Four Corners #01 - Bakersfield, Barstow, Route66, Chinle

December 04, 2023  •  1 Comment

October 2023

Four corners October 2023 - #01 Barstow to Chinle

This travel-blog is for a one week driving trip we took to the four corners area of the USA.  The main destinations on this trip are Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley with some other stops along the way.  Unlike my previous travel articles which mostly talk about the destinations and cultures, I’m going to include more observations, anecdotes and remembrances than one typically finds in travel articles including some text on old Route-66 and how I remember family trips on that storied road as a kid. 

Entire Trip map
16 Map 1 - Full Trip16 Map 1 - Full Trip

This edition takes us from our home base in Palo Alto CA to Chinle AZ which is the gateway city for Canyon de Chelly.  The drive from Palo Alto to Chinle is about 14 hours (not including stops) which we spread over 2 days stopping overnight in Barstow.

In this episode I’ll talk about finding food on I-5, Barstow, trains, Route-66 now and then and Chinle

Palo Alto to Chinle map
17 Map 2 - Palo Alto to Chinle17 Map 2 - Palo Alto to Chinle

 

Planning for the trip

Although this trip was in mid October which is near the end of the travel season for these areas and certainly well after the peak tourist season, we did the planning and started making reservations in May.  Even so, we were too late to secure lodgings at our desired accommodations at Monument Valley (The View Hotel inside the park).  I’m not sure how early one must make reservations these days to get desired hotels in popular areas but it’s looking like 9 to 12 months is the new normal or even longer for peak travel season .

We knew we wanted to do a driving trip after the prime tourist season but before the Halloween to New Years Eve holiday chaos so this put us in October.  But we were not quite sure where we wanted to go.  Of course due to potential cold and snow at that time we figured heading into the southwest was more likely to yield good driving and sightseeing weather than heading north or northeast. 

One concern we had was that due to the make up of the dysfunctional Congress it looked quite likely that there would be a lengthy government shutdown starting on October first.And as this would close all the National Parks for an unknown period of time we decided it was best to avoid such parks which ruled out the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and several other National Parks in the southwest (most of which we’d been to one or more times anyway).  But, Tribal Parks (even those jointly administered by the US government) would not be affected by a government shutdown.  So, we targeted Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley as our prime destinations.  And we made our reservations.

All through the summer Congress edged closer and closer to an October shutdown and the weather where we were going kept getting hotter and hotter breaking all time records along the way.  In the area we were heading it was well into the 100’s and over 110 pretty much every day through August and September and even into October.  We don’t do well with 100+ degree temperatures when touring outdoor landscapes.  So, when it was still over 100 a week before our trip it was more than a bit concerning.  But, the weather gods were looking kindly on us and a few days before our departure the SW heat wave broke and daytime highs came down to the upper 60;s and low 70’s just like they were supposed to – perfect.  The evenings were chilly (40’s) but that’s grand as we are usually not out and about at that time.  I would have liked more big white puffy clouds for my photography rather than cloudless skies but cloudless skies are certainly a better option for us these days than rain or 100+ degree days.

 

On to Barstow

The first leg of our trip was getting from the San Francisco area to the Four Corners area.  As all of our south and southwest bound driving trips do, this started by driving south on US-101 from Palo Alto, then over the beautiful rolling hills of Pacheco Pass and dropping down into the agricultural Central Valley. 

Pacheco Pass (image courtesy of Google Maps)
01 Pacheco Pass (Google Maps Street View)01 Pacheco Pass (Google Maps Street View)

From there we headed south on the interminably boring I-5 toward LA while watching the fields of nut and fruit trees roll by interspersed with massive fields of other crops.  As we drove, we tried to guess what they were growing in these fields with no way of verifying our guesses unless a sign showed up.

Leaving the Bay Area around 9:00 am always puts us near Bakersfield at lunch time and this is always a dilemma.  The restaurant options along I-5 are either fast food from the big chains (Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Etc.) or big chain restaurants (Denny’s, Applebees, Etc.).  And trying to find a decent restaurant in Bakersfield itself that is not too far off our course and not in a sketchy part of town has always been a challenging proposition and never quite successful – even with all our smart phone capabilities.

