I left Las Vegas last Saturday morning. Destination? Sedona, Ariz. — red rock country. This was a longer drive (about 5 hours if I hadn’t stopped) than I intend to take most days, but there isn’t much to see in southeastern Nevada and western Arizona. I was amazed at how Las Vegas seemed to go on forever out U.S. Highway 93, but eventually the shopping malls, fast food restaurants and housing developments drifted behind me, and all I could see were dark brown mountains in the distance and the dry foliage of desert nearby.
I saw a sign for old Route 66, the famed road that Jack Kerouac and many Americans took across the U.S. in the 1940s and ’50s. I exited onto Route 66 in Seligman, Ariz., which claimed to be the “Birthplace of Route 66.” Downtown Seligman consisted of a handful of ancient stores, houses and a few depressing motels (the worst of which I noted with a smile was called the Romney). I spotted the Road Kill Café, which I had heard about, but wasn’t sure really existed. I wanted to stop for a beer in their saloon, but since it was 10 a.m. and I had a long way to drive, I thought better of it. I took a photo instead.
I wanted to take Route 66 to Flagstaff, but, alas, I discovered that you cannot take Route 66 across the country anymore. Since the advent of the interstates about 50 years ago, Route 66 has not been maintained all the way; it stops and starts with long gaps in between the parts you can still drive.
I stopped in Winslow, Ariz. (“What a fine sight to see.”), which didn’t look much different from when I saw it in 1983 — or from 1968, for that matter. Like the Eagles in their famous song, I stood on a corner and took a photo. Then I had an early Saturday dinner at the Falcon Café … roast beef, succotash and mashed potatoes, topped off with apple pie, which I do not recommend unless you are really into nostalgia. It did bring back memories of my mother’s Sunday dinners, and those of many other mothers in the 1940s and ’50s.
Back on Interstate 40, the desert went on and on until I finally approached Flagstaff; there, the scenery changed to beautiful, serene mountains — all green and fresh and nice. The air turned from hot and dry to cool, still dry, but fragrant with pine. I got off the interstate and drove through one of the small mountain towns. I don’t remember the name, but I was struck by how many Americans live in these small towns in the middle of nowhere. This realization would come back to me again later as I drove through New Mexico. I was tempted to stop for the day in Flagstaff, but I soldiered on. I was trying to get to Sedona and meet my friend, Jan; I was also anxious to see the beauty of the red rock country.
Eventually, I got off Interstate 40 and hit the road to Sedona. Soon after, the gorgeous red rocks of every shape and size appeared all around me — spectacular, like something out of a fantasy movie.
I stopped at the local visitor’s center, read some of the history, then drove around in a cute little town called the Village at Oak Creek — very upscale and touristy. I parked and looked around, found that the only reasonably priced hotel in town was full, and drove on. I quickly realized that most hotels were going to be expensive in this area, and, like many baby boomers and seniors, I do not like to spend my money on expensive hotels. So I decided to find another town off Interstate 40. I did just a few miles down the highway – Camp Verde, a beautiful little town surrounded by green hills and green trees, looking very much like spring. I found my inexpensive motel, had some pretty good pizza at a pizza joint a block away, and went to bed early.
On Sunday morning I wrote my first blog post, drove up to Sedona, and met my friend Jan at a lovely little café called Joe’s. We caught up with each other’s adventures before I moved on. I drove up Highway 89A through Oak Creek Canyon, one of the most scenic routes I have ever taken … definitely worth going out of your way to see. Deep, rugged canyons of every colored rock you can imagine — including some of the red that decorates Sedona — were surrounded by mountains covered with multiple shades of green pine and other trees I couldn’t name. This was Indian country, and their art was everywhere. There was even a turnoff with their arts and crafts on display in front of a beautiful vista of the canyon. I stopped and gawked at both, a heady experience of both natural and man made beauty.
I determined my next stop would be Gallup, N.M. I thought about Santa Fe and even Taos, but having been to both many times for writing retreats, I decided to pass. I had never been to Gallup, and the Internet showed an intriguing hotel called El Rancho Hotel for $75 a night. The old hotel, built in 1937, was home for many movie stars — including Ronald Regan, John Wayne, Gene Autry and others — while some of the old westerns were being filmed in the area. The Gallup area has one of the largest Native American populations in the country.
As I drove along toward Gallup, back on Interstate 40, I was aghast at the number of casinos in northern Arizona and New Mexico. I don’t think I drove more than 20 miles without encountering at least one. I had the uneasy feeling that most of their customers in this poor area of the country are local residents who cannot afford to lose their money gambling, but that is a complex issue outside of the purview of this blog. I couldn’t help but think about it, though.
Gallup is not a destination I would go out of my way to visit, but I had to stop somewhere. The town had a depressing air about it. It certainly did not lack for fast food chains. I snacked because there was nowhere appealing to eat dinner; the aromas coming from the restaurant in the El Rancho Hotel did not encourage me. The hotel lived up to its booking, though. The lobby was a perfect example of the era and the location — a huge expanse of old rugged, wooden furniture that looked like it had been there since 1937, a huge fireplace, and a circular staircase that led up to the rooms and colors that were all dark. It even had a shoeshine stand. The other positive thing I can say about Gallup is that the countryside is beautiful, with its multiple shades of red, orange and pink; the mountains and mesas that surround it are among the best scenery that this beautiful state has to offer.
The next day I drove on to Albuquerque. I stayed at an inexpensive but clean and well-kept motel — part of a chain called Red Roof near Old Town, which is worth visiting if you happen to be in Albuquerque (though I wouldn’t recommend making Albuquerque a final destination). If you are already passing through or stopping for the night, as I was, Old Town seemed to be the only place worth a visit. It had plenty of Native American and Mexican art, though much of it was not high quality. The area reminded me of Olvera Street in Los Angeles, a conglomeration of shops that existed only for tourists. I did find an excellent place to eat and drink called The High Noon Saloon. It was full of customers early on a Monday evening. The margaritas were wonderful (made with real lime juice and premium tequila), and bar food — available at half price during happy hour — that exceeded the usual standard. I had an excellent caesar salad and a dish called Apulian Meatballs, made from tasty, spiced meat and a spicy red sauce that left me wanting more. I met a friendly woman at the bar who showed great interest in one of my books, something that always perks me up.
My next stop: Alamogordo, N.M. Then on to El Paso and Midland, maybe.