The Whole Enchilada: Paula's journal from the road


I really couldn't have imagined a more prefect scenario. It was late fall, and I was flying along the Mother Road in my brand-new yellow 2002 Thunderbird. Through the beautiful state of Missouri, along empty country roads that dipped through miles of burnt-red trees, I was driving an American icon on an American icon.

I'd never really been a car lover. I didn't know a Ferrari from a Volkswagen. The only new car I'd ever owned in my life was my 1983 Toyota Corolla. But one day three years ago, I saw in the newspaper a photo of the new "concept" T-Bird unveiled at an auto show, and for some reason I felt like I'd fallen in love. Truly. I could hardly breathe when I saw this automobile, and for months I couldn't figure out exactly what the attraction was.

I'll tell you what it was. It was the fact that the car hearkens back to the T-birds of the late 50s and early 60s: the porthole windows, the smiley-faced grill, the reverse wedge-shaped design, that famous logo. This car was appealing to my respect for history, my reverence for things old but not forgotten, my sense of nostalgia (although I was only 43) for those postwar good times of my childhood.  For decades auto design has been virtually nonexistent -- every car today seems to look like an indistinguishable puffball. But this Thunderbird -- this utter drop-dead-gorgeous incarnation of beauty and fun -- well, this was something to behold.

For three long years I waited for the arrival of this car, and I obsessed, and I ended up ordering it from a small-town dealer in Kentucky who offered me a good price and the #1 slot in their allocation. It was then that I realized that I would drive that car home on the Mother Road.  There was no other way to do it.  For years it had been my dream to drive at least part of Route 66, but now I could meet the road in St. Louis and drive this head-turning, eye-catching, beautiful reminder of automotive history back to my home state.

The only catch was the weather. Originally slated to appear in July of 2001, my car didn't arrive until mid-November, and I worried endlessly that we would hit ice and snow and storms on the way back. I'm from California, after all, and I just don't know how to handle more than 3 degrees' variance in temperature. But good timing and an unseasonably warm fall would prove to be on my side; we left Kentucky in 70-degree sunshine.

So it was that with a bunch of duffel bags squished into the small trunk, laptop and cameras under our feet, and Sinatra and Springsteen on the CD player, I set out with my friend Julie (the photographer) on November 20 to show my new yellow 'Bird -- which I had named "Tweety" -- one of the greatest sights in America.

These are the e-mails I sent back home:


Today was the first day of our travels on the actual Route 66, and we made it as far as Lebanon, Missouri. It wasn't quite the 250-mile distance that I figured we should try to cover every day, but that's because we spent a lot of time getting lost. Missouri does a passable job of marking the road, and we have a book that tries valiantly to give us odometer readings and landmarks, but it still is not easy. Julie and I did a bit of -- shall we say -- quibbling. Still, I'd say that we were on Route 66 at least 80 percent of the time today. The road is wonderful -- empty, rolling, tree-lined, gorgeous. It often very closely parallels the interstate, and we can see the hurried people speeding by on I-44 while we meander happily along the smooth curves of the Mother Road.

The proprietors we've met have been exceedingly friendly. Today we stopped at a place with Route 66 collectibles as well as old cars, and we got to talking with the owner about T-Birds. Her husband has two '57s, she told us -- one of which was in a Ford showroom a few miles back in the direction from which we'd come, next to a 2002 black Bird. So we backtracked and visited the showroom, and they were delighted to see a yellow Bird, which they hadn't yet seen because they were allocated only one car for the year. Then we stopped back in at the collectibles place and reported to the owner how beautiful her car was. I think she really appreciated it.

This evening we are staying at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon. It was built in the 40s and has been lovingly maintained. The owner took a shine to Julie and decided that we could get to stay in Room 66. I was thrilled. Oh, and because the Route tends to follow railroad tracks, we also get to hear a train whistle in the distance. Lovely.

