Friday, August 16, 2013

From Holbrook, AZ to Lake Havasu City, AZ - Takin' It Easy

Well, I'm a standing on a corner 
in Winslow, Arizona,  
And such a fine sight to see.
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,
Slowin' down to take a look at me.

As What Would David Bowie Do? noted earlier on this trip, the United States of America is positively rich in places immortalised in song. But there can't be that many places whose fame is associated purely by a single line from the first track of a debut album of one of the biggest rock acts of the 1970s.

Very sensibly, however, the people of Winslow, Arizona, are making the most of both being mentioned in the Eagles' Takin' It Easy, as well as having Route 66 come through their community. For there, indeed, at the corner of 2nd Street and Kingsley Avenue - (and well signposted as you enter the town, too) is the 'Standin' On A Corner In Winslow, Arizona Park', an attraction slightly shorter than its name.

© Simon Poulter 2013

This single junction is the perfect symbol of Route 66 today, and not just because there is a giant 66 sign in the middle of it. Until the I-40 interstate highway came along, Winslow had been one of the bigger towns along Route 66 as it works its way through Arizona. After two decades of perpetual commercial decay, a non-profit foundation was created to do something to revitalise the town, with the Eagles' song as the obvious focus.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And thus, in 1999, the Winslow formally opened the "park" comprising a mural on the side of a wall depicting the song's girl and a "flatbed Ford", and a sculpture of a 1970s character in the foreground.

It sounds cheesy but, oddly, it is not. And with a gift shop across the street doing brisk business in T-shirts (yes, I confess…) and other Takin' It Easy-related souvenirs, while blasting out Eagles tunes just in case the connection has not been properly established, you have right there at that junction a microcosm of the American ethos of making it happen if you put the effort in.

Since leaving Chicago I've seen parts of the old road that have just been allowed to fall into ruin. The abandoned diners and motel carcasses have starkly reminded of the impact on communities and businesses the "progress" of the interstate highways has had.

But the further West I travel, the more I've found efforts like that in Winslow being made. Little, I suspect, is out of any true respect for the traditions and values that the old Route 66 represented, more opportunities to slap the highway sign on a post and call yourself 'Route 66 Carpets' or 'Route 66 Drainage'.

In hotels like the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, and, increasingly, towns in Arizona, a more is being put into the heritage trail, in particular the preservation of 1950s architecture on many motels (and you usually spot the fins of a vintage Cadillac before you see the 'Route 66 Motel' above the door).

Unlike its eastern neighbour, New Mexico, however, Arizona is blessed with plenty of other natural attractions to pull in the tourist dollars. The Grand Canyon is the obvious example. Having visited it twice before, including a memorable helicopter trip through it, I decided this time to stick to 66 and not make the detour. But if you ever come through this region, the canyon is a no-brainer. You just do it.

Not far from Winslow is the fascinating diversion of the site where, 50,000 years ago, a meteor broken off from a larger asteroid, slammed into the ground at an eye-watering 11 miles a second. At an estimated 150 feet across, and probably weighing several thousand tonnes, this was no scrap of space rock.

© Simon Poulter 201
In less than ten seconds, the blast, with an explosive force greater than 20 million tonnes of TNT - about the same as the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima - gouged out a crater 700 feet deep and over 4000 feet wide, showering molten rock and other debris over a mile in every direction.

It is regarded, by the marketing blurb at least, as the "best preserved meteorite crater on Earth", and who is to say that it isn't.

Yesterday I noted how UFO sightings and alleged alien encounters always seem to take place in unpopulated places. Seeing this meteor crater makes you wonder how lucky the planet has been so far that such events have either happened in the distant past, or in places where people aren't living. It certainly makes you wonder whether Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck really could do anything about anything larger hurtling to Earth...

With that, I do some hurtling of my own. Having decided not to detour via the Grand Canyon, Route 66 still takes me through the canyon's gateway, Flagstaff. Much like the 66 run through Albuquerque, it's a functional road, but well stocked with Route 66-themed attractions, especially in its "historic" downtown area.

Out the other side of Flagstaff, I see the first mileage markers for Los Angeles, indicating just how far I've travelled across this country. I'm also now driving through elevations of 5000ft and higher, with mountain peaks in evidence. Chicago and rural Illinois is now a long way behind, but so are the plains and prairies of Texas and New Mexico. Having visited the western wilderness areas of the US many times, the landscape is beginning to look more familiar, with the desert regions not far off.

