Don’t call it Route 66. Call it “Historic Route 66.” That is what it says on thousands of signs like tombstones in hundreds of lingering little towns. Route 66 died right after Vietnam.
Or, if you prefer, you can call it the “Mother Road.” You know like, “meet me at the corner of Mother Road and Apple Pie Lane.” All the best writers call it “The Mother Road.”
And probably, at least half of them know that it is the road called mother because John Steinbeck called it that in Chapter 12 of The Grapes of Wrath. Which is probably a higher percentage of the American brain trust than can tell you which photograph is John Steinbeck and which is Captain Kangaroo.
You have to actually go to the trouble of finding and picking up and flipping through a copy of Steinbeck’s best known book to discover that a comma after “mother road,” he called this ribbon of asphalt “the road of flight.” In fact, The Grapes of Wrath isn’t even a travel book at all. And, there is not a single winery in it.
The Golden Past
People in these towns that line the road sell nostalgia. And, the nostalgia that sells is for the brief golden age between Victory over Japan and Humiliation in Vietnam. The road people want to buy is the Bobby Troup, Nat King Cole “Route 66;” the CBS television series Route 66; the Easy Rider Route 66.
“If you ever plan to motor west, Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six.” You can get your kicks any way you want-forties, fifties or sixties style.
Steinbeck understood that all the best trips move through space and memory and continue “long after movement in time and space have ceased.” I have noticed this for awhile. Maybe you have, too.
Interesting Places To Visit
I cannot pass a particular spot on the 105 Freeway in el lay without remembering the day when that road was brand new and a cement truck lost a wheel right in front of me. I can’t pass by Two Arrows without remembering the time my bike died there. I can’t ride into Dodge City without looking for “Doc Holliday’s Liquors.” If I am in Saint Joe I always ride past an old Pony Express Sign down by the Missouri.
There used to be a place called Toad Hop on the old road across the Wabash from Terre Haute where I split a quart of rye with another guy one night. We just demolished that liquor until we both fell down on our backs in an empty lot. And then we laughed and laughed at a sky full of stars. That was the first time I ever saw the Milky Way. I was not sure for a year if what I saw was the universe or the liquor. That other guy is dead. But Toad Hop will not be gone until I am gone.
I ain’t much except where I have been. And, America ain’t so much these days either. But we were. We were something. And, what we were will not be gone until I am gone either.
Imaginary Riding Companions
Which is how it happens to be that one early autumn day I am simultaneously riding in the new and improved millennium and on the ghost of the Easy Rider Route 66. I get off the new road in Seligman. Then the signs say I am on old 66. So then it is just me and Wyatt and Billy.
When we stop for gas Wyatt climbs off that red, white and blue Pan of his and he asks, “You ever want to be somebody else?”
And Billy pushes his stupid hat back onto the top of his head and he explains to the nosy stranger-the stranger who wonders why one of us is talking to himself-“You know who this is, man? This is Captain America.”
I know. I really do. Some days I wonder myself how long it is going to be before they catch me and lock me up and just throw away the key.
On the other hand, in fairness to me, it is not just me who is crazy. I am pretty sure that about 75 percent of the people you will meet on a Harley-Davidson lean toward crazy. And, when I look from where I stand I see proof.
It is late in the season and I haven’t been in Seligman long enough to convince the gas pump to accept my credit card when I see two more Harleys putt down this street. I have ridden most of this old road and I ride long stretches of it multiple times a year. So I know that from early spring until late fall much of our tribe gets on their motorcycles and runs the length of Historic Route 66, from Michigan Avenue to the Santa Monica Pier, chasing after or running from something that the rational people cannot see.
At least a couple of dozen times every summer I try to give crazy men from exotic places like Canada, Europe and New Jersey the benefit of my long, broad experience and most of the time, I know, they don’t listen to me because one or both of us is crazy and because they have to see for themselves..
To ride Historic Route 66 is to take a ride on a time machine. As to handle an old revolver with notches on one of the grips is to feel the thrill of fighting a dead man. As to open up an ancient book and stick your nose between the pages is to sit in a room in front of a fire that went cold long before your great-grandfather was born.
The Route 66 Business
A man can make a living out of old guns and books and “Historic Route 66.” From the gas pump I can see the “Historic Route 66 General Store, RV Campground and Fast Food Snack Bar.” It is right next to the place that sells Buffalo Burgers. There is a genuine, rusting, antique fire truck from the days when this was still a real road. And, of course, you can’t miss the buffalo statue and the teepees because what kind of a western town would this be without a buffalo statue and a couple of teepees.