Everywhere we go, people are dying over this car. When we stopped at the gas station this morning, and I went inside to get some bottled water, I came out to find Julie yakking it up with a woman and her husband who had followed us into the station. The woman was telling Julie that she had pulled into the station pretending to throw out some garbage, just so she could take a gander at our car! Julie doesn't care one whit about all the attention, but of course I do, in all my vanity. :)

We're taking a video of all this, as well as digital photos, which we are posting at

November 20 pictures

We are such geeks.



We are in Claremore, Oklahoma, tonight at the Will Rogers Motel, and we send you our sincere Thanksgiving wishes.

I think we did drive about 250 miles today, much of it at the end of the day. Once again, and true to form, we spent a good deal of time getting lost. We saw lots of country roads and private residences, including a small grocery store/farmhouse with a sign out front (on the road) that said, "To whomever took our goat, please return him as soon as possible."

The problem is that the book we are following uses some rather informal and -- shall we say -- vague forms of directions. One classic from today: "Cross Road N and turn right on an unmarked road." A bit tricky.

We didn't meet any people today, really -- oh, except for a young woman in Joplin, Missouri, who came over to admire the car and gave us extremely bizarre directions to a nearby restaurant, confusing the heck out of us until we finally realized that she was a few colors short of the whole box of Crayolas.

So, in the absence of regaling you with character sketches of people we met today, allow me to merely tell you about where we ate lunch: "Jim Bob's Steak House" in Joplin. It was phenomenal. The tables all had an old metal bucket on them, overflowing with peanuts. I was quite delighted by this touch. I have never had a bucket of peanuts on my table. Julie had to teach me how to throw the shells on the floor, as she caught me daintily scraping them into small piles on my side of the table. After she taught me what to do, I rather enjoyed making a grand sweeping gesture and whisking them off in a huge cloud onto the floor. Anyway, Julie had the "Combo" plate, which consisted of ribs and beef briscuit, smothered in "barbecue." Generally I think of "barbecue" as a metal thing in which you grill meat, but down here it means "a heavenly sauce." I had sirloin. Plus we got our choice of two sides, and there was homemade bread, and then our Cokes came. Normally I do not order Coke. It gives me a stomach ache. Why I ordered Coke I cannot say. But I CAN say that when they arrived, I blanched. They arrived in VASES.

I am still smiling.

As usual, more photos are posted at

November 21 pictures



First and foremost, Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Well, we left the Will Rogers Inn just in time this morning, as the joint was about to be invaded by a gaggle of bull riders and chicken farmers. (See the photo page for proof.) We then spent the entire day going only a total of 190 miles. I have no idea what the heck is going on with our sluggish pace, except that we are spending an incredible amount of time taking photos with a multitude of cameras, yakking to strangers who ask about the car, and getting lost, which we did today no fewer than 30 times. It's all still great fun, though, and the road is very driveable even for a brand-new automobile. I had been worried that portions of Route 66 would be in terrible condition, but it really isn't true. So far nary a piece of gravel or stone has hit the car, so it is still in pristine condition, save for the occasional smattering of bird doo-doo. It's also still running great! No complaints whatsoever.

We met some sweet, fun people today. First, at an old 1920s railroad bridge, we were parking in a VFW parking lot when a guy named J.C. on a Harley Davidson swung through the lot and came up to peek in the car, telling me that when he saw the 'Bird, "I just couldn't believe my eyes!" He lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma but grew up in Arizona -- just couldn't stay away from Route 66, I guess. Then, not too far down the road, we happened to spot a tiny sign for a "Route 66 Shoe Tree" on the other side of the road. Intrigued, as you might imagine, we hung a U-ey and sure enough, there was a tree upon which hung panoply of shoes. Not just your ordinary footwear, mind you, but a host of boots, Cinderella slippers, and other high-fashion pieces. I don't understand it, but there was no explanation. It was there that we met a guy named Tom Ferderbar -- a retired professional photographer who, it turns out, studied with Ansel Adams. And it showed. He is putting together a book of Route 66 photos that includes shots from the 40s up through today, and his old-time shots are as exquisite as his modern ones. He is looking for a publisher and I certainly hope he finds one, as I think his work is stunning.

