Part 6 – Albuquerque to Flagstaff, AZ

The morning of Thursday the 6th was cool and sunny yet again, marking three consecutive days of perfect weather.  Our first stop was Petroglyph National Park.  We first stopped in at a visitor’s center which explained the petroglyphs, which are many hundreds of art works carved by early Indians into the hard surface of some basalt rocks in the area.  The Center explained that the Indians used sandstone hammers to chip off the hard, top layer of stone, creating designs that were then obvious and durable.   

We drove a short distance and parked in a lot at the base of the closest big concentration of petroglyphs.  These were scattered up and down the sides of the very steep rocky hill that formed a kind of a small mesa, with a flat surface on the top.  Bob has had two hip replacements and is not super-mobile, so he climbed up enough to see a lot of the petroglyphs, but then retreated back to the parking lot, while Darryll and I climbed the rest of the way up to the top, from where we got a panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley stretched out in front of us to the south, with the San Dinas mountains rising out of the far side of the valley.  To the northwest, we saw six long-extinct volcanoes arrayed in the distance, which was a surprise to me; I had no idea that there were a bunch of extinct volcanoes in New Mexico.    

The petroglyphs themselves are randomly scattered designs that include recognizable animals and birds, and geometric designs of various sorts.  They are interesting to me primarily because of their age – estimates we came across suggest that they range from 300 to 3000 years old – and because of the almost eerie glimpse that such things provide into people who existed so long ago, and in such different circumstances than our own.

That being said, the petroglyphs gave me two uncharitable thoughts: 

1.These Indians were not that great with art.  I mean, maybe if they had more sophisticated materials and surfaces, they might have given Renaissance painters a run for their money.  But as they stand, the petroglyphs look like stuff I could have done when I was a kid.  I swear, I saw dozens of bird petroglyphs with the same bird feet I drew in kindergarten:  a stick coming down from an unconvincing bird body, with three short, straight lines coming out at the bottom of the stick.

I know, there’s not a lot to bird feet, but come on, ancient Puebla Indians.  If I could do it, it’s not art, and if I could do it as a toddler, it’s not worth carving in such a durable form that snarky critics like me can see it in 1000 years and give it a bad review on Yelp.

Whatever that means.  I may have mentioned that I’m not great with technology, so don’t email to say that that’s not how Yelp works.  Because I say it does, and here’s my entry to prove it: “Ancient Indian petroglyphs: momentarily interesting, but overall, meh.  2 stars, only because they are so old, and I am probably grading on a ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ curve.”

2. Sandstone hammers?!  Are you kidding me, ancient Indians?  Sandstone is one of the softest of the stones.  It’s right there in the name: “sand!”  Those hammers must have been good for about 10 strikes tops, before they cracked in your hands. 

No wonder you gave up at bird feet that look like those beneath my Thanksgiving turkey drawings in 1967.  Fortunately, we had pencils, so I was able to make an awesome bird body by tracing my own hand, thus distracting from my sub-par turkey feet, and eliciting from my mom the opinion that I was a budding artist. 

The reaction from dad was a little different:

Dad: “Hey, nice octopus there, buddy.  How about you consider getting ready to play high school football, and then later on writing political sarcasm to delight the world?” 

Me: “That’s not an octopus, it’s a turkey!”

Dad: “Oh.  That explains the tentacles – those are way off.”

Me:  “Also, I’m five over here.  I don’t think there’s much I can do to start preparing for high school football right now.”

Dad: “That’s crazy talk.  Show me your three-point stance.”

And, scene.

Anyway, just as I was getting all judge-y about the ancient Indians and their less than impressive art, I was brought down a peg.  On the top of the mini-mesa, I set my phone to video and turned in a slow circle, capturing the amazing landscape around me and narrating what I saw.

Then I checked to make sure the video came out okay, and found that I’d had the picture reversed, so that I captured a solid minute and a half of my big dumb head as I turned in a circle, narrating a bunch of sights that you couldn’t see.  Because my big dumb head was in front of them the whole time. 

In my defense, you can’t see anything on a phone screen in the middle of a brilliantly sunny day.  But I still could sense the ghostly presence of ancient Indians all around me, as the wind whispered whatever in their language translates to, “Nice big, dumb head, art critic!  And great job of catching it turning in a slow circle.”     

