In 1970 I was 16 years old and caused a minor family scandal by driving from New Mexico to California to see my girlfriend on my 250cc dirtbike.
I had forsaken all local females (for reasons that are best left unstated) and sent letters to two out-of-state daughters of family friends, resolving to visit whichever one answered first. Fortunately for me the one from Pennsylvania never replied and I carried on a correspondence with Lynn from California. I planned my visit to see her for the week that summer vacation started (between my junior and senior years in high school).
I’ve always loved motorcycles and grew up in a family of two-wheel enthusiasts. Dad had a variety of bikes when I was growing up and our uncles sold my brother and me our first motorcycles. Dirtbikes were natural transportation for us growing up in the mountains. Somewhere along the way I picked up a Yamaha Big Bear Scrambler that was big enough for me to ride back and forth to school. And fast! This 250cc two-stroke was one of the quickest bikes off of the line in its time and I routinely beat 350cc Hondas from light to light. But, being two-stroke, I had to keep tabs on the level of oil in the auto lubrication system. Generally, though, the usage was about a quart for every couple of tanks of gas.
I prepped the bike by changing the sprockets to gear the bike for a road trip and added some highway pegs before I left. The latter were actually quite useful. Sitting in the same position for hours gets to be uncomfortable and tiring. I often drop one or both legs back hooking the heel of my boot on the passenger pegs. The highway bar was a section of pipe that I bolted onto the frame in front of the engine to give an additional position to select.
I knew that there was no way that Mom and Dad would let me go on a trip across three states so I told them that I was going to go camping in Colorado for a week. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dad had pretty much figured out where I was going to go, although he never said anything. I actually intended upon camping during this trip and had a sleeping bag and cooking gear along with me. Flagstaff was the designated midpoint for both going and coming and there were some good campsites in the area.
At the time of my previous trip, Interstate 40 (US-66) was fairly complete between towns but would divert traffic through each municipality that was along the way. Some of the towns weren’t too bad: Winslow; Grants; Gallup. Some of the gaps were significant, such as the stretch from Seligman to Kingman in Arizona and from Essex to Ludlow in California. It was the latter two stretches that induced me to take US-66 to Flagstaff, then AZ-89A to Prescott, connecting to Interstate 10 near Blythe, California. From there I followed Interstates 10 and 5 to Tujunga, where the von Groffs lived. I returned by the same route.
By the way, I wound up marrying the girl.
Forty years later I’m still married to the same lady and still riding, now a Kawasaki Vulcan cruiser instead of the two-stroke. I had been looking for a trip to take and it occurred to me to repeat the 1970 trip including the diversions through the towns, and see how things have changed.
I joined the US Air Force in 1971 and, by some berserk malfunction of the normal tendency of the military to assign someone on the opposite side of the globe from where they request, I was assigned to March AFB, 80 miles away from my sweetie. During this time Lynn and I made several trips from California to my parent’s place in Cedar Crest and also during this time many of the towns were bypassed by completing the freeway around them, although we still made trips over “old” US-66.
While I covered the same ground going and coming in 1970, today I prefer to do loop trips, outbound and inbound on different routes. Hence I resolved to duplicate the 1970 trip from Cedar Crest to Tujunga and then to follow historic Highway 66 on much of the return trip.
I now live in the Jemez Mountains, 150 miles from my original beginning in Cedar Crest. A search on the Internet turned up a bed and breakfast that is, remarkably, less than a quarter mile away from the folks’ house (as the crow flies, at least). I made a reservation and planned to start the trip from there.
Part of the purpose of this trip was to observe and comment upon the changes to my old “stomping grounds” so I drove by many of my old haunts. I knew that the area was going to grow; it’s a prime place to live and raise a family. But, wow! Some places, then large fields, now were large subdivisions. I tried to find the road back into an area where we used to hunt and drive dirtbikes. Wall to wall homes now.
The summer that I first got my drivers license I drove all over the area including a near-daily ride to Sandia Crest. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to repeat the ride. The road winds up the east side of the mountain, rising from piñon and juniper through pine then into spruce and fir forests. Many curves and light traffic; a rider’s dream. I had to limit my time at the top of the mountain as a thunderstorm was threatening and there weren’t many things taller than me on the mountain!
I still had some time before dinner and I took the road north to San Pedro then turned east on 344. Family friends had lived in San Pedro back in the 1920s when it was a booming mining town. By the 1960s there was nothing left but the concrete foundations of some of the buildings. Today it was difficult to find even those.
This road loops around the Lone Mountain through Cedar Grove to Edgewood. There was no traffic and the light rain only reassured me that I was self-contained and ready for anything. My bike was running perfectly and I was comfortable in seating and control. My motorcycle was ready for this. I was ready for this.
At the B&B, I visited with a couple of my fellow lodgers. I was curious what had led people to stay overnight a stone’s-throw from where I grew up. In both cases the Internet had led them here, outside of Albuquerque yet near to all of the attractions that the city had to offer.
