Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Route 66 V: The under-written conclusion!

I’m just about ready to wrap up this whole Route 66 thing, not because I’m running out of stories, but because as we progressed further north, and I became more and more anxious about getting to Chicago in time to pick up my house keys, we ventured outside of the car less and less.

The first major exception was in Catoosa, Oklahoma. This is the home of one of the most famous of Route 66’s landmarks, the Catoosa Whale. Essentially, the whale was a homemade waterpark built by a man named Hugh Davis, as an anniversary gift for his wife Zelta. The whale served as a slide and diving platform for the surrounding pond.

Am I the only one that find this creepy?
On its own, this would be a charming story, but what made it fascinating, for me, was the guidebook’s deadpan description of how this community waterhole had previously been used by the Davis’s – Zelta specifically – as an alligator farm. Why would one farm alligators? How does one keep alligators alive in Oklahoma for most of the year? How does any parent let their children swim in a pond owned by a known alligator enthusiast? I do not know, and cannot guess at the answers.

Our second major stop was a late lunch in Baxter Springs, a town situated on a small segment of Route 66 that cuts across the southeast corner of Kansas. There, we were fed and entertained by one of the two Sue’s who are the proprietor’s and presumable eponyms of “Angels on the Route.” A restaurant and gift shop located in a small and – judging by the “To Rent” signs on the storefronts – shrinking town, “Angels on the Route” represented a real gamble on Sue’s part: she renovated a wonderful century-old pharmacy, returning it to it’s wood-beamed, brick-walled, high-ceilinged glory, and filling it with a kind of service (“Your coffee’s ready! Get it yourself, because I’m making your sandwiches”) that made you feel instantly at home.

Sue also took the trouble to direct us to the local sights – the Rainbow Bridge, whose architectural significance I should probably be able to relate but can’t – and the tow truck that was the inspiration for Mater in the movie “Cars.” Apparently, there was a local gentleman named Dean in the area who could turn his feet backwards (we saw pictures) and was the reason Mater tended to run away in reverse – we didn’t get a chance to meet him, unfortunately.

Looking back over these posts, I realize that I’ve failed to capture, at all, what it is like to travel with four old friends in a small car for five straight days. We talked a lot of crap, of course, but also absurdist role-playing games  (ours devised a town in which the copper miners, copper smelters and copper thieves can created a self-sustaining, entirely enclosed economy). We only got lost once (not when I was at the wheel) and almost crashed once (when I was). We listened to a lot of each other’s music and drank a lot of local beers. We discovered that Tim has some weird ideas about Wisconsin. But most of all, we sang:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Route 66 IV: Ghost dogs

I have to put a disclaimer here: I am writing this post on my last bloggable adventure while in the midst of another one: I am currently twenty-two stories above downtown Chicago because the makers of “Chicago Fire” are currently re-painting and re-furnishing my apartment in order to film some sort of televisual mayhem there for upcoming broadcast.

I therefore have none of the aides memoire that I normally have on hand to render my adventures with the accuracy and vividness to which I pretend to myself that you, my loyal readers, have become accustomed.

In any case – after enjoying the hospitality of a very understanding friend in Albuquerque, my increasingly hirsute and malodorous friends piled once more into the Civic and we continued our journey East.

Our major stop for the day was a ghost town called Glenrio, which straddles the New Mexico/Texas state line. The town’s fortunes (and geography) shifted according to the transportation means of the day – the Ozarks Trail, the railway, and finally Route 66 – all of which finally ran through town. The construction of the Interstate drained all of the traffic away from its motels and gas stations.

The old Route 66 at this point is not paved (if it ever was) and is now essentially a utility road for the local farmers. In February, it was a dusty line cutting through desolate fields, a playground for tumbleweeds.

Needless to say, within five minutes of pulling onto the road, the car’s low-fuel light came on, because one should run out of gas when one is visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, when no-one knows where you are.

