Nostalgia: Pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again. — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Route 66 represents nostalgia in mythic proportions. It harkens back to an earlier era— back before the hustle and bustle of modern-day freeways, back before the advent of McDs, BKs, and numerous other fast food restaurants, and back before cell phones insisted that we keep in contact with anyone and everyone all the time, even when on the open road.
It is a blue highway incarnate, and, as I am sure you have figured out, I am a blue highway kind of guy. When I was planning my bike trip, I designed it to follow some of the loneliest, bluest roads in the US and Canada. Of course there were compromises, Las Vegas being a glaring example. And there were times when my only option was to climb onto a freeway. As I followed busy Boulder Highway up and out of Las Vegas, however, it was Route 66 and North America’s other historic byways that I was dreaming of.
I worked my way up to Railroad Pass, which marks the dividing line between Las Vegas/Henderson and Boulder City. It had been a long haul out of Vegas so breakfast at the Railroad Casino seemed in order. The casino has been there forever and lacks the glamor of its Las Vegas cousins. It even came with an old-fashioned café. I ordered one of my favorites: sausage, two eggs over medium, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee. It cost four bucks. I left with a happy tummy and a smile on my face, retrieved my bike from the post it was locked to, and headed for Hoover Dam, keeping an eye out for the Desert Big Horned Sheep that hang out in the mountains above the highway.
“Watch the road, Curt!” I admonished me. Do you talk to yourself? I always have. Riding on a bike for six months by myself made me much more fluent, or maybe the word is verbose.
There is a fun story about the Big Horn Sheep in the area that I related in an earlier blog but is worth repeating here. A small park is located just off the road that bypasses Boulder City to Hoover Dam. The bright green grass beckons to the sheep up on the mountainside during Nevada’s hot, dry summers and down they come. I’ve stopped by a couple of times to photograph them. An acquaintance of my friend Ken Lake lives across the road from the park and related this tale.
The path the sheep follow down to the park passes right by a house that has a shiny, aluminum garage door. One day the herd ram noticed another large ram in the door— staring back at him, challenging him. Here was competition for his lovely ewes! This wasn’t to be allowed, of course, so he reared up and charged the door full tilt, crashing into it with his mighty horns. But the other ram was still standing, albeit a bit beat up. So he charged again and then again. The door was trashed. Apparently the owner had a hard time persuading his insurance agent how the damage was caused.
Peggy and I have a similar problem at our home in Oregon. The big tom turkeys that live in the forest like to parade their harems through our yard. The largest of the toms has discovered the turkey that lives in the bumper of our Toyota Tacoma pickup. He is not happy. I’ve seem him stand in front of the bumper for thirty minutes at a time, fluffing out his feathers, sticking out his neck in a loud gobble, and pecking the bumper. The other turkey fluffs his feathers, sticks out his neck and pecks right back. All of this would just be humorous except the big tom goes looking for the other turkey. He flies up, lands in the pickup bed… and poops. Admittedly, turkey poop isn’t as traumatic as having your garage door trashed, but it is copious and messy. The tom and I have had several discussions about my love of roast turkey.
I was yet unaware of the Big Horn Sheep and a long way off from owning a wilderness retreat in Oregon when I cycled by the park on my bike trip. I made my way down to Lake Mead and crossed over Hoover Dam. Looking out over the lake and the distant drop on the far side from a bicycle was quite an experience. If I were to cross the dam today on my bike, TSA would stop me at its check point and make me empty out my panniers to determine whether I was a mad bomber. Why else would someone bike across the dam— and up the other side?
The climb out was hot and steep, filled with hairpin turns, autos and large RVs. I sweated all of them, so to speak. Reaching the top, I was faced with another challenge, miles and miles of sizzling, desolate desert with minimal facilities. My kind of country.
I biked on, catching far off views of the Colorado River and then picking out a distant mountain to bike toward. As I reached my goal, the sun began to set, and warm breezes turned slightly cool. It was time to search for a home. Unfortunately, a sturdy fence blocked easy access to the desert. I wasn’t particularly interested in being caught climbing over. There are a lot of guns in Nevada. A kindly dirt road came to my rescue. I took advantage of a break in traffic and zipped down it and into a dry gulch, the perfect hiding place— as long as it didn’t rain and the local rattlesnake was elsewhere. I fired up my backpacking stove, made a cup of coffee, added a dash of 151 proof rum, and downed a granola bar. Life was good. Coyote music lulled me to sleep.
I was up early in the morning and out before the traffic. Fifty-miles later I was in Kingman, Arizona, a town bursting with pride about its Route 66 heritage, and hoping to harvest a bundle of tourist dollars because of it. I grabbed a room in a beat up old motel that claimed Route 66 vintage and prices. Following a much-needed shower, I headed out to follow the road through the town and absorb some of its ambience.
The next day found me absorbing much more as I left the town behind and made my way east on what was once one of America’s main cross-country routes. Today it is a quiet road. The majority of the people traveling east and west are zipping by on Interstate 40, rushing toward whatever destination/destiny awaits them.
When I think of Route 66, I think desert. When I was a small boy, I was enthralled by my grandfather’s subscription to “Arizona Highways.” It often featured Route 66, and it featured deserts. My first acquaintance with the highway was when I was driving west from Atlanta in 1968 and followed portions of it through Arizona, including the one I was biking on.
My route for the day took me on a gentle climb up through arid lands with views of mesas along the way. Occasional creeks were teaming with life that was seeking the desert’s most treasured commodity, water. I passed by ramshackle old buildings that had seen their heyday in the 40s and 50s. I waved at the few cars that passed me, either locals going about their business, or romantics like me, seeking a taste of a bygone era. A train whistle receding into the distance fit right in. I ended my day at the Grand Canyon Caverns, a tourist attraction of the early Route 66 that still pulls in visitors today.
Note: If you are new to this series, my wife Peggy and I are retracing my 1989 bike route, this time in our van. Most of the photos come from our present trip.
NEXT BLOG: I will feature the rest of my bike trip across Arizona, including a very scary one a.m. invasion of a motel room I was sleeping in.