Tourists drift in and out of Seligman, population 900, all day long. From here they head up to the Havasupai Reservation to see the waterfall, or out to Grand Canyon Caverns to see the stalagmites or else they are bikers like me chasing Billy and Captain America. In July and August six hundred bikes must thunder through here every day.
You can see them from where you are. See. There goes four touring bikes with fairings, windshields, radios and women on the back. All eight of them look like Darth Vader. “Hey! Yo! You know, there’s no helmet law in this state! The wind! Get in the wind!” They ignore me.
Which is a good thing. I know it is just a matter of time. Someday they are going to catch me. And, here comes a bus load of Japanese. And, half of them are taking pictures of me. Now, whatever it is that they finally arrest me for, they can prove I was here. There goes my favorite alibi. “Shit!” Now I spilled gas all over my tank. Where are the paper towels?
Seligman died when it was bypassed by Route 40 in 1978. Then a local barber named Angel Delgadillo raised Seligman back up again. Delgadillo invented “Historic Route 66.” It is “The Mother Road” because a barber in Seligman, Arizona thought people would probably like that better than “the road of flight.”
Delgadillo started the Historic Route 66 Association in Arizona in 1987. Then he encouraged the other seven states through which the dead road had passed to start their own Historic Route 66 associations. As his official biography explains it, “Angel knew the power of memory and myth.”
Today the Delgadillo family business is the “Route 66 Gift Shop, Museum, and Visitor Center.” Mostly it sells, “nostalgia for small town Americana with its mom and pop burger shops, full-service gas stations and home town atmosphere.” A ride through Seligman today, an official statement explains, “is a trip into the past with Angel’s Barbershop, the Snow Cap Drive-In and the Copper Cart restaurant, just to name a few.”
Seligman sells nostalgia for the fifties, the happy days of duck and cover, nuclear brinksmanship, Joseph McCarthy and no sex before marriage. But, that’s too square for me. Personally, I yearn for the halcyon years of cheap dope, Sandoz acid and Richard Nixon so Captain America and Billy and I take a short cut out of town and wind our motors up.
Climbing Into The Trees
I think Seligman lies more or less just under the Mogollon Rim. I don’t actually know. I can hardly pronounce Mogollon. I think you are supposed to say something like “muggy yawn.”
I do know that Highway 40 out of Seligman is straight as a stick and before you hit a curve you start to climb. Really, if it wasn’t for cars and trucks it would be my favorite ride.
You climb out of Seligman up to Ashfork and when you get there nothing much in the geography has changed. The road around Ash Fork will kill you if you are stupid. You should know that.
This is the turn-off for Prescott. A fraction of all the long-haul freighters in the United States pass through here and the road shows it. At some point one of them must have burst into flames because pieces of the road have melted and congealed into something like a lava flow. Arizona keeps fixing it and it keeps going bad over and over again.
Then the bad road ends. And then I am always surprised.
Somewhere in the nineteen miles between Ash Fork and Williams I go down a hill and up a hill and around a curve and I am in the trees. I love this stretch of road like I love the ghost of Toad Hop, like I love an old sign in Logan, New Mexico that reminds that “Whiskey is the Devil.” When I ride into these trees I cannot believe that anything has ever changed.
When Rebel Went Crazy
The next big city is Flagstaff which is named for these trees. The ponderosas and lodge poles grow so straight that men used to hang sails and flags from them. Just over to my left and up ahead I glimpse the San Francisco Peaks. They are holy mountains and they were holy long before they were named for St. Francis. The Kachina live there.
The first time I ever rode past those mountains I found myself in a forest fire and a drenching rain storm. I did not have heat shields on that particular bike so about half way up the incline my right boot burst into flames. When I finally pulled into Flag I had hypothermia, a sore throat and eyes and I had to patch my boot back together with silver duct tape.
I did not move until I figured out what had just happened to me. As near as I could tell it had to be magic. I lived with a witch one time but I was never scared of her. I knew this had to be bigger than her.
The conclusion I came to was that somewhere in a past life I must have pissed off a Kachina. Seemed logical at the time. Then eventually, I had some strange and awkward conversations with a couple of Navajo and a Hopi and it dawned on me that Kachina don’t rain on you unless they like you and I felt flattered. I don’t know what the forest fire and the flaming boot were all about but the rain was just some spirit trying to baptize me.
No, no, no, no….
