Route 66 through Arizona’s Spine

me in ruins

I never liked New Years. I understand its purpose; new beginnings, years to remember, years to forget. That’s all bullshit to me; I have choices to make and answers to find. I need to take a step forward and see where it leads me.

I called a friend. She reprimanded me and told me to stop acting like a pussy, “You create your purpose,” she said, “quit being passive, turn the world into your horse.”

I don’t need a party to figure this out. I don’t need a night of alcohol and a kiss from a random girl. I need to cross into the high desert with a good friend. Travel to a place I call The Spine of Arizona. Ever since I was a kid, I believed a sort of spirit lived there. He was difficult to find, if you searched too hard, he would hide, but if you didn’t search hard enough, he would lose interest and run away. This trip would be my new years, and that spirit would be my glass of champagne at midnight. My friend was right, quit searching for your life, punch that high desert in the face and take what is rightfully yours. I’m not searching for anything, but haven’t figured out what I am creating either.

 

desert road

 

My best friend sits beside me while we make our way across the Mojave in my cheap Japanese hatchback. It will be the last road trip for this incredibly, perfect, traveling, vehicle. Nice headroom, good gas mileage, and never breaks down. Problem is she has no soul. I’ll miss her dearly, she was a lot of fun, but I need something with a little more depth. Soul? What is soul? You can’t really describe it, but you know it when you see it. You can tell when someone gave a shit about what they were doing.

 

route 66 store

 

We cross into Arizona on The I-40; the reminence of the original Route 66 is all around us; There is a history in the air, this is how the Okies got to California during the Dust Bowl, it was how the whole country came west during the era of America’s Main Street. Things seem harder up here, more vibrant, more real. It’s no different than any other freeway I’ve been on, but everything feels different. There’s a sort of residue from our forefathers that I can smell. I’ve always imagined a place changes people, but then those people’s experiences change the place; one feeds off the other, a great place becomes more great because of the struggles and successes that have come about there. Another place goes into a perpetual spiral of shit, as the people feed off the negative energies of those who came before. I can feel those who came before. I can feel their energy engulfing my soul.

 

original route 66

 

Yet, I don’t face any of their dangers as I cross this vast wilderness, no hardship, no fear that my little Toyota will break down. Shouldn’t I have to work a little to cross this landscape? Shouldn’t cars break down once in awhile? Shouldn’t I need to know basic mechanics to keep the thing running? We rely on technology that we know nothing about for our way of life. I think of my friends who brag about never getting a driver’s license, and the freedom and independence that comes with traveling by mass transit. I don’t think they know what independence really is; relying on things you can’t control for your livelihood is not being free, It’s being a slave.

 

americas main street

 

We need gas so I take the exit for the city of Seligman. The city is not built on the side of the 40 like you would expect, it is parallel to the road but two miles to the north. As I take a left into the town, I understand, this place was built on the original Route 66. The interstate bypassed this city, killing whatever it used to be.

They called it the Mother Road. It birthed towns like these all across the country. People built places like this for travellers to stay the night, or take a break with a slice of pie and cup of coffee. There was a certain mutual respect between traveller and host back then. Both understood that one could not exist without the other.

 

new color TVs

 

We drive down the Main Street and see the type of city that does not exist anymore. We pass a motel that advertises “new color TVs!” I laugh and think of the signs my kids will find amusing in the future; “Free wifi?” “HBO included?” Then realize this will never happen. Signs are digital now, or those crappy plastic squares that you can change on a whim. There will be no history of the amenities of my road trips. This color TV sign only exists because it was hand made out of neon tubing. It was made to be permanent. Now we make things to be disposable. Our forefathers left us this relic, we will leave our kids digital pictures and disposable signs that will no longer exist. My kids will never be able to drive on route Facebook and take a left at Angry Birds. Hell, when they read this, they won’t even know what those things are.

