On and Off Route 66 – 1

During our mid-term break as visiting Professors of Sociology at Emory University (in Atlanta, Georgia) in 1998, Annette and I went for a drive. Intending to get as far as the Grand Canyon, we ended up targeting more distant horizons. As we progressed I kept a diary for my father, then in his 80s, and I am drawing on my notes for this blow-by-blow sequence of blogs.

Friday 6 March

I taught my Emory undergrads in the morning and, by chance, was guest lecturer in Annette’s class. But we were done by 1pm, after which we filled ourselves with bagels and cold beef in our appartment, departing in our hired Buick an hour later. The first goal was Birmingham, which we had visited before but now intended to by-pass en route for Memphis. Leaving the Atlanta suburbs seemed to take foreover. American cities are notorious for spreading out to suck in neighbouring towns, villages and hamlets and Atlanta was at the time second only to Los Angeles in its rate of expansion. Outside its environs eventually, we set off on the I20 to Birmingham. It started to rain, so we saw little of Alabama as we drove doggedly on. American Interstates do not cope well with torrential downpours, the water accumulating on the surface to feed constant sprays: the visibility was worse than I had ever experienced in the UK. Despite this we maintained a steady 60-70mph until opting for a break at Tupelo in Mississippi (the birthplace of Elvis). Tupelo was austere and uninviting and we took refuge in a Shoneys, a kind of warehouse for crispy bacon. But this was a brief sojourn and we were soon on the road for Memphis again. We reached its outskirts by 9pm and booked into a Day’s Inn motel (motels were and are cheap and basic, starting at $35-40 per night in 1998). We ate cheaply and I had a couple of light, fizzy beers (American beers are a lot better now than they were then). We had done 400 miles in this opening half-day, giving us a benchmark for measuring progress thereafter.

Saturday 7 March

Memphis is rightly renowned for its music but also hosts Elvis’ Gracelands. We had read and told by American friends that this was an edifice on the tatty side of vulgar. You drive up and park in a vast complex from which shuttle buses transport you to the shrine. Actually the house was sedate, almost elegant; and the rooms inside were fine. With one exception, known as the ‘jungle room’, replete with hairy furniture, I could happily have moved in. The overall impression was of a local boy made more than good, a celebrity in search of the trappings of success and a refuge from it. Apparently he spent a lot of time there late in his career just chilling with childhood friends and playing billiards (although he made a recording or two as well). I overheard a black teenager: ‘if I buy anything here my mum will kill me!’

We left after posting our Elvis postcards and the inevitable cup of bottomless coffee (see my ‘Café Society’ webpage). Again we were unsure how much mileage we could accomplish. It began to rain once more. Most of Arkansas, swamplands and mountain ranges alike, were lost in the mists of the Interstate in a continuous downpour. Entering Oklahoma we decided at least to reach Oklahoma City before seeking respite. It proved a difficult city to navigate in the heavy rain. Unused to the system of multiple lanes (now on I40), or the haphazard lighting and signs, I had to concentrate with an unnatural ferocity. Through the city at last, we failed to spot a promising motel for many a mile, eventually stopping well on the way to Amarillo. Despite the protracted halt at Gracelands, I’d driven 560 miles. We settled into another Day’s Inn in what had become a distinctly chilly wind. On the way to eat we stopped by at nearby Sallislaw, a Cherokee Reservation. This was partly because during a previous sojourn at Emory we had visited to Chattanooga, which had been Cherokee territory; and when the Cherokkees were ‘rounded up’ by the settlers in the 1830s and evicted from their homelands, the ‘Trail of Tears’ led them to precisely this destination in Oklahoma. Oklahoma, in fact, is a kind of ‘reservation state’ for indigenous or Indian tribes from all over the USA.

