Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 13: Santa Fe and the Big Texan

I awoke much earlier than daughter Melody, so I got ready and began exploring the beautiful old El Rancho Hotel, located in Gallup, New Mexico, a sleepy town in western New Mexico with a large American Indian population.  It is supposedly known as the ceremonial capital of Native America, with large numbers of Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi Tribes.

The El Rancho Hotel became to "Hotel of the Stars" because so many Hollywood movie stars stayed here while filming movies in the American Southwest.  Pictures of many celebrities from the early to mid 1900s adorn the walls in the gorgeous lobby, and each of the hotel rooms is named for a celebrity, including Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Doris Day, John Wayne, Jack Benny, Kirk Douglas, Jane Wyman, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan ("The Presidential Suite"), and the Marx Brothers.  Melody and I stayed in the W.C. Fields room.  When I stayed here back in 1997 during my solo cross-country trip, I stayed in the Joel McCrea room.

I took lots of pictures around the hotel, then checked back in to find Melody was ready to go.  We checked out, then grabbed a nice breakfast at a nearby Cracker Barrel.  Then we returned to the downtown area and did some window shopping, admiring the Native American-crafted jewelry, blankets, and furniture.

Today was a catch-up day, since we didn't make very good progress the day before.  My goal was to have dinner in Amarillo, TX, by evening.  So we hit the road and did a lot of driving, basically bypassing most of the towns in New Mexico and pushing ahead to Santa Fe.  When my wife, Teresa, and I passed through Santa Fe in 2000, we were unable to make the visit to the Loretto Chapel, home of the Miraculous Staircase.  I wanted to rectify that by going with Melody.

We arrived in Santa Fe right at lunch time.  The downtown historic area was very busy, and on-street parking was difficult to find.  We finally found a spot several blocks from the Chapel, right on old historic Route 66.  This gave us a chance to walk around a bit and take in the ambience of Santa Fe, with its adobe architecture and Native American culture.  It is such a gorgeous city.

We found the Loretto Chapel, right at the end of the old Santa Fe Trail.  The Chapel is part of the Academy of Our Lady of Light, founded by Catholics in 1853.  The Chapel was completed in 1878, and features the St. Joseph's Staircase, referred to as miraculous because it makes two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall, and has no center support, resting solely on its base and against the choir loft above, and constructed with only square wooden pegs with no glue or nails.  The Chapel is gorgeous inside, with features such as a Gothic altar and the Stations of the Cross.

After taking lots of pictures and getting souvenirs, we headed out, looking for a place to eat lunch.  Everything was so crowded, and knowing we needed to get on the road, we trekked back to our Jeep and headed back out of town, looking for something quick to eat.  We ended up getting some really bad gas station pizza, since there seemed to be no chain restaurants in the immediate area.

We headed south on US 285 towards Clines Corners along a beautiful landscape, watching as a thunderstorm brewed in the distance.  We finally ran right into it as we reached I-40, and it rained like cats and dogs for the next several miles, until we were able to get ahead of it.  We kept up our pace and raced through the rest of New Mexico, somewhat regretting that we were going to miss a few sites, but anxious to make up for lost time.

We jumped off the interstate just west of the border between New Mexico and Texas, and drove through the ghost town of Glenrio.  Putting down our windows, all we could hear were the wild dogs that roam the once-busy town on Old Route 66, which began it's slow decline after being bypassed by the interstate.  We took a bunch of pictures of the practically abandoned town (I've read that there is one occupant still living in the town, serving as sheriff, mayor, and keeper of the flame).  Of particular note is the old "First in Texas-Last in Texas" gas station.

Returning to the I-40, we entered Texas, a first for Melody.  We continued to head east at a pretty good pace, anxious to get to Amarillo before dark.  We had to make a stop at the legendary Cadillac Ranch, however, just on the outskirts of Amarillo.  It's a rite of passage to visit this shrine along Route 66, home to "public art" in the form of ten old Cadillacs (models from 1949-1963) buried nose-down in the dirt, supposedly at the same angle as the Egyptian pyramids.  It's a rite of passage to mark the cars with your own artwork, and many bring cans of spray paint to decorate them as they desire.  Melody and I brought Sharpies, and we placed messages on one of the cars, took a few pics, and returned to the road.