 

downtown williams

 

We pull into Williams. the gateway to The Grand Canyon. We park on the main street and are greeted by the smell of barbeque, the sounds of American Standards, an Elvis statue, and the sights of the neon signs that dotted this forgotten world. I see a group of Chinese tourists taking pictures of this alien land. It brings a smile to my face. People come from all over the world to see The Grand Canyon, most will spend a night here before they make their way up to the national park; here, in this city that looks like nothing from Europe or Asia. Americans have a funny insecurity, wanting to mimic the cities of our motherland as well as the innovation of that new world being created across the Pacific. But as I look at this small town, I think this is America, this celebrates the strangeness that is Americana.

 

williams route 66

 

I walk up to a giant mural of local pride. “Williams Last Town Bypassed by I-40,” is painted on the side of the wall. Williams was the last holdout for route 66, fighting a battle they knew they would lose; one of the most beautiful things a people can do. The interstate would kill the city, so they bombarded the government with lawsuits until they reached a final compromise. The I-40 would be finished, but Williams would get 3 exits on that giant behemoth of a highway that cut across our country. They call it progress, I’m not so sure.

 

hotel monte vista

 

The elevation reaches 7200 feet and the temperature drops to 17 degrees. We have arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. We stay here for the night. Walking the streets of the old gentrified downtown. The people who live here did not build this city. In fact, they would probably hate the men and women who did. Children living off their parent’s inheritance, thinking they were the ones who earned the money. There is nothing wrong with living off of that which was given to you, but I feel no appreciation for what those who came before had to go through to create this mountain town in such harsh conditions.

 

me in alley

 

The taste of local beer still on my lips, we head back for the house. It’s been a long day, so we stare out into the dark sky’s night and argue about the stars. We wake early and I take my friend on a little detour to an ancient city built into the side of Walnut Canyon.

 

snowy road

 

As we drive down the forest road, my friend asks me, “What the real history of the American Indian?”

“First of all, that there’s no such thing,” I tell him. “There are Apaches and Navajo and Hopi and hundreds of other tribes. Some are friends, some are foe. Some of the tribes were awful barbarians, some were peaceful souls. Some hunted, some farmed. And among these tribes were millions and millions of people, each different. Some were good, some were bad. Some were abused as children, some had mental illnesses, some just tried the best they could. Like all people all over the world, we try to make sense of cultures by clumping them into groups. We even do it with ourselves, try to define our identities by race, or ethnicity, or culture, or career. It’s utterly wrong to do so, even when you place indigenous people on a pedestal; the noble savage as people used call them. They were just people like you and me. They all had their faults, they all had their strengths, to ignore any of that is disrespectful. And like all human beings ever, they were all fighting a hard battle.”

 

ruins in distance

 

We went on to talk about the different tribes in this area. My friend had never spent time with American Indians, and in the past night had met an Apache and a Navajo. One working the checkout stand at a grocery store. I forgot how foreign my home state can feel to people not from here. Maybe the hardest thing to do nowadays is to live your own life, be your own person. Not conform to this disposable world and become a disposable person yourself. Maybe we should all disagree more, and when confronted about how we could believe such nonsense, don’t reply with logic, just reply with, “because, it’s a free country.”

 

leaning against ruins

 

My friend enters the canyon and a childlike giddiness comes across his face. I grew up around thousand year old ruins, and through his eyes I realize I am cynical about such fantastic things. He touches the wall of one of the cliff dwellings; before this moment, he never knew such things existed. He enters one of the buildings, sits down, and thinks about the people who lived there a thousand years before.

The Sinagua tribe moved here from a mountain now known as Sunset Crater a few miles away. The mountain blew about a thousand years ago, covering hundreds of square miles in ash and lava. I try to imagine that sight before pictures and media. A mountain just blows up. Billows smoke, sets the forest aflame. Ancient legends come alive. What they must have thought? Probably not much… No time for introspection and wondering what pissed off the mountain God; life was about survival and raising your kids, they just ran away and found a new home.

We finish the hike and head back to the car, my friend turns to me.

“What a day!” He says.

“Day’s just beginning,” I tell him.