One fellow was a bit older than me, probably in his mid-60s. He had made a successful career in engineering and, now that he was retired, he was looking for a more creative outlet. In his case he was learning to play the bass guitar.
I mentioned that his story had many similarities to mine. I, too, have had a career in engineering and am now trying to develop my own creativity, writing in my case. Oh, and when I was a teenager I played the bass guitar.
After breakfast I packed up and followed the road to Highway 14. My trip had begun.
North 14 (I still call it North 14 although it is just Highway 14, now. Hell, I remember when it was North 10!) is now a 4-lane road serving the entire East Mountain area. The freeway wasn’t there in 1970 so I followed old 66 through Tijeras canyon.
I don’t have any direct memories of leaving that morning in May of 1970. I probably would have grabbed some breakfast then left early to avoid embarrassing questions from the family. My duffel bag was strapped on back and I followed the dirt road to the highway. The trip down North 14 and 66 would have been familiar as I rode it each day to school. The freeway through Albuquerque was complete and old-66 connected at Carnuel. I crossed town to the West Mesa where the freeway ended and the four-lane began.
The freeway through Albuquerque had been completed in 1970 and now as then I entered at the Carnuel interchange.
Despite the giant casino, the bridge over the crossing of the Rio Puerco on the frontage road was still there. They removed a similar girder-style bride over the Rio Grande when they built the upgraded road at Otowi and I always thought that was mistake.
Over the years I’ve driven past the pull-out for Laguna Pueblo and never stopped. Well, I finally stopped and took a couple of photos. It seems we’re so busy nowadays that we never stop to look around at what we’re passing.
The lava flows near Grants are always interesting. At the first exit the freeway would have ended so I turned to drive through town.
I remember driving past the lava outside of Grants. Grants was the first diversion from the freeway and I drove down main street.
About this time I encountered a fellow motorcycle traveler. He introduced himself as simply “Stogie” and he was riding a Honda 160 that had seen better days. We were headed the same direction and resolved to ride together.
Grants today is depressing to drive through. Many old buildings are still standing, the land not worth their destruction. Some of this can be blamed on the collapse of the uranium mining, but many of these buildings would have been standing when I passed by forty years ago.
Part of what I was looking for on this trip was the heart of Old 66 and deep in that heart were the Whiting Brothers. They ran a series of gas stations and hotels along the highway and the secret of their success was name recognition. For example, few autos of the 40s and 50s had air conditioners. The Whiting Brothers rented window-mounted units that provided cool air via evaporation of water when traveling at highway speeds. The driver would return the air conditioner to the Whiting Brothers station at the other end of the desert for a return of deposit. They placed their businesses in well thought-out locations and I photographed an abandoned gas station and hotel at Continental Divide. Big trucks were light on power at the time and it made sense to approach the highest part of the road with empty tanks for the least amount of weight.
As near as I can remember I had never been west of Bluewater on I-40 with the folks, so I probably had a rush of excitement as I passed that point. Uncharted Territory! Here be monsters!
Gallup was a completely different world than Grants. Very few abandoned buildings, many businesses. Most old service stations closed in the 70s and 80s but the buildings continue on as florists, pottery shops and even auto repair mechanics.
In Grants Stogie made a phone call while I topped off the gas and checked the oil. “Good news,” he said as he returned. “I got us lunch!”
We rode our bikes up the hill into Rich Folks Land. Stogie knew this guy from college and they were great pals. I kept quiet and admired the kitchen while Stogie and young Mr. Kennedy chatted up. Then it was time to push on.
After lunch I re-entered the freeway and headed toward Holbrook. I had to laugh just as I was leaving New Mexico. Chief Yellowhorse’s tourist spot is still in the same place on the border and doesn’t look like it’s changed a single bit in 40 years.
From the count of the mile markers, it appears that the knife-edge of the bluff over Chief Yellowhorse’s place is the state line and indeed it is quite close to there.
Just inside the border, traffic is diverted through an official looking building. I knew that I was “clean” and had all of my required paperwork (although I didn’t know at the time that I could have been held as a “minor in flight”). I asked Stogie what was going on. “It’s just an agriculture inspection station. They’re looking for contaminated fruit. You got any contaminated fruit?” I assured him that I didn’t and we were whisked through with the minimal amount of hassle.
I was quite surprised to see how many people live in the villages off the freeway through the Navajo lands. More people in the world and they’ve got to live somewhere.
The freeways are fast and the miles roll by and as I approach Holbrook I recall the flat tire 40 years ago.
I had been losing air in the front tire for some time but had been able to keep it going with a fresh fill at each gas stop. This time, though, the distance and, probably, the heat seemed to speed up the process so I finally pulled over at one of the washes with a flat. I had tire tools with me and a little tiny air pump that could fill a football before the first quarter was over, but a bit slower with a tire. “Take the whole wheel off,” Stogie said, “And I’ll take it to the truck stop in Holbrook.” I unbolted it and he threw it on the back of his bike and took off. Wasn’t but a short time later that I began thinking things like, “I don’t know this guy, I don’t know his real name or where he’s from.” My bike was totally disabled almost 200 miles from home. I had only a vague idea of where I was and no one else who cared for me knew even that. My fears disappeared when I saw Stogie a while later crossing the median with my tire in his lap. I quickly remounted the tire and we drove on to Holbrook.
