Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Day 9 - Cedar City, UT to Salt Lake City, UT

The Mormons
I don't remember anything about the drive to Salt Lake City. But I remember touring the Mormon Temple grounds once we got there.

If you crossed a really devout Christian church with a very successful corporation, you'd end up with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Don't kid yourself that the Mormons are a glassy-eyed bunch of cultists who can't chew gum and praise Jesus at the same time. These people have their act -- collectively and individually -- together. They're smart and powerful and have a lot of money behind their cause and are more than likely staunch Republicans, too.

Which can put a couple of middle-aged alterna-lifestylers from Chicago who are just touring Temple Square for laffs a bit on edge.

Everyone was nice. Nothing was out of place. Everything worked. The men all wear suits and white suits and ties; the women all dress just as conservatively. All the buildings had video screens and interactive exhibits and audiovisual delights everywhere you looked. It was all religious, but high-tech and a bit futuristic, like I've always imagined the Republic of Gilead is in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Visitors are encouraged -- by every employee -- to take the guided tour, and Jonathan and I soon found ourselves starting a chaperoned walk about the grounds.

First stop, the just-a-few-years-old Convention Center, which is where the Church holds it regular big meetings. This picture is just a small slice of it. The Center has 21,000 seats, and I think one of our guides said it was the largest auditorium in North America. A little fact-checking could verify that statement, but I do not doubt the truth. The place is enormous, and busts and paintings of Bible scenes and Church notables are everywhere.

Next stop is the North Visitors center, where sightseers are walked up a spiral ramp leading to a large domed room. A white statue of Jesus stands in the center, the dome around and above him painted with pictures of the Earth and Moon, planets and galaxies and, inexplicably, little fluffy clouds. It's Jesus in Space.

This is where the tour -- which up to this point was pretty low-pressure on the sales front -- got serious. We were seated on benches looking up at Jesus. Our guides kindly asked us to refrain from taking pictures and to open our hearts to a special message from Christ -- then kindly interrupted one woman who was too busy taking pictures to hear what they'd just said.

Then the lights dimmed and Jesus spoke. I don't remember exactly what He said. His voice boomed out from hidden speakers with a message of love and family, and the whole time I was sure the Mormons were beaming a secret signal beneath the audio, something I'd be powerless to resist.

Then it was over and the lights came back up, and instead of filing all of us into a giant processing center for debriefing and assignment of our new identities, we were escorted back down the ramp without further incident. We saw the Tabernacle, where the Choir lives, and then received cards onto which we could write our addresses and phone number, or those of our enemies.

And then it was done.

Jonathan and I looked around for a couple hours more. Each of us had a somewhat probing question about the Mormon faith. Jonathan's had something to do with what I think he called the apostolic division; I wanted to know what's up with the magic underwear. But each time we worked up our nerve to ask someone, something would happen to divert their attention. Once, one of our guides ran into some people she hadn't seen in years. Another time, the Elder I'd just introduced myself to had to answer the phone. It was like God knew we were both troublemakers and wasn't having any of it.

One of the creepiest things about it for me were seeing these groups of men -- all in suits and ties and white shirts -- participating in what looked like very private conversations. Some were young, some were middle-aged or older, but all of them were so clean cut they looked like you could eat off them. It was a bit like walking past the five biggest executives at the company you work for as they discuss the issues right after a big meeting -- you get the feeling they're making decisions that will affect your future and yet, somehow, it's still none of your business.

The Mormon Church is interesting. On the whole, they're as Christian as they come, no question there. I'm all for their support of the family (as far as what I know about it, which isn't much) and I think there's something fascinating about a uniquely American religion with its roots in the pioneering spirit and the kind of determination it took to settle this great land.

Yeah, there are some things that don't quite make sense. The golden book from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon conveniently disappeared, along with his cohort in the Church's founding. (He later came back, yet no one really talks about him much.) There's the whole alcohol/caffeine thing and the special garments.