We soon entered Amarillo, and I headed straight to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, a highlight of both of my previous stops in the Texas Panhandle.  The Big Texan is a noteworthy restaurant with good western-style meals, and features the epic 72 ounce, eat-it-in-an-hour-and-it's-free, steak.  The cavernous dining room has hundreds of tables, including a balcony, and a large stage right in the middle where patrons desiring to try the 72-ounce contest sit, for all to see, as they attempt to finish not only the steak, but a baked potato, salad, roll, and shrimp cocktail, all in under an hour.  Here are the official rules:

  1. Entire meal must be completed in one hour...
  2. Before the clock starts, you are allowed to cut into the steak and take one bite to make sure it tastes good and is cooked to your satisfaction...
  3. Once you start, you may not stand up, leave the table, or allow anyone else to touch your meal...
  4. You will be disqualified if anyone assists you in cutting, preparing, or eating  your meal...
  5. You don't have to eat the fat, but this will be judged...
  6. Should you become ill, the contest is over and you lose...
  7. You are required to pay the full amount up front, and will be refunded 100% if you win...
  8. You must sit at a table that we assign....
  9. If you do not win, you are welcome to take the leftovers with you...
  10. No consumption or sharing of the leftovers is allowed in the restaurant once the contest is over...
  11. If you fail to complete the challenge, you must pay the full $72.
There have been well over 9500 winners to the challenge, but success rate is not high.  The ultimate champ is a young lady who ate one of the steak meals in under 5 minutes, and ate 3 total in under 20 minutes.  That's a lot of steak!

Melody and I enjoyed our steaks, then we checked into a nearby Sleep Inn for the night.  We were tired, having spent most of our day in the Jeep on the road.  But we were still having a blast!

Have a great day, everyone!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 12: Eastern Arizona and Route 66

Our epic road trip continued as we woke up after a wonderful day at the Grand Canyon and a really cool evening in Williams, AZ.  We went to a nearby diner for breakfast (Jessica's), where the owner wandered from table to table to talk to the guests.  Then we drove a few blocks and returned to Cruiser's to hunt for souvenirs.  We wandered through several neat shops around the downtown area before hitting the road, heading east.

We gassed up and jumped onto Interstate 40, exiting whenever possible to drive old historic Route 66, which runs parallel to 40.  Flagstaff, AZ, is one of my favorites, and if it hadn't been so early, we likely would've stopped at one of the many great restaurants in town.  Instead, because we had gotten such a late start, we just continued heading east.

Our next stop was at Meteor Crater.  This is the "best-preserved" impact site in the world, which resulted from a collision between an asteroid and the Earth approximately 50,000 years ago.  It is one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.  There is an indoor and an outdoor viewing area, a nicely done movie documentary about meteors, and an interactive museum.  The gift shop has a nice collection of rocks, too.  Melody's favorite souvenir was purchased here, as well:  a genuine desert cactus!

The next stop was Winslow, AZ, whose claim to fame is being named in the Eagles tune, "Take It Easy."  The famous lyric is, "Well I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see:  it's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin' down to take a look at me."  And, sure enough, on a corner in Winslow, AZ, there's a statue of a man leaning on a lamp post, and a mural on the wall behind it of a flatbed Ford with a young lady in the driver's seat.  It's likely the most famous tourist attraction in that part of Arizona.  There are a few souvenir stores nearby, too, and lots of Eagles memorabilia.  Then we grabbed some lunch at an eatery just up the road.

After lunching, we headed east again on I-40 to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, near Joseph City, AZ, and famous for its "Here it is!" signs.  This is a favorite spot of mine for souvenirs along Route 66.  I stopped here in 1997 and got a favorite chili mug, one that had a recipe that became the base for my own chili recipe.  My wife and I stopped here in 2000, too.  As Melody and I were looking around, we found the stores visitor's log, which my wife and I signed on our visit 16 years ago, but the log only went back to 2002.

Heading east again, we drove to Holbrook, AZ, and stopped at the Wigwam Motel, a famous landmark along 66.  This place is unique because each motel room is an independent structure shaped like a wigwam.  There were many more in existence years ago, but only a few remain, and Holbrook's is one of the best examples.  The owners keep a nice collection of old cars around the property, too.  Melody and I took some pictures, then continued on to our next stop.

We entered Petrified Forest National Park at the south entrance, and drove north through the entire length of the park.  We stopped at the Visitor's Center, and made the requisite stops at the various overlooks.  There's a cool stop in the park where the road crosses the original alignment of old Route 66, which used to run straight through the park property.  It's nice that the park recognizes the importance of this old highway.  It began to get very overcast, and soon it began to rain.  Unfortunately, it was also closing time for the park, and the visitors centers and old park lodge were no longer open.  So we exited at the north entrance and jumped back on Interstate 40.