As we drove down I-5 I vaguely recalled a decent non chain family style restaurant right by an I-5 exit that was not bad.  We had stumbled upon this place during a previous trip to LA a number of years ago but of course could not recall its name or what exit it was.  We had looked for it a couple of times on subsequent trips but without luck, so maybe this time we could find it.  I just recalled that it was near Bakersfield and a bit beyond where we normally got off for lunch.  So, determined to find it again I went past our normal exit (and the exit the GPS suggested for this trip).  We thought we’d found it on our mapping app at the following exit so we exited the freeway.  But, wrong again. We’d been to this place before when looking for the one we were really after and although not a chain and maybe a step up from the hamburger/chicken joints Wild Jack’s Tex Mex BBQ was still in the fast food category.  But, here we were so we ate there anyway.   Maybe we’ll find the place we’d been looking for the next time through the area – assuming it survived Covid and was still there (wherever “there” is).

We then left I-5 and turned east toward Bakersfield, wrestled our way through town and started up the Tehachapi Pass.  Once out of Bakersfield, this is a good 4 lane road that climbs up a lovely grassy valley as the road plays tag with a railroad line off to the right.  Along the way we pass massive wind farms with giant blades turning slowly in the breeze.  Freight trains of 50+ cars are spotted from time to time laboring up the hill with 5 to 7 locomotives or riding the air brakes going the other way down into Bakersfield. 

Sometimes along this route you can spot the “Tehachapi Loop”.  This is a spiral-shaped section of track completed in 1876 to lessen the steepness of the grade.  The loop is approximately ¾ miles long, and trains traveling on it pass over themselves as they complete the loop.  It’s a bit hard to spot from the road, but if you know it’s there and keep your eye out for it you can sometimes spot it and even better if there happens to be a train there at the time.

Although we’ve never done it, if you exit CA-58 at Keen (exit 139), then head east on Woodford-Tehachapi Rd for about 3.2 miles you can find the Tehachapi Loop Scenic Overlook.  It looks like the photo below was taken from there.

Tehachapi Loop (image from www.asce.org website)
19 Tehachapi Loop19 Tehachapi Loop

 

Arial view (Image by Keavon Chambers, public domain)
20 Tehachapi Loop Aerial20 Tehachapi Loop Aerial

After ascending out of the central valley you are in the Mojave (high) desert with even more wind farms.  Along the way we pass the Mojave Air and Spaceport at Rutan Field in Mojave, California.  This is the first facility to be licensed in the United States (certified as a spaceport by the Federal Aviation Administration) for horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft.  The spaceport has become a significant center for the commercial spaceflight industry with several private aerospace companies such as Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch, and Masten Space Systems having used the facility for testing and launching their spacecraft.

Rutan Field is also used as an offsite parking lot for commercial airlines as well as an airline junk yard.  Many dozen commercial airline planes are parked there wingtip to wingtip waiting peak travel season or waiting to be disassembled for parts.  This spot is ideal for such a parking lot as it is close to LA and SF which feed the Asia Pacific air routes as well as most of the western US.  It rarely rains and the air is very dry so the planes tend to stay in relatively good condition over long periods of time.

Rutan Field Airline Storage (Images courtesy of Flickr and Google)
21 Mojave Airline Storage21 Mojave Airline Storage

Rutan Field Airline Storage (Images courtesy of Flickr and Google)
22 Mojave Airline Storage 222 Mojave Airline Storage 2

Continuing along CA-58 toward Barstow, we pass not far from Edwards Air Force base where several Space Shuttle missions landed when the weather in Florida was not suitable. 

We also passed by the little town of Hinkley which you may have heard of.  Hinkley was made famous by the fact based 2000 movie “Erin Brokovich” staring Julia Roberts.  The movie chronicles the investigation of ground water contamination caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) involving the highly toxic chemical hexavalent chromiumby.  The investigation was conducted by a legal aid working for a small law firm in Los Angeles.  This contamination resulted from the operation of a natural gas compressor station owned by PG&E and the toxin permeated the water supply throughout the whole town.   The case eventually led to a settlement in which PG&E agreed to pay $333 million in damages to affected residents. The company also committed to cleaning up the contaminated groundwater in the area.  As of 2015 (20 years after the lawsuit was won) the clean up of the ground water is still underway.  However, most of the residents have moved away and Hinkley is now just a few scattered homes and acres of alfalfa and other grasses planted to help clean the contamination.

Barstow

Our first overnight on this trip was in Barstow CA, about an hour west of the Arizona and Nevada border.  It seems we always wind up with a night in Barstow whenever we go into the desert southwest and we always seem to wind up at a Best Western by the intersection of I-15 that goes up to Las Vegas and I-40 which heads East through northern Arizona and New Mexico.

Although not incorporated until 1947, Barstow really got its start much earlier when the tracks for a transcontinental railroad made it to the area in 1883.  This was the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which later became part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) and is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) which is the largest railroad company in the country. 

