Part 7 – Flagstaff to Williams, AZ

Friday the 7th was our 7th day on the road, and it turned out to be our best so far, though with a few moments of terror mixed in.

We decided that for the first time on the trip, we were going to make very little progress toward California, instead spending the day on two mini-road trips, first to the Grand Canyon, and then to Sedona Arizona.

The weather was once again absolutely perfect, sunny and in the low 70s, which was the ideal conditions in which to drive to the Grand Canyon with the convertible top down.  (By the way, many of you have warned me about making sure to keep up with the sunscreen, which we all did.  But after a week of mostly top-down riding in mostly sunny conditions, we were brown going on pink, but not painfully so.)

Before we went to the canyon, we drove to nearby Williams, Arizona, which is one of the old Route 66 towns that has kept its mojo, even after the interstate bypassed it.  They’ve got about a 5-block downtown, with lots of fun diners and bars and old motels, and we got a room at one of those, the El Rancho motel.  (Not to be confused with the El Rancho Hotel in Holbrook, or the dozen other El Rancho motels or restaurants that we saw on the trip.) (Again, I proved my value to our trio by reminding the guys that “El Rancho” means “the ranch.”  Then I said, “De nada,” even though neither of them had said, “gracias, senor genius hilarioso.”)

From Williams, we drove to the canyon.  I’d never seen it before, but it really is awe-inspiring.  I don’t have anything to add about it that you can’t find in a million books or tv shows or videos of trips through the canyon.  But seeing it in person was worth the trip.

One thing I did discover, though, was that my (completely rational) fear of heights has apparently gotten worse as I’ve aged.  I ended up tentatively edging out toward sturdy steel railings around most of the peaks, while everyone around me just walked right up and looked over, like crazy people.  The cousins took some pictures, and in most of them I look pretty nervous.      

I’m not sure what has caused this, though my wife has experienced something similar: she used to be a fiend for roller coasters, but now can’t take the extreme ones at all.  I’ve had a pilot’s license for 14 years, and flew an old Cessna for 10, and I never get the heebie jeebies when I’m flying as much as I did at the canyon.    

After a half-day at the canyon, we had a good lunch in a 66-themed diner back in Williams, and then decided to drive down to spend the second half of the day in Sedona.

I’d heard of Sedona before, but nothing prepared me for the gorgeous drive down a windy, 10-mile-long road that descended through the mountains to the town.   I was the lucky one with driving duties, which was both a blessing and a curse – a blessing because the Caddy just floated down that smooth road like a cloud.  A curse because with the top down, the scenery around us was amazing, but I couldn’t really take it all in as I would have liked to, because I had to keep focused on not killing us all as I negotiated all the twists and turns in the road.

I think that was the prettiest drive I’ve ever taken, partly because the landscape changed along the way.  Toward the top, it was very much like the road in Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.  As it descended, it began to resemble the Blue Ridge Parkway in Tennessee, except with more pine trees than the variety of broad-leafed trees you see in the Blue Ridge.  There was also a creek that ran beside much of the road, and a Sliding Rock park that looked just like some of the mountain roads in North Carolina. 

And by the end, the trees gave way to rock cliffs and boulders that looked like parts of New Mexico that we had just driven through.

Sedona’s a very pretty town, mostly (from what I saw) hugging the main road, nestled in a pretty narrow valley between towering rock cliffs on either side.  We walked around the shops and tourist areas, and had the required ice cream stop for the day.  The temperatures were almost to the point of being uncomfortably hot in the direct sun, but the breezes and shady areas were refreshingly cool.

Bob drove us back up the road out of Sedona, and that gave me the chance to sit in the passenger seat and take in all of the scenery that I’d only been able to steal quick glances of when I drove us down into the valley.  Especially as the light got more golden as we neared 7:00, it was absolutely beautiful.

Back up on level ground, Bob turned us back to the west, for our trip back to Williams.  And that’s when near disaster struck.

Around 7:15, just as we rounded a corner and crested a rise in the road, the lowering sun came right through a break in the trees, and sat directly on the road in front of us.  To make things worse, we were driving through a narrowed, one-lane section of the road, with a concrete Jersey barrier on the left side of the road.

All three of us went instantly blind, and Bob took his foot off the gas and did his best to shade his eyes and squint at the road ahead, which had instantly disappeared in a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-level blinding light.  As I squinted to see from the passenger side, all I noticed was the white line on the right side of the road was slowly moving away from me to the right, as the Caddy drifted leftwards.

There was a grinding, bashing noise on the left side of the car as we ran into the Jersey barrier there.  Bob jerked the wheel back to the right, and said a string of the words that I last used when the Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia.  He kept apologizing to Darryll for tearing up the car, and we were all pretty shaken.

After maybe a minute, the angle of the road changed enough that the sun wasn’t directly in our eyes any longer, and we came to an exit ramp.  Bob took it, and then pulled off on the shoulder.  Bob looked sick, and he kept apologizing, but Darryll told him not to worry about it, because whoever was driving at that moment would have been in the same situation.

Bob and I got out, and Darryll got out of the back seat, and we all walked around to the driver’s side of the car, expecting to see half a mile of American steel gashed up and dented. 

But there was not a scratch on the car!  We looked at the car, and then at each other, and then at the car again. Then we let out the breath we hadn’t realized we were holding, and laughed with relief like idiots.  We saw that the sides of both wheels on that side of the car were pretty seriously scuffed up, but there was no other damage in sight.

If you haven’t seen Jersey barriers before, they are solid concrete, but flared out at the bottom for maybe 6 inches on the road side.  That design – I realized for the first time right then — gives you the chance to hear your tires grinding against the concrete first, before the side of the car makes contact with the concrete sides.  And in this case, the barriers did their job.

I know that the same thoughts of disaster had run through all of our minds, and it’s hard to describe the feeling when we walked around and saw all of that pristine metal along the length of the car.  We laughed until our sides hurt, and Darryll and I immediately started giving Bob a bunch of crap about what a horrible a driver he was.  

Because that’s how our family rolls.

Back in Williams, we had our only sub-par meal of the trip.   But that experience was redeemed as we were leaving, and three families were waiting outside to get in.  One of them had a boy around 10 years old riding a skateboard around his family to kill time. Darryll asked the kid who was the oldest guy he’d ever seen riding a skateboard, and the kid said Tony Hawk.  (Which made us all feel even older!)

Darryll said, “I’m older and fatter than Tony Hawk, but would you believe that I can ride a skateboard?”  The kid looked skeptical, and I think he thought that Darryll was going to ask to borrow his skateboard.  So Darryll said, “Do you believe that I’d got a skateboard in that car, and can ride it right now?”

This time the kid grinned and shook his head.  So Darryll got out a long skate board that he had in the trunk – because that’s an essential item of travel for 50-something juvenile delinquents — and rode it about a half block up and down the main street of Williams, AZ.   Like Jackie Gleason, he was pretty agile for a big man, and the kid looked surprised.

Both of the families were laughing, and when they saw that Darryll pulled the skateboard from the Caddie, they came over and started asking us about it.  As just about everyone we met on the trip did, they were really enthusiastic about the Route 66 trip.

Except for an older guy, who upon hearing that we were going from Chicago to LA, said, “In that?!”  

After that we called it a night.  But if you’re ever in Williams, I recommend the El Rancho.  It’s on old-style Route 66 motel, and family run.  It’s been recently painted and was very clean, and we enjoyed talking to the young guys at the desk, who interrupted a job re-painting the parking spot lines on the parking lot to come in and check us in. 

I love hands-on small-time entrepreneurs like that! Next up: from Williams to Needles