 

first sign of sedona

 

The red rocks of Sedona begin to jut out of the lush green forest as the entire landscape morphs right in front of our eyes. We slam on the brakes and stop in the middle of the road, sliding a bit due to the ice. We have to get a picture of these snow capped peaks. We need to share our experience on our social networks so everyone can see how awesome we are.

 

sedona in distance

 

We slowly move down the 89 highway until we find a safe place to to pull over. Getting out, we smell the snow, the pine, the dirt; I didn’t realize dirt had a smell, and in this moment, I know, we are more than what we have become. I look down the canyon wall to see an ugly stucco house built on the side of one of the cliffs. God’s example all around us, and this is how we repay him. There’s a sort of duality going on here, we live on the shoulders of greats, and we also live on the shoulder’s of mother Earth. We keep disrespecting both.

 

sedona vista

 

We stay here for a long time, like kids exploring a new world, but the sun is setting and we are becoming hungry. Good food is sparse in this place, it’s like a burger stand at Venice beach, you didn’t come for the food and the restaurants know that. We pay seventy dollars for a meal that gives me less satisfaction than a number three at any major fast food chain.

About Thirty miles to the west is another mainstreet, another city that no longer exists. We are driving through Cottonwood, then on to Clarksdale. I feel like I have been transported to the suburbs of the 1950’s. This is not Route 66, but this town is just as foreign to me as Williams and Flagstaff were.

 

hotel at night

 

A vein of copper was discovered on the cliffs above these cities in the 1800’s. The mine owners decided to build the company town up on the side of that cliff. They created the town of Jerome; a city built like no other I have ever seen. Stairs lead up to each new street. Looking forward, you always see the great vista, the San Francisco peaks a hundred miles away. The highest street in the city deadends at an old hospital; it stares down on us, down on the mine, the people who live here, and the tourists who come to visit this strange place.

 

main street hotel jerome

 

Jerome peaked in population around 1940. Accurate numbers are not available – women and people of color not being real human beings back then- but it is estimated to have reached 30,000. Ten years later that number would drop down to 100. Then the 60’s came, and the hippies discovered this strange city, they turned it into a sort of art commune. the town now lives off of tourism, crafts, restaurants and wine. The lead singer of a famous rock band moved here, bought up a good chunk of the valley below, and created Arizona’s wine industry from scratch. People can still do big things.

We’re staying at that former hospital for the night. It’s been turned into a hotel, they say it’s haunted, and while I don’t believe in such nonsense, as I enter the building, I’m not so sure. We take a 100 year old elevator up to the third floor. As we pass each level, I feel like we are being transported back in time. We walk down the hall towards our room and I begin to experience vertigo. This place is no facade, I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it is real and authentic.

We enter our room, then my friend looks at me, “we’re staying together? right?”

 

creepy room

 

I sit down in an old chair, smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the texture of the wall. The receptionist informed us that between 9 and 10 thousand people died here. The third floor was the psych ward… The fourth floor the children’s hospital. Ghosts or not, this place was built on the backs of the patients who stayed here and died here. I can hear them.

My friend spotted a girl he wanted to meet at one of the bars, so we walk down the main street while we look over the pictures from earlier in the day; it seems like a week ago; always a good feeling, giving your life the respect it deserves, filling up your day to the brim. Using every second, every minute of your time. Life, living… You are literally trading the time you are alive for whatever it is you are doing, it’s disrespectful to everything that is good, not to make best of it.

 

jerome main street

 

We make best friends with a group at the bar and have one of those nights that only exists on the road. New friends that you think will last a lifetime, but you forget about the next day. Fun and adventure and companionship and then we move on. Disposable friends in our disposable lives.

Last call hits and we go to bed, the sounds of the old hospital keep up awake; a gurney being pushed down the hallway and the voices of laughing kids. At one point my traveling companion opens the door to look out. The place is empty. Either this is the most haunted hotel in the world, or the owner has placed speakers inside the vents. I’ll let you decide.