We also drove through many, many small towns with wonderful historical downtown areas in red brick. Each one was more quaint than the next. One town, though -- Depew -- was both fascinating and sad, as it seemed to be both a ghost town and a place struggling to maintain itself. On the main drag, half the storefronts were mere carcasses. Inside one of the buildings, in fact, was a heap of garbage on which sat a smug family of pigeons! And many of the stores that did seem to remain in existence catered to the elderly; there was, for example, a dentures store next to a senior citizens hangout. Next to that was a barber shop on which hung a sign that said it was closing tomorrow -- forever. Of course, it was Thanksgiving, so the street was deserted, and there were all kinds of dried leaves blowing in circles along the pavement. It looked exactly like something out of "The Last Picture Show." It just needed to be in black and white.

After a surprisingly good turkey dinner at Marie Callendar's, our last stop was at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. That was a sobering experience. A lot of people were there, paying their respects on this Thanksgiving Day.

Well, that's about it. Photos are posted as usual at

November 22 pictures

Oklahoma City National Memorial pictures



Well, we are exhausted tonight because we got up very early (I woke up at 4:30, for some reason) and then spent much of the morning going 75 miles out of our way, getting lost and heading north through Oklahoma until we realized that we were nowhere near Route 66 and certainly were not headed west. It was then that Tweety had his first encounter with . . .


Yes, I'm afraid that we were going just a tad over the speed limit -- only 76 in a 65 mph zone -- as we sashayed past an Oklahoma police officer who just happened to be sitting by the side of the highway with a radar gun.


As it turned out, though, he ended up being very nice to us and asking us where we were headed, and we couldn't really tell him, because, after all, we'd been going north trying to go west, and we said that we had absolutely no excuse for flying along as fast as we were (except gosh, in that car it really feels like you're just CRAWLING if you're going 70). So he let us go, and I stopped crying, and all was well.

The only person we met today was an older guy hanging out at the Route 66 Restaurant in Clinton, Oklahoma, who said he'd lost his wife 5 years ago and was looking for a way to meet "another lady," and he was wondering whether if he bought a T-Bird, maybe he could be somewhat of a chick magnet. But then we discussed the fact that if it didn't work, he'd be stuck with the car payments! I suggested that perhaps a Toyota would be a cheaper proposition, but he noted that it was doubtful a Toyota would attract much of anyone.

Mainly we took more pictures of gas stations, stopped at a couple of museums, and found that after 5 hours we had traversed exactly 100 miles. Which means that we were averaging a blistering speed of 20 miles an hour. It is highly doubtful that we will ever make it back to California at this rate. Hopefully we will make it to New Mexico by March.

The weather has still been beautiful, except that it was ridiculously windy in Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains, and the winds continue here in Amarillo tonight. This morning when we took the car cover off the car, both of us were blown backwards 20 feet when the cover billowed up and went flapping skyward.

I am looking forward to tomorrow, when I get to meet Lon O'Connell, a "regular" on the T-bird newsgroup who lives in Amarillo and has a yellow Bird like mine. We're going to meet in the morning and introduce our cars to each other. Mine will be the dirty one.

November 23 pictures



[Warning: this is an awfully long post. Read at your own risk of drowsiness.]

Saturday was the best day we've had on Route 66 so far -- although, not surprisingly, we got only as far as Tucumcari, New Mexico, which is probably less than 100 miles from Amarillo! Sigh. This is getting ridiculous.

I truly think we should be able to travel a greater distance today, though -- the towns in New Mexico seem to be spaced much further apart, and we will need to drive a lot on the interstate (unfortunately), because of impassable roads.


Saturday we were scheduled to meet Lon O'Connell, who lives in Amarillo and had gotten his own yellow 'Bird a couple of months ago. I'd "met" Lon on the Thunderbird newsgroup and had been following his posts ever since we both joined the group in the early Spring. My heart had bled for him when his T-Bird had been built this summer and he'd followed its progress as far as the railhead near his home, when suddenly Ford discovered that the cars were overheating and spontaneously combusting, or whatever they were doing, and the company recalled all of the cars! So poor Lon could see his car sitting at the railhead, and he even went and SAT in it, and then the little yellow thing was whisked back to Wixom. Oh, the torture of it all!

