Betty Nolan with Mustang Sally by Rio Grande River Near Taos, N.M.
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Part 1: Memphis to Oklahoma City, Route 66, Tucumcari, N.M., and Sante Fe
Part 2: Taos, N.M., Williams, Ariz., Grand Canyon, Desert Drive to California
Part 3: Palm Desert and Palm Springs, Calif.
Part 4: Honolulu and Oahu Island, Hawaii
Part 5: Tubac, Ariz., West Texas and Hope, Ark.
Route 66 Museum
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Santa Fe Arts Festival
June 18, 1999, Friday – To Oklahoma City
With “Mustang Sally” fully packed, we departed Memphis and headed West just
after 7 a.m. for the first really long vacation Betty and I had been able to take in 18 years.
Ironically, much of the route we drove in Betty’s convertible (her 30th Anniversary
present, a white, 1998 Mustang nicknamed “Sally”) retraced the route through the
Southwest and West we had driven long ago. Back in 1981, we made the trip with Casey,
then age 6, in our trusty Ford Fairmont station wagon, with Apache pop-up camper in
We had all come a long way since then and Betty and I were now able to travel
with a measure of indulgence that we couldn’t afford as a young family. The camper was
sold long ago, so we now mainly stayed in modestly priced motels, with my AARP
membership giving us a 30 percent discount in the Comfort Inns and sister properties. I
had cut my last formal, working tie to the corporate world the previous October by
ending a consulting arrangement I had with Guardsmark, Inc. of Memphis.
So at age 56, I was now fully and happily retired, finally able to go on vacation
without worrying about FedEx shipments, faxes and laptop e-mail. Betty had the summer
off from teaching high school students commercial food preparation and other skills.
Casey was long out of the nest and on his own, doing well. After nearly two years with
Clark Construction Co., he had been promoted to project engineer and was helping the
Bethesda, Md.-based company build a $43-million, stadium tennis facility near Palm
So we were off to California to see Casey and a whole lot more. We had decided
to drive out on the more northern of the two main routes to Southern California, on
Interstate 40 most of the way. That presented the opportunity for us to take only minor
detours to see Taos, New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon. After a five-day visit with
Casey in his apartment in Palm Desert, Calif., followed by a week-long excursion to
Hawaii, we headed home. We drove back on the Southern Route through Tucson,
Arizona, detouring to the delightful Tubac Golf Resort. We then raced through Texas to
President Clinton’s boyhood home of Hope, Ark., and finally into Memphis. In all, we
put more than 4,250 miles on Sally during our month-long trip. The previous April, we
had driven Sally more than 2,000 miles to South Florida; like her mistress, Sally doesn’t
show her mileage.
As we drove out of Memphis eager with anticipation for the journey west, the sky
was partly sunny and the temperature climbing into the 90s. As we crossed the
Mississippi River into Arkansas we could see from the high Hernando DeSoto Bridge
above that Ol’ Man River was wide, fast and brown from all the recent rain. It was a
delightful day for a drive and a wonderful start for the trip we had been planning for
several months. Our schedule allows four weeks to complete the trip, but we built in
some “looseness” in case we want to stay a little longer at some places or return a few
days early. The only travel time that is firm is the Hawaii segment, where we caught a
great package deal by flying out of Los Angeles instead of Memphis. We made
arrangements to have the grass cut, the pool cleaned and some first-class mail forwarded
by neighbors. We paid as many bills in advance as we could think of and set our newly
installed sprinker system to provide twice-daily waterings. Nonetheless, an awful lot of
things can go wrong in a month and I found myself calling the neighbors several times to
check on things. One problem I had to deal with by telephone was getting the pool
service to correct their screw-up with the pump valve settings that drained nearly half the
water out of the pool.
We’re traveling quite light due to Sally’s limited amount of truck space, just
enough for my golf clubs and a couple of pieces of soft luggage. Road snacks and travel
information are in the back seat. I’m taking only one pair of Khaki slacks and no dress
shoes. It’s Bermuda shorts and golf shirts for me. Unlike our last big driving vacation
West, this time we’re taking a bunch of vitamins and prescription medicines for the
various ailments that seem to accompany the passing of years. A recurrence of heel spurs
has me taking anti-inflammatories daily, limiting my ability to walk very far. It is
annoying, but then I have to agree with the hoary observation about the process of
growing old beats the alternative.
