta Pueblo just as Sunday worshippers were coming out of its lovely mission church.  The church sits at one end of a large plaza, and the crowd gathered at the other end to watch dancers at a special ceremony.  The dancing started about noon and would go to nearly midnight.  What we saw:  two groups of four men, their bodies painted in circular stripes of brown and black, faces whitened.  They appeared on the roof of an adobe house.  Four of them held birch branches for purifying, while the other four stood in front to lead the singing and quiet one-two dance steps.  At first it looked like they were warming up in unison, with a slight forward arm movement and a bit of right foot forward, but gradually their movements were more pronounced and the chanting grew louder.  I don’t what the ceremony was or what it meant, but it was a privilege to witness.

Next we stopped at Santo Domingo Pueblo, its mission church on a steep hill through a maze of narrow dirt roads.  In 1986 I visited this pueblo and watched a mother and daughter threading turquoise beads in the plaza.  When I said it looked like it would be a beautiful strand, the mother asked if I were interested in buying it.  We agreed on a length and price (quite reasonable), and I watched them hand-string and finish a really nice strand of graduated turquoise, a style of hand-cut flat beads called heishi (hee-she).  Santo Domingo is known for its excellent heishi strands, and over the years, my strung-in-front-of-me turquoise necklace has been one of my favorite pieces of  jewelry.  A part of me hoped for a similar experience today, but nary a soul in sight.   

I was really looking forward to seeing Acoma, the Sky City Pueblo, and sharing that with Margaret, who has an anthropology degree and was seeing her first American pueblos in person.  We drove another 17 miles south, only to see ‘pueblo closed’ signs.  I hoped Margaret could at least see the tall mesa which looks as though it pushed through the earth in one thrust and is the only high thing for miles.  We drove within a few miles of  the base of the pueblo, but Acoma tribal police cars stopped us and made us turn around, close but still too far to see it–a very religious ceremony was in progress.  Acoma is one of the most fascinating pueblos in New Mexico.  It looks like a mile straight up to the top of its Mesa.  On my first visit in 1983, I was able to drive part of the way, then walk to the top where a beautiful church anchors one end of its plaza and tables sit in front of adobe houses with Acoma pottery.  The women potters come out as you look at their wares, another of my favorites.  A lot of their pottery is white on white, incised, or white with fine, thin black geometric designs and native symbols.  By the late 80’s, visitors had to take a shuttle bus to the top of the mesa or walk all the way.  In the 90’s a small group of vendor stands were at the base where visitors waited for the shuttle.  So my update visit for the 2000’s will have to be another time.  I can say this:  once on top of the mesa and in the pueblo village, time seems to slip back a few hundred years and the 360-degree view is breathtaking.  I will return another time… 

Goodbye pueblos and back to Rt. 66.  We crossed the Continental Divide and headed to Gallup for the night.

Awesome Albuquerque

Friday, October 12th, 2012

October 6, 2012 — Saturday

The locals and airports know it as ABQ, another of America’s undersung cities.

But Albuquerque has good stuff:  an excellent university, a lift up the Sandia Mountains for great views and skiing, a Pueblo Cultural Center with good overview of all the New Mexico pueblos, lots of Rt. 66–and the biggest air balloon festival worldwide.

Steve and I couldn’t believe our dumb luck that our schedule coincided with the opening day of Albuquerque’s famed Balloon Fiesta.  On opening day, the big event is “mass ascension” when hundreds of balloons lift off making the sky look like it’s full of colorful Easter eggs.  Ascension begins at 7am, and recommendations are to arrive by 5:30am because of the heavy traffic and crowds.  We got up in the dark and were almost out the door when local TV said the morning ascension was cancelled due to heavy wind.  Steve was bummed because he would be flying back to Tucson mid-afternoon.

Enter Margaret, long-time gal pal from Atlanta who arrived mid-morning.  We consoled ourselves with a good lunch at the Rt. 66 Diner, where the waitresses pop around as though they’re wearing wire coils under their shoes.  Fun surroundings, especially two long shelves filled with every Pez container under the sun.  On the way out we saw a couple with a gargantuan ice cream banana split a bit smaller than a soccer ball.  The couple was Scott & Jeannie Radford from Columbus, Ohio who had come to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta after a stay in Florida.  They said they’ve been coming to Albuquerque for years, and they make it a point to stop at the 66 Diner for something like that banana split, a bargain at $5 for its size.  I think it could have made 4-5 people quite happy.