Anyway, I was a little nervous about meeting a total stranger, but what nice people Lon and his wife were! You can tell just by checking out the pictures, posted as usual at

November 24 pictures

We followed them to 6th Street in Amarillo, which is the best-kept section of Route 66, and parked in front of J&M restaurant, where of course we snapped a bunch of photos. We also collected quite a crowd of gawkers. I then took advantage of Lon's kindness and asked him to show us where the "Cadillac Ranch" was. This is when a bit of excitement transpired. First, as we pulled out onto the road, there was a screeching, scraping noise under the car that just about gave me a stroke. Apparently we had inadvertently driven over some kind of hump in the pavement, and I was convinced that the entire drivetrain was hanging by a thread. Too mortified to tell Lon and Shirley, however, we drove on in a state of panic. Then, as we were zipping along out of town to go see the Cadillacs, I discovered to my horror that my precious 35mm camera from the 1970s was no longer with me! Obviously in all the discombobulation I had left it back in town (you can actually see it sitting on the ground in one of the photos), so now I had to force Lon and Shirley to drive BACK into town to look for it with us as my panic grew to epic proportions! Luckily we found the camera at J&M's restaurant, still sitting meekly on the ground where I had left it. Thank God it was Texas. If this had been California, the camera would already have been stolen and sold for parts.

The "Cadillac Ranch" was something created by an eccentric local millionaire who began burying his Cadillacs halfway in the mud, nose down, back in the 50s or 60s. Apparently these were not old Cadillacs at the time of burial -- perhaps they'd been driven only a year, but the guy just felt like buryin' 'em and buying a new one! They have since been covered with graffiti, but that lends an air of "pop art" to them.

I might add that there was a wind-chill factor of about 4 degrees out there, but Lon insisted on not wearing a jacket. Undoubtedly he is in bed sick today with a bad case of consumption.

At that point, we were going to part ways, but then Lon started telling us about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, where if you eat a 72-ounce steak, and all the trimmings, in less than an hour you get the meal free. Urp. Of course, Julie and I had heard about this restaurant, because there had been about 500 billboards advertising it, and we asked Lon and Shirley if they could take us there as one last stop. I'm glad they did, because this place was like Disneyland! Inside the gargantuan restaurant were slot machines, an oversized Edith-Ann-style rocking chair, a rattlesnake, one of those big amusement park games where you shoot things as they waddle across, and of course the names of all the people who've eaten the steak. Julie and I decided that in our primes we could have polished off the steak dinner and then probably had dessert. Now I probably couldn't even finish the baked potato.

We took a few pictures (and for some reason, every time we took a flash photo the shooting gallery game went off and starting lighting up and pinging).

OK, by then as you might imagine it was getting towards noon and we really had to go. Shirley and I really had to stop talking about our stressful government jobs, and we had to move on. But I will always remember Lon and Shirley and be grateful, as well, that Tweety got to meet his cousin.

As we got gas for our mammoth 90-mile trip to our next stop, we finally had an opportunity to check out the car and determine whether we needed to start crying about any damage. Luckily, there seems to be no visible scars or any parts hanging loose.