My memory of driving conditions on Interstate 40 through Arkansas and Eastern
Oklahoma may be doing tricks. But I don’t recall I-40 or any section of the Interstate
Highway System outside of New Jersey being in such deplorable condition. With the
exception of a few 10-to-20 mile stretches, the 450-plus miles we drove the first day were
on pavement that was in absolutely shameful repair. There was roadwork going on here
and there, but it looked to me that I-40 was way beyond spot repairs in the worst sections.
It needs a major rebuilding. This vital artery to the nation’s commerce is hammered by
thousands and thousands of trucks on a daily basis. Some of these trucks have two trailers
and more than a few of them are probably overweight. How our nation’s elected officials
could be talking about huge tax cuts just now while our infrastructure is in such miserable
shape is a mystery. Even more of a mystery is how Arkansas, with its former governor,
Bill Clinton, now in the White House, seems to have the worst roads I’ve driven on in
years. State government there is talking about closing some of the rest stops.
About the only thing we could find good to say about the first day’s ride was our
surprise at how green the plants along the road were, in both Arkansas and Eastern
Oklahoma. It reminded us of Ireland and its multi-hued greenery. Unusually heavy rains
in late Spring and early summer had extended the lush season and we enjoyed the
scenery. The last time I drove through Oklahoma it was dry and summery dead looking.
We didn’t see nearly as many working oil wells in Oklahoma, or for that matter later in
Texas either, as we had nearly two decades ago. The formerly ubiquitous, nodding steel
heads that once pumped millions of barrels of black gold from the oil patch were now
mostly still and rusting, casualties to the depletion of the vast fields opened up decades
ago. It was almost shocking to learn we had to pay more for gasoline in the home states
of the oil barons that we did back home, where gas sold for $0.99 a gallon. But the few
pennies more a gallon we paid in the Sooner and Lone Star states prepared us for the
much higher prices that were coming in Arizona and California.
Bumpedety, bumpedety, bumpedety, nearly all the way to Oklahoma City.
Surprisingly, we made the drive in just under eight hours, arriving a little before 3 p.m. In
planning our route, I had not wanted to drive more than eight or nine hours per day. We
didn’t want to arrive at our destinations overly tired. We also were looking forward to
stopping to see whatever sights caught our fancy. We came to find that I was overly
conservative in allowing for travel time - even though we generally pulled over every
couple of hours at Interstate rest stops or at the huge gas-fast-food-convenience store
complexes that serve both motorists and truckers on the major Interstates. Some of the
complexes had two or even three chain food outlets, including Wendy’s, Pizza Hut and
Subway. They also catered to truckers with large banks of phones, showers and racks of
specialized merchandise, including plug-in VCRs. About the only thing that I noticed
they didn’t sell was beer.
But despite their attempts to be all things to all travelers, the grime and odor of
these vast, multipurpose gas stations reminds that they are still glorified truck stops.
While we were glad to get into Oklahoma City earlier than planned, we were
disappointed that there were no rodeos going on in the area. We stayed at a new Sleep Inn
in a commercial park on the West Side of town. With the motel catering to business
travelers, we had it nearly to ourselves on this Friday night and found no wait at all for
dinner that evening at a nearby Cracker Barrel Restaurant, near the Meridian Street exit.
After checking the Fodor’s 99 USA Guidebook and finding that the motel clerk endorsed
its recommendation, we visited the ultra-nice Myriad Botanical Gardens in the downtown
area. Its Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory is an amazing structure, consisting of a
huge, glass tube perhaps 35 yards across and 100 yards long, complete with a 35-foot
waterfall. Inside the “tube” are hundreds and hundreds of exotic plants and a great many
butterflies. It is surrounded by an urban park of several acres, including a small lake and
plantings of blooming flowers.
Our room was spacious and nicely furnished, like those at all the Comfort Inns
and Sleep Inns we stayed at on this trip. A small indoor pool and exercise room were
down the hall. We retired early, but slept fitfully due to heavy thunderstorms with much
rain that washed the dust and some of the bugs off Sally. We took advantage of the
complimentary breakfast bar and enjoyed cereal, toast, pastries and juice (offered at
nearly all the Sleep Inn and Comfort Inn properties in the Choice Hotels chain) before
hitting the road at 9:15 a.m.