But why did they choose this place in the middle of a god forsaken desert for the location of a major rail yard and maintenance facility?  Well, there are several reasons.  First of all there is access to water required by steam locomotives.  But topography played the most important factor.  This location turned out to be where the rail line from the east split with one leg heading southwest to Los Angeles and Southern California and the other leg heading northwest into the Central valley and points north.  When the northern transcontinental rail lines are snowed in this line is also used to access Oregon and Washington.  So, they needed a large switch yard to separate the westbound rail cars into those going SW from those going NW.   Another topographical factor is that to the east it is mostly flat desert where they can run very long trains (100+ cars), but to the southwest and northwest the rail lines have to navigate steep grades between the high desert where Barstow is to the near sea level elevation of Los Angeles and the agricultural Central Valley.  Navigating these grades require much shorter trains as well as extra locomotives on each train to deal with the steep grades – both going up and going down.

With all these trains being reconfigured, locomotives being added or removed, and the wear and tear on the equipment pulling and pushing these trains up steep grades or keeping them in check going down those same steep grades the other way, there was the need for a major maintenance facility.  And so, Barstow developed.

Barstow Train Switching Yard (Image by Jim Thompson, licensed through Pixels.com)
Barstow Rail Yard 9Barstow Rail Yard 9

Route 66 revisited

But trains are not the only story of the area.  It wasn’t long in American History till highways started being built.  In most cases in the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi, inter-city roads followed major rail lines.  As most towns were on these rail lines, the roads tended to be town to town sections that just naturally developed from people following the same path with their wagons and horses over periods of time.  These were mostly just dirt ruts but sometimes a county or state would provide some improvements such as some gravel or pavement, but for the most part these were just rural dirt roads.  Before the 1920’s, these ‘roads’ were generally not numbered and were only known by the town names at either end of a section of dirt road.  With such a naming system, a road would change its name each time it passed through a town.  But, that didn’t really matter as there were no signs or markers showing the name anyway. 

Sometimes a traveler could find a booklet explaining how to get from one place to another.  Many times these booklets were written through hearsay by people who had never been anywhere near the area they were describing.  Getting totally lost was as prevalent for those with these books as for those without them.  Whether you used a booklet or just asked locals for directions, the instructions used landmarks to direct the traveler since there were no signs or road numbers.  You’d find things like “bear left at the fork in the road by a big Oak tree a bit past a dry creek where there is a broken wagon by the side of the road.”  This was quite a bit more challenging to follow than a giant green sign over your lane saying “Las Vegas, I-15 exit left 1 mi.”

But then in the mid 1920’s the US government decided that having a national road system would be good for commerce and tourism as it would allow people to follow marked and numbered roads long distances on paved highways. And so they created the US Highway system.  One of the first routes under this new program was the famous Route 66, also known as the "Main Street of America" or the "Mother Road."  It ran from Chicago, through the Midwest farmlands of Illinois, the rolling hills of the Missouri Ozarks, through the mining towns of Kansas, across Oklahoma where the woodlands of the East meet the open plains of the West, through the open ranch lands of Texas, then the colored mesa lands of New Mexico and Arizona, through the Mojave Desert, and finally to the “milk and honey” land of metropolis Los Angeles winding up at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.

Photographing RT-66
25 A7R5-#0497725 A7R5-#04977

Route-66 played a significant role in the development of the American Southwest and became an iconic route for travelers, connecting many communities and serving as a major transportation corridor for decades.  The “US Highway System” was generally 2 lane roads which went through the center of every town along its route.  These highways were clearly, and frequently, marked with distinctive shield shaped signs containing the road number.  You could get on Route-66 in Chicago and follow the same route number signs all the way to Santa Monica many days later without once having to look for an old Oak tree just past a bit past a dry creek, or finding a left turn at the red barn.  And, as most all of these were paved, you could whoop it up to 35 or 45 miles per hour and not be shaken to death by the ruts and washboard surfaces of dirt roads or choked to death by dirt road dust of passing cars and trucks.

Route-66 was officially decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1985 due to the development of the Interstate Highway system which are all multi lane limited access (no cross streets) highways.  In the desert SW it was I-40 which replaced US-66, but the Route-66 legacy lives on as a symbol of American road travel in the 1940’s 50’s and 60’s.