The "album cover" shot.
We stopped at a ghost-motel at the outskirts of the ghost motel, the only inhabitant of which was, on the evidence, a ghost-dog that was furiously barking at us but which we never actually laid eyes on. Mind you, it did sound like it was some distance away, but I blame that veil separating us from the Other Side distorting the sound. Or the dog was at the farmhouse further back on the road.

 As fascinating and evocative a ghost towns are in the imagination, in reality they’re frightening largely because they are minefields of broken glass, ragged bits of rusted metal, and floorboards of uncertain solidity screening basements hosting wildlife of unknown temperament.

Jon goes over the top.
Readers might scoff at my timidity, but the Route 66 guidebook we were relying on had specifically referenced the feral dogs that were the sole remaining inhabitants of Glenrio. Of the many souvenirs I hoped to pick up on this journey, rabies was not among them (neither was tetanus, which means I probably shouldn’t have cut myself scaling the barbed wire fence the feral dogs had erected to protect their ghost-motel).

NEXT! A combination alligator pond/children’s swimming hole!

Addendum: I am leaving out the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, my temper tantrum and the ensuing arm-wrestling match, the best burgers we had on the route, and all of Texas. I only have so much space.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


This is the most photographed site on Route 66. It's an abandoned gas station near Flagstaff, of no particular historic or architectural significance, but it does have its own exit just off the main highway. Broken dreams, everyone!

Trivia question: Does anyone know how Flagstaff Arizona got its name?

A: Trick question. It was named after a flagpole. I can only imagine what local highlights the town fathers rejected before settling on that one.

“Gentleman, this town needs a name, and I feel it should be a testament to the spirit and enterprise of the people that settled this beautiful place. What’s the first thing we built here?”

“Well sir, I reckon it was the pig fence. After that, I think there was the privy? Then, a whole caravan of us pitched in to get the saloon and brothel up pretty quick. And then there was the vomiting-shed out back of the saloon. Then there was the jail… and I guess the flagpole we put in front of the jail. Does that count?”


Despite the mundane name (and misspelled plaque commemorating the original flagpole) Flagstaff was a beautiful town, the kind of place you could imagine ne’er do wells and triggermen washing up in before heading out into the surrounding hills. It’s been cleaned up quite a bit since then, boasting a gourmet café and fancy bagel shop that hosted us for breakfast. The walls of the latter – Biff’s Bagels – had become a veritable shrine to the town’s deceased canines, with photos of furry faces and handwritten eulogies to  missed canines lining the walls from floor to ceiling.

Our primary goal for the day was not far from Flagstaff: a local attraction called Meteor Crater. I will not leave any of you in suspense as to the nature of that attraction: a mile-wide hole in the ground left by a chunk of malevolent space-iron 50,000 years ago.

I don’t want to sell Meteor Crater short: it was spectacular, the accompanying interpretation center entertaining and educational and the tale of its original owner’s twenty year subterranean quest to mine a hunk of metal that had, in fact, evaporated on impact, blackly comic.

When I die, however, that is not what I will remember about Meteor Crater.

Anyone who’s traveled a North American highway has probably seen those roadside notices to tune in to a designated AM radio station for information of weather conditions, or traffic, or local attractions. Meteor Crater has one of those, and on a whim we decided to tune in, and am I ever glad we did.

The station was a repeating loop of a gravel-voiced man, clearly doing some pro bono work from his normal job doing colour commentary at Monster Truck rallies.


Geez buddy, couldn't you at least say "Spoiler Alert" first?

He carried on like that for a while (“BE SURE TO STOP AT BETTY’S DINER IN WINSLOW!!! SEE THE GIRL ON THE FLATBED FORD!!! ENJOY THE NEW SUBWAY RESTAURANT IN THE INTERPRETATION CENTER!!! METEOR CRATER!!!”). Suddenly,  the loop cut to what I presume was a scientist of some sort, clearly recorded in the 1970s. He was not introduced, which was probably for the best, given what we heard.