Oklahoma City's Myriad Botanical Garden Features Huge, Cylinder Conservatory
Betty Nolan with 1960's Hippie Van at Route 66 Museum, Clinton, Okla.
Saturday, June 19, 1999 – To Tucumcari, New Mexico
The heavy rain had pretty much moved out of the area by the time we left. The I-
40 pavement was rough most of the way to the Texas line, where we were pleased to find
the Interstates in much better condition, at least overall. We stopped for an hour or so at
the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Route 66 Museum in Clinton, one of several such
museums-attractions along the fabled “Mother Road” connecting Los Angeles to
Chicago. I had driven sections of Route 66 in the early 1960s, when driving from my
boyhood home of Sacramento to the three colleges I attended in Mississippi – Ole Miss,
East Central Junior College and Mississippi State University. Back then, Route 66 was
being phased out as Interstate 40 and other Defense Highways were phased in. But it was
still a major east-west road then and was lined with ma-and-pa motel courts, hamburger
stands, old-style filling stations and tourist traps galore. Today, parts of the old Route 66
road still parallel I-40 in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. We saw several processions
of antique cars being driven on sections of the old roadway in what must have been car
club outings. We had a memorable sight of a 50’ish couple snuggled together in a
convertible, riding just like Betty and I did in my 1965 Mustang.
But Route 66, which once stretched 2,448 miles from LA to Chicago, no longer
exists on the maps although it lives on in fond memory of those who drove it. The road
carried much of the nation’s commerce to California, including the Dust Bowl migrants
and other people seeking their fortunes in the Golden State. The last Route 66 road
marker came down in the 1970s, but historic markers still point to the fabled “Mother
Road,” as it was named by John Steinbeck and is called by aficionados. Route 66 was the
setting for a long-running TV show in the late 1950s, with its two handsome heroes
traveling from adventure to adventure in a classic Corvette. The actors were George
Maharis, who played the role of “Todd,” and Martin Milner, who played the role of
“Buzz.” The show’s theme song, “Getting Our Kicks On Route 66,” was popular at the
The Museum is a delight and we happened to catch it on a day when it was visited
by a dozen or more graying Harley Davidson riders. We saw a lot of bikers on Interstate
40, most of them respectable looking types in their 50s. The Museum tells the story of
Route 66 and is equipped with much memorabilia related to the construction and traffic
on the road in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Included are antique vehicles; old gasoline
pumps; a recreated, drive-in restaurant complete with soda fountain counter; and juke box
playing music of the period. Also on display are photos and old promotional material for
scenic spots and other stops along the way, many of which have long since disappeared.
A postcard advertising the Hilltop Motel in Arizona stirred some old memories; I think I
stayed there twice about 1964, when I was “commuting” to college in Mississippi.
Guidebooks with detailed maps of the old highway and current driving instructions are
offered for sale.
We briefly stopped at Groom, Tex., to have a closer look at what is billed as the
largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. It is possibly eight stories high and covered
with what appears to be sheets of the aluminum or steel siding used in homes. I was a bit
put off when a man wearing Bermuda shorts, golf shirt and Cross Ministry nametag
greeted us with way too much enthusiasm the moment we drove up. Sensing an
Evangelical, full court press, we politely withdrew and drove off, heading towards
Tucumcari, N.M. On the way we spotted the first roadrunner of the trip, a big one
dashing across the scrubland by the highway, with a small lizard in its mouth. The
previous day, in Oklahoma, we saw a scissor tailed flycatcher for the first time in many
years and several boat tailed grackles.
The scenery has changed gradually but dramatically since we left Memphis and
the lush greenery of the Mississippi Delta and its cotton and soybean fields, bisected by
Crowley’s Ridge in Northeast Arkansas. Central and Western Arkansas is pretty this time
of year with its lakes, heavy woodlands and the hills of the Southern Ozarks. Oklahoma
was surprisingly beautiful, with its green, rolling plain that looks a lot like West
Tennessee. The northern part of East Texas wavers between the green of Oklahoma (at
least on the day we passed through) and the high desert of New Mexico. Then came New
Mexico itself, with its great valleys ringed with distant, jagged mountains and punctuated
by gigantic wasteland that have earned it the name, “Land of Enchantment.” The heavy
rains the last few days have made New Mexico’s desert come alive with green leaves and
late-blooming Thistles, Texas Bluebonnets, White Sunflowers, Daisies, Black Eyed
Susans and other flora we couldn’t positively identify, including abundant flowers that
look like Queen Anne’s Lace. Even though it was late June, the Ocotillo was covered
with emerald green leaves and other members of the cactus family were in full bloom.