When Sex Was Safe And Motorcycles Were Dangerous
No, listen. I can read your mind. Really, I think that way. I admit it. I know I have some strange ideas. I don’t expect you to agree with me. I might have to worry about you if you did. I am just trying to help you understand how it was that I rode into Bellemont with Captain America and Billy looking for 1969.
Bellemont, at 7,130 feet, is the highest point of Historic Route 66. A man named F.W. Smith, who was an executive with the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, built a water stop there in 1882 and named the place for his daughter Belle. The government built the Navajo Army Depot there during the Second World War. The Navajo Depot generated tons of used ammunition boxes and after the war somebody decided to build motel out of them.
They called this pleasure palace the Pine Breeze Inn and Captain America and Billy tried to get a room there in the movie Easy Rider. The two of them rode up. The neon sign proclaimed a vacancy. They knocked on the door. A frightened man peeked out, saw the bikes and closed the door again. A second later the “no” sign flickered on. So, the Captain and Billy had to go sleep in the woods.
The motel is closed but the buildings are still there and you can still sleep in the woods.
Or, you can stay at a place called the Microtel Inn across Route 40 for about $100 a night in the summer. I have stayed at the Microtel Inn and personally I would recommend sleeping in the woods. Although, for an additional fee you can get a woman sent to your room at the Microtel.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Biker Bar
The Pine Breeze Inn is just up old Route 66 from the fine and friendly shop of Grand Canyon Harley Davidson. Longriders in need stop there all the time and these mechanics know what they are doing, they don’t overcharge and they understand if you are trying to push on to Laughlin or Albuquerque. They carry necessities like earplugs and sunglasses and best of all, just across the parking lot, is a bar where you can drink and shoot pool while you wait for them to heal your bike.
Naturally, the bar is called “The Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill,” even though, actually, it is closer to Route 40. It must be a good 50 yards from Route 66 and only about half that far to the new road but nobody has yet proclaimed Route 40 “Historic.” Maybe in 50 years.
Do not be deceived by the “grill” part of the title. If you ask for a hamburger a blonde will bring you a raw hamburger on a plate and point out the charcoal grill to you and tell you to go cook it yourself. But, it is a nice bar.
It has a sparkling floor, three flat and well lit pool tables, about five hundred square feet of neon, I think three televisions, at least a dozen tables and what looks to be about a 60 foot bar with comfortable stools. It is as well stocked a bar as you are likely to find in the middle of a forest across a parking lot from a Harley dealer. I have never actually walked in there and asked for a shot of green absinthe with a water back but if I did I would not be surprised if they brought it to me and knew how to serve it.
A Bud And A Glass
The last time I was in there their were five people sitting at four tables and another seven people spaced out at the bar and the place seemed empty.
I sit down and order a Budweiser. This is such a classy place that the beer comes cold with a glass.
I take off my baseball cap. I am the only guy I know who takes off his hat in a bar. I don’t know why I do that. Maybe, if I knew I would stop believing in Kachina. Maybe I would stop chasing ghosts.
A guy comes in a few minutes later, sits three stools away from me and orders a shot of Tequila and a Corona.
I check to make sure and he does not appear to be Pancho Villa. Even if he was, it seems like kind of a theatrical thing to order at 11:30 in the morning to me.
I will grant you, this guy did not actually ride his motorcycle into the bar smoking a cigar and then order a shot of tequila and a beer which would be so flamboyantly masculine that anybody who did that would have to be gay. Or, if not gay at least a recurring character in Sons of Anarchy. This guy looks like middle-management but that doesn’t mean a thing. I have known stone badasses who looked like that.
The guy puts some salt on the back of his hand and licks, knocks down the shot, bites the lime and gulps his beer. I watch him because I am pretty sure I am supposed to watch him and then he watches me back and I don’t want him to think that I am rude so I say, “How you doin’?” And, I try to smile.
He just nods.
“Where you coming from?”
“Getting some work done at the shop?”
“Hmmm.” I have always thought it is a mortal sin not to change your own oil unless it is an emergency. I finish my beer fast enough to catch a little buzz and as I am putting my hat back on I tell the guy, “You know the hamburgers here are really good.”
“Yeah. You should order one. Ask the blonde.”
Then I walk out the door. I guess I will never know if he ordered a burger or not. I never found a way to talk to him so I don’t know if he ever heard of the Pine Breeze Inn or if he knew that access road he just rode in on used to be Route 66.
Outside, there is no sign of Captain America or Billy. They are long gone down the road of flight. And, I am still following them.
And, if you and I ever do actually happen to talk in a bar, even if I trust you and like you and I lower my guard, I will still not tell you what I am fleeing from. I may not know myself.