But these things aren't that different from Buddha finding enlightenment under a tree or Moses parting the Red Sea. They're things you have to take on faith, and that, it seems, is the whole point to begin with.

Day 8 - Flagstaff, AZ to Cedar City, UT

Don't Look Down

I've mentioned before my fear of heights -- just the other day as a matter of fact! -- but today's post requires that I belabor this just a bit more.

People who aren't afraid of heights can't fathom the fears of those who are. Just as someone who thinks shrimp are delicious in every form would never believe that the little creatures are really just the cockroaches of the sea. This difference keeps the world interesting, and without it -- if everyone shared the same fears -- the world would be a whole lot less scary for everyone.

So it was with great surprise that I discovered the Grand Canyon is no place for someone with a fear of heights.

I've seen photographs of and television shows about the Grand Canyon for as long as I've been alive; even more so as I've been preparing for this trip over the last couple years. I was always struck by its grandeur and majesty and sheer geological beauty. But for some reason, those photos taken from one of the rims, depicting the canyon's vast depth and length and breadth, never caused my breath to catch in my throat or my bowels to feel loose.

Which is exactly what happened 60 seconds after arriving at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Those photos and television shows don't do it justice. To stand in front of the canyon is to witness a tiny, infinitesimal part of the universe's enormity opening up before you, and to feel your true insignificance in response to it.

For some of us, that can be truly horrifying.

For others, not so much.

Whereas I had to turn away, my traveling companion, Jonathan, seemed to be drawn toward the canyon. He was happy to jump up on the low stone retaining walls that stood between us and oblivion as though teetering on the brink of nothingness was the most natural and comfortable thing in the world.

(Jonathan has sometimes commented, in response to my tendency to feel blue, on how comfortable I am "staring into the abyss." Funny that when confronted with the real thing I find myself unable to face it.)

Worse were the other people, those who would hike a trail down to a rock ledge and perch on it. Do you see them out there, perched on the edge of nothingness? Or the people who were blithely allowing their children to scamper and crawl on and over every fence and barrier. It's like the Grand Canyon was one of those inflated bouncing tents you see at kids' birthday parties, with a cushy pillow lining at the bottom.

In the great canyon's defense, I have to say that it is magnificent, awe-inspiring, breath-taking and stunning. I would love to see it from the floor, though I surely couldn't get down there by foot or on the back of a burro. Nothing short of being delivered to the canyon floor in the safety of a Life-Flite helicopter would do.

We spent a couple hours at the canyon, peering out of it from various viewpoints, and if that had been the end of my experience with heights that day I would have been happy. But as the saying goes, we had miles to go before we slept, so we took off across Arizona and on to Utah.

Incredible landscape along the way. Northern Arizona and southern Utah have incredible rock formations, hills and mountains and valleys and canyons. There's something amazing around every bend in the road. It's also very sparsely populated, and the few little towns that there are along the way are strange-looking affairs: a random scattering of little houses with almost no organization, as though someone just threw down a dozen or so houses in the middle of the land.

Our stopping point for the day was Cedar City, Utah, and to get there we had to take a twisting mountain pass that -- you guessed it -- freaked me out. This photo doesn't do the landscape justice either. Even the most casual reader of this blog should know by now how that made me feel. But we made it. And I've never been so happy to be inside the room of a Motel 6 in my life.

Or to drink a glass or two of Wild Turkey.

Day 7 - Flagstaff, AZ

Hole in the Ground

Flagstaff, Arizona is situated between two famous geological attractions. To the east, Meteor Crater; to the north, the Grand Canyon.

We came to see both.

And this is where things started getting scary for me.

I'm a Discovery/History/National Geographic/Learning Channel nerd, and have seen more shows on meteors hitting the earth than probably anyone on earth, with the exception of my traveling companion, Jonathan. And nearly every "meteors-have-hit-the-earth-before-and-will-again" show includes a bit about Meteor Crater.