His reedy-voiced lecture began… “There has been increasing interest from the public and the scientific community in…”

“METEOR CRATER!!! EXPERIENCE THE IMPACT!!!” cut in Monster Truck Man, possibly thinking to himself “SHUT UP NERD!!!”

Of course Tim, Travis and I spent the rest of the day TALKING LIKE THIS and interrupting each other’s sentences with sudden interjections of METEOR CRATER!!! It never got old.

Next: We visit a ghost town and nearly get METEOR CRATER!!!

Petrified Forest National Park. This is a rock that looks like a log, which
is cool in theory, but looks very much like a log in practice.

Painted Desert, NM.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Route 66: Dam the drink

Hoover Dam. Hard to get a shot that properly
conveys the magnitude of the thing.

I hesitate to skip over the Las Vegas detour we indulged in on our Route 66 trip because I’m afraid no one will believe the reason why: nothing happened. We had an excellent steak dinner, and wandered through a few casinos, but none of really gambled and I, personally, was too worn out from the drive to stay out very late, despite all my worst intentions.

So, a bit of a bust, debauchery-wise. On the other hand, it was conveniently close to the Hoover Dam, AKA the Holy of Holies for the engineer in our complement, at which we duly paused on our way out of Nevada.

We rejoined the Mother Road in Arizona, and headed off the Interstate roughly in a place called Kingman. Our trajectory into the desert was immediately diverted into the Kingman International Airport Industrial Park by a sign that promised a local distillery. Our eyes dancing the prospect of grizzled cowboys peddling washtub firewater and snake-venom whiskies.

Grand Canyon Caverns. There was also a sign for Harley
Davidson parking, "All others will be burned."
Pushing through the door of the Desert Diamond Distillery, we entered the sales room and tasting bar, in which promisingly amber bottles glinted through the miasma of fermentation and high-proof alcohol. The décor was, as you would expect, burnished wood and tarnished metal. Even the brochure that I just discovered I kept from the visit played into our preconceptions… “Come on in and set a spell. Take a gander around our Still, you might get lucky and see it steamin’…”

On taking up the invitation and bellying up to the bar we were surprised, and more than a little disappointed to learn that the twin tipples of the Triple D were… vodka and rum. Never having developed a taste for rum, and being somewhat afraid of vodka, we were not inclined to shell out for full bottles, but we indulged in a few sips of several of their varieties, and bought a gift pack of mini bottles for later consumption.

I ducked into the bathroom before hitting the road, only to find my traveling companions missing on my return to the showroom. They had somehow finangled a tour with… a man who I think might have owned the distillery, though maybe he just worked there, or just happened to have been passing by and decided to pull a fast one on some tourists.

Any casual Dorothy and Toto who only visited the showroom would only have seen down-homey old-timey plain-speakin’ Old Westness. Behind the curtain, however, was the Wizard as he truly was: a computer controlled, twenty-foot tall still of gleaming , stainless steel, precision-cut to exacting German standards.

The man giving the tour (who had a very East Coast accent, for a man selling Gold Miner Rum) was rightfully proud of his machine – it was, he boasted, the first of its kind in North America, and the Triple-D offered seminars to other small distillers around the country on its use. With a couple of punches of a button, it could produce any kind of hard liquor of any grade you could want: “Even whiskey” he said, as if gagging on the word.  

The discombobulation I experienced between the cowboy esthetic and the futuristic production carried throughout the rest of the tour. You rather expect that when someone goes to the trouble of setting up a distillery at great cost and difficulty that they have some love or affinity for making spirits. Yet our guide seemed keener on the swamp coolers that they used to keep their barrels from drying out than he did in the nuances of his product: “You know, I just read a book on this, and these barrels can add tens of thousands of different chemical compounds that affect the flavour,” he told us, adding in a wondering tone. “Can you imagine? Tens of thousands!” He only just read up on this?
And no, he never explained what a swamp cooler was, let alone why each bottle bore the words “hand crafted” when the whole process was controlled by the algorithms pumping through the digital heart of the Alco-Matic 3000.

