Sleep was fitful on Thursday night. I kept waking up, walking over to my phone to check the time (no outlet next to the bed) only to see it had been an hour, maybe an hour and a half, since I’d last performed the same ritual. Finally, at 4:55 AM (five minutes before my alarm) I woke up for good. Super early, yes, but the tour started at 8:00 AM sharp out near the Painted Desert in Arizona. I wanted to make sure I could make the drive from Gallup, NM in time while also driving the bits-and-pieces of the Route I missed the day before.
The Tour! It’s the icing on the cake. It was because of this tour, happening in conjunction with a Route 66 Festival in Holbrook, that my entire trip took shape. Back in March, I met many of Route 66 roadies when I went to a dual event in Missouri. One of them, a man named Mike Ward, drove all the way up there from Arizona abd casually mentioned a tour that had been offered by the National Park Service at the Painted Desert last August. It showcased a few bypassed Route 66 sections that were now completely gone or impossible to reach for your everyday traveler. When I showed GREAT interest, he told me a second tour would be happening this summer. That is why I found myself sitting in a dirt lot near the Painted Desert National Park at 6:30 AM.
Remember when I wrote that I’ve been having some issues with time management? Yeah, the fact that New Mexico is an hour AHEAD of Arizona this time of year totally escaped my brain. I arrived super early, even though my drive included watching the sunrise at the Cliff Dwelling Trading Post (built for the 1951 movie ‘Ace in the Hole’ with Kirk Douglas), a couple of 1930s bridges on old alignments of the road, and ANOTHER abandoned trading post that advertised itself as the “Home of ‘F’ Troop”. Still, being an hour and a half early, it wasn’t long before other folks started showing up. I introduced myself as people arrived. Although Mike ended up being the only person on the tour I’d met previously, by the end of the day I knew everyone. A couple of people already knew me from the various Facebook Groups I post to and my blog! That was super cool.
All told, there was about 30 of us on a bus that had been borrowed from the local high school. We had several Park Rangers as guides, the main one being a man named Bill Parker. He has a TON of knowledge that he was able to share at all of the sites we visited, gained through personal research, stories from locals, and other sources. Many Route 66 fans know of the Painted Desert Trading Post, which sits alone on an overgrown section of the road in the middle of, well, nothingness. But, there were actually several tourist stops nearby that ALL took advantage of the Painted Desert as a namesake. In fact, including the most famous one mentioned above, we looked at a total of SIX sites that all wanted to be THE place for tourists to stop at the Painted Desert. It’s just that the PDTP is the only one left standing.
Due to the creation of the Interstate Highway System and other alignment changes, Route 66 was forever truncated in and around the Painted Desert National Park. Most of the former roadside stops are all not much more than hidden rocky foundations, covered with scattered human artifacts left to rust in the desert sun. At one point, we hiked through the park itself (scrub brush and prickly bushes!) to where the original Route 66 roadbed once ran. It would’ve been impossible to find without Ranger Bill, but once you’re on it you could see where the pavement once ran thanks to the way the landscape was shaped. Back in those days, littering wasn’t considered a big deal; Ranger Bill said he had photos from when the road was still in use where the bar ditches on either side were PILED with trash as far as the eye could see. On our walk, I found old cans, car parts, bottles, and even a chrome door handle. Much like the petrified wood that exists throughout the park, you could pick stuff up but you had to put it back.
As we toured, Bill told us all about the battles the Park Service had with the tourist shop owners, essentially competing for visitors as automobile travel become commonplace. He had stories about how WWII changed things (nobody traveled due to gas rationing and the Park ran on a skeleton crew) and how some parts of the old posts were literally buried underneath I-40. Around one of the old trading post foundations was a cache of over 100 bottlecaps; evidently, the folks that ran it just dumped them out the back window of the business. And this is in full view of the magnificent vista of the Painted Desert! It’s hard to wrap my mind around our culture having so little regard for such a beautiful place.
Finally, we drove out to our last stop on a still-intact bit of Old Route 66: the still-standing (barely) Painted Desert Trading Post. It’s been my most desired site to photograph ever since I first learned about it, years ago. It actually exists on private land adjacent to the Painted Desert park area, and Ranger Bill received permission to bring a tour group out. As a bonus, we also got to see the Dead Wash concrete bridge. They used some old cars to help with erosion control at some point and the husks of those vehicles are still rusting in the sand today. The Trading Post itself is something of a legend within the Route 66 community. It was built sometime in the 1940s (accounts vary) and was abandoned in 1956. When it was still open, an airplane made an emergency landing on Route 66 right in front of the Post, gassed up, and flew off again. It’s amazing that the building is still standing; foundation problems, vandalism, and cattle grazing nearby have caused continuing deterioration. I know one day I’ll read about it collapsing, and that will be that. But today, the weather was perfect, and I got to cross yet another item off of my Route 66 bucket list.
We wrapped just after 2:00 PM, a little later than expected but I didn’t complain one bit. I joined my friends (both new and old) for lunch before getting settled in my motel and touring the town. There are some good neon signs in Holbrook and a fair amount of Route-focused business, including one of two Wigwam Motels that still exist. Dinner consisted of a larger group of roadies, including noted travel author Jim Hinkley, which was followed by a few good hours of chatting and swapping stories. Jim is hilarious, by the way, and full of amazing stories. I told him I’d like to come visit him in Kingman some time, get in the passenger seat of his car, and just say, “Okay, go wherever you want!” I was over the moon happy with my day. I had the opportunity to see some amazing things, meet some wonderful people, and end it with learning and laughing.