That morning, there is a Ford pickup truck parked at the corner. Red, circa 1960s. Oh yes, it has a flat bed. Somehow, I don’t believe it is just a coincidence.
From small speakers high on the wall of the building across the road wafts the lilting old Eagles tune New Kid in Town. Before, it was Heartache Tonight. After, it is Lyin’ Eyes. Other Eagles tunes follow, and only Eagles tunes, all courtesy the store there, Roadworks. The music is no coincidence either.
Tourists take pictures of Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, where Cadillacs are stuck in the ground.
On the wall beyond the red Ford is a trompe-l’oeil, realistic enough for a double take. Three windows on top; one has an eagle (get it? An Eagle) on the sill, another offers the torsos of an embracing couple. Below them, a Ford pickup again, this one with a smiling girl behind the wheel. She is looking right at the statue next to me, a young man with a guitar. Above him, on the lamp post, a sign says “Standin’ on the Corner”.
The Eagles hit, Take It Easy, hasn’t wafted from the Roadworks speakers yet. Somehow I have no doubt it will, if I just wait a while, and that wouldn’t be a coincidence either. For in that song, the second verse goes:
“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.”
In chilly, windswept Winslow, you will find, believe it, the Standin’ on the Corner Park. I had to go.
A dot on the old Route 66, Winslow fell on hard times when new interstate highways sliced more efficiently through the prairies, plateaus and plains. A two-lane highway, Route 66 once connected Chicago to Los Angeles, snaking through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before the California home stretch.
ROUTE 66 (Graphic)
In his monumental The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck called it the “Mother Road”, a reflection of the lifeline it represented to thousands of “Okies” in the Depression years. Not all were from Oklahoma, but all were Pete Seeger’s “Dust Bowl refugees”, fleeing the hopelessness in the middle of the country for the hopes and dreams of California.
Later, as the economy charged forth from the Depression, as car travel became easy and cheap, 66 was like a national artery. Not just because of the way it cut through the American heartland, but also for being the lifeblood of so many towns and tiny rural communities on the way (Amarillo, at 200,000 residents today, is the biggest city on the Route).
But when the US built its interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s, the fate of Route 66 was sealed. While the new highways sometimes followed the path of the old, often they didn’t. No longer did travellers stop so readily in the dozens of Winslows along Route 66. It wasn’t quite the hopelessness of the Depression, but here were sudden hard times for many heartland communities.
Town after town like Winslow turned into ghostly memories. Some are now little more than collections of crumbling ruins of abandoned motels or gas stations.
The dilemma Winslow and other similar towns face is: How do we resurrect an economy that once fed off Route 66? To some extent, that has been answered by the way travelling on Route 66 has become a nostalgia trip.
Several cheery books and maps can tell you just which turns to take to follow, as far as possible, the original alignment of the Mother Road. And Winslow upped the ante by gambling on its mention by the Eagles.
But it’s not just Winslow, not just the Eagles, and not just a gamble.
In Santa Rosa, New Mexico, the Route 66 Auto Museum advertises itself with one of those tall poles that the motels and fast food joints use for their signs, only this pole has a bright yellow roadster stuck on top. Inside the museum are more than 30 lovingly restored “classic” cars—from a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner to a 1931 Auburn (“purrs!”), from a flaming red 1963 Corvette whose licence plate advises “2FAST4U” to several instances of the car I’ve lusted after for years: the early Ford Mustang. I hastened out before I left indelible drool marks on the classic metal.
In Newberry Springs, California, the picturesque Bagdad Cafe is where the movie of that name was filmed, and that’s what gets the tourists to hit the brakes.
Never mind that the real Bagdad Cafe used to be in Bagdad, an abandoned ghost town some distance further east (The Newberry Springs eatery used to be called the Sidewinder Cafe). Never mind, because this cheerful cafe is a fine place to stop for a meal and Andre Pruett, who runs it, a fine lady to chat with.
The boy at the Standin’ on the Corner Park in Winslow.
It seems to be a magnet for the French in particular, who leave behind T-shirts and postcards and photographs that are plastered on the walls. When we were lunching, there were two separate groups of other visitors, both from France; and the couple of dozen guest books, going back several years, are filled largely in French. One visitor a couple of years ago was Sophie from Lyons, who went home and sent in her Lyons-Frankfurt Lufthansa boarding card and a note in handwritten French saying, as near as I can translate, “Mythic café of the delicious chocolate milkshake, music and original décor, take my boarding card!”
All along the Route, you can still find splendid old neon signs that advertise motels or diners. One of the most elegant crowns is the otherwise nondescript Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. It is, naturally, a swooping blue swallow. The fading town of East Amboy, California, was once home to the Roadrunner’s Retreat Café and Station, complete with a huge sign featuring that frantic little bird. It may be a commentary of sorts that its head has fallen off and lies rusting amid bushes and mud in front of the crumbling motel itself.
It may be more of a commentary that somewhere in eastern Arizona, I ran over one of those frantic little birds. I tried desperately to avoid it as it raced on to the road, and thought I had. But then I stopped and ran back. Some fluttering of its wings, a drop of blood from its beak, and it was gone. As I dug a roadrunner-sized hole nearby and buried the little fellow, feeling lonelier than I had at any point on Route 66, I heard a voice saying, twice, “I’m so sorry.”
It took me a few seconds to realize: my voice.
How to get there:
British Airways connects Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore to O’Hare Airport, Chicago, with a stopover at Heathrow, London. Round-trip economy fares from all three cities are from around Rs40,000, plus taxes.
Visas cost Rs5,240 plus Rs322 processing fees from the US Embassy in New Delhi, or the consulates in Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata.
What to do:
The customary way to travel Route 66 is like the Depression-era people did, from east to west. I went from west to east, joining 66 in the town of Barstow, California. From there, I drove to Needles, on the border with Arizona, through Kingman to Ash Fork, where I diverted south for a couple of days. I rejoined 66 in Winslow and drove east to Gallup, New Mexico. From there, I again took a diversion for a few days and came back to 66 at Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and drove east through Tucumcari to Amarillo, Texas.
I took it fairly leisurely, and spent about five days on these segments. You could be slower, you could be faster. The whole idea of travelling Route 66 is not to rush, to stop and absorb what you’re passing. Two weeks is a good length of time if you want to do the whole length (that is, Chicago to Los Angeles).
Get one or two of the Route 66 guidebooks before you leave: They tell you what to watch out for and what routes to take. I had the ‘EZ66 Guide for Travelers’ by Jerry McClanahan, and the ‘Route 66 Adventure Handbook’ by Drew Knowles. Both very knowledgeable authors, and their writing enhances the travel experience.
Where to stay:
There are plenty of motels along the way. Many of them are called either Route 66 motel or variations thereof. In Needles, I stayed at the Needles Motel, not a whole lot to recommend it except the playfully bickering old couple that runs it. In Gallup, it’s worth staying at the eclectic El Rancho Hotel—ornate wood décor/furniture, plush upholstery and movie stars who stayed here, so each room is named for a star (mine was Robert Mitchum. I wanted Marilyn Monroe). In Barstow, the Route 66 Motel that Ved and Mridul Shandil own has old cars in the yard and each room features a round bed (I don’t know why. But Ved Shandil showed off the bed as if it was very desirable to have).
There are also the usual chain motels in nearly every town: Super 8, Motel 6, Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge, Days Inn, et cetera.
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