Even though US-66 was decommissioned and replaced by Interstate highways, there are still many drivable sections of old US-66 through parts of Arizona and California (among others) which were not buried under the new interstate.  Many of these sections have remnants of abandoned and decaying gas stations, restaurants, motels and even towns.  Some towns like Oatman and Seligman have cashed in on the Route 66 mystique and nostalgia where they have resurrected these old buildings (or built new ones to look like the old ones) to cater to the tourist trade. 

In NW Arizona there are several good size sections of old Route 66 where I-40 didn’t follow the old US-66 right of way.  Here are two of them between the CA border and the Flagstaff.  I’m sure there are many more in other regions.

AZ-10 from Topock (where I-40 crosses the CA/AZ border) to Kingman, AZ.  This 60 mile stretch today takes about 1hr 40min without stops.  It is mostly flat desert till you get near Oatman but then it climbs into the Black Mountains.  Oatman is still an operating town catering to the Route-66 tourists with old buildings still in use including restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels. Oatman was also the reason that US-66 went over the Black Mountains rather around them as I-40 does today.  When the US-66 route was being laid out, Oatman was a prosperous gold mining town.  Through heavy lobbying (and most likely some of that gold finding its way into politicians pockets), an alignment that passed right though Oatman was selected – even though it was anything but practical.  And, if you think about it, had RT-66 followed the path now used by I-40, this entire stretch of old RT-66 would not exist.

Oatman, AZ (taken on a 2013 trip)
Antique Shop, Old Rt-66, Oatman AZAntique Shop, Old Rt-66, Oatman AZ

Oatman, AZ (taken on a 2013 trip)
Harleys and Hotel, Old Rt-66, Oatman AZHarleys and Hotel, Old Rt-66, Oatman AZ

This section of Route-66 includes the Sitgreaves Pass over the Black Mountains.  Although not the highest point on Route-66 - which after 1942 was just west of Flagstaff at 7,335 feet - it was the most challenging to drive.  This is a very winding road including hairpin curves with several long very steep grades of up to 12% between descents into small valleys.  Even though Sitgreaves pass is only 3,100 feet higher than Topock, once you add in all the ups and downs, long steep grades, summer temps over 100 degrees, and the lousy cooling systems in cars of the era it was given great respect by drivers and approached with caution.  In today’s cars though you hardly notice such steep driving conditions – even with the AC on.  We’ll talk more about this a bit later in this article.

AZ-66 from Kingman to Seligman AZ.  This is a 73 mile stretch that today takes about 1hr 15min.  The road passes through many small towns and passes many ruins of abandoned buildings.  One of these places is Hackberry which is an old gas station and café turned tourist attraction and museum.

Promotional signs just before getting to Hackberry
Hackberry PromoHackberry Promo

Hackberry, AZ
route 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZroute 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZ

Museum/gift shop in Hackberry
Route 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZRoute 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZ

Hackberry, AZ
Route 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZRoute 66, Desert Rest stop, Hackberry, AZ

This section of old US-66 meets up with I-40 at Seligman but you can continue on old US -66 (Now AZ-66) another 15 miles to where it meets up with I-40 again and ends.  Seligman, being right next to I-40, is a flat-out, no holds barred out and out tourist trap.  It is over the top ticky-tacky-cutesy taken to the extreme.  In other words the poster child of a tourist trap perfectly made for the i-Phone selfie crowd.  If you are trying to make time on I-40 and want a taste of Route-66 taken to the extreme, pop off here for 30 minutes and look around.

Elvis and ??? in Seligman (2011 trip)
Complete with chair to sit in for your selfie
08 7d001-#596908 7d001-#5969

Props in Seligman, AZ (2011 trip)
1950's camping, Seligman, AZ1950's camping, Seligman, AZ

Possibly and old Indian brand motorcycle?  Seligman, AZ (2011 trip)
Classic motorcycle, Seligman, AZClassic motorcycle, Seligman, AZ

No comment.  Seligman, AZ (2011 trip)
Kind of hard to tell the tourists from the mannequins
07 7d001-#596307 7d001-#5963

But even if you don’t have time to drive one of those long old US-66 sections there are loads of short sections of old Route-66 just off of I-40 with ruins and remnants which have not been commercialized.  Just keep your eyes peeled as you approach interchanges in the middle of the desert which have no apparent reason for being there and have nothing there except perhaps a gas station.  Many times these exits let you access Old Route-66 paralleling the freeway a few hundred yards away.  One example is Ludlow (52 miles east of Barstow on I-40) where there is just an exit with a gas station.  Here is a Route-66 section paralleling I-40 and within a mile east on old 66 is the old abandoned remnants of Ludlow.

Ludlow (from 2011 trip)
Old Cafe
Ludlow CafeLudlow Cafe

Abandoned homestead.  Probably for the owner of the café and gas station
Ludlow Ghost HouseLudlow Ghost House

Abandoned gas station
Ludlow Gas StationLudlow Gas Station

Remembering the 1950’s

As our Motel in Barstow on this trip was on the main railroad line as well as on old RT-66 at the east end of Barstow and we had a few hours of daylight left, I asked the clerk if there were any old sections of the classic road nearby that might feature abandoned relics of the old highway.  He said “I think there’s a section that might have some ruins a few miles East on I-40, just past the Marine base.  Exit at Nebo Rd. and cross under the freeway”.  So off we went in search remembrances of my youth from the mid to late 1950’s.

And, indeed there was a section of old RT-66 at Nebo Rd.  We drove about 20 or 30 miles east on it but really didn’t find any ruins to photograph.  We did find some old slabs of concrete where a gas station might have been and the odd foundation where a house or store might have been, and an old structure that might have been an inspection station, but time and progress hadn’t left much.

In the 1950’s our family lived in Los Angeles and as we were mostly at the lower end of middle class at the time, our vacations were always of the driving/car-camping variety with perhaps a motel along the way.  We would go to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Death Valley, Joshua Tree or any number of other destinations in the Southwest that were no more than a few days drive away.  Every now and again when there was some money we’d venture farther to places like Yellowstone, Glacier, or Crater Lake.  But even though the destinations varied, the trips were all quite similar.

They were always in mid summer and we’d sweat through long hot driving days up the Central Valley in California on US-99 (no AC in those days and barely any radio) or we’d head east on US-66 across the Mojave desert and into Arizona, Nevada, and then up into Utah or head south into the desert areas south of Los Angeles
.  In the beginning, I recall a green Chevy sedan and according to this archive photo, we pulled a little flatbed trailer with a canvas tent nailed to it.  I assume we collapsed the tent for driving and piled the camping gear on top.  I don’t remember much about this car except that was very prone to overheating.

Family Image from unknown location in very early1950’s
V550-1950b-002V550-1950b-002

But mostly I remember using station wagons.  Mostly Ford’s as I recall.

1954 image at Mount Lassen.
I don’t recall this particular car but I do recognize the roof rack
02 V550-1954-#51302 V550-1954-#513

My memories of those trips are spotty as I was mostly under 10) but I do recall many things like mom and pop motels, nineteen (or even seventeen) cent hamburger joints, road side attractions like reptile zoos, and A&W root beer stands where you could get a large frosty glass mug of root beer for a nickel and on special occasions with a scoop of ice cream. 

And there were those famous Burma Shave signs that we all looked forward to stumbling upon as we cruised down a desert highway.  These were little 4 line poems where each line of the poem was on a separate sign with a 5th sign just saving “Burma Shave”.  Whenever a set of these signs came into view, we’d all sit up and read them aloud as we zoomed by.  They started out as promoting the product.  For example

 

THE HERO WAS BRAVE
AND STRONG AND WILLIN’
SHE FELT HIS CHIN
THEN WED THE VILLAIN

or

MY JOB IS
KEEPING FACES CLEAN
AND NOBODY KNOWS
DE STUBBLE I’VE SEEN
 

But later they ventured into driving topics such as

 

DON’T STICK YOUR ELBOW
OUT TOO FAR
OR IT MAY GO HOME
IN ANOTHER CAR

Or

IS HE LONESOME
OR JUST BLIND
THE GUY WHO DRIVES
SO CLOSE BEHIND

I understand that there are still a few places that have these signs (probably not originals) as in the photo below.

Photo by: John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
26 Burma Shave26 Burma Shave

Here’s a link that lists 90 of these Burma Shave poems https://thewhynot100.blogspot.com/2015/06/90-brilliant-burma-shave-signs.html

Cars in those days always seemed to have an overheating problem and driving through the Southwest deserts in the summer really stressed those old cooling systems.  After years of experience, much of it pre-dating the arrival of my brother and I, dad was pretty savvy about desert driving.  Of course this didn’t prevent the car from over heating, it is just that he tended to know how to deal with it.

There were two problems you needed to watch out for with hot or mountainous driving.  One was just plain overheating (or boiling over) which could blow a radiator hose or burst a radiator if you let it get too bad.  A second issue was something called “Vapor Lock”.  This is when things got so hot in the engine compartment that the fuel in the fuel line would vaporizes before reaching the carburetor thereby stopping the flow of gas.  If you had water, with you, boiling over could be dealt with in an hour or so, but vapor lock many times required waiting till late at night for the fuel system to start working again as pouring cold water on a hot engine was not a smart thing to do unless you desired buying a new engine.

