Arizona has some of the longest and best preserved original spans of the Mother Road, like the stretch between Crookton Rd exit 139 and Topock. However, large chunks of it have all but disappeared, even within the last 15 years. Much of the original roadbed between Ash Fork and Flagstaff comes and goes, a ghostly path that dog-legs beside the interstate, first on one side then the other; a parallel universe, part foot trail, part grass, part shrine.
We stop at Monte Carlo (Exit 149) to get pictures of the antique trucks, and we can see the end of the original roadbed, now hidden behind an earthen berm. This is private property, so we can’t get on here. However, I really want one more, unspoiled glimpse of the view our Dust Bowl fore bearers would have seen, so we get back on the interstate and do a quick hop east to Welch Road (Exit 151). There had been a parking area here with signs, but, finding the other end of this section today is an even greater challenge than it had been before. Either this particular spot or our memories has significantly changed. We look for the barrier in front of the road and the sign that warned sightseers to travel on what was left only on bicycles.
Perhaps others paid about as much attention to it as we did, because both the sign and the barrier are gone. OK, I’ll admit it now, we did drive our truck (carefully) on the 3+ miles of deteriorating road. A newer asphalt had covered the original Portland Concrete, but remained surprisingly intact, considering its 30 year history of inattention. We finally find it today, but sadly, the additional fifteen years has done its duty of reclaiming the land. In spite of that, following that undulating ribbon is still a surreal experience for me. For some reason, at this spot, the Road’s history feels more tangible than at any other. Maybe it’s the unchanged vista, maybe it’s the isolation, but I feel like her ghosts still chase their dreams across this one-time funnel of migration.
Here are my notes from the 2000 article:
“…Finding the road proves to be part of the adventure, as we swing east, and eventually locate the historic marker among the junipers…The actual roadbed lies a smidgen further east, allowing us a miniscule glimpse of her pragmatic past. An un-sanitized, follow-the-lay-of-the-land course, three-plus miles long, holding her own, in spite of nearly three decades of neglect. No cut-down hills here, it’s up and down like a gentle roller coaster. We dodge bushel-basket deep potholes and heaved-up chunks of concrete. I have a sudden urge to lay both hands on what’s left of the old blacktop to…ummm…I don’t know…absorb some of its survival power…maybe.”
A lot of that purity has been lost, for sure, but I expect that the hilltop views on most of it are the same. Admittedly, not everyone grooves on spots like this like I do, but I find it worth the side trip. I would not recommend exploring this section with anything less than a high clearance SUV, truck or 4WD. Apparently, though, we are not the only ones feeling the pulse of the past today because we meet two more trucks exploring the same route. We backtrack west and find our way toward Exit 149, but then just turn around, even though we can actually see the exit at Monte Carlo.
Heading back toward Williams on I-40, we get off on SR 64, the road that leads to the Grand Canyon. Within the first mile, we turn left at the sign for the campground at Kaibab Lake. We’ve camped south of Williams for years, but never north of I-40. And, we discover, we’ve been missing a gem, Kaibab is a pretty little mountain lake, complete with a day use area and a National Forest campground. It’s a stocked trout lake, and requires a fishing license but no longer a trout stamp. If we had a boat, we could launch it from the ramp. Because it’s cold and rainy, we don’t hike the trails, but clearly the overlooks would provide some great views and photo ops.
Located on the Colorado Plateau, the lake settles in at 6,800’ elevation. That means accessibility can be governed by season and weather, so we’d have to check with the forest service and reserve before heading there. Nights can get downright chilly, even in summer. We’ll also bring a sweater for campfire and star gazing nights. When we lived in Phoenix, we were always a bit shocked to live in 110 summer degrees and then travel three hours north and need a jacket. But it’s where Valley people love to go to cool off. We’ll definitely have to try it out soon.
We retrace our route, find old Route 66 just north of I-40 and head east. We love the old fashioned store at Parks, and, sure enough, it’s still there and busy. It still looks the same outside, but when I go in to look around, I find it’s changed and more updated. They still sell coffee, and they’ve expanded the little deli/café. Millie and her smile are no longer there to greet me. I don’t quite sense the down-home atmosphere I once did, but that’s OK, it’s still a nostalgic stop for a snack or a bite of lunch, and obviously meets the needs of the locals. I know of a couple other businesses that have come and gone over these years in this tiny hamlet, so one could say the General Store has staying power. These days, that’s a major accomplishment to admire.
I probably say this just because we know the region so well, but the area south of Parks offers an interesting off-the-beaten-track diversion from Route 66, and an even older authenticity. This region is rich with Arizona settlement history. To get there, follow the signs from the Parks General Store toward Exit 178, but don’t get on the highway. Instead, go OVER the interstate and follow the road through the forest onto Garland Prairie. Beautiful Whitehorse Lake is less than 20 miles from here, but be prepared for narrow dirt roads. There’s also a spot near here where the original Overland Trail came up out of Sycamore Canyon.
We drive south for a couple miles and follow the road as it bends west. As always, we turn and look back north toward a spectacular view across the prairie of the San Francisco Peaks. Flagstaff nestles at their base. Our goal today is to find a place for this year’s Christmas cards, and the day does not disappoint.
“We have to hurry,” Larry says, “we’re losing the light.” It’s amazing how fast the sun disappears when we’re trying to shoot that perfect picture in perfect light. We find an ancient sheepherder’s cabin, rush forward and set up the camera and tripod. Snap, pose here, turn there…snap…snap…snap…and the light is gone. But we breathe a sigh of relief. We got a few good ones from which to choose.
And that’s the way it is all along the Mother Road as we take our time and look beyond the highway. We tend to wax eloquent about the route and lament what’s no longer here, but, keep in mind that, on the grand time continuum, this narrow road was a pretty short blip. Parks and Garland Prairie remind me that there was LOTS of history all along this route before a national road was even a twinkle in Lieutenant Beal’s eye. Route 66, too, owes the debt of its origins to thousands of Native Americans and, later, explorers and settlers who traveled here first, and in much less comfort than even the Dust Bowlers. Do I love Route 66 and want to preserve as much as possible? Of course. But I also want to remember the bigger picture and be thankful for all those who’ve gone before, and will surely come after.