In Adrian, Texas, as we got closer to the border, we decided to stop at the Midpont Cafe, which, as you might guess, is midway on Route 66 between Chicago and L.A. (The whole route, by the way, is somewhere between 2,200 and 2,440 miles.) This cafe -- in operation in one form or another since 1928 -- is absolutely adorable inside and stays true to its history. The food was also delicious; my burger was perfect, and I loved the homemade banana-blueberry pie. Anyway, when Joanne came over to take our order, she asked if I owned the Thunderbird, and then she said that a fellow named Tony Poole, who is the president of the Vintage International Thunderbird Society, had called to tell her we were coming! Now, mind you, I have never met or even e-mailed Tony, but he has seen my posts on the newsgroup and has asked me to do an article for his magazine. Still, he had no idea that I would be stopping at THAT particular place, and if we had decided to eat at the Big Texan Steak Ranch I would have passed the place on by! But Tony was right, and fate brought us there, and we spent a good deal of time taking pictures, checking out the gift shop, looking at old photos in Fran's scrapbook (Fran is the owner), and shooting the breeze. Joanne talked to us about the "Thunder on 66" events for next year, and how she is working with Tony and others to make sure the streets around the cafe can accommodate all the 'Birds that will be making their way to her town. Apparently some Corvettes will also be joining the party there (I know Corvettes are cute, but I wonder -- should we snub them? :) ). Oh, and Fran loved the 'Bird so much, she got in it and threatened to drive away. A number of times she repeated an offer to trade me the cafe for the car. Running a cafe on Route 66 sounds awfully tempting, and it could definitely get me away from my &^%$#@! government job! But I opted to keep the car.

After passing through some small towns, we finally made it to the Texas/New Mexico border. Now, when I say "towns," I use the word loosely. I don't mean small towns of 100 people. I mean towns of seemingly NO people. I mean, they'd be on the map, and the guidebook might even say the "town" would provide lots of "photo opportunities," but all that would be there would be two abandoned buildings, a clump of grass, and a couple of spiders.

Now that we're in New Mexico, the terrain is changing, mesas are always on the horizon, and the towns have that pueblo/Southwestern feel. Saturday night we spent in Tucumcari, and it was absolutely wonderful. The stretch of Route 66 through town takes you back in time, and the Blue Swallow Motel, where we are staying, is a breathing piece of history. Built in the 30s, it has been restored to look exactly as it once did. Each room is accompanied by its own garage with gravel floor, which is where the T-Bird now sits. The rooms have old phones from the 40s, deco bathrooms, curved ceilings, and paper-thin walls (of course!). Outside you can hear the whistle of the train and the hum of the traffic, and the neon light of the motel sign vaguely illuminates the blinds on the window. I absolutely loved it!!!!

For dinner I had yet another slab of steak and some sopapillas at Del's, a packed Tex-Mex restaurant down the street (if I don't turn into a cow by the time this is over, it'll be a miracle).

OK, I've gone on much too long. Signing off until tonight.

P.S. No encounters with "THE LAW" today, but I did get Julie to take the car up to 100 mph -- just for a brief moment. It still felt like we were crawling!



It was warm (about 65 degrees) when we left Tucumcari this morning, but it was windy. Not just breezy. Windy, as in gales and hurricanes. It was impossible to hold a camera steady; cars and trucks were weaving across the road; and worst of all, my hair was a laugh riot.

This evening, though, it is below freezing and we are staying in Grants, New Mexico -- in our second motel of the night. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Much of the day was spent on the interstate, as I'd anticipated, so for the first time we actually made some distance -- maybe even over 200 miles. It was so nice driving past the pink and beige pastels of the New Mexican landscape. We did stop in Santa Rosa, in search of food, but were first sidetracked by the Route 66 Auto Museum. Of course, we were the only ones there, except for the owners, Anna and Bozo Cordova, who opened the place a year ago and do all the auto restoration themselves. Then we had the good fortune of stopping for lunch at Joseph's, another classic Route 66 place that was opened in 1956. The T-Bird caused quite a stir there. All the customers around us went completely ga-ga. For myself, I was rediscovering the joy of the sopapilla; I ate at least 5 of them with my enchilada/relleno/chalupa combination #2.

Heading into Albuquerque, it actually started to snow. I, the Californian, of course panicked and thought we should immediately stop for the night so that we wouldn't get stuck in the snow. When she stopped cackling hysterically, Julie the Kentuckian explained that it was barely even snowing, it wasn't sticking to the ground, and it would be over in 5 minutes. I continued to insist that it was a blizzard. Guess who was right?

