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Getting My Kicks on Route 66

I left the Canyon de Chelly campground around 8 a.m. on a beautiful and sunny morning.  My first stop that day was at the Hubbell Trading Post, a National Historic Site about an hour away managed by the National Park Service.  I'd driven by the Hubbell Trading Post several times during my previous trips through northeastern Arizona but had never stopped.  This time, though, I wanted to see it, so I pulled into the Visitor Center, talked to a Navajo park ranger for about a half-hour, walked around the trading post and shot some pictures.  The trading post is still actively used today and is pretty interesting it's definitely worth a stop.  After an hour, I hopped back in my truck and hit the highway.



Here's Nat King Cole singing Get Your Kicks on Route 66.


I was heading for what is probably the most commonly misspelled city in the U.S., the quirky town of Albuquerque.  I strolled around the Old Town area there, an interesting part of town, for about an hour.  I had never spent much time in Albuquerque during my previous trips around America, but from what I saw, I thought it was a pretty nice place.  Some may disagree but I think Albuquerque is much more pleasant than Santa Fe, which is a few hours north and a city that's so super-saturated with adobe red architecture that it'll make you puke.  Be careful, though, because according to Santa Fe's City Code, you can puke there only in a deep shade of adobe red.  Jeez, even the McDonald's in Santa Fe has the red adobe motif.  It's just crazy.


Above:  Remember drive-ins?  Abandoned restaurants like this, from the 1950s and 1960s, dot the entire length of Route 66, including here in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

After visiting Old Town, I stopped by my company's Albuquerque office and finally met several folks, including Toni and Hunter, whom I've worked with over the phone during the past year.  Then I left Albuq... whatever... and headed east that afternoon across New Mexico, following the new Interstate 40 and the old U.S. Route 66.


Finished in 1926, U.S. 66 was the first paved highway across America.  It extended 2,500 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles and passed through hundreds of small towns in between.  From the late 1920s until the early 1960s, hundreds of drive-ins, gas stations, and, best of all, weird roadside attractions sprung up along Route 66.  I still have vague memories of traveling on Route 66 with my family when I was little during our summer road trips across the country.  However, when the Interstate Highway system was completed in the mid-1960s a system that was designed to whisk travelers from one major city to another with speed and efficiency many of the businesses and most of the weird roadside attractions along Route 66 folded up. 


I generally don't like Interstate freeways because they provide a bland view of America, and I usually avoid them if I can.  I much prefer two-lane highways, including the old Route 66, which I think are much more interesting.  Technically, Route 66 doesn't exist anymore, having been officially decommissioned in 1985, but a lot of the older cities along its route, like Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Seligman, Arizona, still have some of the Route 66 charm.  I walked around Tucumcari for about an hour and poked my head into lots of shops and closed-up drive-in restaurants and chatted with some of the locals.  Route 66 may be gone, but for a short while there in Tucumcari, I felt like I was right back in the 1950s.


A few hours later, as dusk was falling, I pulled into Amarillo, Texas and got a funky motel room on old Route 66.  The motel room, I'm sure, had plenty of stories to tell if it could've talked.  Good thing it couldn't. 


Above:  Here's the famous "Big Texan" restaurant in Amarillo.  If you can eat the 72-ounce steak in 60 minutes, it's free.

Amarillo means "yellow" in Spanish, so it's supposed to be pronounced "ama-REE-yo."  But this being Texas, people here say "ama-RILLO."  There are a few sites of interest here, including the Cadillac Ranch just west of town, where a fellow planted several old Cadillacs into the ground many years ago, apparently hoping they would grow.  But the biggest tourist attraction in Amarillo is now get this the world's largest helium factory.  No, I'm not making this up.  As I drove into Amarillo that evening, I wondered if they let you inhale helium on the tour (like wineries that let you sample the wine) so you can talk like Donald Duck.  Probably not, I figured, liability and all.


I thought the most interesting thing in Amarillo, though, was the Big Texan restaurant.  If you can eat a 72-ounce steak, baked potato, salad, roll, and shrimp cocktail here in 60 minutes, it's free.  About a quarter of those who try it succeed.  The rest fork over $56 and then promptly throw up.  I used to like gorging myself, years ago.  A few years ago, in fact, on the morning of a Super Bowl Sunday, I bought 10 McDonald's cheeseburgers.  They were on sale that week for only 49 cents each, so I figured I'd eat a couple cheeseburgers while watching the game and then put the rest in the refrigerator for later that week.  Shortly after kickoff, I ate one.  Then another.  Then another.  And after just forty seven minutes I had eaten all 10 cheeseburgers.  Then I started feeling a little weird (as in "light-headed" weird, not "sick to my stomach" weird).  That was, understandably, the last time I tried gorging myself stupid.  It was not, shall we say, a "Happy Meal."