Meteor Crater was formed around 50,000 years ago when a meteor approximately 150 feet across slammed into the earth at some 26,000 miles an hour. And after seeing so many geologists and astronomers wander its impressive rim and talk about its wonders, of course I wanted to see it for myself.

What I didn't think about every time I saw Meteor Crater on television is that I'm afraid of heights. Not just "I don't like heights" afraid, but sweating, trembling, anxiety-attack afraid. And that Meteor Crater is essentially a very big, very deep hole in the ground, and no place for someone with acrophobia.

We took a fair amount of pictures and even some video while we there, and none of them do the crater justice. Especially if walking up to its edge and looking down into its depths makes you feel the least bit dizzy or panicked, like it does me. But this will have to do.

Even in person, the crater doesn't look as large as it truly is. It's 550 feet deep -- deep enough to bring the roof of a 55-story building even with the rim. And the bottom of the crater is large enough to hold 20 football fields. That's big. And really, really scary if you're me.

As part of our tour, we hiked a trail that goes about 1/2 mile around the rim. This picture doesn't show it, but I was actually leaning away from the crater. I was that freaked out by it.

Toward the end of the hike, the group followed a more narrow trail that led into the crater a little bit. It was too much for me, and I had to hang back while the rest of the group went on. And probably made fun of me.

We spent the rest of the day in Flagstaff relaxing and doing laundry and getting ready to see the Grand Canyon the next day. Little did I know, my troubles were just beginning.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Day 6 - Albuquerque, NM to Flagstaff, AZ

Desert Driving

Aside from movies and Roadrunner cartoons, I've never seen the desert. I've always wanted to though, ever since an astrologer told me in 1984 or '85 that I'd be happiest there. (It hasn't happened yet. I've lived in Chicago since 1986.)

But this isn't quite what I was expecting. Yeah, it looks pretty dry and barren, but where are the dramatic rock formations? The incredible colors? Though I'm hardly an expert, this is more like what I would call scrubland than desert.

But if you're making your way from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, this is the desert you get. Seemingly endless miles and miles of it. You start to understand just how big this country is, how awed and courageous the pioneers must have been when they confronted it, and how isolated the modern-day people who live in the few towns along the way must feel.

As we neared Flagstaff, things did start to change. Mountains -- or what passes for them here -- started to appear in the distance. And every so often we'd get an interesting rock formation like this one. You take what you get on this stretch of the road, and we were happy for them.

On the whole, however, there are long and uninterrupted stretches of scrubland/desert. If you see a roadside attraction that looks the least bit interesting -- like this one -- you stop and admire whatever it has to offer. Like we did.

And if that roadside attraction has wooden reproductions of teepees where you can sit Indian style and have your picture taken, all the better. That's Jonathan, my traveling companion, getting into the Southwestern spirit.

It's this unrelieved desert driving that makes Gallup, New Mexico so appealing to the weary traveler, and the El Rancho motel and restaurant such a tempting place to stop.

Built in 1937, the El Rancho was one of the places to stop during Route 66's heyday, and was a frequent host to many movie stars of the time -- a fact the El Rancho is justifiably proud of and still celebrates with many autographed photos of the greats.

The place has been meticulously maintained and in addition to the hotel offers a restaurant, gift store and incredible two-story lobby that looks just like what you'd imagine a "wilderness hotel" lobby would look like. Rough-hewn beams make up the staircase and railings, animal heads and Indian blankets decorate the walls, lodge-like furnishings are everywhere.

We only have one picture of the lobby, and unfortunately it's this one. But you get the idea.

There's only one other major Route 66 stop on the way to Flagstaff: the Jackrabbit Trading Post. When Route 66 was hoppin', it wasn't unusual to see signs for the Jackrabbit for miles and miles before you actually got to it.

In this way, the Jackrabbit is sort of the Route 66 Wall Drug, and by the time you finally get to it and this sign appears on the road, you're pretty much powerless to to do anything other than stop and get a look.

