Monday, March 24, 2008

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.

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