A few miles later, with the rain having passed but dusk quickly approaching, I decided to take a little off-roading adventure.  Just east of Petrified Forest, outside of the National Park boundary, the old route for 66 ran in a straight east to west line about a mile north and parallel to I-40.  It is nothing but a dirt path now, but is accessible from an exit ramp and dirt road running north to the route.  My wife and I drove it back in 2000, and a few miles west on the route will take you to the shell of the old abandoned Painted Desert Trading Post.  So we decided to check it out.  I wanted to get there before darkness fell, so I knew we'd have to hurry, since I didn't want to drive on an abandoned dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the dark.  So I found the exit, and we took the dirt road out to old Route 66.  When we reached the intersection, there was a wire fence across the road, preventing access.  I later found out, doing an Internet search, that the land is now privately owned.  That's a shame, because it really is a cool side trip adventure.  We had to turn around, though, and head back to the interstate.

I stopped for gas and I checked for accommodations for the night.  What I really wanted to do, though, was stay at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, which was less than an hour away.  I secured a room reservation, and off we went.  It was already dark, but the drive was swift and we arrived at about 8pm.  We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, and we had a nice night exploring the gorgeous old hotel.  It was another fine day of travel, and we were looking forward to next day's adventure.

Have a great day, everyone!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 11: The Grand Canyon

We awoke early.  It was tough to get going because we were up so late last night, and the hectic desert driving in the dark wore on me.  But I was so excited to return to the Grand Canyon, and see daughter Melody experience it for the first time.

While Melody was getting ready, I saw an ad for an activity at the Grand Canyon that we could do, and I quickly made a reservation.  I intentionally kept any details secret from Melody for now.

We had a nice full breakfast at the adjacent restaurant, then hit the road out of Tuba City.  It wasn't long before we saw the first signs of the canyon.  We entered the park and soon arrived at Desert View, on the eastern edge of Grand Canyon National Park.

It was really hot, even this early in the day, but I could hardly wait to see Melody's reaction to her first sight of the canyon.  We descended the slight rise from the parking lot to the familiar tower at the Desert View overlook, and there it was:  the Grand Canyon!  Melody was duly impressed, and it took her a moment to take it all in.  It's just SO big!

We spent much of the rest of the day exploring the south rim of the canyon, stopping at all of the view points and overlooks along the south rim road.  We eventually arrived at the official visitor's center, and we looked for a place to grab a late lunch.  The food was good, but I observed that there were a lot of flies in the building, which was a very real nuisance.

After eating, we explored the gift shop, walked around a bit more, took one more look at the canyon, then we headed south out of the park.  The next stop was the surprise that I had arranged that morning.  We went to the Grand Canyon Airport.  Melody was really surprised to discover we would be riding in a plane out over and around the Grand Canyon.  We checked in to our flight at Grand Canyon Airlines, and we soon boarded our plane.  Melody and I were in the last two seats in the back, which provided us with the best views out of the panoramic windows on each side of the plane.

The plane taxied to the runway and began the run into the air.  There was a little bit of nervousness for both of us, for me mostly because I had never before been on a plane that small.  We took to the air, and the plane headed back around to the eastern side of the canyon.  We took lots of pictures and video as we went.  Melody was on the right side, and I was on the left, so we were able to get some very unique views.

Having worked on the Grand Canyon aeronautical chart in my job as a cartographer, I was very familiar with the topography of the canyon, as well as the routes that the air tour operators take around the canyon.  It was quite different being up in the air over the canyon in a plane, but I could at least anticipate a little bit what I was seeing.  Still, it does nothing to prepare one for the awe of the spectacular scenery.

I looked over at Melody and she didn't look so good.  I asked her if she was okay, and she revealed that she was feeling nauseous.  Poor girl was just a bit air sick.  I could understand that.  We had never done anything like this, and while the ride was smooth overall, it was nothing like riding on a large airliner.

After completing the full circuit around the route of the canyon, the plane began the return to Grand Canyon Airport.  I looked down and saw a Grand Canyon Railway train on the tracks below.  We passed over the town of Tusayan, then we descended and quickly landed at the airport.  Melody looked greatly relieved to be on the ground.  It was a great ride, a memorable experience.  And while Melody had not felt great for much of the ride, she was feeling okay.

We grabbed a few souvenirs, then headed south again and soon arrived in Williams, AZ, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the interstate.  We found our hotel, right on the western edge of town, and cleaned up.  Then we headed into the town.

Williams was hopping!  The town was full of Route 66 cruisers, and we saw that there was live music outside at Cruiser's Cafe 66.  We got a table right next to the stage, and enjoyed a great evening of food and the music of John Carpino.  Melody told me later that this was one of the most memorable evenings of our epic journey:  hanging out in the little town Williams, sitting right next to old historic Route 66, chilling to some great live music.

We crashed back at our hotel fairly late, but so fulfilled with the adventure of a lifetime.

Have a great evening, everyone!