The drive from Oklahoma City to Tucumcari took only six hours, mainly due to
75-mph speed limits in New Mexico and not much to warrant leaving the road for
When in my early twenties, I would often drive from Sacramento
to Mississippi straight through. The first time, heading to Oxford, Miss., in a 1957 MGA
that had no air conditioning, I followed AAA’s suggestions. I stopped for sit-down meals,
pulled over every hour or two to do some roadside jumping jacks and stretching exercises
and stopped at motels before dark. The trip took five days. Thereafter, I brought the time
down to 40 hours. I had the help of a gift from my father of a hotrod Mustang, prima
facie speed limits through Texas that allowed me to drive over 100 mph through Texas, a
young body and certain chemical compounds that triggered some amusing hallucinations
the second night out. Now, I think I have more sense; I know my body will no longer stand up to that
kind of abuse. I must say that today’s more sedate method of travel is much safer and far
more enjoyable since it allows the time to pursue any inclinations we might have to visit
an attraction or make a detouring excursion.
The Comfort Inn in Tucumcari was sold out of AARP-rate rooms, so we settled
for a Rodeway Inn, a budget chain recently acquired by Choice Hotels. The sister
property had clearly seen better days. But the rate was good and accommodations
reasonably clean. The owners, like many proprietors of small motels across the U.S.,
were from India, probably drawn by a loophole in the immigration laws that give
investors in motels a leg up on the INS waiting list (while also providing jobs for
themselves and their extended families). We saw that several of the nearby motels and
other businesses on the town’s main drag had been boarded up or recycled to other uses,
victims of the routing of I-40 several miles away from Tucumcari’s segment of Route 66.
There is an attractive monument to Route 66 on the road, but the route’s passing has
clearly hurt Tucumcari. The town was several miles long and a block or two wide back in
the early 1960s when I used to drive through.
We were told that the town’s population continues to slide, from about 10,000 a
decade ago to about 7,000 today. While Tucumcari is pitching itself to retirees as a cheap
place to live, it doesn’t seem to have anything going for it now that the captive audience
of motorist traffic has passed it by. With the New Mexico speed limit of 75 mph on the
wide and smooth I-40, Amarillo is about two hours to the east and Santa Fe about three
hours to the west. So there really isn’t must reason to stop at Tucumcari any more.
On the advice of a large, outgoing woman of Native American descent who
worked at the New Mexico Visitor Center, we had dinner at the Pow Wow. As the
meeting spot of the local Rotary Club, the restaurant seems to be the best in town and is
part of an aging but well maintained Best Western Hotel. Interestingly, it is one of only
two restaurants in Tucumcari that serve alcoholic beverages. (A large grocery store
nearby – heavily patronized by Indians and Hispanics – sold beer, wine and liquor. It also
sold large bags of dry pinto beans and many spices we didn’t recognize that are probably
used in Southwestern dishes.) The Pow Wow’s Mexican food was four-alarm hot; I
regretted eating it for two days.
Our drive around Tucumcari took only a few minutes. A local cheese factory as
well as an art and gift gallery recommended by a motel clerk were closed on this
Saturday afternoon. So without much to do, and wishing we had pushed on to Santa Fe,
we watched cable TV and read at the motel (my trip reading list included golf writer John
Feinstein’s excellent “The Majors” and Tom Brokow’s “The Greatest Generation.” I took
a short dip in a relic of a small pool, which was probably built in the 1950s. The pool
deck was covered with Astro Turf, a cheap way of concealing cracked concrete. I don’t
think Tucumcari will be a future stop for us; but thankfully it was the only bust of the
Lewis Nolan with Outdoor Sculpture at Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Sante Fe, N.M.