And maybe an embarrassing picture of yourself -- paunch and all -- riding that big fiberglass rabbit out in front of the store. It was Easter Sunday when we drove by, and the Jackrabbit was, not surprisingly, closed. Too bad. We could have used some water and authentic turquoise jewelery and kachina dolls at this point in the trip. We were still quite a ways from Flagstaff.

Day 5 - Elk City, OK to Albuquerque, NM

The Drive-Bys

Things started getting weird as we neared the Texas border.

Erick, Oklahoma is the last town in Oklahoma and a well-known stop along Route 66, mainly because of the Sandhills Curiosity Shop and its owner/operators, The Mediocre Music Makers. Legend has it if you stop by during business hours the MMMs will welcome you to Erick and serenade you with songs. But it wasn't quite eight in the morning when we got there, and the shop was closed and the MMMs were no where to be seen.

Without the MMMs, Erick didn't present itself as an especially friendly place. We got coffee in a convenience store in town, and were greeted by a scowling group of old men in bib jeans and trucker caps, none of it worn ironically.

We saw what remains of the West Winds Motel on the outskirts of Erick, and because I was still charmed by American Ruins at this point in the trip, we stopped to take pictures of it. The place was incredible -- still in relatively good shape, but abandoned. There was a beautiful old car parked in one of the car ports next to a cabin. It was both frozen in time and ravaged by it.

This was the house next door, and that should have been my hint that trouble was on the way. Before long a mean old dog started barking at me, and then a guy came out of the house and yelled at me for being on his property. I believe a comment was made about "you people and your damn pictures." I quickly apologized and we left Erick, foolishly hoping that Texas would be better.

Shamrock is just over the state line, and we were greeted there by another snarling, barking dog. This one ran out onto the highway and nearly lost his life under the tires of my PT Cruiser. A typical Texas welcome, I suppose.

Shamrock is home to the U Drop Inn, another one of Route 66's legendary stops. The Art Deco building housed a gas station and a restaurant. It was recently refurbished and Shamrock did a great job of it, but the place seemed to be abandoned despite that. Maybe it's waiting for the busy season. Or maybe the rehab didn't do the trick after all.

Here's a view of the diner. Can you believe this was taken from outside, through a window? We would have gladly had breakfast here, but had to settle for the McDonald's on the other side of town. There were many scowling men in bib jeans and trucker hats there, too. By the time I finished up by McSkillet Burrito, we were definitely feeling unwelcome, and sorry that we still had to drive through the rest of Texas.

We decided to get through Texas as quickly as possible, seeing as how the state didn't seem to be welcoming us that warmly and that I've never been a fan of the state. They say everything is big in Texas, and I believe that includes the jerks as well.

Amarillo has two well-known Route 66 stops, the Big Texan steakhouse and the Cadillac Ranch. I was looking forward to the Big Texan, because I was hungry for a steak, but we couldn't find it. And the Cadillac Ranch (where a line of old Cadillacs have been half-buried in the ground) was on the other side of the highway. But we did find this one great old sign. I'm sure Amarillo has many other charming sights, but we didn't see them.

Adrian, Texas is one of two places along Route 66 that boast of being the midpoint between Chicago and Los Angeles. I can't remember what the first one is called, but the second (as you travel west) is in Adrian. The Midpoint Cafe is famous for its "ugly crust" pies, and we stopped there for a piece. The pie was good enough, but the crust was not particularly ugly. No one explained it to me and I wasn't in the mood to ask.

There's a sign outside the cafe showing the miles to Los Angeles and Chicago. I'm sure many people get their picture taken next to it, just like I did. It's the law.

Once we left Adrian, the landscape started to change. I mean, really change. I've never been to the American Southwest and all along I'd been looking forward to seeing the desert. All through Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas things didn't seem that different. Then, suddenly, everything did seem different.

Unfortunately, I do not have pictures of this.

