Arizona, Saturday, March 29, 2008

Today was the last day of a trip I've anticipated for months. After spending countless hours on my easy chair flipping through guidebooks and surfing websites I had reached the culmination of this trip: Starting in Kingman, Arizona, I would make the final push toward the sunset over the Pacific. I was a little sad at the prospect, but also feeling ready to get back home the next day.

Before pulling out of the Hill Top I chatted a bit more with Dennis, who showed me a book his wife is completing, Windswept Images: The Heart of Route 66. A collection of photos from the local region, the book contained some swell images, reminding me that a good day awaited. That vibe was sullied somewhat when I departed the parking lot and saw across the street the most depressing slogan for a real estate agent I've ever seen: "I love working nights and weekends." Yikes.

Toward the other end of town waited the Kingman Powerhouse, part of which has been transformed into a museum. Its centerpiece, in my mind, was an overloaded flivver of Okies bound for California. On the wall surrounding the full sized car was the "Road of Flight" excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath. I've read this section countless times, but I grew misty-eyed at the sight of an artifact from that tragic migration so eloquently evoked in Steinbeck's prose. A much odder moment followed my spotting a bound collection of newspaper articles and, without flipping a page, seeing myself quoted back in 1997, just a year after our first family trip out west. I won't bore you with the paragraph; the quote was academic, stuffy, and ponderous. But I left the museum feeling that I'd witnessed a good omen.

Leaving Kingman, I squinted my eyes somewhat at the prospect of the next leg, the tortuous climb over Sitgreaves Pass toward Oatman, followed by the dizzying decent toward the Colorado River, and California. Planning this trip, I even considered avoiding this rough alignment, which is known for curvy roads that dangle precariously over gaping canyons. I'd done this part of the tour once before and couldn't imagine enjoying a return. But I remembered my good omen at the museum and decided to go. Heading toward the craggy peaks, I stopped briefly at Cool Springs Cabins, a new tourist stop rebuilt entirely from the ruins of a gas station that burned down -- you can't make this stuff up -- in '66. I was impressed at the verisimilitude of the new place, yet I couldn't help but imagine that I was witnessing a nearly perfect example of Route 66 simulacra: not a place, but an idea of a place selling pricy watercolor prints of itself, a phantasmagoria.

Soon I was making the climb toward Oatman, dazzled by the stunning vistas and spring colors of yellow and green. Of course, I was looking forward to seeing the wandering burros that have helped transform the town into a beloved tourist trap. Yet I heard at Cool Springs that the burros would not be in town until the afternoon, that they forage elsewhere in the mornings. I slowly drove through Oatman and, sure enough, not one burro could be found. Bummer. Leaving town, though, I saw six or seven of the creatures stopping traffic, waiting for someone to feed them carrots. I failed to buy some, as I had planned, but I was thoroughly sniffed by the burros anyway, with one even chewing at my pockets in case I might be hiding a treat. Folks on both sides of the road laughed as the burros showed no sign of moving, unconcerned at the growing line of cars stuck on the road. I took a few pictures and gingerly made my way down the hill, heading for California. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood