Summer of 2000 II

As I was climbing back into the van, a sudden wind and rainstorm came roaring through which was highly unusual for that region. It was pitch-rain outside, so I decided to wait it out and dialed in to my favorite local AM station KOB hoping to get some weather news. Lo and behold if there wasn’t a report of a hailstorm with golf ball-size pellets had just ripped through Moriarty (about 40 miles to the east). I had dodged the bullet having just passed through the town an hour earlier thus just avoiding a windshield-shattering, hood-denting nightmare. I could only think, “Whew! That was one close call”. The stars must have been lined up right.

After the sudden squall had subsided, I breezed through town on I-40 and headed west up Nine Mile Hill where I could pan most of Bernalillo County below in the outside mirror. A serendipitous sunset of reds and oranges emerged over the distant New Mexico mountains as I pulled off to what I thought would be an overnight at a rest area. About a half-mile up the pike I could make out a flashing neon marquee with giant letters reading: “Sun City Casino”. The sign was like a magnet pulling me up the interstate towards the “Den of Inequity” sitting so conspicuously in the Arizona outback. I found a comfortable space in the casino parking lot and thought, “This was perfect. I could spend the night here under the guise of gambling all night”. I sat inside Ol’ Blue for a while observing a number of shabbily clothed patrons piling out of ramshackle pickups. I thought, “This was obviously not Harrah’s at Lake Tahoe.”

I finally ventured inside and noticed that I was one of maybe a dozen Caucasians among hundreds of Native Americans. There was an aura of tawdriness about the place, which included simulated adobe walls (I could thump them with my finger and get a hollow sound meaning it was just plaster on lath) and cheap shag carpeting throughout the gambling area. Considering all that, I pulled a few slots with minimal deposits cautiously thinking how in the wide world of gambling could that casino possibly pay off any winnings. I eventually retreated to Ol’ Blue and thought about how those crass casino owners could erect an avaricious gaming house in the midst of several Navajo Reservations when it was obvious that the last people who should be gambling were indigent Native Americans. Before retiring, I closed all the curtains to shield out the pervasive glare from the parking lot security lights. I reposed in my little “cave” feeling very safe and secure.

For some reason, pulling out of a casino parking lot in the early morning light was somewhat depressing because I had always considered casinos being more conducive to after dark activity. In short, seeing patrons stroll into a casino at the absurd hour of 8 A.M. just didn’t ring right with me. Just west of Grants, I veered onto old Route 66 for a nostalgic trip down a two-lane memory road paralleling the BNSF tracks. The only thing missing were the long vanished Burma Shave signs. The old highway took me right into Gallup where I cruised Main Street with its unpretentious Spartan streetscape that was so unlike the ubiquitous showy adobe structures in towns like Santa Fe and Taos that were saturated with antique shops and art galleries. Gallup was obviously a no-nonsense working class town and, needless to say, it was one of my favorite towns in New Mexico.

I pulled into the parking lot in front of the historic El Rancho Inn, a rambling two-story wood structure built circa 1930. From a previous visit years earlier, I  had discovered that the Inn had been a home base (back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s) for a multitude of movie stars who were filming on location in nearby Arizona’s Monument Valley in western classics such as Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache. It was a sure bet that John Wayne commanded the best suite in the El Rancho. Gosh, those must have been the days! The Inn sat directly across the street from the old Santa Fe Depot that was adjacent to a huge freight yard replete with coal cars and flatbed container cars.

Just west of town I had to merge with I-40 as it engulfed Route 66. All of a sudden I felt sorry for those hurrying and scurrying motorists who bypassed part of Americana for the sake of gaining a few precious minutes of travel time. I crossed the state line (the term “border”, often used in error, should be reserved only for crossing from one country to another) into Arizona chasing BNSF freights across a barren landscape. I stopped in Winslow for gas for a reasonable $1.48 a gallon and noticed the odometer read 184,022, which meant I had driven exactly 900 miles so far. For the next 50 miles I gradually climbed another 1,000 feet through an amazing transition from sagebrush to verdant evergreen forests. Off in the distance I could make out the symmetrical cone of Mt. Humphrey standing at 12,633 feet, the highest point in Arizona.

I split off at another Historic Route 66 exit into Flagstaff (elev. 6910 ft.) with my first priority being to locate a bicycle shop. It seemed that the spare tire shuttle had loosened itself to where the bike was slowly disappearing in my rearview mirror – not at all a good sign. I easily found Cycle World where unfortunately there were a number of customers ahead of me, so I asked one of them for assistance. A young man obliged and in no time we had the shuttle frame in a tight upright position. I thanked Bill for his help and found out he was a student at the town’s Northern Arizona U. and had lived in Flagstaff all his life. I said to him, “You are one lucky dude having grown up here. I’ve been through here a bunch of times and have fallen in lust with this town. If I ever wanted to move, it would be to Flagstaff.” His nod and smile assured me that I would not regret the move.

I made my usual stop at the beautifully preserved railroad depot and watched the BNSF freights thunder through at amazing five to ten-minute intervals. I met a middle age Illinois couple on the station platform. As it turned out, they were train spotters (as much as I was) and lived in a rural town just west of Chicago barely 50 yards from the Union Pacific main line. I had to say, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re living in paradise.” I wished them a safe trip back and cruised through town as far as I could on Route 66 until finally having to merge with I-40. It was getting close to sundown so I was ready for a roadside overnight. I passed up a rather dull uninviting rest area in hopes of finding a slightly more adventurous locale. I instinctively exited at U.S. 89 that seemed to head into dense forestland. I quickly turned off on a dirt road adjacent to the railroad tracks and found a spot under a cluster of pines – it was perfect! I chowed down on a “Whopper” from a Burger King in Flagstaff and then it was off to dreamland to the somnambulate sounds of whirling steel wheels on steel rails. A myriad of white-on-black celestial specks glistened down through the overhead skylight. It sure as heck beat trying to fall asleep next to the drone of semis plowing along on the interstate.