Tucumcari, New Mexico is a charming little town with a lot of Route 66 lore to it. The Tepee Curio Shop is one famous place on the way, and if you're looking for sterling silver and turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls, serapes and Route 66 shot glasses sold with an air of indifference, this is your place.

Tucumcari is also home to many old Route 66 motels -- most of them, sadly, closed up -- and one that's still managing to make a go of it.

The Blue Swallow not only looks good from the street, it's cute when you get close up, too, something of a rarity for some of these places. I wish we'd been situated better in our trip so that we could have stopped and stayed the night here. The owners seem like nice people who get a kick out of maintaining an important piece of Route 66 history and sharing it with like-minded travelers. But the road called. We wanted to get to Albuquerque, New Mexico before the day was done, and so, after a fair amount of himming and hawing, we left Tucumcari and continued our drive west. Still, leaving it behind felt like a betrayal of everything we made the trip for.

We've tried to follow Route 66 as much as possible during this trip, but it can sometimes be a frustrating experience. The road officially no longer exists, though each state has made varying efforts to keep it signed for adventurous travelers like us. Still, there are times when things simply stop and you find yourself some place like this, forced to backtrack and, more often than you'd like, follow the Interstate for a while.

One of the strangest things we saw on this trip happened somewhere between Tucumcari and Albuquerque. We were driving along the Interstate when we saw something that looked from the rear like a Chicago Transit Authority bus. A few moments later we were shocked to find out that it actually was CTA bus. What is was doing here we have no idea. (But I'm putting in a call to the CTA to find out exactly what was going on.) Though people often misuse the word "surreal," this is one occasion when the word fits. This is exactly the same type of bus Chicagoans see trundling up and down the streets of Chicago, usually at a snail's pace and packed with unhappy commuters. To see it empty and moving at 65 miles an hour, in the middle of the New Mexico desert, was nothing short of bizarre.

Hours later we found ourselves in Albuquerque, which was definitely one of the most attractive cities we've seen on the Route. We could have spent days here and still not seen and appreciated it all.

Unfortunately, by the time we got here we were tired and cranky and needed to find a hotel and weren't in the mood to stop and take any photos regardless of how great this sign was or how charming that little motel appeared. This is a real shame, because Albuquerque was packed with great old signs and charming little motels and diners and all manner of other attractions.

I admit, cooler heads should have prevailed. I should have put on the brakes and taken more photos, and if I had it to do over again we would have. But we didn't. My bad. Another regret for something missed along a road that could be filled with them. There's that much stuff to see.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Day 4 - Oklahoma City, OK to Elk City, OK

The Big Slow Down

Our best intentions to make some good time and distance today weren't good enough. I don't know how far we got in terms of miles, but we never managed to leave the state of Oklahoma.

We started in Oklahoma City, where I wanted to see the memorial to the Murrah Federal Building bombing. I'd heard that this was a particularly sensitive and well thought-out memorial and wasn't disappointed by what we saw.

The memorial space is flanked by two large gates. One with the time of 9:01 on it, the other with 9:03. This is because the bomb went off at 9:02, so in effect, the entire installation memorializes that moment in time.

Inside, the memorial is laid out to reflect what was present at the site prior to the destruction. So the reflecting pool indicates where Fifth Street used to run, and the field of empty chairs occupies the area where the Alfred P. Murrah building used to stand.

All in all, the memorial is very thoughtful. Perhaps a little too much so, because you soon start to realize that everything in the memorial is symbolic of something else: an original wall from the building represents the survivors, an orchard represents those who came to the rescue. There's even a section that represents everyone else -- that's actually what the brochure says. Still, it's an incredibly well put-together memorial, and worth a visit if you happen to find yourself in Oklahoma City.

There are Route 66 museums along the way -- boy are there -- and if you're anything like us you can't help but stop at one or two. This one is in Clinton, Oklahoma. It's staffed by a trio of smiling and helpful older women whose hair is "set" and will happily tell you to take all the photos you want. We did. The admission price is fair -- about $3 I think -- and the gift shop is well stocked to satisfy all your Route 66 memorabilia needs.