When driving in the desert, my dad had a couple of burlap water bags that he’d hang on the front bumper where the wind would keep them cool.  When the car overheated we’d use them to refill the radiator.  In order to avoid an explosion of water and steam, we’d usually have to wait awhile by the side of the road for the engine to cool down enough to take the radiator cap off – and with any luck there’d be a shade tree nearby to block the desert sun on those 100+ degree days.  While waiting dad would hunt for a rag to keep from burning his hand when the time came to pop the radiator cap.  What you’d do is wrap the rag around your hand several times then turn the cap ¼ turn (or later lift a lever on top).  This would allow steam to escape in a controlled manner till all the pent up pressure was relieved and you could take the cap all the way off.  If you were silly enough to just unscrew the cap, the pressure would blast the cap skyward on top of a geyser of water and steam and hopefully neither the cap or scalding steam and water would hit you in the process.  But, then you’re entire family could bond while searching several hundred feet in all directions for where that airborne radiator cap had landed.

Knowing about the steep climb up to Sitgreaves Pass, on US-66 between Topock and Kingman, my dad would rent a device to keep the car from boiling over.  This was a metal tank which was a cylinder about 4 feet long and as I recall about 8 or 9 inches in diameter that he’d hang crosswise on the front bumper.  It had a little pump which he’d hook up to the battery and run a wire to a switch mounted on the triangular “vent pane” window that cars had at that time.  When turned on, water was pumped through a couple of sprayers aimed at the front of the radiator.  Cars also had a water temperature gauge on the dashboard and whenever the engine temp would get near the red line he would flip the switch to turn on the pump and spray water on the radiator and the engine temp would come back down.  As we ascended those long grades I remember the “swosh, swosh, swosh” sound of that pump which would pulse like a Rainbird sprinkler as we passed car after car on the side of the road with the hood up and steam coming out of the radiator.  Remember:  “Everybody yearns for the good old days but grandpa”.

Road to Sitgreaves Pass – current
(Photo by Georgia D. Griffiths., Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons)
Sitgreaves Pass (Georgia D. Griffiths., Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons)Sitgreaves Pass (Georgia D. Griffiths., Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an interesting factoid.  Even in the 1920’s, this pass was known to be a very steep and treacherous drive.  As such a lucrative business for locals became pulling cars over the pass with mule teams so that the car owners didn’t have to risk driving the road.  One factor that played into this was that the Ford Model “T” was a quite popular touring car in the 1920’s and was instrumental in putting everyday people on the road all across the country.   The model “T” was a bare bones vehicle priced such that a burgeoning middle class could afford them.  One of the cost saving design features was a gravity feed fuel system.  The gas tank was mounted a bit higher than the engine under the front seat and gravity would allow the gas to flow down to the engine without the need of a fuel pump.  But, on the 12% grade going up Sitgreaves Pass the engine was higher than the gas tank and you didn’t go.  Many adventurous drivers solved this problem by going up the pass backwards.  Many weren’t that good at driving around hairpin curves backward and backed right off the road.

Sitgreaves Pass,  c. 1920’s to 1940’s
I got from Barbaragregorrich.com blog.  She got from interent from an unknown sourceI got from Barbaragregorrich.com blog. She got from interent from an unknown source

Our family drove this road many times in the 1950’s without having to go up the hill backwards

In the 1950’s I remember our summer trips as being almost exclusively on 2 lane roads packed with vacationers and big trucks.  Up a hill, down a hill, round a curve, pass a truck, creep up the next grade behind a sad car laboring to pull a much too heavy trailer as we crept along at 10 mph waiting for an opportunity to pass.  No passing lanes in those days, you just had to wait for a straight-a-way with the dotted line on your side and hope for a gap in oncoming traffic big enough for you to get by the slow poke. 

As my brother and I tried to fall asleep on a bed made of foma rubber in the back of the station wagon (seat belts were still more than a decade away), I remember that with my eyes closed, the sounds of driving were magnified.  The “click-click-click” of the turn signal when passing a slower car, the “click-clack” of the foot operated high beam switch at night and the “thunk” sound as my dad flicked a switch to engage the over drive.  And, almost always the sound of the wind through open windows.