Sunday 8 March

We regained consciousness to find a snow-covered landscape; and when we walked the 50 or so yards to the motel’s reception it was bitterly cold. The TV weather forecast we overheard there added high winds to the local menu. Amarillo was apparently cut off. We drove on with some apprehension, and it proved eerie for a long while. Apart from the ubiquitous trucks we saw no other vehicles at all, which led us to wonder if others were privy to information denied us. I gripped the wheel and pressed on, averaging 65-70mph. Two hundred miles later, having skirted Amarillo, we hit a jam caused by a truck overturned by gust of wind.

Texas was at first interesting and varied but gradually became ‘flat’, which is what we had been told to expect. We entered New Mexico, stopping for coffee at Tucumcari. When we got up to leave I was missing the car keys. It was Annette who first noticed they had remained locked in the Buick, which also still had its engine running. It was an awkward as well as embarrassing moment. And it was a Sunday: it always is. The proprietor of a nearby hotel saved the day by finding the number of a local blacksmith who agreed to come out and, $40 later, had extricated us with an ingenious piece of equipment – inserted into the lock from outside the driver’s window – designed for these (and quite possibly other more nefarious) purposes. I felt a touch foolish.

Shortly after this unanticipated diversion and delay we turned off the 285 for Santa Fe, the night’s destination. And I was to be afflicted by a second bout of foolishness as we approached the city. Our ‘gas’ needle had been on empty and the red warning light on for some time as I pulled into a restaurant to ask where the nearest gas station might be. I was told there was one ‘just down the road’, but behind a hedgerow and therefore hidden from view from the road; and we were rescued in the nick of time and still a few miles short of Santa Fe. What if we had not stopped at the restaurant? We discovered a Best Western motel and drove downtown to eat, finding a good Mexican restaurant just off Santa Fe’s ‘plazza’ or central square. It had been a long day, extended by two entirely avoidable mishaps. We had crossed two time zones, gaining two hours in the process, and had driven a further 490 miles.

Monday 9 March

Santa Fe was appealing. We motored back into the centre early in pursuit of a cooked breakfast, or at least coffee. Luckily we found a convenient car park and an ideal café off the square. We are both academics: by the time we were seated we had purchased a pamphlet on Santa Fe’s history, which I read over croissants and bottomless coffee. We visited the Loretto Chapel, which has an extraordinarily elegant staircase as well as an intrusive video-tape and endless cheap and plastic Catholic pap. We drove on to the oldest church, the San Miguel Mission, and the Pueblo houses close by (allegedly the oldest houses in the USA). I liked Santa Fe, a Spanish enclave. Cowboys and Indians aside, I found I tended to judge American cities and towns the more appealing the greater their European twists and connotations. The environs of Santa Fe were inhabited by the Pueblo Indians from 600 AD until, for reasons unfathomed, they abandoned the area around 1400. The Spanish arrived in 1609-10 and developed it, bequeathing it much of its surviving charm. Since then it has become a kind of Spanish/American hybrid.

We were psychologically set for another long day’s drive. Leaving Santa Fe with some reluctance we went through Albuquque, a nondescript place, and carried on out of New Mexico and into Arizona. The landscape by this time consisted of multiple shades if brown, topped by snow-capped mountains. Our next coffee was at ‘Indian City’, prefigured by an awful series of advertising hoardings reaching up into the sky either side of the Interstate. If it was not quite as bad as I feared, it did the Navaho Indians little justice: the craft skills were apparent, but they were combined with an acquired (and I suppose ‘necessary’) entrepreneurialism. We were about to enter Apache country and it struck us how hard life must have been for the ‘plains Indians’; the land was endlessly hot, flat, barren and forbidding.

We hit Flagstaff, just 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and found Best Western accommodation, which we booked for two nights (Grand Canyon all Tuesday, then back to Flagstaff for the night before setting off again on Wednesday). We were by this stage, having made such steady progress, already discussing ‘carrying on’ westwards (via Phoenix to Los Angeles and San Diego, or at least to the Pacific coast). We had steaks to celebrate another 390 miles. There might have been a touch of smugness too: we had driven to the verge of the Grand Canyon in three and a half days – some 1840 miles – and had still managed to fit in several hours of visits, to Gracelands, Santa Fe’s square and churches, and so on.



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