We headed downtown for a look at ABQ’s art deco buildings, especially the 1927 Kimo Theatre.  This is a wow theatre, mixing and showcasing the rich Southwestern heritage of native, cowboy, Spanish Mission and Art Deco styles.  The theatre’s literal meaning is mountain lion and it truly reigns as “king of its kind.”

Too soon it was time to take Steve to the airport.  We had the nicest week together.

No time to be sad though, because Margaret and I were headed to the Balloon Fiesta’s Glow Night, when the balloons are fired up, lit from within, and stand tall for folks like us to ooh and ah over.  Ooh and ah we did.  TV, photos and internet don’t come close to showing the magic.  Everywhere you look, some balloon or a bunch of them are being inflated, about to stand, are standing, and all of it looks fabulous.  The balloons are a wild mix of colors, patterns, recognizable figures and beloved characters.  The variety seems endless.  Toss in a couple of football fields filled with vendors, food concessions, the occasional beer garden, a moving throng of families, young lovers and folks of all ages, and it’s the biggest, bestest, beautifulest fiesta ever.  As if all the above weren’t enough, they capped it with a solid half hour of spectacular fireworks.  This time, too much was so right.

Cliff Dwellings Plus National Parks Missed & Seen

Friday, October 12th, 2012

October 5, 2012 — Friday

Big driving, finding and admiring day…plus a park blooper.

We said goodbye to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, heading southwest toward Albuquerque.  I wanted to see Windows in the Earth, a sandstone shrine not far from Ojo Caliene.  The hotel gave us excellent directions.  I’d brought a 1996 newspaper clipping about artist Ra Paulette, who spent two years creating a shrine for personal experiences and emotional opportunity.  We found the site, up a long, winding drive amid staggering rock cliffs on the extensive property of a bed and breakfast named Rancho de San Juan.  Bad timing.  The B&B closed October 1st, and no one knew where the key was to the Earth Windows entry.  Worse, the buyer plans to make it private property, so who knows what will happen to this sculpture/shrine/meditation site.  Oh well.

We had no trouble finding the ancient Puye Cliff Dwellings, the ancient ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo people atop a panoramic plateau.  A seven-mile scenic byway leads to the top at 7,000 feet–and on a sunny Friday with puffy clouds dotting the blue, blue sky–it all fit beautifully.  They call it the place between earth and sky.

Not so successful with Bandelier National Monument, with its canyon, archeological sites, caves with access by short ladders, and hundreds of petroglyphs.  We found the visitor center just fine.  Signs warned that visitors must use the park shuttle, but another sign said handicapped could proceed directly to the park.  One of the few good things about having rheumatoid arthritis is getting a handicap hangtag, so we started driving and driving and driving…to the end of the park road, then in circles.  Finally a park worker driving a road grader took pity on us and explained no cars whatsoever, that the stupid handicap proceed sign should be taken down (ya think?).  We lost 90 minutes so decided to cut our losses and see Bandolier’s canyon bottom another time.  The drive in and out was mighty nice though.

Our final park effort was Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument on Cochiti Pueblo land.  Its name means “white cliffs” and this park is a unique outdoor laboratory allowing geologists to observe and study the processes that shape natural landscapes.  The elevation of this national monument ranges 5,500-6700′ above sea level, with cone-shaped rocks that look like tents.  Perched precariously on many of the tapering hoodoos are boulder caps.  These formations are really striking, from a distance and up close.  They tower over us humans up close, and they look like a dense village of tents from a distance.  They were especially beautiful in late afternoon sun as the colors ebbed from reds into purple blues.

It was a long day in the car, up and down mountains, some gorgeous scenery, but at the end of the day, we just wanted a bite to eat and a good sleep.  Funny how natural beauty can wear you out.

Native American Pueblos & Ojo Caliente

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

October 4, 2012 — Thursday

In New Mexico, our Native Americans live in pueblos, not called reservations.  This was a big pueblo day.  We started with Pojaque (po wah kay), with its palace/mesa-like casino resort, Red Thunder.  The resort lobby and corridors have an impressive native art collection, art in all sizes and media, some are jaw-dropping stunning, and every name native artist is represented…Smithsonian or better quality.  Pojaque has a wonderful museum, lovingly and natively designed.  I especially liked its cave path tracing pueblo life and culture.  Next door is an intriguing tower building, the gallery for Roxanne Swentzell, an artist who is as articulate as she is talented and emotion-evoking.  She and her family built every inch of this striking three-level building.  I loved her office door, about 3′ high.