I wanted to thank Stogie for running the tire but I wasn’t old enough to buy him a drink like in the movies so we settled for a coke in a diner. There he broke the news to me that he was stopping his ride here. His engine was using a lot of oil and making some noise so he didn’t figure it would make it across the desert. His plan was to go to the truck stop and find some trucker who had room for him and his bike to haul to LA.
I thought of Stogie as I came into Holbrook. It was easy to spot the diner where we parted; it’s even still a diner. There was a bulletin board at the SUB at UNM where people could advertise or try to connect with other students. I left a couple of messages there when I attended a couple of years later but never heard back from him. Makes you wonder sometimes about people who just drop into your life at the right time to help you out of a jam then disappear forever.
Holbrook looks hale and hearty, lots of small businesses, very few closed buildings. Saw some buildings that would have had to have been here 40 years ago but I didn’t remember directly, aside from the diner.
Over all, most of the places that I visited on this trip were much better off in 2010 than in 1970. Recessions come and go but the country continues to grow.
The wind had been getting steadily stronger, coming at me just to the left of head-on, and the electronic highway signs gave warning of high wind alerts ahead. My windshield cut a lot of the force but some of the gusts felt like they were going to rip the helmet off of my head. It was hitting in massive gusts, pounding me as I went.
When one rides a motorcycle the bike leans to turn. With the pressure of the wind I would lean to the left to counter its force simply to go forward. Suddenly the wind would stop and instead of countering the force I would be turning to the left such that I had to lean to the right to recover the correct direction. Then the wind would strike again and, leaned to the right, I would feel like I was going to go down on that side. I would then have to balance my propagation down the road to the pressure of the wind on the side and lean back to the left into the wind. Repeat constantly. A very tiring process, to say the least, and not exactly safe as the pounding of the gusts reduced the control of the bike considerably.
The effort with the flat tire used up much of my daylight and I rode westward into a setting sun. Winslow was off the freeway but was a divided road so that I could keep ahead of slower traffic. However, the climb into Flagstaff was in the dark and pushing a bit of a headwind. I discovered that I could find a respite in the wake of the trucks and spent as much time as I could there until they slowed for the hills and I went around. The truckers seemed to be cool with that and I kind of felt like they were looking out for me.
I got my first true feeling of nostalgia when pulling into Winslow off of the freeway. There was a park there to welcome travelers and it had not changed very much in 40 years. I recognized a couple of former gas stations that I had fueled up in the past.
Back into the wind and onto the freeway.
I passed Two Guns and Twin Arrows, gas stations and curio shops that, even in 1970, were closed.
Two Guns and Twin Arrows are relics of the Old 66, spots on the highway to get some gas, some water for the radiator and maybe buy a bit of Indian jewelry. From the style of gas pumps at Twin Arrows it must have made a renaissance in the 80s but it’s nothing but an abandoned building covered in political graffiti today.
I took an early exit in Flagstaff showing Historic 66 and it was a relief to get out of the wind.
The ride through the town was uneventful and I checked into my motel.
Although I had intended to camp I arrived in Flagstaff well after dark. I had a chum from high school, Bruce, who had moved to Flagstaff so I gave him a call, begging a place to sleep. He said “No problem” and gave me directions to his house.
Most of the memories of my stays with Bruce, both going and coming, are lost. I do recall the evening of my outbound trip.
Bruce was playing in a garage band and they had rehearsal that night. They were jamming without their singer and invited me to take place. I, of course, jumped at the chance. I didn’t know the words of a lot of songs and would do occasional improvisations as necessary. They played the Cream song “Spoonful” and, as I thought that the lyrics were obscure references to drug culture (they probably were), I made up my lyrics to reflect this. I was asked to tone it down (the parents were listening).
Part of the intent of this trip was to converse with my fellow travelers to get their insights of the road. After dinner I set a chair up outside of my room, poured myself a drink, lit a cigar and sat down to interface my fellow man. No one showed up. There was a Harley across the parking lot but I never saw its rider. Quite a bit later on a fellow showed up who was highly agitated and probably quite drunk. I decided that my interaction resolution didn’t include agitated drunks and I kept my distance from him.
I looked at the bike as I sat there and noticed something interesting. When I was a teenaged motorcycle enthusiast I often encountered parents and relatives of my friends who were glad to tell their motorcycle tales. One guy talked about the day he had ridden all day in a crosswind and when he got to where he was going he saw that the front tire of his bike was so worn that it was showing threads on one side. At the time I took it as another “tall tale.” But I had put a new tire on the front of my bike in preparation for this trip and the right side of the tire still had the nubs. The right side and not the left as the nubs on the left were completely worn down. I had been fighting the wind from the left all day and I now had a new appreciation of old motorcyclists and their “tall tales.”
When the drink was gone and the cigar was cold, I went back inside.
To be continued.