In those days every road went right through the middle of every town, usually on Main or First Street.  Sometimes it would widen out to 4 lanes in the bigger towns but it was still slow going from red light to red light.  I remember hearing my mom and dad mention town names like Baker, Kingman, Winslow, and Needles among others while staring at a paper gas station or AAA map discussing where to turn onto a different highway, or where to gas up or have dinner or find a motel. 

Between the slow slog through towns and getting stuck behind slow moving vehicles between towns, I think I heard my dad say one time that for planning purposes you could figure on averaging 30 or at most 35 mph on such a trip.  Pretty different than these days when you can average closer to 60 mph on such a trip including rest stops.

The road surfaces were usually pretty good but they did not make much of an effort during construction to widen out curves or to level out small ups and downs as they built the roads.  We called these little roller coaster sections “whop-de-doos” and sitting on a mat way back by the tail gate as kids, we got quite a bounce out of them.

Route-66 “whoop-de-doo’s”  just east of Barstow
24 A7R5-#0497424 A7R5-#04974

For a while we pulled a small tear-drop trailer where mom and dad slept with my brother and I in a tent or more often just in a sleeping bag in the back of the station wagon or on a tarp or moving mat on the ground – it hardly ever rains in the SW in the summer so just sleeping on the ground was quite viable.  We had a square wire rack on the top of the car which sat on four suction cups with tie down straps hooked to the rain gutters over the car doors.  You can see this in the prior photo of the car in 1954.  We would load up that rack with our suitcases and camping gear.  From time to time something would not be tied down well or a rope would break and something would fly off.  Sometimes we wouldn’t even know till we got to the campground and wondered where some item had gone to.  One time I recall one or two of our suitcases flying off the roof and scattering clothes along the highway in some long forgotten stretch of desert. 

But memories aside, about the only thing we found on this 2023 trip in the section of Old Route-66 just east of Barstow was a set of “Whop-de-doo’s”.  I’m 100% sure that in the 1950’s we drove this section of US-66 on our way to the Grand Canyon as well as other places so it is quite possible that this is the place where I recalled the roller coaster road.

Arizona High Desert

The next day we headed out to Chinle.  Chinle is 522 miles from Barstow and ¾ of the distance is on I-40, and even though the speed limit along I-40 in Arizona is 75 mph it’s still over an 8 hour drive to Chinle (9+ hours if you include the time zone change), 

This drive is pretty flat through the high desert of Arizona.  There are some ridges you have to go over but it is not curvy at all.  My wife finds driving through desert landscapes quite boring, but I find it engaging.  First of all, unlike driving through a forest, you can see for miles and miles to far flung mountain ranges or dried up salt flats where seasonal rains form lakes.  As you go down the highway you can watch the railroad trains go by in each direction and marvel at the plants that have figured out a way to cling to life in these harsh conditions.  If you’re lucky you may witness a bloom of wild flowers along with all sorts of cacti and other drought and heat tolerant species.  Even though you rarely see native wildlife while driving at 80mph in the daytime, you know there is an abundant number of critters staying cool and asleep in their burrows waiting for the cool of the evening. 

I like watching all the varied geology in the hills and ridges.  It seems that each ridge we go over has different rock formations, strata, and different colors than the one before.  Some are green from copper.  Others are more reddish from iron or other colors like blue or violet from other mineral deposits.  Between the ridges the road bridges over hundreds of dry washes that flood during the monsoon season.  Many of these are marked with names like “Trans Ditch”, “Bristol Mountain Wash” (no idea where Bristol Mt. is), “Orange Blossom Wash” (odd as there are no orange trees within 500 miles of here), “Bandit Gulch”, and “Marble Creek.”

Eventually I-40 climbs up out of the desert into higher ground as you approach Williams.  The earth tones of the desert give way to the greens of growing grass and proper trees including oak, and pines.  If you are heading to the Grand Canyon, this is one of the places where you can turn north for the 60 mile drive to the South Rim.  But we continued east on I-40 through Flagstaff which has another turnoff for the Grand Canyon.  Our GPS devices had us go another 12 miles on I-40 to Winona and then turn NE into Navajo reservation land.  However, as the availability of gas on the reservation was unknown, we decided to stay on I-40 a bit longer and turn north in Winslow where we were sure we could tank up before entering the reservation.  This was taking the two legs of a right triangle rather than hypotenuse at the detriment of adding one whole minute to our trip (according to Google Maps). 