Our next stop was Chimayo, known for its sanctuario with healing earth.  Thousands of people worldwide visit, including me in 1986 on my first-ever pueblo exploration. Chimayo was one of the most memorable, and I was eager to see it again.  It was further off the beaten path than I remembered, so when we finally found it, the shock of a Disney sort of complex hit me in the gut, development leaning toward schlocky.  The beautiful chapel remains the same, but today you can’t touch or photograph anything, which put off Steve.  A tiny alcove is the same, with the reputed healing dirt, and a side room holds a host of no-longer-needed crutches, walkers, braces, and hundreds of small photos of those healed or praying to be healed, and one section just for military.  The chapel, alcove and side room had an emotional impact, and so did the cluster of shops feet away.  One shop sold small ziplock bags for the healing dirt, $2.50, dirt extra.  A model showed even more buildings to come.  At least the sanctuario remains unspoiled–for now.

We drove northwest for the old mineral springs resort, Ojo Caliente.  This place is heaven for the body and spirit with eight different pools for soaking and relaxing, set in a rocky, wooded canyon.  We put on their sand-colored chamois robes and tried each pool…sauna, eucalyptus steam, mud bath, soda pool, arsenic pool, magnesium pool, the big springs pool, and a blissful hot Jacuzzi-like pool.  The hottest was the best.  Feeling like happy, well-cooked noodles, we enjoyed an excellent Southwestern dinner in the vintage lodge-style dining room, some wine and creative desserts.  Happy tummies, relaxed bodies, peaceful spirits under mountain stars.

Palo Duro Canyon, Amarillo Quirk Spots & Hola New Mexico

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

October 3, 2012 — Wednesday

We drove into Palo Duro Canyon State Park in early, full sun.  Palo Duro is Texas’ natural version of the Grand Canyon.  At the visitor center, we heard two park employees say they thought PDC was better than the Grand Canyon.  After driving it end to end and gazing into its canyon floor, we beg to differ, and not just because we’re Arizonans. Nope, the Grand Canyon is longer, deeper, way more diverse, and has more spectacular color. Indeed, the Sedona “Red Rock Country” is more beautiful.  PDC is great in its own right and certainly does Texas proud, but I would beeline for Sedona and Grand Canyon in a snap.

Maybe you’ve seen or heard about the crazy Cadillac Ranch just west of Amarillo–Caddys stuck in the ground nose down.  This nutso art installation was commissioned by wealthy, eccentric Stanley Marsh 3, known around as Amarillo as “that rich guy who puts up weird sayings around town and even weirder art crap.”  The Cadillac Ranch is a huge empty field off the freeway frontage road.  From the highway it looks interesting with its six monster Cadillacs buried in the earth, but as you get closer, you see the graffiti on each car and lots of trash, countless spray cans and their tops pitched willynilly.  In this case, the long view from afar is better.

Stanley also commissioned the Floating Mesa, a huge mountain in the middle of farmland northwest of town.  A local county road worker snickered when I asked for directions.  We understood why after finding it.  The mountain was wrapped with a pale blue fence which was supposed to make its flat mesa top appear to float.  Apparently the original sky blue color worked, but sorry Stanley, the floating has flown.  That said, still fun to see both artworks.

We hit the 66 Halfway Point at lunchtime.  Both Vega and Adrian, TX claim they’re the midway point, but we settled at Adrian’s Midpoint Cafe for some great diner food.  I was primed to order one of their acclaimed homemade pies, but an earlier 66 biker group wiped out the pie supply.

The last Texas 66 town is Glenrio, where chunks of “The Grapes of Wrath” were filmed in 1938, but today it’s mostly a ghost town.


The landscape changed gradually from the Texas Panhandle’s alternating low, rolling rock and flat prairies to New Mexico’s chaparral grasses, then bunchy junipers and soaring, quaking cottonwood trees.  First up, the fun-to-say Tucumcari (too-come-Carey) with its main drag full of old-time motels and curio shops. “Tucumcari tonight” was a well- known 66 catchphrase back then–and still is.  Standouts were the Teepee Curios in a big white wooden teepee, the Blue Swallow Motel with its classic neon sign, and the colorful La Cita Mexican restaurant shaped like a sombrero.  Heading north, the scenery became more mountainous, more mesas, and green everywhere.  We pulled into the vintage El Rey Inn with its cottages and gorgeous gardens.  Charm in capitals.  The manager upgraded us to a distinctive suite with two patios, fireplace and full kitchen when I said I was the Donna, 66, doing 66 end to end.  Wonderful room, wonderful staff, wonderful mix of past and present.  El Rey Inn is a true 66 treasure.

