Day Five: Sunday, May 12th 2019
Amarillo, TX to Gallup, NM: 424 miles.
Time out: checked out of The Big Texan around 5:30 AM CST
Time in: checked into El Rancho around 6:00 PM MST
I forgot all about the Cadillac Ranch, and I forgot all about the time change. Had I remembered the later, I might have remembered the former. But now I just have to come back…
Still dark when I blasted out of Amarillo. I saw the sun rise behind me over the Panhandle. And even though it was closed, I hit Mission I: The Midpoint Café in Adrian. No ugly crust pie for me today, but I got something I could never buy: I stood at the geographic center point of Route 66 in the still Texas dawn, nobody around for miles. The tangibility of this journey, the tangibility of the America I know and the America I don’t know really hit me here. And the sense of accomplishment really hit home as well. I had made 1,139 miles by myself: a self-contained unit basically dead-reckoning my way across the country. I could make the next 1,139 miles…
I thought of myself at 26, crippled with depression, the demon screams howling (WHAT IF I FAIL?!?), wondering how people got insurance and afforded furniture. I thought of myself at 29, hearing my band on the radio. I thought of myself at 43 earning my BA after twenty years. And I thought of myself at 46: a homeowner of 14 years with a lakefront Maine camp, a permanent job and two paid-off cars, standing at the center line of Route 66. I thought of the Bob Mould line in the Sugar song “Hoover Dam”.
Standin’ on the edge of the Hoover Dam
I’m on the center line, right between two states of mine
And then I thought I might start crying and/or shivering, so I got back into Rose and cranked the heat...
Back on the road, headed for Mission II: Tucumcari. I crossed the border into New Mexico, the rising sun glinting off of 18-wheelers, causing them to seemingly burst into flames on the open highway. The feel of the Southwest getting stronger every mile. Eventually on the left I saw Tucumcari Mountain come into view, and with that I had put myself in another image that had long been in my head. The mountain guided me into town, and suddenly I was on the strip…
Well, let me say up front that there ain’t much to Tucumcari, New Mexico on a Sunday morning. But I could feel what it once was, and what it could be again.
Tucumcari Tonight! That’s the song and the slogan of Hotel Row. The Blue Swallow, Motel Safari, The Pony Soldier, The Palomino, The Apache, The Aztec... they’re all still there in one form or another. Nothing is left of The Pony Solder but the sign, but that’s enough. The Safari has been restored, as has The Blue Swallow, and both are magnificent. TeePee (or is it TePee?) Curios is still going strong. Standing on the strip of a chill Sunday morning, it’s hard to envision what Old Tucumcari was like, but step back and let the frame develop a bit, and it’s all there. It wasn’t quite what I had imagined: I saw a lot more dust in my mental image, and naturally a whole lot more people. But it appears that Tucumcari is holding her own, rolling with the changes and not close to dead, unlike far too many towns that have been decimated by Wal*Mart and Chili’s and the other detritus of our American nodes.
On to Albuquerque! First, fuel and caffeine (same thing, really) at the Pilot station in Santa Rosa. As I was heading back to Rose, I made a new friend: a precious gray kitten! It wandered over and reared back for scritches, which I was only too happy to provide. I was worried about the poor thing, so I tried to grab it to bring inside and see if anyone was taking care of it, but no soap. I went back in and asked, and the clerk said it was fine, well fed and looked after. I came back out for a few more scritches and said goodbye, sad to not have my new friend along for the rest of the way.
Next up: an ADD stop at Clines Corner. This 24/7 travel center has been open in its namesake town since 1934. Still going! In addition to the requisite Subway, the gift shop had tons of homemade fudge, chili sauce and other wares. Refreshing to see such unique fare: localism ain’t dead yet.
Here I saw a guy that I saw at the Pilot station in Santa Rosa, a mere hour earlier, and it really hit me how connected we all are on our journeys. We all have different destinations and goals and plans, but we’re all on the journey to somewhere together. Our paths cross and diverge, but we’re all together in our America: we share the roads and we share the land (cue up The Guess Who!). I didn’t see the guy again, and I’ll never know his story. But it was nice to recognize a fellow traveler along the way, and I had plenty of contemplation fuel for the hump to Albuquerque.
Albuquerque: I said I was meeting a friend, but I was actually meeting my wife Andrea’s friend Alex, although we had been connected via the almighty Facebook for a while. They met via Sherlock fandom and attended several Sherlock-cons together. But now I was meeting her for lunch in person. No pressure! Because I so royally screwed up the timing, I arrived in Albuquerque somewhere around 10:00 AM (and yes, I missed The Musical Road of Tijeras in the process: oh well), thus Alex was not quite ready yet. She guided me to the Owl Café, and I spend a good 45 minutes people-watching the Mother’s Day crowd waiting. Great: one of my favorite activities.
Alex is living with cancer, and my heart has gone out to her from a distance, but now we were going to hang in person and in real-time. I knew she had a good gallows humor similar to mine, so I wasn’t too worried about saying anything untoward, but still… She arrived, we met, hugged profusely, and settled in for grub, and I instantly felt at home with a kindred spirit. Got my first taste of New Mexico green chili sauce with beans, and I was loving it. I ordered a small cup of the tortilla soup with green sauce (I had had a fine-but-whatever breakfast of French toast and sausage at Annie’s in Santa Rosa, thus wasn’t desperately hungry), and the conversation began in earnest. And it didn’t stop for the next three-plus hours.
