ROUTE 66 - THE MOTHER ROAD'S MOTELS
Sleeping With The King
Steinbeck called it the Mother Road in The Grapes of Wrath and it stuck. Bobby Troup told us to get our kicks on it and we still do today. It’s the America not consumed by the corporate maw.
At 2,400 miles, it is the longest, thinnest neighbourhood in the world. A close knit Route 66 family means people have friends hundreds of miles either way, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Since the twenties it has taken dreamers and refugees to the fabulous land of milk and honey. It is The Way West.
Happily great tracts of The Longest Neighbourhood are still there. Here's a few motel stories, best of all sleeping in Elvis's bed.
Driving across the rolling Oklahoma prairies my son Mat's van started overheating. "Check Engine" came on ominously. The temperature outside was ninety two. We cruised gingerly through Tulsa, past signs for Broken Arrow, Mustang and the Chisholm Trail. Yukon Oklahoma proclaimed "Home of Garth Brooks" on the water tower. We turned our faces and headed for the horizon. No time for New Country.
Mat looks for some Stars and Stripes item - a hat, T-shirt, anything to make us anonymous, part of Middle America. Warned me not to cuss or swear. These are God-fearing folks who don't tolerate "Well fuck me sideways" like the British. "Jesus Christ, Dad," he said, "don't say Jesus Christ. Round here they say Cheese 'n Crackers." Tried it on for size, seemed to work ok. Damn 'n blast it becomes Damp Basement.
The Tradewinds Motel in Clinton Oklahoma, a sixties classic, sits on Route 66. Built by "Doc" Mason, a retired vet, it was one of Elvis Presley's favourites. Halfway between Memphis and Las Vegas, the King stayed four times at the sign of the Gold Crown.
We stopped by the Tradewinds on July 4th. The office walls were covered with 66 wallpaper, road signs, Chevvies, cactuses, motels and all. With no chance of sleeping with Elvis I still asked forlornly "I guess the Elvis suite is booked out for months?"
Nope. It was free.
What? Independence Day and Elvis's bedroom was FREE?? Did the world's Elvis Fan Clubs know of this? Shameful.
But we needed to get into Texas that night. I went out to ask Mat whether he wanted to sleep with the King or get further down the road? Mat slipped on his gold Elvis shades and swung out of the van.
Doc Mason, now in his late eighties, told us about Elvis's visits here.
The first three times, the Cadillac caravan arrived at dead of night and Elvis stayed holed up in room 215 with his boys next door ordering room service until, burgered up and ready to rock, they slipped off again.
No one saw them and Doc was sworn to secrecy.
The fourth time, the housekeeper delivering meals saw the King through the door and rode like Paul Revere through town spreading the news. Townsfolk gathered below the balcony. Elvis came down and played ball with kids in the parking lot then drove off and never came back.
Room 215 has been a shrine ever since, with the original kingsize bed, vanity, daybed divan and bathroom fittings from Elvis's days.
I'd always been frustrated at Graceland by their pious refusal to allow us upstairs to see Elvis's bedroom or lavatory - "That's where Elvis passed on" - a holy place too sacred for us ordinary folk. Just asking crackled sacrilege in the air.
Eat your heart out Memphis, Clinton's the place to be.
Better than Graceland, we could sleep in Elvis's bed, sit on his very toilet. Elvis fans would give their right arm to sleep with the King. Why wasn't it booked up?
The room is a multi-textured pentagon. Two angled walls are bare brick. One is wood, two others plaster with red drapes. The ceiling is solid Canadian cedar.
Matching dark red bedspread and drapes complement the purple carpet with squishy three-inch underlay to break any fall. Deep Purple?
The furnishings are truly Elvisian, a ragbag of eras, sixties mixed with French Royal repro. Wasn't it Louis X1V who favoured the white Formica marbled effect with the gold edging? I think so. Doc's feng shui called to Elvis, with Louis quatorze-style white and gold marbled vanity and coffee tables, chairs, bed headboard and lamps.
The sixties are cherished with white leather bowl armchairs and a stripper's black vinyl casting couch with a buttoned S-curved back. This "daybed divan" slides out on railway lines. Mat was sure that's where Elvis would have had sex.
"No, not in the bed, honey. C'mon, that's where I sleep."
We needed to mark the moment and honour all things Elvis.
We couldn't deep fry a toasted peanut butter and banana sandwich in the room. So lying on the kingsize bed we scoffed two Sonic double jalapeño cheeseburgers each, with peanut fudge sundaes and a bucket of Coke. We took pictures of each other in every possible position in the suite. Especially, a tribute to the great megacolon's demise, on the lavatory.
The Route 66 restaurant attached to the motel carried the sixties theme through, same 66 wallpaper, half-timbered ceiling, buttoned black vinyl banquettes like Elvis's sex sofa, and all-year-round Xmas plastic holly. I passed on catfish and German sausage and went classic - ham and eggs, biscuits and gravy.
On the other side of the road is the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. Well worth a visit, it tells the story of the Mother road decade by decade, from thirties dust bowl Model T Fords through seventies hippy flowered microbuses. The curator joyfully told us of fifteen hundred Harley riders rumbling past down 66 the week before.
The van had recovered in Elvis's parking spot. The "Check Engine" light went off. Elvis heals in wondrous ways. He guided us to Jiggs, another of Clinton's treasures, a smokehouse full of truckers eating bunloads of barbequed pork.