Anyway, at the western edge of Albuquerque we pulled into the El Vado Motel. It was absolutely adorable, like the Blue Swallow, and was supposed to be a Route 66 institution. We did the usual routine - hauling about 5 duffel bags , a computer, and three cameras into the room, then taking pains to cover the car and put it away for the night. But once we were inside, it started to become clear that the accommodations were less than ideal. The toilet wouldn't stop running, the heater didn't work, and one of the beds didn't even have sheets! Plus there was a ghost walking around on the roof! So we got spooked, re-packed up all our stuff, and flew out of there, never looking back. We gunned the engine and drove another hour in the dark to Grants, and that was all she wrote.

November 25 pictures



At the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning I am writing this update from Flagstaff, Arizona, where it is a searing 12 degrees. Not at all used to this weather, I am hunched over, complaining a lot, and praying I don't die of exposure.

Periodically, outside my window a train goes whistling by and I am reminded of another joy of traveling Route 66 that I haven't mentioned before. Route 66 generally follows the railroad, and even when it swings briefly away from the tracks it always returns before too long. Anyone who loves trains, as I do, will love the tracks, the bridges, the trestles, and that beautiful sight of a freight train cutting through the landscape alongside you. Like the old gas stations and motels, the railroads are a part of our past that thankfully have been preserved along the Mother Road.

Anyway, we put a lot of miles behind us today because we were on the interstate so much. Unfortunately, where the old road exists in Arizona, it is often rutty, cracked, and not advisable for a passenger car, let alone a brand-new one. So we had to settle for brief stints on Route 66, and brief glimpses of sections of old pavement. Luckily, though, we can still drive the old route through the towns. In Gallup at mid-morning today, we made one of our lucky stops at the Ranch Kitchen, where we spent a full two hours eating, talking with the management, and buying a few (very flat) souvenirs. I have learned that the little red "Dining and Lodging Guide" put out by the National Historic Route 66 Federation" is the most trustworthy guide to motels and eateries along Route 66. Thankfully, the Guide had recommended this place, and it was a treasure. The breakfast was perfect - I've never had such good pancakes, and the tortillas were thick and tasty. The gift shop also had some genuinely good things, not just the tacky mugs and keychains you often find in places like this. It had handmade Native American pottery, belts, great photography prints, etc. I wish I could've bought some pottery but there is not one inch of space left in this car to stuff anything with more than two dimensions. The incredibly friendly woman behind the counter couldn't figure out why I bought only items that were totally flat.

(By the way, the website for the National Historic Route 66 Federation, which I joined before embarking on the trip, is )

An absolute must-see in Gallup is the El Rancho hotel. Built in the 1930s by the brother of movie magnate D.W. Griffith, it became THE hotel of choice for movie stars of yesteryear because so many films were made nearby. The second floor walls are completely covered by autographed pictures of everyone from John Garfield to Katherine Hepburn, and the lobby is absolutely stunning.

Our next stop was the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest in Arizona. Although it cost us 50 miles out of our way to go the Petrified Forest, it was a mission we absolutely had to undertake. You see, Dina, a friend, had purloined a piece of petrified wood when she moved out to California over a decade ago, and because it had weighed on her conscience ever since that sinful day, she had given us the Piece of Pilfered Petrification and asked us to return it it to its rightful place.

The kidnapped wood has now been put back in its home, with its new family. It was a bit of an unnerving experience returning the thing, because the rangers are extremely strict around here about the high penalties for taking things into or out of the Petrified Forest, and the fine is $250. It's posted and written in about 500 places and yet SOME people, like Dina, apparently insist on flouting the law! When we entered through the gates we were point-blank asked whether we were bringing any rocks into the park, and we had to blatantly LIE, even though we were doing a good deed! I then had to smuggle the rock in under my jacket, make sure absolutely no one was around, and then drop it in with a bunch of other rocks that were MUCH bigger! I felt somewhat mortified that Dina's little rock looks kind of silly in there among the big ones, but what can ya do. If you look at the photos, I've marked the newly returned rock with a red arrow.