This is a good indication of what awaits the curious visitor inside. Thank goodness someone has saved and is displaying some of these items, because otherwise all we'd have left of them are photos.

Just a few miles down the road (or maybe it was a couple hundred, it's hard to remember) in Elk City, Oklahoma is another Route 66 museum. This one is much bigger, and incorporates a series of four museums and a large "village" of historical buildings. You can't miss it, because the sign is enormous.

We only toured the village -- partly because we were museumed out and partly because it was free. (Also, because the woman who was in charge wasn't very friendly, didn't do a very good job of explaining what was in the different museums, and seemed to be having a personal crisis on the other end of her cell phone.) It's a charming little complex, complete with a gas station, a grocery, lawyer's and doctor's offices, a schoolhouse, a church, a barbershop, a rooming house and -- for no reason we could determine -- a disturbing number of undertakers.

Here's a look inside one of the undertakers' offices. This is just one of many mannequins that were on display, and all were as lifeless and creepy as this one. My advice is simple here: get rid of them. This is supposed to be a ghost town, not a zombie metropolis.

We spent the night in Elk City, at a place called the Red Carpet Inn. It was cheap in every aspect of the word, and a fair number of the guests were full-time residents, judging from the number of cats we saw looking out from the rooms' windows at the empty pool and courtyard in the center. We stayed in our room, sprayed the place with Febreze, and hoped for the best.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day 3 - Joplin, MO to Oklahoma City, OK

American Ruins

Mom and pop businesses used to thrive on Route 66. Most of them have disappeared, but a lucky few have only deteriorated. This is, for me, part of Route 66's appeal. But it can get a little creepy and depressing, as it did today.

We started with this lovely piece of faded neon. I miss the time when a mobile home park was worthy of a stylish and attention-getting sign like this one. It would have made living in a trailer seem somehow very modern.

This is Commerce, Oklahoma, birthplace of Micky Mantle, and this is how a lot of small towns on Route 66 look: like you are driving into The Last Picture Show.

This is the Ku-Ku in Miami, Oklahoma. The restaurant is just as cool as the sign. I have to think that the name has nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan, because I had a delicious lunch there and the people were kind.

Time for old signs. That's me beneath. There are still cabins behind the main building, and the woman who lived there said she wished she had a dollar for everyone who stopped to take a picture of the sign. Like a lot of people we've met, it looked like she could use the money.

We found this place on the other side of town, and it was in much worse shape. There were only three little white brick cabins still standing. The woman across the street was pretending like she was washing her windows, but what she was really doing was watching the out-of-towners take photos of the eyesore right outside her front door.

This is one of the cabins. They're filled with old tires and furniture and junk. That's me outside, looking like I've just spent a restful evening at the Avon Motel. It may not look like much, but the price was right!

Someplace in the middle of nowhere we found this. The sign is in incredibly good shape -- porcelain enamel is a wondrous material. The sign looks particularly good in light of how decrepit the rest of the place was.

This is the giant blue whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma. I guess this place used to be a popular swimming hole once upon a time, but no more. Now the blue whale will just scratch your sunglasses.

This is Pops, in Arcadia, Oklahoma. That's a giant pop bottle with a straw poking out of the top on the left. It lights up at night, and I'm sorry there isn't a picture of that because I bet it's pretty sharp. Pops is just down the road from the famous round barn. It's one of the few new places along Route 66 and a sign of new life and interest in the old road. It's amazing, with a brilliant but simple gimmick: they offer over 500 kinds of soda pop to go with your hamburger, grilled cheese, fries and pie. Guess what -- there's also a gift shop. Come one, come all!

After so much decay, it was refreshing to find a place so fresh and contemporary. I couldn't not visit.

It's incredibly modern inside. I loved it. We would have eaten there but it was swamped, which is a great thing. Someone has figured out how to make money off of Route 66 again. I wish them luck.