A bright, enchanting New Mexico morning. I pull onto the interstate, old 66 running beside. The land slides and yaws like water in a bucket, waves of rolling terrain, an ocean of pale grass flecked with sagebrush and streaked with browns and reds. The mountains heave themselves up, haughty, and then stop abruptly, ending in flat-topped mesas, crouching, leery.
My waitress last night had long, straight hair, jet black and glossy. She was young, optimistic. But the main street of Tucumcari had been savaged by the years, the mother road in all its faded glory, the blistered, flaking remnants of a once thriving commerce. Outlaw Tattoo. Six Shooter Siding. Buckaroo Motel. Vacancy.
Next Rest Area 200 Miles
Tumble weeds tumbling. Handmade Indian Rugs. Kachina Dolls. Pawn. Down the interstate to the foot of the mountains. In the Middle East people are rising up. The price of oil is climbing. At Moriarty I plunk down $3.49. There are dire warnings of a spike.
At Tijeras mobile homes are scattered helter-skelter on the floor of the valley like items spilled from a trunk. Manufactured buildings. Aluminum sheds. Double wide trailers faded and peeling, insulation bulging, a community of battered boxes beneath a majestic blue sky.
Suddenly into the mountains, winding through the passes, and then in a flash Albuquerque, glittering in the sun. Sprawling interchanges, jets descending, Starbucks, fitness centers, tanning salons. At the Flying J Travel Plaza a Navajo man, stout and smiling, advises me to buy my fuel at the Indian casinos. It’s cheaper, he says, as he hangs up the nozzle.
West of Albuquerque I’m flying, hooking into a string of drivers pushing 95. The mesas here are bluff and imposing, dwarfing distant structures, turning roadways into slender threads. They are tabletops for scudding clouds. Gusty Winds May Exist. Antelope Crossing. Next Rest Area 200 Miles.
Ghosts and Walmart
Over the Continental Divide and into Arizona. The drama of the landscape subsides, the mesas grow smaller and further apart. Holbrook is yet another old 66 town trying to claw its way out of the clutches of extinction. The Wigwam Motel is a cluster of motor cabins shaped like tee-pees, frozen in time, classic cars parked out front, slowly rusting. An American flag hangs limp on a pole, dirty, threadbare, all that’s left of a gas station that once stood on this spot.
West of Winslow patches of earth, reddish soil, the high desert, and then, away in the distance, snow covered mountains topped by slabs of clouds emitting biblical shafts of light. The San Francisco Mountains. Flagstaff.
Up through the aroma of pine forests. Snow piled high on the corners of the streets. Ski jackets and cowboy hats. Wine bars and styling salons. Specialty sports and pita shops.
At the Hotel Monte Vista, vintage hotel circa 1926, I stop for a draft. John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy. All have spent the night here, them and the ghosts – this place is notoriously haunted. People have been thrown from the windows, shot dead in the hallways, stabbed, strangled, nixed, wafting their spectral presences along the hand painted ceiling beams, the mosaic floors, the handcrafted woodwork, the beaux arte chandeliers. A man from Arkansas speaks to me of Walmart and social responsibility. I can barely pull myself away.
Midnight in Glory, Morning in Needles
Elevation 7,375 Feet. Steep Grade. Watch For Ice. Emergency Pull Out. Cloud shaped silhouettes against a lavender sky. They shred and pock and pull apart revealing a desert moon and a crystal clear night.
I hook onto an Audi with California plates and we eat up a hundred miles of interstate in an hour and a quarter. Between Seligman and Kingman there’s a blank spot on the map, fifty miles of nothing. Inky blackness. I pull off on a ramp. A trailer rig is parked and snoozing. I step to the roadside to relieve myself. Then I see it…
The sky is awash in stars. Every constellation stitched pure and clear like they were for the ancients. A spendthrift extravagance of stars, more than a man can count before dawn, spreading to the horizons, suggesting shapes, ideas, fears, ambitions. Neck craned, turning this way and that, like a child spun and stumbling, I gaze into the heavens. When I get back into the car, the rig flashes his lights, a friendly acknowledgment; he has seen it too, and it’s magic.
Morning in Needles, the worst named town in the US. Imagine waking up every morning in Needles, a prickly existence, stuck there. I flee down the interstate, following the path of old 66. The price of gas is disconcerting, deflating. $4.05. My bubble has been burst.
A vehicle beside me has a bumper sticker that says: I’ll Keep My Guns, Freedom and Money. You Keep the “Change”. It’s a Humvee.
The Devil’s Playground
The Mojave Desert is an immense desolation hemmed round by distant ranges bathed in bluish haze. The highway is a thin pair of stripes curving up the slope of the valley. Scavengers explode from a carcass, scattering overhead. The name of this place is The Devil’s Playground. Turn Off Air Conditioning to Prevent Overheating. Speed Enforced by Aircraft. Next Services 49 Miles.
In Barstow a liquor store every 100 feet. Homeless people bicker and skulk. I was nearly mugged here once, looking for a place to eat. The best restaurants have drive-thru windows. The motels have gone to seed. Rain clouds are gathering.
Six lanes down through Victorville past the Joshua trees and high tension wires, an avalanche of traffic into San Bernadino County, once an outlier, now a part of greater Los Angeles, razor wire and aspirations, billboards and taillights. The rain congeals the traffic into stagnancy. Disneyland. Hollywood. Cosmetic Surgery. I’m looking for an ocean in a tangle of concrete, and find it – eventually.
The waves are spreading on the beach, the cars are queuing at the pumps; the people look dazed and harried. It cost me $385 in gas to get here and I have a crick in my back.
But tonight I will sleep in a bed designed by experts to provide me a level of comfort far in excess of that experienced by the wealthiest sovereign of the 18th century. Tomorrow I will board a jet that will whisk me back to Chicago in the time it takes to watch a hockey game. This is my birthright, my America, and tomorrow I will be looking down on it from 32,000 feet. But today I am looking across at it, a different perspective entirely.
Air travel diminishes the world, shrinking an epic poem to a sound byte. Life on the road enriches and enlarges. Route 66 may be as tattered and faded as a flag left hanging on its staff where a defunct gas station used to be, but it remains proud and glorious, holding within itself the memory of its meaning, the poetry of its significance, the promise of what’s over the next hill or around the next bend, the promise of what’s ahead, the promise of America.
A bright, enchanting New Mexico morning, Malcolm Logan; The Buckaroo Motel, Malcolm Logan; The blistered, flaking remnants, Malcolm Logan; The Wigwam Motel, Malcolm Logan; The Hotel Monte Vista, Malcolm Logan; The Mojave Desert, Sukuru; The El Rancho Motel, Malcolm Logan; Razor wire and aspirations, Downtown Gal; Our broken asphalt heart, A McMurray