To sleep after great New Mexican green chile cuisine, all right and happy in our world.

More OK 66 Icons & East Texas Panhandle

Monday, October 8th, 2012

October 2, 2012 — Tuesday

Our last day on oh-so-good OK 66 started in Clinton at the outstanding official Oklahoma Route 66 Museum.  The building, designed by the same architect of the crazy fun POPS soda stop, did this museum.  I should point out that each of the eight states on 66 has its own state 66 association building or museum.  So far, little Clinton has the best.  The 66 theme is everywhere, starting with the building in a classic streamline diner design, with black and white checkered tile walls and floors–and a big white Cadillac sets the stage.  You can hop behind the wheel, floor it, hear its motor purr and roar, and watch road scenery flash by on the windshield/screen.  The place gets better every few feet or new room with a wall button that starts theme music or road stories from 66 heydays.  The rooms include a classic diner with 1950’s prices, a bright red 40’s fire engine, a typical 66 motel with stylized flashing neon sign, wonderful vintage photos, and just the right amount of stuff to read.  This museum covers the history of OK 66 and its total state length of 432 miles–the most still standing and driveable miles of the eight states–and it does the same for the whole route end to end.  An hour stop here would give you every important morsel of 66 info and a topnotch national overview, and it’s presented with a wink and smile so it’s like learning while playing.  Adjacent to the museum is the tiny blue Valentine Diner which used to serve Texas travelers.

Right across the highway from the museum sits the Tradewinds Motel, where Elvis loved to stay in #215.  It looks nice, with a forerunner rooftop pool.  On Clinton’s east side, there’s Mohawk Lodge Indian Store & Trading Post established in 1892.  Current owners are Pat and Charlie.  He says the shop is all her, “I just do what she says and keep my mouth shut.”  Pat, 82, grew up in the trading post since her mother ran it for 30 years. Pat has owned it for 20 years and their daughter will take the reins next.  The store is the front room of their home, and it’s as much museum as it is store…turn-of-the-century pottery, baskets, kachinas, incredible vintage photos of natives, chiefs, tribes and events…most not for sale.  Oh, there’s plenty to buy, and the owners are lovely people with great stories.

Farther west is Elk City’s National Route 66 Museum.  Its national 66 information is minimal.  If it were up to us, we would change the national 66 museum to Clinton, just saying.

Our last Oklahoma stop was an odd mishmash of farm and mechanical stuff arranged in the round, on farmland near freeway exit 67, which we dubbed “Farmhenge”.


It’s ironic that the state which revels in all things big has the second least 66 miles.  The Mother Road passes through east Texas and its panhandle.

We pulled over for Shamrock’s impressive U Drop Inn neon sign, an Art Deco masterwork dating from 1936, with two steeple wings at the top.

McLean is home to the Texas Route 66 Museum, one large room of 66 stuff that took all of 10 minutes to see, but if you’re interested in barbed wire, this is THE place, known here as Devil’s Rope Museum.  They consider it one of the finest barbed wire collections worldwide, and indeedy it has every kind of wire old and new, as well as weird/wacko/functional wire creations.  Leaving McLean is a tiny, cottage type Phillips 66 Station, cute as can be and a popular photo stop.

In Groom, we photographed its leaning water tower, a visual illusion since all four legs are identical; the lean is due to an improperly installed water pipe.  Down the road is a mammoth white cross, said to be the largest in the Western Hemisphere at 190′ tall.  The cross is visible for miles and must be a real beacon at night.  Up close, it’s an interesting stone complex with unique stations of the cross, Calvary, and wonderful sculpture.

In Amarillo we did a 180 experience after the cross to the famed Big Texan Steak House. Its long tradition has tried the stomachs of multitudes who have tried to eat a 72-ounce steak and fixins in an hour for a free meal.  The place is Texas big ranch, waitstaff in cowboy gear, two stories of tables, a really long wood bar, totally happy in hoaky.  A blast!  We had Texas brewskis at the bar, and the menu looked good, so we joined the dining throngs (crowded on an ordinary Tuesday evening).  We wound up at a primo table in front of the eating competition platform and open kitchen grilling beef in unfathomable quantity and speed.  A countdown timer sat above one lone eating contender, a leanish guy who downed about 48 ounces when his hour was up. As he ate, diners came up to cheer or commiserate, and BBC TV was filming him and all aspects of the restaurant in and out.  My ribs were great, and Steve pronounced his prime rib perfect.  Then we were crazy enough to order carrot cake, a humongous piece that could have fed 4-5 people, yummy for a few bites, and the rest left with us in a to-go box.

