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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon

View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.


Once we had crossed into Arizona Mei Ling and I were feeling exhilarated. Las Vegas had been fun but now our road trip had started and we knew we would be seeing dozens of new places over the next month. The sheer expanse of the journey ahead of us was electrifying. We weren't daunted by the fact that the landscape we were now driving through was some of the most barren I could remember since the Dead Sea seven years previously. The scrub had its own strange beauty and in the distance we could see the blue of a river snaking between a low range of rocky, black mountains.

We didn't see any signs of life until we came upon our first town more than an hour later. Kingman, Arizona seems like a generic hot and dusty Southwestern town these days but a century ago it was a bustling stop on the east-west railroad. We had lunch at a downscale but atmospheric diner in Kingman before embarking on our exploration of Route 66, which occupies a mythic position in the canon of Americana. The road was one of the primary means by which tourists and migrants reached California from the Midwest before the interstate highway system was developed and air travel replaced long-distance driving. The steady stream of travelers engendered a new form of roadside culture along the route, from motels to filling stations to souvenir shops. John Steinbeck christened the highway "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the name has stuck. Most of the historic segments of Route 66 have been overlaid by interstates, with US 40 being the culprit in Arizona and New Mexico. However one long segment of the road between Kingman and Seligman has been preserved, largely through the efforts of local chambers of commerce. Most drivers choose the wider and faster interstate but for those of us in the area to see what is there and not just traverse it, the Mother Road still lives.

Our first stop after Kingman was just a photo op. Outside a shuttered souvenir store near the miniscule hamlet of Antares is Giganticus Headicus, a fourteen foot sculpture that resembles a truncated green moai. The head was created by a local sculptor in 2004 and is an apt symbol of the quirkiness of Route 66.

Just five minutes further down the road we arrived at Hackberry General Store. When the store was built in 1934 it was the only option for residents of the small town of Hackberry short of driving to Kingman until it closed in the 1970's. When the abandoned store was reopened in 1992 the new owner carefully maintained the mid 20th century aesthetic which has been preserved through several owners since. To some extent entering the store feels like passing through a time warp into the 1950's, but there's no question that the expensive T-shirts and souvenir knick knacks that keep the store operating are straight from 2020's assembly lines.

Route 66 and Interstate 40 meet again in the town of Seligman, the ultimate destination for all travelers obsessed with the history of the Mother Road. It was too late at this point to check out any of the famous Route 66 stores in town so we headed straight for our motel. By the time we'd settled and I was able to turn my attention to dinner, I found that the only real restaurant in town had stopped seating for the evening. They did agree to cook me up some food for pick-up, so we ended up eating in the parking lot of the motel using plastic furniture that the manager had generously provided. Eating in such humble conditions by the red neon light of the motel sign seemed like the perfect way to honor the generations of travelers that had wandered this glorious American road before us.

We had breakfast at Westside Lilo's, the same restaurant I'd picked up dinner from the night before. Like everywhere in Seligman it was full of kitsch and character, from the animal trophies on the walls to the skeleton with a permanent seat at the bar. More importantly, the pancakes and omelets were delicious and filling.

Seligman has the most famous souvenir stores on Route 66 but we didn't see much different than what had been on display in Hackberry. We did pick up a nice cowboy hat for Mei Ling that didn't seem unreasonably priced. The kids' endless begging for junk that they didn't really want got old quickly so after about an hour of browsing we decided it was time to get back on the road.

Having departed Seligman earlier than expected we had a lot of free time before we needed to head to the Grand Canyon. I reviewed my trip planner and realized we were quite close to one of the activities I'd relegated to the Flagstaff stop. Bearizona is a wildlife park mainly focused on bears although there are sections for wolves, bison, and other animals. It's one of those places where you drive through and see the animals from the car. We'd had a really good experience with a park like this near San Antonio many years earlier but Bearizona was a disappointment. There were bears surely enough but they were mostly sleeping or listlessly wandering through their enclosures, which I'm sure is very appropriate behavior for bears. We caught some glimpses of deer and elk and even wolves but nothing that particularly justified the experience. In Texas we'd been provided food for the herbivores and the animals had been roaming the road and sticking their heads into the windows. Obviously that wouldn't work for bears and wolves but the lack of interest from the animals made for a rather boring drive. After the driving route ended there was a "walk-through" section that turned out to be a regular zoo. Once again I was bemused by how a seemingly pedestrian wildlife park garnered such scintillating reviews on TripAdvisor.