But getting back to Amarillo, the next morning I packed up my things in the funky Route 66 motel room and hit the road.  On my way out of town, I stopped at the Cadillac Ranch and drove by the Big Texan restaurant.  The Big Texan was interesting, especially with the 20-foot Hereford fiberglass cow quietly standing guard outside.  However, with memories of those 10 McDonald's cheeseburgers dancing in my head, I decided not to try eating a six-pound steak for breakfast.  I just took a picture of the cow, instead.



Above left:  This is the Continental Divide on Interstate 40 in New Mexico.  From this point on, all waters head east as will my truck for the next several weeks.

Above center:  After working with the Parsons Brinckerhoff folks in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the past year over the phone, I stopped by their office and finally got to meet them. 

Above right:  The fountain in Old Town, Albuquerque. 



Above left:  Inside a Route 66 curio store in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Above center:  An abandoned drive-in restaurant in Tucumcari.  They went out of business, apparently because they served... snakes?

Above right:  I was planning to camp near Amarillo, Texas, but after driving past funky Route 66 motels all day I decided to stay in one.  This is the Bronco Motel in Amarillo.  It was definitely funky.  Perhaps a little too funky!



Above left:  Hey, it's Del's Restaurant!  It must be a great place, huh?

Above right:  Several years ago, an Amarillo businessman buried 10 Cadillacs on his wheat field west of town as a tribute to his favorite automobile, thus creating the Cadillac Ranch (and inspiring a song).  There are no signs or markers, but it's plainly visible from Interstate 40 and you can walk out to it as, obviously, some graffiti artists have done.

Across Texas in a Single Day

I left Amarillo around 9 a.m. and for the next several hours drove a LONG way across the flat plains of Texas, heading to Austin.  After working as a ranger in the Colorado Rockies for six years (where I saw almost nothing but Texans every summer) and from my previous drives across Texas, I've dealt with literally thousands of flag-toting Texans over the years.  From that, I've learned a few things about the singularly unique state of Texas and the singularly unique breed known as "Texans."


Texans, including Lyle Lovett, can be mighty proud of their Stetsons. Here he is singing Don't Touch My Hat.


One thing I've learned from my travels across Texas is that it's a HUGE state, so the idea of driving from Amarillo, in West Texas, to Austin, on the opposite side of the state, in a single day would be ludicrous to most sane travelers.  But then, who said I was sane?  Besides, some delicious spaghetti was waiting for me that evening in Austin.  Another thing I've learned is that Texans are mighty proud to be from Texas, in an friendly-but-arrogant sort of way.  In fact, they feel sorry for anyone not lucky enough to be born in Texas.  After hearing my Midwestern accent, they often give me a sympathetic look that says, "Gee, you're not from around here, are you?"


Something else I've learned is that guys in West Texas should never wear shorts in the summer only jeans or else they'll get whistled at.  I learned this lesson the hard way one hot summer afternoon back in 1995.  Wearing shorts is O.K. in New Mexico and in East Texas, apparently, but here in West Texas, by gum, men are MEN (and, as they say, the sheep are nervous).  And so, trying to fit in with the locals, I was wearing my Lee jeans that wickedly hot day, figuring that the shorts could wait until I got to Louisiana.


Above:  Crossing into Oklahoma, my truck's 48th state.  Alaska and Hawaii are next.

As I drove across Texas that hot and sunny afternoon, I decided to make a short detour into Oklahoma since, amazingly enough, it's the only state in the Lower 48 that my 16-year old truck had never been to.  I've been to Oklahoma a few times from early camping trips with my family but my 1985 Toyota pickup truck never has.  I'm not sure why I've been avoiding Oklahoma all these years, but I figured that I'd get there "Sooner" or later (get it?)  After spending a few hours driving across Oklahoma, I crossed back into Texas near Wichita Falls.


The thermometer hit 95 as I drove through Fort Worth at rush hour.  From there I turned south onto Interstate 35 and a few hours later I reached Austin, the capital of Texas and the home of George Bush, Dell Computers, great country music and the world's best spaghetti sauce.



Above left:  A motel in West Texas that, admittedly, isn't the Hilton.

Above center:  Ooooooooklahoma... where the wind (and the dust) comes sweeping down the plain.

Above right:  Back in Texas, where oil is BIG.  Of course, everything is big in Texas.  And the bigger the better.



