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.

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