We don’t get much sleep, decide to walk the city during the day, miserable, looking for coffee. The city is quite ugly, but in a beautiful way.  My friend spots someone in a bar and walks inside.

 

IMG_4185

 

“I see you support the Red and White,” my traveling companion says to a grizzled old biker who is having a cheap American beer with his wife.

“They’re good people,” the biker says, “not like these punks who start clubs today.”

It’s a sort of code, but I figure it out. A small hammer is embedded on the man’s jacket. It’s a symbol for The Hells Angels, an American biker club that was started out of World War Two.

“You understand the hammer?” The man turns to me. I know the answer but I stay quiet. “It’s because they couldn’t carry knives or guns, those are weapons, so they carried hammers, turns out hammers are a lot scarier than knives and guns anyway. Someone runs up to you with a hammer and they are ready to use it, it’s not about intimidation, it’s about action.”

I never much followed the bike gangs, or ‘clubs’ as they are referred too. But there is something very Americana about The Hells Angels. Outlaws, traveling across the country, on their American built Harleys; the blue jeans of the motorcycle industry. They were a group of misfits who came back to America after the war and didn’t much feel like this was home anymore. They changed, but the country did not, or maybe it was the other way around; something a lot of us are feeling today. Sometimes the only way to fit in, is to become a complete outcast.

 

jerome during day

 

We share a drink with the man, then have a large breakfast. The city of Jerome is now in our rearview window as we head down another canyon road towards the Prescott Valley. I feel like we just came from the Old West of Hollywood and entered some sort of real Old West; this place is not as exciting or interesting as Jerome, but it feels more authentic. There are ranches and horses and cows everywhere. The cars turn into F-150s and Dualies. My passenger turns to me and tells me the oldest running rodeo in the world takes place here every year. This is ranch country. There were no shootouts and outlaws in this place, just hard working men and women bringing beef to the masses.

 

creepy cow

 

We park at the town square, I wish cities were still made this way. Four main streets that surround an old courthouse that was once the capital of Arizona. This town used to be important and was planning to stay that way; there is a sort of pride in the construction of each building around me; I can feel the soul in the air. The people who walk around belong here, these aren’t young hipsters and progressive thinkers. These are ranchers. They wear cowboy hats and boots because that is the type of attire that fits their lifestyle. This place remains true to itself, maybe it’s the last of the true old west in the new Arizona.

We walk into a saloon, and then a hotel. Something about these places is different. The saloon feels like what a saloon should feel like. The hotel is welcoming in a way that even the greatest resorts are not. They weren’t built to make money, they were built to make their community better, and in making their community better, they made money. People have it all backwards now, they see the successful entrepreneur and the confidence he conveys and think confidence brings success, when it is actually success that brings confidence. Confidence without success is a lie. Are we living in a world that is now a fraud?

 

statue in front of court

 

These buildings were made with their occupants in mind. A bar was built to be a bar and a hardware store built to be a hardware store. Now developers make some mixed used complex and you buy compartments inside these boxes. There is no mutual respect in this process. The people who buy these rectangle rooms must now create something that it was never meant to be. We are painting by numbers, doing everything right, but not doing it with purpose. We are being passive and don’t even know it. We are painting by numbers to create a beautiful work of art.

And then I wonder what I will leave to my kids? What will we all leave to those who come after us? Anything as great as these towns I traveled through?

 

snow covered court

 

The next day I awake to a snow covered street. I wipe the snow off my windshield and blast the heat. I see a group of kids throwing snowballs at each other. Then, I head back to the City of Angels. The drive is long and boring, I want to be home and it seems so far away.

I never found the spirit… Did I look too hard? Did I not look hard enough? This cannot be the end. I have no answers, but then again I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking to create. There’s a lesson here somewhere. I need to keep searching. What is it that I am searching for? Greatness? My greatness? Or all of ours? Greatness and us? Greatness and America? And then I know what I am looking for. I remember what the spirit was named and I am in search of that spirit; the spirit that is American Greatness.

 

indian arts sign

 

See all the pictures here

Author: John-Michael Thomas

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