From there we moved on to Holbrook so that we could see the Wigwam Motel, which has been in existence since the 1940s. The owner - whose father started the motel - came out to see the car. A man passing by on the sidewalk asked if it was a Mercedes.

Then I made one of my favorite stops of the whole trip, in Winslow, where I got to stand on a corner. This may not seem to be an exciting proposition to many people, but anyone who loves rock and roll will know what I mean. Being a musician, I just HAD to go find the spot mentioned in the Eagles' "Take It Easy": "Well, I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see..." And lo and behold, at the corner of 2nd and Kinsley stands a statue of a guitarist in front of a gorgeous mural that includes the "girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford." I just loved standing on that corner with my arm around that guy in the statue. Okay, I'm bizarre.

A brief stop in Meteor City to see a 66-foot mural painted by Route 66 aficionado Bob Waldmire, another stop in Winona just to get a picture because I want a photo of every town mentioned in Bobby Troup's song "Route 66," and we finally landed in Flagstaff. An elderly gentleman in the motel lobby saw the car and exclaimed. "Wow! That's an old sucker!"

Did I mention that it's 12 degrees?

November 26 pictures



We left Flagstaff in a hurry on Tuesday morning, forsaking even the free continental breakfast when we discovered that it was snowing, and a woman in the lobby said that it was 2 degrees. I have my doubts about that figure, as the "Ext. Temperature" display on the T-Bird never got below 16, but still, I've never been in 16-degree weather. Fearing that the precious computer would freeze in its usual place wedged inside the "boot" in the trunk, we now gave it a new place in the car -- on the floor on the passenger's side, alongside the guidebooks, cameras, and everything else stored there. At this point, whoever rides shotgun has to do it in a fetal position.

Of course, one of the beautiful things about this country is that you can travel from the high mountains to the low desert in a matter of a couple of hours, and I watched the temperature rise from 16 to 60 as we dropped down into the Arizona desert and crossed the border into Needles -- always the hottest spot in California. Somewhere along the way I heard that the road from Seligman to Topock, Arizona, is the longest continuous stretch of Route 66 -- perhaps about 160 miles. I was happy to be able to finally get off the interstates here in the West, and to drive the Mother Road through such stark country. Dipping into the desert out of Goldroad, we negotiated miles of curves, switchbacks, and narrow road, with steep dropoffs just inches away. The guidebook talks about what this was like many years ago, when travelers would be "competing with trucks, buses, and the locals who drove between Oatman and Goldroad in reverse because of their gravity-fed fuel systems. . . . Imagine, if you will, coming down this stretch of road in the old Hudson. Mom is clinging for her life to the door on the passenger side. Dad is wheeling as best he can, a truck breathing down his back and the switchbacks getting worse with each turn. Suddenly, around a curve ahead, is the rear of a Model-T coming toward you. The driver is pushing 20 miles-an-hour in reverse, his head hanging out the window as he guides the flivver up the road . . . . How are your nerves, Dad?" [Bob Moore and Patrick Grauwels, Illustrated Guide to the Mother Road]

(By the way, Oatman is an interesting town. After passing through miles of ghost towns, you come upon Oatman and the main street is absolutely TEEMING with elderly tourists and donkeys. They're all there in the middle of the road, the donkeys and old folks seemingly mingling, yakking it up, and having a party.)

We stopped in Williams for food at Twisters Soda Fountain, another adorable Route 66 café, but alas in the winter they do not serve breakfast. There just isn't much business along the road this time of year. So we ended up eating at the Copper Cart Cafe in Seligman. There was no one there but the friendly waitress, the cook, and an older gentleman they called "Grandpa" but who seemed to be just another of the locals. I ordered the "Copper Cart Skillet," which turned out to be an enormous heap of oddly-juxtaposed food that was bigger than a man's head. Eggs, corn, potatoes, and about 40 pieces of chicken-fried chicken, each one an inch square. Imagine that. Forty pieces. I'm a hearty eater, but I barely made a dent in the pile.