Next: Meteor crater! Meteor Crater! Meteor Crater!!!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Route 66, Post Number 1

Ok, I am finally getting around to writing about my trip to Chicago. I am going to split it up over a few different posts, of whatever length I feel like, at whatever rate I choose. I get roughly 20 uninterrupted minutes a day to write these days, if I am lucky. Bear with me.

 It has now been a month and a half since I left Los Angeles, and I have yet to offer the city the valediction I produced for Strasbourg (of course, given that I spread that particular farewell over the better part of three months or near-daily posting, you can hardly blame me). I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised to learn that I failed to fall in love with Los Angeles, even as it gave me a couple of daughters, a host of new friends and the means to fulfill one or two boyhood dreams. On the other hand, everyone I knew who lived there assured me that they came to love the city – it just took them five or six years. Los Angeles does not give her favours away easily, and I had only three years to charm her.

If I never got to know Los Angeles the right way, then I could at least leave it the right way. Given that Chicago was my final destination, the right way could only be via Route 66, asphalt muse of troubadors of Americana and Dust Bowl nostalgists for decades.

The reason people go the other way: Beach volleyball the morning we left, ice skating the evening we arrived. 
My companions on the road were to be the same trio that stood idly by my side as I recklessly married Amynah lo those many years ago (thus putting me on a path that lead to me moving from Los Angeles to Chicago in the first place). Like the Avengers, each heeded my call and left the comforts of their hearth and home, abandoning uncomprehending children and understanding wives to assemble in Los Angeles (making me Nick Fury, I guess?). We gave ourselves one week in February to drive 2,451miles (3,945 kilometers), from the mellow warmth of So-Cal into the late-winter charms of the Windy City.
We began our journey Sunday morning at the traditional “end” of Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier, scene of a million cinematic first dates, breakups, criminal escapes, gun fights, and dance parties. We gazed idly over the Pacific, noted the Santa Monica police SUV with a surfboard mounted on its roof (in case some enterprising thief tried to steal someone’s good vibes or something?).
We shoved off set course for the east: through Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywoods West- and Regular, through Silver Lake and into the belly of downtown, up to Pasadena, and then through the sprawl of the northeastern suburbs – Acadia, Monrovia, Temple City et al. At some point we joined the Interstate, hopping on and off where the old 66 re-asserted itself (it was at this point of the day that we put on “Call Me Maybe” for the first of what would prove to be many times. There is video. I will post it, pending permission).

It was on one of these stretches that we encountered Elmer Long and his “Bottle Tree Ranch.” It’s hard for words to describe what Elmer created out in the middle of the Mojave, but I’ll try: a shaded oasis of iron and glass, welded trees displaying a glittering foliage of bottles and cast-off power-line fuses, each topped with pawn-shop oddities and antiques salvages from junk yards and the surrounding desert over the course of decades.
Elmer graciously talked to the four of us for twenty or so minutes, telling us about how, as a child, he and his father would go searching for treasure in the desert. Over the years he piled up an enormous trove of glass, metal, old guns, typewriters and California Highway Patrol motorcycle helmets. One day, the inspiration struck to turn it into an art installation, and so the Ranch was born. There were easily a few hundred “trees” up already – some bearing bottles more than a century old -  and Elmer said he had thousands more to put up. It would have been easy to have spent hours there, and Elmer certainly seemed amenable to chatting, but the road was calling.

 To be continued....

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Read someone else's blog!

I am, today, featured on the excellent "The Dusty Bookcase,"reviewing The Sixth of December. The Dusty Bookcase is the project of Brian Busby, which he has dedicated to the forgotten and obscure of Canadian literature. It's always worth a read, despite his questionable taste in guest contributors.