Alex suggested I leave Rose at The Owl, and she drove me around Albuquerque. We passed by the University of New Mexico campus, and I recognized it from a shoot-out on an episode of COPS. Alex was not surprised in the least. She gave me a spin, then we headed for the Sandia Peak Tramway. When we got there, the tram was shut down due to a lightning threat, but after a few minutes the all-clear was given, and we queued up for the ride.
The Tramway is an absolutely amazing experience: a 2.7 mile ride up the Sandia mountain chain, rising to 10,378’ atop Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest. The view of Albuquerque et al is stunning, and I will remember this jaunt evermore, especially since I wasn’t planning for it. Life falls out of the sky...
One of the guiding tenants of my life is to laugh at what scares me. This gives me power over the fear and allows me to be human while I deal. I have utilized this defense against my depression/anxiety for years. I was so grateful that Alex gets that, and there were many moments of gallows humor along the way (“Oh, just because you have CANCER you think you can…” “Why are we slacking? You got CANCER or something?!?”). I don’t for a second mean to suggest that this approach will work for everyone, but it worked for us, and I am grateful for that. We threw out Simpson’s references and sang choruses from Depeche Mode, “My Little Buttercup” from The Three Amigos and “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers and there was a shit-ton of (my term, but feel free to use it) hyperventilaughing along the way.
I met a friend I care for deeply, and we connected in real-time. There are few greater gifts than that.
On to Gallup! Alex described Amarillo and Gallup as the two most boring towns in the world, and I can see where she was coming from. But I was anticipating down-time at both spots, so whatever. I bailed on Albuquerque, listening to the NBA playoffs, and balled the jack on I-40. The feel of the West grew stronger and stronger: the Sandia chain, Mt. Taylor and the Chuska Range on the right, the Zuni Mountains on the left, mesas and steppes along the highway like I’ve never seen before. This was not my day-to-day world, at all, and I welcomed the change. Fresh view, fresh perspective, a new slant. Two plus hours later I was in Gallup.
I couldn’t wait to get to the El Rancho Hotel. It was built in 1937 by the brother of D.W. Griffith (who is always referred to as “the brother of D.W. Griffith”, never by name: perhaps nobody wants to draw any more attention to the Klan-loving racist who shit out The Birth of a Nation then necessary, and I certainly applaud that choice) as a production base for all the Westerns being filmed in the area. Employees were trained by the famed Fred Harvey company, and the hotel boomed until... wait for it... I-40 opened and syphoned traffic away from Route 66, and the hotel fell into disrepair. Armand Ortega, patriarch of Ortega National Parks LLC, the family operation that runs concessions and spearheads preservation efforts at myriad national parks, bought the property and restored it to its former glory. Guests throughout the hotel’s storied history include Lauren Bacal, Spencer Tracy, Jackie Cooper, John Wayne and Claude Akins.
I must say up front that I am a fan of Claude Akins.
When I was a kid one of my favorite shows was The Misadventures of Sherriff Lobo. When we visited Orlando I always wanted to eat at Perkin’s Restaurant because I was sure that Deputy Perkins (Miles Watson) ran the joint and he and Lobo would be there. I love Lobo and Claude Akins and his long career in Hollywood with the likes of Dino, The Duke and Sinatra and Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity, fachrissakes!).
When I checked into El Rancho Hotel and got to floor three, I noticed that in addition to a plaque with the room number, there was a plaque with who stayed in said room. And I almost thought I got the room Claude Akins stayed in and my heart sank. Why? Because all I could think of was The Simpson’s episode where The Krusty the Clown show is cancelled.
Man 1: Krusty, we're from the network. Uh, we have some bad news: I'm
afraid your show's been canceled.
Krusty: Oh, I thought this would happen. I just hope you replace me
with something as educational and uplifting as I tried to be.
Man 2: Actually, it's a hemorrhoid infomercial starring Claude Akins.
Krusty: Can I play hemorrhoid sufferer number one? Ooh! Oh, that
hurts! Ow! Oh, is there no relief?
Man 1: I don't think so. [they start to walk off]
Krusty: How about one of the "after" guys? Aah. Ohh, that's better. I
can ride a bike again!
Man 1: Sorry.
So, when I saw Claude Akins on my door, I thought to myself (insert Luke Skywalker voiceover here) NOOOOOOOOO!!!!
As it turns out, I was on the wrong side of the hall, and I got the Rita Hayworth room. So much for Lobo and his apocryphal ‘roids!
I spend a few minutes rewinding Pal Joey in my mind, then headed downstairs for the restaurant. It was loaded with obvious Route 66 warriors, and I loved being in their company, even without interaction (not really feasible, me being solo at a four-top, not that I was really seeking it out by this point). I ordered The Duke’s Favorite margarita and the Armand Ortega (sliced sirloin on flour tortilla with chili pequin or green chili… I went “Christmas” and ordered the red and green chili). Steak two nights in a row. Only on vacation. I have never been able to roll a burrito, but delicious is delicious regardless of form, and I was loving my New Mexican Christmas bastardizations.
From there I strolled into the 49’er lounge, and had a few while watching John Lester pitch at Wrigley. It was a far cry from Errol Flynn’s days, but it was still great to be there. Things happened here. Spanish language pop on the juke, no interaction, but still, memorable. Not often one can say they’ve been in the same room as Bogart.
I left and spent a few minutes walking around the lobby, snapping pics of signed 8x10s from Bogie, Ava, William Bendix, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart, et al, and called it a night. Back to the room where Rita Hayworth once slept. I felt quite pleasant with that ghost in my room. And presumable, no spectral hemorrhoids.