Texas knows how to do big.

Oklahoma City — oh no, oh my, oh wow

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

 October 1, 2012 — Monday

Oh no, no.   We  started the  day at the moving Oklahoma City Memorial.  It’s sad that this memorial was created to honor 168 victims in the 4/19/1995 bombing, but the memorial does them beautiful justice.  Picture a long reflecting pool; across the pool sit 168 glass and metal chairs on grass, one for each victim, and the chairs are placed in the same footprint as the destroyed building.  It’s a bit after 9am and  several city workers are using blowers and rakes to remove autumn leaves and pine needles.  One by one, they make the area around each chair pristine, perfect, a simple act of honor that speaks volumes about the memorial, the city and its people.  On a nearby hill stands the Survivor Tree, an American elm dating to the 1920’s which miraculously survived even after surrounded by bombed, burning vehicles.  At the tree, a plaque reads: “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”  The facing wall of a damaged but still intact office building has this message painted in blue:

Team 5     4/19/95

We search for the truth.

We seek justice.

The courts require it

The victims cry for it.

And God demands it!

Oh my!  The Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory was just the thing after the Memorial.  Part of the 17-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens in the heart of downtown, the exotic conservatory is seven stories of lush palms, orchids, cacti, bromeliads, anthuriums and exotic plants from all over the world under luminous white plexiglass .  Waterfalls and pocket fountains, every nook and cranny bloomed with beauty.  A skywalk lets you look over it, while a winding walkway with various levels lets you see each and every nook up close.  Outside, there is a boulder Stonehenge meditation garden, herb garden, grasses garden, lake full of ducks, children’s playground with two elementary classes sitting like Indians and eating packed lunches, a picnic area and walking/biking/running trails.  A jogger sped by us, checking his watch, probably a businessman from one of the nearby office towers taking a healthy lunch run.  O.C.’s downtown is really nice.

We passed the state capitol building with its shining dome.  We found the unique Red Earth Museum & Gallery in a plaza, marked with three life-sized buffalo, created by artists in the 1990’s Buffalo Project that appeared all over the city.  I have been reading about Red Earth’s exhibitions for several years and really wanted to see its collection.  The place is small but holds the best of the best of Native American artists, with rotating exhibits and outstanding examples of America’s late and contemporary Native artists.   The gallery manager told us not to miss a quick look at the lobby of the recently restored Skirvin Hotel Hilton, another downtown jewel.  His quick lunch suggestion was also on the money, the O.C. Deli-Pastaria with its delicious homemade pastas amid two packed rooms of business lunchers.

Oh wow!  The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is impressive from the moment you drive up, moreso as you walk into a three-story rotunda with light spilling over a white sculpture, “The End of the Trail”, a cowboy and horse by Earle Fraser.  It’s a massive museum, so we concentrated on its sterling Native and Cowboy art rooms, especially its unmatched holdings of Remington and Russell bronzes and paintings.  Our favorite was the old-style movie theatre tracing the Western movie from black & white silents, to black & white with sound, to color, to TechniColor, to TV.  The old greats were all there: Tom Mix, Roy & Dale Rogers, Gene Autry, Lone Ranger with Tonto, John Wayne “the duke”, Palladin, Rifleman, Bonanza, on and on in screen glory.    An adjacent gallery featured posters, costumes and memorabilia of each Western star, the largest on the legendary director John Ford.  For a movie-holic like me, it was heaven; even non-movie Steve enjoyed every bit.

Adios O.C. and all its wonderful offerings.  Hello interstate highway and some fast driving to get to Hydro’s lonely but still-standing Lucille’s on 66, a gas station and tourist court run by Lucille Hamons and her husband since 1941.  Lucille passed on in 2000 and is considered Mother of the Mother Road.  Close by is Weatherford with a modern restaurant honoring her, Lucille’s Roadhouse.  We had a great diner supper here surrounded by locals and truckers enjoying the homestyle food and spent the night in Clinton’s not-so-hot Ramada Inn, vowing never to use again.