We could have eaten at the Route 66 icon in Seligman -- the Snow Cap Drive-In -- but it was being inundated by a group of Australians who'd just gotten off a tourist bus. It seems that people from other countries are perhaps even more appreciative of the Mother Road than we are. Sometimes Americans forget the respect we need to have for our own traditions and institutions. In parts of this country Route 66 has fallen into great neglect, and we need to make sure it doesn't continue to deteriorate. It was, in fact, through the persistent efforts of Seligman's Angel Delgadillo that the Arizona Route 66 Association was started. Angel at one time owned -- and maybe still does -- the barber shop in town, and his brother Juan owns the Snow Cap. I do know that for a fact, as I saw him shuffle out of his house (he's no spring chicken) and get ready for the onslaught of tourists. The back of his restaurant is something to behold, and the photos don't even do it justice.

Just before stopping for the night in Barstow, we passed through Bagdad and Newberry Springs. Bagdad ---- which used to be the home of the real Bagdad Café that inspired the movie of the same name -- was once a rail town, like so many of the old Route 66 towns, but it dried up in the 60s, and apparently vandals decimated the Café in the 70s. Now there is nothing left of Bagdad except a tree. The movie was actually shot in Newberry Springs, and THAT café is still there. It looks just about the same inside, and it is still populated with odd characters, to say the least. The "waiter" was so laid back that he casually took away my menu after I gave him my order for a beer. Later I had to ask if I could possibly have some food. As I was eating my burger, I got engaged in a conversation with the (by then) only other person in the café, a white-haired, white-bearded gentleman who, it was obvious, was crazy as a loon. For whatever reason, I always have an affinity for these people. At one time he was a little boy climbing trees like everyone else. Then at some point, something happened. I wonder what brought him here, really, and what he used to do? He told me that he was around in 1887, that he'd built the Golden Gate Bridge, that he was in Bagdad to avenge the murder of his family, and that he had taken many trips into the stratosphere. Hey, I'm jealous. Who wouldn't want to be a frequent visitor to the stratosphere?

November 27 pictures



On Wednesday, November 28, I finally reached the end of the Mother Road.

And though we started out back in Barstow early in the morning, I knew I was getting close to Los Angeles when the top news stories on KTLA was Cher's garage sale.

Breakfast was spent at the Summit Inn outside of Victorville, California. As usual, the café was almost empty except for the truckers who came in for a break, all of them discussing the yellow T-bird out in the parking lot, and how it might compare with the Corvette, and then going on to reminisce about all of the cars they had owned and all of the engines they had worked on, throughout their lives. The food was outstanding. As usual, I had a normal breakfast of a waffle, eggs, and bacon. And as usual, Julie had a bizarre morning meal of chili, a burger with onions, and an ice-cold Coke. Lord.

From that point on it was actually kind of a tortuous day, as the rest of Route 66 now is just a busy boulevard that runs through San Bernardino and then for miles down into Los Angeles. It took SEVEN hours to drive those few remaining miles, and it was tempting to jump on the interstate and get out to the coast in an hour or so, but I persisted. I wanted to make sure I finished driving to the true end of the Mother Road.

Well, I've worn the same socks for a week; my cholesterol has GOT to be over 300; and my uncut hair looks like Ringo-Starr-meets-Bozo-the-Clown. This is the end of the line. A bittersweet end for me, but it was certainly a joyous ending for the Dust Bowl travelers who saw the orange groves of the L.A. basin for the first time. For me, my reward was to see the orange sky over the Pacific Ocean at sunset in Santa Monica.

One thing all of us have been brutally reminded of this year is that it is all too easy to make our way blindly through the minutiae of daily life. But we live in a gorgeous country whose past and present we need to respect and cherish. All of it is out there to experience: the roads, the burger joints, the friendly motels, the abandoned buildings, the farmhouses, the autumn leaves, the canyons, the desert, the sun setting over the ocean.

This land was made for you and me.

November 28 pictures