I like to feature locations to camp and not necessarily the side road trip excursions, but I have to make an exception with this post. Leaving the Grand Canyon via Flagstaff, Arizona, we drove on a windy and hot I-40. This road is a much wider, but less attractive version of its predecessor, Route 66, one of the most iconic roads in America. Unlike its predecessor, the goal of I-40 is to move passengers through open expanses of desert at high speeds. The result, like most interstate highways, is to dwarf or make non-existent the towns that once thrived on the automobile tourists searching for the Southwest experience.
I-40, filled with cacti, blowing sand, and unlimited views of forming storms, makes weary travelers yearn for the old roadside gem and moccasin stores that are now dilapidated. We reached the Petrified Forest National Park before noon and were grateful for the exit. There are two exits, depending on which direction you are traveling. One makes a reasonable loop to the south to view petroglyphs, petrified redwoods, and a visitor’s center. The other makes a northern trek of the Painted Desert and includes a visitor’s center. This continuous road oddly intersects I-40 by traveling under it, not crossing it. Therefore, you cannot start in the middle of this loop, which is unfortunate for the visitor with limited time. We had to choose- make the larger loop to the south or stick to the northern loop. We chose the latter.
We arrived at the northern loop’s visitor’s center which is drastically smaller than the Grand Canyon visitor’s center. It was a bustling space with pleasant park rangers, minimal exhibits, and plenty of maps. We determined a short driving route with the assistance of a ranger. I wanted to see the Painted Desert Inn. Originally, Route 66 had crossed the area that is now the park and the Painted Desert Inn, known in 1924 as the Stone Tree House, was a tourist attraction that provided not only lodging, but meals and Native American art. It was originally constructed of petrified wood and native stone and was sold to the National Park Service in 1936. After renovations by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the building was reconstructed in the Pueblo revival architectural style that was popular in the region. It reopened as a tourist destination in 1940, and again after WWII when the Inn was purchased by Fred Harvey Company. Mary Colter, an interior designer for the company, strategically placed windows throughout the building for more light and views. Abandoned and left to be demolished, a local group raised funds and awareness to instead maintain the building. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1987 due to the murals and design of both the exterior and interior.
Weaving our way to the Painted Desert Inn, the multi-layered landscape of colorful rock radiated into our hot car. We passed scenic overlooks as we headed to the Inn. Once we arrived, we had a quick lunch of homemade sandwiches and sides, then headed inside the non-air conditioned (yet still reasonably cool) building. Inside, artifacts had been removed due to painting and restoration projects the week we were there, but the rangers were happy to explain a brief history of the location before we wandered through the building.
The diner’s stationary swivel stools and open, wood booths were complimented by large murals on the walls and distinctive, hand-made light fixtures. The deck that once provided visitors the ultimate lunch-time view was now an open terrace for photographers of the serene landscape.
We headed to the basement to discover a lovely treat; an ice cream parlor, complete with a juke box, was serving the coldest scoops of ice cream available within an hour’s radius. But before we enjoyed this treat, we hiked along the desert trail that connects the Inn to various overlooks.
As we hiked, we listened for animals of all kinds, especially snakes that we were told were prevalent in this area. We didn’t see any animals, just a closer view of the Painted Desert that was worth the walk. On our return, we devoured our ice cream in the cool basement, listening to the juke box, and lamenting that we didn’t have more time to continue the entire loop through the park.
We left, making our way to Gallup, New Mexico. This is a town that enjoyed Route 66 fame and was a favorite of movie stars during the 1940s-early 60s. The large billboards on I-40 tell you that famous people such as Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope once enjoyed spending time in Gallup at El Rancho Hotel where you, too, can still stay.
We made our way to USA RV Park, a clean and friendly spot located on a gritty street of buildings in various stages of deconstruction. The owner was engaged in a conversation with a visitor when I arrived, but he quickly checked us in and gave us a map and information. This park includes a laundry facility, full hook-ups, a swimming pool, dog run, putting green, and on numerous days in the summer provides a chuckwagon dinner for a low price per person. On our evening stay, they were not having the dinner due to a technical issue with their grill. We would have to make dinner or venture into town.
After parking in the level, gravel spot and getting things hooked up, it began raining for one hour which gave us enough time to investigate possible places for dinner. We decided on Jerry’s, a diner in downtown and a place that got rave reviews on Yelp. Driving to the diner on old Route 66 we saw dilapidated hotels, an old airport, a few gas stations, and finally a string of neon lights beckoning people to the downtown region.
We parked directly across the street from Jerry’s, the restaurant that had been in business since the 1960s. The place was already filled with people when we arrived, but we were promptly welcomed and seated in a vinyl booth. Wood paneling lined the walls that were dotted with pictures of military veterans from the community and newspaper clippings about the restaurant. While the waitress quickly took our drink orders, a manager came by to greet us and ask about our travels. We were clearly not locals.
He was incredibly generous and gave our son a Jerry’s Restaurant shirt, which our son immediately put on as he ate his enchilada. This place is a “Mexican American Food Cafe” and offers the usual Mexican food along with a hamburger smothered in green chili sauce (we were in New Mexico, after all) and other foods combining cultures. We enjoyed our food, but appreciated the hospitality of the staff even more. It was clear that everyone from this community frequents this place; locals were shaking hands and exchanging general information while people who just got off work came to pick up to-go orders. The police came by to order sodas in their extra large cups.
After we finished luscious sopapillas with honey, we headed to the now infamous El Rancho Hotel we had seen advertised for miles along I-40. We arrived at the historic inn which has been remodeled to its original charm by its recent owners. Stepping into this time capsule brings one immediately to the golden age of Hollywood western lore at its absolute finest. The wagon wheel furniture looked new with its sumptuous upholstery. The western rugs on the wood floor were spotless. Large steer horns adorned the lower walls and immensely bright light fixtures illuminated both the downstairs lobby and the upstairs gallery of movie star pictures. Like a Hollywood walk of fame in the desert, pictures (most of them autographed) lined every upstairs wall representing each movie star who enjoyed their stay while filming numerous westerns and television shows in or near Gallup. The cast list could not have been longer and we walked around this enchanting space with awe at the photos and stories behind them.
This place is a living museum where guests were still traveling through the hallways and admiring the rug a woman was creating on a loom near the open fire. The front desk was staffed with attentive locals dressed in tasteful western wear. A restaurant and bar with drink specials beckons those who don’t want to leave the enchanting interior. For 20 minutes, we were transported to a different time in this hotel. I left feeling oddly satisfied that my western journey along I-40 was as close of an experience on Route 66 as one could have in this decade.
After leaving the hotel, we finally arrived at the McKinley County Courthouse which Siri nor Google Maps could find, but is only blocks away from Jerry’s. Some towns have a weekly farmers market or an evening of music. Gallup has enjoyed hosting native dancers every summer night for more than 30 years. They perform outside the courthouse in a large, circular area designed for this purpose. There is plenty of parking, seating and opportunities to buy locally made jewelry. The dancers did not disappoint and, sitting next to a family member of some of the dancers, I got a full description of the traditions and stories behind different dances. We watched several groups before leaving at sunset to travel back to USA RV Park, enjoy a swim in their pool painted as a US flag, and go to bed.