Sunday, June 20, 1999 – To Santa Fe
The high desert scenery and sunny sky made for a beautiful drive. We took a
shortcut suggested by a motel clerk, leaving I-40 near Clines Corners to head north on
U.S. 285 to save an hour or more of driving time. The desert flora and “big country”
vistas were spectacular. Mile after mile of road provided great views of stark mountains
and multi-colored rock formations. As with flora we saw on earlier stretches of road,
recent rains had turned the desert grasses and other plants green. Thanks to the short cut,
we checked in even earlier than planned at a new Comfort Inn on the outskirts of Santa
Fe and got into our room before noon. The town (pop. about 60,000) is one of the art
centers of the U.S., and the capital of Southwestern Art. Temperatures are decidedly
pleasant because the town is atop a 7,000-foot plateau. Santa Fe was founded by the
Spanish in 1607, about the same time the English landed at Jamestown, Va.
Purely by chance, we happened to be in town the weekend of the famed Santa Fe
Arts Festival, which takes over the heart of the historic area downtown with the displays
and booths of several hundred artists. We first visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a
small museum housed in a modern, adobe-like building that, like the work of its honoree,
is stark in its simplicity. She spent many summers painting at Ghost Ranch, about 10
miles north of town, which is now a refuge for injured animals. The guidebooks caution
that most of O’Keeffe’s more famous paintings are in museums with larger endowments
or in private collections.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing the artist’s original work painted between 1914
and 1982. Some of the paintings startle by illuminating the bones, the sky and other
scenes of the high desert in unique ways. Posters of her distinctive paintings, note cards
and other merchandise are for sale in the Museum gift shop, but we found the prices to be
way above similar offerings elsewhere. A large Georgia O’Keeffe poster of a huge, white
lilly – advertising the 1979 Santa Fe Arts Festival - has decorated the walls of our home
for many years. So it was a special treat for us to visit the arts festival. Had it not been
underway, we would have taken advantage of a special package deal giving admission to
five downtown museums for $10.
For one weekend a year, the arts festival fills a small park in the middle of Santa
Fe’s Plaza, the heart of the old downtown. Nearly 400 years old, the Plaza was once the
terminus of the Santa Fe Trail of the Old West, where freight wagons unloaded their
goods so arduously carted from the East. Facing the Plaza is the Palace of Governors,
said to be the oldest public building in the U.S. The one-and-two-story buildings that ring
the park are a study in elegant commerce. As required by local historic preservation
regulations, nearly all are made to look like old adobe and are painted in deep earth tones,
brown, rust and tan. Many carry names of expensive clothing and jewelry stores, but the
dominant business here is art and the main theme is Southwestern. There are museums
and galleries in great abundance, with most specializing in Southwestern Art. Oddly, we
saw one dealing in Polish folk art and another in Asian art.
Collectors and decorators from throughout the region and beyond come here to
shop. It seemed there were many serious buyers at the Festival. It also seemed that there
were many serious weirdoes, or at least people who imaginatively dressed to appear
weird. With my stereotypical tourist clothing (Bermuda shorts, golf shirt, white cotton
socks, tennis shoes and a camera, I probably looked weird to them. In fact, I still felt a
little strange from the aftereffects of Mexican food in Tucumcari.) We walked around the
Plaza and festival booths, enjoying the people watching as much as the artwork. The
festival spilled out of the parks to the surrounding sidewalks, where enterprising Native
Americans sold silver jewelry and Indian crafts from blankets. Betty looked at some of
the jewelry and found it suspiciously like that she has purchased in Mexico for much less.
After a while, all the Southwestern art started blending together, giving us a greater
appreciation for the visual diversity we enjoy from a wide range of regions and styles
represented at the Arts in the Park and Pink Palace Arts Festivals in Memphis.
We paid as much as $1.22 for gasoline in Santa Fe, compared to $0.99 in
Memphis. It seems that the farther West we go, the higher are the prices. Casey had
warned us that he had paid as much as $1.65 in Southern California. It’s the same with
lodging. Even with my 30 percent AARP discount with the Comfort and other chains
owned by Choice Hotels, we are paying roughly half again as much for our room in Santa
Fe that we paid for similar accommodations in Oklahoma City. A tourism brochure
claims that Conde Nast Traveler rates Santa Fe as one of the top three tourist destinations
in the U.S., with 6000 rooms, 250 art galleries and 13 museums.
Continue Trip With Part 2: Taos, N.M., Williams, Ariz., Grand Canyon, Desert Drive to California
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