The Grand Canyon, justifiably, dominates northern Arizona, not just physically, but commercially, too. Williams, some 30 miles further west from Flagstaff, knows this very well, being another major hub for both canyon and Route 66 business.

There you can take trains to the canyon, travelling in restored carriages from the 1880s. Williams also has the distinction of being the last major town along 66 to be bypassed by I-40, but like others I've mentioned, it hasn't given up its 66 heritage without the now requisite themed diners, motels and gift shops.

Driving Route 66 is a journey that requires a different pace. Even when you drive alongside the interstates, with their 75mph speed limits (a loose term, I'll admit…), where it's possible, the parallel bits of 66 are limited to the gentler speed limits of rural roads. It's a simple equation: slower speeds = seeing more.

And so, not far from Williams, Route 66 appears again, and breathtakingly so. Coming off I-40, you embark on one of the great backroad trips, through stunning scenery and vast open vistas of mountains and huge escarpments.

Driving through Hualapi tribal lands, 66 runs for almost 60 miles, often alongside the busy Southern Transcon railroad that also runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, carrying freight in mile-long trains.

The road crosses open range land and through small tribal communities, occasionally joining the railroad in snaking through gouged-out gaps in the terrain. As you drive, you notice the outside temperature creeping up. Not many miles before it was a "mild" 73 degrees, but as Route 66 emerges from the hills and into the south-eastern edge of the Mojave Desert, recognisable by the yucca trees sprouting out of the parched ground.

This drive amongst drives comes to a halt in Kingman, a huge town that serves as a directional junction for California, Arizona and Nevada (Las Vegas is just 100 miles to the north). With the temperature now well north of 100 degrees ("but it's a dry heat…"), the god of air conditioning is getting repeat business in the thanks department as you cruise past Kingman's airport, one of the various locations around the dry south-west where unwanted airliners are parked.

The heat and the desert may be obvious signs you've finally arrived out west, but if you need absolute confirmation, Kingman features the first In-N-Out drive-through burger restaurant I've seen on the trip.

For those who live in or regularly visit Southern California, particularly, but also Nevada, Utah and Arizona, In-N-Out is an institution, replicated in many other places but never beaten.

What gets people salivating at even the thought of an In-N-Out burger is that the burgers are not mass pre-produced, as they are with other burger chains.

The fries, too, are made from hand-peeled potatoes. Now, you might say that a burger is just a burger, but even with the growth of so-called gourmet burger restaurants in other parts of the world, nothing - and I mean, nothing - has yet to beat In-N-Out.

The temperature, as I pass Kingman's In-N-Oout, however, is now topping 112 degrees, and even I conclude that it is too hot for food. Plus, I am only 45 minutes away from my stop for the night, Lake Havasu City.

Though not actually on Route 66, or even related to it, the city is a huge desert community dominated by the lake of its name which draws in pleasure seekers year-round (and most notoriously during 'Spring Break'). When I was last here, 20 years ago, it was mid-December, and still hot enough to be spending the evening in the hotel pool.

Apart from its recreational attractions, Lake Havasu City has one significantly distinguishing feature: London Bridge. Yes, the London Bridge. A tourist attraction in Lake Havasu City is the London Bridge, the one that was bought in 1968 for $2.5 million dollars by oil magnate Robert P. McCulloch, taken apart, brick-by-brick, and then rebuilt over a specially built canal.

There is an old rune that he'd expected to be taking ownership of London's Tower Bridge, but most locals dismiss this as a tale McCulloch possibly came up with himself to get some publicity.

As you will expect, after the UFO-themed nonsense in Roswell, and the exploitation of an Eagles song in Winslow, London Bridge doesn't just provide a link between Lake Havasu City and the beachside resorts on a jut of land it connects to.

Inevitably, there is an entire "British" theme - the 'London pub', red telephone boxes, shops selling shortbread biscuits with pictures of The Queen on the lids and, to cap it all, a poor bugger dressed as a Beefeater standing guard in the 115-degree heat.

I've yet to use the phrase so far on this trip, but now would seem like a good time to say "Only in America…".

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