Jerky fans take note. At Jiggs we bought a big bag of the best and cheapest jerky (sun dried beef, cowboys' staple road food) anywhere in the States.
Elvis stayed with us. Kept us cool. Temperature in the nineties but no overheating. By Sayre it was 100° outside Beckham County Courthouse, featured in The Grapes of Wrath. "Hot today," I said to a woman.
"Not as bad as yesterday."
Erick is a dusty one intersection town, home of King of the Road Roger Miller. The West starts here. We rolled through slices of The Last Picture Show under the big skies, grain elevators poking out of the flatness like missile silos. Texola, right on the Texas border, has the local pool hall in a khaki metal container.
Written along the container is
There's No Other Place
Like This Place
Anywhere Near This Place
So This Must Be The Place
We high-tailed it across the Texas panhandle, kissing a sliver of the Blarney stone in a hunk of green concrete in Shamrock and marvelling at Groom's wonky water tower - The Leaning Tower of Texas. Hot winds welcomed us to the high staked plains, the Llano Estacado.
We stopped at the Big Texan on the edge of Amarillo Texas for a tea-time steak. Inside, we met a New Jersey madman who was running the entire length of Route 66, repeating the foot-flattening Bunion Derby of 1928. Twenty miles a day in the maddening desert heat. It's a wonderful world.
But then Elvis abandoned us bigtime. After our steaks we found Mat's van had been smashed into and everything I had was stolen. Everything, passport, money and credit cards to clothes and cameras. All the photos down Route 66 and in Elvis's room. The lot. All I had was what I stood up in, shorts, shirt, shoes. No identification. I was Clint, the Man with No Name.
"Do you have ID with that sir?"
Things were refreshingly simple. No options - no worries. But it took twenty four hours of depressing phone bashing to cancel cards and cheques.
We raced past the Cadillac Ranch in the gloaming, the ten Cadillacs' fins and arses still provocatively sticking out of the ground in the falling light. We were heading for the safe haven of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, blue neon under a full moon, another sweet piece of 'forties time warp full of 66 memorabilia. Neighbourhood pals of The Big Texan, they took care of us after our smack in the face.
In Albuquerque, Juan's Broken Taco promised "Guns, Gifts, Gadgets" but I was a broken taco myself and couldn't be tempted.
Stretches of 66 rise and fall sleepily inches away from the Interstate which slices through the landscape with its thundering cargo of 18-wheelers. It is driving through the 'forties with the future ribboning alongside.
Grants New Mexico, a mining ghost town, had a uranium mining boom in the fifties. Its legacy is a series of fine Korean owned motels, ours the astro-turfed Leisure Lodge. Mile-long freight trains rumbled through the night under the full moon.
Grants' jewel is the beguiling Uranium Café.
There, we sat on mauve leatherette banquettes by the rear end of a Chevy '55 under a mauve ceiling and gobbled nuclear breakfast burritos served by born-again Christians.
A distracted bag-lady in blue denim, something of a road casualty, enquired after a bed. "Will my nose ring be difficult?" she asked querulously.
A couple of days on down 66 the sense of humour was back. An old man with a Swop-Meet, a car boot sale in the roasting New Mexico desert put a smile back on my face.
Tom Lamance, 87, had sat there for sixteen years in a roadside shack surrounded by junk and hubcaps.
"Came here in '85. Used to be an auctioneer. Guess I kept more 'n I sold."
Outside in the fierce sun thousands of hubcaps dazzled and blazed. One in a distant row called me. I got to it and found GP in the centre. As we were heading for Joshua Tree, Gram Parsons' last resting place, this all made sense. Tom told me it was from a seventies Pontiac Grand Prix. I froze. Twenty five years ago I came down 66 in that very car. After sixteen years in the desert, Tom had become a white shaman and was doing a Castaneda on me. Back in hippie days we called it fucking with my mind.
Another must-stay is El Rancho in Gallup, full on 'thirties Hollywood Western style. The film stars' favourite, with rooms dedicated to Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, it is full of chunky Wild West motifs, Navajo rugs and stagecoaches on the sofas.
The lobby is a palatial log cabin film set. I was happy to stay in the John Wayne room, where the Duke luxuriated in two queen beds with wagon wheel headboards. Another breathtaking 66 motel.
Navajo Nation police cars patrol these roads. Red mesas loom out of the baking desert, over inflatable casinos parked by Interstate exits. Here the Navajo Nation fleeces white gamblers whose trucks and pick-ups pack the dusty car parks.
What finally wiped away my Amex pain, was the wacky Wigwam Village in Holbrook Arizona, surrounded by the Painted Desert. Built in 1950 by his father, fifteen concrete wigwams have been lovingly restored by John Lewis. Classic cars sit outside the wigwams - a 1956 Ford station wagon, a '55 Chevy, a space-age Studebaker, a '57 Impala with flying fins.
Ecstatically 'fifties and mad, inside these tipis the bedroom is circular and, well, inclined. We partied down with some locals and new road chums, easy to make along this never-ending neighbourhood. Some of the locals, born in 1950 like the wigwams, got to look inside for the first time in their lives.
Everyone should stay at least once in their life in one of these concrete wigwams.
They are at the heart of Route 66.
The Mother Road? Well, it was a mother to me.
Main Street of America? Yep, I'll buy that too, even if it is the America of memories and dreams. But what is America to us but the movies?
©Hank Wangford October 2001
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