So we tanked up in Winslow and headed north for the 2 hour drive up to Chinle.  Most of this drive was through Hopi and Navajo land.  The land itself didn’t look all that different but the living conditions certainly were.  The homesteads looked better than in 2011 but still pretty poor.  Unlike our earlier trips through reservation land it seemed that in this area most little clusters of houses had electricity and most of the housing looked like they were prefab construction from the government.  Just plain and simple houses.  But we passed a fairly modern regional high school, little towns with small strip malls anchored by a good sized super market-hardware store and one or two other shops of one sort or another. 

Navajo housing (Google Street view)
31 Navajo Living 331 Navajo Living 3

The Road surfaces on the non main roads were very much in need of attention.  The ones with AZ state highway numbers were pretty good but the tribal ones were pretty rough with lots of pot holes, wavy asphalt, and many times non existent center or shoulder markings.  Many sections had lumps where they tried to seal cracks with tar making it like driving over endless railroad tacks.

Navajo roads not in great shape
32 Navajo Road 132 Navajo Road 1

Even so, the not so good Hopi/Navajo roads were a far sight better than many of our CA roads – especially in urban and suburban areas.  For example, compared to the pot hole ridden CA-82 (El Camino Real) through the heart of our town makes these Hopi/Navajo roads seem smooth as glass

Chinly

If you do much research about places to visit in the 4 corners area (we were now in NE AZ) you find in addition to the natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Monument Valley, and Capital Reef (among others) there are also a large number of archeological Native American sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Montezuma’s Castle, and our next destination, Canyon de Chelly.

As we had visited all of these places other than Canyon de Chelly in the past we had a decent idea of some things.  For example, once you get near of any of these parks you start seeing signs for them along the Interstate telling you what exit to use, and then once you exit onto the smaller 2 lane roads you see signs telling you which way to go.  So, here we were 50 or 60 miles up a 2 lane road in the middle of nowhere and had still not seen anything resembling a sign.  There was no mention of either Chinle or Canyon de Chelly on I-40 either at Winona or Winslow.  Our GPS had us make a few turns after exiting the freeway and no signs for our destination were there either.  Were we on the right road?  Maybe there were two Chinle’s in different nearby states and we were headed to the wrong one?   It got so concerning that I pulled into a small strip mall to confirm with both GPS devices that we were indeed on the route to Chinle next to Canyon de Chelley as well as the correct Best Western motel – and we were.  So we pressed on, still dismayed at not seeing either of these places mentioned on any of the road signs or billboards for restaurants or motels.

It wasn’t until we were around 5 miles from Chinle that we saw our first sign that Chinle was coming up.  And, the one and only sign mentioning Canyon de Chelly was in the middle of Chinle at the turn for the park entrance.

The one and only sign mentioning the park itself
Google Street ViewGoogle Street View

It is not apparent why the park is so “un-promoted”.  This is a poor area which could certainly use tourist dollars and the park has a lot to offer (see next installment of this blog series).

The town itself is, how to say this, quite un-impressive.  There is one strip mall with a grocery store, a few gas stations, some widely spaced warehouse looking metal buildings with various sorts of industrial enterprises in them, a church or two, and a school.

There are two motels.  One is a large Best Western that has seen better days and the other is the Thunderbird Lodge by the canyon entrance that sounds good when you look at the website but which has pretty universally dismal reviews.  And the food options are even worse.  On the fast food end there is a Texas based fried chicken drive through and a Burger King.  That’s it.  In the sit down category there is a family restaurant at the Best Western, a Denny’s that somehow has achieved a new low point for the chain, a pizza place, and a cafeteria attached to the Thunderbird lodge.   All in all not much for a gateway city by a well known national/tribal park.  We’ll talk more about the food in the next article.  But, for now, after 8+ hours on the road we made it to our motel and checked in.

====================================

 

PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION O WHAT I'VE WRITTEN

This blog is posted at:

       
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2023/12/four-corners-01

Or, the whole 2023 Four Corners series here (as they are created)

       https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/keyword?k=dantravelblogfourcorners2023

Check my travel blogs for other trips here:

      https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/keyword?k=DanTravelBlog

 

Thanks for reading – Dan

 

(Images by Dan Hartford.--Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)

 

 

 

 


Comments

Bruce McGurk & Jan Cushman(non-registered)
Thanks, Dan! That is a lot of road and not a huge amount to see along the way, but great comments and history about Route 66! Loved the Tehachapi Loop. The little towns like Seligman are just great - the mannequins are hilarious. We did a road trip up to Ashland and Crater Lake this summer, and there is a great lodging in Dunsmuir near Shasta and you get to stay in a caboose that is pretty nice and eat in a dining car with pretty good food. Check it out if you go north in I-5: https://www.rrpark.com/
best to you and Ellen
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