Above left:  Taking a break while driving across the Texas plains.  Yes, I was wearing jeans, not shorts.

Above right:  Interstate 35 in Fort Worth.  Next stop:  Austin.

Austin City Limits

Austin, Texas is a great town.  It's bustling, vibrant, tolerant and open-minded   or about as open-minded as Texas gets, I should say.  And to top it off, Austin is the undisputed capital of America's country-folk music scene, including the hometown of my favorite folk singer, Nanci Griffith.  It's mind-boggling to think of how much great music has oozed out of the countless bars, honky tonks, and nightclubs in this city.


Here's Austin's queen of folk music, Nanci Griffith, singing Across The Great Divide.  This is from her grammy-winning album, "Other Voices, Other Rooms."


I spent the next four days in Austin visiting my friends, Ace and Joan, and their kids.  Ace (his real name is Carl but no one calls him that) was a colleague of my dad's a long time ago at Michigan State University and I've known him and his family literally my entire life.  I was a bit road-weary and it was nice to spend time visiting them in Austin, getting caught up on things and being treated to some great cooking.  Ace and Joan are terrific, as are their kids, Julie, Lou, and Carol, whom I've known for as long as I can remember.


The last time I visited Austin, six years ago, Julie was kind enough to take me around the city.  During our tour she showed me the University of Texas tower where, back in 1966, a deranged guy armed with several high-powered rifles barricaded himself and proceeded to shoot over a dozen innocent UT students on the grounds far below.  God Bless Texas, where it's easier to buy an assault rifle than, say, a beer (as Jenna Bush can tell you). 


Above:  Having a steak dinner in Austin.  Fortunately, these were smaller than those 72-ounce slabs they serve at the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo.  L-to-R:  Joan, Lou, Mike (grandson), Ace, Julie.  

During Julie's tour of Austin back in 1995, she also showed me where they filmed the PBS music show "Austin City Limits," which I was disappointed to learn was on the top floor of a building in downtown Austin and not somewhere out in the Texas Hill Country.  These days, when Julie's not giving tours of Austin to friends from out of town, she spends a lot of her time writing books.  


Lou, Julie's younger brother, is on the Austin SWAT team but modestly downplays his job in a way that cracks me up.  He has an incredibly fascinating job but you have to drag stories out of him.  After I repeatedly asked him about a tense hostage stand-off that had occurred earlier in the day, Lou, relaxing on the couch and still dressed in his black SWAT shirt and black combat boots, finally said in a nonchalant manner, "It really wasn't that interesting.  I just busted down the door, 'cuffed the guy, and brought him in."  Yeah, no big deal.


Ace is now retired from teaching and in his spare time, he loves to cook authentic Italian spaghetti sauce for visitors like me.  His mother, an Italian from "the old country," learned the recipe from her mother, and so on back for generations.  Ace cooked up some of his famous spaghetti sauce for me, which we ate on my first night in Austin.  Don't tell him this, but that was the real reason I wanted to see him again.  I've posted the recipe here:  Ace's Spaghetti Sauce.


The most memorable incident during my four days in Austin happened one afternoon when Ace, who had started cooking some steaks on their old gas grill, reached down to adjust the propane canister and WHOOSH!  Flames shot skyward almost toasting Ace, who escaped with only some singed eyebrows, a reddened scalp, and an embarrassed smirk.  Needless to say, we all got quite a scare except for Ace who downplayed it.  But then Ace was at Anzio, one of the nastiest battles during World War II, and he downplays that, too. 


Julie, bless her heart, went out to Home Depot the next day and bought her parents a brand-new gas grill for their 46th wedding anniversary.  And a better or more timely gift there couldn't have been.



Above left:  That's Lou, the Easy Rider SWAT guy on his Harley-Davidson.  He won this little gem recently in a raffle.

Above center:  Driving around Austin with Julie, in search of a new grill.

Above right:  Julie at "The Best Little Warehouse In Texas" (also known as Home Depot) with a hefty present for her folks.  But, umm, how do we get this thing back home?



Above left:  Happy anniversary, Ace and Joan!  Note the fire extinguisher in the foreground.  Julie obviously had thought of everything.  

Above right:  Here's Ace dishing up some of his famous spaghetti.  Ace is an authentic Italian, and his authentic Italian spaghetti sauce is absolutely the best I've ever had.  I posted his recipe at Ace's Spaghetti Sauce.



Above left:  Ace and Joan cutting their 46th wedding anniversary cake.  

Above right:  Wishing you another wonderful 46 years together!



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