As we drove out of Albuquerque, we got one last look at the very cool adobe architecture and desert landscape that surrounds the town.  But I did catch myself wondering whether you’d take that for granted after living there for 6 months or so.  I remember that when I moved from Illinois to Florida decades ago, I was initially entranced by palm trees and Spanish moss.  They were almost the definition of exotic strangeness to a Midwestern boy.

Fast forward a year, and palm trees were nothing special, and Spanish Moss was just airborne tree weeds.   

Also, if you don’t like earth tones, New Mexico is not for you.     

I loved it all, though.  It only got prettier when we drove out into a countryside marked by clear air and wide-open vistas that featured beautiful mesas and red rock cliffs.  A while later we stopped for a pic at the continental divide, and then kept driving until we reached Gallup.

Usually, Gallup just makes me think of polling that suggests the Joe Biden is a living, sentient person who is quite popular, beyond all evidence from all five of your senses.  (Six, if you count common sense.)  But it is a real place, and it contains the El Rancho hotel, which was very cool. 

The old hotel was built in 1930s by D. W. Griffith’s brother, to house actors and film crews making all the westerns in the area.  It has an impressive multi-story lobby done in an old cowboy style that I love.    We ate at the attached restaurant, and then got back on the road.

We made it to the Petrified Forest National Park in the early afternoon.  After checking in at the Visitor’s Center and watching a real-life archeologist working with fossils that had been dug up on site, we went off on a long drive through some absolutely gorgeous scenery of canyons and rock and scrubby plant growth.  

There are a lot more petrified logs in the park than I would have expected, and they are weirdly wonderful, looking just like logs, only made of stone.  (I know: duh!)  I remembered that I first heard about the petrified forest in my childhood, but I’d been so disappointed when I looked up pictures of the petrified logs.  I had thought that a petrified forest would be a realistic-looking, regular forest, only all the trees – branches, leaves and all –would be made of stone!  

At the end of the park, we continued on until we crossed into Arizona.  Our first stop there was Holbrook, a small town that has one of the last two wigwam-style motels.  Each motel room is shaped like a single teepee, made of a concrete-looking material rather than animal hides; each is a one-bed, one bath unit, and even though the geography and time didn’t work for us to try to stay there, it was fun to see. 

Their office had a great atmosphere, with a big fireplace, a 15-foot length of petrified tree trunk, and lots of good souvenirs.  Both cousins got their passports stamped, and we all bought a few things.

From there we drove on to Winslow, the town mentioned in the Eagles song, “Take it Easy.”  (“Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona/Such a fine sight to see/It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford/Slowin’ down to take a look at me.”)  Even though that song has been played to death – especially if you work 40 hours a week in a gift shop in Winslow, Arizona, I’m guessing – it’s still pretty sweet.  And it was cool to listen to it as we drove into town, cliches be damned!

The corner mentioned in the song has been maintained as you’d expect in a smart, free-market country.  There is a giant, iconic white shield with “Route 66” painted on it in the middle of the intersection, and an old, red flat-bed Ford parked on the corner.  A mural on the wall facing the small plaza features the town name, and the red, flat-bed Ford with a pretty blonde in the driver’s seat. 

And I am not kidding when I say that the girl in the mural looks uncannily like my lovely wife – right down to the hairstyle – when I first met her.    

There is a second painting of an open window higher up on the wall, which features the bodies of a female and male engaged in a hug, suggesting that she didn’t just “say maybe.”

Bob and I got a nice video of Darryll slow-driving the Caddy down the street and turning at the iconic corner.  Then we talked with a nice lady in the gift shop on that corner and picked up some more souvenirs. 

We drove out of Winslow as the sun was getting low, and when we got within about 20 miles of Flagstaff, the car started to buck and hesitate.  We all held our breath: this was the moment we’d been fearing might happen, when the old girl might show her age while being pushed almost 3000 miles to the west coast.   The closest gas station was a couple of miles, and we made it there just fine, though the hesitating didn’t stop. 

The fuel was as low as we’d allowed it to get so far — under a quarter of a tank, and Darryll hoped that there might be some sediment in the bottom of the tank that was gumming things up a bit.  We filled the tank and added a fuel additive.  I said a little prayer to St. Barnabus, the patron saint of mid-70s land yachts.  (Can you tell that I’m not Catholic, and don’t completely get this “patron saints” thing?)

But when Darryll turned the key, she turned over and started purring like a kitten again.  We got back on the road and arrived at Flagstaff a little after dark, with no more problems.

Next up: from Flagstaff to Williams, AZ.