The only other thing I could find to do in the area was ... a deer farm. I was a little hesitant to pile on another wildlife activity but my kids aren't old enough to be cynical and they generally trust me to find fun activities for them even if I've already swung and missed a couple of times. Fortunately the Grand Canyon Deer Farm turned out to be a lot better for us than Bearizona. The big difference here was that we got to get close to the animals and feed them which for kids makes all the difference in the world. The deer were pretty pushy and had a way of knocking the cups out of the kids' hands but they weren't as frighteningly aggressive as the ones we'd fed in Nara, Japan a couple of years before. Besides the deer there were farm animals, a camel, and a zonkey (zebra donkey hybrid). Luckily I had time to read the warning sign about the camel having a tendency to pluck hats off of heads so when he came trotting towards us I knew to step well back from his enclosure.

Our lunch in Williams was bad enough that I forgot about my plan to bring take-out to the Grand Canyon. My search for restaurants worth eating at had turned only one: the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. Reservations there were snapped up immediately when they became available a month in advance. There was fast food for the kids but the actual sit-down restaurants seemed to be universally awful. I had been proud of myself for coming up with a solution in advance and now here we were on our way with nothing but snacks. The landscape was surprisingly flat and plain considering that we were headed to the most acclaimed natural sight on the continent. I had decided that it would be worth seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time via helicopter, even though it was an expensive trip for the five of us. I wanted our experience to be more special than just looking over the edge of a railing and saying "Yeah, that's a huge canyon". I figured at least the older two would be pretty excited for their first helicopter ride but once we arrived at the airport they were pretty blasé. We watched a safety video and got kitted out with flotation devices which were mandatory since our flight path crossed the Colorado River. Although there have been a number of helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon I was more worried about Mei Ling or one of the boys getting motion sickness than anything else.

Almost as soon as we took off we were floating over the densely packed ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest. I was so preoccupied with hunting for wildlife amid the trees that it came as a shock when we flew over the edge of the canyon. As I looked back at the lip it struck me how much it looked like someone had cut a layer cake rather clumsily. The colored strata were sharply defined but the wall of the canyon had been scalloped and gouged by millennia of erosion by wind and water. As we flew out further it became clear how incomprehensibly vast the canyon was in width, with the area between the rims filled with its own terrain of nameless red and gray mountains, each bearing innumerable scars of time. At the very center of it all snaked the innocuous Colorado River which had done so much of the sculpting of this intricate landscape over the centuries.

I needn't have worried about motion sickness. Mei Ling was fine and both boys had nodded off by the time we gently landed back at the airport. We drove on to our room at the Yavapai Lodge, which was the only accommodation still available at the canyon when I had gotten around to making reservations two months earlier. It was a fairly bare bones and unappealing motel with non-functional wifi. Once we were settled we decided we might as well drive to the rim although my research indicated that we would be completely unable to find parking in the early evening. As it turned out my premonition was false and we found the parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to have plenty of space. There were plenty of people at Mather Point, the closest and most popular outlook, but it wasn't crowded by a long shot. We'd been spoiled by the views from the helicopter but it was good to be able to focus on the amazing colors and topography of the jagged rock formations that extended from the inner walls of the canyon. I realize now that it's quite challenging to get good photographs of the canyon from the rim with an iPhone, as any brighter objects in the foreground cause the camera software to wash out and blur the more interesting structures in the back. Fortunately I took enough photos to have a couple worth saving just by pure luck.

We didn't have any intention of hiking into the canyon but we walked for a while along the paved rim trial, stopping at each viewpoint for a slightly different perspective on the canyon. The setting sun was continually changing the appearance of the rocks as clouds passed in front of us. My skin crawled as I saw people walking out on narrow promontories from the rim just inches away from unimaginable plunges. My rational side knew that there have been relatively few deaths from falling at the Grand Canyon over the years but at the same time I could never tolerate being just one misstep away from a sudden and grisly end to my existence.

We never went out to dinner in the end and subsisted on our snacks without getting too hungry. In the morning we had a decent breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in the little commercial town of Tusayan and then headed back for one more look at the canyon rim. This time we chose Yavapai Point, about a mile to the west of where we had been the previous evening. The light and the perspective were a little different, but it was clear we had seen everything we were going to see from the South Rim.

We drove a little further west to Grand Canyon Village which has the Hopi House, a pueblo-like gallery of mostly Native American artwork and crafts. The architect was Mary Colter, who designed many of the iconic century-old buildings of the Grand Canyon. There were two floors filled with pottery, rugs, jewelry and paintings of very high quality. Of course we still had the reservations ahead of us which is where we were planning to make any purchases of Native American art.

Across the road from Hopi House is the El Tovar Hotel, considered to be one of the top national park lodges in the country. The hotel has an antiquated yet timeless look, constructed of pine wood painted dark brown to blend with its surroundings. We hadn't even been able to book a dinner reservation let alone a room but we took a short tour of the interior and marveled at the obvious sturdiness of the early 20th century wooden construction. By now we felt that we'd truly extracted everything we could from this visit to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps some day in the future we'll return and find our way to the base of the canyon by foot, mule, or helicopter but that will have to wait several more years at least.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:28 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon route_66 family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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